Month: September 2014

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

The View From The Stars

The View From the Stars - Walter M. Miller, jr. - Ballantine; 1965

The View From the Stars – Walter M. Miller, jr. – Ballantine; 1965

The View From The Stars by Walter M. Miller, jr. (1923 – 1996) was first published in 1965.  It is a collection of nine short stories all previously published in a variety of genre-related publications.  This is his second published collection of short stories.  I read his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz and was impressed, but not tremendously so.

If I knew nothing of the author besides what I read in this collection, I would not be surprised if/when you tell me that the author committed suicide.  It is clear to me he was “unsettled” even from these writings.  I think he took his life after his wife passed away.  But allegedly he suffered depression or PTSD, or something. Well, also allegedly he was a USAF bomber who wrecked Monte Cassino…. so I just cannot conjure any sympathy for him.  Nevertheless, one of the striking tones that I found in this collection was a depressed and heavy one.  Like most good science fiction, Miller asks significant questions about mankind and existence and the future.  He examines mankind’s role in the universe in a number of scenarios.  Somehow, though, there is also an added heaviness that pervades all of these stories.  Miller is not a happy guy.

  • You Triflin’ Skunk (1955)
  • The Will (1954)
  • Anybody Else Like Me (1952)
  • Crucifixus Etiam (1953)
  • I, Dreamer (1953)
  • Dumb Waiter (1952)
  • Blood Bank (1952)
  • Big Joe and the Nth Generation (1952)
  • The Big Hunger (1952)

These stories generally have the grim/dark element of destruction (either individually or on a broad scale) running through them.  They are not “uplifting” stories, really.  There is a hefty dose of destruction in most of these stories and because of that I was not able to race through them.  It is not easy to read heavy material.  However, there is a lot more going on than just a darker feeling.  Throughout all of the stories is a persistent awareness, questioning, and allusion to religion.  Miller is not an irreligious or blasphemous person in these stories.  Nevertheless, he does strongly demonstrate his difficulty with creation of man by the Divine.  In many stories there is a reference to man having descended directly from ape.  There are often comparisons between man and ape.

But Miller also examines mankind’s relationship with technology.  Does tech rule man or man rule tech?  What is the value of tech? Can man appreciate that value?  Is tech to be feared?  What about man’s misuse of technology? There are also places whereat he seems to gently pit technology against religion, just to see what happens.

You Triflin’ Skunk – 4 stars – this was my second favorite story in the book.  It is very Southern.  But its also got this dark humor which is good for late-night reading.  I got a kick out of this one.  Miller is also displaying his writing skill; the tone is tense, the setting is excellent.  One feels pity for the characters and I really enjoyed the ending.

The Will – 2 stars – this was my least favorite in the book.  This one contains a solid dose of misery and depression.  Despite, I think, its effort at being futuristic and hopeful.  I don’t really like reading about dying kids.

Anybody Else Like Me – 2 stars – this story is creative and has a developed suspense factor.  However, I feel like the creativity is stifled a bit by a somewhat unrelateable plot.  I just wanted more out of the story.  The main character did not evoke any sort of sympathy or interest. But I am no fan of such characters…

Crucifixus Etiam – 3 stars – dismal, heavy, sad.  Here Miller really wrestles with the concepts of sacrifice, the future of mankind, and planet colonization.  Miller asks if the value of goals changes based on its proximity.  There are a number of stories in this ilk that come from the 1950s star science fiction writers.  However, while this one really makes strong and painful points, it is a heavy read tinged with vague hopelessness.

I, Dreamer – 3 stars – This story is the most dark and dismal of the bunch.  This is really a heavy and shocking read.  It is also exceedingly well-written – poetic and artistic.  Unfortunately, there is the same sad and hopeless feeling as in some of the other stories – though here it is amped up.  I really think the writing level is excellent, but I do not think I can give this to many people to read. If anything, this is a story that will stick with me for awhile.

Dumb Waiter – 4 stars – This is my favorite story in the book (and probably most readers’ favorite).  It has a very nicely done post-apocalyptic urban/technological story.  Math, logic, survival skills all play a role.  In places, the tone is as relentless and ruthless as the characters need to be in order to survive.  This story is edgy, as they say; gritty.  I love anything with robots and computers, of course.  But there is one small section that is weird and disturbing. (Hello, why didn’t someone send Miller to a shrink in 1952?)  but that can be omitted without loss to the story.

Blood Bank – 3 stars – this is a good story, that might even be great.  Here we have the only real “adventure” story in the collection.  But even so, this is not mere pulp.  Miller uses it to ask any number of questions about evolution, nature, ethical motives, intergalactic politics, and military “virtue.”  There is an excellent level of cultural awareness.  However, the ending is rather spare and there are places where the story meanders a bit from its main path. Don’t worry, here too is a level of shock and misery.

Big Joe and the Nth Generation – 4 stars – this story is really creative, interesting, and technological.  There is a lot of suspense and the story really resonates with the reader.  It is like Indiana Jones meets John Carter, I think.  “What is a technologist?” – is asked, which is a question that really runs through this whole collection, but only actually voiced here.  Once again, elements of sacrifice, religion, and future planet-forming are touched upon.

The Big Hunger – 2 stars – This story did not really do much for me.  Maybe because it was predictable – it isn’t so much of a story as a rumination on mankind’s predictability.  History is cyclic and repeating.  Man is ambitious and stubborn.  Man has come from apes.  And mainly:  what does technology “think” of man?  I feel like this has been done in a more interesting way plenty of times – but maybe not with this artistic writing?  I get what Miller is doing here, but I just found it droll and preachy.

Therefore, definitely read Dumb Waiter and Big Joe and the Nth Generation.  If you still want more, read You Triflin’ Skunk.  Other than that, this is somewhat too dismal for me to recommend openly to all.

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