The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu – Sax Rohmer; Pyramid

I finished reading The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu today – just over 100 years since it was published in 1913.  I have been trying (for no reason other than pure whim) to bulk out my collection of detective/science fiction pulp novels.  This includes focusing on 1900 -1940 paperbacks and such.  Naturally, some items are of higher quality than others.  However, among the most famous are the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (the penname of Arthur Henry Ward 1883 – 1959).

The first thing to discuss is the overwhelming xenophobia present in the novel.  There is no ignoring it.  I do not care to dwell on it too much.  I mean, this is hardly an isolated incident in history.  Yellow Peril / Yellow Terror is a pretty common fear theme in the early 1900s especially.  Historians can connect this sort of mindset with the events of the world wars and with the sociological milieu of Europe.  However, this is a novel review – not a discussion on history and racism.

I read the 1965 Pyramid edition of the novel.  I have the first three in the Fu Manchu series in these Pyramid printings. Fu Manchu – or some concept thereof – is rather pervasive in our contemporary society.  However, I’d wager most people have neither read the novels or seen the movies.  In fact, I am not so sure they know such things exist.  After all, I suspect many people think it is just a cool name for facial hair. Or, perhaps, a slightly off-color nickname for a Chinese person.  In any case, I doubt people connect the term “Fu Manchu” with this novel.

I have to say that I am not giving the novel a high rating – but not because it contains xenophobia.  And not because it seems dated or whatever else.  Frankly, the two star rating I am giving it is because it is not very likeable.  Simply put.

The two main characters are hideous.  I mean, they are just ridiculous and hideous.  Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are obvious imitations of Sherlock and Watson. But not good imitations.  I mean, these two suck.  Sherlock and Watson are swift, agile, witty, sharp, clever… whereas Smith and Petrie are pathetic and fail constantly.  Rohmer gives Smith some “idiosyncrasies” like tugging on his earlobe and pacing whenever he is stressed.  Smith also smokes a pipe (albeit rather unsuccessfully).  Petrie is also the one who is narrating the story; but he tells us a repetitive story, reiterating constantly some main points.  For example, Fu Manchu is uncanny, the girl-slave is beyond meta supra-beautiful, etc.

The first few chapters are actually kind of difficult to figure out.  I was somewhat lost in them – mainly because I felt they were just not well written.  Eventually, though, the storyline evens out a bit and makes more sense.  Then the reader just follows along as again and again our Smith and Dr. Petrie fail at everything.  They are pathetic.

Good things:  Rohmer’s descriptions of the opium dens are creepy and intense.  I think Rohmer probably went to some such places for “research.”  This is important to note because whenever else in reading (Cp. Metropolis, etc.) I come across depictions of opium dens, it is Rohmer’s description that I imagine.  If you are interested in this underworld of drugs, you may be interested in these sections.  Also:  Rohmer does a good job of making sure the reader is scared and disgusted by the villain.  He gives us enough to let us know Fu Manchu is a very intelligent, scary villain – but without developing a familiarity that would take the mystery away.

Overall, there is no sense in reading this for a great detective/mystery.  This is truly a piece of its time and it shows.  I’m glad I read it – I can now discourse on Fu Manchu and find Fu Manchu spin-offs and copycat derivatives in all sorts of media.

2 stars

The Falling Astronauts

The Falling Astronauts – Barry Malzberg; ACE, 1971

The Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

The Crossroads of Time

The Crossroads of Time – Andre Norton; ACE 1980

This morning I finished The Crossroads of Time by Andre Norton (1912 – 2005).  It was originally published in 1956.  The edition that I read is the ACE 1980 version.

Chapter one is a really good example of how to get the reader engaged in a book straightaway.  Instead of giving us a long lead-up or background, we meet the main character in a hotel room. By page two, we meet a gunman, and by page three the main character is a bit of a hero.  Hello, Blake Walker – your life is about to change. Thanks for rescuing Agent Kittson.

Anyway, after reading the first chapter, I basically knew that I would be in for a penny, in for a pound, so to speak. Blake Walker is thrust, by his having been a bit of a hero in the hotel hallway, into a new paradigm in which he learns that travel between his world and parallel worlds is possible.  He learns that there are criminals who are intent on traveling betwixt worlds in order to cause mayhem and distort those worlds’ natural progression of history.  Blake also learns that there are psi’s – persons who have advanced mental capabilities such as telepathy and telekinesis, etc.  In fact, Blake may actually be a psi.  So much for going to art school. . . .

Overall the writing is fast-paced and the story tends to feel like an action thriller.  There is some science fiction in here – but only as a background skeleton to the story itself.  For example, not a whole lot is detailed out on how/why some of these scientific items operate.  They just do.

Unfortunately, there are some flaws in the book.  For example, chapter four.  I have no idea what happens in that chapter – and I read it thrice.  I just could not figure out what happened. Sometimes, writing “action” scenes is tricky.  At least comic book writers have help from their artists to help show you what is going on.  Another thing, the title…. well, since this is not time travel (Cp. Quantum Leap), but rather traveling laterally across a variety of parallel worlds, I feel that the title is misleading.  It is not the crossroads of time.  Finally, other than Blake and Kittson, the other characters kind of blend together and are not really all that distinct or memorable.  I know this is a short-action piece, but maybe a little more distinction between characters would have helped the novel not seem so jumbled at points.

In any case, I am glad I read this.  I had fun.  It was a decent read.  But I wish it were a little bit better.  As I understand it, there is something of a “sequel” as well, though I do not own it.  A good read for someone who just needs a little science fiction and does not want to invest too much into a story.  I admit, I’m probably being a little bit harsh with this one.

2 stars

The World Jones Made

The World Jones Made – PKD; Vintage

The World Jones Made is the sixth novel authored by Philip K. Dick that I have read.  It is an early work by PKD, written in 1954 and published in 1956.  I read the 1993 Vintage Books edition (in which there were two typos).   It is a short novel, 199 pages total, but it took me two weeks to read it.  Not, really, because I am a bad reader – but because it just was not very interesting and/or gripping.

Usually, I can read a PKD novel in about two days.  I usually stay up far too late clutching the book and burning my eyes out.  Not so with this novel.  It does contain all of the usual PKD items such as characters’ worlds falling apart, political turmoil, weird “science,” and shocking moralities.  Nevertheless, it does lack the fun and potency that I have found in PKD’s other works.  Even a bad PKD novel is worth reading, though.  I will only grant this novel two stars, but will still tell people that this is worth reading.  And that statement, though seemingly contradictory, is why PKD remains a major author.  His “bad” novels are still worth reading.  There are not that many authors who can say the same.

So, the novel takes place in 2002, though that is not quite relevant.  The story is a somewhat dystopian one because it does touch on the fall of governments and societal paradigms.  FedGov is the international governing organization.  They were formed after a major world war which saw the release of a multitude of nuclear weapons.  Obviously, (this was written in 1954) Russia and China are hinted at as culprits.  However Dick does suggest that there is a higher cause other than squabbling nations, viz. the dogmatism of non-relativism.  Thus, the major thrust behind the governmental agenda of FedGov is:  to promote and protect the now official paradigm of relativism.

Without lengthy diatribes or didactic harping, PKD forces the reader to consider a world in which the dominant ethical schema is relativism.  Of course, PKD does not get involved in the picayune aspects of how this all works and he leaves the details up to the reader to puzzle out.  This is good:  it was a “challenge” for me because I am absolutely not a relativist whatsoever.  But imagining relativism – not merely as a possible option – but as a norm for society was vaguely interesting.  Sort of like a “flip” of things.  I say that, but relativism has really caught on in the contemporary era under the guise of “freedom,” so I cannot say the “flip” is as opposite as it was for PKD in the 1950s.

In the most poignant scene in the book (chapters 9 & 10), the main characters go to a bar which presents forms of entertainment to which the characters react in a variety of ways.  Some call it outright depravity and perversity, others recognize some aesthetic value, while others seem ambivalent and disinterested.  On page 82, the main character (Cussick) asks (in a general rhetorical sense): “Did we go too far?”  and ten pages later the same character calls the entertainment “depravity.”

Meanwhile, this same character is shown a manuscript to a text called The Moral Struggle in which the anti-FedGov leader’s plans and ideas are presented.  Cussick’s job is working in Security for FedGov.  His experiencing this sort of environment and being introduced to a variety of anti-FedGov items causes him to really evaluate the situation.  Especially since he really struggles with the anti-FedGov opposition leader, Jones.

Jones is a “precog” and therefore is forced to take a position on free-will/determinism that also informs his position against relativism.  How can be he a relativist when he can see the future and he is correct about what will happen?  Further, how trustworthy is Jones?  Everyone wants to know – and those he impresses with his foresight become loyal followers, moving beyond trusting to fanatical. He is a hero to many and is the invaluable key to the opposition to FedGov.  The “precog” and mutant elements of the novel seem very much like the PKD ideas found in Minority Report.

One idea really struck me.  In chapter 12 a character is explaining the efforts to colonize in space, off-planet.  He says:

Because, in the final analysis, we don’t want to adapt to other planets:  we want them to conform to us.  Even if we found one second Earth it wouldn’t be enough.

I found that quote practically precog on the part of PKD because I read it in light of all the recent news and hullabaloo about finding “habitable planets like Earth” that has been in all of the NASA and Science journals and news services lately. Cp. Gliese

Overall, PKD is working a lot of tough concepts and sometimes the storyline gets lost.  None of the characters are terribly likeable and the main character Cussick seems especially benign and flat.  This really is not a great novel.  But it does provide lots of food for thought outside of the covers of the book – so if you are a reader that just wants to play with ideas on your own, but need a little kickstart – this novel is good for you.  It’s a worthy read:  because reading any PKD is like getting kicked in the head. Other than that, if you do not read this novel, you probably are not missing out on anything amazing.  And there are plenty of better PKD options.

2 stars

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin – Amelie Nothomb; Europa; 2010

Amélie Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin was first published in 1992.  The English edition was published by Europa Editions in 2010.  I read this novel in February of 2013.  At 167 pages, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  Anything I read of the author always highlights her multicultural personal life.

I do not have a lot to say about this novel.  I did not really like it.  First of all, a lot of the novel is vulgar.  It harkens back to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his writings – off-color, politically-incorrect, and vibrant.   Nevertheless, it is not easy to emulate really good authors and, in many cases, it is not always a good idea.  Oddly, I found this novel even more vulgar than one would find Céline’s.   Yes, the language is vulgar, but so are the topics.  I am an adult, I am not a Puritan – so my concept of “vulgar” is a bit more critical.  When I say vulgar I mean to suggest a work that is vulgar and also does not have to be.  So, language and topic is, at times, vulgar – but when I look at the whole concept of the novel, I do not think this was necessary for the story.  Does it work with the story? Yes. Is it the only way for the story to work? No.  And there you have it.

Second problem:  Jean-Paul Sartre.  I am not a fan of existentialism and I am an even bigger not-fan of Sartre.  I really, really dislike him.  And his “philosophy.”  If I knew him personally – he is not someone I would trust.  Also, I find his “philosophy” to be pathetic.  In general, I find existentialism to be what people who want to pretend to be philosophers talk about. You know, dilettantes and such.  So, you can find people in Starbucks discussing authenticity while a copy of Being and Nothingness sits on the table.  All of this scene is repugnant to me.  Kierkegaard was alright. . . . I will have no truck with Sartre. I mean it:  I am so not sharing my truck with him.

In Nothomb’s novel she is really heavy-handed with the Sartrean concept of bad faith.  If you do not know what is meant by the terminology “bad faith,” you will probably miss a lot of the “depth” of this novel.  However, if you do not, in general, know about this terminology or concept, it’s okay because you are not really missing anything profound.  (Oh I know my dislike of existentialism is dripping here… sorry.) “Bad faith,” like many concepts developed in existentialism, seems to me to just be a pile of empty verbiage.  Yeah, sure, okay, sounds cool….. and then what?!

The main character is an author.  His name is Prétextat Tach.  He has been diagnosed with cancer and has only a couple of months to live.  In the meantime, this Nobel Prize winner is being interviewed by journalists eager to get the scoop on this reclusive and misanthropic writer.  The entire novel takes place in Tach’s “apartment” and almost all of the novel is in dialogue form.  This is all a big conversation/interview.  Again, some readers find this sort of storytelling to be tedious.  I, personally, do not mind it, and I find that it reads quickly.  However, in some places it just seems too obnoxious and fake.  Ultimately, this is the same sense that I got from the usage of existentialism and Sartre in this novel:  seems too fake and forced.  And well, yeah, isn’t that really the overarching scenario; i.e. authenticity.

I read the novel quickly, was repulsed in some parts, was vaguely entertained in parts.  When the ending came along I kind of saw where it was going and felt it was a bit drawn out.   Nevertheless, you can mostly guess what will happen.  Well, it happened, I went: “Huh.” …. and moved on to the next book.  There just is not anything really and truly awesome and deep in this one.  It’s not a wretched concept, but I think there are some pieces that did not come together perfectly.  However, I will be merciful and reiterate that this is the author’s first novel.

There are only two pages that I was able to draw anything worthwhile from.  I want to share what the main character says here about people who read:

There are a great many people who push sophistication to the point of reading without reading.  They’re like frogmen, they go through books without absorbing a single drop of water.  Those are the frog-readers.  They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life.  I am so terribly naive.  I thought that everyone read the way I do.  For I read the way I eat:  that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all.  You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau.  Well, when I say “you,” I should say “I myself and a few others,” because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state:  they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction.  They have read, that’s all:  in the best-case scenario, they know “what it’s about.”  And I’m not exaggerating.  How often have I asked intelligent people, “Did this book change you?” And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, “Why should a book to change me?”  . . . . . .  Most people do not read.  In this regard, there is an excellent quotation by an intellectual whose name I have forgotten:  “Basically, people do not read; or, if they do read, they don’t understand; or, if they do understand, they forget.”

The character who says all of this is convinced he is never read – and certainly never read by the readers who actually are changed by reading his works.  The character is really a complete psycho who utilizes sophistry and who snarls and insults everyone.  But finally, at the end of his life, he is met by someone who has truly “read” his works and who sits across from him representing the things that he despises, doubts, and denies.  Bad faith. etc. the end.

2 stars

The Magicians

The Magicians - L. Grossman; Viking

The Magicians – Lev Grossman; Viking; 2009

The Magicians by Lev Grossman was released in 2009.  I finally got it in 2013 at a used book library sale.  For a dollar. I had seen it a couple of times for $3 for a new tradeback copy at Books-a-Million, but I passed it over and it was all sold out eventually.  Color me pleased when I found it in January for $1 for the hardback.  By that time, I had read a number of reviews on and   Reviewers keep reiterating that it is like an “adult Harry Potter” novel.  Well, no, I do not think it is.  Not that I have read the Harry Potter books, but I feel if you go into the novel thinking that you are setting incorrect expectations. Bottom line here:  Not an adult Harry Potter. Don’t believe the hype, folks.

The storyline itself is actually well-written.  Scenes move reasonably into other scenes, characters develop at a good pace, clues and hints throughout the story come back and play roles, and the balance between description and action is decent.  The conversation dialogue is actually fairly accurate for the characters.  It does include “adult language.” (It’s not adult – it’s called “cussin,’ folks.)  There is not an overabundance of hefty vocabulary (Cp. China Mieville) to bludgeon the reader with the author’s intelligence.  Some of the more causal speak actually seems forced – as if the author is more comfortable writing formally than colloquially.  For example, the phrase: “But still.”  What the heck does that mean? Nothing. It’s just a spoken phrase that has worked its way into everyday parlance. Things that like that pepper the novel; perhaps to give the reader the sense of reading about teenagers and college students.

And this is why I insist that the book is more like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History than the Harry Potter novels. The book is about smart, rich, entitled kids who are magicians.  They go to a secret University in order to formally train in magic.  Magic is not a thing of wonder and surprise. In this novel, magic is much more like a martial art, a skilled trade, or a scientific field.  The University is not a fun and mystical place.  So, if you expect the Escher-like corridors of Hogwart’s or the silliness of Wonderland – forget it.  That’s not what this novel is doing and complaining about this novel because it actually isn’t those novels is faulty.

The characters are easily dislikeable.  Really. I mean, who does not dislike young adults who are practically hedonistic and whine about how they are misunderstood and their lives are boring?  And this is not entirely unheard of.  I am sure Grossman has run across plenty of college students who have this air about them.  In fact, having spent some time in universities, I can vouch for the fact that some students even put on this sort of act because they feel this is how students are “supposed” to be.   If the average reader finds this all very abhorrent and toxic, well, they are probably overreacting.  It’s easy to hate characters for not being how we think they should be or because we are jealous of them, or because they are so very different from us.  But a good reader can move past that feeling and realize they are not the author and it’s not their story.

The main character is Quentin Coldwater.  He’s not a bad character, all things considered.  He is a bit tentative and cowardly, but very few young adults are actually authentically confident and secure.  He makes mistakes – not really bad ones, but things have a tendency to snowball on him.  And while it is good that he finds people at the University that he can belong among, they are also not the greatest influences he could find, either.  But that is exactly how real life is.  Perfection is somewhat rare in the real world.  I like Quentin well enough and I do feel bad for him at times. Some times I wish he would pull his head out of his butt and think.  Sometimes I understand him completely:

It was a glorious relief.  The numbness of it was just magnificent.  At the moment when it had been at its most intolerably painful, the world, normally so unreliable and insensitive in these matters, had done him the favor of vanishing completely.  — pg. 252

The character Alice Quinn is pretty cool as well. I really enjoyed the foray into her parents’ home – that was creative and interesting writing.  In fact, just because Grossman’s concept of magic is not that of Tolkien’s or Rowling’s does not mean his is weak or stupid. In fact, of them – his is actually the most fleshed out and developed.  He shows us magic in a variety of settings and uses.  And he presents a somewhat darker image of it – not the starry-eyed kiddos’ of Hogwarts.  Anyway, Alice is probably the best magician and student of the bunch.  She’s interesting and she is a good character to match with Quentin.  Their story develops and as it continues, I think readers have a lot of respect for her for a number of reasons.  Her insightfulness, her bravery, and her dedication.

I found Eliot to be the most tedious of characters.  In a lot of ways, he’s the most stereotypical character – one wants to say “yeah, he’s in the story because every story has one of him.”  I disliked him and I suppose he has a role to play, but honestly, he is arrogant and crass and a lot less likeable than the others.  He does take that archetypal character in a University, though. The aloof loner who is uppity and yet slums with the losers on occasion.

The novel uses the tools that C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling created.  I do not think this is a bad thing. I think it’s fairly gutsy and interesting.  I think readers who focus on the similarities and spend time calling Grossman’s work derivative are missing the good of The Magicians.  Using the tools the other authors provide, Grossman is telling us a different story.  The thing that I do not really like about Grossman’s story is the existentialist feeling it has.  Existentialism (to me) always seems dreary and navel-gazing. So, it was this element that weighed the novel down – and yes, at places, this is a heavy dismal thing.  Nevertheless, the ending leads us right into the sequel.  Maybe by then readers will stop comparing the novel to what it isn’t and read it for what it is?  And what it is, is a question of how much hope and redemption Quentin Coldwater can find in any world – Earth or Fillory.

2 stars

October the First is Too Late

October the First is Too Late

October the First is Too Late – Fred Hoyle; Fawcett-Crest, 1968.

October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle was first published in 1966.  The edition that I have is the Fawcett Crest 1968 edition. I do not know who the cover artist was – but this is one of my favorite pre-1980 science fiction book covers. Fred Hoyle is the British astronomer and mathematician (1915 – 2001) who was knighted in 1972.  Sir Hoyle was also one of the scientists who were outspoken regarding the “big bang” theory.

October the First is Too Late is not a good read by any standard. Really.  However, Hoyle warns us about this in the brief “To The Reader” paragraph at the beginning of the book. He writes:

The “science” in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of the time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious, as also the contents of chapter fourteen.

Hoyle was a good scientist. He had good schooling, studied well, published actively.  Although his positions on major natural science arguments may have been unpopular, I like that he defended his position and stuck to it. Also, I want to mitigate some of his stubbornness because he was of an older generation of scientists that had to confront a great deal of speedy advances in technology and science. He was born a few years after my grandparents – and frankly, I cannot imagine them ever having adapted quickly or smoothly to the technology of even the 1950s, much less the 1990s.

This book is a first-person narrative, told to us by a musician. The musician is good friends with a Nobel Laureate named John Sinclair.  Because of this friendship, the musician gets involved in matters by association. For example, he meets the prime minister, he travels with the Navy, he hangs out with scientists, etc.  On his own, however, he is admittedly a bit unschooled in natural science and he does not really offer anything else other than musical skill.

And I appreciate Hoyle’s understanding of music.  Each chapter is subtitled with musical terminology; for example: fugue, tempo di minuetto, andante con moto, etc.  The main character is a pianist of some standing and throughout the book he plays the piano.  In fact, this is one of the more absurd moments in the book:  he drags a piano to Ancient Athens. A piano.

See, the world has shifted in such a way (something to do with a pseudo-beam of light a la PKD’s VALIS) that multiple points of time are existing in various places around the globe.  So, it is 1966 in Great Britain, but it is WWI in France and Germany. Russia is very nearly the end of the world – where the surface of the earth is nothing but hardened, featureless glass.  Greece is in the age of Pericles and North America is wilderness.  There’s the science fiction in the novel. It all starts because of a birthmark – which Hoyle does tie in to the conclusion – yet I can make no real sense of what he was trying to do with this little plot device.

But while this concept would be really cool to explore and in the hands of a good author would really be a heck of an adventure, Hoyle just plods along with our somewhat dreary and banal main character. Who brings a piano to ancient Greece?! Farcical!  So, instead of being a wicked time-space mashup, we get long-winded thoughts regarding music theory.  But it’s serious music theory – it helps if you are familiar with Schubert and Chopin.  And here when I say “familiar,” I mean you can actually recognize their work.  I liked Hoyle’s explanations of notes/tonality – it gave me more to think about. Music theory can be difficult to understand – because of the jargon. This explanation made me want to listen to Arnold Schoenberg and see what I hear after having read this novel.

At 160 pages, this should be a fast read. However, it was incredibly boring and absurd. Not a good absurd either.  It was pathetic at points in terms of novel/literature/fiction aspects.  Basically, if you are reading this for exciting science fiction – forget it, you will be completely and certainly disappointed. Maybe even annoyed.  However, if you want a semi-interesting read about music, this book might interest you.  I have to praise chapter twelve because it was, for me, the only interesting and exciting chapter in the novel.  It has a lot of interesting ideas and can conjure some fun images – if only this chapter were expanded and by a better author.

The chapter fourteen that Hoyle mentioned above depicts a very dismal and wretched human history that is doomed to repeat itself.  Apparently, humans are miserable and are meant to live in discord and violence.  We learn about the history of the earth and how cataclysmic human-initiated events devastate the earth and the animals (including humans). Eventually, the last chapters depict the “final humanity” which is resigned to it’s fate:  that of not even trying to learn from mistakes and avoid catastrophe, but willing to simply live until they are no more.  I read some dystopian stuff – but the last chapters in this book are probably some of the most dismal and despairing ever. So, it leaves the reader with a dismal feeling after having read a rather poor novel.

2 stars

They Shall Have Stars

They Shall Have Stars

They Shall Have Stars – James Blish; Avon 1966

They Shall Have Stars by James Blish was published in 1956.  The edition that I read was the Avon 1966 paperback copy. They Shall Have Stars is the first novel in the Cities in Flight collection by Blish.  The four “novels” were collected into one omnibus by Avon in 1970, which I also own.  The trickiest part of understanding this collection is that several of the “novels” are actually fix-up pieces that Blish originally published in the famous Astounding Science Fiction magazine. For example, from what I could dig up, there are two relevant issues of Astounding that relate to They Shall Have Stars.  The February 1952 issue and the May 1954 issue contain stories that eventually became this novel.

Blish wrote a short three-paragraph author’s note for the front of the Avon 1966 edition.   It’s actually really helpful if you are attempting to read Blish’s work or attempting to read Cities in Flight. He writes:

This first volume of Cities in Flight is a prologue to the work as a whole, and hence contains neither any flying cities nor any characters in common with the remaining three volumes.  Instead, it undertakes to show the circumstances under which the two fundamental inventions which made the Okie cities possible were discovered. . . . . We begin in 2018 A.D.. . . .  and the events here cover about two years.  There is a leap of several centuries before Cities in Flight proper begins, and thereafter the action is continuous through the remaining three volumes, all the way to 4004 A.D.

The writing of Cities in Flight occupied me, off and on, from 1948 to 1962, and like many such long projects, the order of composition of its parts wasn’t orderly at all, and was further complicated by the publishing history.

I think that is about as good as an explanation of the chronology of these novels as any.  And it’s authoritative because it’s direct from the author himself.  So, what we have learned so far is that, though this was not an actual novel at first, nor was it the first novel in the series published, you read this one first.

However, you may be disappointed.  (As we science fiction geeks usually are with prequels/prologues, etc.)  Since this particular novel takes place prior to the “big events” in the other novels (which I have not yet read), it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of action and events in the storyline.  This is why I wrestled with giving this novel 2 or 3 stars for it’s rating.  As a prologue, it deserves three full stars.  It does everything a prologue ought to do – including not running on and on longer than it should.  This novel does a solid job of providing the setting; it presents the scientific and political milieu for the year 2018, which sets up the rest of the Cities in Flight storyarc.  Published in the mid-1950s, we are also given an image of rampant McCarthyism and the Blish’s negative view of it.  I have always been rather hateful towards McCarthyism.  It’s, oddly, still alive and well even today and so I sympathize with Blish’s view.

This is the dystopian aspect in the novel.  There is a very clear-cut distinction made between The West and The Soviets.  This is all apropos of the 1950s. But what is surprising and refreshing is that while Blish utilizes this obnoxious us/them dichotomy, he also chooses to simply step outside of it.  This is how, in the novel, McCarthyism (represented by the character MacHinery) is defeated.  The novel tells us that The Soviets (knowingly or unknowingly) have defeated The West – not by overcoming them in military struggle, but by gradually developing the zeitgeist of The West into one similar to The Soviets. i.e. secretive, stagnant, repressive, and full of witch-hunting. There is a lot of identity/alterity philosophy combined with political ideology inherent in this idea that would be great for someone to make a thesis out of.  Blish doesn’t really preach at us at all, though. He just tells us this is what has happened and we calmly step on outside of this paradigm with him.

On Jupiter the reader is treated to the “hard science” of the science fiction side of this prologue story.  There are mathematical equations here. Chemistry diagrams depicting molecular structure.  There’s not a lot of them – but there they are, and Blish makes it seem like he really actually tried to make all of this believable and realistic.  In fact, one of the best things about this novel is the utilization of the scientific properties of ice.  Yes, ice – the frozen state of water, so to speak.  Did you know that ice actually has about fifteen stages of solidity determined by temperature and/or pressure? I feel like I knew some of this in a very vague way – but since I read this novel, my imagination is having a blast thinking about ice.  Anyway, because the phases are relative to pressure/temperature – Blish explores ice on the planet Jupiter, which has crazy temperatures and pressure that can challenge scientists.

Because that is the other really big idea being put forth in this novel.  The state of scientific inquiry under an era of Soviet-ideology/McCarthyism/1950s.  One character (a respected scientist) says that the scientific method no longer works.  Several characters wrestle, throughout the novel, with the problem of whether or not the “really big science experiments/projects” are a thing of the past and are no longer feasible or important.  Where does humanity stand with regard to “gigantic research projects”?  Some of this is political in nature, some of it is economic. Some of it is just plain biological – humans do not live long enough to bother with the gigantic project. So, this novel plays with some of these questions and presents a few tentative, subtle responses.

However, throughout this review, you’ll notice I have not talked about the characters or the action or the events in the novel. Because, really, there is not anything worth saying. While this novel is an excellent prologue, it is clearly a prologue that is solely designed to set up the rest of Cities in Flight.  Nothing really happens in this novel.  The reader will have a strong sense of the story never getting started, never going anywhere, and wondering if there really is a story in there at all.  At the end of the novel – there are some cool ideas and this is obviously an introduction to a future humanity.  So that is why it gets two stars for a rating as novel qua novel.  Ultimately, that’s what I have to give as the final rating, too, since I review novels here – not prologues.

2 stars

Rogue Moon

Rogue Moon

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrus; Avon; 1974

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys was published in 1960.  It was nominated for the 1961 Hugo Award – but lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr.  Generally, it seems I do not rate award-winning science fiction books very highly.  I do wonder if this is because I subconsciously expect awesomeness and therefore raise the bar unconsciously when reading them.  I know some people might suggest that some of these novels are “dated” and that’s why I don’t “like” them, but that’s not the case.  I have no problem with novels being “dated.”  I have had this on my to-be-read list for a trillion billion years and I even started it and made it to page 60.  Then I got aggravated with it and chucked it aside for months and months. Finally, I picked it up again.

I was most interested in the novel not because it was a Hugo nominee, but because of the author.  Budrys is a Lithuanian-American.  This is significant to me. Also, this past year I have been reading a lot of Eastern European writers. For example, Bulgakov, Goncharov, Nabokov, Lem, et al.  I have another novel by Budrys that I intend to read – the fact that I did not love this novel did not put me off of the author, but I can’t say that I was not disappointed with Rogue Moon.

I love the science fiction concept and idea that Budrys wants the story to tell.  I want to have a 400-page novel about it and have it be really good.  However, that seems to be the smallest part of this book, oddly enough. Instead, the novel is filled with the two-dimensional characters who are incredibly egotistical and who like to make speeches in each others’ presence.  There are about four major characters in the novel.  The main two are the daredevil macho man named Al Barker and the sullen scientist Edward Hawks.  Many pages of the book take place at Barker’s mansion. I absolutely abhor all of these scenes and they are what made me drop the book in the first place.

Seriously, what happens is that these egotistical 2D characters lounge around the pool and the house grating on each others nerves and having temper tantrums.  Barker’s girlfriend, Claire Pack, hangs out there.  Much of the novel purports to explore her psychoses – and, as a reader, I disliked her immediately.  She’s wretched.  Now, I know that these scenes are supposed to be some sort of psychological exploration of these characters in the context that they are not the average, normal members of mass society. They are all “screwy” in their own way – so it is supposed to be interesting to see how they interact with each other and what their perspectives are on various topics.  That’s what’s supposed to happen. Instead, I felt like I was at a really hideous pool party wherein only self-centered, immature wackos were invited. Their musings on topics is painful.

The main topic is the concept of man qua man.  What is a man? And further, what is it for a man to die – what is the death of a man?  This is really the whole point of the science fiction in the novel. Sure, the plot is somewhat about a large alien artefact found on the Moon. People enter and explore it, but are inevitably killed for violating the unknown alien rules in force within the structure. But this whole (and really cool) science fiction item is kept very vague and is only a plot device so that the characters can do self-discovery and ruminate on death.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! Bit by bit over the countless billions of years it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day it’ll stop.  Only one thing in the entire universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces its way uphill. Intelligence – human lives – we’re the only things there are that don’t obey the universal law. . . . But our minds, there’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them – to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical Universe.” – pg. 167

That is the best quote, I think, in the novel.  Don’t think that the novel is full of such insight. Sometimes, what seems profundity is really just navel-gazing.  And while the rumination on what man is and how he dies in the universe can be philosophical, I really wanted the science to be there. I wanted to learn about the item on the moon. I wanted to be creeped out by alien technology and to read the scientific insights into how the artefact works.  I wanted to see the humans discover, learn, and conquer.  Instead, I am not entirely sure that they characters even conquer themselves. Maybe a little. I don’t know. The psychological aspects of people who are not the norm do not make good survey samples.

Overall, the novel is simply not what I expected.  There are sections that are tedious and wretched.  There are times when I feel the characters are preachy.  In the end, I think that people who enjoyed this novel did so because they liked the light pseudo-philosophy running through it – and not the science fiction elements.  However, the philosophy itself just isn’t enough for me to give this novel any good marks. The two stars is a gift. I just think it’s better than the 1 star books I’ve read.

2 stars

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick; Mariner Books 2011

The Man in the High Castle is the fourth Philip K. Dick novel that I have read.  It was first published in 1962 and it won a Hugo Award in 1963.  I will state right away that I am only giving the novel two stars because I have read better from PKD. Also, this novel was not as easy to breeze through and immerse within as the other novels by PKD that I have read were.  I think that the concepts in this novel are five-star concepts, no doubt. But I am docking for execution.

This is easily a good novel for discussing lots of philosophical ideas.  It would probably be best read within a reading group.  Some of the neat philosophical ideas PKD throws out there include:

  • historicity
  • notion of fakes/counterfeits versus value of original/authentic
  • the Japanese concept of Satori
  • duties to State versus duties to Self

But overall, the part of the novel that makes it qualify as science fiction is that it presents an alternate reality. I want to say a bit more on this point, but that would involve giving away spoilers.  Suffice it to say, PKD again makes the reader question reality – is this the really real or a false reality?

There are a whole mess of characters in this novel and the plot does not necessarily just hinge on one of them alone. I think I prefer books with a clear main character. I sometimes had a difficult time remember who was who and what and where. I hope your German is better than mine, because I had no mind for German names, phrases, or places. However, if you are a WWII buff, you may find this book of some interest.

Anyway, the character that I liked the most and followed most avidly was Nobusuke Tagomi – a trade missioner in Japanese-controlled San Francisco.  I think it is with this character that PKD gives his all in terms of character development and also the thread of the I Ching that runs through the novel.  Tagomi is the only character that I could feel sympathy for and was interested in. I think this is because PKD manages to pull off an “authentic” traditional Japanese persona here, whereas with the other characters, they are only playacting at their heritage/ethnicity.  For example, most of the Germans seem too obvious and the other Asian characters seem almost simulacra of stereotypes or something.

One thing this novel excels at – without a doubt – is presenting the concept of authentic/false.  This is done with objects, art, people, countries, beliefs, names, and even such small details as hair color and clothing.  This novel could really just be a study in simulacra and simulation. (In case you’re curious, no, no connection from Baudrillard’s book, which was published in 1981.)  If you are interested in the Philosophy of Art and are curious about the ideas of forgeries and fakes versus imitation – this would probably interest you, as well.

Ultimately, this book would interest a lot of readers for a variety of different reasons and aspects. However, the one group I do not really recommend it for is the science fiction audience.  This book is a little less psychological and a little less science fiction than the other PKD books that I have read, and maybe that is why I am only giving it two stars.

I hated the character Juliana Frink with great animosity. As soon as we meet her in the novel, I want to make her go away. It kind of sucks that she ends up as a device for the big reveal at the end. Overall, I find her to be a hideous person and I do not know who PKD modeled her after, but I am sorry for them.  Juliana is an annoying, sickening, vexing character. A novel with her in it cannot get more than two stars, sorry!  Also, I am starting to believe maybe the Hugo Awards are on crack…..

2 stars


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers