Monday, March 30, 2015

Out of Office



This week is David's spring break, so we're traveling to Arizona. Never been.

Seeing the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley have always been bucket list items for me and Diane, but we're also going to work in Meteor Crater, the Petrified Forest, and Tombstone. Been watching a lot of Westerns to get ready for it and I'm taking along some Zane Grey to read on the trip.

Don't know if we'll have internet access, so I've got a couple of short posts ready to go for later this week. I'll work on some Thunderball posts when I get back. Have a great week!

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

Fleming began writing The Man With the Golden Gun in the same month that principle filming began on Goldfinger. Exploring just how much the Goldfinger movie inspired the Golden Gun novel would make a fascinating research paper, but I'm not going to do it. I don't need to quantify the influence in order to know that Fleming's writing was affected by the Bond films in general. Putting aside Ursula Andress' appearance in the novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service, as soon as the movies started coming out Fleming immediately started tweaking his Bond. The literary character not only became a Scot like Sean Connery, but a notorious public figure whose life could be read about in the newspaper and speculated upon. Though Fleming died before The Man With the Golden Gun was completely polished, the novel suggests that the book series was going to continue to read more and more like the films.

That's not a good thing. I started writing about the Bond novels with the theory that Bond actually grows as a character over the course of the series. And that's been born out. It's been a great and interesting trip watching the selfish, sullen spy take more and more interest in the people around him. That comes to a head in You Only Live Twice, which would've made a perfect ending to the series if Bond had more say about his fate at the end of that book. Fleming had a wonderful opportunity to wrap up the series with Bond's making a conscious choice to either continue in the Secret Service or stay with Kissy on the island. Either decision would have made a powerful statement about Bond's character and contrasted beautifully with the Bond of Casino Royale. But instead of Kissy's encouraging and supporting Bond in determining what kind of life he wanted, Fleming had her deceive Bond, raising his curiosity and propelling him into another adventure. That's great for the continued potential financial success of the series, but not for its artistic achievement. Fleming gave up a great ending in order to keep the series going.

Not that The Man With the Golden Gun is a bad book. The first chapters resolve the cliffhanger from You Only Live Twice in a really tense and exciting way. From there, the story goes in a direction that's reminiscent of Bond's early adventures, especially Dr. No. Bond is supposed to stop an assassin named Francisco Scaramanga who's working for Cuba and helping Soviet interests in the Caribbean. Bond finds Scaramanga in Jamaica and that's where the rest of the story takes place. While there, Bond does a lot of recollecting about his previous missions there. We learn that he lost touch with Honey Rider, but that last he'd heard she was married to a doctor from Philadelphia and had a couple of kids.

Unfortunately, Scaramanga isn't a great villain. He's really just a glorified henchman. But he's still plenty dangerous and Fleming does a nice job keeping Bond in danger. Fleming's always made Bond squeamish about killing in cold blood (though Golden Gun makes it clear that that's just something Bond finds extremely distasteful as opposed to something he believes is objectively immoral). Because of that, Bond chooses not to assassinate Scaramanga when he has the chance, but decides to go undercover as Scaramanga's personal assistant. It's rooted in Bond's established character, so it sort of works, but it also smacks loudly of dragging out a very thin plot. Even so, Fleming is able to create tense moments all throughout and Golden Gun is a fun, adventurous read.

That's faint praise though, especially compared with how epic the rest of Fleming's later novels are. Instead of building on those, he just seems interested in writing a passable adventure for future adaptation into film. Bond finds Scaramanga not through serious investigation, but purely by luck. His relationship with Mary Goodnight - no longer the admin for the Double-O section and recently assigned to Jamaica - is especially flirty and Connery-esque. Bond even pokes fun at Q-Branch like Connery does and a couple of things feel lifted right out of Goldfinger in particular, starting with the title character's gold-covered revolver. Bond also uses a hollow safety razor as a hiding place for spy stuff and there's a scene where the bad guy murders a squeamish ally who wants out of the caper.

I have such mixed feeling about The Man With the Golden Gun. It's simultaneously a solid little entry in the series and a horrible disappointment. As the final book in Fleming's series, it sucks and I'd prefer if it didn't exist. But as the start of something different - a new chapter in Bond's life - I kind of dig it and wish Fleming had been given more time to convince me he was headed in a worthwhile direction.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Borderland: A B-Movie in the Making [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

"Borderland" by Arthur J Burks is a typical pulp adventure and yet somehow more interesting than many of his other tales in Gangster Stories or Weird Tales. The plot is familiar to anyone who watches old 1950s B-movies. A mad scientist creates giant lizards (though not by nuclear radiation, but with a glandular concoction), intent on extorting millions from the governments of the world. Dr. Frankenstein meets Captain Nemo. Scenes of gigantic iguanas devouring helpless villagers is not far from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or It Came From Beneath the Sea. And yet, Burks published this story in Thrilling Adventures, December 1934. Not Thrilling Wonder Stories, but Thrilling Adventures.

Let's back up a bit. The hero of the story is Cleve, a man who captures specimens for Dr. Keller, the Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Natural History. Cleve plans to dynamite large crocodiles for the Doctor's collection when three enormous iguanas come out of the lake and attack the Haitian villagers nearby. Cleve finds an old dugout canoe and goes to Cabritos Island where he thinks the lizards came from. There he finds his employer, who shows him a secret hideout where the villains are injecting the iguanas with the super glandular mixture. Dr. Keller also reveals he is, in fact, the owner of the secret lab, as well as a giant stockpile of dynamite, enough to destroy the island if the authorities should discover the truth. Cleve must join the doctor or die. Cleve lies and says he will help him in his great plan. Cleve begins capturing more iguanas for Keller. He eventually makes a pretext of going to the other side of the island to get some bigger specimens, but retrieves his dynamite gear from the dugout and strings wires from the dynamite stockpile to the shore. In true non-science fiction adventure style, he wakes from a dream and the ending feels lame. Only after he pushes the plunger, expecting to capture his crocodiles does Capritos Island explode, actually destroying the giant iguanas and Dr. Keller.

What strikes me about this tale was, of course, that it appeared in Thrilling Adventures and not an SF pulp. (Leo Marguiles, the editor, might have felt it wasn't quite strong enough for Thrilling Wonder, requiring instead the silly, "it was a dream" business at the end for adventure readers.) But there are a few other things I wonder about and make more sense after a little research on Arthur J Burks. First off, I was impressed by his locale color at the beginning of the story. If it had been written by Hugh B Cave I would have naturally expected details about Haiti since Cave made a second career out of writing about this island nation in Colliers Weekly in the 1950s. It turns out that Burks had been a marine in World War I (and would return to active duty in WWII later) and had first hand knowledge of the jungle island which he used in several books.

Secondly, the use of the name "Dr. Keller" makes me wonder if the character was named after Dr. David H Keller, a pulp writer of SF. The two knew each other through Hugo Gernsback's early pulps, plus they also worked on the serial novel Cosmos in 1933-35. Their by-lines are often found together in the same magazines such as Weird Tales. I have no proof of any homage but it is possible Burks was having fun with an in-joke.

And finally, the title "Borderland" refers to the opening of the tale in which the narrator talks about the thin line between the real and the fantastic. "Where is the thin dividing line between waking and sleeping, knowing and dreaming?" This theme would become part of Burks' life after the pulps (during which he wrote over eight hundred stories, being one of the Fiction Factory's Million-Words-a Year men). Ryerson Johnson told Will Murray in an interview that he saw Burks later working as a psychic medium. His final phase as a writer was in occult studies with titles like En-Don: The Ageless Wisdom (1973).

So "Borderland" was not just your average pulp story. It predated the B-movie monsters, featured solid local color and detail, possibly included a tip of the hat to David H Keller, and lastly, showed Burks' growing interest in the occult. It's a fun ride even if it relies too heavily on mad scientist logic and huge piles of dynamite. It remains one of those odd little pulp gems that can still surprise us eighty years later.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Moon Laughs: Comedians in Space [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comedians in the '40s and '50s had comic books. They were good publicity, plus you didn't have to do any of the work. Other people wrote and drew them, trying to capture the essence of the stars, using their wisecracks and typical jokes. What was different was that the writers quickly ran out of regular stuff to do and had to find a new gimmick for each issue. This lead to Western scenarios, Northern scenarios, Foreign Legion scenarios, jungle scenarios, etc. Eventually they got to the space stuff.

Before October 4, 1957 stories about space were considered "that Buck Rogers stuff." So it shouldn't be any surprise to see the comedians with comics using space travel for laughs. This was not cutting edge science fiction but retreads of pulps and worse, comic strip and serial science fiction. Silver underwear, beautiful alien women, that kind of thing. You can almost see the strings on the spaceship models. The writers knew Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon but hadn't even heard of Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov.

The first to try it was St. John's Abbott and Costello Comics #3 (July 1948), written by John Graham and drawn by Lily Renee and Eric Peters. Lou and Bud are out of money, so they sign up for a dodgy job with a mad scientist (a common trope with all these comics and films). He sends them to Mars where Queen Astra is holding off an invasion by the Jupitarians (Lou calls them "Jups" at one point, reminiscent of their wartime humor against the Japanese). The two earthmen find a Martian dinosaur who is a complete coward. Astra has invented an elixir named KF-79 that creates instant bravery. With this drink, Bud and Dino both gain incredible courage and save Mars. One of the better jokes in the story has Lou and Bud riding the dinosaur. Bud says "Allez Oop!" in reference to the caveman-dinosaur strip Alley Oop. The story has the same feel as an old serial, most likely what inspired it, with space fleets and robot armies.

Unlike some comedians to follow, Abbott and Costello actually made a film with a space setting. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars appeared in 1953. Oddly, the duo don't end up on Mars but Venus where everyone is played by a contestant from the Miss America pageant. Robert A Heinlein had written a treatment called "Abbott and Costello Move to the Moon" in 1950 and this may have inspired the script. If so, it is the only example of a real SF writer having anything to do with comedian space humor.

The next comic to try an outer space scenario was DC's The Adventures of Bob Hope #24 (January 1954), written by Cal Howard and drawn by Owen Fitzgerald. After selecting a space suit for a costume party, Bob falls in with an egg-headed scientist, Professor A Tomic Balmy, who has fourteen beautiful daughters (all with boys' names). Wanting to impress, Bob volunteers to take the scientist's rocket to the moon. The hero chickens out, jumps out of the rocket, and goes on a short rail journey before sending the professor a telegram that he has arrived on the moon. He buys a parachute and jumps into the crowd that gives him a ticker-tape parade. Sadly, Hope never actually leaves the Earth.

This was followed by DC's The Adventures of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis #34 (January 1957), again drawn by Owen Fitzgerald. Jerry, who is a member of the local boys' Junior Rocket Scouts runs into a beautiful woman professor (and her cute assistant) who is designing a flying saucer. After bailing Jerry out of jail, Dean manages to secure the job of guarding the saucer on its trip to Washington. During a test flight, Dean, Jerry, and the girls have an accident that sends them into space. After some lame jokes about the Milky Way and paper moons, the ship crashes back in DC. The professor is heart-broken, but the test is a success and the military funds her work. The story contains very little real science and few good jokes. Nine months later Sputnik would fly through the ether and America couldn't quite be as blithe about the possibilities of space flight.

The other comedic group to make a space movie was the Three Stooges with Three Stooges in Orbit (1959). This film has the trio take a room in a mansion with a mad scientist who invents a sub-tank-helicopter that can go into space. Of course they cross Martians trying to steal the plans for the machine and invade Earth. The Stooges had several different comics over the years but it was Gold Key's The Three Stooges #29 (July 1966) that finally gets into space. The art was by Sparky Moore. The plot is a little similar to The Three Stooges in Orbit, in that the three idiots deal with aliens. The Stooges find a UFO in a junk yard, which takes them to the moon. On the moon they encounter several different kinds of monsters as well as actual moon cheese but they can't get back home because their ship has been destroyed. Fortunately the UFO's owners rescue them, take them to their base for study, and find they have brains the size of peanuts. Fearing the destructive power of such stupid beings, the invaders flee the Earth, their invasion cancelled. Despite being only three years before the moon landing, this comic has no real scientific basis at all.

The 1960s would bring changes to science fiction as well as science. Star Trek would premiere on September 8, 1966. Much of the humor that followed was sarcastic parody of this classic series such as Mad Magazine, November 1966 with "Star Bleeech," and "Star Tracks" in Cracked, September 1975. On July 20, 1969, the first lunar landing would have as much impact as Sputnik had back in 1957. The old comedians and their comics belong to a time locked by the events of history. Humor about space travel would never be the same flight of fancy, but anchored in the reality of the nightly news.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Dragonfly Ripple, Ep 2: "LotR Cartoons and D&D"




The new episode of Dragonfly Ripple is out! That's the show where Nerd Luncher Carlin Trammel and I talk to our kids about important parenting matters like Dungeons & Dragons and the animated Lord of the Rings movies. We also ask you for the best Star Trek episodes for kids, so give us your recommendations!

AND! Time travel and an exciting, new segment called "Jetpack Tiger" in which Carlin's 6-year-old son totally rules the podcasting universe while discussing the Lilo & Stitch movies. Hope you'll check it out.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Kinsmen of the Dragon, Part 1 [Guest Post]



By GW Thomas

When I write one of these blog pieces I usually begin by reading all the stories concerned. This time around I haven't. Let me explain.

Fantasy as a genre has many towering figures such as JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Robert E Howard. Some classic authors who preceded them, such as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and even Lewis Carroll, also stand out high above the rest. These figures are well documented thanks to editors like Lin Carter and his Ballantine Fantasy series. Carter was also good at finding little known bits of fun in fanzines, ancient tales, and the pulps. Because of this, I am truly surprised when I discover an unknown (to me) fantasy novel from the 1950s.

Nobody wrote fantasy in the 1950s (excepting the well-noted Poul Anderson with The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions, a few lesser Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales by Fritz Leiber, and of course, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings). Other than these famous exceptions, most fantasy was disguised as science fiction in Planet Stories or as Jack Vance did it in The Dying Earth.

So again, I'm not often surprised. Until I was checking out an old copy of Ray Palmer's Imagination (one of those fantasy mags that look like science fiction). The inside cover of the second issue has a full page ad for Kinsmen of the Dragon by Stanley Mullen. The ad proclaims: "Just What You Were Wishing For!" and "The Most Exciting Book Since Merritt's Moon Pool." 352 pages for only $3.50.

My jaw dropped. And dropped again when I saw, first, that other people were quite aware (and hadn't told me), and secondly, the gorgeous Hannes Bok cover art. This got me all defensive and I started to question why I hadn't even heard of it. I think the main reason is I haven't really read any Stanley Mullen. Just as important, the book never had a paperback version in the 1960-70s during the big sword and sorcery craze. It might have happened if Ballantine had continued their series. Lin Carter might have gotten around to it. He had published two novels by Hannes Bok and was a personal friend of the artist. Carter must have known about the book. And maybe didn't like it?

I read online about the reviews: Francis J McComas had written in The New York Times Review, "Practically every theme of fantasy and science fiction has been mistreated in this silly melodrama." Damon Knight wrote in In Search of Wonders, "A plot that is kept in motion solely by the fact that everyone involved is an idiot." And James Blish called it in The Issue at Hand "an incredibly bad novel from any point of view" and reprimanded other reviewers for taking it easy on a pal.

These kinder reviewers were Forrest J Ackerman ( as Weaver Wright) in Astounding August 1951:
"This novel has not appeared in any form prior to this book publication" proclaims the jacket blurb. Few other s.f. books can make that statement this season, as the rash of pulp reprints continues. But Stan Mullen, himself a magazine contributor, has come up with a first-class first novel blending astounding science with unknown wizardry. If "Kinsmen" somewhat invites comparison with the recently reprinted "Blind Spot" because of its world-beside-our-own theme, I dare the sacrilegious opinion that it surpasses the "Spot' in reader interest. In Annwyn, the invisible realm we cannot sense, psychology is different, inventions strange, architecture alien; yet to the hero this Lorelei land offers a kind of haven in the end, away from the confusion of our own here and now. A splendid escape piece. The all-around technicolor wrapper by Bok puts the artistic whipped cream on top this brandied literary plum pudding.
And an anonymous reviewer in Startling Stories who wrote in May 1952:
"If you still have a soft spot for buckety-buck adventure, this is for you. The publisher's blurb informs us that it has never appeared in magazine form or anywhere else - no doubt it's length was a factor. Briefly it is the story of the underworld of Annwyn, peopled by stock types of lizard men and dragons and human sacrificing savages - and of course beautiful girl savages. Personally we do not consider this science fiction, but some people do; in fact, some people prefer this type of fantastic adventure to anything which involves ideas. If you are looking for ideas, don't linger here. There is nothing new in KINSMEN OF THE DRAGON, nothing you haven't read before. If you are just discovering the world of fantasy it may seem new to you and you may get a belt out of it. The jacket design, by Hannes Bok, is a handsome one, and liberally sprinkled with BEMs, dragons, and something which is half-girl, half-BEM. Incidentally, has anyone noticed the Maxfield Parrish resemblance in Bok's color work?
Three quick reactions to these two reviews: The suggestion that Mullen has borrowed the "world-beside-our-own" theme from Homer Eon Flint and Austin Hall's The Blind Spot (1921) shows an unfamiliarity with fantasy on Ackerman's part (surprising!). If he had been familiar with folklore he would know that the idea of parallel fantasy realms was around before Flint. Lewis's first Narnia book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (1950) was selling in the US, though this was sold as a children's book. Or if he remembered the Jorel of Joiry stories of CL Moore or "The Sapphire Siren" by Nictzin Dyalhis or any number of Fantasies by Edmond Hamilton in Weird Tales, he would have known the idea's wider use.

The second thing that popped for me was the name Annwyn, the Celtic underworld that is the novel's setting. Most of us encounter the place either in Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion series (1936-1974) or Lloyd Alexender's Pyrdain fantasies (1964-68). Alexander used Annwyn in 1964 and Walton not until 1974, so in this way Mullen may be the first fantasist to claim the territory. Nothing new, my eye!

Maxfield Parrish
Lastly, the anonymous reviewer calls attention to Bok's similarity to earlier artist Maxfield Parrish. Bok actually studied under Max Parrish and considered himself his apostle. The resemblance is certainly intentional.

Was Kinsmen of the Dragon a terrible novel? I wish I could tell you. I haven't read it. But I think a little historical perspective might help here. This was 1951-52. Science fiction magazines, book publishing even juvenile novels and hard covers were all on the horizon. Fantasy was the poor, retarded step-cousin SF fans hid out back in the wood shed. Tolkien hadn't published The Lord of the Rings yet and even those books would need another ten years to explode and change everything. Many of the poor reviews could have been 1950s SF-hate, which carried on until the 1970s when fantasy could throw sales figures from LotR and The Sword of Shannara at the sneering critics.

Except for two things. Look who the reviewers are. Francis J McComas was one half of the team who created The Magazine of Fantasy in 1949 so that more literate and interesting fantasy could be published. The "and Science Fiction" was added as a commercial necessity. McComas was not a fantasy hater.

Damon Knight is considered one of the best editors of SF from the 1970s and on, but he also wrote many well-crafted stories and novels. One of these was actually a collection of stories from Galaxy called The World and Thorinn (1981) that borders on fantasy. He might be part of the more SF crowd, but he has written extensively on the craft of writing and knows a good plot from a bad one.

James Blish is another SF author, though his Black Easter novels are considered Fantasy. He wrote of jungle lords for the same pulp as Mullen back in the 1940s. He would not be one to throw stones. He was considered a little prickly and stand-off-ish by some, and his pointing to fellow reviewers and calling them out may have contributed to this. He may also have been right. Mullen was a member of the SF community, and a publisher as well, with his own small Gorgon Press. You never know who your next publisher is going to be...

Ultimately, I'll have to read it for myself. I may find it a charming 1950s forgotten classic like Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Or I may find it a contrived, imitative mish-mash of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a lovely cover. Either way, (I have the Kindle version ready to go!) I will enjoy every word of it. More to come.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Goldfinger (1964) | Music



For Goldfinger's title sequence, designer Robert Brownjohn went back to the same well he'd pulled from in From Russia With Love. He got more creative though and instead of just projecting the credits over a woman's body, he projected images from the film with the credits running alongside. That makes the credits easier to read, but also gave Brownjohn more to play with in terms of the images. Drawing inspiration from what happens to Jill Masterson in the movie, Brownjohn painted model Margaret Nolan (who also plays Dink) gold and made fun choices about what images he projected where. At one point he superimposes Oddjob's face over hers, for example. Later, he has the Aston Martin's license plate replace her mouth. It was the most fun and creative sequence so far and it ties in well with the theme of the movie, even if it does feel a bit easy and on-the-nose to just use shots right out of the film.

For the title song, composer John Barry finally had complete control. He'd created the Bond Theme in Dr. No, written the entire score in From Russia With Love, but with Goldfinger he also got to write the music for the theme song. The lyrics were by the popular songwriting team of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who would go on to also write the lyrics for the theme to You Only Live Twice and the songs for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Newley and Bricusse teased Barry about the melody for "Goldfinger" and its similarity to Henry Mancini's "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's. They're not wrong about the opening bars, but for the most part it's a decent, versatile melody. It's a bit light and airy for my taste though, even with the heavy brass in the recording.

Maybe because of Barry's involvement with the "Goldfinger" song, the Bond Theme gets a lot less play in Goldfinger than it had in the first two movies. We hear it during the teaser when Bond's infiltrating the heroin refinery, then again when he introduces himself to Jill Masterson, but the third time isn't until Felix is tailing Oddjob and Solo. And even then, the Bond Theme quickly morphs into the Goldfinger Theme. There's something meta going on there, with the hero's giving way to his much more interesting villain. As cool and suave as Bond still is, he's also becoming more goofy in this one and the real star of the show is the title character. Like I said earlier in the week, I'm cool with that in this movie, but it's too bad that it inspired so many of the later, less inventive films.

To sing the title song, Barry hired pop singer Shirley Bassey. He'd conducted her orchestra when she'd toured the year before and they were apparently a couple as well. Nepotism aside though, she's got a fantastic voice and makes the song work in spite of its simple, and (frankly) silly lyrics.

Top Ten Theme Songs

1. From Russia With Love (John Barry instrumental version)
2. Dr No
3. Goldfinger
4. From Russia With Love (Matt Monro vocal version)
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

Top Ten Title Sequences

1. Dr No
2. Goldfinger
3. From Russia With Love
4. TBD
5. TBD
6. TBD
7. TBD
8. TBD
9. TBD
10. TBD

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