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

Marooned On Mars

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

Vintage Science Fiction Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

The Languages of Pao

The Languages of Pao – Jack Vance; ACE; 1958

The Languages of Pao is one of Jack Vance’s earlier works, published in 1958.  It is the third Vance novel that I have read, and probably the best so far.  I really enjoyed this novel and am going to give it a high rating.  However, I can see where some readers may not fancy this sort of novel.

This is science fiction for smart people.  In other words, it takes a bit of aptitude to read this and enjoy it for what it is.  If a reader comes to this novel thinking it is something else, they will be aggravated.  The Languages of Pao is not an action novel.  There are, really, only three characters in the novel.  Reader who are used to “growing up with” characters who reside in 10-tome epic fantasies, may find these characters underdeveloped.  I would disagree; they are just not rendered with tedious detail.  Finally, this novel only has the smallest amount of scientific detail.  So, readers who are used to high-tech, mecha stuff might be disappointed.

There is a concept that Vance utilizes in this novel that provides the overarching theme.  Wikipedia proudly proclaims this the linguistic Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.  This particular “hypothesis” was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Franz Boas, and Edward Sapir.  I cannot speak for how familiar our author was regarding these linguistic theories.  I, frankly, am not too familiar with them, although I’ve run across the names of these fellows plenty; particularly in philosophy of language and anthropology.  Humboldt generally comes up in reference to political philosophy.

Anyway, you may be chomping at the bit for me to explain what this Sapir-Whorf concept is.  Well, I’m not going to.  Because that’s what Vance’s book does.  On the planet Pao with main character Beran Panasper.  Let me then, simply, boil this whole thing down to one question:   “What role does language (organic or artificial) play in a social group’s understanding of reality? In other words, how does it shape their lives, nation, and outlook?”

It is okay to admit that the above paragraphs bored you to tears and you have already decided this novel is not for you.  However, understand that Vance is dealing with that linguistic question by working in the science fiction genre.  So, Vance selects three main facets of society (represented by the Paonese, the Breakness, and the Brumbos) to cause havoc on the planet Pao.  All of this gets situated within the political scheming/intrigue of the ambitious characters.  It is like Dune – without all of the sandworms, blue-eyes, and crazy witches.  But nevertheless, I see a lot of parallels between the two novels.  And the “villain” is not really a bad guy from all perspectives.  Plus, he’s the one that comes with the neat “modifications” – (surgical enhancements to his person).

I love Vance’s use of vocabulary.  I appreciate how he works with a linguistic concept without making his novel overlong or bludgeoning the reader (Mieville, looking at you, son).  I neither loved nor hated the characters, but I was interested to see what happened.  And maybe this is not the most exciting read in science fiction, but it surely is one of the more intelligent and well-written.  The only complaint is that it seems set up too artificially, almost as a too-carefully controlled experiment.  But on the other hand, what author doesn’t do this?

5 stars

It Walks By Night

It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr; Avon

It Walks by Night was first published in 1930 by John Dickson Carr (1906 – 1977).  Carr also wrote under a number of pen names including Carter Dickson.  This novel is likely one of his first (if not his first) published novels.  It is also the first in the novel series starring detective/magistrate Henri Bencolin.

I read this novel in the end of October and beginning of November while traveling.  This means it saw use in the car and in hotel rooms.  Strangely, it was a fast read – but still took too long for its mere 176 pages.  That’s my copy in the picture – the Avon 1970 edition.  Avon published a number of mystery/thrillers in this same cover design (which I think is hideous).

My first impression after reading this novel is that it is such an oddly written novel.  At several points I felt that it was not a very good novel.  However, there are other parts where the writing is really quite impressive.  So, I guess if this is such an early work by Carr, one hopes he improved.  Not that this is a bad novel – but there are sections that are not where one wishes they were.

This is a locked-room mystery, although I did not love the resolution.  The setup up is quite interesting.  The story is told from the perspective of Jeff Marle (though you would miss this name if you were not specifically watching for it).  For some reason, Henri Bencolin decides to have an audience to “help him” solve the murder.  So, we are just stuffed with a few characters for the sake of characters. (Dr. Hugo Grafenstein is one such.)  The Duc de Saligny has been murdered in a “locked-room” at a nightclub.

I say this is an odd, odd little book for a number of reasons.  One, I feel Bencolin is patterned a little on Sherlock and Poirot (aren’t they all?) but we really do not know much about him.  In fact, though he’s the mastermind and brilliant detective, he mainly feels like a supporting character.  Two, there are long chapters which involve the romantic (not erotic) evenings of Marle.  And perhaps this is to setup a false lead for the reader, or maybe for the reader to get to know Marle.  Either way, it seems just very odd.  In fact a number of characters in this story are just odd.  If you read about this story in the news, it would definitely be one of those “wow, weird things go on in our town” news items.

Marle is prone to mentally breaking into poetry or song when the moment strikes him.  It is somewhat disjointed when it happens.  Again, is this to show that Marle is a cultured chap?  Or is he really suffering A.D.D. or what?  Anyway, I did not really know the referent for most of these poems/songs.  However, the references to Poe I managed to catch! See, I’m not senile, yet!

But there are whole passages where Carr displays that rare, old-fashioned classic style of writing that blends beauty and wit.  And these are really good passages.  Carr cannot consistently keep this up, though, and there are also long sections which are not expertly written. At one point it seemed we had totally forgotten the actual murder and had moved into a different storyline. Also, it ends really abruptly and oddly, too.  Certainly not a drawn out ending.

In the words of Marle, there is a particularly fun line in chapter ten:

Now the moment anybody mentions the word “Victorian,”  you can take it for granted that the conversation is going to become artificial, and that the person who says it is avoiding all pretensions to frank discourse.

Surprising lines like that make this book easier to read than maybe it should be.  It is sometimes confusing (lots of characters) and sometimes tedious (why did we spend three chapters with this?), but it does have a unique feel and a dose of charm that make it worthwhile.  I would not recommend this novel for everyone.  I think there are “better” mysteries out there.  However, if you want to read something that is older and classic, without reading Agatha, then this is one for you.  I do intend to read more by this author, though he’s a bit of a pain to find around.

3 stars

Death of a Dissident

Death of a Dissident – Stuart M. Kaminsky; Ivy Books; 1989

Today I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

The Crossroads of Time

The Crossroads of Time – Andre Norton; ACE 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & Espionage – Gail Carriger; 2013

Continuing in my efforts to read “fun/light” things, I finished Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage.  This is a young-adult novel published in early 2013.  It is the first novel in the Finishing School series. Overall, I really think the concept is good.  I like the idea of a “finishing school” that is actually an espionage school – yet does not neglect the etiquette part of the schooling.  I think that Carriger is a witty and insightful author – and more than anything, she hands-down knows her subject and background. 

Carriger is the pen-name of Tofa Borregaard.  She has several academic degrees and writes novels.  She also seems to dress the part – as she dabbles in history and fashion of the (what seems to be) Victorian era.  In all cases, she has a charming smile and seems to do well with fans. I read the first novel in her first series (Parasol Protectorate) and enjoyed it.  I found it humorous and entertaining. 

I like the main character in Etiquette & Espionage.  I also like the supporting characters.  There’s a good variety of different characters which suit the storyline.  Carriger even includes some of the vampire/werewolf items which now seem mandatory in all young adult books.  Thankfully, these characters are not written in the same way as in other books.  The focus is on the humans and their adventures.  Also, no one sparkled (except a young lass at the school named Dimity, who really loves jewelry).

The characters are charming.  The story starts off wonderfully, immediately capturing the reader’s interest.  The main character, Sophronia Temminnick, is an astute and sharp character.  She is a hassle to her socialite family, and her mother is pleased that a finishing school is interested in taking Sophronia off of her hands and perhaps turning her into a calm and reasonable young woman.  Sophronia, of course, is not completely thrilled with the idea of finishing school, but she is not exactly overwhelmed with freedom and fun at home. 

Naturally, when Sophronia arrives at the finishing school she does not fit in.  She is too rugged and wild.  But her smarts get her through and she manages to win over the hearts of several of the other girls at the school.  As well as make a few enemies. And, as the storyline progresses, Sophronia learns to enjoy the espionage she is studying and she also is gradually learning social graces and etiquette, as well.

All of that is very fine and good.  However, the whole finishing school is a dirigible that floats over Dartmoor.  There are mechanimals – steam-powered animals and mechmaids and mechbutlers – which are steam-powered robots that clean and work on board the dirigible.  I know that this series is set in the same overall world as the Parasol Protectorate.  So, I supposed it must include a variety of the same things.  But, honestly, I feel like the Steampunk stuff actually did not help the story.  I, frankly, would have enjoyed the concept if we left out most, if not all, of the steampunk stuff.  Maybe that’s just because I am a cantankerous philosopher, but I still think the idea is good – but it was slightly overworked for this novel.

Just a mention of the cover – I like it.  It does look “girly,” but it also has an element to it that makes you wonder what this book is about. I bet I will be reading the second installment when that is released.

3 stars

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