Eight Against Utopia

Eight Against Utopia - Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia – Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia is the first (I am reasonably certain) novel by Douglas R. Mason.  It was published in 1967 under this title.  A year prior, this novel was published under the title From Carthage Then I Came.  The cover art for my 1970 edition is by Dean Ellis.

This is not a well-written novel.  I mean this in several ways.  At the most basic – it’s not always coherent.  It is like an editor just hacked at it randomly – an editor who has not even read a chapter, but had some quota/word count and so he just chopped wherever.  The story suffers for this.  I do not need every detail written out for me, but there are times where I swear the pages must have stuck together and I missed something.  Besides that, the dialogue is horrendous.  Now, dialogue is one of the things I think are the most difficult to write.  But the work here is awful.  The few points where Mason attempts to use sarcasm or wit fall flat – because one actually thinks he might be serious.  Sometimes his “humor” is actually offensive and inappropriate. Most of the dialogue is written as if it were a bold sketch suggestion for actors who would then ad lib at their own discretion – no one would actually speak like this.

This is a very misogynistic/chauvinistic piece.  I grew up watching Archie Bunker and thinking hockey is the greatest sport on earth – so if the chauvinism is subtle and mild, I might miss it.  No worries here with this novel – it is big as day and bright and flashing in neon.  This is quite surprising because I did not expect this level.  I would expect this in any of those pulp 1940s/1950s “men’s novels.”  Sure, it’s common as water in those.  But I had assumed in Mason’s science fiction, the misogyny would not be at that level. Surprise.  And sure, we can say the novel is a bit dated (it’s not that old) and even so, a little chauvinism is a far cry from outright rude and barbaric thinking.  Much of this comes into play in the story when the male characters – in the middle of risking their lives, completing dangerous physical exertions, being sleep deprived, being chased, or applying themselves to intense intellectual scenarios – have to pause every time a skirt walks in the room.  And the “way” Mason describes these moments is just creepy and icky.  I’ll be honest:   at several points I would not have been surprised if suddenly Mason turned the storyline into some erotic fiction orgy.  Thankfully, that did not happen. Whew.

Finally, in terms of terrible writing, the most interesting part of the story is the situation in Carthage (the domed false-utopia).  But instead of developing this further, Mason’s storyline spends most of the book after the escape from the dome.  So, then it becomes a survival story. A wilderness chase.  And all of this is implausible and poorly written.  I wish that Mason had stuck with events in Carthage.  Having left Carthage, characters act like they have the physical and mental stamina of heroes of the Iliad.  It’s just not thought out.  And when Mason writes action scenes, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what is going on.  Even The Executioner series of men’s adventure/pulp manages to make action clear.  Mason fails spectacularly at all of these things.

It is a fast read, though. I read it quickly and it was still better than a few other terrible, horrible, awful novels I have been forced to read. (e.g. The Great Gatsby)  Also, I like some of the original concept of the storyline.  This is a copy of Big Brother in 1984, surely.  But I do not mind reading about this topic.  However, Mason has Big Brother (in this case, The President) somehow monitoring citizen’s emotions, vocal tones, inflections, and thoughts.  Well, this is interesting.  Or, it could be if it were fleshed out and developed and done by an author who actually understands anything about writing (including character development and dialogue).  I actually really want to take this kernel of idea and hand it to any other capable author and see what they can do with this concept.

Also, I do not think Mason has a concept of how long 7,000 years is and how much can happen in such a long time.  He needed to get with some historians and some sociologists et al.  Some items in the story seem plausible, others not at all. 7,000 years is significant. Anyway, don’t bother reading this slog.  It would only be good for those who have already read everything else and who can look past a whole lot of bad.

2 stars

The Brain Stealers

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

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

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

The Big Time

The Big Time – Fritz Leiber; ACE, 1982; cover art: Vincent Di Fate

I finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half.  I just sped through this book!  Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review:  this is not a book everyone can appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane.  You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades.  Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc.  However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!

The Big Time was first published in 1958.  I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore.  Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him.  He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman.  He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?).   The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write.  And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.

There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston.  Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book.  If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!

I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly.  Everything – every word – seems completely random.  It seem to start in media res, but who can tell?  And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath!  It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes.  Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels.  Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique.  But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.”  If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.

The characters number twelve.  Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book.  Greta is the main character and narrator.  She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me.  By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.

The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads:  This is war:  The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine.  The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time.  The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future.  The Change Winds are blowing.  Welcome to the Big Time.  And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare?  Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . .  But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”

As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war).  When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use?  What side do we wish we were on?  All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers.  So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!).  I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.

Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”).  And I started to care about the characters and the storyline.  Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.

Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently.  I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me.  It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6

Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness.  For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos.  She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress.  So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.

Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along.  Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character.  Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book:  a black glove from Chapter Two.  So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.

The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides.  Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side.  And each side has its own motives to consider.  There is tension and fighting and surprises.  Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery.  The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery.  The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta.  She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.

“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully.  They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb.  They had to write my private hell into the script.  – pg. 142, Chapter 14

The resolution is interesting and fun.  It also seems to work out alright for each character.  The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes.  I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about.  But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.

This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them.  And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war?  With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane.  This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity.  It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies.  If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book.  I loved this because I was both amused and impressed.  Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!

5 stars

The Explorers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

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