Masters of the Lamp — Robert Lory (1970)


Publisher: ACE Books

First ACE Edition, 1970

Cover Art: Jack Gaughan

Plot Synopsis (of cover):

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God touched the light to His bong.

And God called the light Day, and the bong He called Bongy McBongface. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was kinda fucked up because the waters above were Tang, which He hadn’t invented yet, but He was like, “whatever.”

And God called the firmament groovy. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, since He was running low.

And the evening and the morning were the third day.

And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and He immediately regretted it, because in illuminating the brutal countryside He accidentally invented chiaroscuro and harshed His own buzz.

And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, and one in particular which was super fucked and had glowing red spider eyes and a body like an octopus but it was black as anything and freaking God out.

And God began to doubt the reputability of His dealer, the earth.

And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind. God’s Words, however, were slurred, and all that showed up were some pretty glowing orbs. Honestly not the worst thing that could have happened, God thought.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, but God only had a hand mirror, so man ended up being a giant floating head.

And God reexamined the way He was living his life, packed up the universe, and enrolled in rehab.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: This was a pretty entertaining read. I wasn’t familiar with Lory before I read MotL—he reminds me of a toned-down Heinlein, in a good way. He’s sometimes predictable, sometimes not, which makes him unpredictably predictable I guess? Whatever, it’s a fun read. I did so in a couple of hours, and I don’t feel like that time was wasted. There’s some neat spy-fi in the sci-fi, for those who like it, reminiscent of the style displayed in The Stainless Steel Rat, replacing Rat’s con man with a “detective” but maintaining moral character (a la Arsene Lupin with Sherlock Holmes). Cool tech stuff is there, but this is more to the noir than hard sci-fi, so don’t expect a deluge of it. It’s also a little blasphemously delicious (blasphedelicious?) for the cynical set, which is characteristic of its time. Characteristic of its format, the ending was terse, lazy, and flat-falling, but this was expected and likely due to restrictions on the length of the work—the rest does not suffer for the ending. I gave more of a damn about these characters than most <140 page books inspired me to, which is a direct effect of Lory’s craftsmanship of both scene and narrative. Thanks, Lory.

Rating: 9.0 Additional Lice for Realism

Relevant Bible Quotes for Sunday School Teachers:

  • Romans 15:13 : May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, and not visit upon you horrible spider squids as He is wont to do.
  • Psalm 27:4 :  One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: Stop leaving your marbles on the floor. I could break my neck! If I had a neck.
  • Isaiah 55:8-9 : If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. Just don’t ask Him about the spider squids. We talked about this before. You don’t wanna press it.

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Dark Piper — Andre Norton (1968)


Publisher: ACE Books

First Ace Edition, 1969

Cover Art: Jack Gaughan

Plot Synopsis (of cover): The Piper brought his magical instrument to his lips, and the world erupted. The strangeness of the music that had somehow become tangible through the subtle arts of The Piper filled the world with marvelous visions of spaceships and ghosts, both terrifying and beautiful to behold. Somehow, The Piper wove his fantasies into the fabric of reality, and those who emerged from the mist to looked on marveled and questioned. To one another, they asked, “Do you think that the magic comes from The Piper? Is it some deep spiritualism that he holds within himself, released into our minds and souls by expert composition?” Another would argue, “Surely an accomplished player, but such grandiosity explains not the creation of the shades and specters that swirl about in the mist. It is clear that great technology is at work here.” Still more would cry, “Such majestic contrivance must certainly be an emergent property of the two, a blending of the human spirit and adroit craftsmanship.” The Piper’s companion, an aged lizard, asked The Piper directly, “Good friend, I know you hear them speaking, and I must confess to my own curiosity. Where does the magic in your pipe come from?” Exhaling, The Piper replied, “Me mate in Knowsley’s got the best shite. But if you let on to Old Bill, I’ll box yer ears!”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: This is not my first Norton, nor will it be my last. It isn’t, however, my favorite, despite the fact that it’s ostensibly for young readers while simultaneously featuring an effectively carried-out global genocide. In fact, that’s how the book feels—by-and-large a collection of neat elements treated like a gallery rather than a novel, to be admired briefly and passed over. The plot circles around a group of young people who survive an invasion of their world by refugees who land on their colony planet and ravage their society using weapons of mass destruction (if only they had built some sort of wall). The children are saved by a lone gun nut in the wilderness who invites them come to his house without parental supervision, where he gives them exotic treats and then dies. Fortunately, this extraterrestrial Neverland Ranch is spared the direct effects of terrorist attacks, and the children survive to go on an interminable journey that results in their confirming that, yep, everyone’s dead. It drags in the middle something awful, and, despite what the blurb on the back says, I did not form a bond with the 28 Days Later version of The Boxcar Children. Crap on it as I may, however, it isn’t all bad. Perhaps I expected too much from Norton here, and was let down a bit. Overall, standard effort, but I wanted better.

Rating: 7.4 “Showers of an Unpleasant Nature”

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Is this what you get after you juice Violet Beauregarde?
  • Is this what a C+ in Snake Charming looks like?
  • Where can I pick up a flesh-colored unitard that disguises my genital bulge this effectively?

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Baphomet’s Meteor — Claude Avice, as Pierre Barbet (1972)


Publisher: DAW Books

First DAW Edition, 1972

Cover Art: Karel Thole

Plot Synopsis (of cover): “I really think you should reconsider this, Sir,” the noble knight implored his captain. “While I would never cast aspersions upon your venerable wisdom and keen eye for falsehood, something still seems wack, yo.” “Silence your tongue!” the captain bellowed. “This is a sign from our Lord! He has sent one of his consecrated angels to lead us virtuous into battle! What say you, Angel?” The Angel of the Lord snorted, its blue titties jiggling. “I AM AGEL OF LAAARD,” the holy being choked from between its gruesome yellow teeth, “AND I BRING MESSAGE OF PEEEEEAS.” The vocal knight was not satisfied with this testimony, and neither were his companions. “Sir, please. If this is a creature of the devil, than he would utter naught but foulest bullshit. We can’t trust the word of this beast!” The captain guffawed and replied, “Well, if you haven’t eyes to see, perhaps you’ll have ears to hear. Angel, speak! Are you, in truth, a demon?” The majestic angel scratched its horns, and a terrible stink issued from its divine armpits. “NNNNNOT REALLY.” “See?” the captain said, “How could you doubt the word of an envoy of the Lord of Hosts?” Skepticism still colored the faces of the men, and the sainted ram-headed angel took note. “EYEZZZ TO SEEEE,” it echoed, and turned. The countryside erupted with a theretofore unimaginable flame, its light and fury blanketing the valley and beyond. “AM AGEL OF LAAARD, CONDEMN SINNURZZZ AND UNBELIEVURRZZZ TO HELLFIRE!” Missing only a beat, the vocal knight replied, “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m convinced.”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Oh, I wish this book were better. It looks so badass—like, I would buy this album on vinyl. Sadly, this reads more like a history book than a novel. Its author was very proud of the research he did to produce it, and he should be, because I’m betting people better versed in the Crusades would find this far more fascinating than yours truly. Me, I barely know my history from a handsaw, and that made it feel like I was missing some terribly clever references. The book was good enough to make me feel bad about that, but not good enough to make me want to do anything about it. What I do know is my physics, and this book falls prey to a lot of misconceptions about nuclear ordinance, but that’s just me trying to make up for the deficiencies in my education by being petty. There’s a detached tone to the narration that I’d almost be willing to put down to a loss in translation (this was originally a French novel), but the plot doesn’t lend itself very well to the interface between reader and character. The story tells you what’s happening and what’s happened, but fails to engage. The idea is really cool—Baphomet as shipwrecked alien seeking control over the empires of Earth sounds like a larff—but there’s so little of Baphomet outside of the technology he gives the crusaders that I felt cheated. Avice/Barbet also has a real hard-on for romanticizing the Templars, so you kind of have to ignore the fact that they were dicks in order to consider them “protagonists.” See, THAT history I know.

Rating: 6.8 Princesses Cool With You Murdering Their Husbands

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Why would you touch that?
  • Seriously, what the fuck are you doing? Is nobody going to say anything?
  • Dude, what’s wrong with you?

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Scop — Barry N. Malzberg (1976)


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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Drunkard’s Walk — Frederik Pohl (1960)


Publisher: Ballantine Books

Third Ballantine Edition, 1969

Cover Art: Robert Foster

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Maya stared off tangentially to the near-orbiting moon, boredom on her face. “Clark,” she began, “how many times are we going to come up here? I want to go on a REAL date, not play with your bicycle part collection in the vacuum of low lunar orbit every weekend.” “But honey,” replied Clark, who had decorated his bicycle spokes with what he fancied was a pretty sweet aluminum fern, “this is what all of the cool people are doing these days! Bringing random shit into space, tying it to other random shit, and then floating around naked in a haze of ennui. It’s post-modern.” Maya had just about had enough, and Clark could tell. He tried to cut her inevitable protest off before her temper could heat up (as much as such a thing could in the dead cold of space) any further. “Look, Maya, we’re violating the basic principles of physics here. Isn’t that cool? And look, I brought this metal bit from the inside of a bank vault door.” Maya was not impressed. “What the fuck?” she asked. “Why would you haul that up here?” “Because it’s random! Lol!” Clark replied. Maya shouted, “You know what? My mother was right. I should never have removed my lower torso for a freak like you. I’m gonna put my bikini top back on to cover the startlingly pale flesh beneath my tan and then I’m going to try online dating. As for your stupid vault door chunk, well, you can fuck it instead of my exposed lower vertebrae tonight!” And he did—it was great.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: So, on the one hand, I really like Pohl. His style is great, his prose is lovely, and his development of both character and setting are masterful… in general. This novel (a serialization converted to pulpy paperback pattern) did not tickle my happy place. In fact, it bored the ever-loving spunk out of my happy place. The physics student in me acknowledges that the occasional nod to number theory is fascinating, and that it’s a curiosity when it’s directly utilized in mass media. However, unless you’re REALLY into number theory, like those people who spank it to My Little Pony, or you think everything Pohl touches turns to gold, you might as well give this one a pass. There are better uses for your time. The quote on the cover says it all—it’s a “satisfactory effort.” If Ballantine want my quote for the next edition, it’s “Great. I need a nap now.”

Rating: 7.5 Idly Severed Jugulars

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Why is it that the next evolutionary leap in human development simultaneously grants us the freedom to do spacewalks sans spacesuit and an obsession with what would certainly be antiquated modes of transport by the time the gene had developed?
  • As current NASA figures put it, it now costs $10,000 US to send one pound into space. Use the tables in the back of your text to calculate how much it would cost to send these bicycle parts into space, and then subtract the money saved on returning the dead, mentally deficient astronauts who left the cockpit to play with them. Show your work.
  • If this is what the Apollo missions saw on the way to the moon, is that why we don’t go back there anymore?

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Tau Zero — Poul Anderson (1970)


Publisher: Berkley Medallion

First Berkley Medallion Edition, 1976

Cover Art: Richard Powers

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Dick’s hands shook with the effort of tightening the final lug nut on his brand-new 1976 Packard. Just his luck, he had run over a nail as he pulled it into his garage for the first time. His eagerness to show off his purchase around the neighborhood was now shaken, as the spare tire was slightly smaller than the rest. It gave the front of the car a queer lean, as though it were puzzling over a difficult question. He wiped his hands on a yellowing shammy cloth, and, absentmindedly, wiped the sweat from his brow with the same, leaving a dirty streak across his forehead. Suddenly, a scream sounded from within the house. Dick, fearing for the worst, grabbed the tire iron and rushed to see what was the matter. In the living room, his three-year-old daughter sat on the rug, in tears. “Daddy!” she wailed. “Daddy, there’s a spider’s web in the corner!” With a sigh, and noticing that he had absentmindedly carried the shammy cloth in from the garage, Dick resigned himself to one of the lesser duties of fatherhood. There was, indeed, a spider’s web in the corner of the room, one with some freshly-caught prey struggling to escape. Dick took the shammy cloth and splattered the web against the wallpaper. To his chagrin, he then noticed the filth on the cloth, as it had left a dark streak on the wall next to the now-smooshed web. It was then that the phone rang. “Honey, Daddy needs to get the phone, so be quiet, okay? I killed the spiderweb, so just don’t look.” His daughter, sniffling, seemed temporarily satisfied. Dick picked up the phone and, before he could say hello, was greeted by the gruff voice of his employer. “Mr. Powers, your cover art for Tau Zero was due yesterday! If I don’t have a workable product on my desk by the end of the day, there will no longer be any place for you at Berkley Medallion!” At the sound of the connection being severed, Dick cast about the living room, his eyes resting on the recently befouled corner. “Sweetie,” he addressed his daughter, “could you go get Daddy’s camera?”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Tau Zero is a masterpiece of hard science fiction. Besides containing what I believe to be the Cadillac of technobabble, Anderson crafts a beautiful tale, oscillating between poetic science jargon and clever human interest. The jargon incorporates a good deal of honest-to-goodness relativity theory, which makes me smile, even if the science doesn’t ultimately make much sense—look, Anderson doesn’t shy away from explanation, which is more than you can say for most, and he elevates it to a romantic level of prose. There is real, sensical science there, too, explaining time dilation and other relativistic effects with, ultimately, great respect for the subject. Often, the human sections and the science sections are discrete, transitioning with no apparent connection between paragraphs, but this isn’t a bad thing. The intimate intersection between the subjects brings vitality to the narrative, and a uniqueness to the pacing that I found refreshing. Tau Zero is engaging, beautiful, and should top your to-devour-in-a-single-sitting list. Granted, that may be a ten hour sitting, but I managed it in two days and I can’t even read.

Rating: 9.9 Sexually-Promiscuous Swedes

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Why would your mom consent to having her crotch photographed for publication?
  • Aren’t those the things that live by the thousands on your eyebrows?
  • If I had splattered a few insects with this cover before taking pictures of it, would anybody have been the wiser? Mind-bending follow up—how do you know that I didn’t?

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