Book Reviews

Microsoft Biographies

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Bill Gates recently produced a documentary series about himself called “Inside Bill’s Brain” on Netflix. Predictably it was self aggrandizing propaganda. But it reminded me that I had bought a few books about the tech overlords who now rule us and, as I was laid up after a procedure for a while, it was a good time as any to dig in.

Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
by James Wallace, Jim Erickson

This is a highly recommended biography of the man behind the corporate juggernaut Microsoft, a company that found a way to lease the only essential program needed to run a computer to nearly every user in the world. In 1976 and 1980, Congress allowed the copyrighting of software and this law is how Gates became the richest man alive. Gates owned DOS and later Windows, which because of cheap IBM clones became the standard. Therefore anyone who made software had to pay the Microsoft toll to get on Windows or DOS. Microsoft also made applications. Hmm I wonder if owning the platform they would run on would give them a competitive advantage? Of course it did, that’s why they destroyed WordPerfect with Microsoft Word, VisiCalc and Lotus 123 with Microsoft Excel, and on and on. Yet somehow they were never broken up. They most famously destroyed Netscape by including a free web browser with Windows.

So what’s in Bill’s brain according to authors Wallace, Erickson and Paul Allen biographer Laura Rich? One word: greed. He is one of the greediest businessmen in history and that’s saying something. But what’s inside Bill’s brain is not the focus of the story or at all the most interesting part. The rise of the PC and software industry is.

For anyone who enjoyed the documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” you will really enjoy this book. Meticulously researched and written like a novel, it’s a real page turner. The authors manage to end every chapter on a cliffhanger. The story of how Microsoft came to be is fascinating. The reason why Bill Gates and Paul Allen got there first was simply because it was their hobby at the perfect time. Once they realized that there hobby could make money (and a fuckton of it), they jumped at the chance.

Bill Gates, being a silver spoon fed rich kid, didn’t ever have to worry about putting food on the table so he could go all in and move to whatever town was at the epicenter of the PC. In the beginning it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His parents had the connections, his partner Paul Allen had the idea and programming expertise, and Bill had the drive to destroy competitors and become a king. He wasn’t interested in girls, he wasn’t interested in booze or fun. He was interested in winning. There really is little to admire about him, except maybe his work ethic and business know-how. But being a workaholic is really seen more as a vice, not a virtue. He forced everyone around him to work 12-14 hour days or even to just live in their office as he did. Just so he could destroy so-so potential competitor.

The book was written before Gates became a media darling philanthropist. It ends when he was at his height around the release of Windows 95. But Gates philanthropy is a smokescreen. For all he’s donated, he’s still at the top of the billionaires club. His investments make him so much money that he can give away billions and still make it all back. There’s Bill Gates – the image he made for himself and then there’s the real Bill Gates – the evil, manipulative bully who got lucky.

5 anti-trust lawsuits outta 5

And then there’s his former partner…

Demystifying Paul Allen
By Laura Rich

A shorter book about a less interesting career, Rich’s “Zillionaire” actually takes a lot of it’s info about the early days of Microsoft from “Hard Drive.” But unlike that book, this is not about the history of Microsoft. This is an exposé on the hard to pin down co-founder and then mysterious venture capitalist cable tycoon, Paul Allen. This is a story about a wasted life and wasted potential. Other than one moment of brilliance, Paul Allen never amounted to much despite being one of the richest men alive. Allen is now dead from cancer. His moment was when he saw an issue of Popular Electronics magazine with a photo of the Altair 8800 (the first PC) on the cover. He knew that the day had finally come. No more would hobbyists or businesses have to deal with room-size mainframes the way he and Gates did in high school. This was the moment when the PC revolution began and that PC would need a programming language. He knew that whomever got their first would get the prize.

Both Allen and Gates worked on this first version of BASIC, but it was Allen who was the lead and one who flew to Albuquerque alone to run it on the Altair for the first time. He finished writing the code by hand on a napkin on the flight down. And it worked. He couldn’t believe that it did, and the Microsoft Empire was born.

Allen was much better liked by early MS employees than the slovenly Gates would often didn’t shower and enjoyed yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs. Gates was a spoiled little prince but Allen grew up middle class and had a little more… well class. But he left MS after only eight years due to his cancer diagnosis and the brutal workload imposed by Gates and never came back. Once Microsoft went public he became richer than God and as a result he changed.

Allen dedicated the rest of his life to luxury and decadence, building the biggest yachts on Earth and throwing parties that were compared to the days of Roman Emperors. He threw his money at failing business after failing business, losing billions. The one post-Microsoft Empire he managed to build was Charter Communications, but even they ended up being a loss in the end. He called himself “The Idea Man” but he only had one really good idea. Nothing he ever did compared to his prescience about the PC industry. Like Gates, he completely missed the internet boat.

I found it a bit sickening that his obituaries praised him for putting so much money into his sports teams and into his hometown of Seattle. He did it serve himself and never protested that he didn’t. If others benefited from his lavish spending it was by accident. There really is nothing to admire about Paul Allen. At least Bill Gates had a photographic memory and naturally high intelligence. Allen could have done something amazing with this king-like wealth, but now it’s in the hands of his sister and her descendants, so just another worthless dynasty.

That said, this book was also a fun read, but it’s more of a personality profile or exposé, less of a history book.

4 super yachts outta 5

Miracleman by Alan Moore *****

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The first question you might ask is “Who the hell is Miracleman?” That is a loaded question. I will break it down as simply as I can, but the fact that there is an entire book dedicated to explaining where this character came from shows how convoluted the history is. In fact, this character has the most unique and litigious history of any superhero character ever.

1939: Fawcett Publications, in an attempt to capitalize on the success of National Publications “Superman” created a team of six superheroes each with the power of a Greek god. An executive at Fawcett suggested that the team of six should be combined into one character who would have all six of the teams super powers. Thus “Captain Thunder” was born in the pages of “Flash Comics” #1.

1940: To their dismay Fawcett soon realized that they did not have the rights to “Captain Thunder” or “Flash Comics” and had to rename their creation “Captain Marvel” and their comic book to “Whiz Comics.” Whiz Comics #2 is considered to be the first appearance of Captain Marvel, now known to us as “Shazam” which is an acronym for all of the Captain’s powers taken from the mythological characters Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. Captain Marvel is in reality 12 year old Billy Batson, a homeless orphan who is chosen by the 3,000 year old wizard Shazam “for being pure of heart” to continue his fight against evil. The wizard tells Billy that he need only say the word “SHAZAM!” and he will be given the powers of the gods.

1948: Captain Marvel became the best-selling comic book of the 1940s. Many issues sold over 1 million copies. Numbers unheard of today. Naturally this irked National (now known as DC Comics) who thought that Captain Marvel too closely resembled their hero Superman. So they sued Fawcett and after years of litigation they killed the character. Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s entire comic book division ceased to exist by 1953. DC would eventually buy Fawcett’s catalog of characters in the ’70s.

1954: While Captain Marvel sales had declined in the U.S., the character was still a big hit in England, where reprints of American comics were very popular. Unwilling to let this cash cow die out, British publisher Mick Anglo was able to make new stories by changing the character’s name to “Marvelman” and redesigning his costume. These comics were published until 1963 and were much beloved by the British audience, especially making an impression on a lower-class kid from Northampton named Alan Moore.

1982: A new British black and white superhero anthology comic called Warrior began publication in 1982 and it was decided to bring back Marvelman for a new audience. Warrior publisher Dez Skinn had a hard time finding a writer/artist team who were interested in the character. The black and white comics of the ’50s were considered to be cheap trash for children by the ‘80s. But then Skinn heard of an unknown writer who would “give his eye teeth” to write Marvelman. Famous British artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons (who would later go on to draw Watchmen) turned it down so the art duties went to Garry Leach and an upcoming artist named Alan Davis. The first part of what would become one of the greatest sagas in superhero comics was published as black and white serial stories in Warrior. Moore ended up feuding with his publisher (a common theme in his career) and the rights were sold off to American publisher Eclipse Comics.

1985: Eclipse reformatted, relettered, and colored Moore’s original stories from Warrior and then hired him to complete the story.  The character also got a new name to avoid litigation from Marvel Comics. He was now “Miracleman,” but in essence he was still the same Captain Marvel who debuted in 1941. Three new artists (Chuck Austen, Rick Veitch and John Totleben) were hired to complete the work. The story ran until issue #16.

1990: Writer Neil Gaiman started to write a new story arc for Eclipse after Moore’s departure but the company went bankrupt in 1994. But the fact is Moore’s arc is a complete story. There was no need to continue it. So even though Gaiman’s story ends on a cliffhanger, his run was poor and unnecessary compared to Moore’s with ugly artwork by Mark Buckingham. But it did link Gaiman to the character which lead to…

1996: Todd McFarlane purchased the rights to Eclipse Comics thinking that he would also be getting the rights to Miracleman. He thought wrong, but that didn’t stop him from putting the character in his Spawn comics and making the only Miracleman action figure (packaged with Spawn of course).

2001: Neil Gaiman formed a company, Marvels and Miracles LLC, solely to clear up the ownership of Miracleman long-term. In court it was discovered that McFarlane nor Eclipse Comics owned the rights to Marvelman, but they remained with his original British creator Mick Anglo.

2009: At the San Diego Comic Con Marvel Comics announced that they had purchased the rights to Miracleman/Marvelman from Mick Anglo. Since 2010 they have been reprinting classic ‘50s Marvelman stories as well as Alan Moore’s ‘80s run, with improved lettering and coloring. In a bizarre move Alan Moore requested that his name be removed from the reprints, citing a hatred of Marvel Comics over past slights. So if you buy a reprint now it says merely “The Original Writer.”

It is a shame as Moore deserves credit for what is perhaps the finest superhero story I have ever read, besides Batman Year One, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen. This story was an end of innocence for superheros and beginning of what was later called “The British Invasion” of American comics. It was the most adult superhero story that had been told up to that point, making Marvel’s stuff look like low brow kid’s stuff. Moore realized that Marvelman was aimed at young children and most of the old stories could not be seriously read by an adult. The storytelling was ridiculous and over the top, yet he didn’t want to start anew, he needed to acknowledge that history.

What he did was shear brilliance. Instead of being a little boy chosen by a magic wizard, Billy Batson (renamed Michael Moran) was a guinea pig in a government experiment to create a god-like soldier with alien technology. But it was realized that he was too powerful so he was kept unconscious with all of his memories of his ‘50s adventures being implanted by comic book reading scientists.

Moore picks it up in the ‘80s where Michael Moran has no memory of his time as Miracleman and is an out of shape 40-something reporter. While at a nuclear power plant on an assignment he sees the word “atomic” written backwards, he says it aloud “KIMOTA!” and he is transformed into the 20-something god-like being Miracleman once again.

In the first arc Moore shows what it would be like if Captain Marvel never said the word “Shazam!” again and also (through the sidekick Kid Miracleman) what it would be like if Captain Marvel stayed as his superhero form, never reverting back to Billy Batson for decades. He also graphically shows us what would happen if a man with the power of Shazam was chaotic evil instead of lawful good. Moore wanted to make his story as realistic as he possibly could and there was no editor to stop him as their would have been at DC Comics.

“There is a passion here, but not human passion. There is fierce and desperate emotion, but not an emotion that we would recognize… They are titans, and we will never understand the alien inferno that blazes in the furnace of their souls. We will never grasp their hopes, their despair, never comprehend the blistering rage that informs each devastating blow… We will never know the destiny that howls in their hearts, never know their pain, their love, their almost sexual hatred… And perhaps we will be the less for that.”   – Alan Moore, Miracleman Chapter 5

In other words, Miracleman is a god, just like Superman. For either of these beings to put on a tie and glasses and go to work like a normal human being is ridiculous. It doesn’t take long for Michael Moran to completely forget about his past life. He is not a man anymore. He has the power to make the world a better place and if it requires becoming dictator of Earth then he will do it. This is a comic book that rivals Herbert in it’s philosophy, science, and musings on the human condition.

It took me until Marvel finally secured the rights to be able to read it all because it’s been out of print for years. When it originally came out I was too young to read something this adult. Now was as good of a time as any because this story is timeless. The only thing I can complain about a bit is the art. As mentioned the best artists working at the time turned it down. Alan Moore was a nobody back then. Also the first series was drawn for black and white publication. Coloring work like that is kind of like coloring an old black and white film, it’s not the way it was meant to be seen by the people who created it. But that said, much of the artwork is beautifully detailed and elegantly arranged.

Despite the fact that there was a huge legal battle for the character, nothing has really been done with him since. He is just a carbon copy of DC’s Shazam and Marvel has their own female Captain Marvel now. But the main reason, I believe, is that Moore tied up his story. There was really no where to go from there. Gaiman’s issues that followed Moore’s read like an extended epilogue more than anything. Moore’s work reached such a grand height that it makes anything that will follow it seem like a step down.

5 Miracles Outta 5

Miracleman by Alex Ross

Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter by Michael Reaves ***

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Shadow Hunter is a prequel to The Phantom Menace and leads directly into the events of that film.

A Neimoidian from the Trade Federation has decided to betray Darth Sidious (Senator Palpatine) and sell some information about the plan to blockade Naboo. As someone in the underworld could profit handsomely from this knowledge, he escapes to the capital planet of Coruscant with a “holocron” a data crystal which becomes the MacGuffin of this tale. Sidious tasks his apprentice to retrieve it no matter the cost as the Neimoidian could spoil his delicate plans to overthrow the Republic and become Emperor.

Standing in Maul’s way is a Correllian scam artist named Lorn Pavan, his droid sidekick Eye-Five, and a Jedi Padawan named Darsha Assant. Pavan is a good character although he is too close to Han Solo in my opinion. The book itself has a problem with fan service, for instance Pavan manages to get himself frozen in carbonite, despite the fact that carbonite freezing was simply a part of Cloud City’s industrial infrastructure and Darth Vader was supposed to be the first person to try it out on a human being. Pavan uses it to escape Maul at one point in the book as he is a Sith and can detect life even if hidden. Being frozen means that Pavan was in suspended animation was able to avoid detection and escape.

The Padawan Darsha was not so lucky though as she is forced to take on Maul in a lightsaber duel. Her master already became a victim of Maul earlier in the book. It plays out a bit like Revenge of the Sith or Rogue One. The good guys fall like dominos to Maul’s double-blade. I really liked the character of Darsha because unlike the Mary Sue from the Disney sequels, she fucks up constantly. Her original mission that brings her in contact with Lorn Pavan is a complete failure. Her master has to come bail her out. So she is filled with insecurity and doubt, making her relatable. She knows that she cannot beat Darth Maul yet she has no choice but to bravely fight him anyways. How much more interesting would it have been if, even after his master is cut down, Obi-Wan still could not beat Maul in single combat and had make the most out of escaping to fight another day instead?

The book has the quality of a good horror story. It is a chase in which the heroes can only manage to stay a few steps ahead of Maul at any given moment. Not a lot of time is spent inside Maul’s head (he is portrayed almost like a Terminator) but when we learn his internal thoughts his philosophy seems to closely resemble that a of a samurai. What Maul detests most is an unworthy opponent. When he slices the head off of the rogue Neimoidian he feels a sense of disgust that his victim cowered and didn’t offer any defense. Although he hates the Jedi, he learns to respect them for their valiant but doomed defense.

I have checked out a few of the prequel books and this one is the best one I have read so far. It does help that I am a Darth Maul fan. He has the Vaderesque quality of being really scary but also really cool and intriguing. This is something that Count Dooku and General Grievous lack. Why George Lucas decided to have a new Vader for every prequel movie rather than letting it be Maul for all three, we will probably never know, but it was clearly a mistake. The fans wanted more Maul but never got him. So we read books like this instead.

If the novel didn’t have so much fan service and callbacks to the original trilogy I would rank it higher, but it’ still a very engaging, fast-paced story with tons of action. Some of the stuff that takes place in the lower depths of Coruscant’s slums was good old pulp adventure at it’s finest.

The cover art for this book was just a disappointing collage of movie stills. So instead I will post this amazing fan art of Maul’s final duel with Darsha Assant.

3 Lightsabers Outta 5

Peter The Great His Life and World by Robert K. Massie *****

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It is a dense read, slightly longer than King’s novel The Stand (and it took me most of the summer to get through) but I must say I was not bored or distracted reading this excellent and engaging biography.

Peter Romanov was Tsar of Russia (later upgraded to Emperor of All The Russias) from 1682-1725. It was equally a biography and a European history lesson for me.

The age of Louis XIV is in it’s twilight as the book begins and Russia is a not well-regarded backwater kingdom (or tsardom). Moscow or Moskovĭ was “Russia” at that time. Most Europeans referred to Russians as “Muscovites.” Massie starts off his book by describing the Muscovite/Russian character. They are not a conquering or aggressive people but rather a nation of defenders. Russia has been invaded constantly since the beginning from all directions. The fact that they are still a unified country after so many invasions, hardships, and wars proves one thing: Russians are tough motherfuckers.

Peter’s father, the Tsar Alexis, was not a bad tsar but he preferred to stay cloistered in the Kremlin and barely ever left it’s walls. But many of his policies, such as toleration of foreigners, set up the legendary reign and accomplishments of his famous son. When Peter was a child, the Streltsy, elite infantry troops with political power (think of the Nazi SS) rebelled and stormed the Kremlin. They did not like that Peter (who came from his father’s second marriage) was going to be the next tsar over his physically frail but older brother from his father’s first marriage. Peter witnessed them slaughter some of his beloved family members and he never forgot or forgave them. They would later pay for this uprising when his brother died and he became the sole autocrat… oh yes, they would pay dearly and gruesomely.

Peter could be both cruel and kind, which makes reading about his life quite interesting. Sometimes he would resemble his ancestor Ivan the Terrible, while other times he could be kind and just. He did altogether seem to be a rather logical king and his reasons for action or inaction were usually justified. But if anyone dared betray him, there would be no mercy. For example, he had is own unfortunate son and heir tortured to death. Because of this the title of Empress would go to his wife Catherine (who came from nothing) after his death.

The title “The Great” clearly implied that Peter did some things in his life. Some of them are:

– Built the first Russian Navy, literally from a single rotting boat.
– Founded the city of St. Petersburg, giving Russia it’s first warm water port and a new capital.
– Defeated Charles XII and Sweden in The Great Northern War.
– Lead a “Grand Embassy” to all of the major cities of Europe introducing Russians to Europe and Europeans to Russia.
– Reformed the Russian educational system and calender.
– Founded Russia’s first state newspaper.
– Created the flag of Russia (still used today).
– Organized the first standing army.
– Completely reorganized the government bureaucracy, removing automatic posts by blood and instead promoted people on merit. Many of his closest lieutenants and even his wife were originally common folk.
– Instituted tax reform to pay for his many projects and wars.

While he is regarded highly in Russia today he was not very popular with the people in his lifetime. His tax burden was so heavy than many peasants and nobles fled into Russia’s vast forests and frontiers never to be seen again. However, unlike our recent American administrations which are burdening future generations with outrageous debt, he paid for St. Petersburg and his many wars in full. He never had to borrow money from a foreign country or pay for any of it on credit. So the people of Peter’s time could take some pride in the fact that without them Russia would still be a backwater.

That is what is he is best known for, catapulting a medieval “oriental” country into a modern European one. Russia as a world power can be traced directly back to Peter’s reforms and forced Europeanization of his country. This is another reason why his overtly religious people thought he may be the antichrist. They didn’t like foreigners and their foreign customs.

The book reads like an exciting novel. The pace only slows when Massie leaves Peter and segways into the “World” in the title. It’s not just a book on Russian history but a book on every power in Europe around the year 1700. Louis XIV, William of Orange, Charles XII, Sultan Ahmet III… if you don’t know these names you will know them intimately by the end. The warrior king Charles XII of Sweden is an especially interesting character. Just as the Russian character was one of defense, that of Charles and Sweden was one of aggressive war and military conquest. Hard to imagine that with the Sweden we know today.

This is one of the best history books I have ever read. The fact that I was largely ignorant about Russian history did help me enjoy it more and much of the information was new to me. Highly recommended!

5 Tsars Outta 5

War Against the Mafia (1969) by Don Pendleton ****

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War Against the Mafia 
by Don Pendleton
First appearance of Mack Bolan

There are few pulp heroes to gain traction since the 1930’s. One of those few is “The Executioner” Mack Bolan. Not only did he appear thirty years after the heyday of pulps, he became the most successful character in the entire genre with 600 original novels and counting. Writer Don Pendleton thought that there was a gap in the marketplace for principled men of action. It was this same gap in Hollywood in the 1970’s that lead to the rise of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Men crave strong role models and Dustin Hoffman wasn’t it. Bolan was different than pulp heroes who came before. Characters like Doc Savage, who at least tried not to kill, and always stayed on the right side of the law. In War Against the Mafia Bolan pretty much breaks all the laws.

I don’t need to say much about the character Mack Bolan because he is Frank Castle for the most part. The only difference is that instead of his family being targeted directly by the mafia for termination, they die indirectly. The details are grim and I could see how that experience would make any man go insane with rage. Bolan even throws his military career away just to make them pay. But Bolan is a man of principles and mere revenge isn’t a very principled stance. He is killing the mob so that they can’t hurt anyone else again. He is not content killing the few who destroyed his family, no, he must kill them all. Going from city to city, leaving a trail of bloody bodies. The story isn’t enough for one novel and Bolan’s war with the mob is not concluded until book #38 Pendleton’s final Executioner story. The rest of the series would be written by ghostwriters. Pendleton (who died in the 1995) was a Robert Heinlein/Bob Howard kind of tough guy, the likes of which you don’t see too often anymore. But the Executioners legacy lives on and you can still find out what Mack is up to at your local book store… book store did I say book store? I mean

Apparently Bradly Cooper has control of the rights to The Executioner and is finally developing a feature film about him.

4 Guns Blazing Outta 5

The Man of Bronze (1933) by Lester Dent ***

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The Man of Bronze
by Lester Dent
First appearance of Doc Savage

The Shadow became a huge hit for Street & Smith. They realized that there was great demand for exciting action/adventure heroes. They tasked Oklahoma pulp writer Lester Dent (forced to use the pen name Kenneth Robeson) with the job and Doc Savage Magazine was born. The first novel The Man of Bronze introduced Clark “Doc” Savage, the superhuman adventurer who would inspire nearly every comic book character of the Golden Age.

Unlike The Shadow, whose stories were about the realistic underworld of big city crime, Doc Savage used high tech inventions, futuristic vehicles, and unparalleled training to fight evil all over the world. He is referred to in the novel as being a “superman.” We have seen so many characters like Doc Savage in comics and films that it seems like old hat now, but in 1933 there was no Captain America or Wolverine, there was only Doc. The novel today is still very readable and fun. I think a younger person would really enjoy it. The plot has to do with an undiscovered valley in South America. Doc’s deceased famous father left clues for his son on how to get there, but an evil organization is trying to stop him. Doc dodges assassins throughout the book and then has to stop a civil war between warring factions of Mayans. As for the love of a beautiful Mayan princess, Doc will have none of it! His only love is for righting wrongs and high adventure. Doc’s companions just shake their heads, but will follow him to the grave if he asked them to.

Dent was not as talented a writer as Gibson, but what he lacked in prose, he made up for in imagination. Many action tropes can probably be attributed to him. Doc uses a fatal judo chop to the back of the neck which may be the first time that was used. One can see much of Bruce Wayne in Doc and is probably why Doc Savage comics never took off. The man in the batsuit beat him to it. Although popular in the 30’s after comic books surpassed pulps in the 40’s and 50’s Doc Savage faded into obscurity until the 60’s when his adventurers were reprinted in their entirety as paperback novels. It was the covers of these novels, painted by James Bama, that we got the well known look of Doc Savage with tattered shirt and exaggerated widow’s peak. The paperback run finally finished in 1990.

Shane Black will be directing a Doc Savage film starring The Rock as Clark Savage.

3 Pyramids of Mayan Gold Outta 5

The Living Shadow (1931) by Walter B. Gibson ***

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The Living Shadow
by Walter B. Gibson
First Appearance of The Shadow

Walter B. Gibson was a freelance reporter and crossword puzzle writer who got the break of a lifetime when he just happened to be at Street & Smith headquarters in NYC looking for reporting assignments. A radio drama called Detective Stories had an unnamed narrator who would close with the line “The Shadow knows!” and listeners wanted to know more about this narrator. Street & Smith decided to make a character out of him. Gibson was at the right place at the right moment and lobbied for the assignment. Three weeks later he had written the first Shadow novel The Living Shadow where he introduced the titular character as well as supporting characters who would appear in hundreds of novels to come. To Gibson’s dismay Street & Smith insisted he use a pen name “Maxwell Grant” in case they used fill-in writers. Of the 336 Shadow novels, only 53 were penned by someone other than Gibson. He wrote more stories about a single character than anyone else in history, including comic book writers. Gibson was a writing machine and has the world’s record for the most published words in one year, 1,680,000. He made L. Ron Hubbard look slow by comparison. He wrote two novel length Shadow stories every month and usually delivered them a week before his deadline. Gibson also wrote over a 100 books about magic.

The Living Shadow is the most reprinted Shadow adventure, not because it is the best but merely because it was the first. The Shadow barely appears and is more of a string puller, a mysterious presence, directing the action of the plot. The hero of the novel is actually Harry Vincent, one of the Shadow’s agents. We get to see the underworld of The Shadow and New York City uncovered by Vincent as he becomes more deeply involved in The Shadow’s plans. Fans of the hit radio show may be surprised to learn that The Shadow of the pulps was not the same character from the show. Lamont Cranston is not his real name is just another one of his disguises. Nobody knows who The Shadow really is. Readers would later find out that his real name is Kent Allard, WWI fighter ace turned spy. Margot Lane was also a radio invention.

The novel begins strong as Harry Vincent dives into a great mystery. However near the middle I became a bit lost as nobody but The Shadow knows what is really going on. It is not until the last chapter that we find out it was all about an over-complicated gem robbery. Street & Smith asked Gibson to set the story in Chinatown so they could reuse some artwork from a previous story. It would end up having a big impact on the character as even The Shadow film from 1994 featured a Mongolian villain. As this was written in the 30’s there is some dated slang and references. The word “chink” is used perhaps twenty times, which would be taboo now. Overall it was a decent mystery, but was merely a first chapter in an on-going saga of crime.

3 Crimelords Outta 5

Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapleton ***

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Last and First Men is probably the most unique sf novel I have ever read. Conceived as a future history of humanity the novel features almost no individual characters, no three act structure, and little dialogue. The basic concept is that a highly evolved human being 2 billion years in the future is sending a message back in time to us, the first humans in the 1920s (when the book was written). What he tells us is the history of our species for the next 2 billion years. In that time homo sapiens eventually go extinct but not before a new species of human evolves or is created. In all of the millions of years to come 18 distinct species carry on the human “career.” Some modern critics believe one should start with Chapter 4 and skip Stapleton’s speculation about the 20th and 21st centuries but I found those early chapters to be very interesting. As this was written before 1933 Stapleton would have had no idea about the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Therefore, he thought that it would be Italy who would start World War II. It’s an interesting historical artifact to read what an educated Brit thought the world was becoming before the actual WWII changed everything.

Stapleton still got many things right. The world eventually moves towards a one-world-government, nuclear war is a real threat to all life on Earth, and humans of this age are too stupid and irresponsible to exist with such high technology. We destroy ourselves. Out of the ashes come two new species. One that is more intelligent and has larger a brain than us and one that reverts back to Neanderthal savagery. The Second Men eventually fight a brutal war with Mars. The Martians in this book are unlike any alien I have ever read about but they are clearly inspired by H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. They are in fact so alien that the humans don’t even realize that they are being attacked from another planet but believe it is some kind of Earth born plague at first. I can see why so many have lauded Stapleton’s vivid imagination. He seemed like an interesting man. He wrote books about philosophy before being inspired by Wells to write scientifiction (as it was then called).

The only complaint I have about this bizarre yet fascinating book is that it’s too long. I thought it would be over by the evolution of the Fifth Men, but no, it goes on for another 1.5 billion years until the 18th Men are living on Neptune. Obviously Stapleton’s knowledge of the outer solar system was only as good as the scientific data of the day. Pluto was discovered the year this book was first published. None of Stapleton’s works, even his more traditional narrative novels, have been adapted into films or TV series so he is not well read these days. However his influence on sf writers who came later was huge. Of Last and First Men Arthur C. Clarke said this: “No other book had a greater influence on my life.” H.P. Lovecraft was also fan: “Last and First Men—a volume which to my mind forms the greatest of all achievements in the field that Master Ackerman would denominate ‘scientifiction.’ Its scope is dizzying—and despite a somewhat disproportionate acceleration of the tempo toward the end, and a few scientific inferences which might legitimately be challenged, it remains a thing of unparalleled power. It has the truly basic quality of a myth, and some of the episodes are of matchless poignancy and dramatic intensity.”

In the final summation it’s a unique work of imagination and speculation. It really gets the creative juices flowing and is not like anything else I have ever read. It can be challenging or even boring to read as the human race itself is the main character but I’m still glad to have read it. The influence of the book is obvious. Frank Herbert probably read it as the idea of ancestral memories brought out by the Water of Life is similar to a concept in this book. Also Herbert’s scope of time in the Dune series seems familiar to Stapleton’s idea of history repeating itself. There are so many concepts in this book that were never thought of previously. I disagree with many of Stapleton’s conjectures (such as religion still being a thing millions of years in the future) but his ideas are different and probably plausible.

So it’s really a novel for the true science fiction fan who wants to read something different, something that is more famous for it’s influence, but I would call it a good experience in the end.

3 epochs outta 5

Last and First Men is in the public domain.

Triplanetary by E.E. Smith ***

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Alongside Asimov’s Foundation, Burrough’s Barsoom, Herbert’s Dune, and Heinlein’s Future History, E.E. Smith’s Lensman series is a seminal universe in science fiction. The first book in the series is called Triplanetary and establishes a united “federation” of planets allying Earth, Venus, and Mars. The beginning of the novel starts with an attack on Triplanetary by a “death star,” an artificial moon that is all but unstoppable. It uses “tractor beams” and “shields” to disable the Triplanetary ships and withstand their attacks. If it came out now it would seem to borrow heavily from the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was in fact the other way around. This was the first novel to coin the term “tractor beam” and first to invent invisible shields around space ships (called “screens”). It was also the first to use phaser beams (called “projectors” by Smith).

No one loves Doc Smith’s work for it’s incredibly insightful three-dimensional characters or for it’s witty dialogue. No, this is a war story pure and simple and is about shit gettin’ blow’d up. It’s great pulp action and was way ahead of it’s time. Smith had a keen understanding of science and technology and he packed this adventure yarn to the gills with it. It also features enough twists and turns to keep it interesting.

As the “death star” is about to completely obliterate the entire Triplanetary fleet… swooping in out of light speed comes an alien race to attack Earth. So a human civil war immediately turns, mid battle, into a fight for species survival. The aliens are interesting and original and their method of killing is… unusual. They suck all of the iron from the body, leaving behind a bloodless white shell.

Many critics lament that Smith was merely a pulp writer who never elevated his work to that artistic level of his most famous pupil, Robert Heinlein, but he did actually have a flair for description:

“Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness–a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.”

Heinlein named many of his characters “Smith” in honor of his biggest influence, including Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land. In addition to it’s influence on all of the epic science fiction that followed, including Star Trek and Star Wars, the novel also directly inspired Steve Russell to create the original video game Spacewar! in 1962. Even though sf has grown up out of space opera and pulpy adventure, this novel is still a fun read and would definitely make good young adult reading.

I read and reviewed the original version of the story as it appeared in Amazing Stories in 1934. Smith did go back and add a few chapters to better tie it in to his later novels in 1948. I heard that the original edit was better. This book is in the public domain and can be found online.

3 projector beams outta 5

Tales of the Jedi *****

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Tales of the Jedi is a Dark Horse comic series consisting of seven graphic novels. I had time to read them all after I was laid up after foot surgery. This series, which began in 1993 and ran until 1998, was one of the first stories to be told in the Expanded Universe after the Star Wars franchise had pretty much died out. There was of course the Marvel comic book series which told stories about Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo until 1986 when it was canceled. After the cancellation of Lucas’ Ewoks and Droids cartoon series, the property laid dormant for almost ten years. The resurgence of interest began in 1991 with the publishing of Heir to the Empire by Timothey Zahn, the first of the post Return of the Jedi novels. Back then Lucas still had input in these materials. Tales of the Jedi is based upon notes given to the writers by Lucas himself. The first two graphic novels are about the origin of the Sith race and how they came to be controlled by a Dark Jedi. Now the word Sith goes hand in hand with the term Dark Jedi, but the Sith were originally a red-skinned humanoid race that formed the basis of a Dark Side empire on the other side of the galaxy from the Old Republic.

The tale begins 5,000 years before A New Hope. In this time the galaxy is not yet fully explored. Hyperspace jumps are extremely dangerous because navigation computers have not been invented yet. So only the bravest or most desperate explorers take random jumps hoping to find a new trade route and gain wealth and fame. A brother and sister team accidentally discover a Sith homeworld and inadvertently lead them back to the Old Republic. And so begins the first Sith War.

This story was excellent, although short, and gives a good backstory to the whole Dark Side/Light Side of The Force. Lightsabers have cords connected to power packs that were worn on the back or belt. It’s a nice touch, showing that we are in the old days of the Republic. After this introductory story, the narrative then leaps forward a thousand years.

The later five graphic novels all tell a connected self-contained story with the same characters. This is where it gets good. The main characters are two young Jedi brothers, Ulic Qel-Droma and Cay Qel-Droma, and a female Jedi, Nomi Sunrider. Their masters are good characters as well but it is the students who have the greatest character arcs. I especially liked Nomi Sunrider, someone who never wanted to be a Jedi Knight. I love this cover by Dave Dorman of the moment Nomi first picks up a lightsaber and realizes that she is a Force sensitive. It has such a mythic-religious aura about it. I even like how Dorman painted the rim lighting on her hair to resemble a halo.

Her husband is a Jedi Knight who is surprised and murdered by a band of thieves. To protect her child she picks up his lightsaber and cuts them all down with remarkable ease. The Force guides her to her husband’s master and she begins her training. But throughout the story she is a true pacifist and refuses to pick up a lightsaber again. She is not merely Luke with boobs (as Rey is) but a feminine mother protector. She eventually falls in love with the doomed Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma.

The story centers on a resurgence of Sith power on a backwater planet. Ancient Sith texts and artifacts from the previous story are discovered and once the dark techniques are mastered, the new Sith begin to easily start taking over again. One of the brothers in the story, Ulic Qel-Droma thinks that he can learn to control the Dark Side, but as always, he succumbs to it and joins the enemy. So you end up with brother vs. brother and lover vs. lover. It’s pure Greek tragedy.

Tales of the Jedi was co-written by Tom Veitch and science fiction writer (co-author of the Dune Universe) Kevin J. Anderson. The art in the series is not the best, but it is also not the worst. This series came out during the comic book boom of the ‘90s when artists were being paid more than any other time in history. Star Wars was not a best-selling property then so they had to make do with what they had. One interesting thing the editors did was have one artist draw the characters and another draw all the tech like ships and weapons.

What really makes this series great is that it was adapted into a series of audio dramas sold on cassette and CD. These were full productions with professional actors, sound effects, and music. I am kind of surprised at how well these radio plays brought this story to life and elevated the characters in my mind. The writers of the dramas expanded and clarified the story from the comic series making it into a movie of the mind’s eye. The only bad thing about it is that they weren’t able to finish it. The audio drama stops mid-way through the saga. Probably because the series kept going until 1998 and by then audio dramas weren’t selling well.

Now that Star Wars is done as a film property, I have turned to the books and comics that I missed or could not afford in the ‘90s. The stories were based upon George Lucas’ notes and are much truer to the original saga. Tales of the Jedi could easily be adapted into a film trilogy. The audio drama is essentially a film without the pictures.

5 Dark Siders Outta 5

You can listen to it on YouTube. The entire story was also released in a series of two large omnibus editions from Dark Horse. The video game The Knights of the Old Republic was inspired by this series. It takes place 40 years after these events.