Quick Review of Soulfinder: Black Tide

Soulfinder: Black Tide (Book 2) - Hardcover

Recently got in my copy of Doug Ernst’s newest installment of his Soulfinder series, Black Tide.

With everything Tim Lim has going on, Doug had to switch artists, but with Matt Weldon taking over pencil duties, it still has excellent artwork.

The core of Black Tide is a nautical horror/monster story; a cultist in the navy absconded with a nuclear sub and its crew and is looking for an incorruptible who sank to the bottom of the ocean. Without offering up too many spoilers, they go out to sea, encounter the cultist, fight the monster.

The most impressive part of Black Tide may be its gorgeous packaging; I don’t think I’ve EVER seen a comic presented as nicely as this–multi-textured casewrap hardcover, heavy-stock pages, gold-foil leaf, sewn in ribbon. It’s REALLY nice.

The comic itself was good, but I don’t think it was quite as good as Demon’s Match. This might just be a matter of taste, but the first Soulfinder delved a bit deeper into the characters, and I think that’s where Ernst’s work really shines. In Black Tide, the characters are there but the circumstance of their mission has to carry the book, because there’s not much new that we see in regards to their backgrounds.

If I had any real complaint about Black Tide, it’s that the story didn’t have enough space to properly breathe and unfold. The setup is one which should allow for a greater buildup of menace and suspense. But I also understand that there’s always the fear with the graphic medium that decompression not only leads to pacing issues, it inflates costs. That said, I think that Black Tide needed more pages and more time to let the tension between the Soulfinders and the crusty old sea captain simmer. I also think that a longer story would have better suited the ultra-deluxe presentation of this volume. Strangely, while both Demon’s Match and Black Tide are 56 pages (I actually had to check), Black Tide felt substantially shorter.

Fans of the first Soulfinder will enjoy this–I did–but I don’t know that Black Tide is a good jumping on point for new readers, particularly at its price. The production values certainly justify the price point, but some readers may want more story for their money.

You can get Soulfinder: Black Tide direct from Iconic Comics.

Guest Post: God’s Teeth! A Review of David Quammen’s Monster of God, by J. Comer

Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the  Mind: Quammen, David: 9780393326093: Amazon.com: Books

Larry Niven’s masterpiece Ringworld includes a conversation which alludes to SF world-making in a mildly funny way. Louis Wu’s shipmate Teela Brown objects to the idea that the makers of the Ringworld would bring only “safe” animals to their artificial world; she asks “What if the Ringworld Engineers [who built the huge Ring] liked tigers?”

In Monster of God, the science writer David Quammen, author of Song of the Dodo, travels through five landscapes seeking the last large predators and comes to what he calls a “science fiction ending”. 

Most readers of Cirsova don’t come here for the science, and some will question the review of a zoology book on this site.  Nevertheless, worldbuilding for fantasy, gaming, and SF authors usually includes descriptions of animal life, as well as the role played by predators in myth, art, and the story itself. 

Good world-makers, such as Hal Clement, craft all from top to bottom; some more careless authors simply throw a slew of carnivorous beasts at their heroes without wondering who eats whom. On Earth, the top predators which have survived the end of the Ice Age are central both to ecology (as keystone species) and to myth (as gods, as beings created by God, or as the enemies of gods or heroes).

The four ‘monsters’ of the title are lions in India, crocodiles in Australia, bears in Romania, and Siberian tigers. In each case we look both at the beasts and at the humans who have to deal with them: avoiding them, fighting them, hunting them, worshipping them.

The book reflects on the past as well as the future: like the makers of the Ringworld, we are building a habitat which is more and more artificial.  In our future, will we like tigers? Will we like them enough to give them enough space to live freely in the wild? And will we like them enough to tolerate them occasionally killing us?             

What can we make of this sojourn through lions, and tigers, and bears (and crocodiles!)?  On one level, the travel story is light reading, like a Bill Bryson story with more science asides.  The careful reader will note that the science is a very readable introduction to topics like trophic collapses and keystone predators (this section could make a whole fantasy campaign in a setting such as Nicholas Eames’ or Lois McMaster Bujold’s worlds, where losing one species, even a mightily nasty one, causes all heck to break loose).  On another, the SF writer could see here a reply to Niven’s question.  Well, what if they liked grizzly bears? Heinlein’s dragon-infested forest in Glory Road is an example of a good use of these concepts; there are many others. 

The book is a lesson, an enjoyable one, in how to use animals such as Burroughs’ banths or the “grezzen” in Buettner’s novels.  The thoughtful author or GM will profit from reading it.  Recommended.

Review: The Blazing Chief + Changing of the Guards

I’m long overdue on this review of The Blazing Chief, the third and final book in Matt Spencer’s Deschembine trilogy. Awhile back, Matt sent me review copies of some of his stuff, and apparently some of our review was glowing enough to be included in the ‘praise’ section for this volume! You can check out those reviews here and here.

I’ll also note that Matt Spencer has a Deschembine gaiden story that was published in our 2020 Fall Special.

The most important question about any final book in a series is, did it stick the landing? Was it a satisfying conclusion to the story being told and did the loose threads get tied up?

I’d say, for the most part, yes.

One of the things that I noted when reading The Night and the Land was how, despite being an almost complete monster, by the end of the book you felt for Sheldon and even if you didn’t want him to succeed, you were kind of glad he survived his encounter with Rob. As the trilogy unfolds, Spencer leans into this, and while you can’t really call him the protagonist in a book with so many shifting view points, by the end of book 3, he’s something of “the hero, ackshually,” particularly as the focus shifts away from Rob as a person and more a force or nature.

I’ll admit that one of the plot twists part way through this final installment was something of a gut-punch that makes a big chuck of the story something of a shoot-the-shaggy-dog. Spencer is generally pretty liberal with his character deaths, but they’re usually secondary characters. This one was almost as surprising as when Tomino killed off Amuro halfway through the last Gundam novel (though admittedly Spencer handled this one better.)

In a way, it serves to remind that in times of crises, it’s not just one person’s story, and everyone else’s stories still go on without them, but it’s a risky choice to make in a fictional story.

Where The Blazing Chief succeeds best, I think, is its transition from modern fantasy [it’s hard to call it Urban Fantasy, when so much of it takes place in small towns and rural backwaters] to mythic fantasy. Readers who are waiting to finally get a glimpse of Deschemb will not be disappointed.

Overall, I’d say The Blazing Chief delivers a satisfying ending to series. Given the “deep lore” nature of this trilogy, I think it’s even worth it to go back and reread the whole series after finishing this one.

I also received a copy of Changing of the Guards, which is a prequel/sidestory that takes place in Old Deschemb that was written while the rights to trilogy were in limbo with a past publisher. I actually read this before The Blazing Chief, but I hadn’t had a chance to review it.

Changing of the Guards is an action-packed grimdark fantasy with lots of brutality, blood and guts, etc. It’s all right for what it is, but I think it lacks some of the spark and mystery of the main Deschembine books. While Spencer was able to craft an incredibly deep and mythic setting on earth with aeons of a hidden secret war occurring beneath the noses of mankind [until everything blows up] with the Deschembine Trilogy, Deschemb itself in Changing of the Guards feels a bit flat. I think the biggest weakness in Changing of the Guards is the anachronistic dialog–the sort of speech that worked well in the Deschembine Trilogy, which mostly took place on contemporary earth, felt strange in the mouths of fantasyland characters. Most notably, I’d say, “glowstick” as a pejorative for Spirelights makes sense in a contemporary setting, but not in a fantasy world that ostensibly never had a candy-raver scene.

Also, some of the violence and brutality was a bit too callous for my taste. While the Deschembine Trilogy featured a pretty rough cast, and most of the characters had done some really bad thing at some point or another, you still got the feeling that some of them were good people trying to do good in some rough and rotten circumstances. You don’t really get that in Changing of the Guards, where the characters are all almost irredeemably and unapologetically evil, with the only saving grace being that their machinations are aimed at individuals even more corrupt and evil than themselves.

That said, it was still an intriguing read and worth checking out if you can’t get enough of Deschemb.

Short Reviews – The Golden Fleece: A Romance, by Julian Hawthorne

The Golden Fleece: A Romance, by Julian Hawthorne, was originally published in the May 1892 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. It can be read here.

When you go into a book with a title like “The Golden Fleece,” you don’t expect a modern adventure in the American Southwest [California, particularly], but here we are!

The titular Golden Fleece, in this case, is a mysterious wool garment with strange symbols woven into it. Is it under an enchantment? Is it a map to lost Mesoamerica treasure? Who knows! It has been passed down matrilineally and ended up in the hands of the mixed-race daughter of a general who fought in the Mexican American war.

The setting and much of the background are revealed through an airy and whimsical dialog between an old professor and his friend, an old general who fought in the war with Mexico. After the war, the general settled down with a beautiful Mesoamerind woman and now has an alluring daughter who is her spitting image. The daughter has an old Indian servant who had been something of a oathman to her mother, but more on that in a minute… The general and the professor discuss the possibility of treasure in the California desert–the greatest treasure would be fresh water that would make the land arable and instantly much much more valuable to investors who had purchased it cheaply. On his way to possibly assist in the endeavor is a young civil engineer who was once a student of the professor.

The old Indian manservant is actually a witch priest in service to the last princess of an Aztec city; he’s been kept immortal by the gods so the treasures of the city could be restored to the rightful owner. He’s able to bring the spirit of the dead princess into the host body of the general’s daughter. Both the princess and the girl she’s possessing fall in love with the young civil engineer, creating an awkward love triangle. The princess is determined to get the treasure back so she can shower the young man with wealth. The old Indian becomes reluctant to assist because he feels bad for the girl and it would be a disaster if the spirit of the princess killed her.

The Golden Fleece turns out to be some sort of protective garb [whether magical or mechanical is never explicitly stated] that allows the wearer to enter the lost pyramid [revealed by seismic activity] and retrieve the chest with the hidden treasure without being harmed by the poison gasses in the treasure room. Removal of the treasure chest also unstops the spring which will flood the valley with fresh water.

There’s a hackneyed sub-plot where the engineer initially meets and falls for a shop-girl who’s coming out west from New York. The engineer instantly falls for the beautiful Mestiza girl, and cultivates a rivalry with a local Mexican aristocrat in an attempt to distract the shop-girl and fix their attentions on one another. The protagonist is kind of a dick, and you feel for the poor Mexican sod who he corners into potentially dueling to the death [as the professor says, it would have been an execution had he gone through with it], but the Mexican guy does end up with the shop-girl and they live happily ever after–even after he finds out she was a lowly shop-girl, his fascination with modern American capitalism leads him to placing her in even higher esteem when he finds out.

Now, I say that it’s hackneyed, and it kind of is, but Hawthorne’s breezy writing style brings enough wit and humor to it that it’s still enjoyable. In fact, that can be said for the whole book in some regards. While it’s not particularly innovative [it’s a very typical lost city/lost treasure story] and the characters are VERY flat, there’s something about the flow of Hawthorne’s prose that still makes it a delight to read. There’s a bit of musicality to it, and some clever humor, though, unlike many authors who write clever, he never seems too enamored with his own cleverness. There is also a stab at making a statement on mixing of ethnicities, royal and common blood, and how America has made such a thing uniquely possible, with the unions of the A & B couples of the story symbolizing the triumph of the time and ideas, but it doesn’t really beat you in the face with it and may be easily overlooked.

It’s worth checking out, to say the least. I managed to read the whole thing in one sitting Saturday night.

Will definitely be looking at more of Julian Hawthorne’s writing in the near future. The man was apparently incredibly prolific, and he even wrote some early science fiction, though virtually none of it is presently available.

Two New Reviews! Tangent on Cirsova #5 [Out Today!] and Castalia House on Endless Summer [Out Now!]

The Winter Issue is out today!

Tara Grimravn has an absolutely glowing review of the latest issue posted on Tangent Online.

Cirsova is back in time for the holidays with Issue #5, bringing with it a collection of ten great stories. If war criminals, espionage, and alien threats with a little bit of sword and sorcery thrown in sound like something up your alley, I recommend taking a look!

Also, Nathan Housley digs deep into Misha Burnett’s Endless Summer at Castalia House.

Ten years ago, it was popular for a certain segment of Science Fiction and Fantasy Fandom to wax eloquently about Kipling’s “Sons of Martha”, in whose care “that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.” And while some came close to the idea Kipling expressed, they approached it from the point of view of supervisors and managers. The actual fabricators and maintenance personnel remained invisible.

Until now. Until Misha Burnett’s Endless Summer, a collection of 12 science fiction tales and nightmares dealing with the efforts, often thankless, needed for humanity to live and thrive, whether in the current day or some far-flung future. Sprinkled throughout are nightmare where those efforts are no longer to hold back that other peril, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”. And behind it all is love, in all of its twisted yet still hopeful forms.

If there is one word that sums up Misha’s writing, it might just be Selah. Meditate on these things. Extremely contemplative, extremely blue collar in a way the Expanse guys wish they were. Never just a popcorn story. Misha is a rarity in the current time, a science fiction writer who lustily embraces the New Wave instead of avoiding it. And he brings that dream-like fascination with humanity in all its varied and occasionally malignant forms to his stories.

Review: The Long Moonlight, by RazorFist [spoiler-free]

I recently had the privilege of receiving an arc copy of RazorFist’s new story, The Long Moonlight from Castalia House.

It was a fantastic read, and the whole time, it had me thinking, if they ever try to resurrect Thief IP again for a 3rd time, Razor would be a great choice to head the story direction.

The story follows the rising and falling fortunes of Xerdes, a thief who finds himself in the employ of one of the city’s top crime lords. There are plenty of swashbuckling fights, daring capers, and deadly betrayals along the way, for a pretty edge-of-your seat read.

Razor is prone to get a bit florid and certainly has some room to grow, but The Long Moonlight is an incredibly promising first outing that bursts at the seams with his love for sword and sorcery and, yes, noir.

The story bills itself as a pulp noir crime thriller set in a low fantasy setting. There’s definitely more noir, I think, than pulp, and the pulp is more 60s and 70s pulp revival than classic pulp, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a dark and vicious tale, bloody and unpredictable to the very end.

I would absolutely recommend that anyone who is a fan of Fritz Leiber, Thief: The Dark Project, or of our own magazine check out Razor’s new story. I, for one, can hardly wait to read his next one.

Review – Matt Spencer’s The Trail of the Beast

A while back, Matt Spencer sent me a copy of the second edition of his contemporary quasi-urban fantasy novel, The Night and the Land. A review for it can be found here.

Earlier this year, he sent us the next book in the sequence, The Trail of the Beast.

Let me tell you: it’s fantastic.

I think that the best thing Spencer does in his writing is create a mystery story, where the world and its history are the mystery to be solved. The characters we follow all have small pieces of the puzzle [though some are larger than others]: what is the Old World? What is Deschemb? Who, or what, are the Spirelights, Schomites, and Crimbone really?

There is a hidden secondary world, which some characters are in on from the beginning to some degree, while other characters come to learn more about it, themselves, and their relationship to it as the story unfolds. Individuals who only have a small inkling of the true nature of the world and the conflict they are a part of are trying to come to terms with a possible mass-cosmological shift while still discovering the nature of the old cosmology that had been kept hidden.

Okay, it maybe sounds confusing when it’s put that way…

On the surface, there a sort of Hatfield and McCoy blood-feud between two races that originate from an alternate earth. This conflict has spilled onto our world as the races have colonized and either remained hidden or tried to blend in with human society.

It kind of has a ‘werewolves and vampires’ vibe to it, but the superhuman races don’t really line up with either of those, so the results are very uncanny.

Five years have passed since the events of The Night and the Land–Rob and Sally have tried to make their own place where they can hide out from the conflict between the Spirelights and the Schomites. Sally’s little brother Sheldon is stuck dealing with the repercussions of his fight with Rob and the experiments his own people have done on him to try and figure out how Rob’s blades changed him. We also get more of Jesse and Zane, who’d been sort of failed would-be mentors to Rob in the first book, trying to solve the mysteries of what the heck the Schomites did to Sally when she was in New Orleans that kicked off the whole crazy series of events.

A Spirelight bounty hunter manages to abscond with Sally, sending Rob on a spree to look for her, as he goes uniting packs of Crimbone, upsetting the Schomite earth order, and slaughtering Spirelights, bringing the hidden war into the open in a way that neither the Earth nor the Deschembine authorities can ignore or bring to a halt.

Spencer does a fantastic job balancing the tale told from a number of perspectives. It’s an exciting and unpredictable story, both beautiful and savage.

Like The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast is an incredibly grisly and graphic tale; it’s definitely not for everyone. In the questionable cosmology, good and evil are not well defined, perhaps largely because the truth about its nature is so hidden–instead, you have a world where gut instinct must be trusted, because that is the only truth that can be counted on. As such, you have very few, if any, characters you can point to as ‘good guys’, though with a few exceptions of the truly perverse villains, all of the characters are somewhat sympathetic, and even relatable, despite often being at odds [at best] or being monsters [at worst].

When I reviewed The Night and the Land, one of the things I mentioned was how, despite everything that happens and despite everything that he did, I found myself almost cheering for Sheldon by the end of the book. Trail of the Beast, in a lot of ways, is Sheldon’s book–here, he is able to fight for redemption and really earn some of that sympathy. Rob becomes less of a character and more a force of nature that the other characters must survive in spite of.

I would’ve liked to see more of Puttergong… He’s around, and still an important mover, but we don’t really get anything from his perspective in this book. I mostly bring that up because, despite my normal tastes and the fact that it shouldn’t work at all, Matt Spencer actually wrote Puttergong’s perspective sections in a 1st person present tense [the rest is all 3rd person past] and he made it work! So, I actually kind of missed those bits.

Anyway, I mentioned that a big part of what makes Spencer’s world so fascinating is the mystery behind the hidden secondary world. We’re incredibly thrilled that one of the short stories that will help shed some light on the mysteries of Spirelights’ and Schomites’ past will be featured in our Fall issue! Be sure to stay tuned for details on how you can get your hands on it.

Until then, be sure to grab a copy of the Summer issue, out the first week of August!

Through Whitest Africa: Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar by Philip José Farmer and The Song of Kwasin by Philip José Farmer and Christopher Paul Carey [Guest Post by J. Comer]

Few writers are as closely associated with the pulp tradition in SF and fantasy as the late Philip José Farmer (1918-2009).  Best known as the author of the Riverworld and World of Tiers series, Farmer penned five dozen novels and over a hundred short stories, winning three Hugo Awards across a writing career more than fifty years long.  He was the first major SF writer to deal with sexual themes as graphically as the mainstream authors of his time (The Lovers, 1952), carried to extremes with the horror-porn A Feast Unknown (1969), one of sixteen Farmer novels in which characters based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan appear. 

     The mention of Tarzan brings us to an aspect of Farmer’s work of interest to Cirsova.  Farmer was fascinated by the pulps and by classic adventure literature. He constantly pastiched their style and included characters referring to them, even linking many major pulp heroes and heroines into a “Wold-Newton Family” lineage.  Tarzan so intrigued Farmer that he deconstructed the science behind the ape man (Lord Tyger, 1970)  and wrote a ‘biography’ of His Lordship (Tarzan Alive (1972) as well as narrating the ultimate fate of Tarzan as a time traveler (Time’s Last Gift, 1972). 

     One aspect of Tarzan’s adventures is his penchant for discovering or finding lost cities and otherwise unknown civilizations.  Opar, which appears several times in Burroughs’ Tarzan tales, is one such, a city in the Congo whose men are hairy beasts and whose women are lovely Caucasians, such as the priestess La, modeled on Rider Haggard’s Ayesha.  Farmer could not help but be fascinated by questions about Opar’s origin and development, and pursued them in Tarzan Alive.[1]

     In Hadon of Ancient Opar he presents a tale of the Ice Age in Africa. Some readers will not care for the earthy, rough sexuality which still has the power to shock and disturb, despite the passage of decades.  Willy Ley’s “Chad Sea” and “Congo Lake” (Engineer’s Dreams, 1954) are present here as Mediterranean-like basins, while cities of a Jakob Bachofen-type matriarchy (Mother Right, 1861) flourish all around. Hadon, a sports champ/gladiator, is to become king but is instead sent on a deadly mission, and we’re off into whitest Africa, with Rider Haggard’s characters Laleela and Paga appearing alongside the Hercules-like Kwasin and the mysterious “grey-eyed god” Sahhindar; it will require very little effort on the reader’s part to realize who the ‘god of time’ is intended to be.

     While a place oddly near the actual Bantu homeland (Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1997) is designated as a black urheimat, the people of this ancient Africa are Caucasians or beast-people (Neanderthals and so on) and various crossbreeds.  While numerous black characters appear in Farmer’s work, the black erasure in these books is questionable to say the least. This reviewer understands the presence of Neanderthals in Europe and Asia, but even when Farmer wrote these books, it was pretty clear that the Neanderthals, adapted to glacial conditions, would never have been numerous in a warm climate.

     The pulpy fun continues in Flight to Opar. The crew needs to reach Hadon’s home city for the birth of his daughter, and aren’t deterred by religious war, a usurper king, and graphic descriptions of sewage being dumped. As always Farmer’s grasp of action writing is a pleasure. Finally the motley bunch reunites with Hadon’s aged father and beloved brother, and the wild action comes to an end.

     And so did Farmer, who lived to be ninety-one and a beloved great-grandfather. He left unfinished work behind, including The Song of Kwasin, a novel about Hadon’s Goliath or Hercules-ish cousin.[2]  Christopher Paul Carey finished the book and published it in Gods of Opar (2012), which collects Farmer’s Opar novels and some addenda. Kwasin becomes King of one city, with Hadon’s scheming ex and the invading army of the Sun God to keep him busy. Minruth, the usurper king, attacks the city. Kwasin is captured and humiliated, with the great Queen Awineth, tortured and enslaved, with the Atlantean doom of Khokarsa looming nearer.  The ending neatly reverses the ‘lost continent’ version of Atlantis and returns the narrative to Hadon. Carey wrote two more Hadon novels and a Khokarsa prequel, which are really outside the scope of this review.

     Ten thousand years later, La, priestess-queen of Opar, met Lord Greystoke, Tarzan of the Apes. The unrequited love between them clearly appealed to Burroughs as to his successors. La was mortal, or she wasn’t, but by and by she faded away, as the mystery of Africa faded into the twentieth century.

     What can we come away with, from Opar? A lost city, lost not only in Congo rainforest, but in lost colonialism? (Opar kept “Negro slaves” per Burroughs, who don’t play a part in the Hadon books.)  Who can resist a lost city of white matriarchs and bestial ape-men, a city crammed with gold?  Well, Wilbur Smith’s The Sunbird (1972) was probably the last novel about such a place, and in that novel the city was a Zimbabwe-like ruin, seen in a dream. La has appeared in Disney’s Tarzan cartoon as well as in several of the many, many Tarzan films, but seventy years after Burroughs’ death, what is left of his lost Africa?

     According to Farmer and to Carey, good clean fun. Leslie Fiedler called Farmer the best SF writer; Dr Isaac Asimov simply said that Farmer was “a far more skillful writer than I am.”[3] While pastiche was central to Farmer’s work, his books are both well-written and fun, and in some cases more carefully thought out than the ‘originals’. In the case of Opar, the original idea of homage to Burroughs almost vanishes behind the vast worldmaking, but a Burroughs adventure rife with gold, battle and love-hate is the result.  Recommended to pulp fans.


[1] Super-fan Den Valdron presents Oparian Fanon here; NSFW:  https://www.erbzine.com/mag19/1937.html

[2] An additional Kwasin piece finished by Carey, “Kwasin and the Bear God,” was not available to the reviewer. A future printing of Gods of Opar would do well to include this novella.

[3] This reviewer believes Dr Asimov’s remark to derive from Farmer’s well-known skill as an action writer with a penchant for sex; Asimov was infamous for writing neither of these very well.

Short Reviews – The Pursuit of the Pankera, by R.A. Heinlein [Guest Post from J. Comer]

We’re really busy this week with the day job and with plugging the Mongoose & Meerkat crowdfund and weren’t able to get the next Amazing Story review in the queue. Also, trying to wrangle advertisements for the Summer Special, which are due today! Fortunately, friend of the magazine and sometimes contributor J. Comer is filling in this week with a short review of Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera.

Love him? Hate him? What’s impossible is to ignore Robert Heinlein(1907-1988).  Not only did Heinlein pioneer publication of SF/F stories in “the slicks”, such as The Saturday Evening Post, he originated multiple ideas now standard, such as the ‘generation ship lost in space’ (Universe  and Common Sense, collected as Orphans of the Sky). While his work varied from excellent (Citizen of the Galaxy, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) through badly dated or mediocre (“Gulf”, Podkayne of Mars) to disgusting(To Sail Beyond The Sunset[1]), his narrative authority never waned.

Heinlein’s work is grouped into four or five periods, the last of which began with his illnesses in 1970- peritonitis and a blocked carotid artery, among others.  During this difficult period he wrote two novels: I Will Fear No Evil, a plotless sexual novel[2], and an unpublished work which his wife Virginia dismissed as “yard goods”.  This second work has had more than one name[3] and after Heinlein’s death remained among his papers, archived at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  The present reviewer looked at the fragments of the novel in the 2000s.  They were reminiscent of the later The Number of the Beast, which came out in 1980.[4]  There the matter rested for some time.

In 2019, Phoenix Pick announced that they would publish a ‘new’ Heinlein novel consisting of these fragments. This novel, titled The Pursuit Of The Pankera, as well as a new edition of The Number Of The Beast, came out in March 2020.

The plot of Pankera is that of the published Number of the Beast through about p. 185. Two couples, Zeb and Deety and Hilda and Jake(Deety’s father), meet at a party at Hilda’s home. The two couples marry that night as an unknown foe attacks.  While in hiding, Jake installs his ‘time machine’ (which jumps between alternate universes) in Zeb’s flying car.  The four then flee Earth and visit many universes, some based on famous novels. (At this point the two novels’ plots diverge).  The two longest such visits are to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and to E.E. Smith’s Lensman series.  In Number of the Beast there is endless bickering among the four crew as to who will lead, and with a visit to a steam-era (“Space: 1889”) British colony on Mars; the plot of Number of the Beast then goes on to include Lazarus Long and his polyamorous family of immortals amidst many allusions to classic SF.

The plot of Pankera is more coherent. The four main characters leave Barsoom, as the two women are pregnant and need an obstetrician, and they visit the Land of Oz, where Glinda installs two bathrooms in the back of their car by magic.  The future space-opera world of the Lensman books has doctors, of course, but is at war with Boskone.  So the characters befriend the Lensman of Prime Base, and make plans to fight the Panki, the Barsoomian name for the dimension-hopping enemies who forced them off Earth.  Then they find a world (“Beulahland”) where there are doctors and there is enough nudism that the unhuman Panki cannot wear human disguises (as they do once on Barsoom and once on Earth). The end of the novel has the four main characters, the Lensmen, and others unite to wipe out the Panki with an ending reminiscent of The Puppet Masters, published in 1951.

So what can we make of these two novels, which ultimately are one novel?  First of all, the publisher’s claim that they’re an experiment by Heinlein has little foundation.  Heinlein would never have been able to publish two novels which were identical for more than two hundred pages[5]; as it stood, he did not get the advance he wanted for Number of the Beast, possibly because of its quality.  So what are these books, one of which has a coherent plot and appealing action, and one of which is rambling and full of sexual references?[6]

Larry Niven, friend and colleague of Robert Heinlein, offers an answer in his Scatterbrain (2003).  Niven remarks:

A writer’s best friend is his editor…many good writers don’t understand [this], and those included Robert Heinlein…the generation of writers ahead of mine came out of an era of censorship…Robert Heinlein was the first science fiction writer to become too powerful to be censored…Heinlein should not have used that power…his earlier novels were lean and dense with ideas… But his later novels sprawl all over the place. They needed an editor!

The fact of the matter is that Number of the Beast fell victim to the no-edit clause, and that I Will Fear No Evil is the same.  Niven’s critique here was written before Pankera was published, but still stands.  Pankera is simply the best fragments of Number of the Beast, worked over by a competent editor.  The fact that the Burroughs and Smith estates acquiesced to their characters appearing also helped Pankera to work as an homage to classic SF.

Is this worth reading? For Heinlein completists, it’s a don’t-miss.  For those who’ve read some of his work, these two books are optional.  If you’ve read no Heinlein, these are not the place to start.  Of the two, Pankera is the more coherent novel by far, thanks to Heinlein’s posthumous “best friend”. For aspiring writers these two works could serve as a sort of example of how much difference a competent editor can make.  All in all, we’re better for the experience.

 

[1] Reviewed here by Jo Walton.  https://www.tor.com/2011/07/06/heinleins-worst-novel/

[2] A review is here: https://inverarity.livejournal.com/175890.html

[3] Names recorded for this manuscript include Six-Six-Six and The Panki-Barsoom Number Of The Beast.

[4] A negative review is here: https://ansible.uk/writing/numbeast.html

[5] The Dictionary of the Khazars is a counterexample but is one book whose two texts differ by one word.

[6] David Potter’s interpretation of Number of the Beast is inconsistent with reading either the Heinlein papers or Pankera but is presented here for completeness.  https://heinleinsociety.org/rah/numberbeast.html

 

 

Short Reviews – Terror Out of Zanadu, by Robert Moore Williams

Terror Out of Zanadu, by Robert Moore Williams, appeared in the February 1951 issue of Amazing Stories. It can be read here at Archive.org

Terror Out of Zanadu

The February issue continues with another adventure on Mars.

A small band is on a quest to find the strange Martian city of Zanadu. Hidden near an oasis in the harsh Martian deserts, Zanadu is said to have riches beyond imagination. The small band has reason to believe that the rumors of Zanadu’s wealth are true because one of their number has been there!

One of the party had been in the deserts, near death, when he was found by the Martians of Zanadu and nursed back to health. He has returned for his own reasons, but some of the ruffians he’s brought with him are only out for the wealth beyond imagination.

After an arduous trek, the band reaches Zanadu and is brought in by the Martians, but something is wrong. Zanadu is haunted by a force or presence, something that was not there before on the man’s first visit to the city. Why? And will they manage to escape Zanadu with their lives?

While there wasn’t a lot of story meat to this one, it was brilliantly atmospheric. There were a few places where the characters could’ve been fleshed out a bit better, and a longer story, encompassing the man’s original visit, the son’s disappearance, and the dame’s effort to find him, would’ve been great, but as it was, this was another solid hit for this issue.

Be sure to back the Kickstarter for Mongoose and Meerkat Volume 1: Pursuit Without Asking, out soon from Cirsova Publishing!