Frederik Pohl (1919 - 2013) had an incredibly long career in science fiction. He wrote, edited and worked as an agent for over 70 years, from the early 1940s right through to the end of his long life. Gateway is a key work in the second wave of his writing career, which began in 1969 after a long spell helping others to get their stories published. Originally serialised in Galaxy magazine, Gateway was a major success which won both the Locus and Nebula Awards for best novel, and the John W. Campbell award.
Robinette Broadhead lives on a bleak, desperately overpopulated future Earth. Working in the grim “food mines” of Wyoming, he longs for a break and finally gets one - a lottery win. With his prize, Broadhead buys himself a trip to “Gateway”, a hollowed-out asteroid found concealed within our solar system. Once used by the mysterious, vanished alien Heechee, this rocky enigma contains a thousand of their highly advanced starships. Gateway is the centre of a “star rush”, humanity’s chance to explore and exploit the galaxy. Broadhead hopes to strike it lucky, to crew a Heechee ship that might discover alien relics. Success could mean fame, fortune, and a life of luxury.
The starships, though, are as inscrutable as they are powerful. Broadhead learns that the vessels are easy to pilot, but impossible to control. Any trip out is not only long, cramped and squalid but could see its crew come back empty handed - if they make it back at all.
May’s instalment of “what I played” is a relatively brief one, simply because - well, I didn’t play that many games during the month. What I did unexpectedly get the chance to do is to review the excellent Sniper Elite 5, which is easily one of my favourite games of 2022 so far. I can admit to a surge of local pride, as developers Rebellion are based just down the road from me in Oxford. My full thoughts on the game are available for your reading pleasure at Entertainium.
I of course also found a bit of time to tackle some older games. Thanks to the generous folks at Epic, I was able to play hyper-fast futuristic racer Redout (2016). I took a bloody trip into the distant past with Raven’s badly dated shooter Soldier of Fortune (2000). Finally, I have a few thoughts on the remaster of the end-of-the-world action-adventure Darksiders (2010).
Arthur C. Clarke was very much interested in the moon. In his most famous book and its film version, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the moon is the setting for a brief but crucial sequence - the discovery of the first monolith. The moon is also a setting in Clarke’s early novels Prelude to Space (1951), Earthlight (1955) and today’s subject, A Fall of Moondust (1961). This particular book is a good example of Clarke’s approach to so-called “hard science fiction”, which strongly emphasises scientific accuracy and plausibility. Clarke crafts a story, set entirely on the moon, which uses the contemporary scientific knowledge of the time.
As it turned out, the central premise of A Fall of Moondust was invalidated just a few years after the book was published. The plot is predicated on the idea that there are areas of the moon where dust is so fine, that it flows like a liquid. This concept is used as the springboard for a tense rescue story - but when the crew of the Apollo 11 mission walked on the moon in July 1969, the theory was disproved. As Clarke points out in his introduction to the 1987 edition of his book, “the Apollo astronauts found it difficult and exhausting work to drive their core-sampler tubes into [the moon] for more than a few centimetres.” Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were certainly in no danger of sinking into the dust of the moon.
The premise of A Fall of Moondust may not have survived the tide of scientific discovery, but the book has stood the test of time.
Duncan Kyle was the pseudonym used by British author John Franklin Broxholme (1930 - 2000). A journalist and editor, Broxholme took up thriller writing as he approached middle age. Between 1970 and 1993, Kyle published fifteen standalone novels, mostly in the high adventure genre and with a mix of contemporary and historical settings. These books are often compared with the works of the hugely successful Alastair MacLean; it has even been suggested that Broxholme chose a Scottish-sounding pen name to play up that similarity. While Kyle was successful in his time, over the years the books have fallen into obscurity.
Fortunately, the enterprising London-based publisher Canelo has recently republished three of Kyle’s thrillers, specifically Flight into Fear (1972), Whiteout (1976), and Stalking Point (1981), as part of their Canelo Action list. This short review covers the first of these, Flight into Fear, which was Kyle’s second novel. Focusing on a pilot whose seemingly benign trip to San Francisco sees him caught in a web of international subterfuge, it’s exactly the kind of fast-moving thriller that I’m happy to see made available to a new, wider audience.
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.
I write about books, film, videogames, boardgames and music. I'm a contributor to Entertainium.