Sunday, 10 February 2019

Day of the Giants by Lester Del Rey

Like Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey's Day of the Giants is one of those books which had a powerful impact on me when I was a child, which I absolutely loved back then, which I read repeatedly and which — rare miracle — I can still read and enjoy today. These books retain their magic.

Also like Podkayne, Day of the Giants is a science fiction novel. On the surface it appears to be a heroic fantasy, or sword and sorcery tale. And there's certainly no shortage of heroes, fantasy, swords or sorcery in it. Indeed, the story largely takes place in Asgard and associated realms from Norse mythology, and is peopled with the gods from those myths.

But Lester Del Rey skilfully seeks to underpin the fantasy with attempts at rational, scientific explanation, by way of the speculations of his hero Leif Svensen, a mortal and a 20th Century Midwest American farmer who is swept up to Asgard along with his identical twin brother Lee — a far more heroic figure, a mercenary and wanderer who has the warrior temperament suited to Asgard which Leif so singularly lacks.

In fact, it was Lee Svensen who was supposed to be transported to Valhalla when he falls in battle. Only Loki's wily machinations cause Leif — who, of course, looks just like his brother — to also be picked up by the Valkyries in the confusion of combat and carried across the rainbow bridge Bifrost.

Leif is needed because Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods against the giants, draws near. And if Valhalla is to prevail they will need more than courage and brawn to carry the day. This is where Leif and his brains and scientific aptitude come in...

I said the brothers were felled in combat, but this was no grand engagement on a battlefield. It was a sordid little attack by vigilantes — Leif's farmer neighbours who had formed a lynch mob intent on killing Leif's faithful dog, Rex. This is a strikingly chilling sequence with Leif confronting "the hysteria of the mob and the ferocity of these former friends and neighbours."

"Give us that damned dog... Leif Svensen," they tell him. "This is your last chance."
 
Rex has been accused of killing livestock, a serious charge in a time of acute shortage and hardship — when in fact it was wolves who were responsible. Wolves who have come roaming in from the wild places, emboldened by the onset of the Fimbulwinter, which precedes Ragnarok, "roaring across the fertile plains of the United States... a blizzard running from Dakota clear down to Kentucky."

And it's Loki, ever the slippery manipulator, who has stirred up feeling against Rex among the locals, specifically to trigger the attack which will enable him to send Leif to Valhalla...

I forgot to mention that Rex the dog gets brought across Bifrost, too. But Del Rey himself soon forgets about Rex, and he fades from the story, which is a shame. Because he's a very cool and very brave dog. And I could have done with a bit more about him and a bit less of Leif's romance with Fulla, a shield maiden...

Del Rey's depiction of the Fimbulwinter and its catastrophic effect on the human realm is striking, not to mention rather disturbingly prophetic: "Even the Southern Hemisphere was in the grip of savage storm... The Muslim faith was sweeping over Russia and there was dark muttering of a new jehad." (Day of the Giants was published in 1959.)

However, most of the story is set not on Earth but in Asgard, where Leif finds himself drawing on the "Tattered shreds of the old Norse legends" he recalls from his childhood. At first the place strikes him as something from a "second-rate production of a Wagnerian opera... Asgard seemed badly in need of repairs."

Loki warns him, "yes, you're looking at myths — but myths with sharp teeth." 

Soon Leif is working with Asgard's contingent of dwarfs, trying to manufacture more advanced weaponry which will allow the gods to prevail against the giants, who are a memorably unpleasant bunch — All three of his mouths were drooling" — before it's too late.

Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is swiftly growing critical. "The cities were horrors now," Del Rey tells us, with chilling concision.

Lester Del Rey is an excellent writer. I particularly admire the way he roots even the most fantastical scenes in concrete physical reality. So, even as a Valkyrie is carrying him to Asgard over Bifrost on her winged steed, "Leif felt the sweat from the horse begin to soak into him, stinging sharply as it worked into his wound." 

And I just love his evocation of the most fantastical sequences, as when Leif crosses the rainbow bridge and leaves our mortal realm for the alternate dimension of Asgard: "the horse strained and something seemed to give with sticky reluctance."

Meanwhile the Valkyrie is singing a "strange shrieking set of tones" and Leif speculates, "Probably sonics had some effect on the dimensional bridge." These are wonderful details and this is imagination of a very high order.

There are also great, tumultuous, bloody action sequences, like the one in which Thor's "hammer cut the air with a scream that left a wake of steam behind it." 

And lest I seem too harsh on the pre-feminist depiction of Fulla, I should also mention that she  buckles on her mail and goes into battle instead of staying home and making meatloaf for our hero...

This is a splendid, memorable adventure story and a forgotten classic of fantasy and science fiction. And it has a lovely, uplifting ending.

(Image credits: There are very few editions of this wonderful book — one hardcover and one paperback in English, plus three foreign language versions I've discovered, and a Kindle. And the English language paperback has a dreadful cover by some artist who read no further than page 1 of the book, and misread that one, coming away with the impression that the story is about flying saucers. Luckily the original 1950 magazine version of the story featured on the cover of Fantastic Adventures magazine by Robert Gibson Jones, and a lot of its internal illustrations, also by Jones, are available online. The Avalon hardcover art by Ed Emshwiller is from Good Reads. The aforementioned disappointing paperback cover is from Nite Owl Jr. The Kindle cover is from Fantastic Fiction. The Fantastic Adventures magazine cover is from Battered, Tattered, Yellow & Creased, which features an excellent post about Del Rey's novel. The internal magazine illustrations are from diverse Pinterest saves by Josan: Page 6, Page 7, Page 36, Page 45, Page 51. The Dutch edition is from De Boekenplank. The 1993 Club Jules Verne Czech edition with the orange cover is from Antikvariát Bosorka.The 1999 Czech edition with the dark purple cover is from Anitkvariát U Kostela. The Dutch edition, which recycles the Robert Gibson Jones cover and dates from the late 1950s or early 1960s is from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.)

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin

If you'd asked me yesterday if The Boys from Brazil was one of my favourite Ira Levin novels, I would certainly have answered in the negative. 

But today, as I re-read it for the first time in many years, all bets are off. I absolutely love it.

This is the biggest surprise so far in my project of re-reading the complete works of Levin — just how great this is.

The Boys From Brazil was published in 1976 and comes after The Stepford Wives and before Sliver in the author's canon.

The book opens with a gathering of male conspirators who, smoking after-dinner cigars as they discuss a high tech agenda, strongly call to mind the sinister Men's Association in Stepford.

Levin's writing is full of acutely observed descriptions, even if it's just a Nazi hitman taking off his shoes in a Japanese restaurant. And his gift for description is as sharp as ever, as he takes us through "a steamy jangling kitchen where antique ceiling fans slowly turned." 

This is strikingly cinematic prose.

And once again Levin's ability to conjure suspense is forcefully on display: near the end of Chapter 1, my heart was in my mouth as the kid was on the phone with the tape...

As with The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil features a stunningly audacious conceit at the heart of its story. And, as with Stepford, I won't be revealing that surprise here, even thought it's widely known.

I will tell you that the plot concerns a group of dangerous Nazi fugitives in South America and a washed up Nazi-hunter called Yakov Liebermann who gets wind of a conspiracy they're hatching (by way of that tape I mentioned).

A conspiracy involving a program of mass assassination. The killings have a pattern, all similar men of a certain age, but the motive behind them initially baffles Liebermann and, one hopes, the reader...

The chief bad guy is Josef Mengele, a real-life mass murderer and a Nazi war criminal who really did escape to South America (and, as far as we know, died peacefully in bed. The bastard). 

At first I was dubious about the use of a real person — and such a person — in a work of fiction. But Mengele's behaviour and background is a crucial plot hinge.

So The Boys from Brazil begins with a mystery around which Levin proceeds to entwine a suspense thriller, like the two curving, interconnected strands of a DNA molecule.

Having Liebermann, the old Nazi hunter virtually coming out of retirement — and being regarded as a fossil and an embarrassment even by his allies — is a brilliantly compelling device.

And then Levin has Mengele leave his jungle lair, and the travels of the two men carry them towards a lethal intersection.

The book really gives the reader an emotional workout. It's incredibly frustrating when  Liebermann initially discounts a vital clue. But when he gets back on track the suspense is exquisitely unbearable.

This is a superbly constructed mystery. Levin slips in the casual mention of a name —
Frieda Maloney — early. Later, when she suddenly clicks solidly into the plot, it's sheer genius.


And Ira Levin devilishly keeps the suspense coming. At one point the Nazi cabal in South America call off their operation. But we don't want them to. Because it means the trap Liebermann is setting won't work. Diabolical Levin!  
 
It's fascinating that, as he enters the United States under a false identity, Mengele wears a neck brace as a disguise; Hannibal Lecter would use a similar ruse some decades later in Thomas Harris's masterpiece Hannibal.

Indeed, the Hannibal Lecter connections don't stop there. Mengele is a foodie and a snob ("The food... forget it"), and the scene where he purchases a knife also pre-echoes that Thomas Harris novel.

I knew that Harris was influenced by John D. MacDonald but I had no idea he was a disciple of Ira Levin. Well, it makes perfect sense. Thomas Harris writes brilliant suspense novels himself, and he couldn't have chosen a finer mentor.

In its themes of genetic manipulation and eugenics The Boys from Brazil takes us back to the world of Levin's 1970 dystopian novel This Perfect Day. With its threat of the birth of the Anti-Christ, so to speak, we're back in the world of Rosemary's Baby...


And Mengele, fiendishly dangerous in the cleverness of both his planning and his improvising, is reminiscent of Bud the cunning psychopath in A Kiss Before Dying.

(There are other resonances with Levin's oeuvre. Is it far-fetched to point out that dogs are instrumental in the finale here, the way a cat is in Sliver?)

The Boys from Brazil is a terrific tale, beautifully wrought, with the chilling symmetry of another conspiratorial meal at the end of the book, where once again an atrocity is planned to be perpetrated.

And once again it's up to poor Leibermann to stop it.
 
Simply brilliant.

(Image credits: Most of the covers are from Good Reads, where there's a wealth of international editions. Some of which, it has to be said, feature howling plot spoilers right there on the front of the book. Isn't the Chinese one wonderful, though? The French version with a rather nice cover painting, Ces Garçons qui venaient du Brésil, published by J'ai lu, is from the wittily named site NooSFere. And the French version published by Robert Laffont is from Rakuten.)

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

I can’t tell you how much I love this book. 

I first read it when I was a little kid, voraciously devouring all the science fiction in my local library. Heinlein, a master of the genre, was a firm favourite. 

I must admit that my nine year old self was a little scandalised when I found out that the Podkayne of the title was a girl...

But I kept on reading and I was soon in love with her. 

Heinlein has written a lot of outstanding books (from Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strange Land) but I’m starting to suspect this may be his best. 

Breezy, engaging, fascinating, it has a thrilling plot beneath its deceptive surface. But what really distinguishes this book are the wonderful protagonists — the beguiling teenage Podkayne...

And her bratty, prodigiously intelligent, but utterly unscrupulous little brother Clark, who is lovingly described as having "the simple rapacity of a sand gator. He'll go far — if somebody doesn't poison him."

I'm glad nobody poisons Clark... I'm beginning to regard him as one of the great characters in modern fiction. A magnificent creation.

And Heinlein is so damned funny. Such as in this throwaway moment evoking an annoying hologram trying to sell Podkayne a beverage: "Everybody drinks Hi-Ho! Soothing, Habit-Forming, Dee-lishus!"
 
But the humour in the book arises  chiefly from Podkayne herself and her observations, most often perhaps in connection with Clark...

Here she is describing her brother in her diary: "anyone who handed Clark a bribe would find that Clark had not only taken the bribe but the hand as well... Clark is not hard of hearing but he can be very hard of listening... Clark would not bother to interfere with Armageddon unless there was ten percent in it for him."

Meanwhile Clark himself purveys such aphorisms as that you "Never know when you might need a bomb."

The story is told through Podkayne's diary, with some interjections by Clark who is also writing in it, without her knowledge, in invisible ink: "I find your girlish viewpoints entertaining," he notes insultingly at one point.

Quite apart from the gorgeous humour and characterisation, Heinlein has an admirable gift for description — "I swarmed up those four decks like a frightened cat." And when Podkayne momentarily believes her brother and uncle are dead she says "I felt sudden sick sorrow."

On a lighter note she observes "quizzing Clark when he doesn't want to answer is as futile as slicing water." What a great simile.

In fact, I think Heinlein was a great writer, a genius. And he was well ahead of his time in terms of enlightened attitudes to women. While Podkayne's father is a placid academic, her mother is an engineer who was responsible for building the settlement on the Martian moon of Deimos.

Podkayne herself is also a fairly shining example of feminism — by 1960s science fiction standards. 

She wants to pilot a spaceship like the one she and Clark are on as passengers — although she does pump the Captain for information about navigation in space by "listening with my best astonished-kitten look to his anecdotes."

And then, perhaps fatally, she does announce "A baby is a lot more fun than differential equations." But at least differential equations are in the running!

And, in fairness, the scene with the babies on the space ship is pretty darned terrific, as is the whole sequence of the solar storm. (You're going to have to read the book to see what I mean — and I really do urge to read it.)

Heinlein is ahead of the curve on racial issues, too. Podkayne may be a blonde, a manifestation of the Swedish half of her ancestry, but the other half is Maori

So when her beloved uncle is described by some benighted harridans as a "big black savage" it not only springs a great surprise on the reader, it also causes Podkayne to seethe with rage, and sets her off in search of some satisfying payback.

In pursuit of which she enlists the help of Clark. He's definitely the guy you want on your team when you're plotting revenge.

But there is far more to Podkayne of Mars than that, including political intrigue, abduction and torture, and some rather heartbreaking tragedy...

I just finished reading this book again, after many years, and I’m delighted to say it stands up superbly. How marvellous that something I’ve adored ever since childhood still does not disappoint. 

(Image credits: The bulk of the covers are from Good Reads — the Italian ones are particularly nice! The NEL edition with her standing in a blue jumpsuit, a rocket behind her, is from Ceredigion Bookshop via ABE. The Berkley edition with the white cover and the Paul Lehr cover art is from my own collection.)

Sunday, 20 January 2019

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin

After Ira Levin's longest novel, This Perfect Day, comes his shortest — The Stepford Wives is more a novella in length, but it is perfectly judged and doesn't need a single word more to accomplish its effect, which is explosive and quite stunning.

The book immediately feels like a companion piece to A Kiss Before Dying and Rosemary's Baby — there is a powerful sense of continuity here in its depiction of women being victimised by men. 

It is closer to Rosemary's Baby, though, since again we have here a tight narrative focused on a central female character who is the protagonist of the story, and its prime victim.

Indeed, the general contours of the plot of The Stepford Wives closely follow that of Rosemary's Baby — a couple move to a new place, the man is drawn into a group from which the woman is excluded, and becomes part of a sinister plot being hatched against her.

In other ways it's dramatically different, though. Here we have the suburbs versus the city (ironically, one reason Joanna Eberhart has left New York City for Stepford, Connecticut, is because she thinks it will be safer); science fiction versus supernatural horror; and a mother who is run off her feet looking after two kids versus a young woman dreaming of starting a family.

Also, Joanna's husband Walter is an attorney, not an actor like Rosemary's husband Guy — although arguably that makes both of them trained and professional liars.

Initially Stepford is idyllic: "The day was vivid and gem-edged, a signal of autumn," and Joanna and Walter are soon sitting on the porch of their new house at the end of the day savouring the "cool blue dusk twanging with crickets."

Then Walter disappears to visit a male neighbour and Joanna crosses her the lawn as night comes on, to invite the housewife next door over for coffee. "'Thanks, I'd like to,' Carol said, 'but I have to wax the family-room floor.'"
 
At night? thinks Joanna, experiencing the first tremor of the strangeness of Stepford...

A strangeness which will come to centre on the Men's Association with its high fence — "'To keep women out.'" Joanna wisecracks, not realising she's stumbled on a deep, dark truth.

"'I like to watch women doing little domestic chores," is the chilling remark of one Dale Coba. ("'You came to the right town,'" replies our spunky heroine.) 
 
Coba is president of the Men's Association, and like Guy in Rosemary's Baby, or Bud in A Kiss Before Dying, he's the smiling, self-regarding psychopath who won't hesitate to make a woman his victim.

Near the end of the book Joanna is invited to visit the Men's Association and inspect its premises. She says, "'I wouldn't set foot in there without an armed guard... Of women soldiers.'"

 
The Stepford Wives is simultaneously rivettingly sinister and laugh-out-loud funny — one hell of an accomplishment — as Joanna begins to realise just how odd Stepford is.

"'This is Zombieville!'" announces her new friend Bobbie, who has also come to realise, "'Something fishy is going on here! We're in the Town That Time Forgot!'"

But that's before Bobbie becomes one of them...

The Stepford Wives is plotted so deftly and with such precision that it's awe inspiring. The unravelling of a terrifying conspiracy is cunningly layered among the domestic trivia of everyday family life.

Stephen King is right when he says "Levin is the Swiss watchmaker of the suspense novel."

Levin is also the master of the subtle, potent little moment, such as Walter hesitating to kiss Bobbie after she's undergone her transformation, like Guy avoiding Rosemary after the devil has had her — he knows what has been done.

Towards the end of the book the suspense becomes unbearable as Joanna makes a determined attempt to leave Stepford and her husband digs in his heels. My stomach ached with sympathy for her plight. Indeed I grew so angry I had to put the book down.

But you can be damned sure I picked it up again and read hungrily to the end.

I don't want to specify the exact nature of the threat against Joanna, although right on page 1 of the edition I read, the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk let's the cat out of the bag (as do some of the covers of the foreign language editions I researched for illustrating this post).

Whether or not you already know the dark secret of Stepford and its Men's Association, I urge you to read this perfectly crafted short novel. It is an exquisitely rendered masterpiece of suspense — and also a scalding piece of social criticism which is, sadly, as relevant as ever.

(Image credits: The British hardback Michael Joseph edition, with an excellent black and white photo by John Evans, and the American hardcover with the Paul Bacon painting of nine women's faces, are both scanned from my own library. The others covers I pillaged from a healthy selection — though, as noted, some contain outrageous spoilers — at Good Reads.)

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

It's hard to believe I'd never read this before, but H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is so pervasive in our culture that it seems intimately familiar even if you've never opened the cover of the book.

This is a tale told through the agency of a first person narrator who remains nameless. (I know a thing or two about this approach, since it's exactly the one I take with my own Vinyl Detective novels.) Indeed, most of the characters in this book are nameless, being defined instead by their job — the servant, the artilleryman, the curate, etc.

Wells is highly visual writer. And highly effective. Here is the second Martian ship landing: "a star fell from heaven into the pine woods to the northwest. It had a greenish colour, and caused a silent brightness like summer lightning."

And as the Martians burn a village they send a "smoky red flame leaping up above the houses... against the hot, blue sky." 

One of the really striking things about the book is the complacent normality of the humans — everybody going about their business as if nothing is wrong — which precedes the big Martian attack. Wells brilliantly achieves a contrast between the strangeness and savagery of the alien invasion with the peace and normality it disturbs.

Strangeness and savagery indeed. Wells describes the Martian heat ray as "this flaming death, this invisible, inevitable sword of heat." And the troops approaching the Martians are "simply swept out of existence." Then the alien invaders attack human populations with their black smoke — a lethal gas —  “as men might smoke out a wasps’ nest.”

This is an accomplished and surprising novel — surprising because it focuses as much on the repercussions of the Martian invasion as on the invaders themselves. Most of the book, and certainly the most powerful scenes, concern the chaos and panic and flood of refugees caused by the advance of the Martians, long before the Martians themselves arrive on the scene.
 
(The 2005 Spielberg movie version, scripted by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, was distinctive because it emphasised this aspect of Wells' book.)

The collapse of social order here is horrific and striking: "the police... were breaking the heads of the people they were called out to protect ... my brother... had the luck to be foremost in the sack of a cycle shop."

Incidentally, the brother who loots the bicycle is an inspired device. By giving his narrator in the countryside this sibling in London, Wells neatly doubles his narrative possibilities and expands his locations.

Which brings us to another of the novel's great strengths, setting each horrific vignette of the invasion in an authentic locale — the use of real place names adds immeasurably to the impact: "the burning country towards Chobham... Regent's Canal, a spongy mass of dark-red vegetation... By midday a Martian had been seen at Barnes." (I live near Barnes!)

It's amazing how quickly civilization falls apart, with looting everywhere and ruthless profiteers ferrying refugees across the English Channel — for a steep price. Victorian readers must have been scandalised at this (no doubt accurate) forecast of what would happen in such a situation.

The Martians' progress is relentless, terrifying, an unstoppable advance — and they just keep on landing reinforcements. In this, and many other respects, the book is engrossingly and vividly and powerfully written.

It's 90 pages before some soldiers finally — and very briefly — score a hit with their artillery against the invaders"The shell burst clean in the face of the Thing. The hood bulged, flashed, was whirled off in a dozen tattered fragments of red flesh and glittering metal ... The decapitated colossus reeled like a drunken giant." 

This sequence provides a tremendous emotional release for the reader after all the endless defeats and atrocities inflicted by the Martians on us humans. But it's short lived... fighting the invaders with our weapons is like "bows and arrows against the lightning," as the artilleryman remarks, bleakly and accurately.

In case you're not familiar with this brilliant novel, I won't give away the ultimate secret of the Martian's defeat.

But I will mention the savage satisfaction I felt about reading about the fallen Martians being eaten by dogs and birds — "the gnawed gristle of the Martian that the dogs had left... shreds of brown, at which the hungry birds pecked and tore."

Even after the invasion has been stopped and the last invader is dead, the Martians continue to exert a threat, though. The attempts by human scientists to learn the secrets of their weapons results in "the terrible disasters at the Ealing and South Kensington laboratories." 

This is a fabulous and frightening book.

(Image credits: The wonderful Edward Gorey cover is from my own library. If you're looking for a copy to read I'd highly recommend this handsome, strikingly illustrated pocket-sized hardcover edition published by New York Review Books. All the other images are from Good Reads where I found a greater choice of covers than I've ever seen for any other book. I've hardly scratched the surface of this treasure hoard with my selection here. I particularly like the vintage 1954 Pocket Book with its George Pal movie cover and the wildly irrelevant H.R. Giger-style sexy Greek one.)