Thursday, January 31, 2013

Steele #1

Steele #1, by J.D. Masters
July, 1989  Charter Books

Very much inspired by Robocop, the Steele series is a late-era example of the men’s adventure genre, bringing in elements of sci-fi and post-nuke pulps. It ran for quite a while, racking up eight volumes. The first six books carried the “J.D. Masters” byline, which apparently was a psuedonym of author Simon Hawke; the final two volumes were credited to “S.L. Hunter,” but supposedly these too were by Hawke. I’m not sure on this, and can find no other name connected to either psuedonym.

The series takes place midway through the 21st century; the world has been ravaged by a series of cataclysms. First and foremost terrorists unleashed a biological virus a generation ago which did more damage than even the terrorists expected, knocking out half of the world population. Years later and the virus now manifests itself in “screamers,” ie people affected by the virus who lose all sense of control and go into fits of rage, destroying everything in sight.

Also there was a limited nuclear engagement due to the biological warfare, but the series is not a post-nuke pulp, despite the nuking and the mutants. The country has already gotten back on its feet, with people going on about their normal lives; the nuclear and biological warfare background exists mostly so that Hawke can present a sort of ravaged future, one where inner-city warfare wages in the blasted ruins of cities.

Our hero is Donovan Steele, a 43 year-old Lieutenant in the New York City Strike Force, a sort of Delta Force SWAT team. Steele’s been patrolling the blasted streets of Midtown for two decades, watching as Manhattan and Long Island and other New York areas have been taken over by warring gangs and mobsters. DC was destroyed in the nuclear engagement, so now NYC is the seat of what still exists of the US government, despite which many of the surrounding areas are cordoned-off Escape From New York-style hellholes.

Steele’s a tough bastard, just as you’d expect. His backstory has a ring of dark comedy to it, as Hawke relates that, when Steele was 16, his mother became infected with the virus and became a screamer, coming home to eat her children; it all ends with everyone in Steele’s family dead, capped off with a bit where his dad, also infected, blows out his own brains, and I’ve gotta say, despite the grim tone it all really came off as sort of funny due to the outrageous factor. Anyway, Steele became a cop soon after and is now basically the star of the Strike Force.

A unique quality about Steele, at least so far as men’s adventure protagonists go, is that he’s married and has two teenaged sons. However Steele’s wife Janice is only mentioned in backstory, and Hawke paints a nasty picture of her…she sort of loves Steele but also hates him, mostly because of his job, and is carrying on “a few” affairs behind his back. Hawke has his reasons for doing this (most likely so he can get rid of her once Steele has his Robocop-esque experience midway through), but still Janice amounts to a pretty despicable character.

We know from the cover that Steele is going to become some sort of robot cop, but it takes over a hundred pages for this to occur. First Steele is assigned to work with Project Download, a government initiative run by a shady guy named Higgins that’s looking to “download” the combat insticts from Steele’s brain via software and store it into the brains of draftees and whatnot. Here Steele meets Dr. Susan Carmody, who comes on cool but is eventually throwing herself at him (not that Steele takes advantage of the situation).

After a gangland ambush leaves him mostly dead, Steele awakens several months later to find that he’s now a cyborg. His arms and legs have been replaced by android steele, as has been his skull and, most importantly, his brain is also now a computer, one that holds all of his downloaded memories. This serves to take up a huge portion of the narrative, as Steele constantly asks himself and others if having a robot brain means he is no longer human. Hawke makes it clear that he is, though, and also Steele still looks human, synthetic skin covering his robotic ligaments. In fact he looks identical to how he did before his accident, much to the confusion of his comrades, all of whom are now unsettled in his presence.

Steele’s relationship with Susan Carmody deepens, with her constant assurance that Steele is still very much human. As she often reminds him, he can procreate (his naughty parts survived his “death” unscathed), but for some bizarre reason, despite building it up so much, Hawke skips over the eventual sex scene between Steele and Susan. I only say it’s weird because another big concern of Steele’s is if he can still have sex, and when the moment arises Hawke just flashforwards to after the fact. Purple prose aside, it would’ve been a good opportunity for Hawke to again show us that Steele is human despite his cyborg makeover.

Just like Robocop, Steele is eventually sent back on the streets to patrol and kick criminal ass. Unlike Robocop though Steele still retains all of his faculties and makes his own decisions; again, Steele is pretty much identical to the person he was at the novel’s start, only now moreso…he can take all sorts of damage, can mete out horrendous punishment, and can run faster, jump higher, etc, etc. In other words the series wants to have its cake and eat it too; Steele is inhuman while still being human.

A mafioso named Borodini has united the various gangs (most of them split along ethnic lines) under his rubric, and Steele wants to crush the bastard, mostly because Borodini was behind the ambush that turned Steele into a cyborg. The ambush however was launched against a black gangster named Ice; Steele just got caught in the crossfire. Now Steele attempts to find Ice again, so that the two can work together against Borodini. Here we have several battle sequences, Steele testing out his new body against a small army of gangmembers.

But where Steele #1 fails is in the action department. Hawke delivers the few action scenes in an almost outline format, such as, “Running down the stairs, Steele fired, killing them all.” Dammit, I want exploding guts and blasted-out brains! But the gore and violence factor is minimal here (as is the sex factor), despite the number of gangmembers Steele kills. In other words, the book would easily rank a PG-13. It’s odd because Hawke will often go into gun-porn detail on the weapons Steele carries, but when it comes to showing what those weapons will do to a human body, he doesn’t elaborate.

By novel’s end Steele has been “discovered” by the local media, who exploit his feats on the news, thus putting Steele (and those he cares about) on the radar of the crime lords. After suffering more damage in another outline-style action scene, Steele is about to undergo another round of “updating” when the novel comes to a close, with nothing resolved, Borodini still alive, and the implication that Ice is about to become Steele’s partner on the streets.

This is one of the better-written men’s adventure novels I’ve read, but this first installment is more focused on world building and scene setting, and very focused on characters and their emotional arcs. I mean, there’s even a long subplot all about Steele’s friendship with Father Liam, a local priest who goes drinking with Steele and listens to Steele’s soul-baring confessions over endless rounds of beer. You could easily be fooled into thinking this is just a “regular” novel and not the first volume of a series. I’ve managed to get the entire series at a very nice price, and looking through future volumes it appears that the storylines get more pulpy and action focused, but then that might just be the customary back cover hyperbole.

So while it doesn’t offer much from the standard men’s adventure department, Steele #1 is still a very good read, compelling and gripping in its own way, offering more characterization than any other series I’ve yet read. It just needs more exploding guts and blasted-out brains!

Monday, January 28, 2013


Predator, by Paul Monette
June, 1987  Jove Books

It seems that in recent years Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1987 Predator has come to be regarded as his best action movie. I’ve liked it since I saw it in the theater as a kid (this was back in those forgotten days when action movies were actually rated R and if you were under 17 you needed a parent or guardian to get in to see them…or you could just wait for the VHS rental), but I’ve always preferred Total Recall and especially Commando, which for my money is the greatest action movie ever.

I’d read somewhere that the Predator novelization was much different from the film. This is true in most cases, where novelizations are based on in-production scripts that go through changes during filming. Predator is a case where a film went through more changes than most; an interesting bit of trivia is that Jean-Claude Van Damme of all people was originally slated to play the part of the Predator, wearing a costume different than the one finally used in the film. (You can read more about it and see some photos of Van Damme in costume here.)

This novelization though is based on a script even earlier than the Van Damme version, as the Predator here is a very different creature. Not wearing the armor or bearing the sci-fi weaponry that we now know and love, this Predator is more of an anthropologist, a lizard-like being with scaly skin who has come to Earth to study humans, killing them for dissection purposes. It can still only see in an infra-red spectrum, and can also mimic voices like a sampler, but in the novel it also has the ability to take the form of other creatures. Everything but humans, that is; we learn from one of the many scenes from the Predator’s viewpoint that it is unable to refashion itself into human form. However it’s free to take on the guise of a bird and soar over the jungle.

First though it’s worth talking about the author of this novelization, Paul Monette. A gay poet, Monette is the last person you’d expect to pen the novelization of a gun-blazing Arnold Schwarzenegger classic. Monette, who passed away from AIDS in 1995, is most remembered for writing a few volumes of poetry dedicated to his partner, who also died from AIDS. But on the side Monette also wrote movie novelizations (Scarface being another).

This means then that you can expect a fair bit of word painting in Predator. Monette writes with the deft and literate hand customary of a poet, doling out metaphors and analogies and extended bits of introspection with aplomb. He also capably brings to life the stinking, sweaty mire of the South American jungle. I don’t bring it up much because it’s outside the theme of this blog, but I do enjoy poetry, and in fact rank Christopher Logue’s War Music as the best thing I’ve ever read, but truth be told this style of writing doesn’t jibe with action fiction. Which is to say, Monette’s florid description often gets in the way of the guts and gore.

Story-wise the novel is basically the same as the film; it’s only the incidentals that are different. For one the special forces crew is a more “salty” bunch in the novel, more prone to dropping F-bombs and spitting hatred at the world. In other words, they all lack the memorable qualities of their filmic counterparts. Schwarzenegger’s character Dutch Schaefer in particular is a more grim character in the novel, probably a more “realistic” portrayal of what such a person would be like in the real world.

One difference as far as the team goes is here they’re all white, except for American Indian Billy (the unforgettable Sonny Landham in the film) and Poncho (Richard Chaves). I only bring this up because here Blain (Jesse Ventura) and Mac (Bill Duke) are both redneck bumpkins, racist without realizing it, and they both constantly harrass the “minorities,” particularly Dillon (Carl Weather), who in the novel is the only black guy on the team. I’m curious if this was pointedly ironed out of the film by making Mac a black character; whatever the reason, the film again has it better, as Bill Duke was much more memorable in the role he played than the redneck cipher that is the Mac of this novelization.

But if you know the film you know the story: Dillon, Dutch’s old pal and now a CIA agent, has called in Dutch’s team to infiltrate enemy territory deep in the jungle (here in the novel somewhere in the south-east region of Mexico called Balancan). Dillon has been on desk duty for the past decade or so, which serves for more ribbing from the team, more here than even in the film. And when it turns out that the mission is not to rescue hostages but instead to wipe out a small terrorist army, Dutch really gets into a lather, instead of just brushing it off like Arnold did in the film.

Here though we come to Monette’s failings as an action writer, though it could just be the fault of the early script draft he worked from. That action scene where Arnold and team assault the terrorist compound is probably the best sequence in all of ‘80s action cinema, just an awesome blitz of gory deaths, explosions, and one-liners (“Stick around!”). The only sequence I can think of that I like nearly as much would be that part in Rambo III where Rambo takes on the nightvision goggle-equipped Spetsnaz commandos in the caverns of Afghanistan. But really, the scene in Predator is the closest we ever got to seeing a Gold Eagle novel on film.

In the novel however, this raid on the terrorist compound is more low-key, over almost as soon as it starts, and lacks the onslaught of the film version. Dutch still delivers his “stick around” line, but again without the charm of Arnold; like most of Dutch’s dialog in the book, it just comes off as more mean-natured than goofy. However the book does a better job of explaining what Dillon’s purpose was down here; turns out these terrorists were plotting, along with the Soviets, a sort of Invasion USA attack on American soil.

From there on things proceed just as in the film, only with more insight into the characters and their thoughts and motivations; a big beneficiary of this is Anna, the female terrorist who is taken captive by Dillon and therefore endures the Predator’s horrors along with the rest of the team. Here she not only speaks English pretty much from her introduction into the narrative, but we also get more of an idea of how the Predator freaks her out to the point of insanity.

There are also several scenes from the Predator’s perspective, and we see the alien anthropologist going about its grisly work. This entails weird scenes like where it becomes a bird or a tree, monitoring the humans in secret. When in its normal form the Predator goes about with a spear, its sole weapon (something which didn’t debut in the films until Predator 2), and uses it to kill and eviscerate Dutch’s team one by one.

I had a hard time understanding the Predator, though, as its motive and learnings about humans are pretty vague, at least as Monette presents them. He has it that the alien doesn’t realize how it’s snuffing out indidivual lives with each kill, yet as the narrative ensues it seems to take relish in stalking the commandos, playing on their terror, and drawing out their deaths. But in the long run this take on the alien isn’t anywhere near as memorable as the film version, and if the movie had been like this novel I doubt it would be regaled as it is today.

Billy is also given a lot more depth in the novel. Here Billy is expressly described as a shaman, going into trances and seeing the ghosts of his ancestors in the jungle. There’s a vaguely psychedelic scene where he stands on the ruins of a Mayan temple and experiences an extended trip into prehistory. Molette implies that the Predators have visited the Earth in the past, and shamans have been the only ones to stop them. As in the film Billy’s the first to realize that the thing hunting the team is not human, but here in the novel the alien has the same realization about Billy, that he’s the only one that knows an alien is following them.

It all leads to the same finale, with the individual deaths playing out mostly the same as in the film, though again the Predator kills solely with its spear rather than an arsenal of exotic weaponry. After making Anna “get to da choppa,” Dutch stages his solo war on the Predator, here too accidentally discovering that mud makes him invisible to the alien’s sight. Also Molette points out that Dutch goes into his final combat nude, which really brings home the savage, primordial nature of the conflict. And Molette makes clear something the film only implies, that Dutch has appropriated Billy’s mantle as the shaman-warrior who must kill the alien.

Speaking of that early action scene in the terrorist compound, I read somewhere that it cost so much to stage that the producers had to scuttle the planned finale with Dutch storming the alien’s ship. The novelization obviously doesn’t have any concerns with budget, so here Dutch does actually track the Predator back to its spaceship after he’s wounded it in their battle (in the novel he hurts it by lobbing a grenade at it). The Predator’s death is super goofy, though; as it hobbles into its ship, Dutch snatches up its dropped spear and hurls it, impaling the Predator just as it enters the doorway…and then the spaceship explodes!

The film ends with a memorable shot of a silent Arnold sitting in “da choppa” as it takes off, Anna by his side (and the black helicopter pilot, by the way, is Kevin Peter Hall, who played the Predator in the film). Molette extends this a bit from Anna’s point of view, having it that she’s fallen in love with Dutch after this awful experience and plans to be with him, no matter what.

This novelization is interesting mostly as a curiosity piece, just to see how many changes the Predator and its details went through between the script stage and the final film. In every regard I find the film to be stronger, and I’d wager that most every other reader would feel the same. Something just feels “off” about this novelization, like it’s half complete or missing something. Again though I don’t think this is all Molette’s fault, as likely the script he’d been handed had a lot of issues of its own.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Mind Masters #4: Amazons

The Mind Masters #4: Amazons, by Ian Ross
March, 1976  Signet Books

There are a few changes afoot with this volume of the Mind Masters series; most notably, the author is now credited as “Ian Ross” instead of “John Rossmann,” but make no mistake it’s the same dude. Also there’s more of a team dynamic at play, with series protagonist Britt St. Vincent sort of brushed to the side for many sequences so that the author can focus on other members of Britt’s Mero Group. Also, believe it or not, there isn’t a single sex scene in Amazons, though it still brims with a general air of sleaze and exploitation, as is customary for the series.

Another change worth mentioning is the name of the villainous CIA psychic warfare lab that goes up against Mero; throughout the series Rossmann has referred to it as the “Hary Diamond lab,” but in Amazons it’s suddenly the “Harry Hammond lab.” Unlike the other changes, this one actually occurs in the novel; Rossmann writes “Harry Diamond” when he first mentions it early in Amazons, but thereafter it becomes “Harry Hammond.” So are we witnessing the mindset of a paranoiac at work? Did Rossmann, afraid he’d let out too many “secrets” with the previous three novels, suddenly get scared, changing his own name to a psuedonym as well as material within the actual book? Who knows.

Anyway, Britt’s life continues its hectic pace; this installment picks up apparently just a few weeks after #3: The Door. Britt’s now in Brazil, where he’s looking into a string of political murders that might or might not be tied into some ghost activity: Furtado, the CIA-backed new president of Brazil, has had a powerful medicine man killed, and word is the medicine man’s ghost is out for vengeance. But that’s just one of the plotlines; there’s also Dr. Sin, a North Korean anthropologist who’s gone missing down here. Like The Door, there are a wealth of plots going on in Amazons, and Rossmann skirts over some and forgets others.

As we’ll recall from the final pages of The Door, Britt’s also journeyed to Brazil due to reported sightings of valkyrie-like blonde beauties who have been seen with these politicians shortly before they turned up dead. As luck would have it, the mission coincides with Brazil’s infamous Carnival, during which a racing event will be held – perfect for the Mero Group’s cover as a racecar team.

Once again it’s the preparation for the race that takes the brunt of this portion of the storyline; very rarely do we see Britt or the team’s head driver, Greg, actually take part in a race. And also these prep scenes continue the series’s curious homoerotic tenor, with lots of otherwise-pointless details about Britt “gripping” gearshifts or screwdrivers or what have you. (Not to even mention the many, many references to Britt’s “heavy penis” and whatnot…sounds like a medical condition, if you ask me.)

While Carnival rages in all its uninhibited glory about them (which gives Rossmann ample opportunity to mention all of the “swaying breasts” and “erect penises” of the naked celebrants), Britt and teammate Karl head off into the jungle. Their destination: the ruins of a Mayan temple from which the dead medicine man’s ghost supposedly operates. Karl though can’t hack the bad vibes and takes off, leaving Britt solo. When he spots yet more swaying breasts and erect penises headed his way – a line of Carnival celebrants branching off into the jungle – Britt follows them and pretty soon gets his ass caught by bona fide jungle Amazons.

These statuesque blonde women are so incredibly beautiful that men lose all senses when looking at them; this though is due to their psychic powers. Also, they walk around the jungle fully nude! Shackled in their village in the depths of the jungle, Britt also meets Dr. Sin, the supposedly “missing” North Korean anthropologist. Sin is actually a James Bond-style villain and has come here to harness the psychic powers of the Amazons to take over Brazil…and then the world! Also, Sin is a hermaphrodite!!

The level of sleaze Rossmann descends to (ascends to?) throughout this section is a wonder to behold…naked Amazon beauties traipsing about; a CIA agent captured, tortured, roasted and then eaten; copious descriptions of Sin’s hermaphrodite anatomy; tons of strange scenes where a nude and shackled Britt loses sexual control of himself due to the psychic manipulations of the Amazons; and even an actualization of that curious tenor where Sin (consistently referred to as “he” in the narrative) grabs hold of Britt’s manhood seconds before Britt orgasms from the Amazonian psychic chicanery!

Again, the only thing missing here is an actual sex scene, which is only strange given how plentiful (and explicit) they were in previous volumes. What’s odd is that much is made of how the Amazon chieftess makes Britt her lover for one night, the challenge being that if Britt doesn’t please her she’ll have him castrated, but Rossmann doesn’t get into details on the actual night, despite building it up so much. (An even bigger miss is when, later in the narrative, Britt’s girlfriend/teammate Kelly is challenged to sexually pleasure the Amazons or face death…and Rossmann apparently forgets all about it!)

A staple of the previous books was the longwinded explanation the villain would give Britt once having him in custody. Here Rossmann takes that and basically spends around 75% of the novel on it; once Britt’s been captured, we are faced with an endless string of scenes where Sin will question Britt, baldly exposit on the latest metaphysical research, and then tell him his plans for world conquest. And of course Britt exposits right back; vast chunks of the Mind Masters books read like excerpts from a magazine article on ESP or psychic research or whatever, with quotation marks merely bracketing the information in a lame attempt at passing it all off as “dialog.”

Meanwhile Britt’s fellow Mero operatives try to find him. Kelly, the young American college student Britt saved back in London, in The Door (I’m sure we all remember that unforgettable and touching scene where she screwed the gearshift of Britt’s car, right??), has apparently become a fellow operative in a bit of narrative sleight of hand. Somehow in the unstated time between volumes she’s gone from London to LA, where she’s offered herself as a human guinea pig to Mero to test-case those psionic-boosting pills Britt popped in the last volume, and now she’s come to Brazil, here to put her newfound powers to use in the quest to rescue Britt.

Even Greg, previously a blank slate of a character, has a lot of narrative time here. Rossmann also builds up a nasty feud between John, the scientist of the team, and Kelly; the pointedly stated reason behind John’s dislike being the sole fact that Kelly is a woman. (Hmmm…) Whereas the earlier books shunted these other Mero members off to the side while Britt handled everything on his own, here we have extended sequences where we read all about their trials and tribulations.

Britt learns all about the Amazon beauties – and this being Rossmann, we learn all there is to know. They’re almost clones of one another, and savage rites ensure that only the strongest survive. Also, they rule men, keeping them shackled, castrating ugly and frail ones and keeping the “good” ones in breeding pits. And all men in the Amazon village are kept in line with a garrotte-like string that’s tied about their scrotums; one yank from an upset Amazon and it’s bye-bye to their balls.

Even though Rossmann denies us the scene, Britt apparently keeps the head Amazon honcho happy, but that doesn’t stop her from attempting to sacrifice him when Britt refuses to give Sin the info he wants. Sin, through some nebulous means, is able to rule the Amazons…Rossmann has it that his hermaphrodite nature gives him this privilege. Finally we have one of the few action scenes in the novel, Britt once again blasting away with psychic eyeblasts, as in the previous book…cue lots of “dialog” about how the fear of incipient death might unleash awesome psychic powers.

An interesting thing about Amazons is that our heroes are presented as a bunch of paranoid pill-poppers who are united against the US government. There’s a strong anti-US foreign policy sentiment at work here, very unusual in the world of men’s adventure. Sin rails on and on against America and how Vietnam was really waged so that the US government could get hold of more oil fields. (Which doesn’t sound familiar at all.) He claims that the US is doing the same thing in Brazil, looking to exploit the country’s untapped oil fields by installing a puppet president.

Also, Amazons is sort of like the men’s adventure novel Terence McKenna never wrote. There’s a goofy scene where Britt is saved by an actual ayahuasca vine – one that crawls across a field so that it can place one of those psionic-boosting pills in Britt’s mouth! There’s a lot of material in Amazons that could almost come out of McKenna’s 1993 book True Hallucinations, which served for an unusual reading experience for me, given that I’d recently listened to McKenna’s 1984 “Talking Book” audio production of True Hallucinations (complete with “psychedelic” sound effects and hippie rock…search for it online if you want an unusual listen on your work commute).

Rossmann eventually gets around to amping the tension. Kelly proves herself a more memorable protagonist than Britt, arriving on the scene and kicking Amazon ass in no time. Popping those pills and blowing blonde psychic warriors away with eyeblasts, she succeeds in getting herself crowned as the new chieftess, though as mentioned to do so she must pass two tests. First she must fight, unarmed, several ferocious men to the death, after which she must sexually satiate several of the Amazon women! But while Rossmann fully documents the first test, he completely omits the second, not even mentioning it again…and I doubt it was something the publisher cut out; a lesbian sequence would’ve been the least of this series’s exploitative moments.

There’s more action later in the tale as a CIA strike force descends upon the Amazon village, blasting away from some Huey helicopters. Here Britt, for I think the first time in the series, actually acts like a men’s adventure protagonist, going up solo against the invaders. Of course, he’s using his eyeblasts instead of a genre-customary machine gun or whatever, but still, at least it’s something. Strangely though Rossmann chooses not to end the novel with this powerful scene, instead apparently remembering all that shit about the medicine man’s ghost and so now focusing on that plot.

So then Amazons limps to a close as Britt and Karl dig up the medicine man’s body in an attempt to “free” the ghost, and then the spirit goes off and quickly wreaks vengeance…it’s all like Ghostbusters or something, and you wonder where the naked blonde beauties went. Oh, and Kelly’s passion for Britt has “cooled” in the weeks(?) since last seeing him, but she might still love him, or maybe not…I get the impression Rossmann is attempting to build up a long-simmer love story here, a will they or won’t they? sort of thing, which of course is rendered moot given how much sex Britt has with various women during any given assignment. (And one last time, let’s not forget that gearshift-screwing scene…)

Only one more novel in the series was to follow: Recycled Souls, which is actually referenced, by name, on the last pages of Amazons. In a “funny” bit of self-reference, Rossmann has it that Britt’s cases are given the same names as the actual Mind Masters novels, and “Recycled Souls” is the name of his next assignment. Also Rossmann slyly mentions again that “real” Mero operatives are out there, getting information out to the people…including one author who is writing it all under the guise of an action series.

So who knows, maybe there really are megalomaniacal North Korean hermaphrodites out there with an army of psychic Amazon warriors at their beck and call…

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cybernarc #1

Cybernarc #1, by Robert Cain
August, 1991  Harper Books

This obscure, six volume series might be untapped gold. You can hardly find anything about it online, other than this background info on the author’s website, “Robert Cain” being a psuedonym of prolific series author William H. Keith. But I’m here to tell you that, desipte the lack of reviews or online awareness, Cybernarc is friggin’ great, one of the best first volumes of a series I’ve yet had the pleasure to read.

If you check out the link above, you’ll see that the original plotline of the series was about “a whacked-out Vietnam vet” who built “a robot in his basement in order to take out drug lords all over the world!” Now, Keith went in a different, more “serious” direction, but damn if that original concept doesn’t sound so wacky and absurd as to be awesome. Regardless, Keith chose to favor more of a realisitc approach, but make no mistake – the protagonist of this series is a robot, and indeed one who takes on drug lords all over the world.

Like the abysmal Tracker series, the covers for this series mislead you into thinking it’s a sci-fi, “near future” sort of thing. In reality, Cybernarc takes place in the year it was published, 1991. It details the adventures of Rod, a human-looking robot created over the past two decades under CIA funding, a two billion-dollar construct that is the one and only output of the RAMROD initiative (“Rod” getting his name from the last three letters of the program’s name).

The idea was to create an army of android soldiers, but the project was so complicated and costly that Rod is the only prototype. He appears like a normal white male, with sandy brown hair and a “regular guy” sort of look. However he is capable of feats beyond normal humans, especially when he’s placed in “Combat Mod,” when Rod’s “Civilian Mod” body is replaced by a larger one of black titanium steel; in this mode he is basically a tank on legs.

Rod’s “teacher” is Chris Drake, a Navy SEAL and the co-protagonist of the series; like the Destroyer books, Cybernarc is built on a dynamic and rapport between two entertaining protagonists. In another divergence from the publisher’s original plotline, Drake isn’t a ‘Nam vet; instead, he’s only been a SEAL since ’79 and has racked up his extensive experience in covert ops. He has been chosen to be Rod’s combat instructor; the robot learns things through PARET, a cybernetic sort of mind-meld which allows him to learn directly from a teacher’s brainwaves.

This first volume details Rod and Drake’s entry into the war on drugs; true to the era in which it was published, Cybernarc is very concerned with drug barons and the increasing cocaine and crack pandemic, with the oft-stated fear that “within a few years” the streets of the US would become centers of open warfare among rival gangs. (As seen in such 1990 “near future” films as Predator 2 and Robocop 2; see the compelling but controversial book Freakonomics for a compelling but controversial reason why this future never happened. It has to do with the Roe vs. Wade decision…)

But again, this first volume takes place in 1991 and taps into two then-popular items in pop culture: action movies with drug lords as the villains (practically any Steven Seagal film of the time), and, of course, The Terminator. In fact I’m sure it’s not just a coincidence that this book was published around the same time that Terminator 2 came into theaters. Rod though is much more “human” than the Terminator, and a compelling theme of the novel is how, due to his PARET interactions with Drake, the robot is becoming more and more human.

This really comes to bear when Drake suffers a horrible tragedy in his personal life. The novel’s first action sequence has Drake in Columbia, where he’s to exfiltrate a DEA agent who’s gone undercover among the Salazars, a powerful drug-running family. The mission goes to hell when one of the DEA agents on Drake’s team, a bastard named Delgado, turns out to be a Salazar employee. Drake’s the only person able to escape the ambush and massacre. But the drug lords send Delgado and a team to Drake’s home and rape and murder Drake’s wife and daughter.

This harrowing scene sticks with you, as Drake arrives home just as it’s going down, and though he’s able to fight off his attackers, it’s too late to save his family. But since Drake is the only person to have seen the turncoat Delgado, the idea arises that via PARET feed Rod can see into Drake’s memory and print out a scan of Delgado’s face. This gripping scene has the outcome that Rod picks up not only on Drake’s memories but his emotions as well, something supposedly impossible for a robot, and comes out with feelings of loss, remorse, and hatred.

More action ensues as the drug barons continue to try to kill Drake. A great sequence has Drake and Rod attacked on the busy highways of DC, and this turns out to be Rod’s first taste of combat. Keith stays “realistic” with the action scenes, but when Rod goes into combat he’s free to veer into fantasy; simply put, Rod is a damn monster in battle, tearing off heads, pulling wheels off cars and hurling them with such force that they cause heads to explode, and gunning down people with unnering accuracy. It’s at this point you see how promising this series will be, as Keith delivers exactly the sort of stuff you want.

Just as importantly, Keith knows how to trade off between action and plot/character development. The novel is perfectly rendered in this regard…and hell, Keith doesn’t even POV-hop. He shows special skill with the scenes from Rod’s point of view; though you (and the characters) begin to think of Rod as a human, Keith will show how he’s so inherently different, capable of things beyond us but unable to grasp basic things like emotions or social dynamics. This of course leads to several humorous incidents, like when Rod blabs freely to two reporters that he’s a “top secret” robot because he’s never been specifically instructed not to say such things, and also his numerous attempts to learn how to tell a joke (this in particular elicits several action movie-esque one liners).

The biggest action scene has Drake, Rod, and a new team of SEALS head into Columbia, storming the Salazar fortress in an attempt to abduct Delgado. Here Rod is in Combat Mod, and we have such great moments as his ripping a .50 caliber machine gun from an armored car and firing it as a normal person would fire an assault rifle; he also tears apart another armored car with just his titanium-steel hands.

Drake also gets in on the action, doling out gory death with his Uzi (due to the PARET sessions, Rod too now favors an Uzi) and a Heckler and Koch automatic shotgun. The action scenes are nice and violent, by the way; in fact the only thing the novel’s missing in the pulp area is sex, but then what could you expect in a novel in which one of the protagonists suffers the loss of his wife and daughter. I guess the sex stuff will come up in a future volume…

I could rave on and on about this book. It was easily one of the best action novels I’ve yet read, and I’m super excited I lucked into the entire series for a pittance. The novel ends with Rod and Drake pledging to wage their own war against the drug lords of the world, and I can’t wait to read more about it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

SOBs #6: Red Hammer Down

SOBs #6: Red Hammer Down, by Jack Hild
May, 1985  Gold Eagle Books

Back in the mid-‘80s I subscribed to Gold Eagle books, and every other month I’d receive a package with the latest shipment of books. The SOBs series was one of those books; I’m not sure which volume I came in on, or how many of them I eventually collected, but I know I never read any of them. They sure looked good lined up on my bookshelf, though.

Anyway, “SOBs” stands for “Soldiers of Barrabas,” so named after their leader, Colonel Nile Barrabas, a white-haired ‘Nam vet who now commands this squad of mercenaries. As a kid I was more into the Gold Eagle exploits of Phoenix Force and Able Team, that whole Stony Man shared world, and it seemed clear that SOBs either took place in the “real world” or was at least unconnected to those more-popular GE offerings. Looking at the series now, though, it seems that SOBs might be the gem of the bunch.

Unlike the other Gold Eagle series, which were penned by an army of ghostwriters, SOBs was written by a small group of authors (under the house name "Jack Hild"), which must’ve made for a tighter sense of continuity. Also, the series was unique in that members of the team would die, so it wasn’t like Able Team where you knew that, no matter how bad this month’s threat was, the three team members would survive to fight another day.

This installment is considered one of the best of the series; I’m not sure if it’s one I had as a kid, but I have Mike Madonna to thank for sending me this copy. (And for that matter, I wonder if all of my old Gold Eagle books are sitting in a box somewhere in my mom’s house??) This one was written by Alan Philipson, a house writer who was cranking out books for Gold Eagle all the way up to 2008, but if his website is any indication he’s recently retired from the pulp biz.

Philipson’s writing is strong. The characterization, dialog, and plotting are all excellent in Red Hammer Down, above and beyond what one would expect from just another entry in a bimonthly action series. Unfortunately it picks up right after the previous volume, #5: Gulag War, also penned by Philipson, which apparently saw the SOBs break some scientist out of a Siberian prison, embarrasing the elite Soviet commando force Spetsnaz in the process. Now Spetsnaz wants revenge.

In particular, Captain Baladin of the Spetsnaz wants revenge – turns out he was castrated by Dr. Lee, the female member of the SOBs, in the previous volume, and now he burns with the desire to torture her to death. Balandin has an ace in the hole for his vengeance quest: Billy Two, captured American-Indian SOB. Baladin has stashed Billy in Moscow for the past month, torturing and drugging him. The rest of the SOBs think Billy died during the battle in the preceding volume, and Baladin plans to use him as bait.

Billy Two is easily the highlight here, and it’s my understanding that this volume saw a huge change in the character. Red Hammer Down opens and closes from Billy’s viewpoint (Philipson is so good he doesn’t even POV-hop!!), and having undergone heavy drug torture for the past month he’s now a bit skewed. The novel veers into the metaphysical right from the start as Billy astrally leaves his body and meets the Animal Spirit, symbol of his forefather, who tells Billy that he will emerge from this torture changed forever, but most certainly stronger.

Baladin sends out a few hit squads and Philipson delivers some fun sequences of the various SOBs tackling them. Most memorably is when Nanos “The Greek,” a muscle-bound member of the team, is hit on by a female weight-lifter in the gym; during some impromptu sex in the gym sauna she tries to kill him, like something out of an X-rated Bond flick. Philipson also has fun with the character Liam O’Toole, a SOB who has designs to become a published poet, but is told by his agent that he should sell out and work on greeting cards – surely a bit of personal commentary from Philipson.

But really the majority of the narrative deals with the Spetsnaz assault on SOB headquarters on the isle of Majorca. Here the team maintains an ancient fortress, surrounded by impenetrable forest; Barrabas is certain even the crackest squad of Spetsnaz commandos would have a hell of a time getting through it to them. So after learning of the various hit squad attacks, Barrabas orders the team to convene in Majorca, where they will make their final stand against Spetsnaz.

Over half of the novel deals with the climatic assault on Majorca. It’s almost like a piece of war fiction as the SOBs hole up from various positions of defense and repel the Spetsnaz invaders. It’s all taut and well done, with a very good “action movie” type of feel, especially when you have Billy Two (who frees himself in quite a novel and memorable way) running around and killing Russians, naked and ravaged by psychotropic drugs, a machine pistol in each fist. That is, when he isn’t talking to cockroaches who speak in the voice of Animal Spirit.

True to what I’ve read, the team suffers here; one of them dies in the assault, but of course it’s the one who is given the least amount of narrative time and has I think only one or two lines of dialog. The assault gets a bit tiresome after a while, as all plot and character development just stalls into an endless sequence of battles. What’s most frustrating is there’s no resolution – Baladin simply leaves after the SOBs fool him into thinking they’ve committed suicide with the destruction of their own fortress.

But overall I really liked Red Hammer Down, despite not having read the previous volume. Philipson’s writing is great and the characters are interesting enough that I’d like to read more about them, in particular Billy Two, who emerges here as a very memorable character…I gather future volumes play out more on his metaphysical bent, so that's something to look forward to. I say this because I recently picked up the entire SOBs series at a very nice price, so it should make for some enjoyable reading.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Price Of The Phoenix

The Price of the Phoenix, by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath
July, 1977  Bantam Books

Toward the end of the ‘80s I became less interested in men's adventure novels and more into sci-fi, in particular Star Trek. Luckily I never became a full-on Trekkie, but there was brief a time when I was heavily into the show, watching reruns, buying the movies on VHS, and even catching The Next Generation in its debut season. (I only managed to last for that one season, though.) Soon enough my bookshelf wasn’t just crowded with men’s adventure novels, it was also filled with Star Trek novels.

I haven’t read one of those novels since then, but the other day I was in a used bookstore and happened to be in the science fiction section. In the “series” area I was floored to see how many Star Trek novels they had – I mean, one whole shelf was devoted to them, and it was a big shelf. I ended up buying a handful, this being one of them – I liked the ‘70s look of the paperback and the plot sounded nice and cerebral, a little off the beaten Star Trek path.

Later I learned there was a bit of controversy around this book, with fans split down a sharp divide – they either love The Price of the Phoenix or they despise it. Marshak and Culbreath were members of the first wave of Trek fans, appearing at conventions and editing fanzines. They also edited a few Star Trek anthologies Bantam published around this time. Which would imply that they would at least know the characters from the show, wouldn’t it? Reading this book, you’d never think so.

Happily, I was unaware of something known as “slash fiction,” where Trek fans write fiction that plays up on a supposed homosexual relationship between Kirk and Spock. Sometimes the authors leave it subtle, unspoken, but others blow it up to laughable extremes. This book was my entry into this weird little fiction niche, as Marshank and Culbreath are very heavily in the “slash” category, and they’re also ones who take it to those extremes. But after reading the book I kind of wished I could go back to the time when I didn’t know what slash fiction was.

Okay, the novel opens with Kirk dead. Killed on some “hole in the wall planet” as he attempted to save a woman from a burning house (?). And yet this is all apparently a ruse of evil Omne, a muscle-bound humanoid with black hair and black eyes, who likes to go around in a black jumpsuit with gloves. Omne’s power and muscles are often described and he brings to mind Arnold Schwarzenegger. But beyond this he’s not human, and has more power than even a Vulan -- even a Vulcan, I stress, because the authors for some reason keep playing up the superawesome physical powers of Vulcans throughout the novel.

Kirk’s dead on the first page, and the book starts from Spock’s point of view, as he rages outside of Sickbay, waiting on an official word from Bones. As I said, other writers “subtly” play up the supposed Kirk/Spock relationship, but Marshak and Culbreath make it glaringly obvious; Spock rages and storms and weeps as if he has lost a spouse. And what makes it all the odder is that others are conscious of protecting Spock, of ensuring he doesn’t have to see Kirk’s dead body, of putting him through the horror of losing a loved one…I mean it’s just weird. And as the novel goes on, it gets weirder.

And I don’t say it’s weird due to any homophobic reasons; rather, it’s very unsettling how the authors treat Kirk and Spock throughout this novel, just downright creepy. Spock is constantly portrayed as the heartsick beyond-human who must overcome his desire to lash out in rage, trying to protect his meek and cuddly little Kirk. Speaking of which, there is a concerted effort throughout the novel to make Kirk seem weak and defenseless, and part of Omne’s master plan is to not only make Kirk cry (!), but also to get Kirk to kneel to him (!!) so that “alpha male” Kirk will know he is well and fully mastered. And yes, “alpha male” really is a term thrown around in the text, a lot.

It seems pretty obvious that The Price of the Phoenix is nothing more than a post-feminist revisionism of the Star Trek mythos, with a good heaping of homoeroticism overlayed. If that’s your thing, you’ll love the book. Otherwise, like me you’ll be pretty goddamn puzzled throughout. Seriously, it was like watching a car wreck, reading this book.

I guess I should get around to the plot. Omne has invented this sort of transporter which can pick up and store the complete psychic being of a person as he or she dies, basically the soul, and just as a transporter can reform physical molecules, Omne’s transporter can recreate the entire being, a perfect and exact duplicate with all of the same thoughts and etc as the original product. This is how the novel opens; Omne has arranged the death of Kirk and now unveils his replica (pretentiously referred to as “the Human” quite often in the narrative; just one of the authors’s many pretensions, in fact).

Omne tries to barter off this replica Kirk, offering him to Spock, who simmers and holds back his rage – again, the creepy connotation here being that Kirk is a dead spouse and Spock is going mad to get him back. But not content with this, Omne also barters the replicant Kirk to The Commander, a female Romulan starship captain who apparently appeared in an episode of Star Trek and so was quite popular with early fan fictioners due to her strong will and all that jazz.

The authors definitely have a knack for the kinky, even though they don’t elaborate on it. For one there’s the whole Kirk/Spock dynamic, but also they state quite obviously (and often) that The Commander wouldn’t mind having Kirk and Spock in her bed, at the same time. Anyway the authors insinuate that Kirk and the Commander had something going on after that episode (plus she also has the Romulan hots for Spock), and now Omne is offering the Commander her very own Kirk, in exchange for all sorts of pretentious and over-analyzed trade-offs.

But it develops that Kirk did not die – Omne transported him out of the burning house and now has him somewhere in the labrynths of his defense-shielded planet (which is decorated like the Old West complete with Romulan guards in “black levi’s” with six-shooters strapped to their belts!). Once Spock and the Commander are aware that the real Kirk lives, it sets up what proves to be the main portion of the narrative: the four characters plot against Omne while often stopping all action to stand around and discuss philosophical issues.

Actually what The Price of the Phoenix most reminded me of was those dialog and philosophy-heavy early episodes of The Next Generation; all cerebral masturbation and no action. We’ll get blocks and blocks of paragraphs as Omne will arrive on the scene and trade speeches with our heroes, and this goes on throughout. Every once in a while the authors will deliver a pretty sadistic fight scene, but they’re spare and brief and the violence is neutered by the psuedo-literary style.

The fights the authors provide the most detail for, of course, are the man-on-man brawls between Omne and Spock or Omne and Kirk, with lots of words spent on each thrust and slap and grunt. Pretty soon I got some sick enjoyment out of seeing how far these ladies would go in their quest for homoeroticism; the pinnacle is probably when Kirk takes away a mega-beaten Spock and rubs his entire body with a healing liquid of Omne’s, stripping Spock down and lathering him up good and proper from head to toe. My god, just kiss already!

Only toward the very end do the authors realize they can capitalize on the fact that they have two Kirks, and here the fun and goofy spirit of the original TV series returns as Kirk banters with himself.  In these few scenes the authors whittle back on their revisionist designs and allow the characters to breathe a little, and it lets you see how much fun this novel could have been. 

The novel’s only 182 pages but it seems a lot longer, and not just because of the tiny print. Marshak and Culbreath have a very affected style, with characters who talk solely in obfuscation. I kept reading how these two, given their diehard fan status, knew the characters so well, but to me these characters seemingly had nothing to do with the ones on Star Tek. Also their fan fiction roots shine through in that no one in the galaxy apparently matters other than Kirk and Spock – everyone seems to know of them, and as mentioned Omne’s whole plan is to master either or both of them, never mind that he’s created a device that could change the fate of the entire universe.

Marshak and Culbreath end the novel on a cliffhanger; they followed up the book two years later with The Fate of the Phoenix, which god help me I also bought. And by damn I’m going to read it. One of these days.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Hitman #1: Chicago Deathwinds

The Hitman #1: Chicago Deathwinds, by Norman Winski
March, 1984  Pinnacle Books

I first learned about this obscure, three-volume series via Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction, and though Brad’s description intrigued me, when I read Zwolf’s awesome and hilarious review of this first volume on The Mighty Blowhole, I knew I had to read it. I’m just sorry it took me so long. While it isn’t completely perfect, Chicago Deathwinds does reach some absurd heights and is just as goofy and fun as Zwolf says.

Norman Winski also wrote Able Team #2: The Hostaged Island, which, despite featuring a plot about bikers taking over an island, was actually more “realistic” than this first installment of The Hitman (not to be confused, by the way, with Kirby Carr’s earlier Hitman series). But then, Winski was hamstrung by Gold Eagle’s editorial policies for Able Team; here, presumably, he was allowed to give free reign to his own warped interests, so that Chicago Deathwinds comes off like a gore and sex-filled Looney Tunes cartoon.

Our protagonist is Dirk Spencer, a good-looking blonde treetrunk of 100% MAN who not only kicked a bunch of ass in ‘Nam but is also the son of a mega-rich tycoon and thus has millions of his own. Dirk is so often and so consistently described in the narrative as “the big blonde viking” and etc that it all just storms right over the edge of satire and straight into parody. Practically every time Dirk is mentioned we’re either reminded of his huge muscles, his height, his rugged but handsome features, or his powerful blue eyes.

Dirk Spencer is full-on wish fulfillment, driving around in his customized red Lamborghini Countach S (we’re told it’s the only one in the world), bedding one gorgeous woman after another, living the general high life as he jetsets about all the happening places on the globe. Despite which we’re told his life lacks meaning(!), and now, over a decade after returning from Vietnam, he feels adrift…he wants to make a difference in the world, to use his powers for the good of man, but doesn’t know what he can do.

Luckily Winski doesn’t spin his wheels; within the first few pages a black family Dirk is friendly with is killed by corrupt security guards who make it look like some drug-related gangland killing. Able to see through to the truth of the matter, Dirk buys a bunch of guns (including a rocket launcher), some fancy high-tech scrambling equipment, and stalks the two thugs. The scene in which he gives them their comeuppance is pretty great, with Dirk forcing the two to beat each other half to death, then blowing them away, then blasting their car with his rocket launcher!

Dirk gets such a feeling of self-worth from this that he decides to become a fulltime crimefighter. Dubbing himself “The Hitman,” he now goes about “undercover” in his Lamborgini (remember, there’s only one like it in the entire world), decked out in a black combat suit. Like Kirby Carr’s Hitman, this Hitman also wears a mask, a “black nylon stocking mask with eye slits.” Winski picks up the narrative a year later, and now Dirk is well into his new career, operating out of his Chicago penthouse and planning his next job.

This turns out to be a megalomaniacal politician named Augustus P. Murdoch who is an American Hitler in all but name, a type of character who can only exist in an action series novel. A West Virginia native(!), Murdoch lives in a high-security compound in Illinois, surrounded by armed goons (the Sentinels).  He's the figurehead behind the Nazi-like SPPA, the Society for the Protection of Pure Americanism, and of course his lunkheaded vitriol goes down great in the heartland. Dirk wants Murdoch dead not just due to his far-right sentiments but also because the guy was allegedly involved in some assassinations, including the bombing of a bus filled with Mexican immigrants. But most worringly, his public support is gaining and Dirk fears the bastard might become president someday.

That goofy but lurid opening has you expecting a rollercoaster ride, but once Murdoch is introduced Winski spins his wheels for quite some time. There’s very little action – of the guns and fistfights variety, at least. Winski doesn’t shy on the sex scenes and they’re all pretty damn funny. Dirk it seems has an excess of wrathful energy, particularly before going on a mission, and so will sap himself by hiring hookers when necessary. And yeah, “hookers” in the plural. (Of course, we’re informed that they’re “high-class” hookers. Only the best for Dirk!)

There’s also a much too long sequence where Dirk goes to West Virginia, hooks up with some locals, and plots to assassinate Murdoch during a festival here in his hometown. In a burst of pure deus ex machina it develops that Dirk also has a passing interest in daredevil flying, so he spots a prime opportunity when it turns out that part of the rally will involve daredevil stunt flyers! Dirk commandeers a plane and pulls off a fly-by shooting with an Uzi! It’s all so dumb and goofy you just have to laugh, especially when it’s revealed that Dirk merely killed a stand-in.

Winski has fun with the female villain, a gorgeous seductress named Sabrina who gets off on torture. She’s a pulpy villainess very much in the vein of Margot Anstruther, from Mark Roberts’s Soldier For Hire #8: Jakarta Coup. (Humorously, Winski constantly uses the adjective "serpentine" to describe her.)  Sabrina works as Murdoch's secretary and by all appearances is second in command, so Dirk moves in on her. In order to insinuate himself into the fold, Dirk pretends to be a supporter of the SPPA. Soon enough he’s getting in bed with Sabrina, but for some reason Winski shies away from detailing what would have undoubtedly been a whopper of a scene.  He does spend a lot of time leading up to it, though, including this stunner of a pargraph:

Cruising leisurely along Lake Shore Drive, Lake Michigan on their right a molten dull silver reflecting a lead bullet moon, the Hitman learned two more personal items about Sabrina.  One, she had an M.A. in business administration from the University of Chicago and, two, she was into fondling a man's balls as he drove, while she kept her other hand busy caressing herself.

The tale of course climaxes with Dirk, in his Hitman garb, pulling a one-man-army raid on the compound. The bastards have kidnapped a lady named Valerie, a TV journalist who was doing an expose on the SPPA, and wouldn’t you know it, Valerie just happens to be the only woman Dirk has ever loved. (Naturally, he had to break it off because the Hitman can’t get involved.) What’s funny is that Dirk knows they have her, even though she’s officially reported as “missing,” but he waits about a week to rescue her.

Winski’s action scenes lack the flourish of David Alexander, but they’re still appropriately gory. It seems that every time Dirk shoots someone with his Uzi he saws them in half. The finale also packs on a bunch of lurid stuff, with Dirk arriving to rescue Valerie just as she’s being sodomized by Murdoch in a De Sade-inspired dungeon, while Sabrina meanwhile stands by with a whip, forcing Valerie to perform cunnilingus on her!

But as mentioned it’s all just so goofy that you can’t take it seriously. Dirk blows away the villains and saves Valerie – who as you’ll recall has been tortured and raped for the past week – and he’s immediately checking out her "extraordinary lovely breasts" and wondering when they can spend some quality time together! Even funnier is that Valerie feels the same way! I guess Sabrina and Murdoch just served to get her in the mood.

Also worth noting is that Dirk is like an action movie hero in that he doesn’t just shoot the antagonist; no, he goes to extremes to really kill the bastard in a novel way. Also, like a few other men’s adventure heroes, the Hitman leaves behind a calling card: a false eye and a false set of teeth, symbolizing “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” However Dirk has to explain this to his enemies; note to all potential men’s adventure protagonists: If you have to explain your calling card, you need to get a new one.

Anyway, Chicago Deathwinds is both goofy and great; the opening and ending are lots of crazy fun, but the entire middle half is a bit padded. Not that this will stop me from eagerly reading the next two installments.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

John Eagle Expeditor #7: The Ice Goddess

John Eagle Expeditor #7: The Ice Goddess, by Paul Edwards
August, 1974  Pyramid Books

This volume of the Expeditor series marks the debut of Paul Eiden, the third author to serve under the “Paul Edwards” house name. Eiden’s writing is very similar to the other series authors (Manning Lee Stokes and Robert Lory), so it’s easy to see why series honcho Lyle Kenyon Engle gave him the gig. But man…Eiden takes an awesome and lurid plot and turns it into what is by far the most padded and boring installment yet.

What makes it so frustrating is that the last 50 or so pages of The Ice Goddess are so twisted and lurid. But to get there the reader must endure a snoozer of an opening 110 pages; this is the only book I know of where you could skip the first hundred pages and it wouldn’t make a difference. What makes it more sad is that the novel is only 172 pages long.

Anyway, this time John “Expeditor” Eagle is called in by his boss Merlin because Merlin’s people have detected something unusual going on in the Arctic…something about polar caps melting away, the possible eventual calamity that might ensue…something like that. Honestly, the threat here is so vague that you wonder why Eagle is even called in. There’s also the possibly-related detail that scientists are going missing; over the course of the past two years several top ones have just disappeared. (This is almost a retread of the inciting incident in #2: The Brain Scavengers.)

So Merlin sends his one-and-only Expeditor up into the Arctic on some vague wild goose chase…oh, and he puts Eagle in “the weasel,” a mega-expensive and mega-dangerous prototype snow-tank-vehicle sort of thing. Pages and pages ensue of Eagle driving the thing around; we’re endlessly reminded how dangerous it is, giving its inability to stop quickly on the ice and snow. Then Eagle spots a wayward Eskimo, being chased by a bear, and goes to help, destroying the weasel in the process.

Now Eagle is stuck with the Eskimo, who turns out to be a 14 year-old girl. She lives in an igloo with her husband, an 18 year-old with a bear-mauled leg. After dinner the husband offers his wife to Eagle, and Eagle accepts! My friends, you know it’s ‘70s pulp when the hero has sex with a 14 year-old girl. Eiden tries to play it up that the girl looks and acts much older than her years, and how Eagle has difficulty even thinking of her as being so young, but still…

That same night a bear attacks and Eagle kills it with an axe, but not after the husband has been killed. Now ensues like fifty pages where Eagle just sort of dicks around with the Eskimos, building igloos, fishing with the men, and living with the young widow! You could honestly cut out pages 40-96 because they ultimately have nothing at all to do with the story itself…just endless detail about life among the Eskimos.

Eventually Eagle comes upon an American-owned trading post not far from the Eskimo village, but even here Eiden spins wheels. I shit you not, there are endless pages in which Eagle just plays chess with the store owners! Have I mentioned that by this point a hundred pages have elapsed and Eagle hasn’t yet gotten into a single fight?

Anyway, after a full month Eagle is able to get back in touch with Merlin’s people, who send in an airplane to pick him up – cue more page-filling banality. Now, finally, around page 110 the novel begins. Eagle is given a one-man atomic-powered submarine (!) and sent into the Arctic Ocean, to research the area Merlin’s people have deemed suspicious. (Humorously, Eagle’s destruction of the expensive weasel – all to save some Eskimo’s life – goes unmentioned.)

Eiden fills up more pages as Eagle zooms around the freezing depths. Finally though he finds the culprit behind the shrinking Arctic crust – a city built beneath a dome of ice, a city filled with jumpsuit-wearing women who plot the destruction of all men! Now this is trash fiction gold, and it boggles my mind that Eiden took so damn long to get to it. But what’s even worse is that he rushes through it – Eagle scouts out the place in his chameleon suit, trying to figure out who these women are. How much better it would’ve been if Eagle had scouted the place early on, been captured or something, and then spent the entirety of the narrative here in this depraved place.

For it truly is depraved – dubbed the “Amazon Queendom” by its ruler, a gorgeous and statuesque blonde of Scandanavian descent named Julianna, the place is an all-female compound in which men are forbidden; those few men who are here have all been (willfully) castrated, or have had sex-change operations, or are gay.

Not that this stops our ruler from having fun; as Eagle watches from a closet, Julianna lounges on her massive bed with a few transsexuals and castrated men who take turns orally pleasing her, before she has full-on sex with a gay male (one of the few men here who hasn't had "the operation"), encouraging him with a bit of cocaine. Actually the coke flows freely throughout this scene, and it’s only after Eiden has described the proceedings in full that he has Eagle turn away in disgust!

It’s all so crazy, especially coming after so many, many pages of banality. This section is the most lurid yet in the Expeditor series, even moreso than anything in #5: Valley of Vultures. I guess the only thing missing in this one is the fact that Eagle himself, for once, doesn’t have sex while on the mission, even after running into a pretty kidnapped scientist named Irene, who helps him escape in exchange for her own freedom. (Eagle’s only bit of hanky-panky this time is before the mission, and interestingly enough it’s with his American Indian girlfriend Ruth, whom we’ve heard of before but never actually seen – and it turns out Eagle treats the poor girl like shit, screwing her, leaving her to cry when he says he “might not return” from this mission, then wondering about what “real woman” he’ll someday marry, and then screwing Ruth again once she’s stoped crying!)

But still, Eiden does little to build up this Amazon Queendom. He pours on the action at the end, with hordes of jumpsuit-clad women coming after Eagle with assault rifles. Eiden doesn’t get much into the violence factor, though Eagle takes out a bunch of these women, doling out clean kills with his ever-present dart gun. (And also, I have to admit being a bit unsettled with the image of our hero blowing away a bunch of women, but then again the guy did sleep with a 14 year-old earlier in the book, so what the hell.)

The expected confronation with Julianna is underwhelming; whereas the other two series authors likely would have played up some sort of lurid relationship between Eagle and the “Ice Goddess,” Eiden instead merely has the woman threaten Eagle and run away from him. I mean, the potential was there, dammit…that lurid scene with Julianna and her consorts proves she was looking for a “real man,” and per Eagle’s past exploits we know he has no problems with getting busy while on a mission.

But then, the entirety of The Ice Goddess is really just missed opportunity after missed opportunity. Even the ending is stupid; after blowing up the Queendom (giving the women a chance to escape beforehand), Eagle gets in a fight with a few of Julianna’s (male) martial arts champions, kills them, and then tells Julianna that her empire is over. Instead of fighting she just shrugs and blows herself up with her handy grenade! Eagle takes off with Irene in his one-man sub and that’s it.

Eiden’s next contribution, #9: The Deadly Cyborgs, sounds like another pulpy plot, something about android Yetis(!), so let’s hope in that one he gets a better grip on how to write a men’s adventure novel. As it is, the endless padding and inessential detail really overwhelmed the lurid quotient of The Ice Goddess, turning what should’ve been a phenomenal installment into a total bore.