The Ballad of Beta 2 and Empire Star — Samuel R. Delany (1965 & 1966)

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Publisher: Ace Books

First Ace Edition, 1975 (stories published previously in earlier editions, but this is the first published appearance of both in the same novel)

Cover Art: Davis Meltzer

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Brad and Tina Meltzer, eight and seven years old respectively, had a wonderful day. Their wonderful mommy had taken them to play miniature golf, followed it up with some ice cream, and even made them pancakes for dinner in a clear and whimsical violation of standing culinary precedent. It is the nature of all good things, however, to come to an end, and it was now time for Brad and Tina to go to bed. However, as is the hallmark of children replete with inappropriate late-night pancake syrup, the siblings were restlessly resisting the inevitable. Their mother, not missing a step, resorted to the traditional anodyne reserved for these situations. “Okay kids,” she said without an ounce of weariness touching her voice. “What kind of story would you like tonight?” Tina spoke up first, begging, “Oh! I want a story about a handsome prince!” Her brother, not to be outdone, appended, “A prince from Mars! And he’s only got a floating head!” Tina continued, “And he’s got the prettiest collection of gems in the whole world!” Brad chimed, “Yeah, but Mars is a desolate wasteland, so it’s not that great. It’s only the one. And he accidentally glued it to his giant floating face.” Tina, undeterred, “And he has a beautiful palace with spires and towers and domes!” Then Brad again, “Yeah! And it’s floating in the vacuum of space, and keeps shooting out random globes!” Tina concluded, “And he has a beautiful tiger, like in Aladdin!” Brad concluded, “Sure! A demon tiger with horns and bat wings that was born with a developmental disorder!” Brad’s mother stared at him. “Brad, I swear to fucking God, you get this shit from your father.”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: I’d been meaning to do this one for a while, mostly because it’s downright impossible to look at the cat face on the front and not giggle like a nitwit. It’s also kinda cool, because it falls into the category of Ace Double novels, but isn’t in the usual back-to-back format (also, it contains my favorite thing ever—the mid-novel cigarette advert). Luckily, in this case, both stories are equally deserving of praise, and there’s no need to split a rating. Delany explores similar themes across the two, challenging cultural perception and extolling the value of a multitude of viewpoints to one’s perspective. Fuckin’ yawnsville, right? Well, the number of space battles is less than the number of songs, so I suppose that depends on where Yawnsville is located in your state of mind. However, those seeking a couple of well-crafted tales with some authentic beauty in their execution… well, jeez, why don’t you put on your tutu and do a little dance for us, sissy?

Rating: 9.5 Third Person Omniscient Secondary Characters

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • When did Ace Publishing become majority shareholders of Random Semiopaque Ovals, L.L.C.?
  • Does this cover come from the “I Paint What I See During My Post-Pizza-And-Beer Nap” school of design?
  • Did somebody just open the alien equivalent of a can of Fancy Feast?

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The Silkie — A.E. Van Vogt (1964–1969)

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Publisher: Ace Books

First Ace Edition, 1969. Beginning in 1964, The Silkie was originally published as a series of novelettes by several different publishers, Ace Books among them, but it is here that the novel first appears as a single work.

Cover Art: Jack Gaughan

Plot Synopsis (of cover): The great detective Sherlock Holmes tamped tobacco into his pipe as he leaned against the fireplace’s ornate mantle. He scanned the room, deliberately taking his time, making the three nervous occupants of the opulent furniture more nervous still. As his match was half-struck, one such occupant, Colonel M. Horseradish, could contain himself no longer. “Holmes!” he exclaimed. “Out with it! Enough theatrics! Who has stolen the Prince Albert Emerald? Are they in this room?” Another, Mrs. Blau, was confused. “The Prince Albert Emerald? I thought we were here to discuss the disappearance of my pearl necklace,” she said. Sherlock lit his pipe and replied, “Colonel, Madame, the solutions to your pitiful mysteries are so elementary that I choose not to involve myself in the revelation of their solutions.” As he puffed, the third guest, the bumbling Professor Puce, demanded, “Well, we’re all gathered here for some damned reason! Has there been a murder? Is there a piece of art missing from the British Museum? What?” Sherlock smiled and replied, “No. Nothing is missing at all. I have gathered you all here today because I have come to suspect one of your number to be a fraud. Not in your chosen profession, but in your humanity itself! To wit, I am here to accuse one of you of being a giant louse in disguise!” Colonel Horseradish harrumphed, showing his distaste for what was obvious to him to be a bad joke. Mrs. Blau, having feared the great detective would rightly accuse her of selling her necklace on the sly, sighed in relief. Professor Puce nervously eyed the exit whilst nibbling on some discarded skin cells.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: First, there are parts of this novel that definitely betray its origins as a series of independent publishings. Repeated explanations and uncomfortable transitions are more easily spotted here than in many other novels of piecemeal assemblage. While it does weaken the flow of narrative to a manageably irritating degree, the narrative itself is satisfying enough to power through. It’s pretty bizarre, and unique. At times it’s confusing, but in an artistic way—rather than hold your hand though its telling, it assumes that you can fill in a finite number of gaps, and allows your own reason to become part of its story (**Warning: Novel assumes reader can read. May contain words. Do not administer internally.**). The setting is pretty wild, the range of significance varies from personal to extracosmic in the span of 190 pages, and it introduces some pretty neato concepts that affix it well to the tapestry of revolutionary 1960s sci fi novels. It also has a giant bug on the cover, making it perfect for grossing out girls on the playground.

Rating: 9.4 Sexy Fish-Men

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Is this why you’re supposed to cook hamburger to 160 F?
  • Why aren’t more self-help books urging us to seek The Tick Within?
  • Is it creepier to imagine one of these, huge, in your chest, or thousands of them, microscopic, in your eyebrows? Note: One of these things is true. Sweet dreams.

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Reduction in Arms — Tom Purdom (1971)

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Publisher: Berkley Medallion

First Berkley Medallion Edition, 1971

Cover Art: Paul Lehr

Plot Synopsis (of cover): It was a warmer than usual Saturday for a Stalingrad April, and it seemed that the gloom of spring would yield to a pleasant, though perhaps rainy, summer for 1971. Light showers outside were rivaled, however, by the storm clouds forming in the office of Soviet Major General Alexi Simonova. He was faced with a bizarre proposition from KGB agent Pyotr Krolikvich, and had just been informed that, though the plans proposed here today were being submitted for approval, they were already well underway and ready for implementation. The Major General, punctuating his unrest with a slap of his desk, shouted, “Krolikvich, you have exceeded your authority in this! Clearly, technology of this scope needs to be strictly under control of the military. And, frankly, I don’t understand what the hell it is you’re talking about regarding the use of these… whatever you called them!” Agent Krolikvich replied, “They are confinement orbs, Comrade General, though that’s a bit of a misnomer given their oblong shape. Similar to a gelatin, they will capture and store any number of dissidents that might fit inside their volume until such time as we extract them for interrogation. They can further be made to roll about the countryside via radio control, absorbing anyone they encounter. It is a triumph of Soviet materials science! I should think you would be pleased.” The General fumed, “Look, I understand the concept. But your plan to capture spies, line them up like soldiers, and then roll over them with these giant eggs of goo etched with the hammer and sickle? And you must do it tomorrow?” The KGB man smiled. “Oh, well, you see, that’s my own brain child. Symbolism is so important these days, especially in the realm of intelligence. Certainly you’ve heard the tale of British and German soldiers coming to truce over the singing of Christmas songs in 1914?” The General nodded, and Krolikvich continued, “Yes, the holiday spirit. Even if it is not true, it is a powerful, unifying symbol. I seek to use a similar unification to propagate a message of Soviet superiority. By rolling over a symbolic American army, flag-bearing and militaristically-garbed, and by transmitting the spectacle on Easter Sunday on every wavelength we can, I believe the message will be understood loud and clear by any seeking to enter our lands with nefarious purpose.” The General, now more curious than angry, asked, “And what, Pyotr, is that message?” Agent Krolikvich replied, “Simple, Alexi. In Soviet Russia, Easter Eggs hunt you.”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Well, I guess the cat’s out of the bag. Purdom ruined it for everybody. Yes, science fiction in the 1970s often tackled issues related to the Cold War. I KNOW, RIGHT? This may be the most Cold War-y sci fi I’ve read, and though I may eat those words upon further reflection, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a novel so brazen about it. Yes, it takes place in a near-future, but it’s a very near future, and there’s no attempt to mask the politics under the guise of alien influence or what-have-you. There’s not a lot of punch-pulling, and the novel takes swings at both American and Soviet governments, though the Soviet swings are more frequent. Insofar as setting is concerned, it takes place largely upon one stage—a Russian mental hospital—and would fit well into the framework of a small-scale play for that reason. Another reason it would fit into a play is because everyone talks and talks and talks and talks and talks until they’re Red in the face. On one hand, this demonstrates in a very visceral way the bureaucracies of the time, and how endless negotiation could often prevent direct action from taking place (sometimes a good thing, with nukes, obvs). On the other hand, it makes the novel feel a bit constipated, and left me wishing that someone would just blow up the world already. The ending was pretty satisfying in relieving that constipation, however, and I feel a lot lighter after finishing it. Yes, that was a poop joke.

Rating: 7.2 Voight-Kampff Knockoffs

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Do you think maybe this book might have something to do with the Cold War?
  • Had anyone used this much red ink since the Depression?
  • Does Russia grow its chickens this big, or its people this small? Follow-up: In either case, how could they possibly have had a food shortage?

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Sargasso of Space — Andre Norton, as Andrew North (1955)

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Publisher: Ace Books

First Ace Edition, 1957

Cover Art: Ed Emshwiller

Plot Synopsis (of cover): The exploratory away mission began innocuously enough. The ship’s four-wheeled landside scouter navigated the planet’s chiaroscuro landscape with relative ease, piloted by its expert navigator, Lieutenant Sprague. Ensigns Elle and Camp, both science officers, were responsible for relaying external readings and internal communications to their ship in orbit. Commander Lyon, supervising the lot, was confident in the crew’s ability to handle this ostensibly simple recon—no complex life signs had been detected, nor was the atmosphere of the small, cold world conducive to the fostering of such. The mission, then, was altogether routine, and progressing swimmingly to the eyes of those monitoring from the ship. That is, until a strange explosion overtook the audio feed, followed by unintelligible yelling (though the words “dirty motherfucker” were audible) and, shortly thereafter, the hollow static of a communication line gone dead. Pandemonium broke out on the bridge of the orbiting ship as the crew simultaneously raised their captain to his command and attempted to restore the comm line. Some few minutes later, the captain was on the bridge, and the lines of communication were restored, albeit not as expected. Four independent signals were now beaming in from the planet, each from an environmental suit. The crew had left the scouter, but why? Ensign Elle was the first to make contact, though his voice was strained. “Ensign Elle reporting. All crew have exited the scouter and are now in EVS gear. Requesting pick up, please.” The captain addressed the ensign, “Elle, what’s going on? What was that explosion?” Elle’s communicator clicked back on, and he could barely contain his laughter. “Well, sir, as it turns out, Lieutenant Sprague really likes chocolate milk. But he’s lactose-intolerant, and in the small cabin of the scouter…” Lieutenant Sprague’s communicator crackled to life. “Shut up, Elle! I swear, I… oh, God.” The sound that then came over the ship’s speakers broke the discipline of the seasoned bridge crew, whose laughter predominated over the horror in Lieutenant Sprague’s nauseated voice as he whispered through a fog of his own fetid, circulating emission, “Fuck me, I thought it was soy!”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Well, I’m doing my due diligence. This is the first novel in North/Norton’s Solar Queen series. I read and reviewed its sequel, Plague Ship (as well as the flip side to this Ace Double, The Cosmic Puppets), not long ago, and, once again, felt like a heel for going out of order. On the bright side, Sargasso of Space was just as successful as its sequel in winning my praise—that is, it’s not bad. It’s not great, either. Norton doesn’t take the effort to sail into any uncharted waters, which is fine. The book strikes me as a good boy’s adventure novel, bothering very little with complicated themes beyond its scope. It’s perfectly serviceable, fun, and probably won’t offend anybody—the opposite of your gran in book form. What does upset me about it is that, on the cover, the title is spelled Sargasso of Space, while the spine reads “Sagasso of Space.” This causes me an irrational level of distress. It’s like a popcorn kernel between your back teeth, but you can’t get it out. Forever. I bet some asshole at Ace did this on purpose, just to fuck with me sixty years later. Eat a dick, Aaron Wyn. You know, if you ever stop being dead.

Rating: 8.5 Transparent Sentient Diaphanous Snowmen

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • What kind of Vietnam shit has this guy seen?
  • Since this is the 1950s, does that red light come on to notify the spaceman’s commanding officer when the spaceman has gay thoughts?
  • Is everyone leaving the hideous space car because they realize how ridiculous they looked riding around in it? Follow up: is this the proper reaction for members of modern-day mankind caught in a PT Cruiser?

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Year of Consent — Kendell Foster Crossen (1954)

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Publisher: Dell Publishing Company, Inc.

First Dell Edition, 1954

Cover Art: Richard Powers

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Rex Chiselchin gravely called to his wife from their wood-paneled living room. “Luellen, could you come here for a moment?” From the kitchen, Mrs. Chiselchin replied, “Sweetie, I’m a little busy. Can it wait? You have NO idea how hard it is getting all these vegetables to stay suspended in a jello mold.” “It’s important,” Rex replied, using a Bakelite ashtray to snuff out the third cigarette he’d smoked since the conversation began. Luellen sighed, quickly swallowed a Miltown, and went to meet her husband. To her surprise, he wasn’t alone. Behind him towered a technological marvel—a wall-sized computer bank, replete with myriad switches and lights. Mrs. Chiselchin was aghast. “Comp-u-tron 500! What are you doing here?” Mr. Chiselchin, lighting his pipe, explained, “Oh, Compy here is the newest member of my bowling team. You’ll never guess what we had to talk about.” The computer bank irately ruffled through a stack of its own punch cards. “Honey,” Mrs. Chiselchin began, “I swear, that machine behind you is a beastly abomination of lies and bad electrics! Don’t believe a thing he says!” Mr. Chiselchin, smoking a cigarette between puffs of his pipe, stopped her. “I knew there was something going on, Luellen, when you fed me that line about our daughter being immaculately conceived when I was off fighting in The War. In fact, maybe she should come downstairs and meet her real father!” No longer able to fight back the tears, Mrs. Chiselchin sobbed, “No, Rex! She’s yours! You know she is! Please, don’t do this to her!” Mr. Chiselchin, ignoring his wife, shouted for his daughter, who crawled down the stairs from the second floor on animate wire appendages. “What is it, daddy?” she asked in a tinny, metallic soprano. Mr. Chiselchin turned away in shame, while the computer bank behind him proceeded to lovingly print a dot matrix heart.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: What an unexpected delight. Year of Consent is surprisingly human and touching for the material it covers. This novel is a product of the paranoia of its time, and is a great example of the kind of media that would have been suppressed back then were it in the mainstream. Thank heaven for pulp. It’s very much a child of 1984, detailing a dystopian 1990s USA that controls the fates of its population through a secret government composed of media people and social psychologists in conjunction with building-sized supercomputers. Which totally isn’t happening, right guys? You totally aren’t slaves to your computer and cell phone screens. You aren’t gazing into this blog with just a little bit of shame, unable to turn away for fear of experiencing the world around you. You’re one of the few that the conditioning never affected, huh? Well, you’re not! You’re just another in the herd, being led to the slaughter by an oppressive capitalist police state! But your death won’t come so quickly—no, you sell your souls one cheeseburger at a time, and you measure out your lives in half-hour primetime blocks. When you consume, you consume yourself! Wake up, sheeple! I mean… ahem. Boy, I love the government! I love the media! I encourage you all to go out and consume! Who’s for cheeseburgers? No, don’t take me back to Guantanamo! I’ll be good, I promise! HELP! HEL-

Rating: 9.5 Government-Issued Divorce Excuses

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • When they finished making that dress, what did they do with the blue part of the flag?
  • When computers were that big, was it more difficult to discreetly masturbate to online pornography?
  • How much of that 25 cents per copy went to pay Cary Grant’s modeling fee?

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Ten Years To Doomsday — Chester Anderson & Michael Kurland (1964)

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Publisher: Pyramid Books

First Pyramid Edition, 1964

Cover Art: Ed Emshwiller

Plot Synopsis (of cover): The First Royal Lance Brigade was out marching in formation, as was their daily tradition, when the spaceship landed. The vessel in question was clearly alien to their verdant fields. Still, their hearts were brave and pure, and the intrusion into their bucolic kingdom would not be met without the valiance of noble steel. “Come on, men!” the Captain of the Brigade, Sir Loyal Codpiece, beckoned. “We shall win the day against our strange foe, and taketh for ourselves their glimmering vessel as our prize!” First Officer Faraday raised his hand, but Sir Codpiece continued on. “Yes, our swords shall turn any invader, and our spears shall cast despair into the hearts of those who would sack our lands!” Faraday’s hand began waving with urgency. “We shall… we… ugh. Yes, Faraday? What is it?” Relieved to be called upon, Faraday let out a bated breath. “Sir, with all respect, I do appreciate the braveness and pureness of our hearts, and, of course, the valiance of our steel.” “Don’t forget the nobility of the steel, Faraday. It’s quite noble,” the Captain interjected. “Oh, yea, verily,” Faraday corrected, “the noblest. And not to cast aspersions upon thine most noble and valiant and stalwart person… but, just this once, can’t we use our fucking ray guns?”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: What a delightful little book. It reminded me quite a bit of a weirder Warlock In Spite Of Himself. The novel does a great job of keeping a reader guessing. It uses a combination of technologies old and new very well to drive its various political pretzeling. It also exploits the idea of cultural imperialism in a subversive way, much as only a sci-fi novel of its period can, but it does so, if not with subtlety, with efficacy. I wish I were in a position to review this novel as a newcomer to the genre, but, sadly, I’m a jaded cunt with an echo ’round his bones and too many dreams of electric sheep, so I hope that I’m not just loving this because I love things like this. To sum up, this is like a really well-prepared burger. It’s not haute cuisine, but it’s satisfying on a level that only things that aren’t haute cuisine can be.

Rating: 9.5 Hastily-Invented Telegraphs

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • When did the Nazis start making V2 rockets with antlers?
  • Where’s the Blue Team’s castle?
  • Hey, Spaceship. When Batman called, did he ask for his utility belt back?

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The Cosmic Puppets — Philip K. Dick (1957)

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Publisher: Ace Books

First Ace Edition, 1957

Cover Art: Ed Valigursky

Plot Synopsis (of cover):”Well, honestly, I’m just happy to be dating again,” Petunia said from under the glass. “I figured it’d go a long way if I showed up in by bathing suit. I mean, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?” Milton stared at Petunia silently in reply. Unhindered, Petunia continued, “I mean, let’s face it, there’s so many total losers out there on the internet, wasting their lives away, nerding it up with their blogs and science fiction bologna, I’m just happy to meet someone with a spine, you know?” Milton continued to glare, and Petunia, in an attempt to lighten the mood, went on. “Of course you trapped me under the glass! You had to get to know me better, to see what I would do! And why shouldn’t you? I’d have done the same thing. You’re a really fascinating person. I think this is going really well!” Milton was unfazed, and Petunia’s confidence was beginning to falter. “Come on, Milton!” she finally shouted in exasperation. “I thought we really hit it off in the chat room! Sure, you don’t look EXACTLY like your profile pic, but I didn’t really expect that!” Milton finally replied, “Mmm. Well, I guess I didn’t expect you to look like your photo. But you do.” Petunia smiled and said, “See? Aren’t I pretty as a picture?” “Yeah,” Milton replied, “and to scale.”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: I mean, I’m obviously physically incapable of giving a Philip Dick novel a bad review. I’m a proper Dick Head, so suck it. Cosmic Puppets begins as one of Dick’s more down-to-Earth pieces, and rapidly falls into the realms of the pseudo-religious brainfuckery that are his lineament. I enjoy the mixing of small town nostalgia and grand cosmic significance here. If you are looking for a novel in the same solar system as hard science fiction, however, you’re gonna be disappointed. But fear not! There are strange, exotic fruits to be sampled, served with phenobarbital instead of by a robot.The catch is that this is one of Dick’s weaker novels, though his weakest is still grand. If you’re hankering for old Dick, try The World Jones Made. However, if you’re a completionist like myself, you will find some well-arranged words on a page in familiar themes. Of course, the novel is also completely unfeasible—who actually wants to go back to their childhood hometown?

Rating: 9.2 Alternate Versions Of Me That Died As Children

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Of all the things she should be concerned about right now, why would she be checking her breath?
  • Have they finally built a better spousetrap, or is this just a plate of Pleasant Under Glass?
  • How mentally handicapable do you have to be to require arrows on your shirt to indicate where to put your head?

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The Stainless Steel Rat — Harry Harrison (1961)

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Publisher: Orion Press

First Orion Edition, 1997

Cover Art: Walter Velez

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Max Handsome and Chelsea Goodbust of the Space Spy Corps were in it deep. Behind enemy lines, their cover was blown, and they had to make their escape lest they be captured, tortured, and executed for high treason. The details of their mission were highly classified, limiting their options significantly—with no hope of rescue by their own government, they would have to sneak out of the enemy’s stronghold and steal a ship. This is exactly what Max was telling Chelsea as they ran through corridor after worryingly-similar corridor. “You’ve really got no idea where we are going, do you?” Chelsea whispered, as they ducked behind a corner to avoid the Security Police. “Calm down,” Max said. “I’m sure it’s this way. Wait, no. This way.” Max indicated a lavender door on the opposite side of the hall. “That’s it, I’m sure!” They rushed across and barreled inside, to be confronted with the interior of a closet. As the door closed behind them, the telltale “click” of an automatic mechanical lock sliding into place gave Max goosebumps. “Well, erm…” Max muttered. “Huh. Well, that’s a noodle-scratcher.” Chelsea was more than a little miffed, and, to calm her down, Max gestured to the contents of the closet. “Look, Chels, we’ve clearly ended up in a well-stocked liquor pantry. Why don’t we wait for one of the patrols to come ’round and check in here? When they open the door, we’ll take them by surprise, beat some directional info out of ’em, and make our way home? Might even end up with the 4-1-1 on a ship.” Chelsea, doubtful but out of options, resigned herself to the shitty, shitty plan. “Okay,” she said, “but I’m having a drink. You are the worst partner in the history of partnerships, and I’m not dealing with you sober for one more minute.” “Fine,” Max replied. “It’s not like we don’t have time. But don’t overdo it.” As it turned out, the incompetence of the spies was in direct proportion to that of their pursuers, and it was more than a couple of hours before they were found out. When the door finally opened, the security police were met by the stench of boozy breath, followed by a barrage of empty bottles. It was a sloppy but effective method of escape, and the hammered Max, carrying the passed-out Chelsea, shot his way through to the shipyard with the characteristic luck of the drunkard. Unfortunately, the remains of his stolen ship were discovered scattered across the planet’s moon. Don’t drink and drive, kids.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: This had been on my to-do list for a while. Those seeking depth of philosophy will be disappointed here, but those people are stuffy pricks. The Stainless Steel Rat is good, clean fun. I’m hoping that the commercial success of the series is warranted, because this first novel inspires the same kind of loyalty that carried me through most of the Xanth novels—it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it knows itself for what it is, and it makes excellent use of both of those facts to craft an engaging narrative that stays yummy and chocolatey and doesn’t go soft in milk. Let’s face it—if the universe were all Dhalgren and fuckin’ Dune, nobody’d be happy about it except the aforementioned stuffy pricks. Every so often, something lighthearted and fun is refreshing, and this fills that role very very well.

Rating: 9.0 Explosive False Bellies

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • What Whedonverse fuckery ends up with Xander Harris in the far future?
  • Who the hell swoons like that outside of an early Dracula flick?
  • Could the lady be fainting because she suddenly realized what she was wearing? Or perhaps because she smelled the fella’s breath? Or, perhaps, she’s faking it to lean up against those beefy moose thighs?

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Scop — Barry N. Malzberg (1976)

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Publisher: Pyramid Books

First Pyramid Edition, 1976

Cover Art: Stephen Fabian

Plot Synopsis (of cover): JFK is staring at you. He doesn’t judge you for your voyeurism as the bullet zooms towards his head. The incense burner conjures an anemic picture of your future self (whom you know to be yourself though it doesn’t look a thing like you) screaming “Duck!” as you dissolve into mist. You wonder how you’ve come to be here, and JFK is staring at you. He floats without body above the cracked Martian soil, his head made whole and untarnished by your recollections.The bullet moves too slow, camouflaged amongst the fireflies, unnoticed or unacknowledged. JFK is staring at you, and, in his eyes, there lurks a subtle thanks marred with pity, as though he knows that you are suffering with sympathy and he thanks you for it. You wonder how you came to be here, as you stare into the screen behind JFK, who is staring at you. The ghastly shadow, his glowing green gut sickness radiating from his body in four bilious light-tumors, clenches at his bowels as he wanders among the flames. He is also you (whom you know to be yourself though it doesn’t look a thing like you), a ghost from your past, and you realize that it isn’t a television you’re looking into, but a microwave, and you become lucid, and you remember, and you wake up. Shaking the mist from your head, you chastise yourself for the four microwaveable burritos and twelve cans of PBR, and vow never again to fall asleep watching The History Channel.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Oh, boy. After two weeks of relatively lame pulp, this was a brilliant whiff of madness. Time travel and the psychedelic elan are so rarely married this successfully—though not time travel exactly, the comparable work to catch the atmosphere would be the Peter Milligan run on Shade, The Changing Man, which I love. Malzberg however… this fellow is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. The other of his I reviewed, The Men Inside, was similarly trippy, unforgettable, and excellent. I would warn those uninitiated that Malzberg’s style is unique and, at times, can be off-putting. He rejoices in wordplay and repetition that, if one isn’t acclimated to the aforementioned weird atmosphere, may cause one to choke. He’s also fond of visceral, often disgusting, sexual imagery (nails clawing at flaccid penis, anyone?). But if you can get into his world, he crafts it so well. Malzberg, granting his protagonist (who, in both novels I’ve reviewed of his, turns out to be kind of a shit, which I hope is a pattern that continues) the relative freedom of the fourth dimension, stifles that by making it a burden upon a broken, sick, human spirit. To put a bow on it, this is the sort of wonderful misery that makes reading fun.

Rating: 9.8 Backhands to Zapruder’s Stupid Face

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:


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Runts of 61 Cygni C — James Grazier (1970)

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Publisher: Belmont Books

First Belmont Edition, 1970

Cover Art: Uncredited (please leave a comment if you’ve any leads)

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Attention, boys of all ages (18+)! Cast your minds back to the time of your innocence, and remember summer days filled with youthful frivolity. Perhaps you had a treasured baseball glove, or a four-legged pal that would chase your bike down the cul-de-sacs of your midwestern suburban paradise. Certainly, you knew one or two lucky lads on your block fortunate enough to have a collection of comic books—perhaps you were that lucky lad yourself. Remember how the adventures of Superman and Archie Andrews would set your imagination aflame with possibility? And how, in the back of those comics, you were treated to golden opportunities to purchase miracle x-ray specs, high-tech two-way wrist communicators, or, most spectacular of all, the camaraderie and wonder that was the underwater universe of the Sea Monkeys? Remember, in your adolescent dreams, wanting to fuck your Sea Monkeys? Well, now you can*! Just send us your one-time payment of $49.99 (Ovaltine proofs-of-purchase no longer accepted) and we’ll send you an envelope full of cycloptic mini-sluts, with complimentary faux flora for frolicking fun-times! *Warning: For entertainment purposes only. Do not attempt intercourse with brine shrimp.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: So, before you ask (you disgusting pervert), this is not actually porn. Well, I mean, if it is, it’s in that strange class of porn where there is sex, and it’s acknowledged that sex is happening, but the descriptions thereof are so vague and prudish as to miss the point entirely. Put it this way—if your parents were in this novel, and they were having sex as is described herein, you would not be made to feel uncomfortable. What might make you uncomfortable is the unintelligible, unscientific word salad used to explain, at length, the “science” of the novel. Besides having the worst grasp of relativity that I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read Bob Frissell), the characters and the narrator seem to enjoy simply stringing together scientific terms to form a dog’s breakfast of nauseating technobabble that, for some reason, Grazier seems really proud of. His characters, all four of them scientists, delight in sharing multi-page explanations of said “scientific” concepts to one another. Except that they’re all scientists, so they all already know, but they let each other ramble on like they’re all simultaneously really polite and sickeningly condescending. So, between being lectured at by the narrator and by the characters, and having that lecture be nonsensical and bizarre (waaaaaay too much time describing space food tubes, the physics of which do not require the level of exposition Grazier gives them), there’s not much to the tale. When they finally get to the alien planet they’re headed to, there’s some relatively adept setting creation, though it fails to redeem the rest of the novel. Final assessment—I wish this was porn.

Rating: 5.0 Percent Correct on Grazier’s Physics Final

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Is the cyclops in the background playing Marco Polo, or is she just really drunk?
  • Do you think that this is what they mean when they say the media creates unrealistic expectations of beauty?
  • Why do you suppose I kept getting funny looks while I was reading this on the bus?

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