The Feast From The East: Tales From The Cosmic Casbah

Something To Read With Relish

And Tempt The Taste Buds… 

SinbadThe dream I had, Rachid, this is all part of it somehow! We’ve been brought here by some mysterious force. Is it not written that a wise man will try to realise his dream, to follow it?” 

Rachid: “Some say it is through dreams that Allah speaks to mortal man… Captain! He who walks on fire will burn his feet…” 

The being “spontaneously generated” in a cave on a remote island, many parsecs off the Arabian coast. Seafarers discovered that stranger and brought him to Baghdad where he described in intricate detail th countless worlds to be found beyond our own, before the Caliph assured him that none of these realms could surpass the beauty of his own land and the glory of Allah.

This is the synopsis for Theologus Autodidactus, written by Ibn Al-Nafis, dating from as early as the 13th century is believed (in some quarters) to be the earliest precursor of science fiction, although its curious contents lean more towards science-fantasy. 

The notion of Middle Eastern Science Fiction seems so unlikely, compounded by the view that science and the proliferation of (new) ideas conflict with the principles of Islamic ideology. And yet there is so much more to this surprisingly burgeoning scene than it looks. The recent successful SF and Fantasy Book Festival held in Abu Dhabi highlighted what this unexpected region has to offer – most notably:

Iraq+100, a groundbreaking SF anthology that poses an intriguing challenge to contemporary Iraqi writers:

What might your home city look like in the year 2103 – exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq?

And now there is the English translation of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi. 

From the rubble-strewn streets of US-occupied Baghdad, Hadi the junk dealer collects human body parts and stitches them together in order to make the government grant them the proper burial they deserve. However, the corpse goes missing; soon, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, leading to reports of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. 

Hmm, not my cup of (cardamom) tea, this, but interesting to see how arguably the most famous classic SF/horror theme has inspired a uniquely – not to mention unlikely – Middle Eastern variation.

“Two tablets brought forth to the light, yet a third remains from sight.

“A final place must still be found, a place that lies deep below the ground…” – The Oracle Of All Knowledge. 

Once upon a time, shortly after we moved to my childhood home, my parents let out our upstairs rooms to students attending the local university. The vast majority of them hailed from the Middle East. So, fortunately, from a very young age, yours truly grasped the opportunity to savour the music, language, art, aromas, rugs and – Allah be praised! – delicacies of distant domains. 

Thus, fuelling my imagination by gawping at various awesome adventures such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and – ah! ‘im again – The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; and much later, stopping at nothing to acquire my own ornate antiquarian hardback edition of Tales From The Arabian Nights (translated and annotated by Richard F. Burton – the definitive rendering) (1888) – plus acquiring a degree in Near Eastern Archaeology – Brad was all set to trample all over such esteemed sites as Babylon, Nippur, Lagash and Umm Dabaghiyah (umm-what?!)… until…

Mum beseeched me not to go, fearing an escalation in tensions and violence in that region – ultimately, in sheer disbelief, yours truly witnessed/read about the vandalism and destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage (during 2003-04) from the relative quiet and safety of Bangkok instead…

To accentuate this scheherazade for the senses, there will be light sprinklings of the more exotic platters that nestle deep within the jukebox @ Brad Manor – all by the same combo who accompanied me on the streets of Manhattan, kept me occupied during those looong hours waiting at Middle Eastern airports, and inspired me to write both fiction and non-fiction during the Pre-Bradscribe Era @ a lovely seaside retreat on the Gulf of Thailand… 

“Flashing swords, leaping bandits, holy magic, bloodthirsty monsters, and sumptuous cuisine… what more do you want me to do, draw you a map? Read this thing” – Scott Lynch. 

Throne Of The Crescent Moon (first published in 2012) is a lush fantasy set in an alternate medieval Middle East. Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last real ghul hunter of Dhamsawatt, King of Cities, Jewel of Abassen is aching to retire – presumably to spend lazy days relaxing with copious cups of cardamom tea –  but a new threat of ghuls: zombie-like beings reanimated by evil sorcery, more fearsome than any he has ever encountered, brings him back into this rather unusual fray.

Before setting out wholeheartedly to acquire a copy, my heart sank upon recalling my persistent – almost legendary – inability to track down any potentially groovy novel that comes to my attention.

And yet!

Before you can say: “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel,” the very tome of which we speak managed to reach my grubby mitts, for a hardback copy indeed lay in wait at my nearest library!

The book itself has received rave reviews and its author, Saladin Ahmed happens to be the very same Saladin Ahmed who contributed to the recent Star Wars Canto Bight anthology compendium and – my minions inform me – is now writing Spider-Man! So far, it is proving to be an engrossing read; like one reviewer remarks, it plays in your mind rather like a Ray Harryhausen fantasy – high praise inseed! 

And why does the premise sound so intoxicating? 

Because it seems exactly like the sort of Arabesque swashbuckling fantasy adventure that Brad would write. Come to think of it, not so long ago, he DID attempt such a saga, whilst living near the beach a few years back – inspired by my study of ancient seafaring.

Accounts by Arab writers of exotic eastern lands can be dated as far back as the mid-9th century CE. The earliest existing text: the Akhbar al-Sin wa’l-Hind (unfortunately anonymous) compiles stories from merchants who told of uncharted islands rife with pirates, troglodytes, headhunters and “beasts” more fantastic than anything Magizoologist Newt Scamander encountered! 

More crucially, this is where we first obtained those fantastical tales of Sinbad, that adventurous sailor who had to brave evil sorcerers, giant crabs and whatnot WITHOUT the comfort of cardamom tea…! 

“He’s awake and listening to us. Sly little rascal. But royalty has need of slyness. And if he’s really the Kwisatz Haderach… well… Sleep well, you sly little rascal. Tomorrow you’ll need all your faculties to meet my gom jabbar” – Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam.

Well, bless my Chicken Arabiatta!

It is difficult to discuss this material without acknowledging the HUGE impact of Frank Herbert’s Dune. 

Exuding more pertinent geopolitical resonances in the 21st century than it ever could have managed on its initial publication in 1965, Herbert drew inspiration from the Bedou way of life, to create an elaborate desert culture: the Fremen, native inhabitants of the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. 

For possibly the first time, numerous examples of Middle Eastern terminology filterted into Western literature. In their jihad against House Harkonnen, the Fremen launch razzia raids, wear aba and bourka robes, fear a “devil” named “Shaitan” and so on.

Please click here for an expanded study of this landmark work, winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards, and praised by Arthur C. Clarke for its “depth of characterisation and the extraordinary detail of the world it creates. I know nothing comparable to it except The Lord Of The Rings.”

“Is that the end… of all the races and civilizations, and the dreams of the world, to be able to leave a few stones buried beneath the sands, to tell the Dark that we were here?” – Niun.

Another SF series profoundly influenced by Middle Eastern themes came in the eclectic form of the Faded Sun Trilogy by C.J. Cherryh.

Set in the Alliance-Union universeKesrith, Shon’Jir and Kutath each chronicle the Mri-Wars in this coming-of-age saga of Niun, the plucky protagonist.

The first volume begins with the Regul having just concluded a forty-year war with humanity. As part of the peace, they are ceding the desert world of Kesrith to humanity. However, they have neglected to inform its inhabitants, the Mri, who have served them as mercenaries for over two thousand years. These mercenaries have been nearly exterminated in these wars, and young Niun is one of the few remaining warriors. When the Regul seek to double-cross his people, he and his sister Melein, the last of the priestly Sen caste, form an uneasy alliance with the human Sten Duncan to rescue a holy relic that may hold the key to the Mri’s survival.

Despite being shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1978 and the Hugo Award in 1979, this – and its two successors – are among the most elusive SF series to track down in print!

Time to set sail – for “every voyage has its own flavour”further east, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, across the azure Maha Thalassa towards the enchanted shores of what Persian seafarers called: “Al-Hind”…

“Mighty Kali. Mightier than thou am I. Make obeisance to me…! Dance. Dance for me!” – Khoura. 

 

“One of the five best SF novels ever written” – George R. R. Martin.

Why shouldn’t India have its own panoply of science fiction tales?

Delve into the wondrous textures of Hindu mythology and it will not take you long to discover bizarre accounts of gods striking out of glistening cities in the clouds, charging across the sky in “celestial chariots” firing bolts of lightning against inhuman enemies…

So it comes as no surprise that Roger Zelazny drew extensively upon such myths to produce one of the SF greats: Lord of Light. 

A distant world where gods walk as men, but wield vast and hidden powers. Are they truly immortal? Who are these gods? Their names include Brahma, Kali, Krishna and also he who was called Buddha, the Lord of Light, but who now prefers to be known simply as Sam. 

Although it has not ascended to Dune-like heights of literary adulation and popularity, Zelazny’s masterpiece is richly-conceived and plotted, and still widely-regarded by those who know as a richly-crafted work, its curious yet compelling non-linear narrative lauded by other top contemporary SF authors.

Your foreign correspondent here will endeavour to surge through this classic right now (for the unpteenth time) aided by a set of lamb biryani, with a bowl of naan chips, baked with cumin, coriander and kalonji seeds, (seasoned with Kashmiri spices and coconut – the way Brad likes ’em!) – and a cup of cardamom tea, of course

Love, light and peace.

 

“There is that about them which repels… The trident of Shiva cuts a path through everything. But no matter how much he destroys, we raise up more against him. So he stands like a statue, uncreating storms we will not let end” – Tree Of Green Fire. 

“You pace the deck like a caged beast; for one who enjoys the hashish you should be more at peace…” – Sinbad.

 

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Tales Of Sprained Deltoids: Throwback Thorsday!

By Order Of Odin – FIVE Ishs Of The Mighty Thor – What Sayest Thou?! 

They are brave, Vizier… braver than any gods before them, or any who will come after, I think. Would that I could sail with them… but Asgard holds me… ‘Twas not so long ago my son and I were enemies sworn. I hope that I have not sent him to such a terror… with enmity still burning in his breast. ‘Twould be too great an irony for this elder god’s mind to bear” – Odin. 

Heimdall’s Eyes! 

Why, Brad wouldst hath flown atwixt the fiery jaws of Fafnir the Dragon isself if ‘twould ensure the completion of another blogpost!!

But nay. 

For the last three months now, trying to describe the joys of Bronze Age comics (commonly referring to those ishs published between 1970-1985) has proved to be an unnecessarily difficult chore. Amass some suitably groovy ishs and discuss their merits: how could such an innocent task be so… troublesome? 

Only the God of Thunder – one of my all-time favourite Marvel characters – could lure me out of this annoying phase of inactivity. Gladly, a copy of The Mighty Thor was snapped up back in the day, and one of the objectives of my recent Bronze Age expeditions involved searching for as many back ishs of this title, as possible!

Enjoying the God of Thunder’s scene-stealing turn in Avengers: Age Of Ultron the other week, and my copy of Thor: Ragnarok (for the umpteenth time!) this past week reminded me how, not so long ago, the idea of a study based solely on those exceptional ishs of The Mighty Thor – all dating from the ’70s (of course!) – would be fun to compile. Besides, such great ishs doth lie in easy reach, for they can be – and yea! Verily, are – read and reread, and never become tiresome.  

So, from whence do we begin?!

Rereading #218, with its bold and suitably heroic splash page (see above!) provides tne ideal point with which to commence this scintillating journey through Asgardian awesomeness.

 

Tana Nile: “Silas, beware! We’ve fallen afoul of the mutant class – the underground dwellers of Rigel, creatures deformed both in body… and mind!” 

Silas Grant: “I can see that, lass… Tell me now what I’m to do about it! They’re all around us!”

The Mighty Thor #218 (December 1973) turned out to be SO EPIC that it’s very title: “Where Pass The Black Stars There Also Passes… Death!” did not appear until a special double (explosive) spread across pages 16-17. 

By The Golden Gates Of The Eternal Realm! 

The five Black Stars are among the deadliest threats to be witnessed in the Marvel Universe. Ever.

Gerry Conway is on top form here.

‘Pon Odin’s orders, doughty vessel: Starjammer carries Odinson and his faithful companions: Balder, Sif, a Rigellian woman named  Tana Nile, and curiously, a Midgardian sea captain by the name of Silas Grant, to the planet Rigel, only to find it abandoned. The Colonizers – billions of them crammed into a gargantuan fleet, hurtling across the stars – are fleeing the threat of the  Black Stars, which ultimately consume their planet in full graphic – and irresistible – John-Buscema-detail! 

For those itchin’ to seek out Classic Thor, this ish – with that striking cover produced by Rich Buckler – provides an excellent point at which to jump in. Why, page 18 on its own is absolutely frameworthy: 

“Even as we speak, the menace of the Black Stars grows more ominous... their terror greater with each passing second… Look… and tremble at a sight few gods have lived to describe… a vision which staggers the very imagination! The Black Stars… each three times the size of Jupiter…” – The Grand Commissioner. 

 

Grombar: “I say thee, young warrior… make the best of matters here! Verily, to dwell in dark Valhalla be not as tragic as thou dost think! After a time, thou shalt come to accept things for what they are. Mayhap thou shalt come to enjoy them!” 

ThorAccept this madness, old one? Enjoy it? Thor doth say thee- – Nay! I say thee- – nay! NAY!! A thousand times do I say thee- – 

NAY!!”

You know Brad: once he starts droning on (and on) about Odinson, Hela: the Goddess of Death won’t be far behind.

#251 To Hela And Back! (September 1976) did not reach my grubby paws until shortly after publishing this Post about her:

Despite not making a dramatic entrance until page 26(!) there is still plenty of thrills to savour amid these grim proceedings. Part of the “If Asgard Should Perish” storyline, Thor confronts the Vizier concerning the missing Odin’s whereabouts. Vizier tells him that he has scanned everywhere, except the Dimension of Death, because he cannot see into it. Thor decides to ride there to look for his father.

Once there, Thor is confronted by the legions of Einherjar. The God of Thunder sees a shadowy figure that looks like Odin. He fights his way to him, only to find it is Grombar, not Odin. 

Hela lets Thor leave her realm untouched. 

The late Len Wein took over script-duty from #242 (December 1973), thus establishing one of the classic tenures of the Bronze Age. 

“Aye, Harokin… he is free to continue his quest for his missing father! When the Goddess of Death doth come at last to claim the mighty Thor, ’twill be on her terms… and in her own good time!” – Hela. 

 

“If ’tis action thou dost seek, friend Thor, methinks thou hast found all thou couldst desire! A great alien vessel hath swooped silently up behind us… discharging a heavily-armed band of angry-visaged beings!” – Hogun. 

Strangely enough, the Avengers #191 not only introduced me to the Grey Gargoyle – who swiftly, and surprisingly, trounced Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! – but briefly referred back to The Mighty Thor #258 If The Stars Be Made Of Stone! (April 1977). Most grateful for the tip, ‘cos this tale – part of the “Quest For Odin” story arc – is such a swashbucklin’ cosmic caper of the highest order!

Riding the spaceways aboard the incomparable Starjammer, our heroes are set upon by a pirate vessel, its animal-headed crew led by the Grey Gargoyle. 

Captured aind shackled, our heroes are banished to “work” in th furnace room, but there is such a delicious twist in this ere tale! Again, created by those indomitable co-auteurs of awesomeness: Len Wein and John Buscema, you can find this very ish invariably atop the nearest comics pile @ my gaff. 

When setting out to accumulate the Bradscribe Collection just over two years ago, this was exactly the sort of cosmic classic yours truly set out to find.

The continuation of this particular adventure in #259 is – no surprise -equally splendid!

Fee-Lon: “Considering the way he is decimating our forces, only your invincible touch of stone can hope to defeat him! Or… are you perhaps afraid of this Thor?”

The Grey Gargoyle: “I advise you to hold your rebellious tongue, Fee-Lon… unless, of course, you wish to feel my touch yourself!”

 

Thor“Stand ye DOWN, base villain! Stand ye down from this throne… whilst thou still canst WALK!”  

Loki: “Tsk tsk. I see thy temper hath not yet mellowed, my brother. And I had so hoped thou wouldst take my good fortune well.”

Know ye this:

by the time we reach The Mighty Thor #264, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me! (October 1977) the sprawling quest (story arc) for the long-missing Odin All-Father at last is over!

Bone-weary but unbowed, the Thunder-God and his stalwart companions return to Asgard only to find that Loki: God of Mischief, Lord of Tricksters – and (by the Norn!) Thor’s own half-brother! – hath usurped the Golden Throne!  

Come ON! 

If we’re going to have Hela in this Post, then we’ve always got space for her malevolent Dad.

Big John Buscema had already departed this title, but the ever-reliable Walt Simonson took up the pencils. His style is very impressive; here, his rendering of Loki is devilishly distinctive. Fortunately for us, Len stayed to handle some supercool scripts; ultimately, this ish provides rollicking good fun. 

All the while Thor and his companions had endured cosmic capers aboard the Starjammer, the Enchantress and Executioner plotted wicked deeds in Asgard. This ish proves no exception – they steal the sleeping form of Odin. While a couple of unruly Storm Giants take up Thor’s thunderous time, the Warriors Three: dashing Fandral, grim Hogun and the voluminous Volstagg, must rescue the All-Father from the evil duo.

Thor bursts into the Throne Room to confront Loki, but the mischievous one vanishes: “leaving only the bitter stench of brimstone behind, as befits him!” 

In a dramatic final one-page panel, who else but The Destroyer comes crashing through the wall!

Below, it reads: Next Issue: When Falls The God Of Thunder…!

And don’t forget the small print: “Thou shalt be here, right?”

Volstagg: “…When we find them, thou shalt see why Volstagg’s mere presence makes women swoon and brave men quake with fear…! Pfah! Thine enchantments are no match for mine own fabled battle prowess!” 

Enchantress: “Away thou over-stuffed mutton-sack! Thine awesome girth doth threaten to squeeze the very breath from me!” 

 

Iron Man: “…That leaves us only… Project 13!”

The Beast: “My sweet stars and garters! The Doomsday Device?! Isn’t that a little extreme, Shellhead?”

Nick Fury: “I’m with ya, Fuzzy! The way I heard it, that gizmo can waste this whole blamed planet if anythin’ goes wrong!” 

You know when people say that Cap America: Civil War is a more superior Avengers movie than Age Of Ultron? 

Well, one thing is for sure: 

The Mighty Thor #271 Like A Diamond In The Sky (May 1978) is a whole lot better than some Avengers ishs produced around this time. What an irresistible cover, featuring The Vision, Scarlet Witch, The Beast and Thor and Iron Man fighting side-by-awesome-side.

AND special guest star: Nick Fury!

The Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is another of my all-time fave characters, and to see him ponse about displaying his trademark badassery amidst the hallowed pages of Bronze Age Thor provides my own morsel of comic book heaven. 

Fantastic scenario, this:

The Thunder-God and Shellhead transport inside FAUST th super-machine but are repelled by its multiple defences. It warns our dynamic duo that it has absorbed the contents and properties of the chest that was stolen by Stilt-Man – aha! Been wondering when that particular bounder would put his treacherous, albeit extended, foot in it! – and, if they attack, it will fire a laser designed to obliterate New York. Against Thor’s protestations, Iron Man attacks anyway. The laser blast disperses harmlessly in the sky and FAUST begins to self-destruct. Easy-peasy, Shellhead explains. Thor’s lightning changed the properties of the chest, so that when FAUST absorbed it, it unwittingly altered its own structure into a fragile state. 

This ish is notable for being Len Wein’s last ish as a writer of this series. In the closing panel, as Thor soars into the sky above NY City, a billboard can clearly be seen in the background with the text:

“So long, Len – good luck!”

Thor: “Praise be to Odin! IRON MAN DOTH LIVE!” 

Iron Man: “You’d better believe it, Asgardian… if you can call this living! Hang on a second, while I discharge the excess energy your little transfusion fed into my armor… and then the two of us can start taking this place apart!!” 

Praise be to the late, great Len Wein.

These ishs offer a deliciously deft masterclass in how to craft top swashbuckling SF mixed with Norse goodness. And lo! He even cleft the chaff in twain! It has been an absolute pleasure over these last few months getting to know – at lasthis wondrous way with words. 

When Thor: Ragnarok director: Taika Waititi remarked how his main aim entailed capturing the the spirit of Thor’s “cosmic adventures from the ’70s,” these are probably among the very ishs from which he drew inspiration.

Yea, that, dear reader, wrappeth up this intriguing screed for the nonce. Verily, methinks Brad hath got thy mojo back!

And Fafnir can wait!

FOR ASGARD!!

 

“The gates of Hel are filled with the screams of his victims! 

“But not the screams of the dead, of course. No, no… wounded screams… mainly whimpering, a great deal of complaining and tales of sprained deltoids and… gout” – Thor.

 

HALA!: The New Captain Marvel Trailer Is Here!

Higher Further Faster

 “I’m not what you think I am” – Carol Danvers. 

By The Great Pama!

Only a half-human-half-Kree superwoman hurtling Earthwards and crashing into a branch of Blockbuster Video could bounce Brad back into the blogosphere!

The hotly-anticipated trailer for MARVEL STUD10S’ 21st movie: Captain Marvel – MCU’s first solo female-led movie, set in the 1990s – finally arrived yesterday morning.

Here it is:

“War is a universal language. I know a renegade soldier when I see one – never occurred to me that one might come from above” – Nick Fury.

You may not be surprised to learn that a Captain Marvel bio is already in the works on this site!

While the original (male) Captain Marvel was a Kree superhero called Mar-Vell, Carol Danvers served as a USAF pilot who trained with NASA before getting caught in a psyche-magnetron, whereby Mar-Vell’s DNA was fused with Carol’s, imbuing her with superhuman strength and a mysterious seventh sense.

As a big fan of cosmic adventures – already impressed with Guardians of the Galaxy – we are set to see Ronan The Accuser (Lee Pace) and Korath (Djimon Hounsouagain! -and Thor: Ragnarok, this movie looks like it could be another groovy entry in this scintillating subgenre.

Guardians of the Galaxy already introduced us to the Kree, who, in the comics, were at war with the Skrulls, a nasty race of shapeshifting aliens, set to make their big screen debut in this movie.

Nick Fury: “So, you’re not from around here?”

Carol Danvers: “It’s hard to explain. I keep having these memories, I see flashes. I think I have a life here, but I can’t tell if it’s real.”

 

First Impressions: 

In its first TEN hours online, the Captain Marvel trailer notched up 10 million views.

The general consensus among fans is that the movie looks awesome. Yes, these photonic-blasted rapid scenes look impressive, but…

There is a montage of memories from Carol’s past, both here on Earth, and on Hala, the home planet of the Kree, so the factor of determining who she is and where she really comes from looks set to dominate proceedings. By The Black Nebula! Let’s hope this origins storyline is handled well.

Part of my speculation aimed at this trailer concentrated on what “classic” rock or hip-hop platter would we be subjected to. In the end, alas, we get neither – just the standard bombastic dirge that besets nearly all trailers these days.

It really is swell to see a younger Nick Fury (sans eye patch!), so you can’t help wondering what role S.H.I.E.L.D. (or Hydra?!) will play in this movie.

No sign of Ronan or Korath, but at least we got to see Starforce, the combo of Kree superheroes as featured in the comics (see above). They are led by an enigmatic figure (played by Jude Law) who may likely be Mar-Vell himself – the original “Captain Marvel.” 

Most intriguingly, the Skrull archvillain: Talos is played by Ben Mendelsohn. If he is allowed to be even half as impressive as he was in Rogue One, the MCU will be blessed with a stronger, more compelling, villain. But he had no badass line, not even the barest glimpse here! The only shot of a Skrull we get is an autopsy. And that is a long shot. 

This trailer did not super-psyche me up in quite the way Ragnarok or Infinity War trailers managed so easily. 

Hopefully, this long-awaited Captain Marvel movie will manage to be about as great as any of the Captain America movies, and not as weak as the most recent Ant-Man And The Wasp. 

Personally, if Carol shouts “Hala!” at all the right tense and exciting moments like she did during her own Bronze Age comic book series, Brad should be a happy bunny. 

This blockbuster will be crashing into our popcorn parlours from Friday 8 March 2019International Women’s Day, of course! 

 

Are YOU impressed with this trailer? Let me know in the Comments! 

Cheers!