Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel:  the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former.  There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text.  I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.

Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre.  Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous.  The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious.  We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer.  The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe.  He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations.  He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.”  Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant.  Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance.  In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.

Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household.  But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research.  I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view.  The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring.  Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive.  Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.

Fritz giggled.  He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10

Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner.  Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household.  He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters.  There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc.  And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.

The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre.  Murder. Two murders, actually.  Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline.  The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course.  Literally, at the tee.  Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime.  But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks.  Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.

The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice.  Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served.  They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves.  Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.

The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent.  Archie struggles with saying the name:

I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?”  Wolfe nodded.  “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.  You are not a born linguist, Archie.  Your defect is probably not mechanical.  To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.  In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16

Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants.  After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me.  So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive.  However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels.  This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars.  I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.

3 stars

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers - John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

The Stardroppers – John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

I finished The Stardroppers this afternoon.  Written by John Brunner and first published in this form (and under this title) in 1972, it was a super fast read for me.  I really like the Jack Gaughan cover art on this novel.  This is the sort of thing I would probably buy a poster of and put somewhere odd – like in the kitchen, or something.   In full disclosure:  the last two novels I read were quite bad, so anything I had read next would probably have gotten at least three stars from me.

In this book we meet the main character, Dan Cross, as he lands in future London, England from the USA.  Dan is proceeding through “customs” with his “stardropper.”  Chapter 1 is fairly interesting; the reader should be drawn into the novel by what is given.  In Chapter 2, we meet another major character, Hugo Samuel Redvers.  From Redvers we learn that our main character is actually Special Agent Cross.  The scene in this chapter is really typical of those scenes in all spy movies. Character is having a meal/drink in fancy hotel restaurant.  Second character surprises him and sits at his table with an arrogant air and a caustic warning.  The reason I mention this is because this first impression of Redvers stuck with me throughout the book – but not so much with Redvers.  As the story went onward, I started to feel that this cocky know-it-all Redvers moves far away from the Redvers in this scene.  By the last chapter, I feel like Redvers is a sniveling, annoying wimp.   There really was not any reason for this change, either.

Anyway, stardroppers are these machines that are something like AM/FM radios.  No one really knows how they truly work, or what they actually work on.  Allegedly, their discovery was accidental – a scientist was experimenting on another project and noticed anomalies.  Throughout the book, I imagined them generally as those old school binoculars that came in carrying cases or something like “ham” radios.  Stardroppers can also refer to the persons who use stardroppers.  The usage of these items is described many times in the story and Brunner works hard to make the reader feel their usage is commonplace and relatively easy.  The results are kept vague.  Basically, you turn on the machine and put earphones in.  After tuning, you “listen.”

The phenomenon/practice of stardropping (Cp. eavesdropping) is treated as if it were a cross-cultural, cross-generational fad or hobby.  There are plenty of suggestions that it is harmful, addictive, and similar to psychotropic usage.  In other cases, it seems the practice is for research and for those persons who would like to investigate UFOs and other kosmic occurrences. Either way, no one really seems to know much about it – and the scientist who “discovered” this phenomenon is taken to be authoritative for no better reason than he discovered it.  This is the bulk of the novel – and it is the sort of thing that would interest readers who like anthropology and sociology.  But readers of space adventure and space opera might find this sort of ruminating a bit dull.

The whole story culminates in the last three chapters – which do seem a bit of a departure from the storyline that came before.  The main character is fun in the sense that he is a “special agent/spy” type.  But he also is not really fantastic at his job.  However, the super cool concepts get tagged onto him.  For example, the Agency uses hypnosis and neo-Freudian personal associations with words to create a specific user-only language.  It’s bulky and, in reality, untenable.  But it sure is fun to think about.   This plays a role in the resolution of the novel, as well, so it’s good to pay attention when you read about it first in chapter 8.

Overall, this was an okay read.  I feel like a lot of time was spent making stardropping seem murky and like LSD-usage.  It is at the root of social-disorder.  Stardroppers seem to run the gamut between hopeful dreamers, childish addicts, and physics students.  Either way the usage has become so pervasive that the governments have become involved in monitoring this situation.  So, beyond just a personal-level of intrigue, the novel contextualizes stardropping in terms of global politics.  And in the end, the world is saved…. by what was first presented as a fringe, drug-like culture.  I wonder what Brunner really wanted our take-away to be………

3 stars

The Brain Stealers

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster (1896 – 1975)  was published as such in 1954.  It appeared much earlier in 1947 as a novella in Startling Stories. I read the 1954 novel in the ACE edition (1977?) with cover done by Stephen Hickman.  This is the first Leinster novel I have read, though I have read a couple of his short stories.  Mainly, I read it because I enjoy plowing through these 1950s novels.

I read the first chapter once before.  At that time I put the book down because I just did not feel that it was something I could get into.  However, this reading, I read that chapter and forced myself to keep on reading.  I mention this because I think this novel starts at the right place, but it is quite unfamiliar and jarring.  Weird stuff.

And then the rest of the novel is built on a lot of coincidence.  Readers who are irritated by authors who set up such helpful coincidences for the characters or plot will probably give this novel much lower marks based on this.  I, however, don’t really mind.  I want to be entertained. I’ll overlook major, obvious coincidences if you have a story to tell.  So, the main character, James Hunt, just happens to be precisely the person we need:  the only one on Earth capable of dealing with this particular alien invasion. Remarkable coincidence.

Well, it is the future – and finally it has happened:  Security Police control the world.  Everything is overseen and regulated by Security.  Of course this is yet another iteration of the fear of Big Brother.

The people of Earth were very secure, to be sure.  They were protected against everything that Security could imagine as happening to them.  But they weren’t free any longer.  And the tragedy was that many of the guiding minds of Security were utterly sincere, though there were self-seekers and politicians merely seeking soft jobs and importance among Security officials. –  pg. 25, Chapter 5

The main character was a young scientist who is under arrest by Security for not obeying their regulations regarding scientific experiment.  We meet him as he is making a daring (read:  outlandish) escape.  Anyway, out of the frying pan and into the fire…. Jim Hunt finds himself in the middle of a rural community which is under the control of vampiric aliens.  Of course Jim recognizes what is going on and can fight against it – he was a scientist who worked specifically in the area of thought-transmission. How convenient.

Leinster does a pretty blunt job of showing how man can be enslaved/hampered by others, by himself, etc.  Leinster compares the concept of safety with the concept of freedom.  This is a good novel for readers who want yet another story of thought-control and Big Brother.  Granted, this Big Brother seems less aggressive than other iterations – it is still willing to hand out Life Sentences for anyone who disobeys.  And disobedience to the aliens who are enslaving mankind is tantamount to death.  Still, obedience to the aliens generally results in death as well.

They had exactly one desire, to be warm and comfortable and fed.  That happy estate called for the enslavement of other creatures intelligent enough to provide warmth and comfort and food.  Actually, the Things had only one technique and one trick, but the combination was deadly. . . . . When desire to serve the Things became a passion as sincere and unreasoning as patriotism, their victims set joyously about the enslavement of their fellow men.  They schemed for it.  They planned for it.  They devised far-reaching and beautifully planned campaigns to bring it about. . . . . But of course a man in a state of inner exaltation is not so good a workman, and there is a find edge gone from his perceptions because he is lost in his contentment.  – pg. 74, Chapter 11

This sort of narrative gets repetitive.  Leinster re-explains the situation over and over again throughout the novel.  Readers will not miss what is happening.  It gets tedious.  However, to his credit, Leinster does attempt to provide some background and expansion of the “science” in the story.  I am not saying that the science is always true and valid, nor am I saying that he follows it all the way to its conclusion.  But it is nice to know he makes an attempt to make some of these things “realistic.”  Still, the reader will get really tired of being told how the aliens just want to eat and be warm.

Of course, epistemologically there is trouble.  How is immaterial thought affected by material substance (iron, in particular).  Are thoughts “fields”? Electrical waves/fields?  As I said, Leinster’s “science” is best read lightly and kindly.  At least he doesn’t just ignore it.

Also, it is worth mentioning that Leinster clearly wants us to see that mankind requires a restlessness and drive in order to succeed and make progress.  Challenge, struggle, and striving are key components to mankind’s advance.  When mankind is content he is lethargic and stagnant. Good moral lesson there.

3 stars

The View From The Stars

The View From the Stars - Walter M. Miller, jr. - Ballantine; 1965

The View From the Stars – Walter M. Miller, jr. – Ballantine; 1965

The View From The Stars by Walter M. Miller, jr. (1923 – 1996) was first published in 1965.  It is a collection of nine short stories all previously published in a variety of genre-related publications.  This is his second published collection of short stories.  I read his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz and was impressed, but not tremendously so.

If I knew nothing of the author besides what I read in this collection, I would not be surprised if/when you tell me that the author committed suicide.  It is clear to me he was “unsettled” even from these writings.  I think he took his life after his wife passed away.  But allegedly he suffered depression or PTSD, or something. Well, also allegedly he was a USAF bomber who wrecked Monte Cassino…. so I just cannot conjure any sympathy for him.  Nevertheless, one of the striking tones that I found in this collection was a depressed and heavy one.  Like most good science fiction, Miller asks significant questions about mankind and existence and the future.  He examines mankind’s role in the universe in a number of scenarios.  Somehow, though, there is also an added heaviness that pervades all of these stories.  Miller is not a happy guy.

  • You Triflin’ Skunk (1955)
  • The Will (1954)
  • Anybody Else Like Me (1952)
  • Crucifixus Etiam (1953)
  • I, Dreamer (1953)
  • Dumb Waiter (1952)
  • Blood Bank (1952)
  • Big Joe and the Nth Generation (1952)
  • The Big Hunger (1952)

These stories generally have the grim/dark element of destruction (either individually or on a broad scale) running through them.  They are not “uplifting” stories, really.  There is a hefty dose of destruction in most of these stories and because of that I was not able to race through them.  It is not easy to read heavy material.  However, there is a lot more going on than just a darker feeling.  Throughout all of the stories is a persistent awareness, questioning, and allusion to religion.  Miller is not an irreligious or blasphemous person in these stories.  Nevertheless, he does strongly demonstrate his difficulty with creation of man by the Divine.  In many stories there is a reference to man having descended directly from ape.  There are often comparisons between man and ape.

But Miller also examines mankind’s relationship with technology.  Does tech rule man or man rule tech?  What is the value of tech? Can man appreciate that value?  Is tech to be feared?  What about man’s misuse of technology? There are also places whereat he seems to gently pit technology against religion, just to see what happens.

You Triflin’ Skunk – 4 stars – this was my second favorite story in the book.  It is very Southern.  But its also got this dark humor which is good for late-night reading.  I got a kick out of this one.  Miller is also displaying his writing skill; the tone is tense, the setting is excellent.  One feels pity for the characters and I really enjoyed the ending.

The Will – 2 stars – this was my least favorite in the book.  This one contains a solid dose of misery and depression.  Despite, I think, its effort at being futuristic and hopeful.  I don’t really like reading about dying kids.

Anybody Else Like Me – 2 stars – this story is creative and has a developed suspense factor.  However, I feel like the creativity is stifled a bit by a somewhat unrelateable plot.  I just wanted more out of the story.  The main character did not evoke any sort of sympathy or interest. But I am no fan of such characters…

Crucifixus Etiam – 3 stars – dismal, heavy, sad.  Here Miller really wrestles with the concepts of sacrifice, the future of mankind, and planet colonization.  Miller asks if the value of goals changes based on its proximity.  There are a number of stories in this ilk that come from the 1950s star science fiction writers.  However, while this one really makes strong and painful points, it is a heavy read tinged with vague hopelessness.

I, Dreamer – 3 stars – This story is the most dark and dismal of the bunch.  This is really a heavy and shocking read.  It is also exceedingly well-written – poetic and artistic.  Unfortunately, there is the same sad and hopeless feeling as in some of the other stories – though here it is amped up.  I really think the writing level is excellent, but I do not think I can give this to many people to read. If anything, this is a story that will stick with me for awhile.

Dumb Waiter – 4 stars – This is my favorite story in the book (and probably most readers’ favorite).  It has a very nicely done post-apocalyptic urban/technological story.  Math, logic, survival skills all play a role.  In places, the tone is as relentless and ruthless as the characters need to be in order to survive.  This story is edgy, as they say; gritty.  I love anything with robots and computers, of course.  But there is one small section that is weird and disturbing. (Hello, why didn’t someone send Miller to a shrink in 1952?)  but that can be omitted without loss to the story.

Blood Bank – 3 stars – this is a good story, that might even be great.  Here we have the only real “adventure” story in the collection.  But even so, this is not mere pulp.  Miller uses it to ask any number of questions about evolution, nature, ethical motives, intergalactic politics, and military “virtue.”  There is an excellent level of cultural awareness.  However, the ending is rather spare and there are places where the story meanders a bit from its main path. Don’t worry, here too is a level of shock and misery.

Big Joe and the Nth Generation – 4 stars – this story is really creative, interesting, and technological.  There is a lot of suspense and the story really resonates with the reader.  It is like Indiana Jones meets John Carter, I think.  “What is a technologist?” – is asked, which is a question that really runs through this whole collection, but only actually voiced here.  Once again, elements of sacrifice, religion, and future planet-forming are touched upon.

The Big Hunger – 2 stars – This story did not really do much for me.  Maybe because it was predictable – it isn’t so much of a story as a rumination on mankind’s predictability.  History is cyclic and repeating.  Man is ambitious and stubborn.  Man has come from apes.  And mainly:  what does technology “think” of man?  I feel like this has been done in a more interesting way plenty of times – but maybe not with this artistic writing?  I get what Miller is doing here, but I just found it droll and preachy.

Therefore, definitely read Dumb Waiter and Big Joe and the Nth Generation.  If you still want more, read You Triflin’ Skunk.  Other than that, this is somewhat too dismal for me to recommend openly to all.

3 stars

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

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