Month: June 2014

Citizen in Space

citizen in spaceI finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars

Caviar

CaviarCaviar by Theodore Sturgeon (1918 – 1985) was first published in 1955.  Once again, I completed a 1950s book.  This is a collection of 8 stories ranging from 1941 – 1955.  The cover art for the copy that I read (1977 Ballantine) is by Darrell Sweet. Though Sturgeon did publish several novels, it is my understanding that he is famous for his short fiction.

Therefore, when I came to this collection I had really high hopes because this should be fairly representative of the author’s lauded style.  I cannot say that my expectations were met, although I was not completely disappointed.  The ratings I gave each story are all over the place.  I am glad that I read the collection, but only one story in this collection is something that I think will stick with me.  Of the eight stories, I would say one is definitely not science fiction whatsoever, one is definitely science fiction, and the other six are vaguely “speculative” fiction.  None of this is a bad thing, but it does perhaps suggest a change in the reader’s pre-read expectations.

Sturgeon has a very glib and casual writing style.  I am not completely thrilled by it.  It works best when he utilizes a nifty narrator main character to do the work.  The stories wherein Sturgeon has to do the talking are decent, but nothing about this style makes it truly incredible.  In fact, for most of the stories, I felt they may have gone on for a page or two too long.  I think casual writing does lend itself nicely to short fiction, but usually overlong short fiction can kill any storyline.

  • Bright Segment – 2 stars – (1955)
  • Microcosmic God – 4 stars – (1941)
  • Ghost of a Chance – 2 stars – (1943)
  • Prodigy – 3 stars – (1949)
  • Medusa – 4 stars – (1942)
  • Blabbermouth – 3 stars – (1945)
  • Shadow, Shadow On the Wall – 2 stars – (1951)
  • Twink – 1 star – (1955)

Interestingly, you can see that the stories run the gamut from 4 stars to 1 star.  The stories that I rated the highest are the most “science fiction” of the stories.  The lowest rated involve children somehow and were – to me – too vague and weird.

Bright Segment opens the collection and is definitely not speculative fiction or science fiction.  It is actually quite a noir read, but not one that I really enjoyed. One of the things that Sturgeon does really well in this piece is to build up a lot of empathy and sympathy (concern) for both of the characters – and then he flips all of that emotive investment around.  I appreciate this – but cannot say I liked the result.  The voice of the main character was done well.

Microcosmic God is the most science-y of the collection.  I do think it was a bit too long, because toward the end, some threads of the story kind of slipped slightly.  Nevertheless, it is excellent SCIENCE fiction.  I love the Neoterics and the whole ratio which brought the main character to the conclusion of developing the Neoterics is the “answer” to time/space/invention.  I really am jealous of James Kidder – rich, brilliant, and lives unfettered by annoying humans on his own little island. Oh, how I would love to be Kidder.  Now, the plot-device of the power plant and the devious banker didn’t thrill me, so that’s why this does not get five stars.  Nevertheless, this is one I would recommend to other readers.

Ghost of a Chance was first published in 1943 and I do not see the need for it to have been republished. I gave it two stars and really feel like it just was not worth republishing, unless they needed some “filler.”

Prodigy is a good, solid read.  I gave it 3 stars because I felt that it represented some good speculative fiction ideas.  I really did like the twist at the very end of the story.  However:  I am not really sure that this twist is actually supported by the story itself.  Seems forced, even if it is fun and can be appreciated. Overall, it is a relatively interesting read.

Medusa was my favorite read of the collection. I know why it was named “Medusa,” but I would have named it Xantippe. Xantippe is a really good horrifying planet-concept.  And Medusa is a metaphor with a jellyfish, which I think is a strained and needless metaphor.  But Xantippe and the Navy ship sent to deal with it is an awesome concept.  All true fans of science fiction should read this one.  It also includes some of the psychological horror and mystery that really gripping deep space stories should include. Easily four stars.

Blabbermouth gave us a decent, sharp narrator with an interesting concept to tell his (rather mundane) story.  He falls in love with Maria, who has a predisposition to be possessed by poltergeists. Well, she brought this problem onto herself because of her occult “studies.” And now she affects people’s lives.  She’s a “blabbermouth,” so to speak.  I really dislike the genesis of Maria’s “skill,” and I feel that this story had so much potential wasted. As I read, I kept considering what it could have been – so much better than what this story is.

Shadow, Shadow On The Wall – The reader does feel a bit heartbroken for main character, Bobby – a small child who has a mean step-mother.  The story itself plays upon all of our fears of the dark and our capacity for pretend-play as an escape.  Still, the corner-shadow-country is unconvincing and I do not feel the story itself is on par with all of the emotional drawn the reader is presented.

Finally, Twink, which I hated. Just junk. I wish I had not read it. 1 star for being better than cleaning the litter box.

2.6 is the average for this collection.  I do not use numbers like this, so I will round up to a 3.  I am more or less okay with that, but I know that I recently reviewed C. M. Kornbluth’s The Explorers and that averaged out to a 3.  That collection was a lot better than this one.  So, let us call this a secret low 3 rating

3 stars

A Princess of Mars

Mars TrilogyA 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.

Franzeta

F. Frazetta 1970 cover art

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