The Sour Lemon Score, by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

The twelfth entry in Westlake’s Parker series, The Sour Lemon Score (1969) is also the last of the “Score” books to debut as a Gold Medal paperback. The “sour lemon” choice for the title (assuming it was the author’s choice this time) implies a return to a more orthodox form, without much involvement by his girlfriend Claire and starting off with a well-planned but vanilla bank robbery. This departure from the crazy quilt being stitched by The Rare Coin Score, The Green Eagle Score and The Black Ice Score appears to have made TSLS a more popular book–and maybe the most highly regarded of the Gold Medal issues.

The plot of TSLS recalls that of another widely appreciated Parker title: The Seventh. That novel began in the aftermath of a successful heist; Parker returned to his hideout from shopping to find his girlfriend impaled by a sword and the suitcases of money missing. Parker then spends the rest of The Seventh hunting down the nameless young man responsible, attaining bloody retribution after much difficulty. TSLS follows a similar path with a bank heist and double-cross, but this time the perpetrator has a name–George Uhl–and life history that Parker learns as he plays detective.

Still, you cannot go home again: TSLS features a Parker confronting a generation gap within his loose network of underground figures. He’s losing his trusted associates to death or retirement and left with a cast of increasingly younger and less predictable individuals. It also ends in a violent, surreal sequence in that most reliably surreal setting of Parker’s world, the suburbs.


Allison & Busby edition.

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The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

This post is not a review in the traditional sense, because I typically don’t like to write opinion articles about nonfiction books. Given that the Gaping Blackbird has been increasingly distracted by All Things Westlake, and that I’ve been poking around my fair share of biographical resources when putting together reviews lately, I figured I would lay my cards out on the table and admit to boring my way through the 2014 collection The Getaway Car.


Darwyn Cooke cover for University of Chicago Press

Constructed out of Westlake’s introductions, essays, letters and private papers by the editor Levi Stahl, The Getaway Car is a posthumous tribute to the great writer. This is a rare statement, but I would have liked to see more introductory material than the brief forward by Lawrence Block; maybe from someone who dealt with him as a screenwriter. Regardless, the book is an impressive collection of pieces, full of things hitherto unknown to this 20-book veteran reader of Westlake’s fiction (not to mention a dedicated consumer of The Westlake Review and other blogs).

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I Speak for Earth, by John Brunner

During the early phase of his career, SF author John Brunner produced a large number of manuscripts to be published as Ace paperbacks. He gained a reputation for giving life to new and futuristic ideas during the early 1960s, before switching to the larger, socially-focused novels that made him famous.

Long before Stand on Zanzibar, however, Brunner demonstrated a tendency to cast his eye on the psychological consequences of progress, rather than the progress itself. His obscure 1961 novel I Speak For Earth embodies this with an interesting take on the “first contact” trope.


Ed Emshwiller cover for Ace.

I Speak For Earth was published as half of an Ace Double under the pseudonym Keith Woodcott, but it can also be found today as an e-book (as by John Brunner). Brunner reworked many of his early manuscripts for reprinting in the 1970s and 1980s, but not ISFE.

ISFE is a better showcase of ideas than of characters, but it does get the point across that progress is increasingly the outcome of collaboration, rather than individual effort. The blending of identities and personalities into a single central nervous system is a theme visited by many SF books, ranging in quality from Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil (at the bottom) to Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (at the very top). Here, Brunner combines the idea with a first-contact story of the “uplift” variety. Continue reading

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“Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle” by Jack Vance

Wrapping up my three-part overview of Chateau d’If and Other Stories, the Underwood-Miller collection of Jack Vance pieces, this article covers the two best-crafted entries: “Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle.” Both are novellas, but unlike “Chateau d’If” they both feature plots and settings that feel appropriate for the word length.

They are also two examples of “gadget” stories, Vance’s own term for the instances where his fiction features a future-science aspect (the gadget) instead of integrating it into deeper thematic material. They enjoy popularity among fans of Vance, but not universal support as examples of his first-rate material. They also feature the plain-spoken style Vance employed in his early career as a pulp writer–which is not a surprise for the 1955 story “The Gift of Gab,” but “Rumfuddle” first appeared in 1973.


Frank Kelly Freas cover for Street & Smith.

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“Chateau d’If” by Jack Vance

Continuing with the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories, we take a look at the title story, a novella originally published as “New Bodies For Old” in 1950, in the serial Thrilling Wonder Stories. As with many other Vance pieces, “Chateau d’If” is available under various collections, including Son of the Tree and Other Stories of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE).

The VIE is thought to be the authoritative version of Vance’s work, undoing–as much as possible–the interference of various editors over the years. It appears that the in-print Spatterlight Press edition is based off of the VIE, and would be worth purchasing. The contents of the Spatterlight volume Chateau d’If and Other Stories includes several “gadget” stories that I reviewed earlier: “Crusade to Maxus,” “Shape-Up,” “The Man from Zodiac” and “The Augmented Agent.”


Spatterlight Press edition.

The real Château d’If is a fortress built in the 1500s on an island in the Bay of Marseilles of southern France, and used to house prisoners over the years. Religious minorities (Huguenots) and enemies of the state (Communists) were imprisoned there, in isolation from the public. Wealthy prisoners were given cells in the upper floors, with windows and better food, while the poor where housed in the dungeons. It is also where the main character of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo was confined after being framed for a crime. Continue reading

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“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens”, by Jack Vance

More famous for his many series of SF and fantasy novels, Jack Vance was also a prolific writer of short fiction. The two early 1950s novellas described here feature the same female protagonist, a daring and surprisingly remorseless teenager named Jean Parlier. Jean is not a stereotypical femme fatale stuffed into an SF plot; nor is she merely the female version of a more traditional hero. The technology of Vance’s distant future has given her a chance to defy the social order, but she has to tread the line between hero and villain.

This post is the start of a series on the novellas comprising the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories. Unlike The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, which I reviewed last year, this book has no introductory essay. The eye-catching Ilene Meyer cover art oversells the surrealism of Vance’s stories, but I suppose many of the events experienced by his characters would be bizarre and disorienting.

ilene meyer 1990

Ilene Meyer cover for Underwood-Miller.

“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens” are apparently the only two stories featuring Jean Parlier, both published in 1952 issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories. They were also combined into a 1965 “fix-up” novel called Monsters in Orbit (a bad title). Like many, if not all, of Vance’s shorter science fiction, both stories are readily available in later collections, most recently in The Golden Girl and Other Stories.

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The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

Not long ago I sang the praises of John Brunner’s large SF novel Stand on Zanzibar, which has maintained a reputation over the years as a classic of dystopian literature. It constructed a detailed world from many speculations about social, political and technological changes, some bearing a compelling resemblance to our present times. It also has a stylistic legacy, in that it brought the modernist novel-building techniques of Dos Passos’ U.S.A. into the SF genre.

The Sheep Look Up, a 1972 novel which garnered critical attention and a Nebula nomination of its own, is another densely imagined dystopia. It too interleaves narrative passages with fictional excerpts and character-driven subplots, but it is much more focused on its central theme: environmental catastrophe. While Stand on Zanzibar is better known for what it brought into the genre, TSLU also breaks new ground by crossing between SF and horror.


Mark Rubin and Irving Freeman cover for Ballantine edition.

As featured in this article from SF Ruminations, Rubin and Freeman’s cover design is one of the most memorable of the era. The gas masks, necessary implements in Brunner’s future world, turn the human figures into sheep in the fields. These sheep, and their fate which is decided by their absent shepherds, are described at the book’s end by a quote from John Milton’s poem Lycidas:

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, a foul contagion spread.

The themes of decay and neglect predominate.

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