Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante by Richard Tooker (pulp sci-fi adventure short stories)

Richard Tooker was obviously meant to tell stories of adventure. Born in 1902, Tooker's father's family were sea captains, soldiers, and adventurers. The storytelling part came from his mother, who knew the author of the classic adventure Alice of Old Vincennes. Tooker published his first story at the age of 15, then after finishing school, worked as an editor and reporter and was enlisted in the Marines. He felt that his life contained parallels with Jack London's Martin Eden and published his first novel, The Day of the Brown Horde, in 1929 (from whose dustjacket the substance of this paragraph comes).

Tooker's skill at writing cracking sci-fi adventure is well evidenced by Black Dog Books' collection of the three longish stories featuring his hero Zenith Rand, as published in three consecutive issues (June, August, and October 1936) of Mystery Adventure Magazine. Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante contains the title inaugural tale plus two others, "Revenge on Scylla" and "Angels of Oorn" (the source of the book's appealing cover illustration).

"Zenith" (whose given name is never revealed) was named by his fellow Terran Spacemen for his "indomitable fighting spirit" in the midst of playing "sky-the-limit stakes in the grim game of stellar conquest and exploration" (zenith, of course, being the sky's own upper limit). Nevertheless, Rand has a weakness, and her name is Sandra Yates.

As we discover in "Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante," the first of the trilogy, Pilotess Yates — a Valkyr Amazon — broke Rand's heart (or perhaps merely bruised his pride) when she chose another over him. It was, in fact, this event that led him to choose the distant post on Camia, moon of Orthos, and subsequently necessitated Yates's arrival just in time to save Rand from the Camian goat-women. O, sweet irony!

In addition to the color art by Norman Saunders found on the Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante's front and back covers (from the very issues in which the first and third stories appeared), Black Dog Books publisher Tom Roberts has also included the black-and-white illustrations (uncredited and unknown) that accompanied the stories' first appearances inside the magazines. In doing this, Roberts has done his best to replicate the original reading experience as closely as possible while offering a cleaner presentation of the text.

"Revenge on Scylla" finds Zenith on the titular "somber sphere ... on the fringe of Altair's Titan gravity" in a search for Sandra among the slime seas. Since the events of their previous outing, Yates and Rand became "mates for life" (something involving having "simply signed the book" — no marriages for these even-steven fiftieth-century Terran couples), much to the chagrin of "Death" Lamson, Rand's supernumerary on this rescue mission to reclaim Yates from the half-snake Scyllans. If that's not enough to deal with, the group will also face betrayal from their own side.

Tooker's prose is not the most accessible. Several sentences required a second or third reading to completely suss out their meaning. But the author definitely understands action, and the writing in Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante improves with each story.

"Angels of Oorn" posits Zenith Rand on the titular moon of Procyon, required to (once again) save Mate Yates from its denizens, highly unsavory despite their epithet ("Zenith snorted derisively ... 'If you Oornites are angels, I'm Mercury's half-brother'"). This story is definitely the most interesting, with the threat coming not only in physical form but also mental, as a directed gaze from the hypnotic, shape-shifting Oornites can kill, and even a mere glance can incapacitate or madden.

This last story engenders an appetite for further adventures, but there are only these three, for whatever reason (there is no background explanatory material included). Nevertheless, Zenith Rand, Planet Vigilante offers a chance to read these pioneering spicy pulp sci-fi adventure stories that would otherwise have been lost to the casual enthusiast.


David Cranmer said...

This is my kind of pulp. I will make a note.

Also I began reading MARTIN EDEN for the first time this week. I have just finished a London bio and wanted to continue on with a Jack novel.

Sayeth said...

I just found your blog through Audiojukebox. It looks like you've got a fun taste in books. Thanks for the reviews.

Craig Clarke said...

Glad to be of service to you both.

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