Month: December 2013

The Falling Astronauts

Falling AStroThe Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

Superman Unchained #1

Superman Unchained #1 – J. Lee, S. Snyder; DC Comics; 2013

Because we are nearing the end of the year and I have not done a comic book review in awhile, I figured it was time. Not to mention the INSANE backlog of comics stacked around the premises.  I would show you pictures, but I think it would terrify.  Anyway, I happily dove into the first issue of DC’s Superman Unchained title.  This issue starts a new series and was highly anticipated by readers.  Anything involving Superman generally makes news, however the excitement over this title comes from the creator team of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee.  I think DC jumped onto these facts and slapped a $4.99 on the cover just to see if they could do it – i.e. how much value does Snyder/Lee have in terms of buyers?

The cover is nice.  You can tell immediately that it is Jim Lee’s work.  It features the New 52-style Superman (younger and updated costume) ripping through some sort of technological debris. Superman has a gritty look as opposed to the happy, accomplished look he tends to wear.  I really wonder, though, what DC was thinking with the “Unchained” part.  Is this some cool, youthful lingo?  You know, the dialect in which we would say “this is off the chain” or “no limits.”  But the thing is, the whole concept of Superman is that he is never chained.  He’s unchained, y’all…………

frame, Superman Unchained #1, J. Lee, S. Snyder, DC Comics; 2013

I really like the artwork in this issue.  It has frames from all points-of-view and angles.  I like the coloring – very colorful and sharply defined.  I always think of Jim Lee’s work as being high-definition and highly-sharpened.  Included in this issue (and perhaps to soften the price point) is a tagged-in four-fold “poster” that actually is part of the issue.  This fold-out section is part of the storyline – just the art needed an embiggened format to be shown.  Now, did it? Sure, I guess, maybe.  I am not real fond of gimmicks like this.  I found it a bit cumbersome to unseal, unfold, read, and then re-fold.  Overall, the Superman here is drawn with shadows, while frowning in concentration, with youth and almost a slightly dark feel.

The storyline is okay.  I think that Snyder has proven himself a very capable and interesting writer with his laudable work on the Batman title.  In this issue, there are included several pages of “interview” material with Snyder and Lee and he makes some comments regarding the differences and similarities between the characters Batman and Superman.  I do think Snyder will be writing us a Supes who is a bit heavier and grittier than those 1980s Superman characterizations. Anyway, the storyline is kind of vague.  Satellites are falling to Earth – Superman is reacting to this. Clark Kent and Superman (or do we speak of them as the same?) are “investigating” the situation.  A supposed-terrorist/crime group called Ascension is hinted at – the whole time all the characters tell us “it cannot be Ascension who did this.”  Of course, Superman’s go-to is Lex Luthor (who has a few frames which perfectly depict his arrogance.  There are some threads with Lois’ father and historical events (WWII).  Overall, Snyder is setting up a big storyline for us, so it’s too early to decipher much other than there are a few interesting elements here.

I am going to give this 4 out of 5 stars – for the art, for the seemingly bold direction Snyder is driving toward, and because this feels stronger than the Action Comics and Superman titles’ starts with the New 52.  I own issues #2 – 4, so I will have to see where this goes.  Still, at $4.99 I am not entirely sure all readers will feel they got their value.

4 stars

Star King

Star King – Jack Vance; DAW 1978

I finished Star King by Jack Vance yesterday.  It is the fourth Vance novel that I have read and it is the first in his Demon Princes series of novels.  I read the DAW edition (No. 305) from 1978 with cover by Gino D’Achille.  I was not too excited to read this – because I am not feeling like reading a series.  Plus, the tagline “The first of the Demon Princes novels” doesn’t really do much for me.  The cover of my edition is rather amusing – the chubby diaper-wearing dude swinging a lance at spaceman is just silly.

Each chapter is prefaced by a facsimile of some “excerpt” from a book, magazine, report, etc. that is given to explain or give background to some aspect of the storyline.  Some readers did not like this.  I don’t mind it.  It is like data-dumping and being honest about it.  You need to know this, but the author doesn’t want to waste a chapter droning about it. Read these preface pieces and move on with the story.

Anyway, the book begins fairly interestingly.  Smade’s Tavern is a pretty neat thing.  The only building on an entire (rather inhospitable) planet is a tavern/inn where anyone is welcome and there is somewhat of an uneasy truce held.  I have to admit, for better or worse, I kept imagining the Inn of the Last Home and the innkeeper Otik from the Dragonlance series.  I know that that is just offensive to true science fiction/Vance-fans. Sorry.  Anyway, here we meet the main character, he is given his problematic, and introduced to his foes.

The novel feels like a cross between 007 and Clue if it took place in space and presents theories on revenge/vengeance.  The novel does have somewhat of a sluggish start.  I feel like it takes a little bit of patience to read the first two chapters.  And one of my biggest issues of this book is just what the hell the main character Kirth Gersen does/is.  He first says he is a “locator.” Then he says he is not.  Does he or does he not have some connection to the IPCC?  Then we are told he was trained and developed by his grandfather, who wished Kirth to be some sort of roaming anti-hero outlaw-revenger.  But Kirth did get formal training, too, at some institutions.  So, after all of this, I just want some straight answer on this point.

One of the best things about Vance’s writing, particularly in this novel, is the absolute ease with which he moves through his galaxy.  A lot of space opera science fiction novels seem to struggle and really work at trying to get their picture of the galaxy across to us.  Some authors really want to hammer out the “map” and they seem to be working just as hard to remind themselves what the galaxy looks like, too.  Vance does this effortlessly.  He has a whole galaxy mapped out and we move smoothly through it to various points.

It is a really well-written novel.  I like the somewhat wry and flirtatious interlude with Kirth and Pallis.  I like the neat way Kirth deals with the assassin Suthiro.  Vance also writes a very good “mystery” – he also wrote actual mystery novels, even using the famous “Ellery Queen” penname.  So, it is rather interesting to follow along with Kirth Gersen as he “interviews” the other characters and tries to piece together the background.  Finally, I like the carefully-handled science fiction elements.  I liked the projectile weapons, I liked the concept and design of the “Star Kings,” and I really liked the idea of the planet which is a burned-out sun.

Now, there are things that I found odd or disliked. The Stockholm Syndrome weirdness with Robin Rampold and Dasce is a bit…. weird.  It amuses me that Dasce calls himself “Mr. Spock.”  I was glad we got to meet a bunch of characters one-on-one with Kirth, but I was disappointed with how Tristano was dealt with.  A minor complaint.  Finally, Kirth is both adept and skilled, but also gets sucker-punched and fails sometimes.  Maybe this makes him a good all-around character – he possesses flaws as well as skills.  But there’s something about this that seems slightly off-balance.  He gets ambushed by the assassins, but on the other hand manages to pilot a ship with a variety of very difficult persons on it.  I don’t know how familiar you are with road trips, but I can barely go down the street without a measure of pandemonium in the vehicle.  And I like everyone in the car!

Finally, we are constantly told how bad Malagate the Woe is… but when we find out his motive for this particular situation Kirth is dealing with – it is not so “evil,” I guess.  And Vance just gives the reason to us, we nod, and then we move on. I feel like we could have explored this a little bit further without detriment.

Overall, I can see some readers being bored by this.  Maybe too much mystery and too much rumination on the ends of revenge.  However, there is a whole lot of good writing and originality to be found in this novel.  I do want to read onward in the series and I think this was well worth my time.

4 stars