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.


We Claim These Stars! by Poul Anderson (1959)

Duel Of The Space Wizards

I realize that Futurama's Zapp Brannigan is supposed to be an inept, impotent parody of characters like the hero in this book, but I just couldn't stop picturing Dominic Flandry, Captain of Terran Intelligence, as Zapp. The book opens with Flandry trying to hump the Right Noble Lady Guardian of the Mare Crisium. He's not trying because he finds her particularly attractive, no, he just wants her because he has a bet with another guy who says she won't have sex with anybody below the rank of earl. Dominic Flandry can have sex with whoever he damn well pleases! He looks so good that he even wonders on the second page if he is simply too handsome.

Dominic Flandry is the ultimate awesome dude. He can jump, unarmed, into a group of gun-toting aliens, beat them up with kung-fu kicks, and then go bang your sister. He owns a guy with a tail who flies his ship, cooks his food, and makes/picks out Flandry's fabulous wardrobe. Dominic Flandry can get himself out of any jam and unravel any mystery. He is truly a hero among men and space-men.

Flandry wants to chase around an old enemy, an evil bird man who can read minds, but his superior wants him to go see what's going on with Vixen, a human-colonized planet that had recently been attacked and taken over by a bunch of enigmatic wolf men. That jerk is always sending Flandry into dangerous situations, trying to get him killed, all because Flandry stole the guy's girlfriend one time as a joke. I mean, come on, what guy hasn't sexed up his friend's lady for the sheer hilarity of it?

The mysterious thing about the wolf men is that nobody knows where they came from. They don't seem to have come from a known planet, and all signs point to them receiving outside help with their invasion. But what dastardly entity could have sent them, and for what nefarious purpose? If there's one guy who can figure it out, clobber a few wolf guys, and save the day it's Zapp Bran... I mean Dominic Flandry.

This book is half of an Ace Double, the other half being The Planet Killers by Robert Silverberg. I didn't like We Claim These Stars! as much as I enjoyed The Planet Killers, but it was still entertaining. I think The Planet Killers alone is well worth the price of admission, but We Claim These Stars! makes this double feature is a rock solid value for the three dollars I paid.

Buy this book.


The Planet Killers by Robert Silverberg (1959)

His Mission - To Blow Up A world!

In sixty-seven years, the humanoids who live on Lurion, the fourth planet in the Betelgeuse system, will launch an all out war against our solar system. So sayeth the computer, which has done all the necessary calculations, factoring in every single variable, to learn this indellible truth. We trust the computer, so if it says Earth will be completely destroyed when the Lurions attack, we have no choice other than to pre-emptively blow up their planet.

The computer has chosen Roy Gardner to lead the covert mission to destroy Lurion. If the computer says so, he absolutely must be the right guy for the job. That is, unless the computer turns out to be wrong about who to send to do the job. Again. That's not important, though, what's important is that Lurion must be destroyed before they destroy us.

Lurion is a brutal place. The people are savage. People are stabbed in the street and left for dogs to eat. A popular form of entertainment is a performance in which Lurioni dance around the room while slicing each other with knives, perhaps culminating in the thrilling spectacle of death if the management can afford it.

Roy has his doubts about the mission, but Lurion is a brutal place, damnit, and should be destroyed even if it isn't going to attack Earth in 67 years. That's what he tells himself, but not even the intoxicating effects of khall can make him stop wondering if he's really doing the right thing.

Published in 1959, this book is surprisingly very relevent to contemporary politics, which I'd argue is the mark of some damn fine sci-fi. Politics aside, it's also got a bunch of that fun stuff: action, adventure, espionage, murder, drinking, aliens, technology, and the always popular stupid, lumbering behemoth of bueaucracy. This book is chock full of win and is one of the best reads I've had in a while.

This book is an Ace Double, so after you finish reading it, you can flip it over and read We Claim These Stars! by Poul Anderson. I've seen this book available online for prices ranging from a few bucks to more than a hundred. I scored mine in a used bookstore for three dollars.

Buy this book.

Resurrection Days by Wilson Tucker (1981)


Owen Hall, a hard-drinking, wise-cracking, womanizing carpenter from 1943 Indiana awakes to find himself in a strange world. He has a fuzzy memory of being killed by a train, but the world he is in is nothing like the afterlife he was promised in church. Instead of pearly gates and the garden of Eden, Owen finds himself in a world controlled by women, where all the other men are zombie-like mutes who ride conveyor belts to their daily jobs, which they perform without thought or feeling. Naturally, taking orders from a broad isn't exactly what a hard-drinking, wise-cracking, womanizing carpenter from 1943 Indiana wants to do, so he immediately gets to work wreaking havoc on the system: he uses the machines to make himself some booze, and then he tries his hardest to get laid while staying away from the long, pink arm of the law.

Being a guy from Indiana who enjoys the occasional drink and thinks it's funny to say "broads," Owen Hall really appeals to me. He's like the alcoholic, misogynistic uncle I never had. The key difference, though, between Owen and somebody I actually would have been related to, is that he's the likable alcoholic, misogynistic uncle I never had. Though he is always on the prowl for girls to bang, he is not without empathy towards them, and his remarks about women are always pieces of jokes, never scathing indictments of a gender.

Owen's attitudes are all part of his shtick. It's a shtick that could be entertaining in a lot of settings, but works most excellently against the backdrop of a world where women are shocked to hear a man even talk, let alone talk back. It's easy to enjoy Owen's antics and the chaos he causes as he shakes everything up, like watching somebody loosing a swarm of bees into a stuffy board room. Owen introduces sex and booze to a world that has never known the pleasure of either, and seems to delight in throwing a wrench into the works. Indeed, at one point he is supposed to be making meals in a factory, but uses the machinery to make a monkey wrench instead, and then presses the button to send it through the tubes with the rest of the food.

This ain't hard science fiction. Far from it. It is, however, a few hours of light entertainment that you don't have to try very hard at all to wrap your mind around. You could probably read it drunk, as Owen would. It's cheap, too. I found mine on the 50-cent rack on the sidewalk in front of a local bookstore.

Buy this book.