Month: October 2012

They Shall Have Stars

They Shall Have StarsThey Shall Have Stars by James Blish was published in 1956.  The edition that I read was the Avon 1966 paperback copy. They Shall Have Stars is the first novel in the Cities in Flight collection by Blish.  The four “novels” were collected into one omnibus by Avon in 1970, which I also own.  The trickiest part of understanding this collection is that several of the “novels” are actually fix-up pieces that Blish originally published in the famous Astounding Science Fiction magazine. For example, from what I could dig up, there are two relevant issues of Astounding that relate to They Shall Have Stars.  The February 1952 issue and the May 1954 issue contain stories that eventually became this novel.

Blish wrote a short three-paragraph author’s note for the front of the Avon 1966 edition.   It’s actually really helpful if you are attempting to read Blish’s work or attempting to read Cities in Flight. He writes:

This first volume of Cities in Flight is a prologue to the work as a whole, and hence contains neither any flying cities nor any characters in common with the remaining three volumes.  Instead, it undertakes to show the circumstances under which the two fundamental inventions which made the Okie cities possible were discovered. . . . . We begin in 2018 A.D.. . . .  and the events here cover about two years.  There is a leap of several centuries before Cities in Flight proper begins, and thereafter the action is continuous through the remaining three volumes, all the way to 4004 A.D.

The writing of Cities in Flight occupied me, off and on, from 1948 to 1962, and like many such long projects, the order of composition of its parts wasn’t orderly at all, and was further complicated by the publishing history.

I think that is about as good as an explanation of the chronology of these novels as any.  And it’s authoritative because it’s direct from the author himself.  So, what we have learned so far is that, though this was not an actual novel at first, nor was it the first novel in the series published, you read this one first.

However, you may be disappointed.  (As we science fiction addicts usually are with prequels/prologues, etc.)  Since this particular novel takes place prior to the “big events” in the other novels (which I have not yet read), it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of action and events in the storyline.  This is why I wrestled with giving this novel 2 or 3 stars for it’s rating.  As a prologue, it deserves three full stars.  It does everything a prologue ought to do – including not running on and on longer than it should.  This novel does a solid job of providing the setting; it presents the scientific and political milieu for the year 2018, which sets up the rest of the Cities in Flight storyarc.  Published in the mid-1950s, we are also given an image of rampant McCarthyism and Blish’s negative view of it.  I have always been rather hateful towards McCarthyism.  It’s, oddly, still alive and well even today and so I sympathize with Blish’s view.

This is the dystopian aspect in the novel.  There is a very clear-cut distinction made between The West and The Soviets.  This is all apropos of the 1950s. But what is surprising and refreshing is that while Blish utilizes this obnoxious us/them dichotomy, he also chooses to simply step outside of it.  This is how, in the novel, McCarthyism (represented by the character MacHinery) is defeated.  The novel tells us that The Soviets (knowingly or unknowingly) have defeated The West – not by overcoming them in military struggle, but by gradually developing the zeitgeist of The West into one similar to The Soviets. i.e. secretive, stagnant, repressive, and full of witch-hunting. There is a lot of identity/alterity philosophy combined with political ideology inherent in this idea that would be great for someone to make a thesis out of.  Blish doesn’t really preach at us at all, though. He just tells us this is what has happened and we calmly step on outside of this paradigm with him.

On Jupiter the reader is treated to the “hard science” of the science fiction side of this prologue story.  There are mathematical equations here. Chemistry diagrams depicting molecular structure.  There’s not a lot of them – but there they are, and Blish makes it seem like he really actually tried to make all of this believable and realistic.  In fact, one of the best things about this novel is the utilization of the scientific properties of ice.  Yes, ice – the frozen state of water, so to speak.  Did you know that ice actually has about fifteen stages of solidity determined by temperature and/or pressure? I feel like I knew some of this in a very vague way – but since I read this novel, my imagination is having a blast thinking about ice.  Anyway, because the phases are relative to pressure/temperature – Blish explores ice on the planet Jupiter, which has crazy temperatures and pressure that can challenge scientists.

Because that is the other really big idea being put forth in this novel:  the state of scientific inquiry under an era of Soviet-ideology/McCarthyism/1950s.  One character (a respected scientist) says that the scientific method no longer works.  Several characters wrestle, throughout the novel, with the problem of whether or not the “really big science experiments/projects” are a thing of the past and are no longer feasible or important.  Where does humanity stand with regard to “gigantic research projects”?  Some of this is political in nature, some of it is economic. Some of it is just plain biological – humans do not live long enough to bother with the gigantic project. So, this novel plays with some of these questions and presents a few tentative, subtle responses.

However, throughout this review, you’ll notice I have not talked about the characters or the action or the events in the novel. Because, really, there is not anything worth saying. While this novel is an excellent prologue, it is clearly a prologue that is solely designed to set up the rest of Cities in Flight.  Nothing really happens in this novel.  The reader will have a strong sense of the story never getting started, never going anywhere, and wondering if there really is a story in there at all.  At the end of the novel – there are some cool ideas and this is obviously an introduction to a future humanity.  So that is why it gets two stars for a rating as novel qua novel.  Ultimately, that’s what I have to give as the final rating, too, since I review novels here – not prologues.

2 stars

Rogue Moon

Rogue MoonRogue Moon by Algis Budrys was published in 1960.  It was nominated for the 1961 Hugo Award – but lost to A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr.  Generally, it seems I do not rate award-winning science fiction books very highly.  I do wonder if this is because I subconsciously expect awesomeness and therefore raise the bar unconsciously when reading them.  I know some people might suggest that some of these novels are “dated” and that’s why I don’t “like” them, but that’s not the case.  I have no problem with novels being “dated.”  I have had this on my to-be-read list for a trillion billion years and I even started it and made it to page 60.  Then I got aggravated with it and chucked it aside for months and months. Finally, I picked it up again.

I was most interested in the novel not because it was a Hugo nominee, but because of the author.  Budrys is a Lithuanian-American.  This is significant to me. Also, this past year I have been reading a lot of Eastern European writers. For example, Bulgakov, Goncharov, Nabokov, Lem, et al.  I have another novel by Budrys that I intend to read – the fact that I did not love this novel did not put me off of the author, but I can’t say that I was not disappointed with Rogue Moon.

I love the science fiction concept and idea that Budrys wants the story to tell.  I want to have a 400-page novel about it and have it be really good.  However, that seems to be the smallest part of this book, oddly enough. Instead, the novel is filled with the two-dimensional characters who are incredibly egotistical and who like to make speeches in each others’ presence.  There are about four major characters in the novel.  The main two are the daredevil macho man named Al Barker and the sullen scientist Edward Hawks.  Many pages of the book take place at Barker’s mansion. I absolutely abhor all of these scenes and they are what made me drop the book in the first place.

Seriously, what happens is that these egotistical 2D characters lounge around the pool and the house grating on each others nerves and having temper tantrums.  Barker’s girlfriend, Claire Pack, hangs out there.  Much of the novel purports to explore her psychoses – and, as a reader, I disliked her immediately.  She’s wretched.  Now, I know that these scenes are supposed to be some sort of psychological exploration of these characters in the context that they are not the average, normal members of mass society. They are all “screwy” in their own way – so it is supposed to be interesting to see how they interact with each other and what their perspectives are on various topics.  That’s what’s supposed to happen. Instead, I felt like I was at a really hideous pool party wherein only self-centered, immature wackos were invited. Their musings on topics is painful.

The main topic is the concept of man qua man.  What is a man? And further, what is it for a man to die – what is the death of a man?  This is really the whole point of the science fiction in the novel. Sure, the plot is somewhat about a large alien artefact found on the Moon. People enter and explore it, but are inevitably killed for violating the unknown alien rules in force within the structure. But this whole (and really cool) science fiction item is kept very vague and is only a plot device so that the characters can do self-discovery and ruminate on death.

“The thing is, the universe is dying! Bit by bit over the countless billions of years it’s slowly happening. It’s all running down. Some day it’ll stop.  Only one thing in the entire universe grows fuller, and richer, and forces its way uphill. Intelligence – human lives – we’re the only things there are that don’t obey the universal law. . . . But our minds, there’s the precious thing; there’s the phenomenon that has nothing to do with time and space except to use them – to describe to itself the lives our bodies live in the physical Universe.” – pg. 167

That is the best quote, I think, in the novel.  Don’t think that the novel is full of such insight. Sometimes, what seems profundity is really just navel-gazing.  And while the rumination on what man is and how he dies in the universe can be philosophical, I really wanted the science to be there. I wanted to learn about the item on the moon. I wanted to be creeped out by alien technology and to read the scientific insights into how the artefact works.  I wanted to see the humans discover, learn, and conquer.  Instead, I am not entirely sure that they characters even conquer themselves. Maybe a little. I don’t know. The psychological aspects of people who are not the norm do not make good survey samples.

Overall, the novel is simply not what I expected.  There are sections that are tedious and wretched.  There are times when I feel the characters are preachy.  In the end, I think that people who enjoyed this novel did so because they liked the light pseudo-philosophy running through it – and not the science fiction elements.  However, the philosophy itself just isn’t enough for me to give this novel any good marks. The two stars is a gift. I just think it’s better than the 1 star books I’ve read.

2 stars

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick; Mariner Books

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said was first published in 1974 and is the fifth PKD novel that I have read.  Once again, it’s difficult to rate a PKD novel – I want to give it either two or four stars:  so I am giving it three.  This novel was nominated for a Nebula Award in 1974, a Hugo in 1975, and it won the John W. Campbell award in 1975.  Although it was published in 1974, I think that PKD wrote it in 1970.  Regardless, this is one of PKD’s later works.   Based on the five books that I have now read, I think that I prefer PKD’s earlier material.

Like all PKD novels, there is not a lot of background or information on the setting.  It’s the future and the main character is a “six.”   A six is a category of genetically-bred, advanced human.  Why or how is not really relevant to the story and I feel like PKD, as an author, was leaving this option open for himself.  If the other aspects of the novel did not work out so well, he could always find a way to work in the “six” aspect.   Anyway, the main character is Jason Taverner and he is a famous talk-show/variety show host.

Taverner leaves the studio one night alongside his sometimes-squeeze and fellow “six,”  Heather Hart.  As they banter about how old they feel, what the mass public is like, and where they should go, Taverner gets a phone call from a demanding former lover. Taverner detours his vehicle to visit the girl.  They argue and the girl attacks Taverner using some sort of poisonous, parasitic life-form.

The next day, Taverner gains consciousness and finds himself in a seedy hotel in a dreary, low-income part of town. Through some trial and error he discovers, to his horror, that nobody knows who he is, he has disappeared from the TV listings as a celebrity, and his preliminary attempt to obtain any official identification fails.

I am typically against giving away spoilers or surprises and in PKD novels it seems like one really never knows what will happen next. So, I do not want to tell much more of the storyline itself.  The first thing I would like to complain about, however, is that Jason Taverner is not a loveable character.  I really do not know if PKD does this on purpose or not, but I rarely (never?) find his characters to be even likeable. Taverner is pompous, abrupt, and he treats women poorly. Frankly, I have begun to suspect that PKD himself was some degree of a misogynist.

But then, I consider the women that Taverner associates with and I do wonder if maybe they are just not very nice people at all. Heather Hart is probably the best of the bunch and there are a bunch in the novel.  First there is Kathy Nelson – totally insane and unchaste and often creepy.  This is one of the first people that meets the newly-forgotten Jason Taverner. Then he runs off to Ruth Rae’s apartment.  Ruth Rae is an “old friend” and lover that he knew might remember him. Rae lives in a Vegas apartment and she has been married over fifty times. They spend the night and day having sex and getting high.  Rae reminisces about the past, which irritates Taverner.  Taverner at several points is verbally cruel to her, and eventually his presence there allows the police to raid the building and gets them both arrested and dragged to LA.

There are two other women that Taverner meets and uses and is mean toward.  One of these woman is Alys Buckman, the hypersexual and drug-addicted sister of the Police General Felix Buckman.  Felix is monitoring Taverner’s case with the police department.  Felix is another character that I really do not like at all.  After Taverner is hauled in to the precinct and released, Alys finds him and brings him to her house.

Now, if you cannot tell from what I have already written here, I’ll say it explicitly:  this novel is the most “adult” of the novels that I have read by PKD.  When I say adult, I do not mean that it’s porn or that there are graphic descriptions. I am just saying that there are drugs galore, everyone seems hypersexual, and no one in the novel is a particularly good person. These are not nice people and they do some not-nice things.  Hence, I cannot recommend this book to everyone.  Or, actually, the audience is more limited than usual. I do not think that there are many books that everyone can read. But this one is the most limited of all the PKD books I have read.

The ending of the book was good and bad. I am impressed that there was one – an epilogue, in fact, where PKD bothers to write a page or two about how it all turns out.  I often feel the ending of PKD novels are not really his best writing. I think he likes to leave a lot of questions and make the reader feel creeped out.  However, this one has an ending and an epilogue – except I dislike the ending. The whole novel was explained away quickly through the mouth of the coroner to the police general.  And I am not sure that the explanation is not a quick cop-out ending by PKD.

The first half of the book spun its wheels a lot and did not really go anywhere. I kept waiting for the action and thrill of UBIK or Eye in the Sky, but got none of that. I was waiting for something, instead the book spun its wheels with the main character moving from girl to girl to girl.  The second half was shocking at points (the relationship between Felix and Alys), but I do think PKD has done and could do better.  So, there are no likeable characters, there are some icky and shocking elements in the story, and the beginning is slow while the ending is a letdown. Overall, I cannot give this more than three stars. Maybe it’s actually 2.5……

Finally, in 1978 PKD supposedly wrote this article/speech titled “How To Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.”  It’s actually quite lengthy. At points it is witty and insightful, at other times, I swear I want to call bullshit! on PKD.  Is PKD lying? Is he crazy?  I think that’s sort of the point of what he was doing:  making us ask those questions.  However, after reading this novel, I recommend readers to look at that essay because it really has a lot of explanation about PKD’s novel topics. And some good quotes:

I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem.

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions.

In the writing of Flow My Tears, back in 1970, there was one unusual event which I realized at the time was not ordinary, was not a part of the regular writing process. I had a dream one night, an especially vivid dream. And when I awoke I found myself under the compulsion—the absolute necessity—of getting the dream into the text of the novel precisely as I had dreamed it. In getting the dream exactly right, I had to do eleven drafts of the final part of the manuscript, until I was satisfied.

3 stars