Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: 'The Madness Season' by C. S. Friedman

1 / 5 Stars

‘The Madness Season’ (495 pp) was published by DAW Books in October, 1990. The cover painting is by Michael Whelan.

I got to page 236 of the book’s 495 total pages before boredom overcame me, and I abandoned ‘The Madness Season’.

‘Season’ certainly has an interesting premise: for three hundred years, Earth has been in subjugation to the Tyr, a race of reptilian aliens who communicate telepathically and adhere to a caste-based social structure.

The Tyr ensure Earth’s continued vassalage by rapidly identifying anyone who could be a potential rebel or troublemaker, and either summarily executing them, or exiling them to colony planets in deep space.

Daetrin, the hero of the story, is a vampire – here defined as a metabolic disorder that requires the acquisition of vital nutrients from human or animal blood. The mutation has the benefit of bestowing immortality, superhuman strength, and superhuman sensory awareness to those who carry it.

Since the advent of the Tyr victory over Earth, Daetrin has entered into a kind of waking sleep, deliberately forgetting his past, forgoing ambition, and shielding any and all hopes for the future, with the goal of cloaking his true nature from the Tyr.

As the novel opens, however, Daetrin is discovered and sentenced by the Tyr to exile on a colony planet. Once aboard the Tyrran starship, deprived of nutrients, under surveillance, and aware that any misstep on his part will result in death, Daetrin struggles to survive. For despite his exile, he has one overwhelming goal: discover the Tyrran’s carefully-hidden weakness, and use it to defeat their empire……

‘Season’ starts off promisingly with its 'one-vampire-against-the Evil-Empire' motif, but unfortunately, once Daetrin finds himself aboard the Tyrran starship, author C[elia] S. Friedman diverts from the major plot thread in order to use overwrought, heavily descriptive text to belabor the psychological and emotional traumas through which Daetrin will come to terms with his true nature.

As these psychodramas – usually manifested in the form of lengthy internal monologues, and flashbacks using a different font to signal to the reader how profound and important they are to Understanding Our Character – accumulate in length, the main narrative – how to overthrow the aliens ? – recedes into the background.

It doesn’t help matters when the author starts to insert several subplots into the storyline; one of these, involving a female representative of a shape-shifting alien race called the Marra, is designed to lend a note of romance to the narrative. But these subplots really do nothing more than pad the novel.....and at 495 pp.,  ‘Season’ is simply too long, and could have benefited from being edited down to half its length.

I can’t recommend ‘The Madness Season’ to anyone except those who yearn for a character-driven story that puts forth the well-worn trope that defeating the aliens requires that our heroes first come to terms with Understanding Their Humanity before the fight can be taken to the enemy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

'A Matter of Time' by Juan Gimenez
from the June, 1984 issue of Heavy Metal magazine

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: Image of the Beast and Blown

Book Review: 'Image of the Beast' and 'Blown' by Philip Jose Farmer

3 / 5 Stars

In 1968, Philip Jose Farmer contracted with Essex House, a California-based publisher of pornographic novels, to write three books: Image of the Beast (1968); its sequel, Blown (1969); and A Feast Unknown (1969). This decision drew much attention and admiration in sci-fi circles, because while traditionally many sf authors (Robert Silverberg most notably) had written for the porno fiction market, this usually was done using pseudonyms. 

Farmer’s decision to write under his own name instantly bestowed upon him the maverick, ‘rebel’ aura that engendered considerable envy from other writers jostling for the cutting-edge, avant-garde hipster status that so defined coolness in sf’s New Wave Era. Indeed, a number of other sf authors wrote for Essex House, including Samuel R. Delaney.

Essex House’s paperbacks were cheaply made and sold through a rather limited distribution network, and thus, today, those copies that still exist of any Essex books can fetch high prices.

Playboy Press issued this omnibus edition (336 pp.) of 'Image' and 'Blown' in October, 1979; the cover illustration is by Enric.

The book does not demarcate between the two novels, with Blown appearing unannounced, as chapter 21 of 45; however, because Blown is a sequel to Image, this is only a minor drawback to the two novels’ continuity.

'Image' is set in Los Angeles, ca. the late 60s; the city is in the grip of an eco-disaster, due to the advent of a massive smog storm that has triggered a mass, panicked exodus from the city. Anyone hoping to negotiate the greenish pall of smog must wear a gas mask, and drive with their headlights on, even in mid-day.

As 'Image' opens the hero, private eye Herald Childe, joins his former LAPD squadmates in the department’s film room, there to view a ‘snuff’ film sent to the police. The film purportedly has something to do with the recent disappearance of Matthew Colben, Childe’s partner in their detective agency. 

As Childe and the police watch, the film pans to show a nude, drugged Colben strapped to a table in an unidentified room. An exotic-looking women is avidly performing certain erotic activities on the panting and gasping Colben. 

As the film proceeds, the woman steps away from the table and carefully inserts a pair of false teeth into her mouth. Teeth that are shiny and sharp, and made from metal. Then she turns once again to the bound and helpless Colben…..

As the police and Childe recover from witnessing an atrocity on film, they struggle to understand why Colben has been kidnapped and singled out as a victim. Determined to find out who mutilated and murdered his partner, Herald Childe finds himself obliged to consort with a crew of Southern California eccentrics, including a mysterious European  ‘Count’ living in a gated mansion in Beverly Hills.

As Childe pursues his investigation, he becomes entangled with a cult devoted to perversion, depravity, and death….and not all of its members are truly human…….

As with ‘A Feast Unknown’, which I reviewed here, ‘Image’ and ‘Blown’ are written with a tongue-in-cheek style (probably not what the Essex House editorial staff were necessarily expecting) that pays homage to Farmer’s habit of working all manner of sci-fi tropes and personalities into his narrative. 

For example, in ‘Blown’ a major supporting character is none other than Forrest J Ackerman, the ‘Forry’ of ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’; Farmer depicts him as a fussy neurotic who falls asleep after staying up late to edit the latest issue of Vampirella

The scenes of sex and violence that appear in both novels are written with a deadpan, even droll attitude which makes these two novels more of sci-fi 'insider' comedies than genuine porn. The novels’ comedic aspects are reinforced by Farmer’s decision to include some plot developments that are so over-the-top and so contrived (I won’t disclose any spoilers, but I will say that the snakelike creature clinging to the leg of the woman depicted on 'Blown's' covers lives in a Very Special Place) that it’s quite clear he was treating these two Essex House assignments as an exercise in facetiousness. 

Are 'Image' and 'Blown' for everyone ? Not really, particularly if you're not inclined towards splatterpunk. I found the books entertaining, although not as fun as 'A Feast Unknown'. Hence, a 3 of 5 Stars rating.