Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Shadowcast Knows

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Pulp enthusiasts of all descriptions will recognized the introductory catchphrase of The Shadow, dark vigilante and superhero precursor. Indeed, although it's been ninety years since the first appearance of the character, he still has a loyal following. One example of this is the excellent, if irregular, Shadowcast, whose fifth episode earlier today was a welcome surprise:

Ostensibly covering the first appearance in The Shadow (and indeed anywhere) of a supervillan, host RazorFist covers a wide spectrum of Shadow lore. I was particularly interested in his discussion of how The Shadow's primary author, Walter B. Gibson, apparently had an elaborate filing system that he used to control continuity, thus enabling the Shadows intricate cast of recurring characters. Also of note was the description of the way Gibson used his background as a stage magician to inform his writing, particularly in the climax of the story under discussion, The Voodoo Master.

For those who are less familiar with The Shadow in general, or have hitherto been unaware of this podcast, I encourage you to start at the beginning and enjoy a celebration of an iconic hero by a knowledgeable and entertaining critic - even without his customary use of, shall we say, "colorful metaphors".

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Free Books For Your Quarantine Downtime

Whether from voluntary social distancing or official shelter-in-place orders, many of us are currently finding ourselves with more time on our hands than we're used to (others, of course, are in the medical field or grocery industry and working overtime to meet the current crisis, and I for one offer my sincerest thanks). Some of us, no doubt, are taking the opportunity to attack our tsundoku, but just in case anyone is in danger of running out of things to read, many authors are stepping up to fill the gap - at no charge.

The most prominent, at least in my Internet circles, is Corona-Chan: Spreading the Love, an anthology assembled in just a few days by David V. Stewart and many, many authors of the Pulp Revolution. I've talked about some of them on this blog before - Jon Mollison, for example, has donated his entire novel Adventure Constant, which I reviewed a few years ago and still recommend wholeheartedly. Other contributors include Justified's Jon Del Arroz and former and current Geek Gab hosts Brian Niemeier and Daddy Warpig. They are joined by a host of other independent authors, many of which have appeared in various issues of Cirsova magazine. And speaking of Geek Gab, their most recent episode has as guests contributors John Daker and Yakov Merkin:

If you prefer something a little more mainstream, gonzo techno-thriller writer Jeremy Robinson is offering a five-book package on his website, with a sixth offered for joining his mailing list. Now, I haven't read a great deal of Robinson, but what I have has kept me interested. Of the books in his bundle, I'm particularly interested in Flux, which sounds like it shares some premises with Eric Flint's Time Spike or 1632. The latter of these also happens to be free, from Amazon or Baen Books directly, although it's been so since long before the Wuhan Flu made its presence known. Come to think of it, the Baen Free Library is another great source in general for free things to read, including one of my perennial favorites - Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International.

To conclude, I'd like to thank all the authors mentioned above for their generosity in making their work available to the reading public during this crisis. Now let's do our part by keeping our hands clean and giving the coronavirus no chance to spread.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Sabaton History Covers the Siege of Vienna



Storm clouds, fire and steel,
Death from above,
Make our enemies kneel,
Shining armor and wings,
Death from above,
It's an army of kings.


Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Introducing the Inklings Literary Crossover Universe

This past April Fool's Day, C. S. Lewis fansite posted an article claiming that the Tolkien biopic would feature a post-credits cameo of Lewis, thus setting up the "Inklings Cinematic Universe". While an amusing reference to 2008's Iron Man and the franchise it spawned, in the absence of the scheduled-for-this-month Lewis film (starring current Spider-Man Tom Holland in the title role!), it occurred to me that the Inklings, or at least Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, had put enough shout-outs and shared concepts into their work to form a little universe of their own.

Art by Afalstein
The linchpin of this Inklings Literary Crossover Universe, or ILCU, is Tolkien's unfinished 1945 novel The Notion Club Papers. In this story, an ersatz version of the Inklings discuss science fiction and experiment with astral projection, culminating in an echo of the sinking of Atlantis manifesting in the modern Atlantic. Now, there's a good deal more going on in the story than that - it's a very experimental piece of writing in many ways, quite distinct from Tolkien's usual neomythic mode - but for ILCU purposes there's two things to focus on. First is that Tolkien uses in the story his own version of Atlantis, or more properly Númenor, that sits in the background of The Lord of the Rings as the homeland of Aragorn's ancestors. This fits with Tolkien's idea that Middle-Earth is the mythic past of our own world.

The other thing to note about The Notion Club Papers is that one of the works discussed early on is Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in C. S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy. What makes this interesting from a crossover world-building perspective is that Out of the Silent Planet ends with a conversation between the protagonist Elwin Ransom (in many ways a fictionalized Tolkien) and the un-named narrator (implicitly Lewis himself) discussing how they were going to publish an account of the story marketed as fiction. So, we can assume that the world of the Notion Club's psychic voyages is the same as Dr. Ransom's physical ones, and both are the far future of Middle-Earth. The last Cosmic Trilogy book, That Hideous Strength, also talks about Atlantis as "Numinor", strengthening the connection.

Another connection to the Cosmic Trilogy that only recently came to my attention is the result of the academic work of Brenton Dickieson, who in a 2016 blog post described his discovery of a hitherto unknown draft preface to The Screwtape Letters which attributed the acquisition and translation of the letters as being from none other than Dr. Elwin Ransom. As the following chart shows, Screwtape was written after Out of the Silent Planet but before its two true sequels (there's also the whole issue of the controversial The Dark Tower, which I have yet to read):

Now, this definitely shows that Lewis made a couple of false starts in developing the sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, and the extent to which he still considered Screwtape to be connected is an open question. Personally, I can think of a couple of episodes in Screwtape that support the connective interpretation, such as the incident where Screwtape "inadvertently assumes the form of a large centipede", similar to the end of the fight between Ransom and the Un-Man in Perelandra. And frankly, the idea of Wormwood and Screwtape as bent Eldila toiling away under the fallen Oyarsa Melkor is, to me at least, a pleasingly coherent one.

One final thought for this post, and that's how Lewis' claim to fame, The Chronicles of Narnia, might be brought into the ILCU. Unfortunately there is not, to my immediate recollection, a direct textual link between the Chronicles and the other works of the various Inklings. The penultimate book in the series, The Magician's Nephew, offers a few thematic links, such as a mention of Atlantis (not Numenor, this time), and the image shared with Tolkien's work of the universe being sung into existence. There are references to Sherlock Holmes and the Bastable children, which were used by Win Scott Eckert in his Crossovers series to fit the Chronicles into his post-Farmer Wold Newton work (a context in which I've mentioned The Notion Club Papers before), but a direct Inklings-only connection will require additional research.

Friday, October 25, 2019

A Tale of Two Conans

When Conan of Cimmeria, Robert E. Howard's iconic sword-and-sorcery hero, was first being adapted to American comic books in the 1970s, the publisher - Marvel Comics, home of Spider-man, the Avengers, and a bright destiny in the movie industry - gave him a starring role in two separate magazines. The first, Conan the Barbarian, was the mainstream, all-ages title while Savage Sword of Conan was meant to be a more adult, sophisticated title. Nearly fifty years later, the Wheel of Copyright has once again brought Conan to Marvel, and while they seem to have a fairly aggressive schedule planned, the central focus is again those two titles.

Conan the Barbarian: The Life and Death of Conan Book One is the first trade collection of the former, although its family-friendliness seems suspect when practically the first time we see Conan he's in a fighting pit in the Maul decapitating his two opponents. Readers familiar with Conan may remember the Maul as being a district in the city The Tower of the Elephant took place in, and indeed the stories that make up this collection have something of a "Conan's Greatest Hits" feel to them. The stories that follow, although there's a continuing story-line with an undead witch and her creepy child minions, jump around to some of the most well-known episodes of Conan's life - one takes place immediately following Beyond the Black River, one while Conan is a pirate, another while he's king, and so on. While the stories are mostly well done, a couple of places (such as the appearance of a sharktopus) get a bit campy - the idea of King Conan and his pet lion becoming a masked vigilante in the Aquilonian capital was so ridiculous it had to have come from corporate meddling. There were some nice shout-outs to the greater Conan continuity, although this was matched by at least one timeline flub (the chapter that takes place after Beyond the Black River ends with Conan going back across the river to civilization, while in the original stories he fights his way through the wilderness to the coast and gets caught up in the plot of The Black Stranger). I also noticed a general trend, common in Conan pastiche, of giving Conan's life an air of Destiny, with everything bending towards his becoming a king. This was something that Howard managed to avoid, even though Conan was already king in his first appearance, and all the earlier stories were technically prequels.

Far less epic in scope, Savage Sword of Conan: The Cult of Koga Thun manages to seem much more complete as a story, although this is probably an unfair comparison to make with something explicitly labeled Book One. Following the well-trodden formula of Conan escaping from dire circumstances that would kill a lessor man, getting mixed up in a struggle over a fabulous treasure, and escaping into the night as everything collapses into chaos; it still manages to insert a few interesting wrinkles, such as the nature of the treasure and the involvement of the mysterious serpent-men, who are usually a Kull thing but always fun to see show up (indeed, of the various scheduled appearance of Conan tying him to the greater Marvel universe, the one I'm most interested in has the intriguing title of Conan: Serpent War). The use of magic in the story seemed heavy compared to the original Howard, what with the undead hordes and the poison that turns humans into serpent-men and the map that imprints itself onto Conan's mind, but the Cimmerian was at least properly suspicious of all of it.

In the end, although they were trying to do quite different things with the pulp-era character, both of these comics presented reasonably enjoyable takes on Conan the Barbarian. It goes without saying that the prose originals by Robert E. Howard were the best, but  once you've read all those, these make as good a continuation as you're likely to find. I did hear that the original single issues that these editions collect had a prose Conan serial in them too, and was a bit disappointed that they weren't also collected. Hopefully they'll turn up in a collection of their own at some point.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Heavy Metal History

Pictured - a sabaton.
Over the years, I've enjoyed music from a wide variety of genres and styles. Lately, I've been really into Sabaton, a metal band out of Sweden. Taking their name from the technical term for a piece of armor covering the foot, their songs, for the most part, have a historical focus to them, mostly (as you might imagine) memorializing various wars and battles.

This focus has enabled the band to engage in some interesting and unusual promotional collaborations. One such is Sabaton History, a YouTube channel hosted by popular Internet-based historian Indy Neidell that examines the background of a given songs' subjects. For example, one of my favorite Sabaton songs is "Blood of Bannockburn", about the Scottish wars for independence:

Much to my delight, the second ever episode of Sabaton History covered the song; explaining the greater historical context, the immediate tactical byplay, and even the writing of the song:

While an excellent example of the format of the show, it is a bit atypical in that subject isn't from one of the World Wars of the early 20th Century. If I have one criticism of the show, it's that it does tend to focus on that era - and to be fair, not only does it appear to be Neidell's historical specialty, but Sabaton just this summer released The Great War, an entire album of songs about that conflict.

While metal often has something of a dark reputation, and indeed neither Sabaton's songs nor their history videos shy away from the realities of war and bloodshed, they never fall into a meaningless, nihilistic glorification of violence. Much to the contrary, the subjects they choose primarily exemplify virtues like courage and faithfulness, even in the face of overwhelming odds, and ensure that the stories of these heroes - individuals and armies - are remembered for another generation.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Warriors of the Space Crusade

Picture, if you will, a crusading knight. Struck by a sudden war-weariness, he abandons the fight against the infidel and wanders into the desert, finding himself in an enemy-controlled city. There he wrestles with his newfound pacifistic desire while at the same time freeing and converting enough of the enslaved populace to kick off a full-blown revolt.

A mid-20th-century Technicolor epic? A serial novel from some long-lost historical pulp magazine? In fact, this is the general plot of Justified: The Saga of the Nano Templar, the latest novel from the most electrifying Hispanic in science fiction, Jon Del Arroz. Mixing the rather obvious historical allegory with familiar Mil-SF tropes like power armor and space navies, what comes out is a satisfying tale of equal parts derring-do and Christian philosophizing.

Yes, Christian, for despite the book seeming to take place in a galaxy far, far away with no humans whatsoever in it (although as far as I could tell Templar Drin's enemies, the Sekarans, receive no physical description that differentiates them from humans), the religion of the Elorians is basically Christianity. There are, naturally, some altered details - it's oddly Narnian in that respect - but close enough that the tension between "loving your enemy" and "protecting the innocent" echoes all too strongly with the sympathetic reader.

That tension being the main internal conflict for our Nano Templar means that he remains a very static character throughout. This provides an interesting contrast with the book's other viewpoint character, Anais, who goes from leporine party brat to defiant harem slave to revolutionary guerrilla. The nascent romance between her and Drin was, I thought, one of the book's few weak points, as it bounced hard against the Templar's vows of chastity and generally got lost in the more general swirl of Drin's search for meaning and divine goodwill. As for whether he finds it, well, I think the title of the book is a big clue here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this honest review.