Wednesday, February 15

Sun Koh: Heir of Atlantis (2010)

By Art Sippo (available here)

I first became aware of Sun Koh through various references Art Sippo made in the many episodes of The Book Cave podcast he co-hosts with Ric Croxton. The notion of a contemporary Nazi “rip-off” of Doc Savage was intriguing to say the least, but I only just got around to actually reading this “volume one” of the new, reimagined adventures of “Der Erbe von Atlantis,” although I first met Sun Koh himself early last year in one of the short stories contained in Moonstone’s collection, Captain Midnight Chronicles. There he’s an opponent to the hero and doesn’t come off that well, of course.

This book devoted to his own adventures, however, which contains a total of five novella-length stories, is a great example of modern “neo-pulp” adventures that seem to be gaining in popularity every day. It’s extremely well-written, although the editing and production values, at least for the ebook version that I got, leave quite a bit to be desired and make clear that with the publisher, Age of Adventure, we are getting the product of a very small niche press. But hey, the original pulps weren’t really known for their pristine editing and production values either! Rousing adventures, larger-than-life heroes – and heroines –, world-threatening menaces – those are all here in abundance.

“Heroes?” – an odd term to use since Sun Koh and his crew are all Nazis! But – and this is, as I understand it, a contrast to the original Sun Koh German pulp stories, which were stridently anti-Semitic, very much Nazi propaganda fiction – Sippo tempers that quality and, while the themes of Aryan supremacy and Nazi mysticism are still there driving Sun Koh and his companions, at the same time Sun Koh hides a growing unease at the excesses to which Hitler and his thugs increasingly resort. It must be remembered that the German pulps were published only from 1933 to 1938-1939, by which time pulps themselves were considered degenerate trash unworthy of the Master Race, which thereafter allowed only official Nazi publications to be published. During the earlier period, although more perceptive observers could see the writing on the wall, the monstrosities that we in retrospect identify with the Nazis had not really manifested themselves. As to anti-Semitism in particular, Sippo’s Sun Koh silently disagrees with Hitler’s increasing strictures on the Jews, considering the talents of this “lesser race” to be a valuable resource that should be marshaled to the benefit of the Master Race rather than squandered, subjugated rather than exterminated. He basically considers Adolf Hitler just a means to the end of reestablishing the Ocean Throne of his Atlantean ancestors, the progenitors of the Aryans. Ultimately, Sippo succeeds in constructing a world in which the protagonists are Nazis with whom the reader is compelled to feel an unsettling degree of sympathy despite their manifest evil.

After his initial appearance on Episode 4 of The Book Cave in January 2009, devoted to “Sun Koh, Germany’s Doc Savage,” Sippo responded to a listener’s comments with an elaboration of his purpose in writing the Sun Koh stories, to deal with and indeed incorporate such issues. I hardly if ever just cut-and-paste someone else’s post into this blog, but this deserves to be read in full:

Thank you so much for your comments. I felt compelled to do the Sun Koh stories as I learned more about the character. Of all the Doc Savage clones, it appears that Sun Koh was the most successful with 150 stories in the original run. It irked me that there were so many stories to which did not have access and I wrote the first Sun Koh story for my own enjoyment. It turned out well enough that I asked Wayne Skiver to publish it in his Professor Stone Magazine which he did. So far, two of these stories are in print. Wayne is planning further editions of his Professor Stone Magazine later this year.

The fifth story is set during the 1934 Nazi annual rally in Nuremberg which was the subject of Leni Reifenstahl's famous propaganda film "The Triumph of the Will." I think it is the best of the 5. I got Leni's film and reviewed it and did some research on Leni and the filming of the rally. I tied all of the events in the story together with the actual history. This story introduces one of the great tensions in the Sun Koh series. There is a plot to kill Hitler during the rally and Sun Koh is trying to prevent this. At one and the same time, you are rooting for the protagonist while your sympathies lie with the plotters. One part of good fiction is that it stretches your limits and challenges your thoughts and feelings. Sun begins to have doubts about working with Hitler, but his actions not only save Hitler's life but also those of many others who are innocent. As such, there is no simple "good guy/bad guy" dichotomy. I also explore the excuses Sun Koh might give for continuing to align himself with the Nazis. This also pulls you in different directions.

Nazism was a horrible thing but it was only one of the horrors of the 20th Century. In many ways the American Pulp Heroes were jingoistic and ignored the terrible horror that had been perpetrated in this country on Blacks, Jews, Catholics, the Irish, and other immigrant people. And none of these heroes seemed to pay attention to the terrible things Stalin was doing in the Soviet Union. Didn't they turn a blind eye to these things? And as such, were they that different from Sun Koh who gave his allegiance to his adopted nation?

The wellsprings of great moral evil lie in denial and euphemism. We should be less willing to denounce the splinter in our neighbor's eye until we take the 2 by 4 out of our own. With a little social tinkering, there could have been genocide in the US. American citizens of Japanese, Italian, and German extraction were sequestered in internment camps by Roosevelt. These were nothing like the concentration camps the Nazis devised, but it was a step along the way. Caveat emptor. Nazi Germany is a cautionary tale of where we could be heading if the Nieschtzian will to power triumphs over reason and human decency.

Much the same point is made in-story, toward the end of the book, in a debate with the antagonist of the fifth story contained herein, which has Sun Koh rightly arguing that at that point, the early-mid 1930s, Germany was not unique as regards racial intolerance. Over the course of this volume, in fact, Sun Koh experiences a degree of character growth that was not typically (if at all) to be found in original 1930s pulp fiction, American or, presumably, German. The self-assured elitist arrogance that he displays in the beginning begins to give way to hints of caring for others, and one is left with some hope that in Sippo's hands, Sun Koh might ultimately turn his back on Aryan supremacist ideology altogether.

Cover to a 2004 German
reprint of the original stories
The first three stories contained herein actually form “The Origin Trilogy” in which we follow Sun Koh, Prince of Atlantis as he falls to Earth from a malfunctioning time ship to land in London. The finest product of an ancient Atlantean eugenics program to create the perfect specimen of the Master Race – tall and bronzed, blond-haired and blue-eyed – he had been sent forward on the eve of Atlantis’ submergence to the rising oceans of the last Ice Age eleven millennia ago to when the ice would return, the sea-levels fall, and Atlantis would be revealed again. But a solar storm ripped him out of paratime two hundred years too soon, in 1932. The experience has also connected him to the Akashic Record, the mystical compendium of all human and non-human knowledge although much of it is obscured by “wards” and shrouded in mystery. How he later finds he can reconnect to the Akashic Record for “updates” does, incidentally, make this a bit more risqué than your typical 1930s hero pulp! – Tantric sex which is described more or less explicitly. Anyway, his presence is detected by various adepts representing various competing interests. A group from Germany contacts him and they escape a force of MI5 agents tasked with capturing him. In fairly short order, Sun Koh has gained access to one of several caches of Atlantean wealth and technology, this one secreted beneath the Alps and guarded for thousands of years by a subterranean Kingdom of Dwarves – actually Neanderthals – as well as assumed the identity of a missing, presumed dead, German prince and is accepted into the power structure of the nascent Third Reich.

The “Origin Trilogy” is followed by two further episodes in “The Continuing Saga of Sun Koh.” Taking place some time later, these novellas find Sun Koh well established as a trusted confidante of the Führer. In the first, he and his men thwart an effort by a fugitive from an ancient subterranean kingdom under the Canadian Rockies to impart atomic bomb technology to the British, while in the second (referred to above in Sippo's apologia) they save Hitler from high-tech assassination at the 1934 Nuremburg Rally.
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This blog post was composed somewhat differently than most others, which generally come together in one sitting. Finding myself with some free time one morning when I was still in the process of reading the volume, I sat down to begin putting something together. Specifically, I was only a short bit into the fourth story, the first post-Origin, when I wrote all but the last paragraph above. So I had little idea what I was about to encounter. Actually, there was an inkling, based on a comment on The Book Cave Episode 4 referenced above, that in the fourth story there is a rather graphic gang rape scene involving Sun Koh's ally and concubine (yep, that's what he refers to her as), Shani … that doesn't go quite the way the perpetrators expect.

To say the least! HOLY COW!

At this point in my reading I suddenly was reminded very much of the Robert Rodriguez movie From Dusk Till Dawn, in two ways. First, my expression on encountering it has to have been much like that of George Clooney when he returns to the motel room where he has left his little psychopath brother Quentin Tarantino holed up in charge of the female hostage they took from their just-completed bank robbery – stunned, blank-faced, unbelieving horror. 
Second, I don't think I've ever seen a story turn on such a dime as this one does since From Dusk Till Dawn suddenly, seemingly in an instant later in the movie, went from being a typical Tarantino heist/hostage/fugitive gore fest to being a campy-surrealist vampire/horror … gore fest.

Because suddenly this fourth Sun Koh story went from being a pretty standard neo- “hero” pulp adventure – albeit with an already emerging plot involving kidnapping and sex-slavery – to being an over the top, excruciatingly explicit beyond belief, gang-reverse-rape gore fest! – I mean, employing mystical techniques from the Kama Sutra and the rites of Kali, Shani turns the tables and gang-rapes her assailants – to death. Literally. She humps one of them until he dies in agony of a stroke. The others die more conventionally – but no less violently. She has her way with all of them, climaxing several times along the way, and tears them to pieces in the process.

I literally have never seen anything like it since reading Philip José Farmer's A Feast Unknown and witnessing his pastiche surrogates for Doc Savage and Tarzan rip each other's erect penises off in pitched battle! I know from many other episodes of The Book Cave that Sippo is, like many other fans of the hero pulps, a devotee of Farmer. I didn't expect to see him suddenly channel Farmer in his own writing!

And there I was saying the by-comparison mild sex scenes earlier were on the risqué side!

Anyway, I seem to be past that sequence now (although I don't know what lies ahead), and I'm going to continue to the end of this book before coming back to finish up this review. It will be interesting to see what my final assessment is, however, in light of how differently I'm viewing it now.
* * *
Here are my final comments and thoughts after finishing Sun Koh. I will definitely be grabbing the next collection of the “Nazi Doc Savage's” adventures as soon as Sippo can crank them out. He does many interesting things with them. In addition to pulling in a number of other characters, both real and fictional (sometimes only in allusion), he also enables the reader to experience something of the breadth of the 1930s pulp phenomenon.

Sippo assembles Sun Koh's crew from other German adventure characters of the age – except for Shani who is a character from a role-playing game! A post on Sippo's Speculations in Bronze blog gives good descriptions and even pictures of the characters. A general statement about the sources he drew on is made in one of the comments that follows the post. Except for Shani (recte Ashanti) as already noted, for Jan Mayen “The Captain,” Sturmvögel, Schreck, Minx, and Alaska Jim, these are all German pulp adventure heroes from the 1930s, giving the reader an even wider glimpse into a corner of pulpdom that has hitherto been obscure, almost entirely closed, to an English-reading audience.

That does, however, raise a question: How closely do any of these existing stories – or ones Sippo may have planned – match up with the original German Sun Koh adventures? I heard him state on one of the podcasts that he does not read German, that he learned of Sun Koh and became fascinated with him through Jess Nevins' website indexing pulp characters from around the world (which appears to be defunct as he's reportedly transforming it into a book to be published this year or next), that he acquired some of the early stories (that have been republished in sometimes very edited form, removing much of the racism and pro-Nazi propaganda elements) and used translation software to get some sense of them. A quick perusal of the German Wikipedia entry for Sun Koh (yep, filtered through Google Translate) seems to indicate that the answer is, Not very closely. It appears that Sippo has taken the basic concept – that of a Nazi Doc Savage who is a time-lost Prince of Atlantis – and run off in his own direction entirely. As I was describing it a few days ago to a co-worker, it's as if I had been made aware of a German pulp character named Perry Rhodan, who travelled to the moon and discovered stranded aliens there whose technology allowed him to unify the Earth and take mankind to the stars, and knowing little more than that started writing my own adventures. Whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing I would leave to the reader to judge. (If I had the skill it would likely look a whole lot like David Weber’s Dahak series.) But it would not be Perry Rhodan, and this is not really Sun Koh. On the positive side, however, it does expose the reader to the core essence of an at-one-time very popular pulp character hitherto totally inaccessible to a non-German readership, and give Sippo the opportunity to incorporate other German pulp adventurers in a similar manner. Most importantly, it allows Sippo to approach the genre from a different angle, and raise questions and inspire dissonances regarding the nature of good and evil.

In summation, this book has a lot going for it. I really liked it. A lot. It's unfortunate that one part of the fourth story makes me somewhat hesitant to make a general recommendation to go out and read this book. If you are a fan of the hero pulps, especially Doc Savage, by all means grab it. I'm sure you'll love it, especially if you're interested in something with a bit more depth and firmly steeped in the Zeitgeist of the 1930s. It is not, however, for the faint of heart! Caveat Lector.

Cheers!, and Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Kent,

    What a wonderful review! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my stories so carefully. I am so glad you enjoyed them.

    The reverse gang rape scene was one I hae wanted to pen for over two decades. I intended it to be not titilating but horrifying. For the previous three stories I had her associates brag about how dangerous Shani was and I wanted to finally let the readers see what they meant.

    The real horror to me is that on a cosmic scale the evil that men do is nothing compared to truly demonic evil. Satan is not a punch line to a joke or some mischevious trickster. He is Cthulhu squared. He is a rapcious enemy who wishes to devour humanity and sift us like wheat.

    What happened to the three would-be rapists is that they came up against someone bigger and badder than they ever could be. To me that will be the fate of the damned. They will discover how utterly insignificant and impotent they are apart from divine providence and in the dominion of a malignant Seraphic being who despises them the way humans despise a bothersome insect.

    I wanted the scene to be a cathartic for any woman who had been humiliated in that way. I have not gotten any feedback from women readers about this. My wife thought the scene was just bizarre. Hopefully, someone else appreciated what I was after.

    Tjhanks again for the review.