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

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Clans of the Alphane Moon - PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon – PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon is the seventh novel that I have read by Philip K. Dick.  The first I read was Valis – and I was totally unsure what to make of it, except a strong inclination that it was quite good.  It stuck with me for awhile after I finished it.  The next five books were a bit easier to digest, but they challenged me as to rating them.  They are very good, but also had some not good elements to them.  I gave most of them three stars for a rating.  PKD has become, for me, a very difficult author to rate.  His novels are not like any other novels.  PKD novels stand on their own, so I do not think I can compare them with anything else.  However, after I finished this novel, I immediately knew what I would rate it. It is definitely five stars.

There are three main points I want to state in this review and that readers of this review should take away from my commentary.  First:  this novel was the most science fiction-y of all the 7 PKD novels I’ve read.  Second (and perhaps very related to the first):   this novel was the most exciting and adventurous as well.  Third:  this novel really seems like it contains more PKD than the others.  More honest, open, and present PKD than in the other novels.  That’s rather impressive considering how close some of the later novels come to being semi-autobiographical. I think that while Valis is very revealing, it is also far darker and somber.  This novel gives us a lighter PKD with hope still in his heart.

The novel started off a little blah for me – interpersonal marital relationship dispute is not of interest to me.  And very quickly I decided I disliked the main character’s ex-wife.  She really is a harridan.  She really got my goat, as the saying goes.  But then, too, Chuck was toxic.  He seemed so spineless and droll.  His misery was just as bad as his ex-wife’s hostility.

But then things got quickly complex.  And then there were aliens – intriguing and interesting aliens.  Psi-aliens.  Aliens with neat “powers.”  But of course, there was this jerk in the TV entertainment industry who was involved in the storyline and was mucking things up for Chuck and his already wretched life. Luckily, Chuck has this police officer friend who can turn back time – but no more than fifteen minutes.

Be sensitive to the scenes and situations in this novel and you can practically feel what PKD was thinking or feeling as he was writing them…. or as he lived them.  It is slightly creepy, very intriguing, and shockingly real feeling.

I particularly appreciate the ethical questions that roll through the story.  There is not a heavy-handed pounding on the reader – the morality story is just there and the reader may participate or not as they choose.  I like that PKD does not feel the need to preach or argue – he presents unique and sometimes convoluted scenarios and then merely asks:  now what?

It was first published in 1964.  In June of 2014, a contributor to The Guardian wrote an article which mentions this novel by PKD.  The author of the article (Sandra Newman) seems to think she is praising the slack, hackneyed, works of the era.  She lumps this novel by PKD in with a few others, commenting that these novels are quick and dirty and certainly not high literature – but that they are really satisfying and unbeatable.  Frankly, I think her comments backfire on her. I do not think her so-called classification is valid.  I do not think this is just “typical of the times” in which it was written.  Also, I think her article bespeaks a very superficial read.

If this was the only PKD novel I had read, I might still give it four stars.  I would not appreciate it like I do or feel that I have as good of an understanding of PKD qua PKD if I had not read six other of his novels.  I was never a rabid PKD fan.  I just know there’s more going on here than a “wild west / beam-me-up” science fiction adventure.  If you don’t think a moon colony composed of former groups of mentally ill people has anything considerable to offer, well, you probably don’t have much of an imagination.

Yes.  The key location in this novel is a moon in the Alpha Centuri system.  An alphane moon, if you will.  At one time it was a mental institution of Terrans (Earth-folk), but for the last 25+ years it has become an autonomous, individual “colony” with each mental illness group forming their own society.  These clans then work together (tentatively, but still necessarily) to govern the planet.  And now Terra wants her moon back.  But there’s more politics in the mix.  The aliens with which Terra recently fought a war want this moon, too.  PKD’s playing with the concepts of mental illness is fascinating.  He clearly has an interest in the topic and he uses this concept in his novel without disdain or babble. He handles it perfectly – a seamless element in the novel.

PKD is also at his funniest.  For example:  the slime mold Lord Running Clam (who possesses St. Paul’s caritas).  In chapter 12 when Hentman and Chuck mix up Paraclete and parakeet – I laughed out loud.  Its really funny. And its really PKD.

5 stars

The Journey to The End of The Night

The Journey to the End of the Night - L-F Céline.

The Journey to the End of the Night – L-F Céline.

Finally I finished reading this infamous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961).   The Journey to the End of the Night was first published in 1932 in French.  I think I got this book sometime in the spring/early-summer of 2013.  I started reading it then, but I just completed it now.  I think, though I’m uncertain about this, that I actually re-started it from the beginning somewhere in that timeline.  Needless to say, this was a long slog through murky waters.

A bit about L-F Céline:  this is his penname, derived from his grandmother’s name.  His real name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.  There’s plenty of photos of him as a handsome young fellow who turns into a smirking middle-aged chap, and finally a cantankerous looking old man. He had a diverse life, working in jewelry shops, as a sergeant in the military, as a writer, and a physician.  He traveled extensively.  In fact, one wishes that Céline just wrote an honest autobiography instead of hiding behind characters.  But one cannot trust Céline – he embellishes and he clearly knows how to slip away, around, and under.  He is world-wise and absolutely not simple.  On the other hand, of all the things I would think of as compatible employment for his personality, medicine is not one of them.  Oddly incongruous.

Céline has this bizarre fascination, though, with the worst and/or lowest of society.  Not, please, like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi; but in some morbid, weird way he is drawn to them.  This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical.  I feel like that statement is misleading. It seems somewhat difficult to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins and vice versa.  The main character, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a timeline very much like Céline’s own.  The locations and some of the stories change a bit, I think, but overall, this is Céline ripping loose through the guise of a fictional character – loosely fictional.

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion.  Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of.  Escape is good enough for the wise. – pg. 102

The first half of this novel is actually quite engaging and well-written.  It is a bit grumpy, let’s say, but it still contains that flavor of gullibility or goofiness in the narrator.  Bardamu really seems to go wherever the current takes him and does not seem to do a lot to help himself.  Generally, the situations and places in which he finds himself are coincidence and fate, but he never seems surprised about it.  He makes bad choices and from the start of the novel we learn that his vices control him.  Nevertheless, there is an adventurous and almost exciting thrill to following Baradmu’s overseas adventures.

The street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world. – pg. 166

Nothing in the first half of the novel is worthy of the shock and raving that people heap on this novel.  It’s pessimistic and there is sex and violence.  But it is all relatively literary.

The second half of the novel is where all the misanthropic, nihilistic, savage criticism, and shock appear at full strength.  Even so, this is 2014 where there exist TV shows like True Blood, Dexter, and Spartacus.  The 50 Shades of whatever also has been dumped into society like a burst-sewer.  So, it is actually a case of society outgrowing even Céline’s vicious writing.  It is somewhat shocking to read how extreme Céline/Bardamu think and act, however it is not special or unique to someone in 2014 who lives with the extremes we find in contemporary media. That fact makes me a bit dismayed.

It was true what she’d said about my having changed, I couldn’t deny it.  Life twists you and squashes your face.  It had squashed her face too, but less so.  It’s no joke being poor.  Poverty is a giant, it uses your face like a mop to clear away the world’s garbage.  There’s plenty left. – pg. 187

What makes Céline’s style of ribald nihilism so fascinating (even this many years later) is that he writes it with such literary style and double-edged wit.  Céline, himself, and therefore Bardamu, are not dumb.  These are not bumbling idiots writing out strings of vulgarities just because they want to zap us.  Céline actually writes with skill and the vulgarities are just part and parcel of it.

The thing is, roughly around page 300 (around La Garenne-Rancy scenes), I felt the novel change.  Not only did Bardamu stop having international adventures, but the tone became much more vicious and dark.  There seemed to be more vulgarity and more despondency.  To put it bluntly:  Bardamu wasn’t very entertaining anymore and any interest or sympathy I had as a reader was now gone.  The storyline and the characters had become tedious. Dare I say, before the events at the insane asylum, I was even bored with the storyline. It was a struggle to get through the last 150 pages of this novel.  The famous “ellipses” one hears about Céline’s writing are present in this novel – though less so in the first half.  The second half ramps up those – another sign of how the novel degrades.

Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.  Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult.  Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow.  On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state – that’s the unconscionable torture. – 291

I really don’t know what to say about most of the characters in this novel – especially Robinson.  I feel like all the characters in this novel are immature and juvenile – as if they really never ever “grew up.”  And so, the last 25 pages or so, which heavily involve Robinson, were tedious and droll.  Yeah, yeah, we could read this existentially, or in terms of the nihilism, or in any other sorts of filters – but if we are being honest and not just trying to impress others – the novel is good, but it isn’t great. And its just not that shocking anymore. Or maybe I am just as miserable and jaded as Céline.

Interiors are no good.  As soon as a door closes on a man, he begins to smell and everything he has on him smells too.  Body and soul, he deteriorates.  He rots.  It serves us right if people stink.  We should have looked after them.  We should have taken them out, evicted them, exposed them to the air.  All things that stink are indoors, they preen themselves, but they stink all the same. – 308

Overall, I am between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating for this novel.  Nothing else is like it – and if there might be something like it, it is not as good as this.  And it probably owes a debt to this.  Nevertheless, I cannot lie and say that the second half of the novel was on par with the first.  That’s tricky, because is that like saying Céline’s second half of life was not as “entertaining” as the first part? Hence the difficulty with this so-called semi-autobiographical label.  I’m going to give it 4-stars, though, because I do think it will remain in my brain for quite some time for mulling and pondering and comparison.  Plus, Céline is so quotable!

4 stars

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

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

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