The Eagle Has Landed – 47 Years Ago Today

It’s been a busy week for space anniversaries. Yesterday was “Mars Day”, the 40th Anniversary of the landing of the Viking 1 lander on the surface of Mars, so I guess we could call today “Moon Day”, with the 47th Anniversary of the first manned landing on the Moon.

On the morning of 16th July, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 and its crew lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the first manned mission to take off with the mission of actually landing on the lunar surface, rather than just orbiting it. On the evening of 20th July, 1969, the climax of the Apollo 11 mission approached, as the Lunar Lander Eagle detached from the Command Module Columbia and descended down towards the lunar surface with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on board (with Michael Collins remaining above in the Command Module).

Armstrong’s famous words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” heralded the landing of the Eagle on the lunar surface. It would be another six hours, early on the morning of June 21st, before Neil Armstrong was to take his very first steps on the Moon, to be joined twenty minutes later by Buzz Aldrin.

The first landing by humans on another world. One of the greatest moments in human history, in my opinion. So when are we going back, again, for good this time?

Golden Age Comics Characters: Captain Marvel

Whiz Comics 002
Captain Marvel first appeared back in February 1940, in the classic Golden Age comic Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. The Captain Marvel character was created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, and was the most popular superhero character of the 1940s (going by sales alone).

The character may seem quaint by modern standards, but he was hugely popular in the 1940s, a much simpler, more innocent era (at least when it comes to comics). Thirteen year-old newsboy Billy Batson is given incredible powers by an old wizard, and whenever he says the magic word Shazam! he is struck by a bolt of lightning, transforming him into Captain Marvel (saying Shazam! again changes him back into Billy Batson). Shazam! is an acronym for the first letter of each name of the six gods and legendary heroes from whom Captain Marvel gets his powers – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. That’s quite a powerful mix!

Captain Marvel later acquired two super-powered sidekicks, Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel, the three being known collectively as The Marvel Family. There were also later additions, both human and animal, all non-super powered. And there was also a retinue of nasty villains – Black Adam, an evil Captain Marvel analogue, Captain Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s champion, mad scientist Doctor Sivana, and, worst of all, Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil, which provided his longest running and most deadly adversaries.

Captain Marvel continued in Whiz Comics until #155 (June 1953), when the strip was forced to stop publication due to legal action initiated by National Comics, now DC Comics, who claimed that the character was too similar to Superman. That may have been technically true, but the lawsuit was quite cheeky and, in my opinion, ridiculous, as Superman himself was a blatant copy of earlier heroes such as Hercules, Samson, and even the character Gladiator, created by science fiction writer Philip Wylie in 1930, less than a decade before the creation of Superman. The influence of the Gladiator character on Siegal and Schuster in their creation of Superman is well known. After a couple of legal decisions in favour of, firstly, Fawcett, and then DC, Fawcett Publications finally settled out of court, Fawcett Comics ceased operating and stopped publishing all of their superhero comics, including the entire Captain Marvel stable of characters from 1953 onwards.

This legal nonsense was quite obviously an opportunistic act by National/DC to snuff out a more successful competitor, a perfect example of a large company using its greater legal muscle to bully a much smaller company into submission. More than any supposed legal objections, the major motivating factor in DC taking legal action against Fawcett was almost certainly financial, because Captain Marvel had been consistently outselling Superman and DC’s other titles by a considerable margin during that era.

I find it ironic that, in a nation which supposedly prizes competition, big companies prefer to use legal muscle to put dangerous competitors out of business, rather than take the more moral and logical route of trying to out-compete their adversaries in the marketplace. Even more ironic is that DC licensed the Captain Marvel stable of characters from Fawcett in 1972, and bought the rights to the characters outright from Fawcett Publications in 1980. As most DC comics fans are aware, Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s other characters live on to this day, and are now integrated into the DC Universe.

Some of the best battles in the DC Universe have featured Superman vs Captain Marvel, as both characters are so similar and equal in strength, one born of science and the other born of magic. There aren’t many characters in DC’s stable who can fight Superman to a standstill, but the Big Red Cheese is one of them!

Some Cordwainer Smith Books (Part 2)

Last time out, I was talking about receiving my first batch of Cordwainer Smith books in the post, and that I was waiting for another batch. Well, the second batch has now arrived, three books. Actually, two separate books, and an extra copy of one of them.

The two books are We The Underpeople and When The People Fell, both published by Baen Books. The reason that I have an extra copy of one of them is simple: I ordered both books and didn’t realise that they were different editions, different sizes. The original Baen 2007 edition was a trade paperback, and the 2012 edition was a much smaller mass market paperback, so they don’t go together too well on the bookshelf. I’d mistakenly ordered one of each, so I had to rectify my mistake, and immediately ordered a copy of the 2007 trade paperback edition of When The People Fell. The smaller mass market paperback edition will serve as a reading copy, while the two trade paperbacks go on the bookshelves. Extra copies never go to waste.:)

The good news for hardcore Cordwainer Smith fans, or those just wanting to try him out, is that these two books contain ALL of the science fiction writing of this great author. There’s no need to track down any of his other books, unless you’re one of those OCD obsessives (like myself), who has to have all the different editions, with the different introductions and different covers.

We The Underpeople contains not only an excellent Introduction by Robert Silverberg, but also Smith’s only SF novel, NORSTRILIA, and five of his best short stories. When The People Fell contains an equally excellent Introduction by Frederik Pohl, the remaining twenty-two stories in his Instrumentality of Mankind future history sequence, plus six non-Instrumentality stories.

That’s all of Cordwainer Smith’s SF stories in two books. Awesome, truly awesome. And required reading for anyone who considers themselves true, hardcore SF fans. All I can say is: Go get ’em!

Some Cordwainer Smith Books

I’m back on a book binge at the moment, all sorts of books from Amazon, Ebay and other sources. From the SF lit side of things, I’ve been concentrating on one of my favourite authors, Cordwainer Smith, and the first batch of four Smith books has recently arrived on my doorstep.

The first of the Smith books is the original 1968 Pyramid Books paperback edition of The Underpeople, which is the second half of Smith’s only SF novel, NORSTRILIA. The first half was The Planet Buyer, which I already have in it’s original Pyramid 1964 paperback edition. I’ve had the Sphere Books 1975 UK paperback edition of The Underpeople for years, but I wanted the original US Pyramid edition to go with my US original edition of The Planet Buyer.

The other three books are interesting in that they are three different editions of the same book, namely The Best of Cordwainer Smith. First we have the July 1975 hardcover Book Club Edition edition, published by Nelson Doubleday Inc, then the September 1975 Ballantine Books 1st paperback edition. Aside from the larger size and different dustcover art of the hardcover edition, everything is exactly the same, except for a couple of things. Two of the stories are reversed in order for some inexplicable reason, and J.J. Pierce’s excellent Future History Timeline is in a much easier to read vertical format in the hardcover, whereas in the paperback edition it’s in a harder to read horizontal format spanning several levels.

The third version of the book is actually a UK edition, trade paperback format, No.10 in the SF Masterworks series, published by Gollancz/Orion. Aside from the larger size and beautiful cover art, the internals of this edition are exactly the same as the Ballantine 1st US paperback edition, including the horizontal format Future History Timeline. This one is worth having for the lovely cover artwork and the fact that it’s one of the SF Masterworks series.

I’ve still got several more Cordwainer Smith books due to arrive soon in the post. I’ll list those when they arrive.

“Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt

TITLE: “Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Short Story
SOURCE: BEST SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES edited by Michael Stapleton (Hardcover, Hamlyn, 1977, ISBN: 0-600-38243-5, 750pp)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Startling Stories, November 1948

I was rummaging in the vaults a while ago, and I came upon an old anthology that I haven’t read in years. Well, me being me, I couldn’t resist having a browse through it, and looking at the extensive contents listing of excellent stories, the memories started flooding back.

I fondly remember this particular story as one of my favourites from that anthology. A. E. van Vogt’s short story “Dormant” was one of those Golden Age of Science Fiction classics first published in the November 1948 edition of Startling Stories, and the story isn’t one of those far-future, outer space tales, but is actually pretty much in a contemporary setting, 1948, the same year as the actual publication date of the story. Being an historian (I was actually studying history at school at the time I read it), I’ve always really liked the strong post-World War II setting of this tale, with the US destroyer Coulson and it’s crew doing mop up operations on a remote pacific island, finding hidden caches of fuel and other goodies left behind by the Japanese.

But they also find a lot more than just Japanese leftovers. There’s the perplexing mystery of a gigantic rock, weighing millions of tons, which seems to be able to move around the island at will. A rock with a surface temperature of many hundreds of degrees, and which hurls out seemingly random destructive radioactive blasts. A giant rock which is not actually a rock, but an ancient, sentient robot bomb left on Earth countless millions of years ago by some alien race in a long-forgotten interstellar war.

The sections of the story from the POV of the bomb are among my favourites. The bomb, which actually has a name (it calls itself Iilah), has been dormant for countless aeons, but has recently been reawakened by the radiation from the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. It has got only low-level life functions back, and is suffering from amnesia. It cannot see the water, air, and even the humans around it. It’s simply totally unaware of their existence. All it can see are the ships and the planes, which it takes for strange lifeforms, flying around in the “sky”. And it’s the bomb’s attempts to communicate with these “lifeforms”, to try find out where it can get more sources of atomic energy to revive it, which unwittingly causes so much destruction and kills so many people.

And of course the humans, predictable as ever, just HAVE to start shooting at the damned thing. The giant “rock” fights back, kicking their asses and destroying the Coulson, much of the other equipment, and unknowingly snuffing out dozens of lives of which it is totally unaware. The remainder of the taskforce is ordered off the island, and an atomic bomb dropped, which is, ironically, exactly what Iilah needs. The flood of energy totally reinvigorates it, and it remembers its mission. It IS a robot bomb, after all, so it promptly follows orders, explodes and knocks Earth out of its orbit and into the sun. And so the world ends in 1948.:)

“Dormant” must be one of the first A. E. van Vogt short stories that I read (maybe even the first) back in the day, although I’d definitely read a few of his novels before that point. It was during this timeframe that I also came across three other van Vogt short stories – “The Monster”, “Vault of the Beast” and “Black Destroyer” – in anthologies that I’d taken out from the local library, but I’m pretty sure that I read “Dormant” before any of the others. Those four stories became huge favourites of mine during my mid-to-late-teens, and kick-started my obsession for hunting down collections of van Vogt short fiction.

“Dormant” (indeed all four of these stories) has stuck in my mind these past forty years, and is one of those early gems that cemented my newly-acquired obsession as a hardcore SF fan. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this one.

Anyone who might want to read this story, and is finding it hard to get a copy of this anthology, can also find the story in a couple of van Vogt’s short story collections, notably Destination: Universe! and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt.

More New DVDs April 2016

I’ve been buying a lot of DVDs recently, and they keep rolling in, although I think I’ll start switching back to books for a while after this. And for a change, none of the latest batch of DVDs are Gerry Anderson-related.

Actually, the first one up IS vaguely related to Gerry Anderson. Roberta Leigh’s classic puppet show Space Patrol aired on UK television during 1963-64, and was pretty much contemporary with and competition for Anderson’s Fireball XL5, was also set in space, and featured… er… puppets. Add to this the fact that Roberta Leigh was Gerry Anderson’s employer for the first couple of puppet series that he produced, and there IS a strong connection. This particular DVD boxset is the classic six-disc edition released by Network Distribution back in 2003, compiling all thirty-nine episodes plus a nice bunch of extras.

Second up is the gorgeous Network Distribution (Again? These guys are everywhere!) 2015 restoration of Nigel Kneale’s classic Quatermass (1979) four-part, 207 minute serial, plus a bunch of other extras, including the much shorter and heavily edited feature-film version The Quatermass Conclusion plus a nice booklet by Cult Sci-Fi TV historian Andrew Pixley. Also, for good luck, I picked up a copy of the original 2003 Clear Vision three-disc boxset release. The picture quality isn’t nearly as good as the lovely 2015 Network restored version, but the packaging is nice, and the extras are different, as is the booklet, written by Ian Fryer. So it’s well worth having, particularly since I got it at a very reasonable price.

Finally we have Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, a remarkable 105 minute documentary giving a comprehensive overview of the background history of and crazy goings-on at the (in)famous 2000AD, the various personalities involved, the most famous of the strips, and even sidetracking into the two Judge Dredd films. Totally engrossing, and I’d recommend it to any fans of UK comics.

That’s a great haul of DVDs. They should do me nicely until the next batch arrives.:)

Some New Gerry Anderson DVDs (Part 2)

A couple of posts back, I mentioned about being on a roll with buying Gerry Anderson DVDs. Well, that trend is showing no signs of abating. I’ve recently picked up another couple of Anderson items on DVD, so the collection is growing quite a lot right now.

First up is the excellent Network Distribution 2013 DVD boxset release of the classic 1962 series Fireball XL5. We have all 39 episodes of the original series, restored and remastered, one full episode gorgeously recolourised. There’s also two excellent new documentaries, a load of other extras, and a lovely colour booklet by television historian Andrew Pixley. This is a seriously cracking boxset.

Second up, we have yet another Network Distribution release, this time from 2014. We have what is probably the best Gerry Anderson documentary ever made, bar none. Filmed in Supermarionation is almost two hours of fascinating Anderson history, detailing the development of Anderson’s puppet shows and their pioneering techniques from 1957 up until the end of the 1960s. This is a fascinating documentary, and kept me rivetted to the TV for the entire two hours. There are also some nice extras on the DVD

I’ve also just watched the two documentaries on the Fireball XL5 boxset, and they are also seriously good. Now to watch a few Fireball XL5 episodes!:)