Tor.com content by

Alan Brown

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: What the Hail, Hydra?

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns for the final part of Season Four, a season divided into three Netflix-able chunks, and this arc has been set up in fine fashion. Life Model Decoy Aida has turned on Radcliffe, her creator. Her fellow LMDs, impersonating Mace, Coulson, Mack, Fitz and May, have taken over S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ. The real agents are strapped down in a former Soviet submarine, their minds trapped in the Framework, an alternate reality where people can live a life in which their greatest regret has been erased.

Only Daisy and Jemma have escaped with a small team aboard the Zephyr, along with the equipment they need to enter the Framework themselves. But what they find is not a world of happiness—instead, it’s a world ruled by the evil Agents of Hydra. The episode is entitled “What if…” and that’s the game the next few episodes will be playing. So let’s swallow the red pill, step through the looking glass, push forward the lever of our time machine, and dive down the rabbit hole into the world of the Framework!

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!]

Storming the Gates of Geekdom: Conan the Warrior by Robert E. Howard

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

I’m flexing the format of this series a bit this month to cover a book that isn’t science fiction, but is certainly full of alarums, excursions, and the stuff of excitement. In the late 1960s, a series of paperback books—with dynamic and evocative covers painted by Frank Frazetta at the peak of his talents—gave an old pulp character, Conan the Barbarian, new recognition. The wild success of paperback editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had revealed a desire for fantasy stories that publishers were eager to satisfy. And while Robert E. Howard had first written the adventures of Conan back in the 1930s, and the character had a strong cult following for decades, new editions of his adventures appeared on book racks in stores across America and gained wide popularity. Howard’s brand of fantasy stood out from the crowd. There were no elves and fairies in his work. Instead, he offered a lusty and vigorous hero who met all challenges, whether physical or magical, with his mighty strength, fighting skill, and cold steel.

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A Book To Make You Fall in Love with Science Fiction All Over Again: Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Sometimes a book comes along that completely knocks you off your feet. A perfect example is A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. It takes all the tropes of space opera, but grounds them in interesting speculations about physics. It is a war story, but told from the viewpoint of refugees fleeing that conflict. It is a heroic quest, but set in a far future society that travels between stars. It pushes all the emotional buttons, and keeps you on the edge of your seat right up to the last page. If you haven’t read it, consider this article a taste of what you’ve been missing. If you have read it, join me for a fond visit to an old favorite. There are a few spoilers ahead, but relatively gentle ones that describe the setting without revealing the plot past the first few chapters.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Love in the Time of Robots (Full Spoilers!)

If you were waiting for an episode full of rip-snorting adventure on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., this was your night. Last week’s episode ended with the reveal that four more key members of the team had been replaced by Life Model Decoy (LMD) robots: Director Mace, Coulson, Mack, and Daisy. Their bodies are strapped to tables in the evil Superior’s submarine alongside Agent May, with electrode caps on their heads that keep their minds occupied in the Framework, an alternate reality almost indistinguishable from reality. Fitz and Simmons, who’ve just detected the LMDs, don’t know what to do next. Between robot duplicates and alternate worlds, nothing is as it seems. Anything can happen.

Strap in, Agents, because pretty much everything DOES happen in this episode!

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!]

Assembly Line Adventures: On a Torn-Away World by Roy Rockwood

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The early 20th Century was a time of marvels—and a time when mass production was putting those marvels in every home. When people think of assembly lines, they often think of Henry Ford and automobiles. But in the same era, a man named Edward Stratemeyer developed a formula for mass producing books for the juvenile market, and in doing so, revolutionized an industry. There were books for boys and girls; books filled with mystery, adventure, sports, humor, science, and science fiction: anything an inquisitive child would want, in a package that encouraged them to come back for more.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: I’m Not Bad, I’m Just Manufactured That Way

The Ghost Rider has disappeared into another dimension, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returns from the holiday break for the second part of Season Four. And though Ghost Rider’s evil Uncle Eli has been defeated, there are still lots of plot threads dangling: Jeff Mace, new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., remains a man of mystery, as does the Senator who was trying to pull his strings from behind the scenes. The mysterious new Inhuman that Simmons freed from his cocoon is still on the loose. And Aida, the Life Model Decoy (LMD) developed by Doctor Radcliffe, has radically changed since her exposure to the Darkhold, the magical book that corrupted Uncle Eli and his fellow scientists. Aida has developed a mind of her own and has kidnapped Agent May, replacing her with another LMD. Which of our agents might next be replaced with a robotic doppelgänger? Could Grant Ward come back in yet another incarnation? Let’s dive again into the world of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!]

War Without Glory: The Forlorn Hope by David Drake

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The United States is divided by concerns about a stagnant economy and trade imbalances. The nation is still conflicted about a long and inconclusive war. A charismatic and bellicose Republican has replaced the last President, a scholarly and thoughtful Democrat. The new President promises to increase military spending while cutting back on the bureaucracy and balancing the budget at the same time… That’s right, folks, it’s time to travel back to the 1980s, and look at a work of military science fiction from the Reagan Era.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season Four Midseason Finale: Ghost Skulls Roasting on an Open Fire!

The holiday season approaches, and while folks pull decorations out of the back of the closet, search for the perfect gift, and put party dates on their calendars, the television networks try to hold onto our attention for a day or two more by bringing their fall story arcs to a close—usually with some big dramatic moment, or in the case of superhero and SF shows, some sort of shooting, explosions, flames, or earth-shattering kaboom. And Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is no different. Especially when it comes to this Winter Finale, at least in the flame department. Tonight’s episode is called “The Laws of Inferno Dynamics” and the synopsis from ABC promised we would see “S.H.I.E.L.D. and Ghost Rider find[ing] themselves unlikely allies when the lives of all of Los Angeles hang in the balance.”

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Gateways in the Library: The Beast Master by Andre Norton

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the most popular writers of “juvenile” science fiction was Andre Norton. We didn’t know much about the author at the time, but we all recognized the work and the themes. Worlds of adventure and mystery, danger and turmoil, exploration and triumph. The settings could be the realm of science fiction, or the magical worlds of fantasy. The protagonists were generally alone or in small numbers, pitted against hostile worlds and shadowy enemies. These books were gateways to adventure, and kept us turning pages, sometimes well past bedtime, with a flashlight under the covers.

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Hornblower in Space: Flandry of Terra by Poul Anderson

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Sometimes a cover painting is all it takes to reel you in. The paperback copy of Flandry of Terra had a glorious cover by Michael Whelan that metaphorically jumped off the shelf of the bookstore and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. While being a true and accurate depiction of characters from the story, the artwork also evoked some of Frank Frazetta’s best work: there was Flandry in a heroic pose, wearing cold weather gear and signaling to someone in the distance with his rifle, with a beautiful, similarly-clad woman crouching at his feet. A planetary ring arched in the background while airborne jellyfish floated above the wintry terrain. The author’s name was the icing on the cake: I was well acquainted with Poul Anderson’s work, and here was a whole new, exciting character—one who was completely unfamiliar to me. I had to buy this book, take it home, and see what I had been missing. And so it was, sometime in the early 1980s, that I first met Dominic Flandry. I was in for a treat.

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When Wishes Come True: Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

The early ’60s were a tough time to be a geek, in many ways. There was no computer industry, that great level playing field which allowed nerds with thick glasses to join the ranks of the rich and famous. There were a few science fiction movies around, and paperbacks and comics you could buy, but you generally didn’t want to be associated with those things, especially not if you had any hope of finding a date for Saturday night. Accordingly, there was a strong undercurrent of wish fulfillment in the science fiction of the day. Stories of heroes and heroines plucked from the mundane world to find adventure and excitement on another world, in another dimension, or in another time. And one of the best of them was a story by H. Beam Piper, about a corporal in the Pennsylvania State Police who is swept into another time, and a world far different than his own.

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season Four Premiere: Goodness Gracious, Great Skulls of Fire!

Tomorrow is the first official day of fall, the crops are coming in, we’re just past the harvest moon, and it’s time for a new season of network TV to start—welcome back to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., now returning for Season Four! The final episode of last season wrapped up a lot of threads that had been woven through the show since its inception, while introducing some new ones. Hydra has been defeated, Grant Ward is dead (along with the monster that had inhabited his body), and their evil plot to transform the people of Earth into monsters has failed. Daisy, still reeling from becoming an Inhuman and losing her boyfriend, has become a wandering vigilante. Coulson is no longer Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is working with Mack to capture Daisy. Doctor Radcliffe, who had been working for Hydra under duress, is now developing Life Model Decoys, or LMDs—devices that have long been a part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. comics, but are new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But the big news for the new season came after the Season Three finale aired, with the announcement of an unexpected addition to the mix: the supernatural Marvel character Ghost Rider, who has received a sub-title in the credits (at least for the time being), and given his name to the first episode of the new season: “The Ghost.”

[Only Agents who are cleared to observe SPOILERS should proceed beyond this point!]

A Genre Cornerstone: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

When examining military science fiction, all roads, at one point or another, lead to Starship Troopers, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959 and rooted in his service in the U.S. Navy. So much has been written about this book that it’s a bit intimidating to approach it as a reviewer, but in re-reading it for this series, I found something I can add to the conversation. While the book holds up even better than I expected, there are a few things in it that a modern audience might not appreciate. All fiction reflects the time in which it was written, and while I am not quite old enough to remember the world of the U.S. Navy in the 1930s, I am old enough to have seen remnants of that era during my own youth, and my service in the Coast Guard, which started in the 1970s. So let me proceed in putting some aspects of the work in context for modern readers.

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Who is Doc Savage?: The Sargasso Ogre by Kenneth Robeson

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

“MAN OF BRONZE, of sterling qualities, of unusual goal in life—this is Doc Savage. As leader of his small band of determined scrappers, eager for adventure, he is the idol of millions to-day, and his life is held up as an example to all who wish to give to life as much as they get out of it.”

These words are from an in-house ad in the Doc Savage Magazine, a publication that inspired many retellings of Doc’s adventures in other media. The recent news that director Shane Black and lead actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will be bringing his adventures to the silver screen has renewed interest in this pulp icon, so let’s take a trip together back to the days when newsstands were full of pulp magazines crammed with tales of intrepid adventurers and thrilling deeds and learn more about this mysterious hero!
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Reduced to Absurdity: Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

In this monthly series reviewing classic science fiction books, Alan Brown will look at the front lines and frontiers of science fiction; books about soldiers and spacers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

War is an ugly business. While many books focus on the gallantry and bravery, the triumph and victory, that certainly doesn’t represent all that war is. There is the dehumanizing nature of military service; becoming a cog in the machine. Not to mention the deprivation, pain, and suffering that one endures on the front lines. Anyone who has been in the military is familiar with gallows humor, and has seen people make jokes about things that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be funny. Human beings seem programmed to defiantly laugh at the worst life can throw at them, and the adventures of Bill, the Galactic Hero will certainly make you laugh.

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