In a previous article and podcast episode, we looked at Midworld (1975), the first standalone novel in Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth fictional setting. His next books within that setting were two entries in his Pip and Flinx series, but Foster went on to spend much of his time working on novelisations. In particular, he wrote book versions of three hugely important SF films - Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It was a full five years before Foster wrote another standalone Humanx Commonwealth novel, but Cachalot eventually saw release in April 1980.
As with Midworld before it, Cachalot is set within Commonwealth space. Of all the standalone novels in the series, it is also the one set latest in the chronology. It’s an intriguing SF mystery, set on a planet covered almost entirely by a vast and barely-explored ocean. This novel is another showcase for Foster’s love of travel and knowledge of biology and ecology. Another key theme is the relationship between humans and other intelligent life. In this case, that means a thriving population of cetaceans - whales, dolphins and porpoises - which have been transplanted from distant Earth.
In 1974, James Herbert (1943 - 2013) was working as an art director at an ad agency. His copywriter colleagues were all frustrated would-be novelists. They were no doubt a little envious when one day, Herbert walked in with a copy of a novel he had quietly written and got published. They must have felt worse still when The Rats went on to become a huge success, selling tens of millions of copies. It was obvious that Herbert wouldn’t be an ad man for long.
Herbert went on to become one of the most important writers of British horror fiction, producing 23 novels before he died in 2013. Almost all of his books are standalones; The Rats is the only book of his to receive sequels, which reflects its popularity and enduring power. Herbert was insecure about his status, memorably stating “I don’t understand why I am so successful.” Looking back at The Rats, it’s not difficult to see why it cut through in 1974 and set the stage for his career.
Walk on the dark side: One is a Lonely Number (1952) by Bruce Elliott and Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliott Chaze
Just recently, I’ve become an avid reader of Paperback Warrior. It’s an invaluable website focused on the pulpy paperback fiction of the 20th century, with a strong emphasis on crime noir, spy thrillers, men’s action-adventure, and Westerns. The website, and its accompanying podcast, are a brilliant window into a fascinating era of fiction, much of it aimed at blue-collar working men in the United States.
The site’s authors are paperback archaeologists of the first rank and their thousands of reviews are always concise and informative. While much of my reading is classic science fiction, Paperback Warrior has recently been my guide into the often brilliantly dark crime fiction of the same era. What follows is my layperson’s reviews of two novels strongly recommended on the site, and which can be found together in a great value ebook available from California-based Stark House Press. One is a Lonely Number (1952) by Bruce Elliott is a real obscurity, a dark and nihilistic escaped-convict story set mostly in Ohio. Black Wings Has My Angel (1953) by Elliott Chaze is one of the most praised crime noir books of its era, and for many years was a very desirable rarity in paperback.
These are both excellent books, terse and powerful and as lively today as they were in the early ‘50s. If you like the sound of them, then I can only again recommend Paperback Warrior and Stark House Press, who I’m sure will guide you and I alike to many more engaging reads from back in the glory days of paperback fiction.
For me, April was another bumper month of games. In this month’s instalment of “What I played”, I cover seven games including two brand new ones which I’ve reviewed, and even one unreleased one, all of which I covered for Entertainium. In boomer shooter Forgive Me Father I confronted eldritch abominations, cosmic horrors and a sometimes severe lack of ammunition. B.I.O.T.A., meanwhile, is a very entertaining 8-bit style side-scroller set on an asteroid plagued by ravenous mutants. Both of these games have largely flown under the radar, but I do recommend them.
The four older games I tackled in April were the impressive remake Black Mesa (2020), underrated open-world shooter Rage 2 (2019), baffling Japanese adventure Yakuza 0 (2015) and the excellent sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015).
Quentin Tarantino once called Alan Dean Foster “the king of movie novelisations”, and it’s a fair description. Most famously, Foster wrote the first ever Star Wars novel, a novelisation of the original film which was released much earlier than the big screen version, in November 1976. Later, Foster would novelise other important science fiction movies, including Alien (1979) and its first two sequels, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Outland (1981), The Thing (1982), and Starman (1984). While novelisations are often thought of as one of the most low-brow forms of writing, Foster elevated the genre with his strong SF background and ability to expand upon scripts with additional detail.
However, Foster has done far more in his long career than merely re-work scripts into books. He has a very extensive catalogue of SF works under his belt, most notably in his “Humanx Commonwealth” universe, which centres on an alliance between humans and the intelligent insectoid species the Thranx. Midworld, published in 1975, is a superb standalone novel in this setting - albeit one which doesn’t feature the Thranx. Instead, it is set on a nameless, verdant, and hostile jungle planet which is home to the descendants of humans left stranded by a starship crash many decades earlier. In the book, Foster tells an enthralling story within a brilliantly realised and convincing setting.
This is an SF novel which will particularly appeal to those who enjoy stories rooted in biology and ecology, and it was a very clear influence on James Cameron’s megahit movie Avatar (2009). Stick around to the end to get more information on this intriguing connection. In the meantime, this review covers what makes Midworld so special, and such a good entry point into Foster’s body of work.
Rage 2 has been called “the sequel nobody wanted”, and with some justification. Developed by id Software and released in 2011, the original game didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Supposedly, id Software began working on a sequel which was terminated so that the company could focus on the 2016 Doom game. Later, the project was restarted under new management. The Rage 2 that saw release in May 2019 was largely developed by Swedish outfit Avalanche Studios, with the support and supervision of id Software. It also uses Avalanche’s own proprietary APEX engine.
On release, Rage 2 got the dreaded “mixed reviews”. It got a lot of 7 out of 10 scores, which in the demented world of video game scoring is generally taken to mean “this game sucks”. It’s quite possible that critics were increasingly tired of open-world games, and saw little need for a Rage sequel. The game’s structure may also have facilitated rushed playthroughs by critics, which may have kept them from seeing it at its best. Three years on, though, I’ve played Rage 2 for the first time and have been very pleasantly surprised. In fact, there’s a plausible case to be made that this broadly unwanted and unloved sequel is one of the more worthy shooters of recent years. It may have hilariously convoluted upgrade menus, and a thin story, but its core features are very entertaining indeed and it really gets a lot right. This, then, is my case in support of Rage 2 in six easy steps.
Appropriately enough given the state of the world, I start this month's games roundup with the post-apocalyptic tactics game Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden (2018). Later in March I tapped into the cultural zeitgeist - as I always do! - by going full goblin mode in the excellent stealth game Styx: Master of Shadows (2014).
Strap in, because this month's roundup is, happily, a particularly long one. There are a total of seven games to cover, even if one is technically "just" a DLC. On Entertainium duties, I also got the chance to cover a new game I'd been looking forward to. Sadly, Weird West didn't live up to my personal expectations, but I'm aware that I'm in the minority on that front.
Fiction is full of a whole variety of apocalyptic scenarios - like the dead rising from the grave, a full-blown nuclear exchange, or a takeover by hostile machines. There is one scenario that has what you might call an “advantage” over these ones, though. The catastrophic collision of an asteroid into the Earth is all the more unsettling because it has actually happened before, and - looked at over a sufficiently long timescale - will inevitably happen again. It’s perhaps the ultimate disaster that we can imagine, and yet it is also very real.
According to the dominant Alvarez hypothesis, the dinosaurs and most of the planet’s species were wiped out 66 million years ago by the impact of an asteroid estimated to be between 10 and 15 kilometres across. That’s roughly the same size as Phobos, one of the moons of Mars. The strike would have had an explosive force equivalent to 100 million megatonnes of TNT; that’s the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, multipied by a billion. There are many other large craters around the world, each of which is the legacy of a devastating impact in the distant past. These include the Karakul crater in Tajikistan, the Popigai crater in Russia and the Vredefort crater in South Africa, the world’s biggest at over 160km across.
The asteroid impact scenario has inspired many works of fiction including last year’s film Don’t Look Up, the duelling 1998 blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon, and numerous sci-fi stories and novels. Of these, one of the most notable is the book The Hammer of God, written by Arthur C. Clarke and published in 1993. Taking into account the latest science of the time, the book was the second-to-last novel that Clarke wrote alone and the last one he wrote alone outside of the Odyssey series. Incorporating elements and styles from his better known earlier books, The Hammer of God partly inspired Deep Impact and could be a good entry point for newcomers to Clarke’s body of work.
Way back in September 2020, I began reading and writing about the Hainish “cycle” of SF novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018). It has taken a year and a half, but the time has now come for my reflections on the eighth and final Hainish book, The Telling, which was published in 2000.
The Hainish books began with Le Guin’s very first novel Rocannon's World in 1966. The various books and short stories share a loose continuity and are set over a large span of time. They are predicated on the idea that humans evolved not on Earth, but rather on the fictional planet Hain. In the stories, an interstellar association called the “League of Worlds” or later the “Ekumen”, gradually reunites various human-like peoples who live on a number of planets including Earth. This concept is central to some of the stories, and barely mentioned in others.
The Telling is a fairly short novel which revisits several of the themes which Le Guin had previously explored in the earlier Hainish books. In this sense, it makes for a fitting conclusion to the loose series. Opinions are divided on where to start with the Hainish stories, but I would certainly caution against starting with The Telling; while its setting and characters are entirely new, it leans heavily on previous depictions of the Hainish people and of the Ekumen. While this is generally felt to be one of the more minor entries in the series, The Telling has all the deep engagement with ideas that Le Guin fans will expect by this point.
Another month, and another step in the world seemingly disintegrating in front of our eyes. February was another tough four weeks of 2022, as our stupid, cruel and cowardly leaders continued to throw ordinary people under the bus. At least, as ever, there were games to play. In recent weeks I tackled two huge older games which I hadn’t previously played. One was the $6 billion juggernaut of Grand Theft Auto V (2013), and one was the triumphant return of the Slayer, Doom Eternal (2020).
Excitingly, I also got the chance to play two brand new games in the form of martial arts brawler Sifu and the shooter sequel Shadow Warrior 3. These two Asian-themed action games were both on my list of the games I’ve been most looking forward to this year, and they both lived up to my expectations - albeit in somewhat surprising ways. A quick overview of all of these games will follow, but for my in-depth thoughts on the newcomers check out my full-length reviews published on Entertainium.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.