Monday, September 28, 2009

Toffee is her name...

"Toffee was enough to make any man dizzy--without seeing her through X-ray eyes!"

A dull ad exec's literal "dream girl" who emerged from his subconscious full-grown and sprang to life, the various sexy and comedic Toffee short stories published in the sf pulp IMAGINATIVE TALES got the cover far more often than the works by writers like Ed Hamilton and even the Grandmaster himself, Robert Anton Heinlein.

More often, the Toffee stories were a type of "spicy" comedy, with clever rapid-fire dialogue and a type of ribald, daring humor. Surprisingly, they hold up well even today and still crackle with a breezy kind of sexy, playful fun. The wit of the Toffee stories is a credit to the diversity of the material published in science fiction mags. Read the complete collection of all eleven Toffee stories here on Google Books.

For FREE. Sure, you have to tolerate the occasional missing page, but man, I am really loving this Google Books service. Now dozens of full texts chock full of discredited 19th Century Hollow Earth theories are lovingly available to the approximately three people that will read them, of whom I am one. You know, I remember out of sheer boredom I wrote my name, full address (at the time) and dozens on dozens of analytical notes all over a "Lost Race" text, a 1978 reprint of a 1904 book called "Cast Away At the Pole." Periodically when visiting my library I go to see if anyone's written "back" in the book. So far, no dice.

The Toffee stories are worth reading for the main character, one of the more interesting science fiction women until the coming of Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon and Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars. Toffee was a brassy, wild, fun redhead, that lives life with gusto with an extroverted personality, playfully exhibitionistic, flirtatious with nearly every male she meets, but also incredibly vain and adores being the center of attention. She had a sweet disposition, until she was provoked and a scrappy temper emerges. She was willful, defiant and thoroughly endearing.

Best of all, Toffee was unpredictable. It was impossible to guess what wild thing she would do next. More than anyone else, she reminds me of "It Girl" Clara Bow. Still pictures never did justice to her energy and boldness, how she would just do things like jump on top of her boss's desk and lay herself out against it in the middle of an office scene, and it was obvious her behavior was just as much of a surprise to the other actors as it was to the audience.

Toffee came from the subconscious of the world's most uptight man, and seemed to live for getting him into trouble. She was living, walking trouble, and seemed custom-made to boldly upset conventions in what always seemed like an era as stiff, conformist and uptight as the main character. Toffee appears when needed and disappears only when her purpose is accomplished, which often ends with the main character going to prison or various patience-trying comical misunderstandings.

Toffee was (and I hate to use this term), feisty. When a nurse gets a little grabby, she actually bites him.

"You bit me!" The Intern wailed. "You bet I did! And next time you come groping around where I'm dressing with those great hammy paws of yours, I'll gnaw 'em off clear to the elbows!"
This was, naturally, after Toffee did one of her favorite activities, changing clothes in a public space. When Toffee got stares and was told she was indecent, she laughed and said, "Yes, I know!"

More than anything, the Toffee stories, like the television series Mad Men, features the go-go world of the fifties, back when Americans still had balls. Every office had a fully stocked bar and sexual harassment was rampant.This was the era of grotesque sloth like the three-martini lunch. The Toffee stories just took it for granted that a boss ought to have an affair with his attractive female secretary. In general, reading these office-humor centered stories feels often like visiting another planet. A cooler planet.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A.E. van Vogt's Slan

What's incredible about van Vogt's Slan is that unlike almost every single other work written during science fiction's golden age, it is still read (and cared about) today and periodically discovered by new fans. Take for instance Slan's page on Television Tropes and Idioms, or the fact that the basic plot of Slan was borrowed by the recent film, Ultraviolet with Mila Jovovich. In fact, while watching Ultraviolet, friends were astonished that I could make predictions about the events of the story. How did I know? "Well, that's what Slan did."

What's even more sensational is the fan-support that exists online. Check out the near encyclopedia-complete guide, "Slanology," available online from an eager-beaver fan who put an impressive amount of work into it, including detailed analysis of the Slan world, history and technology.

Part of the reason Slan is still read today is that it isn't about any of the other silly themes of the Golden Age. It isn't about a monster of some kind, like Theodore Sturgeon's Killdozer! It isn't about a Heinlein or DC Comics style cigar-chomping badass father figure that solves his problems with a dubious engineering concept.

Slan is a story about prejudice. In the distant future, Slans emerge, a race of humans with tendrils on the foreheads with greater intelligence and telepathic powers, who are hunted and pursued by normal humans. The book opens up with a young Slan child, Jommy Cross, who watches as his parents are murdered by the secret police. Jommy Cross has to grow up alone.

The most fascinating part about Slan is the world background. Unlike other novelists, van Vogt doesn't lay it out flat before the reader, but there are conflicting tales, outright lies and propaganda, and Jommy has to discover it all for himself. Part of the reason Slans are so hated is because of the widespread belief among humans they capture human babies, for instance, which Jommy refuses to accept as true. There were also rumors of human/Slan wars that ended in human victory, but the true history of the world is entirely unknown to the characters, who have to unravel it for themselves.

There's one great reason to read A.E. van Vogt's Slan, and that's for it's villain, the absolute dictator of earth, Kier Gray, easily one of the greatest villains in all of science fiction. I don't feel this character receives enough respect. Since when does any review of Slan ever spare any praise for what an extraordinary creation Kier Gray is? It is true that Kier Gray is the reason to read this book, just like Captain Nemo is the reason to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

A magnetic, awe-inspiring and tigerish man of obvious and keen intelligence and animal magnetism, Kier Gray is a master tactician and thinker that is almost always several steps ahead of everyone else, with contingencies in case things go wrong, as well as a master manipulator and orator. Kier Gray operates mentally at almost a totally different level than anyone else in the series. While many of his underlings engage in unthinking anti-Slan prejudices, these attitudes are far too petty for a pragmatist who thinks big-picture like Gray. At one point, he wonders what it would be like to have a few Slan scientists on his side. Unlike the others in earth's government, who believe their own propaganda thickheadedly, Gray has a more realistic view, that most likely the Slans will win in the conflict unless they get a leg up.

When the aptly named chief of his secret police, John Petty, shows ambitions to take over, Kier laughs off his plan. "He is only feared. I am both worshiped and feared." The sequence in Chapter 3 where Kier Gray prevents a coup to dethrone him is one of the most awe-inspiring sequences.

Incidentally, it's worth mentioning that, found among A.E. van Vogt's papers, there was actually an outline for a sequel to Slan, known as Slan Hunter. If ever there was a standalone novel crying out for a sequel, it would be Slan. Personally, I'd prefer to think of Slan's sequel as one of the great unfinished science fiction novels ever written, including the last of E.E. Smith's Lensman books. Supposedly, Robert A. Heinlein, who near-worshipped Smith, knew all about the last Lensman book, but refused to give details even after his friend's death because "it was his story to tell, not mine."

Nonetheless, after the mania that were the posthumous Herbert Dune prequels, a publisher with half a brain, when hearing about the story did a ca-ching ca-ching cash register sound and rustled up some ghost writer to actually create Slan Hunter, an unmade sequel to one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written. The story actually has an air of tragedy, as van Vogt actually contracted Alzheimer's and couldn't finish it.

To my great astonishment, I didn't absolutely hate Slan Hunter, as it had a few great twists, like having a character be a woman that gives birth to a Slan baby, who goes on the run to protect it. But there was so much there that I didn't like. Kier Gray was easily overthrown, and it seemed as if everyone's IQ dropped substantially. John Petty the Slan Hunter was a vicious bigot, but he was nonetheless competent and this novel, he needed very basic things explained to him. And there were elementary details about the world that were changed, like the notion of Kier Gray, instead of being a ruthless dictator, was a democratically elected president. (WTF?).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Kill Your Idols: Overrated Characters


It doesn't surprise me in the least that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was an easily bamboozled, crackpot believer in spiritualism, because if the Sherlock Holmes stories are anything to go by, he had a belief that human reason worked in an almost mystical, intuitive way. Because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle controls the world, Holmes is always inerringly right the very first time he makes a deduction, never finds evidence too ambiguous to use, never needs to revise his theories or take into account new proof, and Holmes's single interpretation of multiple possible explanations is always correct. Holmes is only infallible because Doyle wrote him that way.

For instance, in the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Holmes discovers a hat, and guessed the owner was once rich but recently fell on hard times, was having problems with his marriage, was of great intelligence, and had bushy hair of a certain style.

Holmes guessed that the hat's owner was having marital problems because of its poor condition. Well, what if the hat's owner was a bachelor?

And he figured out the hat's owner was once rich but fell on hard times. What about the possibility the hat was stolen, lost and found by someone else, or given away?

Apart from the magical, intuitive view of the process of reason, there's very little else to like in Sherlock Holmes stories, as for most of them Doyle just doesn't play fair with the reader and doesn't present all facts to the audience.


You know, I often say this or that movie is "formulaic," but with the James Bonds, it's literally true!

With the exception of the excellent Casino Royale, the assembly-line plot never varies, the characters are the same but with different names. There's never an attempt to do anything new or different. Even the actual events of the plots are constantly recycled. It reminds me of how Taco Bell tries to convince us they've combined their five ingredients in a totally new way! Always the scene on skis, always the scene in the casino that establishes that establishes how gigantic James Bond's testicles are.

In general, if you've seen one James Bond film, you've seen them all.

Worse, James Bond movies are either the originator or the perpetuator of almost every action movie cliche: the bomb with the digital countdown, the car chase, the ability of characters to run from explosions, the entire creation of scenes as setups for "witty" quips.

I remember when I was about to see my first James Bond movie at age ten or so on television. My Mom, who was not by any means a prudish woman at all, decided to watch it with me because she wanted me to know that women didn't really act that way. At the time I thought that was an overreaction (not to mention quite a buzzkill), but I have since come to the conclusion that Mom was right. Women don't really act that way, and saying the Bond movies are a fantasy doesn't get them off the hook. Lots of people have, frankly, embarassing fantasies and I'd rather not watch them, either.


The idea that Wonder Woman is as important a superhero, or at least as interesting, as Superman and Batman is pure wishful thinking.

I would do an article here, but the funny cats over at Topless Robot did it with much more panache and I have really nothing to add:

Top Ten Reasons Nobody Cares About Wonder Woman

Disney Buys Marvel

I hate to be the guy that says they saw this coming. And the truth is, I didn't. It was so out of the blue you'd have to have been Nostradamus to predict Disney buying Marvel.

But the other day I was analyzing Disney's business pattern, and I noticed that while they were strong with girls thanks to their tween programming and Princess merchandising, they were pretty weak with boys, and a very likely business plan would be for them to buy a boys' media company. I thought (already too strong of a word!) that perhaps Marvel might be one such acquisition.

It was just that, a brief speeding speculation that ricocheted in my noggin and barely registered. I never dreamed it would actually happen!

The thing that really grinds my gears about all this is that Disney bought Pixar for more than they bought Marvel! Sure, that purchase was done in a different economic times, but still.

The one thing I find amusing is how all the publicity related to the sale says that Marvel has "a library of over 5,000 characters." Sure. There are probably only 500 great characters like the Thing, Doctor Doom, and Namor, but 4,500 losers and Gene Colan creations like Stilt-Man, the Matador and the fabulous Frog-Man.

Unlike other fans that insist the sky is falling, I don't think Disney would have spent 4 billion on something to change its operation. Would you spend uncounted billions for Pepsi-Cola and rename it "brown bubble water?"

Disney is a huge entertainment conglomeration and they have many branches that produce things that don't always perfectly fit the Disney image. For instance, did you know Disney owns a production company that makes porn?

Whether the ultimate effects are good or bad, I can't help but shed a tear over Marvel's loss of independence as a company and the increasing conglomeration of the entertainment media into the hands of a few small groups. Right or wrong, Marvel always guided its own destiny and their characters and properties were an end in and of themselves.

As of right now, it seems Marvel is not really changing. The comics are coming out as scheduled, and the Disney purchase isn't altering Marvel as a studio or trying to fix the deal with Fox and Sony for X-Men, FF, and Spider-Man movies, and because of the Marvel deal with Universal, Marvel Super-Heroes Island isn't ever leaving Islands of Adventure, and likewise, the Marvel heroes will never come to Disneyworld.

(I have never, ever in my life been to Disneyland. And why should I? I live in Florida, son!)

At this early time I hesitate to speculate about anything, but it is true that because DC was always cushioned by its parent company from losses, in general, DC had a greater tendency than Marvel to keep in print critically praised but low-selling books. Not since the cancellation of Star Trek has any termination been greeted with as much rage and curses as the end of Dan Slott's THING series.