New Short Review Up – Raiders of the Second Moon + Stat Blocks

Normally I would wait a few weeks and do a round-up of my Castalia House posts, but today’s post has vital gaming content, including how with two stat blocks and two magic items you could run Basil Wells’ Raiders of the Second Moon as an adventure hook for the Holmes Sample mega-dungeon.

Check it out!

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Short Review & Wargame Roundup

You may have noticed that I haven’t been making my Short Reviews or Wargame posts here lately.  If you didn’t already know that you could find them at the Castalia House blog, you know now.  If you’re only following me here, this is what you may have missed:

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-formula-for-conquest-james-r-adams/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-bubble-dwellers-by-ross-rocklynne/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-battlefield-in-black-by-george-a-whittington/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-grifters-asteroid-by-h-l-gold-as-harold-c-fosse/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/air-assault-on-crete/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/air-assault-on-crete-part-2-and-invasion-of-malta/

Today, my first of two pieces on Avalon Hill’s War and Peace is up:  http://www.castaliahouse.com/avalon-hill-war-and-peace/

Later this week, I’ll be digging into some Retro Fandom, sharing a few highlights from the letters section of the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.  What do I have in common with Algis Budrys?  We both want more Albert de Pina!

Short Reviews – The Sword of Johnny Damokles, Hugh Frazier Parker

The Sword of Johnny Damokles originally appeared in the March 1943 issue of Planet Stories.  The version reviewed was the reprint featured in the Fall 1953 issue of Tops in Science Fiction.

A tribe of evil Neptunian lizard men have stolen a copy of Mein Kampf and used it as a blue print to unite the other tribes of evil Neptunian lizard men to launch a war against Earth.  Only Ti, the brave spaceman, and Johnny Damokles, the charming Greek space cook, can stop them!

Seriously?  You need more than that?

Okay, I’ll talk about the two most interesting aspects of this story.  First of all, it’s worth noting that this piece was written mid-war; Greece had completely fallen to the Germans just two years earlier. Secondly, in the distance future portrayed in the story, out of all of the people in the human solar empire, only the Greeks managed to retain their unique cultural identity.

Of course, this means that Johnny Damokles comes off at first as a caricature of the fat clumsy Greek (“Why you a make the fun of the Greeks?  She are a great peoples!”), but he eventually wins over Ti by showing himself to be both brave and clever, willing to fight and brave death against tyranny to prove the worth of Greece’s greatest legacies of philosophy, freedom and individuality.

At least according to ISFDB, Hugh Frazier Parker never had any other stories published, which is a damn shame.

Short Reviews – And the Gods Laughed, Fredric Brown

And the Gods Laughed by Fredric Brown appeared in the Spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories.  The version reviewed was the 1953 reprint in the Fall issue of Tops in Science Fiction.

And the Gods Laughed is one of those stories that you can imagine inspiring things like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits.  In fact, I would not be surprised if there’s an episode of Outer Limits loosely based on this one.

The story is framed by the pastime of spacers telling each other tall tales of their previous space adventures to while away the time.  One of the guys mentions earrings, which sets the narrator off on his own story about a race they encountered on Ganymede, all naked except for giant gold earrings (‘where the earrings wore the natives’).  Long story short, the gold earrings are parasitic aliens with telepathic capabilities who take over and use the host bodies until they wear out.  They are limited by the intellect of their hosts so have been trapped on the planetoid with their primitive hosts until the spacemen from earth set down providing them an opportunity to escape.

There is some genuinely creepy imagery in this story.  The part that still sticks out in my mind, providing nightmare fuel, is when one of the natives is in the river and gets his legs bit off by some kind of giant crocodile; the native crawls out, walks around on bloody stumps for bit before handing his earring off to someone else and falling down dead.

The story was good enough that I almost felt that the twist ending detracted from it a bit; sometimes the better twist is to not jump on the obvious twist, but I still really liked this one.  These guys would make a great monster race to include in a tabletop game.  I might stat them up later today.

Short Reviews – Lorelei of the Red Mist, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury

Lorelei of the Red Mist by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury first appeared in the Summer 1946 issue of Planet Stories.  The version reviewed was the 1953 reprint in the Fall issue of Tops in Science Fiction featuring art and illustrations by Frank Kelly Freas.

FrankKellyFreas_TopsInScienceFiction_Fall1953_100

I am very disheartened to find that Tops in Science Fiction only lasted for two issues.  It was originally conceived as something like a “Best of Planet Stories” as a way for Love Romances Publishing to repackage older 1940s sci-fi with some new artwork.  It’s hard to say what might have been from this short lived title, but the contents and artwork, particularly Frank Kelly Freas’ contributions, were top notch.

I’ll probably get around to talking about everything in this issue (except for Robert Abernathy’s Saboteur of Space; after the previous 4 stories of alien queens, space grifters, Neptunian lizard Nazis, and body snatching parasites, a story where space ships were the only really fantastic element was just kind of boring), but with all of the Leigh Brackett stuff going on, I wanted to focus on Lorelei of the Red Mists first.

Criminal fugitive and d4 thief Hugh Starke (no relation to Eric John Stark) just stole a million credit pay shipment and has crash landed on a Venus filled with beautiful, statuesque naked* people who are pre-occupied with killing each other.  Naturally, Starke dies in the crash, but a very beautiful and very naked blue sorceress named Rann is all ‘don’t worry, I’ve got this’, and brings his consciousness back to life in the body of Conan**, warrior of Crom Dhu.  Of course, this Conan guy is chained up in Crom Dhu as a traitor, because he betrayed his people to the lovely and wicked Rann.  Rann is hoping that she can use Starke to finish off Faolan, the Lord of Crom Dhu that Conan blinded with his own hand, and the lovely warrior maiden Beudag, Faolan’s sister to whom Conan had been betrothed.

What follows is a story of love, betrayal, torture, bondage, zombies, and highly eroticized scenes of strangulation.  Seriously, I’m starting to think that Leigh Brackett might get off on the thought of women being strangled.  Also, holy shit, Brackett and Bradbury pulled off the whole Dead Men of Dunharrow shtick even better than Tolkien did!

It would be interesting to see the exact lines and boundaries of collaboration between Brackett and Bradbury here; from what I’ve read, Brackett started it, but got swamped with other writing projects like The Big Sleep so allowed Bradbury to finish it.  Everything about this story screams Brackett, though the violent and erotic aspects are ramped up even by her standards.  I wonder if Bradbury blushed when he was handed what Brackett had already written?  Then again, we tend to remember Bradbury as the kindly old man of Ray Bradbury Theater, the guy who wrote scary kids stories and that book you had to read in school, when in 1947 fandom was asking “how did you wean Ray Bradbury away from his naked dames long enough to write Rocket Summer?

* : Justified for the people of Crom Dhu in that the endless war has ruined their textile industry. Rann just likes showing off her emerald tits.

**: According to Brackett, it was supposed to be an homage to Howard but later considered naming the character Conan a mistake.

 

Short Reviews – Beer-Trust Busters, A.R. Stuart

Beer-Trust Busters by A. R. Stuart appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

This is by far one of the strangest stories I’ve come across in PS.  It takes a lot of cues from the sort of blue-collar working-class comedy of the day from TV and Film shorts or radio shows and reads across very much like a radio drama, narrated in the first person by one of the characters in the common vernacular.  Three asteroid miners come back from a long haul and are prepared to squander their riches in the bar, only to find that some guy had the good fortune to both own a sizable portion of the breweries in the solar system AND be a member of the government agency that has just enacted new punitive taxes on the malting process, thereby enabling him to double the price of beer throughout space by squashing out his competitors.

The good ol’ boys are determined to stick it to the high fallutin’ bastard, but they aren’t sure how yet.  So they go on a wild and drunken bender, determined to set a new record for days gone unsober, but damned if those high beer prices don’t make it tough, and hard liquor will get you too drunk too quick!

Well, after the drunken bender, one of them figures that Einstein says orbital gravity requires a center of mass and will necessarily create one in its absence, so all they’ve gotta do is get a bunch of asteroids, set em in orbit, and mass will gather at the centrifugal point once they’re spinning fast enough, thereby creating artificial solar systems that will be legally distinct from THE solar system and exempt from the malt tax.  Not only can they brew their own beer tax free, but brewers can buy the rights from them to build factories on the asteroids.  The bad guy shows up (with the girls they’d met earlier in the bar on each arm, no less!), tells them he’s gonna nuke their micro sun, but ends up getting smooshed by one of the asteroids they’re setting in motion.  The three blue-collar spacers are now set up to be rich space real estate moguls and will have all the cheap beer they can drink.

I’m disappointed that this is one of only two known stories published by Stuart, the other being Tamba’s Drum in Jungle Stories, because this was a riot.  It could just be Planet Stories, but the depiction of space being filled with blue-collar workers, particularly miners, construction workers, engineers and porters (the same sort of adventurers who today would drop everything and move to the Dakotas to get in on the shale boom) may actually be more ubiquitous in late golden age sci-fi than your typical Mil-SF setting in which all spacers are part of some Starfleet-esque body.  Space wasn’t just a place where soldiers fought alien wars, it was where you earned your living. Whether in a bawdy farce like this or in a more serious potboiler like The Martian Circe, sci-fi writers spent a lot of time looking at what the space-age joe-average would be dealing with on a day to day basis, how he’d kick back and relax, not to mention the sort of recreational substance abuse that would go on.  Being so advanced a civilization as to have space ships isn’t going to make us magically ‘better’ or ‘enlightened’ in the way we see depicted in settings like Star Trek.  No, we’re still going to have our loud-mouthed working class folks who bitch loudly about taxes, bureaucrats and government overreach and will do whatever they can to undermine systems that oppress human leisure. God bless ‘em!

The illustrated scene of the three characters tossing Amos and Andy off their bar-stools does not actually appear in the story.

 

Short Reviews – The Last Monster, Gardner F. Fox

The Last Monster by Gardner F. Fox appeared in the Fall 1945 issue of Planet Stories.

So far, Gardner F. Fox’s The Last Monster has been one of my favorite stories in this issue.  I will now put him alongside Misha Burnett in the very short list of authors who write Lovecraftian monster stories I don’t hate.

Stories from monster/alien perspectives are so old-hat that they’re often seen on lists of markets’ story ideas that they won’t accept because they’ve seen it all before.  But this was 1945, the War was not yet won, and Fox sold Planet Stories a piece about the last member of a great ancient race of tentacle monsters from beyond the stars.

Irgi is the last of his kind and acts as the custodian of his people’s world and heritage.  Alas, he discovered the secret of immortality too late to save his people, but he can at least keep their treasures safe and clean.  But he is so lonely!  When he wishes upon a star that he were not so lonely, what should appear but a spaceship of humans on an urgent mission…

Everyone is dying of space cancer and Brave But Tumorous Space Captain and his crew of Nice Guy with Dying Wife, Convict Miner and Thick Accent Gutter Trash are the only ones desperate enough to go off in search of the Radium deposits necessary to create cancer medicine, and find themselves on Irgi’s world.

Irgi is delighted to have company while the humans are terrified by a giant tentacle monster.   Irgi subdues the crews, after he realizes they can’t understand his vocal frequency, so he can cure their cancer and prove his friendship, but when Gutter Trash escapes, messes with immortality/cure-all machine and gets obliterated, the other humans begin to panic as they think they’re being taken to their doom.  Irgi feels awful; the only way he can prove his intentions is by curing the humans.  He recalibrates the machine from his own frequency to that of the humans and uses it to cure the crew.  Then he loads everything up on their ship and sends them off with a wave.  He knows he can’t go to earth, because humans would be scared of him, but he can now die, his source of immortality gone, in the knowledge he will be remembered as a hero, just like George Washington, and maybe have statues built in his honor.

The humans leave the doomed Irgi, wondering what the hell that strange awful monster was but glad that they would all soon be rich and famous for finding the cure for space cancer.

Damn.

I’m beginning to think that radiation cancer is kind of a thing with Fox, as it’s the second story of his I’ve read out of three in which radiation disease is a key plot point.  In Fox’s sci-fi future, anyone who travels in space is pretty much doomed because deadly space rays lead to space cancer.  It’s certainly an aspect of sci-fi space-travel adventure that you don’t see being addressed by many of his contemporaries, even when the power of atomic radiation is acknowledged.  It’s also far less preposterous than the radiation emitting monolith in Fox’s Arsenal of Miracles that is the cause for the eventual death of all living things.  The human characters are pretty generic tropes, but they’re not the worst and they get the job done. Irgi is not particularly nuanced, but one certainly has to feel for him, and this story does tug at the heart-strings.  And it DOES make you think what it must have been like for the last of those Great Races of Lovecraft as their mighty civilizations were in their twilight years; would they be remembered as great scientists and builders or as monsters?