X the Unknown: Low Key Hammer Sci Fi

I first watched the black & white X the Unknown (1956) in my early teens.  This is the period when I sought out every science fiction and monster movie I could find.  I stumbled across this one on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  The movie was (forgive the irony) a complete unknown to me.

My ignorance probably contributed to my enjoyment of it.  This is the type of movie where one needs to see as little of the monster as possible.  Instead, the horrific effects it has on the growing number of victims helps build the tension.  The creature itself is essentially a glowing, radioactive blob.  Unlike The Blob, you don’t see it for most of the movie.  Even when it does appear, it isn’t kept on the screen long.  I imagine much of this is due to budgetary restraints, but much of it must have been deliberate.

My best stash–ruined!

Although it’s ostensibly science fiction, the movie falls solidly in the horror category.  Like many movies of the fifties, it involves radiation.  Radiation was the go-to McGuffin to explain at least 90% of the monsters roaming the celluloid of the time.  Wanted a giant monster?  Just add radiation.  It’s a trope that lasted at least through the seventies, but its heyday was the fifties.

The basic story is that a bottomless crack opens up in the ground near Glasgow, Scotland.  This happens (coincidentally?) during a British Army exercise using a Geiger Counter to locate radioactive materials.  The radiation goes off the scale and there’s an explosion that opens the crack, injuring several  from radiation burns.

The plucky atomic scientist protagonist, Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) is called in to investigate, along with Mr. “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern–who I will always remember as the priest from Ladyhawke) who is an investigator from the UK Atomic Energy Commission.  The tension builds that night when a couple of local kids encounter the creature (although the audience never sees it) in a desolate part of the woods.  Then, Dr. Royston’s lab is ransacked and all radioactive material is rendered inert. 

You may notice some slight swelling . . .

(Note: the movie was intended to be a sequel to The Quatermass Xperiment, but Hammer couldn’t get Nigel Kneale’s permission to use the character.)

You get a slow, steady build of tension as the creature goes after every local source of radioactivity and burns everyone in its way to a crisp.  A nice, creepy scene occurs in the local hospital when it goes after a radiation lab and melts a hapless doctor to a puddle of flesh. 

Dr. Royston does the standard trope of the genre and gives everyone a “crazy theory” about radioactive creatures beneath the earth.  Which naturally–everyone is skeptical about.  Then there’s the obligatory scene of someone descending into the crack in the ground to investigate.

This is perfectly safe, right guys? Guys?

When the audience finally gets a look at the creature, it’s a little anticlimactic.  The special effects aren’t bad, per se, but I suppose you can only make a blob of living radioactive mud look so threatening.  A greater special effects budget might have helped, although maybe the limited budget actually helped.  I’m undecided.  I do know the effects did what was required of them and no more.  The actors and writers really carry the heavy lifting in the movie.

You’ve got some real drainage problems with your roof.

I don’t want to give away all the details, since it’s well worth watching.  If you’ve every seen a fifties monster movie, there won’t be a lot of surprises, but it works well and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

The whole film is available on YouTube.  Enjoy.

 

 

The Blob: (1958) A Glorious Cheese

When I was a young little nipper, I first saw The Blob on late night television.  I sought out each and every monster and science fiction movie I had ever read about.  Unfortunately, this was before the VHS and then DVD boom.  Finding movies to watch consisted of me combing through late night television schedules and crossing my fingers.

Along comes The Blob.  I had read its description in my geek literature (mainly Famous Monsters of Filmland) but hadn’t seen it.  So I spot it being played on a late, late movie and girded my loins to stay up late enough to watch it.

I expect this is an animate version of the muck on the floor of theaters.

Watching this movie as an adult and it’s pretty cheesy.  As a kid, it kinda scared me.  I didn’t see the bad acting, dubious cinematography or corny dialogue.  I just saw a blob monster that dissolved you like acid.  Which, if you think about it, is pretty horrible.  This movie didn’t go into graphic detail like the 1988 Blob remake (which I also enjoy,) but it suggested enough for my youthful, warped mind.

Basic plot is simple enough.  Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) spot a meteor crash to earth.  Our plucky protagonists drive off to find the meteor.  Unfortunately an old man hobo-type has discovered it already and the

No way this goes wrong.

Blob inside it has attached to his arm.

What follows is a classic “nobody believes us” story where the teenage protagonists try to convince the authorities that there’s something wrong.  The authorities, naturally, thing they’re just a bunch of punk kids causing trouble.  It ties into a lot of the teen rebellion style movies coming out in the fifties and sixties.  There’s a lot of ‘hip’ forgettable dialogue and marginal acting, but I don’t go into a movie like this expecting Ben Hur.

A note about Steve McQueen.  This was Steve’s first starring role, so I can forgive the miscast.  Sure, I like Steve, but he’s supposed to be a teenager in this movie when he was

The doctor will see you n–OH GOD!

in his late twenties.  He doesn’t look much like a teenager.  Still, I forgive a lot and hey, it’s friggin’ Steve McQueen!

People also might recognize Aneta Corsaut from her later role as Helen Crump from The Andy Griffith Show.   I believe only Steve and her ever had any roles of prominence after this film.

The special effects in the movie are decent.  They’re nothing Oscar-caliber, but they do the job well enough on their meager budget.  They mostly consist of matte shots and miniature sets involving a blob of silicone colored with red dye.  A few brief bits of animation and set paintings and the occasional forced perspective.

Does Obamacare cover this?

The Blob’s weakness (and there always is one) is cold and it’s defeated by the use of CO2 fire extinguishers that freeze it solid.  The final shot is the creature being dropped in the Arctic.

Anyway, this film is far from perfect.  Often scenes appear to be lit using a penlight.  There are long, dragging bits of “cool teen” dialogue that do little to move the plot forward.  Everyone except Steve and Aneta apparently read about acting in a book once.  No, it has warts.

Still, the concept is creepy enough and the setting is campy enough that it’s hard to hate this movie.  The goofy title song Beware of the Blob (composed by Burt Bacharach and Mack David) became a top forty hit in 1958.  For your listening pleasure:

There was a sequel to The Blob called Son of the Blob or Beware! the Blob which I haven’t seen.  Larry Hagman directed it.  The tagline was “The Film J.R. Shot!”

 

Alphonse Mucha: A Father of Graphic Art

I’m certain you’ve seen an Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) print at some point in your life.  So many of his prints have saturated the artistic landscape that I think it’s inevitable you’ve seen one.  The problem is you probably didn’t know the man’s name.  Which is a crime.

Alphonse Mucha was the finest example of the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century.  It didn’t just involve paintings and prints, but furniture, architecture, interior design, etc.  Strong, sweeping lines, naturalistic scenes and a general organic feel characterized the movement.  Which are all interesting, but I’m more interested in the line work, which you can see reflected in a lot of modern graphic arts, including comics and animation styles.  More specifically, I’m interested in the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha.

Oh, other great artists contributed to the movement, but Alphonse stood out.  He took the basic ideas and created a unique brand which lasts to this day.  The great comic illustrator Charles Vess counts him as one of his primary influences.  I would say that Mucha influenced the entire subset of graphic (or “commercial”) art.

Art Nouveau had a graphic style with sweeping lines and exaggerated flourishes.  Alphonse combined that with a solid, very competent illustrative style and a great eye for colors and symbols.  He did many illustrations for advertisements, handbills and posters, which is probably how the style trickled down through so many advertisements over the years.  He combined that with beautiful women and naturalistic scenes, overlaid with precise, geometric patterns.  This became more than a mere aping of Romance images.  It became a style unto itself.  The sum of the parts is, well . . . just look at his art.  It speaks most eloquently.

Alphonse started out as a singer and his art was merely a ‘hobby’ until 1894, when he came to the attention of Sarah Bernhardt, who took an instant liking to his style and employed him for years.  He expanded his hobby to a full-time career, culminating in his painting series The Slav Epic.  Unfortunately, his Slav nationalism and Jewish roots brought him to the attention of the Nazis when they occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.  After a brutal interrogation, the aged Alphonse succumbed to pneumonia a few months later.

Not Mucha. But a nice homage.

Today I’ve seen several artists use his style for book covers and comics.  Outside of the art field, his name isn’t widely known.  This is just so the next time you see one of his paintings, you’ll know the man behind it.

Jack Chalker’s Well World Books

The Well World books are . . . different.  Jack Chalker was an oddball writer.  Not a bad writer, but an odd one.  All of his books had an overriding theme: bodily change.  Well World is probably the ultimate example of this.

The basic theme of Well World goes thusly: an ancient progenitor race (The Markovians) created another universe–“our” universe.  They reached a “dead end” in their own universe and wanted to create a new one.  Within the new universe, they wished to have a race which would supersede their own.  To help implement this, they created the Well World.  It’s an artificial world consisting of 1560 “hexes”, each with their own environment.  Within said hexes were 1560 different artificial races.  Essentially, Well World is a giant laboratory for the Markovians to perfect their inheritors.

Humans (and other races) from “our” universe can get into Well World through teleportation gateways.  Once within, however, the only way to get out of the entry point is by teleporting into one of the hexes.  When you do, the Markovian super-computer turns you into one of the natives of the hex.

Moreover, every hex has its own physical rules.  Some have high technology, others have moderate and others have none.  The computer controls the physics within each hex.  Some are so odd that they have “magic” or something resembling it.  The hexes in the southern hemisphere are all carbon-based, oxygen breathing types.  The hexes in the northern hemisphere are so alien that they are separated from the southern hex by a giant equatorial wall.  The wall is also where one may access the computer.  The wildly different environments makes both travel and conquest hard–although not impossible.

Why the hell would you want to go to Well World, you ask?  Within the stories there are plenty of reasons.  One of the primary ones is that if you can gain access to the Well World computer, you can literally reshape reality.  In fact, once during the series the entire universe is “rebooted”!

If that sounds weird–you’re correct.  It’s really weird.  However, it’s not as unreachable as it sounds.  Chalker manages to personalize even the weirdest characters and makes even the oddest scenarios palatable.  The series has the highest technological level I’ve ever seen, but he keeps the stories and characters approachable.

The series takes place over a vast expanse of time.  And I do mean vast.  Epochs.  The only recurring characters are Nathan Brazil and Mavra Chang, who are essentially immortal. The rest consist of a rotating cast of characters.

Chalker’s penchant for reshaping characters like clay is in full flower here.  He warps, twists and reshapes everyone.  No one is safe.  Sexes change.  Species change.  Universes change.  You go from human to centaur to sentient plant and so forth.  Also, minds get altered, enhanced and enslaved.  I can’t recall any Chalker book where this does not take place.  In Well World it’s an absolute staple.

The staggering scope of the setting and some of the ennui which crops up can be a little overwhelming from time to time, but I would still heartily recommend these books.

The Berserker Stories

The late, great Fred Saberhagen created a series of stories and books about a race of genocidal machines called “Berserkers”.  These machines were named so after the Norse Berserker warriors, although they are even more terrifying.

As the lore goes, an ancient race known only as The Builders created a fleet of robotic ships to destroy their enemies.  After they annihilated their enemies, they decided that all life was their enemy.  It was a fatal mistake for The Builders as their creations wiped them out as well as their enemies.  The Berserkers didn’t stop there.  They created more ships and scoured life from the universe wherever they traveled.

This idea intrigued me the moment I read the first Berserker (1967) book.  The concept of gigantic, genocidal robot ships is darkly compelling.  Look at all the popular icons which followed in popular fiction.  For example we have: The Terminator, Cybermen, Cylons or even Ultron.  I’ll even give it to the Decepticons.  Hell, if we go back to 1967 we have the classic Star Trek episode of “The Doomsday Machine”.  That episode has Berserker written all over it (with apologies to Norman Spinrad.)  Dozens of other, less-known antagonists of a similar type abound in science fiction fandom.

Despite having terrifying fleets of giant death machines, very little combat is written in the Berserker stories.  Most of the big combats happen “off screen”.  Fred (and other writers) concentrated on outwitting the Berserkers, instead of out-fighting them.  Part of the lore is that the brute force approach failed when humanity defeated the main Berserker fleet.  After that the Berserkers worked in subtle and devious fashions.  They manufactured humanoid robots to infiltrate and/or assassinate (Terminator, anyone?)  To push the Terminator analogy further, Brother Assassin is all about Berserkers time traveling in attempts to destroy humanity.

For some reason the Berserker series started my love affair with robot/AI ships.  You would think they would scare the shit out of me, but instead they tickle my fancy.  I’m not sure I can coherently explain my fascination.  Perhaps it’s a power fantasy run amok.  Maybe I like gadgets–even if they want to kill me.  It might even be the scope of the threat/promise.  I never claimed to be rational.

I will say that Saberhagen had a way of firing up my imagination for worlds and gadgetry.  He did have a flaw, however–characters.  I can’t remember any of his characters in any meaningful way.  This is not merely with his Berserker books.  Many younger readers are probably familiar with his Books of Swords.  They were jam-packed with interesting backgrounds, worlds, gadgets and critters.  The characters?  Not so much.  In fact, one might argue that the most interesting characters in those books are the swords.  No sarcasm intended.  Go read them.

That’s enough, though.  With villains as awesome as Berserkers, you can sit back and coast.  The concepts are the big draw.  And draw they do.

I would consider the concept broad and deep enough to make a decent television series.  It would require a careful touch to not make it too much like more well-known fiendish robot enemies, but it could work.  I’d love to see it given as much respect as other older franchises.

 

 

 

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Why I Hate Independence Day

Most people seem to love the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day.  I am not one of those people.  I can’t stand it.  I’m also not a fan of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, who crafted this “masterpiece”.

When I started this blog, I wanted to concentrate on things I actually liked.  Many friends complain to me that “I hate everything”.  So I figured I’d go with a positive vibe.  However, I have come to realize that occasionally I need to clear the air about my hates.  So I’ll start with a big one.  This damn movie.

The first time I watched this movie (in the theater) I didn’t think it was awful. It wasn’t that impressive, but I just shrugged.  I watched it on the Fourth of July with a bunch of friends in a jovial atmosphere.  Many months later, I noticed it playing on cable late night and thought “what the hell, let’s give it a second watch”.  It was only this time, as I watched it without the hype and the group of friends I had seen it with the first time, that I realized just how awful it is.  I remember thinking: “Jesus!  Was this really this bad before?”

Here is why.

Technical Stupidity

Let’s start with the easy stuff–the technical flaws.

We’re here with evidence that will lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton.

Okay, first we get this super-advanced alien race coming to Earth to conquer it in mile-long spaceships.  They’ve mastered anti-gravity, force fields and projected energy weapons.  Apparently, however, they haven’t figured out satellites, because they didn’t bring any of their own.  They have to use terrestrial satellites to coordinate their attack.  Sure, apparently they have thousands of smaller craft they could use for this, but instead want to use Earth satellites because . . . reasons?  Apparently so the plucky Earth scientists could figure out what you were doing.

Second, if you have this level of technology and all you want to do is level the planetary civilization, why enter the atmosphere?  Hell, why exert yourself at all?  Drop a few hundred small asteroids and watch the fireworks.  Easy as pie.  You don’t even have to look at those pesky Earth vermin.

Third, if you have a force field which can withstand a hydrogen bomb, why would you need to send out a bunch of fighters to deal with primitive Earth fighters, armed with lesser weapons?  Just ignore them.  Seriously.  This is like an aircraft carrier flying a sortie with fighters because pelicans are smacking into the side of the ship.

I should punch out Iron Man now! I am GOOD!

Fourth, if you have a force field around your smaller ships which is apparently just as impervious as the one around the big ship, why would running into the ground damage it?

Fifth, if you have an alien with an exoskeleton battle suit, how does Will Smith knock it out with a punch?

Sixth, hacking an alien computer language in a day with a Mac?  Really? 

The Character Void

Now we come to the harder stuff.  Characters.  Or lack thereof. 

Don’t worry, honey. Mom will die, but she’ll die to give this movie the illusion of depth.

This movie has the emotional depth of a puddle.  There is absolutely nothing beyond the surface.  Nothing.  Zero, zip, Nada. I’ve seen public service announcements with more gravitas.

The aliens blow up cities in a dramatic fashion, killing millions.  At what point do we see flash-burned survivors digging through rubble, trying to find their loved ones?  People succumbing to despair and perhaps committing suicide?  Genuine horror and shock?  The only inkling of real emotion is when the First Lady croaks.  That’s it.

Millions of incinerated people almost makes us mad. Or sad. Something.

When the pilots get ready to attack after cities have been incinerated, do they pray, scream to heaven, panic, etc.?  Any of them?  No, it’s “Let’s light the fires and kick the tires!” to go kick alien butt!  Wee-hoo!  Everybody reacts like this is just a minor thing.  Compare this with the 2011 Battle Los Angeles reactions from the Marines.  They’re all obviously scared and confused, but go out to face the enemy anyway.  That movie has flaws and cliches, but at least I actually believed the emotions of the characters.  I could identify with them.  They felt real.

In Independence Day, I might as well have been watching robots. 

Don’t get wrong, there are some decent actors in the movie.  Will Smith does his best with what he’s given, but it’s thin and he’s not a wizard.  I also doubt he minded much, since this movie catapulted him to super-stardom, but you’ll notice he wisely declined to participate in the sequel.

Take that, Star Whackers!

Nobody reacts like people.  They react like animated cut-outs that superficially resemble people.  It’s actually a little creepy.  Remember when Randy (“I’ve gone crazy”) Quaid suicides into the ship?  His son witnesses this.  His son, who finally discovers his father isn’t crazy and was right for years, so now he has a chance to reconnect with him.  How does he react to this ironic tragedy?  He says something to the effect of how proud he is of him and he smiles.  Are you kidding me?!  How about some tears?  Deep regret?  Something?!

I hope you gentlemen are here to extract me from this shitty movie.

And finally, the aliens.  They’re a complete blank slate other than “We’re bad and we want to kill you”.  Nothing that wrong with a cryptic enemy if that fits.  Unfortunately, it usually fits with a grim or horrific motif.  Independence Day isn’t trying to be grim . . . I think.  I honestly don’t know what kind of tone they were shooting for.  Some kind of depth of motivation would have helped with the aliens.  Something.  Anything to flesh them out or make them interesting.  But we got nothing.

There are a few other annoying details, but they’re minor.  This covers the main, hideous flaws.  This movie was the beginning of my hatred for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (or as I like to call them, the “Twins of Satan”) but their rape of Godzilla (1998) was the last time I paid a penny to see their abominations.  (shudders)

Battle Beyond the Stars: A Forgotten Gem

 

Battle Beyond the Stars came out in 1980, riding the coattails of Star Wars.  Every studio was scrambling to find an equivalent franchise after SW hit the movie scene like a nuclear bomb.  Roger Corman, the king of low-budget schlock, slapped together this movie in short order.

The results were . . . surprisingly, not too bad.  Subtle?  Not so much.

Battle is essentially a remake of The Magnificent Seven in space.  Seven was also a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai.  So it’s a remake of a remake.  Which sounds terrible, but the initial premise is still strong and Battle has decent actors and production values.

A wholesome couple and their android.

The setting is the far future planet Akir.  Akir is inhabited by peace-loving space Amish . . . or something.  Anyway, the Akira (a nod to Akira Kurosawa) get a visit from an unpleasant character called Sador.  (Yes, Sador.  A subtle name.)  Sador (John Saxon) packs a giant battleship, an army of mutants and a “stellar converter” that can blow up planets.  Not having an army or experience in fighting, they send out Shad (Richard Thomas) to look for help.  Richard at this point had just come off playing “John-Boy” on The Waltons for five years.  I suspect he was attempting to find any role that would break out of that typecasting.

See? Boobs.

Shad flies off in an intelligent ship with a sarcastic personality named Nell.  And the ship has boobs.  Seriously, the ship is stacked.  Through various encounters, Shad manages to dig up a group of fighters who are willing to defend Akir.

He loves it when a plan comes together.

First is Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who doesn’t bring any weapons except a battle computer, however she is Shad’s love interest.  Second is Space Cowboy.  Yes, his name is Space Cowboy.  Did I mention this film isn’t subtle?  Space Cowboy (George Peppard) doesn’t have much of a ship, but has plenty of ground weapons to fend off troops. 

Typical college life these days.

Nestor, a group-mind of clones, volunteer for the fight because they’re bored with their sameness.  Next comes Gelt (Robert Vaughn), an assassin whose success has made him too many enemies.  All he wants is a place to live peacefully, without watching his back.  Vaughn essentially plays the same character he did in The Magnificent Seven, only with a spaceship. 

Next is Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning) from the race of Valkyries.  She shows up in a tiny, super-fast ship and wants to fight because she comes from a warrior race and loves it.  For you younger folks, Sybil was the go-to sexpot in every B film in the 80s.  She’s wonderful eye candy in this.

She can carry my spear. Rowwr!

Finally we get a lizard alien named Cayman (Morgan Woodward).  Yes, he’s named Cayman.  Just let it go.  Cayman has a massive warship and wants to fight because Sador destroyed his race.  Although unrecognizable in his makeup, you might know Woodward from Cool Hand Luke, and two appearances on the original Star Trek series.

The group of fighters meet Sador in battle and . . . well, you can guess how this goes if you’ve seen The Magnificent Seven. 

I enjoyed the hell out of it as a kid and when I rewatched it recently, it held up pretty well.  It doesn’t hurt that you have real actors and decent special effects (by none other than James Cameron).  The spaceship designs are nifty and John Sayles‘s script is damn solid.

I am eeeevil!

It has since become a bit of a cult favorite among aficionados.  It still pops up from time to time in pop culture references.  If you’ve ever played the classic PC game Master of Orion II, you’ll recognize the “stellar converter” technology reference.

If you like science fiction and have never seen this, I recommend it without reservation.

The whole movie’s available on YouTube.  You’re welcome.

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The Star Fox is Iron Man? A Poul Anderson Great.

The Star Fox (1964) is a favorite novel of mine from the late, great Poul Anderson.  Like a lot of Poul’s novels, there is a political undertone to it.  Poul wrote a lot of Libertarian themed fiction, like several of his contemporaries (such as Heinlein.)  This novel is both political and a precursor to today’s modern military science fiction.  After re-reading it again, however, I also realized that it was a kind of precursor to 2008’s Iron Man movie.

Basic setup is as follows:

It’s a far future space opera setting.  Earth has expanded its domain outward and put out colonies.  During this expansion they’ve come upon a militaristic and expansionist alien empire called the Aleriona.  After an ‘accidental’ attack on the human colony of New Europe, the Aleriona make peace overtones.  Everyone on New Europe is supposedly dead, so the war-wary human government doesn’t push the Aleriona claim to New Europe.

Bow before my awesomeness!

Enter the protagonist Gunnar Heim.  He’s a wealthy industrialist and navy veteran who thinks the peace talks with the Aleriona are a smoke screen for them to consolidate their position.  Then along comes a survivor of New Europe who swears there are still millions of survivors on New Europe.  When he goes to the Earth government, he isn’t believed.  Turns out the government doesn’t want to know of survivors, as it would derail the peace process.

Less military discipline is needed by privateers.

Through clever maneuvering, Gunnar manages to get a Letter of Marque from the French government, who despise the peace talks.  (Yes.  The French want war.  It’s fiction.) Through his massive fortune, Gunnar gets a battleship outfitted and crewed to wage a guerilla war against the Aleriona blockading New Europe.  Most of the book (originally three stories) details Gunnar’s escape from Earth authorities and his journey to acquire, equip and arm his ship, the Fox II to become a raider.  Most of his opposition from the Earth government and the ironically named “World Militants for Peace”.

I’ve read the book several times, but only recently did I get the parallel between it and Iron Man.  In both cases, a wealthy industrialist sees injustice done and takes it upon himself to take up arms against the guilty when his government fails.  The difference being that guilt motivates Tony Stark by the use of his weapons to harm the innocent.  In The Star Fox, Gunnar is motivated because he can see that the Earth government’s pacifism will allow the Aleriona to push Earth until resistance is untenable.  The temporary peace is bought at the cost of millions of innocent colonists.

Don’t let me repulse you.

Both have strong Libertarian undertones and a spirit of individualism which endear them to me.  Might be why I enjoy hearing of the Flying Tigers in pre-WW2 China.  The only sour note is that Poul meant this as his statement on America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Namely, his fear that the communists wouldn’t stop at Vietnam.  In hindsight, maybe not the neatest allegory.  The story in Iron Man is bit tighter and more ideologically ‘pure’.  Plus, it has Robert Downey Jr. playing my favorite comic character of all time.

Still, it’s a solid, enjoyable novel.  Check it out.

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Dahak Series: A Grand Concept

The first of David Weber’s Dahak Series, Mutineers Moon, came out in 1992, preceding his lucrative Honor Harrington books by a year.  The series consists of a mere three books, but they’re not bad.  Tightly written with a grandiose and outrageous idea.  I enjoyed the hell out of them.

In this setting, Earth’s moon isn’t a moon–it’s a ship.  A gigantic, intelligent warship with an AI named “Dahak”.  Dahak is a ship of an ancient galactic empire (The “Fourth Imperium”) and has been orbiting the Earth disguised as a moon for 50,000 years.  It turns out the entire population of Earth are descendants of the crew of Dahak.  An ancient mutiny happened and both the loyal crew and mutineers escaped to Earth, where the outnumbered loyalists were hunted and killed.  The ship was sabotaged and couldn’t stop the mutineers or aid the loyalists.  It took many decades to repair the damage, and by then all the loyalists were dead or unable to contact Dahak.  With conflicting sets of priorities in its last orders, Dahak disguises itself as a moon and waits.  For fifty thousand years.

Wild enough?  There’s more.

The mutineers reduce the surviving loyalists to the Stone Age.  They lose knowledge of their origins and begin the long climb back to civilization.  Essentially, the entire history of mankind comes from cosmic castaways.  The story begins at a near-future point where Lieutenant Commander Colin MacIntyre flies a spacecraft around the moon to map the far side.  When he goes out of radio contact, Dahak sends out remote ships to capture him and fake his death.  Using twisty logic, Dahak declares that the indigenous life of Earth are considered the descendants of the loyalists.  Therefore, he puts Colin in command of the moon-sized ship.

From there it’s discovered that many of the original mutineers are still alive.  After the mutiny, there was a schism between the mutineers.  One group was fine with the status quo and the other regretted the decision.  They’ve been secretly warring with one another throughout human history.  The original mutineers are led by Engineering Chief Anu and the rebels are led by Missile Tech Horus.  Whole mythologies sprung up around the conflict.

Anu’s people dwell beneath Antarctica, protected by a force shield so powerful that it would take Dahak’s main guns to punch through.  This, however would destroy most of the life on Earth.  Ergo, Dahak cannot act.  Colin and the rebels have to figure out how to take them down without Dahak’s direct help.

That’s right people.  We’ve got an Ancient Alien Conspiracy.  Moon sized ships.  Godlike alien infiltrators.  A goddamn Antarctic base!  Oh yeah, baby!

But wait!  There’s more.  The original purpose of Dahak and ships like it was to fight off a fleet of extra-galactic extermination ships.  The fleet periodically reappears every few millennia and destroys all technological civilizations.  And they’re about due to pay another visit. And that’s just the beginning of the story!  The original books were Mutineers Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance and Heirs of Empire.  All of the books are collected in the compilation Empire from the Ashes.

World-smashing ships!  Alien supermen!  Cosmic mysteries!  Invading fleets!  Dead empires!  Ravening beams of force! This is basically a homage to E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books.  I don’t say that as criticism.  Smith would have loved these books.  I know I did.

Weber’s later books become preachy and political.  Not these.  Lean, exciting stuff.  Go pick up a copy and enjoy.

My First Science Fiction Series: Flinx and Pip

The Flinx and Pip series by Alan Dean Foster appeared on my radar screen in the late seventies.  I was ushered into this series via Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Alien movie adaptation.  Before that my experience with science fiction had been movies and comic books.  Although my mom read War of the Worlds to me as a kid.  I only understood parts of it.  Yes, my mom read a turn-of-the-century H.G. Wells novel to me as a young nipper.  My mom is awesome.

Alan Dean Foster got a bad rep in the seventies and eighties because of all of his movie adaptations.  He did a lot of them.  I don’t criticize him, because I’m happy for any writer making good money.  Good for him.

Anyway, I saw his name on a book: The Tar-Aiym Krang.  That title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  Still, I rather enjoyed it.  So I got the rest in the series: Orphan Star and The End of the Matter and Bloodhype.  Mind you, Bloodhype is an oddball entry in the series.  It was written second, but comes in . . . I’m not exactly sure where it fits in the chronology.  More on that later.

Basic premise of the series is nothing radically new.  Far future space civilization (The Commonwealth) with multiple worlds and alien civilizations.  The fun part is the dual civilizations of human and Thranx (which are mantis-like alien insects).  Foster sets up the framework for all his Commonwealth books in this series.  It’s a setting every bit as rich and interesting as anything created by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson or Larry Niven.  (None of which I had read as a young teenager.)  It has lost alien civilizations, cosmic threats and alien artifacts.  Meat and drink to the science fiction or space opera genre.

The main character in this series is Flinx.  He’s a psionic orphan who grows up poor and becomes a thief and (sometime) con artist on the planet Moth (named because of wing-like rings).  His “sidekick” is a flying alien snake with deadly and acidic venom.  It’s also empathic and “links” with Flinx.

The unlikely duo runs into various adventures, usually because of Flinx’s precognitive flashes that lead him into strange situations.  He also later discovers that he was genetically engineered by a secretive group to give him his abilities.

The series continued after that, but the strongest ones were the first ones.  Bloodhype is the oddball one because Flinx and Pip are background characters, rather than the main ones.  It’s still a very good book, but go into it understanding that it’s only marginally a Flinx and Pip book.

Later books take place after The End of the Matter and just before or after Bloodhype.  Sort of.  There’s a pretty big event that happens in Bloodhype that changes Flinx a lot and . . . well, it’s complicated and a bit confusing. Essentially, Foster wrote himself into a corner in Bloodhype but people still wanted Flinx books, so . . . there you go.

This series was my introduction into reading science fiction and I don’t feel cheated.  Still good stuff and I still like Alan Dean Foster a lot.  Although his fantasy is a mixed bag at best.  His Spellsinger series is awful.  I did like Into the Out Of, but I’d call that horror.  I would strongly advise checking out his The Damned series.  It’s great.

Honestly, the Flinx and Pip series would make a great movie or television series.  It’s straightforward, but with plenty of room to expand a universe.

Go check out the series.

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