Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars

Citizen in Space

Citizen in Space – Robert Sheckley; Ballantine, 1955; cover art: Richard Powers

I finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars

A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was first published in serial form in 1912.  It was published as a complete work in book form in 1917.  I read this in 2014 – so quite some time after it was first released.  I feel like between 1912 and 2014 several generations of humans have read and reviewed and commented on this work.  Allegedly, it influenced a whole slew of authors and writings.  So, what could I add to all that has been said already?  Whatever could be said, has most likely already been said.

I read this book in several formats:  on my Kindle, in an omnibus, and in a single-copy format. Whichever format was closest at hand, I picked up and read.  There have been heaps of editions for this novel. I think the most famous are the Michael Whelan and the Frank Frazetta covers.  The digital copy that I read included the original 1917 cover art.

This novel is quite full of action and adventure – bursting with it, really, to the point where, as a reader, I was exhausted with the non-stop action.  However, in the first quarter of the novel, there is a good deal more speculation and the story has a drop’s worth more explanation than the last chunk.  For example, in chapter one (On the Arizona Hills), our intrepid hero John Carter shares with us:

My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes.  However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.

I think that little quote from early in the novel basically sums up John Carter’s personality and worldview – and therefore explains all of his actions and choices henceforth.  I think there are about a dozen ways to interpret this personality.  Impulsive and rash are examples of an unflattering interpretation.  I think this blends, though, with Carter’s odd and extreme “love” for Dejah Thoris.  It is love at first sight with these two. Perhaps the love is born of some overprotective masculine view of a “damsel in distress,” but it seems to morph into some Helen of Troy for whom a thousand ships are launched scenario.  After all, we are told – repeatedly – there is nothing that Carter won’t do for his beloved Dejah.  This love element is believable and honest.  But after awhile, by chapter 20 or so, it gets tedious and I started to think:  “Hey dude, seriously, this chick is not worth all this.”   What is so great about Dejah?  She is a hot babe.  And she’s a princess. Other than that, she’s pretty dull and pathetic.  Carter kind of agrees with this, too. After all in chapter eleven he is conversing with her and after she shares her opinion he thinks:

It was good logic, good, earthly, feminine logic, and if it satisfied her I certainly could pick no flaws in it.

Feminine logic. Which is not really logic at all, is it? It’s basically belief/emotion. Certainly not rational and scientific.  Now, let’s not be too picayune, but do compare this comment to the earlier quote wherein Carter admits that his is a rash and impulsive mind – not given to “tiresome mental processes.”  Maybe he just really bonds with this “feminine logic” stuff?  Don’t tell him I said that, he is an indefatigable swordsman!

In chapter sixteen we are given another gem of Carter’s savvy ways with women:

I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men.  The weakling and the saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

And there you have it. . . .

Well, the reason I mentioned most of this is because this romance is actually the motive and driving force of the plot.  Not, believe it or not, the thirst for survival or the desire to return to Earth.  Carter is perfectly thrilled to stay on Mars forever – as long as he has his Dejah Thoris. So, I guess it’s a decent idea to understand the motives for this whole thing.

A Princess of Mars – E. R. B.; cover art: F. Frazetta

The action in the book is non-stop.  It reads like the most action-filled comic book, just one scenario after another involving magnificent feats of daring, physical ability, and bravery.  Climbing, flying, chasing, running, swordsmanship, jumping, etc.  John Carter is beyond Olympian-level awesome at everything.  I think I got a bit tired toward the end – back and forth among tribes and warriors, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t know; I feel like Burroughs probably spent more time on the first half of the book than the second.  Nevertheless, it is easy to see how this novel lends itself to live-action film. And it is typical of pulp-adventure stories, so the amount of action is not surprising. But the interesting facets, peppering the novel during Carter’s exploits, are cool – and could easily draw in a reader who is searching for imaginative science fiction.  For example, the Atmosphere Machine. I need more about that.

Anyway, I intend to read the next in the series – eventually. No hurry here.

4 stars

Lockdown

Lockdown – Alexander Gordon Smith

Waiting for my vintage science fiction treats to arrive from various destinations, I ran through a young adult novel that was purchased awhile ago – on sale.  Lockdown by Alexander Gordon Smith was first published in the UK in 2009.  I read the tradeback US version.  I love squeezing in “easier” reads between complex “literary fiction” and vintage science fiction.  It lets the brain rpm’s cycle down and I do not get bored.  I was actually really looking forward to reading this particular novel for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I have noticed a trend that the majority of what is classified as “young adult” is really geared toward and marketed to young females.  Now, I know that historically, females were marginalized in science fiction/fantasy.  They were the busty pseudo-Renaissance characters on fantasy novel covers or simply walking, talking baby-manufacturers in science fiction novels.  Some novels did not even have a female character at all – not even as a secretary or a receptionist! Imagine! [sarcasm, people!]  Anyway, the thing is, the reverse reaction seemed to be shoving the example of “strong, independent, non-conformist female” at the reader.  So:  The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.  It’s almost too obvious and too overdone to be effective.  But I do think it appeals to the young female reader. Lockdown, however, has no female characters!

Second, there is still the romance element, which quite destroys the efforts to create the “strong, independent, non-conformist female” character.  No matter how good an archer she is or how brave she might be, the female main character still has to have a romantic scenario to deal with.  Which is drearily because of female authors writing female characters. There isn’t a stitch of romance in Lockdown.  The male author wrote an all-male cast sans romance.

So, if we want to call these things “young adult” – let’s admit that the majority are for young women and there is not actually all that much that would appeal to a male audience.  Now, sure, young men might want to read about “strong, independent, non-conformist female” characters and also a romantic scenario. However, Katniss and Triss can share the limelight with Bob and Jim, right?

http://www.escapefromfurnace.com/#/home

Lockdown has no female characters. Lockdown is exceedingly graphic and uses a lot of disturbing imagery.  Events are not “delicate” and “sensitive.”  After all, it is a prison named Furnace – it isn’t supposed to be a rose garden.  Nevertheless, there is emotion and morality and stuff like that – we don’t just have a pulp action novel here.  There is depth here, which is a bit surprising.  The characters cry. They react.  They have emotions – they are not rigid, wooden bots.  However, this is a story that is not for the faint of heart.

Which is the only bad thing about this novel:  it is quite graphic and scary.  As I read I was trying to imagine being a 14-year old reading this.  I can see some parents (and even some kids) not wanting this to be read.  It is not really a question of sheltering/over-protective, but rather, once an image is in the brain, it doesn’t always just fade away.  And some of the images in here are a bit rough.

The story, though, is interesting and I love all the characters.  Very realistic characters, with real-world reactions and opinions.  A dash of sarcasm and wit.  A definite depth in the exploration of actions-consequences and morality.  It is all a bit predictable (after all, only so much can happen in prison), but being predictable does not mean the story is bad.  I want to read the next book (and probably the rest of the series) because this first novel does not complete the tale, so to speak, and ends with a lot left hanging.

4 stars

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness – Dorothy L. Sayers; Harper & Row; 1987

Clouds of Witness is the second Lord Peter Whimsey mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers.  It was first published in 1926.  It is also the second novel that I have read in the series.  Once again, I am pleased by the effort and absolutely love the main character.

There is a whole lot that appeals to me in this novel, much of it the same as with the first novel.  I continually see similarities between Whimsey and myself.  He and I have that 100-mph mannerism that just can make the most boring story (a murder at a lodge on the moors) an exciting and interesting caper. And Bunter – dear, wonderful Bunter – is once again the epitome of perfect manservant.

The other characters in the novel are interesting as well.  The reader is allowed to come onto this property on the moors and associate with several members of the Whimsey family.  We get to know a lot more about Peter’s sister, Mary, and their brother Gerald.  Gerald, by the way, is the accused in this murder mystery!  We also learn that Gerald is not as droll as we had originally thought!

In this novel, Sayers both supports and mocks the peerage.  There are discussions on “the working man” versus the gentry.  We hear from a variety of people regarding this manner and are witness to the spectacle that comes from accusing the Duke of Denver of murder.  Sayers pokes fun at the pomp and circumstance and yet also shows an astute respect and caring toward the lordships.  It is definitely a novel that readers fond of Great Britain’s “houses” won’t mind reading.

Sayers’ ability to manage the characters and plot while also turning a phrase, providing misdirections, and giving subtle and witty amusements is impressive.  It is one thing to write a good story, it is quite another to write one that also has little asides of humor and show brilliant wit.  There are several sections wherein I had to visibly grin while reading because it was so skillfully written.

Some people might find Lord Peter to be a bit unfocused or random.  They may even think he is unable to be serious – he often seems to derail, interrupt, or wonder aloud.  I know this frustrates people – because I tend to feel that frustration levied toward myself more often than not.  Like Peter, though, I have a loyal group of friends that join me on all of my adventures.  Peter’s biggest help in this novel (besides the indefatigable Bunter) is Charles Parker.  Parker and Whimsey begin by combing the grounds of the property looking for clues:

“Serve him glad,” said Lord peter viciously, straightening his back.  “I say, I don’t think the human frame is very thoughtfully constructed for this sleuth-hound business.  If one could go on all-fours, or had eyes in one’s knees, it would be a lot more practical.”   pg. 48, Chapter 3

I know that in this series, Lord Peter is supposed to “age naturally,” meaning, I think, that he doesn’t stay the same age for five novels and have 85 cases to solve per year.  Nevertheless, I have been unable to imagine him as more than in his late 30s. I know there have been some TV episodes, but I feel their portrayal is too elderly.  I don’t care what the chronology looks like – Peter is so youthful and energetic, he cannot be played by some grey-haired actor.

Doing more sleuthing, Whimsey is retelling part of the story to Parker, and Peter interrupts himself to ask Parker if he knows how to spell ipecacuanha.  Parker does:

“Damn you!”  said Lord Peter.  “I did think I’d stumped you that time.  I believe you went and looked it up beforehand.  No decent-minded person would know how to spell ipecacuanha out of his own head.”  pg. 103, Chapter 6

It really is not a stretch to hear myself saying those lines.  In Chapter 4, there is a small interchange between Peter and Bunter regarding Bunter’s mother – and it is priceless and amusing!  Whimsey surprised to learn that Bunter has one!  Nevertheless, though Peter surely aggravates the heck out of his friends, Chapter 12 demonstrates the loyalty and love his friends and family have for him.  And, honestly, even in dire circumstances, Peter still is sarcastic and obnoxious.  But in an almost self-effacing manner. Whew! Scary moments in that chapter! I am not any more endeared to moors having read this chapter.

With that instinct which prompts one, when depressed, to wallow in every circumstance of gloom, Peter leaned sadly upon the hurdles and abandoned himself to a variety of shallow considerations upon (1) the vanity of human wishes; (2) Mutability; (3) first love; (4) The decay of idealism; (5) the aftermath of the Great War; (6) birth-control; and (7) the fallacy of free-will. This was his nadir, however.

Our plucky hero picks up his spirits and trudges onward across this miserable moor.  I confess I probably have had my share of moments wherein I have paused in some mundane task to consider these kosmically heavy concepts.

The resolution for the mystery is given in the end chapters of the book during the court case.  Part of the storyline of this novel is that this trial involves a Duke.  So, of course, Sayers wants to show us the rigamarole of the court case involving the gentry.  I am just not a fan of courtroom dramas/stories/mysteries, etc.  Make no mistake:  these chapters are exceedingly well-written and are actually very entertaining.  I am just not a reader with patience for such things.

4 stars

Solar: Man of the Atom #1

Solar: Man of the Atom #1, Dynamite Comics; 2014

Doctor Solar has a new series.  Dynamite Comics just released the first issue in a series.  Here is a character that has had a long history – but without much fame and glory.  I believe he was created by Paul S. Newman and Matt Murphy in the 1960s for a comic series with the publisher Gold Key Comics.  I have no idea how I know of this pulp/vintage character.  It is a case of one of those things that I know without knowing exactly how I know.

I know that in 2010 Dark Horse Comics released a small series entitled Doctor Solar.  I think they only made it 8 issues – through design or low sales, I do not know why it ended.  This is not as bad as it seems – Solar’s original run with Gold Key Comics in the 1960s only ran about 30 issues.  But here we are in 2014 and now it seems the property has gone to Dynamite Comics (founded 2005).  If you glance at Dynamite’s title list, you will notice that the majority are franchises from TV or film. Or even books.  Nevertheless, I read nothing of the Dark Horse comics series – so when I saw Solar #1 sitting on a shelf at my local comic book store I grabbed it.

I read it first – out of the large stack of comics that came home with me.

This issue displays the efforts of writer Frank H. Barbiere, artist Joe Bennett, colorist Lauren Affe, with cover artist Juan Doe (probably an alias, but why would you not take credit for this cover?).  I am a terrible sucker for (well, obviously, comic books) (1.) science fiction-esque covers/comics; (2.) vintage/pulp.  I really liked the cover Doe gave us for this issue and seeing Doctor Solar in his own title again definitely was the root cause of my spending $3.99.  Cover art does matter – it is not just something to glance at and cruise on past.

Solar #1, first page; Dynamite Comics

The first page is a keeper, as well, if you are science fiction addict. How can you see the cover, and then the first page, and then not be hooked?  One of the things that I like, generally, about this whole issue is the artwork and coloring.  It is really eye-catching and pleasing.  It works very well with the story.

Now, since I hardly recall any origin story for Doctor Solar, I cannot speak on this issue’s heritage or loyalty to the character.  I can say that the storyline here is worth reading, even if it does not seem incredibly unique.  I mean, a story in which there are estranged family members, ambitious, genius scientists, and rather dull bank robbers does not rank very highly in the annals of originality.  Nevertheless, I do not always need a first issue to be original – I do need it to have elements which will draw me back for issue #2.  That is definitely to be found here.  And so, I think the money was well spent.  It is rather difficult to say much else regarding the storyline – but if the art keeps up and the story progresses, I can see this being a safe monthly purchase.

4 stars

This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars

Wool

Wool – Hugh Howey; 2012

The Wool omnibus, which is what I read, is a little tricky to refer to because of its publishing history.  I think the majority of readers also read the omnibus edition.  The omnibus is a collection of five novelettes (which is a word I dislike, by the way) and was published in 2012.  Four of the included smaller “books” were first published in 2011.  Anyway, Wool by Hugh Howey is what is being reviewed here, as collected in the omnibus edition.

The reason some of the above publishing history is significant is because the original “book” forms the first 39 pages of the omnibus.  Overall, after reading this whole omnibus (a word I am already sick of typing), it feels like Howey really went somewhere different (and better) than wherever he may have been going in that first “book.”  Maybe not somewhere entirely different, but I feel like what was written in the second “book” is actually the starting point of the entire storyline.  In other words, the first “book” feels so much like background material, that perhaps I would not have entitled it “Wool,” but rather Prelude.

The second “book” is entitled Proper Gauge and for the most part it moves slowly as anything.  Many readers might abandon the book at this point – and I totally understand why.  It was a slight struggle for me, as well.  There’s one sentence where Howey describes one of the character’s walking stick getting stuck in the ridges of the stairs as they go down over 130 “stories” of stairs.  At points, the journey seems interminable and the reader does feel like they are actually on a Stairmaster or something.  The good thing about this – the reader does get a scope of the size of the environment that really drives home distances and effort.  Nevertheless, I think a few pages of this could have been whittled down without harm.

The novel is not written with the intellectual flair and ability of, say, Calvino or Nabokov.  This is not really high literature.  At it’s base, this is a survival-story told using good, solid writing.  The writing is quite good.  It just is not anything spectacular.  One of the things I did appreciate, repeatedly, was that the author does not utilize many cuss words. I think there are probably ten or twelve instances in the entire omnibus of “bad” words – and they are not all that “bad.”  It is refreshing and comforting to read an adult novel that does not feel the need to bludgeon the reader with foul language.  For that reason, sure, this novel can (more or less) be read by anyone of any age group.  Both of these points means that this novel has a wide audience.

I do not read many books in which the main character is a female.  So, for me, this was a somewhat unique read.  I liked the character; she is smart, strong, independent, and honest.  I feel like there were points where the author could have “overwritten” Juliette – and he refrained from doing so, avoided doing so, and therefore made a really decent character.

The ending is a bit abrupt. On one hand, after 500 pages, I did not think I wanted to read anymore. Not that the work is bad, but one cannot read a story infinitely.  On the other hand, the ending just kind of happens within four brief chapters and done.  And there is a lot left open for possibility – future novels/storylines and for imaginings of the reader.  I am a big proponent of not drawing out endings unnecessarily, but this makes this omnibus seem unbalanced – weighted heavily for the first two sections.

Now, many places categorize this novel as science fiction.  Frankly, I do not think this is science fiction. Again, this could start an endless dispute regarding the definition of genres and science fiction in particular.  Let’s just take some widely accepted view of the genre – aliens, robots, futuristic, lots of advanced science, space travel, etc. are all common ingredients in such a pie.  I don’t think Wool contains any of those.  This is just a survival story – a post-apocalyptic (although not perfectly detailed on what sort of apocalypse) story of human survival.  No aliens. No time travel.  No robots.  So, again, the readership on this one should be quite broad.

There is a basic “scenario” hinted at here.  The author does cause the reader to think about morality several times throughout this work.  The author does present to the reader two views of the situation that the humans survivors find themselves in.  There is a question of the “control of information” (which, by the way, is why I suspect many people think this is a dystopian novel).  However, nowhere does Howey bludgeon us, grind on us, or proselytize at us about these matters.  He tells us an entertaining story in which these are some of the elements of the story.

I have ordered the second omnibus in the Silo Series… I’m given to understand that it is not a direct storyline sequel.  That’s fine.  On the cover of my book (paperback) the author Justin Cronin writes a blurb saying “You will live in this world.”  I think that’s rather accurate.  For the majority of the book, I did feel connected to and entrenched in this world.  I did not have to struggle to imagine anything and I did not have to work to relate to the characters or scenery.

4 stars

Metropolis

Metropolis – Thea von Harbou; ACE

I read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1 – J. Lee, S. Snyder; DC Comics; 2013

Because we are nearing the end of the year and I have not done a comic book review in awhile, I figured it was time. Not to mention the INSANE backlog of comics stacked around the premises.  I would show you pictures, but I think it would terrify.  Anyway, I happily dove into the first issue of DC’s Superman Unchained title.  This issue starts a new series and was highly anticipated by readers.  Anything involving Superman generally makes news, however the excitement over this title comes from the creator team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee.  I think DC jumped onto these facts and slapped a $4.99 on the cover just to see if they could do it – i.e. how much value does Snyder/Lee have in terms of buyers?

The cover is nice.  You can tell immediately that it is Jim Lee’s work.  It features the New 52-style Superman (younger and updated costume) ripping through some sort of technological debris. Superman has a gritty look as opposed to the happy, accomplished look he tends to wear.  I really wonder, though, what DC was thinking with the “Unchained” part.  Is this some cool, youthful lingo?  You know, the dialect in which we would say “this is off the chain” or “no limits.”  But the thing is, the whole concept of Superman is that he is never chained.  He’s unchained, y’all…………

frame, Superman Unchained #1, J. Lee, S. Snyder, DC Comics; 2013

I really like the artwork in this issue.  It has frames from all points-of-view and angles.  I like the coloring – very colorful and sharply defined.  I always think of Jim Lee’s work as being high-definition and highly-sharpened.  Included in this issue (and perhaps to soften the price point) is a tagged-in four-fold “poster” that actually is part of the issue.  This fold-out section is part of the storyline – just the art needed an embiggened format to be shown.  Now, did it? Sure, I guess, maybe.  I am not real fond of gimmicks like this.  I found it a bit cumbersome to unseal, unfold, read, and then re-fold.  Overall, the Superman here is drawn with shadows, while frowning in concentration, with youth and almost a slightly dark feel.

The storyline is okay.  I think that Snyder has proven himself a very capable and interesting writer with his laudable work on the Batman title.  In this issue, there are included several pages of “interview” material with Snyder and Lee and he makes some comments regarding the differences and similarities between the characters Batman and Superman.  I do think Snyder will be writing us a Supes who is a bit heavier and grittier than those 1980s Superman characterizations. Anyway, the storyline is kind of vague.  Satellites are falling to Earth – Superman is reacting to this. Clark Kent and Superman (or do we speak of them as the same?) are “investigating” the situation.  A supposed-terrorist/crime group called Ascension is hinted at – the whole time all the characters tell us “it cannot be Ascension who did this.”  Of course, Superman’s go-to is Lex Luthor (who has a few frames which perfectly depict his arrogance.  There are some threads with Lois’ father and historical events (WWII).  Overall, Snyder is setting up a big storyline for us, so it’s too early to decipher much other than there are a few interesting elements here.

I am going to give this 4 out of 5 stars – for the art, for the seemingly bold direction Snyder is driving toward, and because this feels stronger than the Action Comics and Superman titles’ starts with the New 52.  I own issues #2 – 4, so I will have to see where this goes.  Still, at $4.99 I am not entirely sure all readers will feel they got their value.

4 stars

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