Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District - Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District – Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (1831 – 1895) is a major work that is often forgotten or ignored. The whole history of this work – and its derivatives – is controversial and shocking. Yet, what else could be expected from a story that showcases violence, love, ennui, sex, revenge, obsession, betrayal, and societal classes? What is at the heart of the story – money? Love? The story is shocking, disturbing, gripping, and wild. I maintain it is one of those stories that a reader either hates or loves, there’s no middle ground, and they never forget it once they read it (for better or worse).

In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. – Chapter 1

This story first appeared in the magazine Epoch in 1865. Epoch was a literary magazine published by Dostoyevsky; it featured chapbooks, articles, and serials in its short two-year span. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District has 15 short chapters and was likely titled to imitate Turgenev’s 1859 Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District.

The story then was the subject of a four-act opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was first performed in January of 1934. Here is where the most well-known controversy comes in. The opera was a success until it was attacked by an anonymous article in the Pravda. (Legend has it that the author was Stalin). Nevertheless, the opera was then banned in Russia by the Communist Party for thirty years and Shostakovich suffered the fallout for this condemnation/censorship.

In 1962, the story was made into a Polish film by Andrzej Wajda entitled: Siberian Lady Macbeth. Finally, in 1966, it was made into a Russian film by director Mikhail Shapiro: entitled Katerina Izmailova. It was an entrant (one of twenty-four) into the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

That is the bare bones history of this piece. The main character is Katerina Lvovna, who is dubbed the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She was born in the Kursk province and at age 23, married a merchant named Zinovy Borisych Ismailov. Zinovy is an averagely wealthy merchant who runs a mill. He is a widower. His previous marriage lasted twenty years and produced no offspring. At the property also resides Zinovy’s father, Boris Timofeich, and a variety of workers.

Katerina was born and raised in poverty, we are not told much directly, but compared to her new married life we assume she grew up in freedom and simplicity. The contrast here is relevant particularly to the time in which it was written. The existence of a raznochintsy social class (meaning: a variety of middle-class persons) is often overlooked in understanding Russian society. It is one aspect that Leskov, unlike other writers, focused on with great success. The manor in which she now lives is boring. Everything is strict, stark, clean, and business-like. Katerina spends the first five years of her marriage in boredom. She moves from room to room in the manor doing nothing.

Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom. . . she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up – again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house… Chapter 1

Zinovy eventually leaves on a business-trip. Katerina ventures out to the storehouses and stables. Here, she interacts with the workers and meets Sergei, a farmhand who has a reputation for being a womanizer. In chapter three, the sly Sergei has had his way with Katerina.

Boris finds out and has Sergei whipped mercilessly and locked up on the property. Katerina kills Boris in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 has a spare four paragraphs, but Leskov manages to show the abrupt change in Katerina. Or is it really a change at all? Perhaps Katerina has always been thus, as if her personality were behind a dam that has now cracked. This is my opinion, because Leskov begins chapter two by telling us:

In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailov’s mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible.

And compare this with the words of chapter 5, right after she poisons Boris and frees Sergei from his imprisonment:

Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side.

The rest of the story details Katerina’s chilling obsession with Sergei.  The two lovers kill Zinovy, after he confronts Katerina about her adultery.  Unlike so many stories with this theme, Katerina is brazen, daring, and fearless. The most disturbing and chilling part of the story, for me, was how Katerina coldly cleans up the blood from Zinovy’s murder.

Katerina Lvovna took the copper basin and the soapy sponge. – Chapter 8

The story proceeds further to include cruel murder of Katerina’s nephew. Sergei confesses and the two lovers are sentenced to prison.  Katerina’s obsession with Sergei continues, though he now finds her repugnant and disturbing. He often savagely taunts and menaces her.  He remains a womanizer in the prison convoy, although it is difficult to say if this is because it is in his nature, or if these actions are to spite Katerina.  Unlike a lot of Western stories, Katerina does not become melodramatic or overemotional.  Instead, Leskov tells us that the result of all of Sergei’s taunts has made Katerina emotionless.

Katerina lvovna, however, was by now offended by nothing.  Having wept out her tears, she turned to stone, and with a wooden calm prepared to go to the roll call. – Chapter 15

Katerina’s obsession once again drives her to a murder-suicide. This story is consistently shocking and brutal.  The characters are so much more realistic and human than many portrayals of such people. I think this is because Leskov spent much of his life around criminal investigators and criminal court offices.  Leskov’s brutal honesty in this story is what makes the story so good – it is upsettingly real and tragic.  After reading it, one should go back and re-read chapters and continue to ponder the story.  It is really well-done and though it is hardly a tale of good morals, the psychology and the characterizations are outstanding.  It will haunt readers.

4 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men - Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963.  Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men – Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963. Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1962.  I read the 1963 MacFadden paperback edition – the one with the Richard Powers artwork on the cover.  The first edition hardback by Doubleday has artwork by Lawrence Ratzkin.  Generally, I really like Powers’ work, but on this cover the pink hues are too aggravating. Or, mainly, it just looks dingy.  I do not usually discuss the cover art – I’m not qualified to discuss art, really – but the Doubleday is worth mentioning because it really works with the story and keeps the cover simple and interesting.  It is one of those covers that I would have no complaints about if it were expanded into a small poster and slapped on one of the walls in my house.

This is the second Simak novel that I have read; I still own a bunch of others to work through.  Similar to my thoughts on the other novel of his that I read, I think that They Walked Like Men has a whole lot going for it, but also a lot that just seems too lame and too simplistic.  However, regardless of how grumbly and critical we readers might be, Simak is a good author and should not be ignored or dismissed.  Simak is an above-average wordsmith and is capable of coming up with at least one solidly fascinating idea each novel.

The opening chapter introduces the main character – who will also be our first-person narrator – named Parker Graves. I really appreciate the interesting manner in which we meet Parker:  he is half-drunk and standing outside of his apartment door struggling with his keys.  This section is really well written and I really enjoyed reading it. It immediately brought the setting and characters to life. Simak presents a situation with such skill that most readers will read further just to find out what the heck is going on.

Somewhere in the tangled depths of the half-dark newsroom a copyboy was whistling – one of those high-pitched, jerky tunes that are no tunes at all.  I shuddered at the sound of it.  There was something that was almost obscene about someone whistling at this hour of the morning. – pg. 15

To my mind, this novel has two sections.  The first quarter of the novel is full of eerie, scary suspense and tension. It has a heap of bone-chilling, heart-racing stuff that builds on the mysterious and unknown.  That’s the best horror stuff in my opinion:  the unknown.  (I’ve mentioned before that I am only a rookie regarding anything in the horror genre.)  Anyway, as I read that first chunk of the book, I really was surprised at how scary it was.  I think writing effectively frightening prose must be super difficult.  How can one make words transmit something terrifying?  Matter-of-fact style won’t work.  Purposely being obtuse won’t work.  So, I have to praise Simak’s work here. And I decided maybe I had read enough for one night to suffer plenty of nightmares….

I gave him the intersection just beyond the McCandless Bulding.

The light changed and the cab edged along.

“Have you noticed, mister,” said the cabby, by way of starting a conversation, “how the world has gone to hell?”   – pg. 45

What I think of as the “second section,” is really the rest of novel. Here is where Simak actually displays his hand, so to speak.  We learn what his “big idea” for the novel is and the creepy horror stuff is over as the novel takes a turn toward the action-esque side of things.  Light-action, if you please; there’s no Mack Bolan running around here. Also, the novel utilizes some ridiculous elements to tell the story.  I think if you took Simak’s “big idea” and then gave it to a far more serious and dark minded writer that the story would go one of two ways:  very, very droll and boring or it would retain a lot of the creepiness of the early part of the novel.

The “big idea,” by the way, is that the rather bizarre aliens are using economic pressure to control the planet (eradicate the humans).  Lacking in this is a lot of motive, or relationship of aliens to anything in the universe, etc. Without Simak’s writing skill, we really do have a novel about economics. Not too many folk will be racing to read that story!

Let me be honest, I do not hate the sort of ridiculousness that Simak then writes.  I am generally a magnet for the absurd and the ridiculous (sometimes to my chagrin). But I really disliked the transition between being horrifying and then just ridiculous.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I should probably share that there is a talking-alien-dog that helps the main character.

That is one of Simak’s big failures – he never fully and completely fleshes out elements of his story.  Things just are and even though they are extremely ridiculous – he doesn’t give us any causes for them. No reasons or answers. Now, maybe things are so ridiculous that to speak on them would make it all worse. On the other hand, the lack of explanation sometimes makes the story feel loose and that perhaps some of these elements are really extraneous and should have been edited out.

Finally, I really liked the supporting character.  Joy Kane is a co-worker of Graves.  She is also his sweetheart.  Unlike the majority of female characters in books dating from before 1970, Joy is quite awesome.  She is smart, sharp, witty, kind, stubborn, and realistic.  The novel is over and I do not care if I run into Graves again, but I am going to miss Joy Kane.

3 stars

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Our Friends From Frolix 8 - PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

Our Friends From Frolix 8 – PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970).  I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes.  It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating.  I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique.  It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing.  The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable.  This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.

The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart.  In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet.  The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens.  Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema.  (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)

The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn.  Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning.  This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome.  That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this:  events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting.  There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.

In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality.  For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain.  PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful.  His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman.  [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student:  the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]

When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies.  Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer.  Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence.  Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst.  Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem.  My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out.  His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.

Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD.  Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual.  There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel.  Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.

Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written.  PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:

“What a renegade.  What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade.  He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him.  . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end.  And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94

No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni.  Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote.  I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.

Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out.  He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.”  Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).

Overall, this is typical PKD.  Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe.  There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.

3 stars

Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian - Penguin Classics, 2013

Pietr the Latvian – Penguin Classics, 2013

I finished Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989).  This novel is the first of the Inspector Jules Maigret novels and it goes by a variety of titles.  It was allegedly written in 1929, serialized in 1930, and then published as a book in 1931. Anything I have skimmed regarding this novel is certain to include a caveat to the effect that (a.) this is not Simenon’s best work; (b.) this is not the ultimate basis of the Maigret character; (c.) Maigret’s characterization was heavily influenced by the real Inspector Marcel Guillaume.  Such statements seem more important than they are. I do not see how a reader needs to be warned and petitioned for mercy before they actually read the book. Also, those facts do not seem entirely germane to the value of this particular novel.  I read this book – and this is the book that I will review.

Anyway, the next time someone asks me for an example of noir, I think I may suggest this novel.  It matches quite well with the judgment that I have made regarding the definition of noir.  I think a lot of people simply suggest gangster novels, crime novels, or gothic-esque novels.  However, this novel really exemplifies what I mean by noir.

The writing style of this novel is exceedingly spare and pared-down.  Absolutely no long-winded descriptions or grandiose pontifications on minor aspects of any element of the novel.  There are no chapter-long ruminations on any relevant (or irrelevant) topics.  In fact, there are definitely some points where I felt a little bit lost or perplexed. Maybe a hair more detail would have been okay.  Or maybe my difficulty was based on the age of the novel and the fact that I read a translation.  Not that this ruins much of anything at all, I am just being honest and considering readers approaching this novel as they would any other.

We meet Maigret straightaway in chapter one.  He is in his office with the pipe, which becomes as essential to him as his limbs, and the fire-blazing stove.  Maigret is reading telegrams and files regarding the movements and description of Pietr the Latvian.  Maigret is on the move fairly soon afterwards and what we need to know about him, Simenon tells us directly.  Simenon tells us that Maigret is a hulking, sombre dude.  He intimidates others, he does not make unnecessary speeches, etc.  We do not get to know Maigret’s internal monologue or thought pattern.  Readers will not watch Maigret link each and every facet of this case together like some sort of jigsaw puzzle.

At first Maigret meant nothing to me.  Just a bland and somewhat predictable detective.  However, in chapter eight, the character really grew on me and I found myself much more concerned for his well-being and pursuits.  All of a sudden, and maybe without a lot of finesse, Simenon gave us a more developed Maigret personality. It was rather obvious, but I don’t always need the convoluted approach, either.

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science.  But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall.  In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent. – pg. 38 Chapter 5

The novel contains a lot of characters and what seems like half-built plotlines and/or clues.  I do not know if this is because it is an early novel or because Simenon chooses not to get bogged down in every little detail and history.  While this can be confusing, it is also the source of a lot of the noir-feel.  Being a non-omniscient reader has its plusses and in a crime novel, it worked really well.

The dialogue format is probably the thing that will take the most work for readers.  Simenon does not write out every syllable of conversation – it is as if he almost uses just symbolic logic/keywords.  I can see this being annoying and a bit too bare for many readers.  On the other hand, I can think of plenty of readers who would be relieved that the actual speech of characters is reduced to necessary nouns.  Either way, I think this, too, makes the novel noir.

Regarding the actual crime – it is difficult to say how many there are.  Maigret gets the case due to a specific crime, but there is a lot more going on than just one incident.  And this is very relevant. The character whose role I really was not entirely clear about was Mortimer-Levingston. Throughout the novel he seemed very random.  Now, the ending of this novel was unexpected and definitely far from some cozy-mystery novel. I think the last few chapters bespeak a lot about the character Maigret and also the kinds of stories that Simenon was going to try to write.

This is a good novel and there is a lot of value in reading it and knowing about it. It is not a great novel. It is a worthy read and one does want to read more stories about Maigret.

3 stars

The Watch Below

The Watch Below - James White; 1966

The Watch Below – James White; 1966

Today I finished The Watch Below by James White (1928 – 1999).  It was first published in 1966 and the copy that I read is the February 1966 edition.  It is also the first of White’s novels that I have read. Since reading it, I have been considering whether or not this novel would be different if it were written this year. In many ways, the outcome would be very different. Definitely more negative.  But at the same time, I do not think this novel is particularly dated – an interesting fact for a mid-1960s work.

White’s genius in this novel is to juxtapose the survival efforts of two generation ships:  one human and one alien, one earthbound and one in outer space.  There are a number of pseudo-opposite items that White uses to create the comparison and contrast among the two generation ships.  For example, the aliens are sentient, scientific, and fallible.  They are also aquatic “water-breathers.”  Their planet has suffered from their sun’s effects and their race has been forced to evacuate in an elaborate effort to seek out a new “homeworld.”  Naturally, such a new world needs to have significant water resources.

The Gulf Trader is a converted tanker that in the early 1940s suffered a torpedo assault.  Probabilities and magic aside, though the ship is hit twice by torpedoes, several humans survive the attack and remain trapped within the partially submerged Gulf Trader. Of course, their first concerns involve the necessity of oxygen resources and keeping the remnants of the tanker from being flooded by water.

I was far more interested in the Gulf Trader than the fleet of survival ships with the aliens.  Mainly because having survivors in a sunken vessel seems more unique and exciting than flying around space looking for a new homeworld.  In fact, if the novel had solely been about the Gulf Trader, I would still have enjoyed it.  The contrast with the aliens is worthwhile and interesting, but maybe not as exciting as just focusing on the submerged ship.  Anyway, the survivors include a doctor, a first officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and two nurses.

One of the issues with the novel is that the nurses (women) are treated like they are idiots.  To be nurses in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy, I would assume they would have some medical knowledge and functional skills.  Instead, White writes them as if they are helpless, hapless, empty-headed dolls.  Several times, I found myself asking: “well, aren’t these women nurses? shouldn’t they be able to provide something to this stranded group?”  And, yes, of course White has them provide something – they are the mothers of the “generations.”  Basically, the plot has these two women survive so they can repopulate this sunken vessel and turn it into the “generation ship.”  Aggravatingly, they have to be coddled and reassured and treated with kid gloves.  (Has White ever even met a nurse?)

Anyway, I took a rather immediate shine to Lieutenant Commander Wallis – even before the torpedoes hit. After the explosions, he becomes the leader of the group.  However, he has big help from Dr. Radford.  In fact, it is difficult to say who is more integral to the survival of this group – Radford or Wallis.  The key point regarding the Gulf Trader is that this is a survival episode wherein the survivors are forced to suddenly adapt, innovate, and struggle on their own.  The humans are thrust into an entirely unbelievable situation and forced to deal with it.

The alien fleet which is headed toward Earth is the result of the whole civilization’s efforts to create a survival situation involving a strong and planned strategy.  And maybe this very fact is why I was more fascinated by the humans below the sea than the aliens in space.  The unexpectedness of the Gulf Trader’s scenario engenders more sympathy and excitement than the strategic efforts of the aliens.  Several times as I read, I was slightly annoyed by the interruption of having to read about the aliens.

The most important fact in the humans’ survival is not that they creatively solve the mundane issues of oxygen, waste-removal, flood-prevention, heat-sourcing, and nutrition.  Rather, it is that they find a way to, almost error-freely, transmit knowledge.  They are able to adapt to their surroundings and maintain their level of intelligence through several generations.  The first group of survivors begins to practice “The Game.”  This is first suggested by Wallis, but adjusted as needed by everyone else who ever lives in the vessel.  The Game is never completely outlined in detail (how could White do this?) but it does remind me of both Hermann Hess’ Magister Ludi/The Glass-Bead Game as-well-as Iain Banks’ The Player of Games (1988).

The Game, is it is always called, is how the humans survive the claustrophobia, monotony, and other psychological effects of their experience.  It is used for transmitting knowledge, ideas, and for entertainment.  It does seem so implausible, but there is something that is also very appealing and interesting in this concept.  Ultimately, it explains how generations after the original crew, the survivors still have someone called Wallis that is considered a doctor/Commander – and he thinks cogently on topics of bacterial infection, survival tactics, and leadership.

Another downside to the writing:  it gets a bit confusing as to the layout of the Gulf Trader.  So many compartments and “tanks” that I think the reader can get lost or stop caring too much about the specifics of the locations.  Also, while this novel focuses on the parallels of surviving generation ships, I think a little more description and environmental development could have helped out.  Yes, the reader is exposed to the many issues facing the crews.  However, I think a few moments of “descriptive prose” could have enhanced the eeriness and tension of the setting.  White’s writing tends to be factual and direct.

The ending is a lot more positive than I expected it to be.  Frankly, if this story was written today – I doubt it would be written with such a positive outcome.  Maybe 2015 is a lot more negative and apocalyptic-minded than 1966…. that’s kind of depressing, I guess.  In any case, the latest Wah-lass is a hoot and I liked him just as much as his ancestor.

4 stars

Midnight Riot

Midnight Riot - Ben Aaronovich; 2011, Del Rey

Midnight Riot – Ben Aaronovich; 2011, Del Rey

I finished reading Midnight Riot yesterday and am dismayed by how long it took to get through this thing.  Well, it has been on my to-be-read Himalaya for years. Finally, I said to myself that was quite long enough and forced myself to make it the next selection.  I was really expecting to like it because so many other readers whose opinions I trust had very good things to say about this.  Sadly, I was disappointed.

Midnight Riot is the USA title of Rivers of London.  It is the first book in the series that is also named Rivers of London.  I guess the publisher felt that having “London” in the title would be a detriment to USA sales.  I really am not thrilled when publishers do that. I have enough to remember and think about without adding alternate titles. Anyway, this was first published in 2011 and is the first of five (as of this date) novels in the series. I do own the other five. (A fellow reader gave me the whole set.)

I am a second-generation American and I have never been to England.  I have been to Italy and Greece. I thoroughly study the Continental intelligentsia.  If I were to be transplanted from the USA to somewhere in Europe, I would likely acclimate the best in Poland.  Almost everything about Great Britain is a mystery to me. Everything the British do seems complexified without necessity.

I am sharing this to say that this lack of familiarity and understanding of things of the Empire did affect my enjoyment of this novel.  In order to really be engaged here, the reader should have a rudimentary knowledge of British schooling, law enforcement, and the general layout of London.  Charing Cross and the River Thames are two locations/geographies that readers really need to have a concept for and about.  I did not. I still don’t, if I’m being totally honest.  I think if I knew anything at all about the Thames, I probably could have done a little better with the novel.

Finally, the slang and nicknames – if you don’t know the official, standard things about England, certainly the slang and such will have no relevance to you.  And that is what I experienced.  Granted, most of the meaning can be gotten via context, but honestly, having to use context to read an urban-fantasy/action thriller kind of kills the writing.

The writing is a bit different than the slew of urban-fantasy novels we have been bombarded with in the last five years.  Aaronovitch does attempt to make his main character intelligent, resourceful, and studious.  The magic system in the book is, for better or worse, “scientific.”  And there is a dose of history, physics, and religion to add to the depth.  However, the main character (Peter Grant) was not as funny as he thinks himself to be.  Many of the reviews I read suggested that Peter is just so funny and that this book is witty and humorous.  Well, it is mighty clear which parts such reviews are referencing, but I did not find them all too funny.  I found most of them trying-too-hard-to-be funny. The sarcasm and the wit was forced, as if the author said: “I have to have a snarky line here.”

The storyline is okay. Nothing great. Frankly, it should have been better.  There are many points where it gets lost or muddled.  In fact, at the end the villain got to be too convoluted for me to really, truly follow. Who is this ghost now? What are they doing this for, again?  I guess ghosts are a bit strange and perplexing, but I should be able to identify the main villain.  At the end, I feel like we defeated the bad guy two or three times.  And thinking about it, Peter did not really do much except run around.  In the end, he did not really FIX anything.  Novel writing 101:  The Resolution….. was absent.

A final complaint I have is that there are parts that are a bit more dark and/or vulgar than I think was necessary. I am definitely not looking for sanitized and pretty stories.  I am, however, trying to avoid vulgarity that is purposeless and darkness that is incongruous with the rest of the book.  All of this being said, I will probably try again with book two in this series.  Nevertheless, I was disappointed with book one and I really wanted much better.

2 stars

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