Caviar

Caviar – Theodore Sturgeon; Ballantine 1977 edition, cover: Darrell K. Sweet

Caviar by Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was first published in 1955.  Once again, I completed a 1950s book.  This is a collection of 8 stories ranging from 1941 – 1955.  The cover art for the copy that I read (1977 Ballantine) is by Darrell Sweet. Though Sturgeon did publish several novels, it is my understanding that he is famous for his short fiction.

Therefore, when I came to this collection I had really high hopes because this should be fairly representative of the author’s lauded style.  I cannot say that my expectations were met, although I was not completely disappointed.  The ratings I gave each story are all over the place.  I am glad that I read the collection, but only one story in this collection is something that I think will stick with me.  Of the eight stories, I would say one is definitely not science fiction whatsoever, one is definitely science fiction, and the other six are vaguely “speculative” fiction.  None of this is a bad thing, but it does perhaps suggest a change in the reader’s pre-read expectations.

Sturgeon has a very glib and casual writing style.  I am not completely thrilled by it.  It works best when he utilizes a nifty narrator main character to do the work.  The stories wherein Sturgeon has to do the talking are decent, but nothing about this style makes it truly incredible.  In fact, for most of the stories, I felt they may have gone on for a page or two too long.  I think casual writing does lend itself nicely to short fiction, but usually overlong short fiction can kill any storyline.

  • Bright Segment – 2 stars – (1955)
  • Microcosmic God – 4 stars – (1941)
  • Ghost of a Chance – 2 stars – (1943)
  • Prodigy – 3 stars – (1949)
  • Medusa – 4 stars – (1942)
  • Blabbermouth – 3 stars – (1945)
  • Shadow, Shadow On the Wall – 2 stars – (1951)
  • Twink – 1 star – (1955)

Interestingly, you can see that the stories run the gamut from 4 stars to 1 star.  The stories that I rated the highest are the most “science fiction” of the stories.  The lowest rated involve children somehow and were – to me – too vague and weird.

Bright Segment opens the collection and is definitely not speculative fiction or science fiction.  It is actually quite a noir read, but not one that I really enjoyed. One of the things that Sturgeon does really well in this piece is to build up a lot of empathy and sympathy (concern) for both of the characters – and then he flips all of that emotive investment around.  I appreciate this – but cannot say I liked the result.  The voice of the main character was done well.

Microcosmic God is the most science-y of the collection.  I do think it was a bit too long, because toward the end, some threads of the story kind of slipped slightly.  Nevertheless, it is excellent SCIENCE fiction.  I love the Neoterics and the whole ratio which brought the main character to the conclusion of developing the Neoterics is the “answer” to time/space/invention.  I really am jealous of James Kidder – rich, brilliant, and lives unfettered by annoying humans on his own little island. Oh, how I would love to be Kidder.  Now, the plot-device of the power plant and the devious banker didn’t thrill me, so that’s why this does not get five stars.  Nevertheless, this is one I would recommend to other readers.

Ghost of a Chance was first published in 1943 and I do not see the need for it to have been republished. I gave it two stars and really feel like it just was not worth republishing, unless they needed some “filler.”

Prodigy is a good, solid read.  I gave it 3 stars because I felt that it represented some good speculative fiction ideas.  I really did like the twist at the very end of the story.  However:  I am not really sure that this twist is actually supported by the story itself.  Seems forced, even if it is fun and can be appreciated. Overall, it is a relatively interesting read.

Medusa was my favorite read of the collection. I know why it was named “Medusa,” but I would have named it Xantippe. Xantippe is a really good horrifying planet-concept.  And Medusa is a metaphor with a jellyfish, which I think is a strained and needless metaphor.  But Xantippe and the Navy ship sent to deal with it is an awesome concept.  All true fans of science fiction should read this one.  It also includes some of the psychological horror and mystery that really gripping deep space stories should include. Easily four stars.

Blabbermouth gave us a decent, sharp narrator with an interesting concept to tell his (rather mundane) story.  He falls in love with Maria, who has a predisposition to be possessed by poltergeists. Well, she brought this problem onto herself because of her occult “studies.” And now she affects people’s lives.  She’s a “blabbermouth,” so to speak.  I really dislike the genesis of Maria’s “skill,” and I feel that this story had so much potential wasted. As I read, I kept considering what it could have been – so much better than what this story is.

Shadow, Shadow On The Wall – The reader does feel a bit heartbroken for main character, Bobby – a small child who has a mean step-mother.  The story itself plays upon all of our fears of the dark and our capacity for pretend-play as an escape.  Still, the corner-shadow-country is unconvincing and I do not feel the story itself is on par with all of the emotional drawn the reader is presented.

Finally, Twink, which I hated. Just junk. I wish I had not read it. 1 star for being better than cleaning the litter box.

2.6 is the average for this collection.  I do not use numbers like this, so I will round up to a 3.  I am more or less okay with that, but I know that I recently reviewed C. M. Kornbluth’s The Explorers and that averaged out to a 3.  That collection was a lot better than this one.  So, let us call this a secret low 3 rating

3 stars

The Explorers

The Explorers – C. M. Kornbluth; Ballantine; cover: Jack Faragasso; 1963 edition

Still happily stuck in the 1950s, I finished The Explorers by C. M. Kornbluth well-past any respectable bedtime hour.  This is one of those reviews wherein I have to be fair and honest and give a mathematical rating that seems low and yucky.  However, the rating – though my math was correct – does not truly represent the value of this work.  So, an uncomfortable rating.  Therefore, reader, do not put too much emphasis on said rating.

The cover for this book is a delicious vintage cover by Jack Faragasso.  I read the second edition, but both the first and second use this same great artwork.  I suppose it is only slightly misleading because this is not a collection containing a whole lot of story about astronauts, per se. I feel like certain readers may be put off by such an overt (yet still awesome!) expression of “traditional” science fiction artwork.  Anyway, this is a collection of stories/novelettes [I still dislike that word] that were previously written and published – especially in genre magazines and periodicals.  At 145 pages, these nine stories are perfectly sized for a delightful weekend read.

This collection was first published as a unit in 1954.  The second edition, which I read, was published in 1963.  This is the first item that I have read by Kornbluth, although I am aware that he collaborated with fellow author Frederik Pohl.  The collection The Best of C. M. Kornbluth (1976) also contains five of the stories published in The Explorers.  Presumably, this suggests that this collection is a really good representation of Kornbluth’s skill/style.

  • Gomez – 3 stars – (1954)
  • The Mindworm – 4 stars – (1950)
  • The Rocket of 1955 – 1 star – (1941)
  • The Altar at Midnight – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Thirteen O’Clock – 3 stars – (1941)
  • The Goodly Creatures – 1 star – (1952)
  • Friend to Man – 4 stars – (1951)
  • With These Hands – 3 stars – (1951)
  • That Share of Glory – 5 stars – (1952)

 This comes out to be an average of 3 stars.  The fact that there are two 1-star stinkers brings that down quite a bit.  However, I have to say, one of those stinkers (The Rocket of 1955) is like a page and a half of text; ‘short story’ is overstating it.  So, that 1 star probably shouldn’t have much weight to it.  It’s also an early work of Kornbluth’s, so we can always argue that he had not yet found his writing comfort zone.

Gomez is a decent read – a bit longish, I feel.  It is average 1950s fare, it forces the reader to consider concepts like duty and nationalism in the scope of science.  The author probably wants the reader to empathize with the narrator and sympathize with the main (title) character, but I’m a hard case and my Grinch-heart wasn’t feeling this one.

The Mindworm, however, surprised me.  It is probably the darkest piece in the book – there is a hefty dose of “mysteriousness” which leaves a lot of the thing open to interpretation.  There is a sort of non-human entity (mindworm) who preys on the degenerate of society.  It escapes difficulty by continuously moving around the country in his “host” body. And no one really cares when criminals and scrubs are found dead.  However, this entity runs to West Virginia – where he encounters a new paradigm that does not react as all the other people in the past have acted.  This is a vampire-story extraordinaire.  Eastern Europeans, still speaking their Old World languages, “deal with the scenario.”  And there is this comparison within the story of insular cultures and also how “old” ethnic groups remember things – but its all really subtle.  Another subtle element:  in this locale, the Mindworm kills a virgin girl – in West Virginia.

The Altar at Midnight was great.  For me it recalled the recent James E. Gunn and Barry N. Malzberg that I had read.  It is has an excellent ending and the story is perfectly-sized and complete.  I really liked this one – mainly because it is, if nothing else, a powerful story.

Thirteen O’Clock got an average rating from me.  It is one of Kornbluth’s earliest works.  It is completely weird and pulpy.  It is far less science fiction and far more cruddy fantasy.  It has this heavy-handed morality lesson about Big Business and Tyranny that gets thrown at the reader.  The characters agree and we all go home. However, there are some elements in this story that had me chuckling.  I admit it, I like a little sarcasm and silliness.  So, this is not a good story, but it provides a good mid-book humor.  Also, a clock with 13 hours appeals to all of my autistic tendencies.

The Goodly Creatures seems really dated.  And I hated it.  I did not feel any sympathy for the main character.  I wanted the story to go somewhere, but it did not. I kept waiting for it to really go places, but instead loser main character has a moment. The end.

Friend to Man was the only story that actually got to my heartstrings and played a chord or two.  And then wham! Surprise ending! And then there was much cheering and celebration from me.  Like many of Kornbluth’s stories in this book, it is a ruminating on ethics/morality.  In this story we are no longer on Earth and we meet an interesting alien lifeform.  Great twist story, containing noir-esque plot.  Bravo!

With These Hands only got 3 stars from me because it is ridiculously dismal.  And maybe I have a different conception of “aesthetics” than Kornbluth?  Anyway, this is one sad, dark read.  In a sense Kornbluth does work hard to tie much of the plot to actual historical artworks, artists, and themes.  Even places (Ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, etc.) but I am not sure it works? I wanted it to, but it fell a bit flat.  This is a bit disappointing because it is clear that Kornbluth is a learned and intelligent writer.  And this particular story showcases a reality that could happen today or tomorrow.

Finally, That Share of Glory is the masterpiece of this book.  It is a fantastic read – it appeals to my Catholicism and my Philosophical training and my love of linguistics and ethics and even the little Karl Marx in me thrilled at this.  Hello, all my friends: Machiavelli, Marx, John Stuart Mill, et al.  I loved this story – because the concept is exciting.  Kornbluth did not make a character with pathetic flaws – he made one that is consistent and strong – but yet causes him a crisis!  And adventure! This is a great story and I want more of it. I want a whole series of it, frankly.  Let’s just say a “monastic” order that operates as the galaxy’s “communicators/anthropologists” etc. and uses such for both political and economic structure – well, yes, hands down, 5 stars!

Overall, the stories are all unpredictable.  Kornbluth turns a critical eye on society and science.  However, what is great is that his eye, while critical, is not miserable.  He does not possess that dreary misanthropic feeling that so many authors seem to equate with “critical.”  Also, I enjoy his “morality tales” in this book.  He does a lot of interesting things hinging on ethics and ethical situations – but without any gross heaviness and obnoxiousness.  I recommend this for all those interested in vintage science fiction and for those people who like good stories with minimal (stereotypical) science fiction.

3 stars

The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home – Poul Anderson; Ace 1978

I am stuck in 1955 – 1958.   I just finished Poul Anderson’s The Long Way Home.  It was originally published in bits in 1955 as No World of Their Own, but then re-assembled in 1958 as The Long Way Home.  I think; honestly, the history of this particular work is a somewhat sketchy.  My copy is the Ace February 1978 edition with the fun Michael Whelan cover art.  It has a very short introduction by the author:

This novel was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction.  The paperback book edition appeared as No World of Their Own.  That was not my idea, nor were the cuts which mutilated the text.  Both have remained until now, when editor Jim Baen generously gave me a chance to restore things.

In such cases, it is always a temptation to go ahead and rewrite, with the benefit of many additional years’ experience.  I have refrained from that.  Although today I would handle the tale rather differently, it is, I think, a good story as it stands.

I read this, mainly, because it is the earliest Poul Anderson novel that I currently own.  I already knew enough about Anderson to have an idea of what to expect.  Anderson writes about sociological/political themes, theories, and backgrounds.  He was a writer that brings good things to the genre.  By this I mean that he is not just creating action-pulp stories with creepy aliens.  Anderson utilizes the genre to delve into a variety of sociological/political scenarios that are “conceptually-relevant.”

This novel is written with a bluntness that sometimes is too direct.  There is no finesse.

Peggy was dead.  For five thousand years she had been dust, darkness in her eyes and mold in her mouth, for five thousand years she had not been so much as a memory.  He had held back the realization, desperately focusing himself on the unimportant details of survival, but it was entering him now like a knife. pg. 37, Chapter 3

The sentence structure is not beautiful whatsoever.  There are many places where the writing seems as droll and banal as if we were reading a dry engineering textbook.  This is not a crushing condemnation of the author’s style, but it seems to me if you want to write sociology – do so, and write articles, texts, etc.  If you want to write fiction – work on sprucing it up a bit. Here we could have a good discussion regarding “form and function,” but I don’t know that anyone besides myself would be reading along.  Pretend the discussion has occurred – move to next paragraph of this review.

So, what Anderson does do very well is to create a far-flung future in which very specific (psychological) characteristics of humans are magnified and driven to their “conclusion.”  Anderson is presenting a number of ideas here that may interest certain readers.  For example, what makes humans inquisitive?  Is a one-world-incorruptible governing body the best possible government for civilization?  Is there always to be a sort of caste system in human civilization – based on intelligence, perhaps?  What factors cause humanity to become stagnant?  Can the extent of possible progress be reached?

All of these questions (which are not as delineated as I have made them) are rolled into the scenario of a Dune-like scheming background.  Several interest groups (economic, local, foreign) are all trying to get their hands on an alien who was traveling with the main character, Edward Langely.  This alien is actually the only truly creative element in the entire novel.  Saris Hronna is, basically, a humanoid-cat, from a far away planet.  He is also equipped with a type of telepathy and among his people is a style of philosopher.  Once this novel gets going, he quickly becomes a fugitive and provides the impetus for most of the action of the novel.

Overall, the novel is interesting because of the commentary/questions Anderson presents in the sociological arena.  However, the main character is repetitive and bland.  The other characters are flat and are just there to represent the three factions.  Most of the book is in dialogue format, wherein the characters give us very general information about what this future looks like and what their opinions on humanity are.  The resolution of the whole novel is rather neat – it made me give a nod to it, but it is nothing wildly creative and exciting.  This is a good novel if you are into vintage science fiction and/or sociology.  A lot of readers who devour current science fiction books might not be interested in this thing.  It does not really “show its age,” because Anderson keeps the whole thing so general.  And maybe that’s the worst part of the whole thing – it is all too general and broad.

3 stars

The Figure in the Shadows

The Figure n the Shadows – John Bellairs; Dell Publishing; 1977

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

Divergent

Divergent – Veronica Roth

My household read Divergent by Veronica Roth.  It is her first published novel and is also the first in the Divergent trilogy.   It was released in 2011.  The movie that is based on the book was released today (March 21st), which is why my household tried to gobble this book down in rapid gulps.

Well, I do not read a whole lot of (what is called) “young adult” fiction.  I do not really like this new and really over-produced “genre” that I find more adults reading than actual “young adults.”  Overall, after having read a handful of novels in this category, I have to say that these are really not good literary works.  I mean, there is no “challenge” to reading them, no deeper meanings, no literary qualities, no substance, etc.  I did not expect any, of course.  Now, none of that is to say that these books are not entertaining and/or interesting.  Many of the ones I have read were fast-paced, clever, and dripping with emotional moments!  However, I also happen to see a lot more adults reading these books than youth…. and that concerns me a bit.  I do not really find youth reading these books.  All of this is just my personal opinion/experience, and I want to say that I do not mind reading puff or pulp.  I just do not think it should be the majority of what one reads.

The thing is:  this is another novel about a young girl who is the main character.  She is the heroine. The book is told in the first-person perspective.  The “takeaway” for the novel is that the girl is strong, independent, and can save the day.  But this seems like most of the books that are in the young adult category.  And while that is fine and dandy, I do not see that it is going to appeal to a male young adult audience. I mean not necessarily this book series – but this plethora of young adult novels with heroines. And if you notice that most of the readership seems to be adults (not youth) who is actually reading these?  Or, is this sudden explosion of young adult media because it may lower the bar for creators? Something to ponder.

Anyway, this is a fast-paced read.  Less words per page, lots of pages, quick chapters.  The sentences are short and clip.  The vocabulary is nothing difficult.  But what we get is an interesting main character who is “conflicted” about where she belongs in her world.  She has to look within herself to find strengths.  And she has to learn to be a good judge of whom she would like to be her role models and leaders.  Maybe she can take aspects of her teachers/parents/friends and learn from them all?

And, of course, the book is riddled with cliches. You must know that the Aloof Teenage Male plays a huge role here, for example.  There are also a lot of typical scenes and moments that emulate the normal development of teenagers.  They get embarrassed.  They feel the pressure of tests and being successful.  They experience challenges from their peers.  After all, the author was only born in 1988, so she is probably able to remember a lot of these poignant moments better than some old folk do.  I am not being obnoxious here:  the connection, I think, a lot of young adult readers will make with this novel is that it does understand them.  It does present these scenes that they should be able to identify with.  Teenage angst is a real thing, I suppose, and I do think some novels patronize it or falsify it.  I suspect Divergent rather gets it right.

I enjoyed this novel.  It does not claim to be anything more than an exciting teenage adventure story.  It was entertaining.  I will probably see the movie this weekend and then promptly forget both.  But I do hope the author keeps writing – beyond this series.

3 stars

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Green; Penguin Classics

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943.  It is the first of Greene’s novels that I have read.  Also, of note, this novel was made into a movie by Fritz Lang in 1944; the same Fritz Lang who made the film Metropolis.  I feel it was the perfect novel to read after Jünger and von Harbou.  All three novels have this wartime presence to them that made reading them back-to-back really “immersive.”  (The cover illustration is by Geoff Grandfield and I like it!)

The feeling I got throughout reading this novel was that the author disliked having to write it.  At times, it feels like a “practice novel,” not because the writing skill is not exemplary, but rather because I felt Greene added more trajectories to the plotline than were necessary.  The book is sectioned into four unequal sections that present the reader with various stages of the main character, Arthur Rowe, and his traumas.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from The Little Duke, which is of significance to the main character (and to Greene).  It really does pay to not skim these quotes, because they are apropos of the coming chapter.  The Little Duke is a novel written by Charlotte Mary Yonge and published in 1859.  It is about Richard the Fearless, a young man who becomes a duke while still in his single digits.  It’s obvious Greene found it a poignant read.

In many descriptions of this novel, you will read that it is a spy novel and perhaps you will conceive images of James Bond and Mission Impossible.  However, this probably will frustrate you because it is not an action thriller; it is far more esoteric and psychological.  And perhaps you will read somewhere that this novel is another “classic dystopia” wherein some form of Big Brother is after the main character.  Well, not so much that either.  There is a measure of suspense and hidden-ness within the novel which is slightly noir.  But it’s true noir element comes from the constant grappling that the main character does with his memory.  Arthur Rowe had murdered his wife.  I do not want to give any more of the few details away.  This fact, though, challenges and colors everything about the main character.

In a lot of ways, like The Glass Bees and Metropolis, there is a redemptive quality to this novel.  The main character seeks some sort of redemption – particularly in regard to their beloved.  None of these are clear-cut love stories, mind you, however, the angst and self-awareness that comes along in relation to the Other qua beloved.  This is not Lord Byron or Barbara Cartland.  This is wartime love in the time which was dubbed The Age of Anxiety.  Therefore, the lessons learned here do not involve Prince Charming and “happily ever after.”

On dining at a restaurant in wartime:

Even in a crumbling world the conventions held; to order again after payment was unorthodox, but to ask for notepaper was continental.  She could give him a leaf from her order pad, that was all.  Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. pg. 59 (chapter 6)

However, throughout this novel the main feeling of helplessness regarding the air raids occupies the characters and the reader.  Some characters treat it as matter-of-fact, others are discombobulated.  Greene writes a really good treatment of shell-shock and the feeling these civilians have which is like mice running from cats.  Again, the Age of Anxiety.  A lot can be said about these parts of the novel, because really, these are the most “intellectual” parts, let’s say.  PTSD and shell-shock and amnesia all roll through the scenes and characters like bombs from enemy planes.

Describing this wartime psyche:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass.  People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.” pg. 54 (chapter 5)

Overall, this is truly a four star novel.  That would be the correct and proper rating.  But I cannot help but feel like the author hated this work a little too much – even if he wrote it like a grandmaster.  You can do a thing well and still dislike that thing.  And, really, although there really is a whole lot that can be said about all of the elements of this novel, the main thing I am taking away from it, truly, is a fear of cake.

3 stars

Marooned On Mars

Marooned on Mars – Lester Del Rey; Paperback Library; 1967

Vintage Science Fiction Month

Marooned on Mars by Lester Del Rey was first published in 1952.   In various encyclopedias and listings, one finds this novel categorized as “juvenile” science fiction.  What that means, I think, is that this is basically a young adult novel (nowadays we call it YA).  However, I do not think that any of this is entirely locked-down, written-in-stone stuff.  Why is it called “juvenile”?  Because the main character is a young lad of 17/18 years old.  I guess, too, because there is not any cussing or wild sex scenes.  Some readers might suggest that the writing level is geared toward a younger audience.

Personally, I liked this novel for what it is.  I feel like when I was much, much younger, I read dozens of books similar to this one. It is somewhat hard to put my finger on what it is, but I can try.  The young main character, Chuck, is an example of the ambitious, curious, and well-raised young man one thinks of when one generalizes about 1950s youth.  He is helpful, good-hearted, and a little awkward.  He also has a lot of skills at his young age that I am not so sure youth of present time have.  He’s practically an expert in electrical work, radar/radio usage, welding, etc.  Simply put, if my spacecraft were hurtling toward Mars and needed serious repairs to the drive-control system, I don’t think I would, honestly, entrust the repairs to some teenager.

There’s not much I can really say about the novel without giving a whole lot of it away in spoilers.  Humans have colonized the moon.  Therefore, humans live on Earth and on the Moon – and a project has been developed in conjunction with both societies to make a trip to the planet Mars.  The Governor at Moon City wins a hard-fought battle to have someone from his colony be present on the trip.  Chuck, who meets many of the requirements, is selected.  The one requirement he does not meet is the lower limit age one.  They want a crew between 18 – 27 years of age.  Chuck is only 17.  So, in spite of all the things Chuck could bring to the team, he is replaced by another young man put forward by the Chinese delegation:  Lew Wong.

The ship is readied and Chuck is brooding and lamenting.  He was exceedingly excited to be headed to Mars, now he has to give his position to Lew.  Now, here is something neat about reading 1950s “juvenile” science fiction.  Even the youth seem bold and brave and not yellow cowards. They seem willing to explore and take on challenges and face risks.  This is an element of these sorts of novels that really keeps them worth reading.  That unabashed curiosity and bravery is always good to, at least, read about.

Anyway, Captain Miles Vance leads the ship to its takeoff from the Moon. But little does he know, there is a stowaway.  And we are led to believe that all the men in the crew rather expected to have a stowaway, but they simply couldn’t endorse this action officially.  Either way, Chuck is part of the crew now.

It isn’t quite a spoiler to say the ship/crew gets marooned on Mars.  So they get there and then they have to set about repairing the ship to leave right away.  This is where the novel lost two full stars in my rating.  What the heck was their plan?  How do you have winches and welders and stuff on this ship and you had no real plans for contingencies or maybe even what you were going to do once you got to Mars – if you had gotten there intact.  I mean, I feel the novel focuses only on the ship’s travel and gives no thought to why they are traveling.

I read this for Vintage Science Fiction month and also because I am spending a lot of time on Mars (my other read….).  Overall, I enjoyed this for what it was.  The middle is a little too slow, the writing is sufficient. A good example of 1950s stuff.  One thing totally worth reading is the little three page essay/introduction by the author.  It’s entitled “Tomorrow’s World” and it does explain the impetus for a lot of the science and psychological milieu in the novel.  It is a fun and interesting little tidbit.  Three stars for vintage-ness, comfort reading, and down-to-earth mellow writing.

3 stars

Captain Future and the Space Emperor

Captain Future – #1; Edmond Hamilton

Vintage Science Fiction Month

If you have heard of Captain Future prior to the TV show The Big Bang Theory, then you are a science fiction nut like myself and many of the bloggers that I know.  (For those who do not know, the characters on the TV show have a poster of Captain Future on their apartment wall.)  Anyway, my blogging friend the little red reviewer encourages us to read Vintage Science Fiction in January.  So I thought about it and selected a few items, one of which is the first “issue/novel” of Captain Future.  Now, I certainly did not go out to any big city comic book store and fetch up an authentic vintage copy.  I read a copy from Amazon.com on my Kindle.  Normally, I do not like to post reviews on items I read on digital readers, but it *is* Vintage Science Fiction month.

Captain Future was created by Mort Weisinger and the stories were generally written by Edmond Hamilton. The stories were published in pulp fiction magazines starting in (I believe) 1940.  The first “issue” that I read (on Kindle, vol. 1) was Captain Future and the Space Emperor.

Now, if you know anything about early pulp magazines/fictions, you know they were really pumped out by their respective authors and are not generally known for their high-minded, highly intellectual, or incredibly detailed writing.  Pulp.  What you get is a rollicking good story, action, adventure, and a neat concise ending.  Back in the day, one might say this was called “fun.”

And it was fun, which is the most I expected out of it.  I had a lot of fun reading it – and it does read oh so quickly.  Captain Future, Curt Newton, is a young lad who was born and raised on the moon.  His parents were killed by evil villains seeking to control their scientific inventions.  Well, Curt was raised, then, by those very “inventions,” to include a giant simple-minded robot, a synthetic “man,” and a brain-in-a-box ex-human.  As I write all of that – I have to admit:  how can any story involving that motley bunch not be filled with fun?!

The story begins by presenting a horrifying situation wherein humans are undergoing some sort of transformation which turns them into beasts.  They are, more or less, devolving into pre-human monsters. I didn’t count, of course, but I think the word “atavism” is used 2 million times in this volume.  The President of Earth calls Captain Future to solve the mystery – Captain Future is, naturally, our last hope!  So, Curt Newton and his crew of non-humans heads off in their fancy spaceship, the Comet, to Jupiter where all this atavisming is going down.

The rest of the story is full of action and adventure, as is to be expected.  I love how Captain Future is always so upbeat, positive, and confident! He can handle anything! No matter what happens, he knows what to do and knows how to solve the problem.  He’s skilled in science, strategy, fighting, etc.  He’s just the hero we need!  It is really charming, I suppose.  However, while 90% of this volume is action and adventure, I would be unfair to the author if I did not point out that there are times where he goes the extra step and “explains” why such-and-such device or science works.  It may not be gritty science and mathematics, but the attempt to give ratio for things is to be commended.  For example, I do not think I have ever read the word “acromegaly” before.  Also, in chapter twenty there is some solid ratio given for how “immaterializers” work – even to explain how acoustics still operate within them.

My favorite sentence:  “He looked up at the full moon that sailed in queenly splendor high above the soaring towers of nighted New York.”   Well, it’s just a hair shy of being purple prose, right? But it also has this fun, splendid way of describing the scene.  Anyway, I do intend to read the next volume and while this is not for those very serious types who read only hard sci-fi, well, it is perfect for people who want to have a fast read with a little vintage charm and a lot of fun.

3 stars

Whose Body?

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers; New English Library; 1988

Well, the first book to be read and reviewed in 2014 happens to be a Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) novel.  Whose Body? was first published in 1923; I read the 1988 New English Library edition, which I picked up used for $1.80.  This novel is the first of Sayers’ novels, therefore it is also the first in her series starring the private amateur detective Lord Peter Whimsey.

I have been reading older books rather than freshly published ones.  I am trying to especially bulk out the 1920s and 1930s. Why? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.  Random idea.  And I am not really serious about it, just something I am in the process of doing.  Hence, Sayers falls into this category.  She also falls into the category of early detective mysteries. But beyond that, one of the last things that a very old professor (Emeritus and with a lecture series named after them) was working on before they really retired [this can be taken in several senses] was commenting on the religious and philosophical ideas found in Sayers.  This may seem totally non-academic, but I must gently remind you this was more so busywork and senior-minded hobbying; the years for true academic research long past.  At the time I witnessed this work, the professor was 80 years old.  I was always slightly curious about their interest in the author/works.

Well, so, I started reading this novel with zero expectations. I did not know what to expect and I did not demand anything from the novel.  It starts off a little jarringly, I have to say.  The main character, Lord Peter Whimsey, is en route somewhere – but we join the story as he is requesting the cab driver to turn around and return to his house.  At first I was not sure what to make of the character or the story. I was really not sure that I would get through this novel in one piece. But Whimsey grew on me. And then I realized why I was becoming so fond of him….. he reminds me of me.

Seriously.  I didn’t realize it at first, but then I couldn’t help but notice. He’s not a dandy or a fop.  He’s this eccentric, extremely witty, aristocrat. A bon vivant, which is more or less…..well… me. He is an expert in foods and wines and wardrobe and he LOVES BOOKS and folios and incunabula.   Whimsey is 100mph and is a lot of excitement. Maybe this likeness tainted my enjoyment of the novel just slightly.  But also, his mother reminds me of my mother a bit, too.

“You see, Lady Swaffham, if ever you want to commit a murder, the thing you’ve got to do is to prevent people from associatin’ their ideas.  Most people don’t associate anythin’ – their ideas just roll about like so many dry peas on a tray, makin’  lot of noise and going nowhere, but once you begin lettin’ ‘em string their peas into a necklace, it’s goin’ to be strong enough to hang you, what?” – Lord Whimsey, Chapter 7

Here’s the story sans spoilers:  a body is found in the bathtub of a certain simple-minded little man named Thipps.  Thipps has no idea who this is or how the body got into his bathtub.  Also, a self-made man of some repute has seemingly gone missing, wearing nothing but his birthday suit.  Lord Whimsey investigates with the help of his friend in the police, Detective Charles Parker and his totally awesome butler/valet Mervyn Bunter.  I suspect if I had a butler, he would have to be exactly like Bunter. And, really, Bunter is as much to credit for the resolution of the case as is Parker and Whimsey.

Sayers writes this novel utilizing lots of dialogue.  You have to follow along with discussions more so than descriptive prose.  This is okay because the majority of the characters say witty, interesting things.  One of the difficulties, though, is that Sayers does include dialect and slang and such.  So, unless you are British and/or reading aloud, it can slow your reading down just slightly until you get used to the “sound” of the voices.  I can see how this might drive some readers batty.  I got used to it and pressed onward without incident.

Sayers was criticized for the novel having a slightly anti-semitic tone.  Well, I am not going to really get into that – I do see how the criticism came about – certain characters do make some typically obnoxious statements, but I do feel it is par for the course with the setting and times of the novel.  It does not affect the novel in any major way, though.  Also, there is another detective that is investigating the case (Inspector Sugg) and it is hysterical whenever Whimsey and Parker mock him.  They obviously do not bear him ill-will, but they do get a kick out of mocking him.  So, the reader probably should take most of this novel on that level.

Anyway, I am definitely going to read more of Lord Whimsey’s series.  I am glad I read this one and I did have fun with it. Wrote down three quotes and laughed aloud a couple of times.  Also, I might start shouting for Bunter.

3 stars

The Living Shadow

The Shadow – Bantam; 1969

The Living Shadow is the first published novel – in novel form.  It is the first official Shadow novel that I have read.  Now, I am not an early-pulp fiction expert, so some of this may be slightly askew, but I did try to get the correct information.  So, as I understand it, The Shadow debuted in July 1930.  The character and stories were originally radio shows.  (By the way, I do love those old radio shows.)  The novel was first published in 1931.  At that time, I believe it was released in the pulp magazine form. In any case, The Shadow has now been in comics, movies, etc. and there’s plenty of fun to be had.  I read the Bantam 1969 edition.

Ultimately, I know such things are not for everyone.  I have a bit of love for the vintage noir/crime novel, particularly the detective genre.  And not simply because of the recent explosion of Sherlock Holmes all over the place.  For whatever reason, I’ve been trying to acquire and read these.  It isn’t really “for whatever reason.”  It is for fun.  I like fun.  Truth be told, I was having a little trouble getting into some of the freshly-printed novels I have bought.  Exploring these pulpy fun items was a perfect remedy for being in a reading-mudpit.

This story is a bit hack. As is to be expected.  I learned through the course of my investigations, that the author Walter B. Gibson (AKA: Maxwell Grant, The Shadow’s personal annalist), was actually encouraged to include some East Asian elements in this story.  Something to do with the publisher and their cover artists’ production.  Needless to say, there is a Chinese element to the story, but it does seem a little forced.  BUT PEOPLE! He calls the Chinese “Celestials” – I have not heard that sort of lingo in an exceedingly long time.  And frankly, that was a lot of fun in this novel:  the lingo.  The cab drivers, the gas station attendants, the criminals – they all use that old-time pulpy lingo that is such a huge part of American culture-history.

Anyway, the first chapter is really good.  I mean, it could be in any novel – not simply a “pulp” novel.  I have said many times that you need a good first page, first chapter, first issue to make something really work.  You have to have something in that first part that hooks the reader and makes the story seem worthwhile for at least part two, hopefully longer.  I liked the cool and mysterious scenario that is setup and it makes The Shadow a great character before anything really happens.

Now, in these early novels, I am given to understand that The Shadow is not exactly the main protagonist.  And maybe this was built into the idea of developing The Shadow – a character that operates from the shadows (sic) and uses any number of loyal lackeys, servants, friends, associates to make him seem like he has a hand in all the scenarios.  Again, the hero/anti-hero twist to a character. I mean, I kind of want to review all the things I know about early Batman and make some comparisons.  Maybe I’ll do that – if I can get my team of researchers and secretaries to assist. Anyway, Harry Vincent is the main “hero” and detective in this novel.  He does most of the legwork for The Shadow.  He’s a bit too “smart,” in my opinion.  I mean, he generally makes good decisions and plans his moves with a measure of strategy.  I’m kind of unused to characters who do that? Have characters gotten dumber recently?

I digress. The point is:  this was fun and I enjoyed it.  Yes, it was sketchy and pulpy.  But there was a lot to like here for the reader who isn’t expecting too much.  I will be reading book #2 – as soon as I can acquire it.  I’ve been trying to listen to the old radio show, but my household is not exactly as excited about The Shadow as I am.

3 stars

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