Thursday, December 27, 2012

I without a Face

'V' for Vendetta: written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd (1981-89; collected 1990): Now that V's Guy Fawkes mask has been appropriated by both the Occupy movement and Anonymous, it's getting hard to remember what a violent, anarchic fellow Alan Moore and David Lloyd's original character was. The dystopia of the graphic novel is about ten times worse than that seen in the movie adaptation, and V himself (herself? itself?) ten times more violent and ten times more problematically justified in that violence.

The story started life in the pages of England's Warrior comic magazine in the early 1980's, alongside Moore's other early opus Marvelman (aka Miracleman). If Miracleman was Moore's push-the-limits take on Superman, then V was his Batman: a Batman fighting a dystopic future Britain that strongly resembled the world of George Orwell's 1984. A Batman whose true face and true identity remain forever hidden from the characters in the story and from readers as well. When you put on a mask, you become a symbol.

Moore was initially reacting to the heightening nuclear tensions of the early Reagan/Thatcher era, and to the ruthless economic and social policies of those two genial abominations. The dystopia of the graphic novel is a Great Britain that avoided direct nuclear conflict thanks to its Labour Government severing all nuclear ties with the United States in the 1980's.

The U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. are presumably smoking, irradiated ruins. Great Britain fell into chaos and was soon under the control of a far-right party which now rules with an iron fist and a hatred of civil liberties and anyone different. There are no non-white ethnic groups left in this Great Britain; gays and lesbians have also been exterminated or forced underground.

And so rises V, a mysterious, anarchic freedom fighter who possesses the improbable fighting and planning skills of Batman and the homicidal justice-seeking of the Shadow. Also, he loves Motown music and Thomas Pynchon. He's Anarchy personified, set against Fascism. And he knows he's a monster, which makes him oddly sympathetic, and the ending quite moving. Moore has given him some of the qualities of Mary Shelley's hyper-educated Creature in Frankenstein.

The reactions to the book have been quite telling over the years -- this is, ultimately, a book with a terrorist as its protagonist. But he's a terrorist fighting a terrorist government, a monster set against monsters. And Moore is fairly clear throughout that V's violence isn't to be romanticized, and that there must a price, a price V knows. Having lost his essential humanity at some point, V fights now to allow people the Free Will to choose their own humanity. But Moses cannot enter the Promised Land.

In any case, this book remains thrilling and bracing today, and perhaps even more relevant in a world of perpetual war with shadowy terrorist groups. David Lloyd's moody art hits the right notes, though the book would be better if the entire thing was done in the Black and White of its early Warrior episodes: colour really does nothing to improve Lloyd's art, and indeed somewhat mutes it at points. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Norma Jean Agonistes

My Week with Marilyn: adapted by Adrian Hodges from writings by Colin Clark; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams (Marilyn Monroe), Eddie Redmayne (Colin Clark), Kenneth Branagh (Laurence Olivier), Judi Dench (Sybil Thorndyke) and Julia Ormond (Vivien Leigh) (2011): The major attraction of this enjoyable little film is the portrayal of Marilyn Monroe by Michelle Williams. Williams doesn't really look like Monroe, even made up to do so, but she absolutely nails the film's portrait of the troubled actress, helping to make her a fascinating character first and an actual real person being portrayed on film second.

The rest of the film -- ostensibly based on the experiences of 23-year-old 3rd-assistant-director Colin Clark while making The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood Studios in 1956 -- is a bit of a self-congratulatory piffle, especially in the second half. Colin Clark turns out to be the only person in the world who understands Marilyn, and they have a week-long platonic romance during the shooting of the film (directed by and starring Laurence Olivier). Did they really? Well, all the people who could have confirmed Clark's version of things were dead by the time he published his first account of these events, so make of that what you will.

Technically, this is a mainstream version of science-fiction fandom's Mary Sue plot device, in which a character based on the writer saves everybody in a piece of fan fiction set (originally) in the Star Trek universe. Oh, go look it up.

But regardless of how 'true' the movie is, the only real problems with this particular Mary Sue plot lie in the opacity and superior smugness of Colin Clark. As he's in every scene, Clark's nobly disingenuous upper-class savoir-faire gets a bit wearing after awhile, especially when the movie switches from the light comedy of its first half to an exploration of Marilyn's problems with her handlers, publicity, acting, Olivier, Arthur Miller, drugs, alcohol, family history, and assorted other things in the second half.

Everyone in the world except Colin Clark is against her! Imagine that, in a movie based on autobiographical material by Colin Clark...except that Clark's real-life observations about Monroe were much less flattering, though much of the film's story still comes from the book versions of Clark's diaries. Two books, in fact. Because Marilyn Monroe can make people money.

Among the other players, Kenneth Branagh is delightful as Laurence Olivier (whom he resembles not in the slightest), as are Julia Ormond as Olivier's then-wife Vivien Leigh and Judi Dench as British acting legend Sybil Thorndike (Dench, who first met the late Thorndike in 1958, observed that My Week with Marilyn gets Thorndike's kindness to younger actors pretty much spot on). In the small sub-genre of Movies Like This, My Week with Marilyn is inferior to My Favourite Year and Me and Orson Welles, but still enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


JLA: Another Nail: written and pencilled by Alan Davis, inked by Mark Farmer (2004): Alan Davis's alternate-world Justice League storyline continues here a year after the events of The Nail. Superman is gradually becoming accustomed to life in the outside world, a horribly wounded Green Arrow continues to rail against superheroes in the media, and Something Bad appears to be invading the universe.

Davis' art is great, very much in the tradition of Neal Adams, but with a distinctiveness all his own. And the story is epic without losing sight of small character moments -- it would be the perfect superhero comic book from 1985. Indeed, the basis for the continuity of the book is the 1980's pre-Crisis DC Universe with a few added flourishes.

Davis also comes up with an explanation for the existence of the ridiculously powerful JLA foe Amazo that's so perfect, it should be canonical. DC really needs to package this up with The Nail in a Deluxe edition. It looks terrific, it reads beautifully, and Davis' JLA is a lot more charming and interesting than what we get from the normal title these days. Recommended.

Blue World

Blue World: written by Robert R. McCammon: containing "Yellowjacket Summer", "Makeup", "Doom City", "Nightcrawlers", "Yellachile's Cage", "I Scream Man!", "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door", "Chico", "Night Calls the Green Falcon", "Pin", "The Red House", "Something Passed by" and "Blue World" (1981-89; collected 1989): Superior collection of Robert McCammon's 1980's non-novel-length work (though the title story is nearly the length of a short novel). The collection encompasses psychological, science-fictional, and supernatural horror, along with two works of suspense ("Blue World" and "Night Calls the Green Falcon").

One of the standouts is "Nightcrawlers," filmed for an episode of the 1980's Twilight Zone revival. A Viet Nam veteran walks into a highway diner, and bad things happen. It's an excellent bit of science-fictional horror, and also seems to be the precursor to a novel that never materialized.

Many of the other stories are set in McCammon's home-state of Alabama, generally in small towns you really don't want to visit ("Yellowjacket Summer," "He'll Come Knocking at Your Door," and "Something Passed By."). The latter is an extremely effective bit of Cthulhuesque cosmic horror that dwells on the effects of a dimensional incursion without worrying about the how, why, or who.

"Night Calls the Green Falcon" is another stand-out that would make a terrific movie. An aging, forgotten, and psychologically damaged former star of a children's superhero serial about crimefighter the Green Falcon finds himself dropped into a real-life mystery that he initially has no real desire to tackle.

But tackle it he does, sometimes literally, dressed in the faded remnants of his movie costume. The story strikes a nice balance between the childish idealism of the superhero and the realities of the real world that's much more heart-breaking (and ultimately heart-warming) than the vast majority of adult superhero comics of the last thirty years.

Finally, there's the title novella, a plunge into a hard-boiled world of porn, sex, and serial killers with a Roman Catholic priest and a strangely innocent female porn star as its two protagonists. It verges on hard-core at points, but it's ultimately a story about conventional and unconventional morality set in San Francisco's famous Tenderloin district. McCammon's deft third-person narration is really on display here as the narrative moves seamlessly from the thoughts and actions of one character to another and another and then back again. Recommended.

The Aniston Effect

Wanderlust: written by David Wain and Ken Marino; directed by David Wain; starring Paul Rudd (George Gergenblatt), Jennifer Aniston (Linda Gergenblatt), Justin Theroux (Seth), and Alan Alda (Carvin) (2012): Some day, years from now, someone will write a computer program that will remove Jennifer Aniston from all movies not entitled Horrible Bosses or The Good Girl and replace her with someone funnier. Anyone funnier.

Actually, funnier isn't even necessary: we just need someone who isn't a black hole that devours all laughs when the camera is on her. Her film career is only rivalled by Ed Helms' last two seasons on The Office, in which he's become The Man Where Laughs Go To Die. It's as if the two of them somehow generate a malign radiation known as Unlaughter.

Wanderlust comes from many of the same writers and directors and actors who gave us the brilliant Wet Hot American Summer, a fine parody of pretty much every teen movie cliche. Here, they're a little hamstrung by the dictates of a conventional narrative, though there are still some satisfyingly bizarre moments. Also, you know, Aniston.

Paul Rudd and Aniston play a down-on-their-luck New York couple who, through various misadventures, end up staying the night at Elysium, a hippie commune turned bed-and-breakfast near Atlanta. Things seem much more appealing there than back in the real world, so they end up joining the commune. And things get wacky. Well, they already are wacky -- David Wain and Ken Marino love the wacky. Wackier. Things get wackier.

There are a few dead moments not caused by Jennifer Aniston, along with a final plot twist that requires one character to suddenly become a hypocritical jerk without any development of said jerkiness. The cast is a lot of fun, the movie's nice and short, and there's a weirdly compelling sub-plot involving a nudist who's written a political thriller. If only Jennifer Aniston were not the female lead! Lightly recommended.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Submarine Zombie Nazis Must Die!

The Night Boat by Robert R. McCammon (1980): This enjoyable, overstuffed, pulpy as all get-out early novel from McCammon gives us a World War Two U-Boat filled with undead Nazis terrifying a Caribbean Island in the late 1970's after the explosion of an old depth charge releases the U-Boat from its burial beneath tons of sand on the ocean floor.

One of McCammon's strengths throughout his career has been the density of his inventiveness in his novels -- stuff just keeps on happening even when it doesn't necessarily build from anything or to anything. Here, that density gives us three Ahabs in search of their great black-hulled Nazi whale, one of them suddenly appearing with about 60 pages to go. It also gives us a former Nazi Ishmael who shows up and then has almost nothing to do. Was this novel edited down from a much longer manuscript? I wonder.

Anyway, an expariate American scuba diver with a tragic past which will, of course, become a vital part of the story's machinery is compelled to unearth the submarine that's lain on the sea floor since 1942. It's the same sub that shelled the small Caribbean island of Coquina during World War Two before being sent to its apparent death by several sub-chasers and a lot of depth charges. But rise it does, to the astonishment of all, whereupon it drifts into the harbour and gets stuck on a reef. So the good people of Coquina elect to tow it into an abandoned military dock despite the fact that the sub managed to kill one fisherman during its trek into the harbour.

And from within the decades-sealed that the sound of someone pounding with a hammer? Well, let's open it up and find out!

Did I mention that Voodoo plays a role as well? Of course it does. And undead zombie Nazis with an unquenchable thirst for blood and the ability to use tools. They can smash you with a hammer or fix a submarine. These are not your garden-variety stupid zombies. They have an ethos, and it's called National Socialism!

All in all, The Night Boat is a wild romp that pays off on enough plot threads to be pretty thoroughly enjoyable. McCammon would write much better novels, but no more enjoyable ones on the basic level of pulp melodrama. Recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sexual-Harassment Gargoyle

Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle): adapted by Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson from the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber; directed by Sidney Hayers; starring Peter Wyngarde (Norman Taylor), Janet Blair (Tansy Taylor), and Maragret Johnson (Flora Carr) (1962): It's an all-star writing team-up as genre greats Richard Matheson (Duel, Hell House, a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) and Charles Beaumont (a lot of Twilight Zone episodes) adapt Science-fiction-and-fantasy Grandmaster Fritz Leiber's terrific 1940's fantasy novel Conjure Wife for the big screen.

The action is moved to England and compressed in time, doing some violence to the original, but the result is still an enjoyable, fast-paced bit of modern horror-fantasy set in the cut-throat world of academia. Yes, academia. Professor Norman Taylor seems to have led a charmed life both personally and professionally. And he has. But he's about to find out the cost. And witchcraft is involved. And possibly Sexual-Harassment Panda.

Two bits of goofiness mar the very beginning and the very end, seemingly added by a nervous studio. But they're minor. This story of modern witchcraft has some real thrills and horrors awaiting, along with one pissed-off eagle-shaped gargoyle. The film-makers do a nice job of suggesting as much as possible, a necessity given the budget and visual effects limitations of the time. The most chilling scene relies on no visual effects whatsoever -- just Tarot cards, a match, and an increasingly panicked Norman Taylor.

My main beef with the movie would be that the scariest line of the novel -- and the events that flow forwards from it -- have been replaced here by a more conventional ending in which our protagonists are quite a bit less intelligent than they are in the book. Oh, well. Still a superior tale of magic and its discontents. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Fires of Creation

The Shadow: The Fires of Creation: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Aaron Campbell (2012): How could it have taken this long to join Scottish master of ultraviolence Garth Ennis and ultraviolent pulp-hero The Shadow? In any case, here it is, and it's mostly awesome. Thank you, Dynamite Comics!

The Dynamite/Ennis take on the Shadow brings something more of the supernatural into things than were there in the original -- the Shadow at least dimly sees the future, and has been entrusted by what appear to be mystical forces with the protection of the Earth.

Set a couple of years prior to the U.S. entrance into World War Two, The Fires of Creation sees the Shadow's alter ego Lamont Cranston working with US military intelligence prior to the formation of the OSS (Operation of Strategic Services, later the CIA) to stop a mysterious Japanese expedition into China from finding something extremely dangerous that could allow the Axis to win the war.

Ennis does a nice job of melding Shadowy violence with a narrative that at times resembles mid-century spy works by writers that include Graham Greene and John LeCarre. Along the way, the Shadow's mysterious origins are touched upon -- the criminals of Hong Kong remember his first forays into crime-fighting, and the Japanese soldiers running the mysterious operation are well aware that the Shadow is something to worry about. A lot.

Aaron Campbell's art suits the material. It's clean and illustrative, with a nice touch of darkness and murk when required. I think Campbell is still learning when it comes to layout (well, who isn't?) as there's a somewhat confusing bit towards the end of the story in which it's difficult to figure out which way (or where) a character is going, and while that's cleared up in later pages, it's an odd misstep for what's otherwise a solid job of comic-book illustration.

Unlike the pulp magazines, in which the Shadow often plays supporting character to lieutenants like Margo Lane and Harry Vincent, The Fires of Creation makes the Shadow the main character, something more common to the popular Shadow radio series. There are echoes of Howard Chaykin's revisionist comic-book Shadow of the 1980's, but Ennis' character doesn't parody the original in any way: he's a committed bad-ass whose cause is righteous. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Moon Trap

Moon by James Herbert (1985): James Herbert has often been called England's version of Stephen King. This isn't a bad comparison, though King doesn't usually have at least one vaguely soft-core, five-page-long sex scene in almost every novel. The comparison is made more interesting by King's analysis of Herbert's early novels in King's non-fiction horror survey, Danse Macabre.

I've certainly enjoyed the half-dozen or so Herbert novels I've read, and I enjoyed Moon. Herbert's good characters are sympathetic, if occasionally a bit too aesthetically pleasing when they're women (the protagonist's girlfriend is stunningly beautiful...why is this necessary?). Come to think of it, there's a thematic reason it's necessary, one that constitutes a spoiler alert if I explain it further.

Herbert is generally more ruthless than King, or at least more arbitrary when it comes to the question of who dies, and when -- there are a couple of wrenching sequences here that derive a lot of their power from that surprising arbitrariness, and Herbert's decision to not tie certain plot and character threads up neatly.

The plot recalls King's The Dead Zone: protagonist Jonathan Childes has psychic flashes. They once helped him stop a serial killer. But they also made him a media flashpoint when people found out that he was the only useful psychic to ever work on a police investigation. So he moves from England to one of the Southern coastal islands to try to lay low, and to hope that the psychic flashes are a thing of the past. But then horrifying visions start again.

Childes' skepticism about his own powers generates a fair amount of drama as we go along, as do the apparent limits of those powers: he can see what the killer is doing in his mind, but he doesn't know where, and he can't glean the killer's identity from these psychic links. This last becomes quite a problem when the killer suddenly realizes that Childes is psychically observing the killer's actions, and manages to start pulling information out of Childes' head that immediately puts his ex-wife, his daughter, and eventually everyone around Childes in mortal danger. It all makes for a quick, enjoyable read with some moments of visceral and existential horror. Recommended.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Corporations are people, my friends!

The Boys Volume 4: We Gotta Go Now: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson (2008-2009; collected 2009): Black Ops group The Boys delve into the secret history of the G-Men, superhero-corporation Vought American's (very) thinly veiled version of the X-Men and all their X-books, X-teams, and X-merchandising. As superhero groups in the world of The Boys go, the G-Men may be the most awful of all when their secret origins are revealed. But how will The Boys fight several hundred angry, crazy superheroes with a bewilderingly wide array of superpowers? Excellent question. Recommended.

The Boys Volume 5: Herogasm: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and John McCrea (2009; collected 2009): Corporate-owned superheroes. Just like the comic books themselves! CIA-affiliated Black Ops group The Boys continue their investigation of superhero corporation Vought American and the legion of super-heroes created, controlled, and owned by them as the heroes of the world have their annual team-up against a force too powerful for them to combat singly or in small groups. It's a crisis and a not-so-secret war!

Well, no. In reality, the heroes and some villains annually go to a tropical island where they debauch themselves for a week on the company dime: the company-wide team-up is all about sex and drugs, not saving the world. The greatest threat to the world is the superheroes themselves and the corporation that controls them. The Boys do learn a lot more about both the secret history of recent events and what the World's Greatest Hero, the Homelander, is really up to. None of it is pretty. Recommended.

The Boys Volume 8: Highland Laddie: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and John McCrea (2010-2011; collected 2011): Depressed by recent personal events and by his work with The Boys, Scottish team-member Hughie (he whom artist Darick Robertson originally drew to look pretty much exactly like Simon Pegg) returns home to the north of Scotland for some soul-searching. Almost certainly the most Scottish superhero miniseries ever written. Recommended.

The Boys Volume 9: The Big Ride: written by Garth Ennis; illustrated by Darick Robertson and Russ Braun (2011; collected 2011): As things gradually move towards a series-ending climax (still three volumes to go, though), we learn terrible secrets about the first go-round for The Boys in their battle against Vought American and its corporate superheroes. We also learn about the first appearance of said superheroes during World War Two and the subsequent history of both the superheroes and the CIA's attempts to find out what Vought American is up to. We also learn even more about the insane sex lives of superheroes. And one of The Boys will not make it out of this volume alive! Recommended.


Justice League Volume 2: The Villain's Journey: written by Geoff Johns; illustrated by Jim Lee, Gene Ha, Gary Frank, and Ivan Reis (2012): The new Justice League battles a couple of new menaces, refuses Green Arrow's request to join the team, and ponders its role in today's fast-paced, modern society. The new Shazam's interminably long origin story also begins. People yell at Batman. And Superman and Wonder Woman kiss.

Jim Lee's new costume designs for DC's major heroes really are fussy and distracting. Superman needs his red shorts back. And everyone needs to stop wearing armor like the Avengers all did in that terrible 1990's Avengers cartoon that didn't feature any of the major Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor). Most of the heroes here are pissy almost all the time, which in today's superhero comics is what substitutes for camaraderie and characterization. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Swedish Maiden

The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter (1992): Multiple-mystery-novel-award-winning mystery novel (whew) featuring Inspector Morse and the faithful Sergeant Lewis as they investigate a year-old murder case that lacks a body, a suspect, and quite possibly a murder.

A mysterious and possibly clue-filled poem from an anonymous source reboots the investigation when the poem appears in the newspaper, the allusive and elusive poem almost certainly related to the whereabouts of the 'Swedish Maiden', the young Swedish woman who disappeared in the Oxford area the previous summer. Soon, Morse will cut short his vacation in Lyme Regis (where parts of Jane Austen's Persuasion took place, everyone keeps telling everyone else) because when it comes to cases with weird twists, the opera-loving Morse is the Oxford PD's go-to guy.

The novel is almost fiendishly convoluted, and those convolutions lead Morse and Lewis into an even more labyrinthine-than-usual path through the assorted strata of Oxford society. Morse remains lonely and drunk for much of the novel, though also sometimes bafflingly attractive to women. It must be all the alcohol. And the opera. And the first name, initial 'E', that he never gives out.

The Way Through the Woods also explores the attitudes of Morse's colleagues towards him, along with the almost high-schooley politics within a police department. Of course, Morse in books and on TV, and Lewis's own spin-off series, all examine the social and political entanglements that connect everything in Oxford -- town and gown, high and low. As above, so below. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Robert Plant Does Not Like Heavy Metal

Chuck Klosterman IV by Chuck Klosterman (2006): Hilarious and thoughtful collection of essays, mostly on pop-cultural issues, by the almost always engaging Klosterman. He manages to come up with sharp analysis without being (too much) of a pretentious bastard. His notes on the pieces, which span ten years of his writing, are often refreshingly candid about what he thinks succeeds and fails in hindsight.

Klosterman's weaknesses could be described as a love of over-generalization and an occasional bout of a sort of odd political futilitarianism masquerading as hard-won cynicism. When he lurches into politics, the results are often intellectually embarrassing. So thank heavens he doesn't do so very often.

There are a lot of high points here. The two I'd pick as most representative of Klosterman's charms are a hilariously cranky interview with Robert Plant (cranky on Plant's part, that is, the crankiness mostly aimed at people other than Klosterman except when Plant decides that Chuck's theories on Led Zeppelin are full of crap) and a ridiculously useful column explaining the differences between one's Nemesis and one's Arch-Enemy ("If your Arch-Enemy decided to kill you, your Nemesis would try to stop him."

Other great pieces include a profile of (The Smiths') Morrissey's largest American fan-base (Los Angeles-area Latinos, apparently), the annual Goth pilgrimage to Disneyland, and Klosterman's bizarre visit with Val Kilmer. Recommended.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Naked Came the Earth-man

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912; revised 1917): The first hit novel for Burroughs, who would soon also create Tarzan. A Princess of Mars holds up well as a science fantasy that inspired such later works as Star Wars (words that include Sith, Banth, and padawar crop up in the Mars series, as do numerous plot and conceptual similarities). Former Confederate soldier John Carter gets teleported to Mars (known as 'Barsoom' to its inhabitants) in a second body while his first body remains in a cave on Earth. Interplanetary shenanigans ensue.

Burroughs draws at least partially upon Earth history for his alien races: the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks come across as a debased Sparta to the Athens of the red-skinned, human-like residents of Helium. John Carter reintroduces concepts such as compassion and kindness to animals to the Tharks and his best Thark buddy Tars Tarkas, leading to major social changes among the green-skinned giants.

Carter has certain advantages over Martians: he can jump relatively long distances and kill enemies with a single punch thanks to his much denser body, caused by Earth's greater gravity. These things impress the Hell out of most everyone he meets, as does his white skin colour. And he does take up the White Man's Burden, helping to (re)civilize the civilizations of Mars. Burroughs really should have paid Kipling royalties for this and Tarzan.

And Carter will eventually fall in love with the red Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Oh, and everyone on Mars is naked most of the time with the exception of ornamental jewelry and/or armor. Hubba hubba! Of course, almost all species on Mars -- including red and green Martians -- are oviparous. Will John Carter and Dejah nonetheless be able to produce viable offspring? What do you think?

We're also shown the canals of Mars, here the last remnants of the great Martian oceans, and various ancient Martian cities, decaying and occasionally inhabited by the green Martians, who no longer build anything themselves except for weapons and, well, more weapons. The civilizations of Mars are all ancient and somewhat retrograde: Burroughs was taking some of his cues in this from contemporary Western theories about China, the standard example of a decaying civilization living off the momentum of long-ago glory. John Carter is the first truly new thing on Mars in centuries or perhaps millennia.

There's plenty of swashbuckling here, along with pitched gun-battles, strange sights, giant white apes, loyal frog-dogs, and a gigantic atmosphere plant to keep everyone on Mars alive and breathing. It's all quite a bit of fun. And it ends on a cliffhanger! Recommended.

Sinister Balls

Sinister Barrier by Eric Frank Russell (1939; revised 1948): Probably the first science-fiction novel to be based on Charles Fort's pseudo-scientific speculations that human beings are the property of something alien, and Sinister Barrier is not shy about its influences -- there are pages of direct quotes from Fort's work, excerpts which consist mainly of quotes from various newspapers and what-have-you about unexplained phenomena. Specifically, Russell uses Fortean clips about flying energy balls (!!!) and mysterious disappearances to concoct a tale of flying energy balls that occasionally make people disappear.

Well, OK, there's more to the novel than that. And it's set in the then-far-flung future of 2015, when humanity has developed gyrocars and video-telephones but not television. Hunh?

Anyway, leading scientists start dropping dead from either heart attacks or suicide. A hyper-intelligent government investigator tries to find out why. They were experimenting with a drug combination (which included mescaline and methylene blue!). It caused the human eye to be able to see more of the visual spectrum. And what they saw killed them!

Enjoyable, fast-paced, and paranoid fun in its first half, the novel drags a bit when humanity launches its attack on the things that it couldn't previously see. Invisible balls of energy have been feeding on humanity's emotions for millennia. There's certainly more than a whiff of such later paranoid classics as They Live here, though both horror and social commentary are soon replaced by the mechanics of the science-fiction thriller. And several pages of quotes from Charles Fort. In any case, a lot of fun, and something Hollywood should look into adapting. It would make a great movie. Recommended.