Forgotten Book: The Chinese Agent by Michael Moorcock (1970)

The Chinese Agent traffics in spies not swords and sorcery, but it’s an entertaining read.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 200th in my series of Forgotten Books.

Finally, we reach review number 200. Seems odd to be there. But I have been doing this since 2010, so there have been several significant breaks in the time frame. And what to look at? I was thinking the other day about a friend I made in 1967 when I was still in high school and I had just moved to San Antonio. I knew no one and it was still a little bit until school started. One of the first guys I met was Ken B. Ken lived a couple of blocks away on Ft. Sam Houston. And, like me, he was a science fiction fan.

One day Ken gave me a book that changed my life. It was the Lancer edition of The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock. The blue Jack Gaughan cover caught my fancy and the stories brought me into the fantasy worlds that were starting to take America by storm. He followed Stealer up with Stormbringer and one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan adventures. I was hooked on this type of literature. Moorcock and Howard moved to the top of my favorite reads. How was I to ever guess that one day I would know Mike Moorcock and would buy a story from him for a book I got to co-edit called Cross Plains Universe? I got to meet Mike! I got to edit a book! I got to buy an original story from a hero! Who would ever guess such a development?

So, it has been 50 years! Yet, somehow in 200 book reviews I have not done a Moorcock title! Elric books cannot be considered a forgotten title no matter what criteria I use. And that’s true of a large portion of Mike’s work. But as I was looking over the shelves the other day, The Chinese Agent leapt off the shelf and into my hands.

Sure, I had read it in the Seventies, but that was a long, long time ago, and I have read many, many books in that time, so it might just as well have been new to me. I did not read the original version of this novel, which was called Somewhere in the Night by Bill Barclay, from a smaller British paperback publisher in 1966. Mike rewrote it and made it into a humorous spy novel starring Jeremiah “Jerry” Cornell, a lower-level British spy.

The novel begins with half-Chinese American jewel thief Arthur Hodgkiss surveying the British Crown Jewels. He is known internationally as Jewelry Jules. While casing the Tower, another man approaches him and utters a phrase that is meant to identify a spy. Hodgkiss inadvertently gives the proper countersign and receives the plans to a secret project.

The main Chinese spy in London, Kung Fu Tzu, wants those plans. British Intelligence wants the plans. A comedy of errors ensues with Kung mistaking Jerry for a master spy with the skills of a Bond or Flint. Unfortunately, Jerry is just amazingly inept or lucky or both.

Cornell became a spy because he had skills which were needed and he did not want to go to prison. He tries to find the plans, only to be led into the paths of his relations on Portobello Road. His relations would make white trash hillbillies look good, especially his Uncle Edmond, who lives in a hovel with no electricity or water. He does have a pile of stuff that may be trash or treasure — and which may be alive.

Cornell does have extraordinary luck with the ladies, who include Shirley Withers, a secretary for his company; Miss Mavis Ming, who appears in later Jerry Cornelius adventures by Moorcock; and the legendary femme fatale Lilli von Bern, who may be a little long in the tooth but can still use sex as a weapon to obtain any information needed.

I had a lot of fun with this book. I will eventually try to find Somewhere in the Night to see what changes Moorcock made. It’s not Elric or Hawkmoon or Corum, but it kept me entertained, pretty much like every Michael Moorcock book I have ever picked up. It would have made a great movie in the day of the spy thrillers. Might still make a good one. Check it out.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.

Horny Toads and Ugly Chickens: A&M’s speculative fiction collection

The first issue of Amazing Stories is just one of the items in Texas A&M's speculative fiction collection.

Ever heard of the 1975 novel “Doomsday Clock,” published in San Antonio with an actual fuse sticking out of its cover? What about “Overshoot,” a 1998 Ace paperback about an elderly Alamo City woman reflecting on how global warming brought down civilization? Or the Asimov’s story “One Night in Mulberry Court,” in which a blue-skinned alien anthropologist moves into a San Antonio trailer park?

Don’t feel bad. Until a couple days ago, I hadn’t either.

I discovered their existence virtually via the online site for Texas A&M’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection. Seems the Aggies have amassed a 54,000-piece collection of speculative fiction plus related history and criticism, much of it Texas-related. The collection houses the papers and manuscripts of Chad Oliver, Michael Moorcock and George R. R. Martin. What’s more, it contains over 90 percent of the American science fiction pulp magazines published prior to 1980, including the 1923 debut issue of Weird Tales.

Perhaps even cooler, it’s all searchable by author, title, imprint, and subject terms via an online database.

As an added perk, the A&M site also includes Bill Page’s 1991 essay “Horny Toads and Ugly Chickens: A Bibliography on Texas in Speculative Fiction,” which draws the “Ugly Chickens” part of its title from Austin writer Howard Waldrop’s wildly imaginative short story of the same name.

“The mystique of the old west has long been an alluring subject for authors; even Jules Verne and Bram Stoker used Texans in stories,” Page writes. “As one reads science fiction and fantasy novels set in Texas, certain themes repeat themselves. There are, of course, numerous works about ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Authors often write about invasions of the state, not only by creatures from outer space, but also by foreigners, including the Russians, the Mexicans, and even the Israelis.” (There he goes with another Howard Waldrop reference. This time, Waldrop and Jake Saunders’ novel “The Texas Israeli War.”)

The essay gives an exhaustive listing of Texas sf/fantasy/horror authors, both known (Robert E. Howard and Joe R. Lansdale) and not-so-known (Leonard M. Sanders and Joan Johnston), and a list of stories and books by non-Texans set in the Lone Star State. Bummer it’s almost 20 years old, though.

And while you’re there, you might as well peruse other features, including extensive bibliographies of Robert Heinlein, Judith Merril and Sam Moskowitz.

All told, the A&M site is an impressive resource for those of us who just can’t get enough Lone Star lore in our speculative fiction.

San Antonio’s reading, but not enough

San Antonio's main library: Use it or lose it.

San Antonio's main library: Use it or lose it.

As most, sf/fantasy/horror fans know, San Antonio has always been a good market for movies, TV and other mass media. Books? Eh, not so much.

But a new study hints that may be changing — a little bit at a time.

San Antonio ranks 61st among the 75 largest U.S. cities in overall literacy, according to the newly released 2009 AMERICA’S MOST LITERATE CITIES study. The annual review, by Central Connecticut State University, ranks metro areas by factors including number of bookstores, education levels, Internet resources, newspaper circulations, library support and number of publishers.

San Antonio’s ranking near the bottom of the list doesn’t exactly give us bragging rights, I know. But stay with me.

Our city advanced from 64th last year, according to the study. That means we pulled ahead of cities including Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., and Henderson, Nev.

At the same time, many big metros including Dallas, L.A. and even techie San Jose, Calif., took considerable steps backward from last year. Let’s face it, 2009’s dismal economy and governmental budget cuts didn’t exactly do any favors to booksellers, libraries, schools or publishers.

And before we beat outselves up about how we compared to the rest of the state (a longstanding Alamo City tradition), consider this: Texas, as a whole, fared poorly on the study. San Antonio is neck-and-neck with Houston (ranked 60th) and ahead of three other Texas cities. Apparently, Austin — with its huge university, tech industry and seat of state government — was the only Texas metro area to even break the top 20. It was 16th.

So, what should we take away from this study?

I think it shows that, despite prevailing trends, our city is taking steps in the right direction. Finally.

San Antonio’s education levels and number of booksellers (still mostly chain stores, but that’s a whole other story) improved year-to-year, and our Internet resources — basically, online book orders and use of newspaper websites — ranked a formidable 20th in the nation.

At the same time, the study demonstrates that to become a truly book-embracing city like Seattle; Washington, D.C.; or Minneapolis — the survey’s three top-ranked metro areas — we’ve got considerable work ahead.

So, Alamo City readers, let’s keep the momentum going. Keep buying books, magazines and newspapers and supporting your local booksellers. And demand that our elected officials not pull the rug out from under our libraries and places of learning.

It would be great for our city to be a place where the latest MICHAEL MOORCOCK, JOE R. LANSDALE or DAVID LISS book is greeted with an enthusiasm that matches the opening weekend of AVATAR or the new season of LOST


Still recovering from Armadillocon

Hardest working man in showbusiness: Mr. Joe R. Lansdale. (Photo swiped from John Picacio.)

Hardest working man in showbusiness: Mr. Joe R. Lansdale. (Photo swiped from John Picacio.)

I’m back and still digging myself out from under work I put off to attend Armadillocon 31 in Austin, the state’s longest-running literary sf/fantasy convention.

It was great to see old pals like John Picacio (fellow Missions Unknown blogger), Scott Cupp (the con’s toastmaster), Chris Roberson (the editor guest of honor) and Joe McKinney (S.A.’s zombie-writing homicide detective) — and to rub shoulders with literary giants like Joe R. Lansdale, who signed books like a madman, and Michael Moorcock, who made a surprise appearance opening night.

I also got to meet swell new folks like Mario Acevedo, Nancy Hightower, Matt Cardin and Vincent and Michelle Villafranca. (By the way, any of you folks ever check out Vincent Villafranca’s art? You really owe it to yourself.)

Can’t wait to do it again next year.

Time for Moorcock

moorcock1I was pleased to see Time’s Nerd World blog run a Q&A with Texas (by way of England, of course) sf/fantasy treasure Michael Moorock. Writer Lev Grossman ladels on some serious praise and pimps Mike’s new collection, The Best of Michael Moorcock.

I have to agree with Grossman when he calls Moorcock, “the writer who introduced me to the ridiculously powerful things that happen when you put a sophisticated, contemporary literary vocabulary at the service of a blackly grim high-fantasy imagination.”

Moorcock’s Elric books were among the first works of sf, fantasy and horror that I read, and I can blame him, in large part, for my subsequent immersion in the genre. Not to mention, my crackbrained dream of pursuing a writing career.

Mike’s fearless imagination and uncompromising vision certainly left a deep mark on me and countless others. Praise well deserved.

And, yes, I know the headline above sounds filthy, but perhaps it will lure in some curiousity seekers. Who knows?

Now playing: “Mutiny” – The Birthday Party