Today's finds

I got a few books today from the 50 cent rack on the sidewalk outside of a local bookstore. There were more I wanted to get, but I figured I have enough to keep me going for a while. I spotted an Ace Double and got excited for a moment, but was disappointed that it was a couple western novels instead of sci-fi ones. I was about to give it a shot, but there were too many other things that caught my eye.

Here's what I got:
  • Jandar of Callisto by Lin Carter (1972) - As I typed that name, I remembered it from that Conan book I didn't really like. There are some cool flying ships and futuristic buildings on the cover, though, so it shouldn't be as mundane as Conan was.
  • The Peace-Makers by Curtis W. Casewit (1968) - The cover says "A young scientist is the last barrier between a madman's weapon and the end of the world."
  • Microcosmic God edited by Sam Moskowitz (1965) - This is an anthology of "Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction", but it's not so modern. I love the old stuff.
  • The Stars Are Too High by Agnew H. Bahnson, JR. (1959) - This is about a machine built for world domination. Awesome.
  • The Sun Grows Cold by Howard Berk (1971) - Mario Puzo called it, "The most chilling thriller since The Andromeda Strain". I haven't read The Andromeda Strain or The Godfather". I've seen the movie version the latter, and I liked it. I guess that really isn't helpful to me. The title reminds me of the movie Sunshine.
I still have other books I haven't read in my book pile, so I don't know when I'll read these. Some probably soon, others maybe later, but there will probably be forthcoming reviews of these.


The Closed Circle by Barney Parrish (1976)


In sixth grade, I had a teacher who hated me because I played Dungeons and Dragons, which meant that I worshiped Satan. In seventh grade, a kid wanted to beat me up for the very same reason. In eleventh grade I got called to the office and was accused of being in a Satanic cult because somebody had drawn an anarchy sign on something I had. And in twelfth grade, people got pissed off at me because I told a pregnant girl that it was really stupid to believe that Satanists were going to kill her baby and turn it into baby-wax candles if she didn't get it immediately baptized, as her backwoods preacher had lead her to believe.

Satan has long been one of my favorite fictional characters. I'm a big fan of monsters, and Satan is like King Monster. Evil incarnate. He's not nearly as cool as Cthulhu, but he does have one thing going for him that no Lovecraft monster has: people are freaking terrified of him. In real life. Not only are they afraid of the Devil himself, they're afraid of his followers that supposedly walk among us, secretly performing rituals, casting spells, sacrificing things, and rolling special evil dice that have 20 sides. Like the cults that worship Cthulhu, though, these cults just don't exist. There aren't any secret groups dedicated to worshipping Satan, meeting in basements lit with black candles, drinking blood, and killing things. Nobody who believes in the Christian Devil wants anything to do with him. Real "Satanists" aren't scary at all, and they usually stop calling themselves that around the same time they stop shopping at Hot Topic.

The fear of Satan and his followers has lead to their inclusion in countless books, stories, and movies. Sometimes the stories are great, like The Exorcist, but sometimes they're not so great, like The Closed Circle. The book was published by Playboy Press, which lead me to believe that it was either erotica or good literature, which is what they're known for, but it turned out to be surprisingly low grade. I'm glad I only paid 30 cents for it.

The Closed Circle is a Satanic cult that consists of a bunch of rich people. They're like a reverse Charles Manson cult, in which rich celebrities kill poor runaways instead of the other way around. They even mention Manson in one of their rituals. The group is able to remain a secret until a woman begins to have visions of them. She also gets really horny, which is why she is committed to a mental hospital. The doctors are just like the doctors in real life, except that they immediately start seriously considering whether something paranormal is happening. Fortunately, they get a faith healer to help her. A real faith healer.

As an avid reader of speculative fiction, I'm used to suspending disbelief. Really, if I can accept the Satan stuff and the psychic stuff in this book, I should be able to accept the rest. After all, the book doesn't take place in the real world, it takes place in the magical world of The Closed Circle. That might be the problem, though. For a story like this to be effective, it should take place in a world as close to ours as possible, but as the unrealistic elements pile up the story moves further and further away from the real world. By the end of the book, The Closed Circle is no longer scary, they're just another set of characters in a phony world.

Despite its flaws, The Closed Circle is not boring. There's plenty of action, and it's well paced. It doesn't really work as a horror story, but it's alright for a supernatural suspense story. It probably would have worked better in a different format, like a cartoon or comic book. Overall, it's really not a terrible book, it's just not good.

Buy this book.


The Man Who Lived Forever by R. DeWitt Miller and Anna Hunger (1956)


A couple of years ago, I watched a terrifying documentary on PBS about how we're all going to die from global warming, the impending magnetic pole reversal, food shortages, water shortages, pandemics, an ice age, and some other scary crap the Earth is going to try to rid itself of the disease we call humanity. The documentary discussed some of the plans people have been coming up with to try to avoid catastrophe, but also included a grim warning that nothing is ever going to work at all because a long term strategy would be necessary, and politicians only care about the short terms they spend in office. Of course, people have historically always believed that they were living in the end times, and the idea that we're all out of luck because of the short terms of politicians isn't terribly new, either. The authors of The Man Who Lived Forever certainly considered the latter issue, as the titular character of the book has learned to circumvent the problem by living forever and becoming the eternal leader of the world. Having a perspective far grander than any short-lived mortal, the Master, as he is cryptically known, has solved all of mankind's problems, enabling everybody to live happy, carefree lives in a peaceful world. That is, until a mysterious sickness threatens to wipe out the human race, and neither the Master nor his Council of World Scientists know how to stop it.

I sometimes consider what it would be like to live forever. It seems like it might be kind of sweet, until you realize that if you were immortal, you'd have to watch every single person you ever care about die. This alone should make the prospect unbearable to anybody who isn't a sociopath, but perhaps death gets easier to deal with as you grow older, and, by logical extension, much easier to deal with if you live forever. This isn't the case for the Master, however, and when his current wife is struck with the sickness, he is devastated at the thought of losing her sooner than he would otherwise. He is so distraught that he agrees to give his secret of immortality to the mysterious Dr. Everling if he is able to cure the sickness, as he claims he is able to.

To further complicate things for the Master, his wife is dying just as he is about to be rejuvenated with the sacrifice of a randomly chosen World Scientist. Korson, the selected life donor, wants the Master to use his millennium of study to teach him philosophy in his final week of life. The Master agrees, but then Korson's life (and death) is further complicated when he begins to fall for Tarmo, Dr. Everling's ward.

I thought this was a really good book. It's a straight forward science fiction story, and though the story or writing don't get terribly deep, the content provides plenty of fodder for thought. It's easy to spend a few hours reading the book, and then twice as long considering the questions about life and death that are presented with it. Often good science fiction, and good fiction in general, forces one to think about stuff, and that is certainly the case with The Man Who Lived Forever. If you're not feeling terribly introspective, though, it's still a good read just for the story. Plus, it's an Ace Double, so after you finish reading it, you can flip it over and read The Mars Monopoly by Jerry Sohl. I haven't read that one yet, but The Man Who Lived Forever has already made this book worth the couple bucks I spent on it.

Buy this book.


The Pyramids from Space by Jack Bertin (1970)

Like a fisherman throwing out a lobster net, the mysterious power from outer space sent the pyramids - to catch Earthmen

Oh man, do I love the 50 cent rack. Both of the used bookstores within walking distance of me have 50 cent racks outside, and I think they're completely awesome. A room full of used sci-fi books is great, but a little overwhelming. Faced with too many options, I end up with absolutely no idea what to choose, and I just stare at the shelves, doing little more than sucking up the intoxicating aroma of old books. With the 50 cent racks, it's simple: if it's old sci-fi, I probably want it. Fifty cents for a few hours of entertainment is a practically unbeatable value; you would be hard pressed to find its equal in the world of movies, video games, drugs or porn. I'll start visiting the theatre more when the tickets cost roughly 15 cents per hour, but until then I'll lay on the couch reading cheap sci-fi.

To help illustrate the awesomeness of the 50 cent science fiction book, I'm going to compare The Pyramids from Space to the movie Stargate. Like Stargate, The Pyramids from Space is a story about humans transported by means of a strange device to a planet on the other side of the galaxy that is, for some reason, inhabited by ancient Egyptians. Stargate is 10 bucks on DVD, 20 bucks if you want it on Blu-ray. The movie is two hours long, so it costs roughly 5 bucks an hour to see (10 bucks if you want to see it on Blu-ray). Your mileage may vary, but I read the book in about two or three hours, and it was only 50 cents. Since you can read this, I'll assume you're also capable of doing basic math.

Of course, enjoyment of a work of fiction or its medium is entirely subjective. Some people love to see special effects, and some people just don't like reading. For some reason, my short attention span works better with words than with moving pictures and sounds, maybe because I can set my own pace. And I've just never really liked Kurt Russel.

For fans of written science fiction, The Pyramids from Space is a good, light read. It's not terribly deep or meaningful, and is more fantastic than hard sci-fi, but it's entertaining the whole way through. There aren't really any slow parts to the story, and the short chapters tend to end with cliffhangers. I found myself deciding to read "just one more chapter" a few times, which I take as an indicator of a good book.

Were I to be faced with the choice of either Stargate or The Pyramids from Space, I would choose the latter. Not only is a better deal in terms of dollars, but it has dinosaurs, gangsters, and a Roman army. You have to use your imagination to enjoy it, but you don't have to imagine any of the characters are Kurt Russel. That is, unless you really want to, in which case you could even make all the characters look like Kurt Russel. Either way, I liked this book.

Buy this book.


Gone to be Snakes Now by Neal Bell (1974)

The mutant planet held the key to Earth's violent past - and its shocking destiny

Sometimes a book sucks because there are too many holes in the plot. Sometimes a book sucks because it's boring. Sometimes a book sucks because the characters are utterly hateable and nothing bad happens to them. Sometimes a book sucks because it's too long. And sometimes a book sucks because the whole thing is pure, unadulterated, crazy talk.

The cover of Gone to be Snakes Now, with its crazy, colorful patterns coming out of an old guy's face, seems to imply that there will be some psychedelic stuff in the book. The nonsensical title of the book perhaps increases this implication. It's possible that the author banged the whole 158 pages out during an acid trip or some such, though I don't know how one would remain focused enough to keep writing while under the influence of a psychedelic drug. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Maybe if I was a 15-year old high school stoner I would love this book. Maybe I'd say, "Yeah, man, this book is really sweet, the author was tripping, man. Yeah, man, drugs!" Maybe I'd be able to look past the random and constant changes in perspective and tense, non-sequiturs, nonsense and general crazy talk. Maybe I'd be willing to spend enough time to more clearly decipher the narrative. And maybe I'd be a stupid high school stoner who likes stuff for stupid reasons.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. It's possible that this book has a wider appeal, maybe with people who are really into poetry or something. I don't know. People who are into writers like William S. Burroughs might dig this book. Personally, I prefer reading words once, quickly, and immediately understanding what they mean.

This book has a dreamlike quality, and maybe the whole thing is supposed to be a dream rather than a drug trip. To get through the whole thing, I certainly had to treat it like a dream. I just sped through it as if I were reading a book written in plain English, understanding only the words that made sense and ignoring the rest, as if they were just the meaningless details of a dream.

Underneath all the crazy talk, there is a story. It's about a kid named Walter who lives in a secluded valley that nobody ever leaves. Supplies for the towns are mysteriously deposited near a lake to be distributed and embezzled by the elders. Everybody has a set date of death. People are terrified of a cave monster called the Borg (unrelated and not nearly as cool as the Borg in Star Trek). Walter hears that there is life outside of the valley, and so embarks on a journey through desert and jungle to see what's out there.

I'm sure there is a lot of symbolism in this book. The whole thing is probably symbolic of something or other. Symbolism in science fiction can be a great thing, but I'm unwilling to root through mountains of crazy talk to find it.

Buy this book.


Conan the Liberator by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter (1979)

I was at a garage sale a couple of years ago, and I found a few boxes of assorted science fiction books. There was a whole box full of Conan books, but I didn't buy any, instead opting to just grab a few books about adventures in space. I later wished I had bought the lady's whole collection of books, including the Conan ones. When I recently found a few Conan books at a used bookstore, I figured it was time to give the famous barbarian a shot. I grabbed the cheapest one. The cover, which wrapped around the back and folded out in the front, was of Conan sitting upon a throne, armed with a sword, dagger, and axe, while mostly naked women adore him from the floor. A woman prostrating herself at Conan's feet seems to be in pain, and one could only guess that Conan had ravaged her moments before he sat back down on his big chair with his weapons, looking kind of pissed off for a guy in such a situation.

I don't read a lot of fantasy. I'm more of a spaceships and aliens sort of guy. There is one thing I love about fantasy, though: monsters. I love the fanged things that come out at night to terrorize townspeople. I love the slimy, stinky abominations that hunger for your face. I love the ghouls that lurk in the shadows and the demons that haunt the sky. I love tentacle-faced leviathans that wait, dreaming, beneath the sea.

Conan the Liberator encounters none of these creatures. Were it not for a brief appearance of some satyrs and the evil wizard Conan is up against, this story could have taken place in the mundane world. I envisioned a savage, solitary brute hacking and slashing his way through hordes of fearsome beasts; I got a well respected army general, leading his army, battling, regrouping, and then repeating the process until the end of the book. Along the way, there were convenient illustrations for those of us who have a hard time imagining things like swords.

I guess if I were interested in military strategy, this book would have been awesome. Instead, I found the cyclical events of the story tedious, and the lack of monsters appalling. Granted, I may have been setting myself up for disappointment by waiting for monsters the whole way through, but I just didn't enjoy this book all that much, and I imagine I'll have forgotten it by the time I read a few more books.

Ultimately, I think the lesson to be learned from Conan the Liberator is that when hastily selecting books by cover and price, I need to remember to only buy fantasy books with monsters on the cover.

Buy this book.


Planet of the Gawfs by Steve Vance (1978)

It was the ash heap of the galaxy - a world of mutants, misfits and genetic mistakes!

I'm a sucker for a good sci-fi book cover. Aliens, futuristic weaponry, space ships, monsters, and chicks are all signs of what might be a kickass book. When I found Planet of the Gawfs, I knew I had probably found a winner. How could I go wrong with a book that features on its cover a monkey man with a space gun shooting a lizard man to protect a scared chick while a spaceship floats in the background? At 50 cents, I knew as soon as I saw it that I was going to buy it.

There turned out to be a problem with the cover, though. I read the book, waiting for the scene where a monkey man with a space gun shoots a lizard man to protect a scared chick while a spaceship floats in the background. It never happened. My guess is that the publisher didn't want to commission some artwork, so they just picked something that kind of worked. That isn't the problem with the cover, though. It's a sweet cover, and the main character is a super strong mutant who grows thick hair all over his body, fitting the description of the monkey man on the cover. No, the real problem with the cover is the suspicious brown smear I found on the inside. I was careful to avoid touching it.

According to the prologue, in 1997, the earth was hit by a mysterious plague that wiped out most of population. Some people who got the plague survived, but their children started being born with various deformities and super powers. An anti-mutant campaign began, with a powerful politician declaring "God's blueprint only!" These Gawfs, short for "God-awful freaks", were soon rounded up en masse and shipped to a planet called Thear to live out their lives with their own kind.

If this sounds familiar, it might be because it's a lot like the Marvel Comics universe, where funny-looking mutants with super powers are misunderstood and hated by much of the general population. While I was reading it, I kept thinking that Planet of the Gawfs could easily be a comic book. It's very fast-paced, with action happening almost of the time, and it's full of weird-looking mutants who have various powers and do a lot of fighting.

Eli, the hero of our tale, was long able to blend in with the humans by shaving his whole body and capping his fangs. When he used his superhuman strength to save a friend, though, his friend turned him in, and off to Thear he was sent. Life on Thear turned out to be nasty, brutish, and short, with monsters that want to eat you and savage tribes that want to kill you (and maybe eat you). Eli, along with a motley crew of strongmen, monkeymen, four-armed dudes, ten inch tall chicks and other mutants, want nothing more than to escape the planet and seek justice. And so off on the adventure we go.

There's so much cool stuff jammed into this book. There are gun battles, fisticuffs, monsters, evil government dudes, space puking, psychosis, and a guy who can transfer your mind into the body of a pig, just to name some. At only 173 pages, Planet of the Gawfs has a pretty high cool stuff to page ratio. It's also got a sweet cool stuff to dollar ratio.

If there's one good lesson to take away from this book, it's that you can't judge a person by their appearance or super power. If there's another lesson, it's that you can sometimes judge a book by its cover, especially if it's got something like a monkey man with a space gun shooting a lizard man to protect a scared chick while a spaceship floats in the background.

Buy this book.