Month: November 2015

Question and Answer

Question and AnswerQuestion and Answer is the 1978 ACE title of a story written by Poul Anderson in 1954 in Astounding Science Fiction.  The serialized story was then published in entirety as:  Planet of No Return (1956). My 1978 edition has Michael Whelan’s cover art on it.  No part of the text was changed since its serialization.

Originally, the narrative tells us, a professional scientist was approached to “design a planet” which was Earth-like.  Three writers were then provided this setting and asked to write about it. Sort of an early “shared universe” attempt.  The three writers were allegedly Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish.  There is only speculation regarding the so-called “professional scientist.”  Anyway, this short history is given as the introduction in this edition.  Poul Anderson makes a further comment about how planet-building is fun.

The careless publishers also made an error on the back-of-the-book’s write-up. They put the wrong spaceship (De Gama instead of the Hudson).  This isn’t a big thing, but it irked me.

The story itself does not seem too far removed from the present day.  The civilizations of Sol (our galaxy) are overpopulated and are looking for another Earth to colonize.  Apparently, colonies have already struck out onto Luna (the moon), Venus, and Mars. There has been a lot of war in the last two centuries, political/religious agendas have divided the people of Sol.

The first character we meet in the novel is actually not the main character. Kemal Gummus-lugil is in the process of a radiation meltdown situation aboard a spaceship.  We meet the main character, John Lorenzen, next.  Immediately, I took a dislike to him.  He is mopey and weak. Frankly, other characters in the novel often call him weak. Naturally, he has to overcome his fatal personality flaw by the end of the novel and has to be the “determined/strong” character.  It is obvious and a little annoying.

The next character we meet is Edward Avery. He is a psychomed and he plays the role of therapist/human resources on the ship.  He is subordinate to Captain Hamilton, but also seems to be always on his own agenda. There are several other characters that are mentioned by name, Thornton and Fernandez.  But also Friedrich von Osten.  The thing is, the reader is led to believe (via storyline and Avery’s presence) that humanity and psychology plays some role in this novel. So, the seemingly diverse (ethnicity, backgrounds, political/religious affiliations) might be relevant to the story. And they are – except Anderson writes all of von Osten’s dialogue phonetically. It gets really aggravating to read; especially because von Osten is also portrayed as combative and aggressive. He is the only character that Anderson tries to demonstrate lingo-ethnicity.

Some residual (post WW2) distancing/transference regarding Germans/Germany, eh Poul?

Avery tells us:

The human mind is a weird and tortuous thing.  It’s perfectly possible to believe in a dozen mutually contradictory things at once.  Few people ever really learn how to think at all; those who do, think only with the surface of their minds.  The rest is still conditioned reflex and rationalization of a thousand subconscious fears and hates and longings.  We’re finally getting a science of man – a real science; we’re finally learning how a child must be brought up if he is to be truly sane. But it’ll take a long time before the results show on any large scale.  There is so much insanity left over from all our history, so much built into the very structure of human society. – pg. 13, Chapter 2

Well, this paragraph, early in the novel, should give readers a pretty fat clue as to how this whole sucker is going to turn out in the end.  Frankly, I am only giving this novel two stars because Poul Anderson is not a writer I like because of what he does in novels like this.

They had a professional scientist play make-believe and create a planet. They had celebrity writers (Asimov, Blish) lined up to write in a shared universe about said planet.  And Anderson had so much potential, because, well, he is not an idiot and he does write with sufficient skill. But somehow, just like whatever else I read by Anderson, he sucks all of the fun totally out of the story.

Stories can be written with moralizing, with ruminating on humankind, with criticisms about politics and religion – that do not sacrifice every single fun part of a story. I have said this before, if Anderson wants to write non-fiction (e.g. memoirs, journals, aphorisms, etc.) he should have done that. But man, he kills a story like no one else.

Like a gigantic kosmic fun-sucker. SSSSSSSLLLLUUURRRRP.

So, a diverse group of humans (and their crazy personalities) with a lot at stake, travel to Troas to find a “new Earth.” There is so much science to be done. And on top of this, the grand mystery of why the first expedition (the De Gama) did not return should be investigated and resolved. Tension! Adventure! Excitement! Hard empirical science!  So much potential.

Instead, a slow-moving story with obvious plotlines. An annoying main character who is utterly predictable.  Opinions and pseudo-lectures on what is good for Man, what Man ought to do, who has the right path selected for Man, and what Man deserves. It renders the plot pointless, ignores all of the cool potential available, and makes a slog of a novel.

It is not a bad novel, per se. It just has no fun in it whatsoever – which is made worse by the fact that it is super-obvious that there should be fun contained within.

2 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

The Locked Room (The New York Trilogy part III)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The third installment of this book is The Locked Room. I do not think this third “part” is on par with the previous two works. I can appreciate the twists of the storylines, the exploration of various themes, and the deconstruction of characters in the previous two pieces in this book, but this last was tedious.  Beyond that, the self-referential circling back with little hints or names seemed forced and pointless.

Like the other two pieces, The Locked Room is postmodern metafiction wearing the costume of a noir detective story.  Overall, the story explores the psychological control that a memory/character has over another character. Both characters are, in some way, authors. So, just like the previous pieces, the novel attempts to look at facets of the act of writing and of being an author. Again, we see that an author is comparable to a detective.

In this novel, the meta parts of the metafiction play with concepts of identity, transference, and despair.  The main character is again isolated.  Through this isolation, we see how the effects of searching for the identity of the other causes the loss of identity of self. The narrator instantiates himself in the character Fanshawe’s life at the behest of Fanshawe.  This definitely improves the narrator’s life in several ways (a ready-made family, significant monetary income, a modicum of fame).  However, this also causes the narrator to slip further away from himself as the hero-worship he had for Fanshawe develops into resentment.

I didn’t like much of this novel. It definitely goes on too long. About one hundred pages could be chopped from this thing without any damage really being done. Furthermore, the little inclusions of “Henry Dark” and “Quinn” and the “red notebook” are interesting because authors do tend to fixate on certain concepts/names.  They work them and rewrite them and wrestle with them until they finally get to the story intended for them.  However, until the story is “great,” authors use and re-use little things like this. So if Auster has thrown in these tidbits to portray another aspect of the art of writing and of authorship, it seems acceptable. If he has thrown them into the novel just to reference the previous segments and to make the novel seem edgy and circular, then it is a complete failure.  The tactic is too obvious and stupid.

The novel drags on.  Noir detective fiction should be very suspenseful, mysterious, and psychological.  But by that last term I mean that there ought to be building tension from the unknowns.  The unknown parts of the story are the parts that make such stories noir. Instead, most of this novel is hero-worship and drooling slobber over the flat, uninteresting female character. The “psychological factor” in this novel is, then, the obsession that develops between the two authors. To me, this only made the narrator insufferable and ridiculous.

At the end of the novel, we do not really have any clue why any of this happened. If this was an attempt to explore the identity/transference between authors and characters, it was no big thing. There was no huge exploration, only a few steps taken in that direction. I feel this could have been done a lot better with a lot more potency. But instead, honestly, it just came out wimpy and morose.

As in the previous parts, the main character is isolated and he deconstucts. He loses everything, seemingly even his mind. He turns to a less clean-cut lifestyle for a month as he roams France like a vagabond. He spends his time in seedy places with people of ill-repute. We are led to believe this is because his efforts in author-detecting about Fanshawe have come to naught.  However, throughout the novel, we are given hints and glimpses that this darkness and wretchedness already lies inside the narrator and Fanshawe and Paris are what finally cause these characteristics to appear. The key point for me was that I did not care. It felt like a setup and a forced shift in the novel. And at the end, it changes nothing, the outcome is as bland and mundane as could be.

Honestly, this part heavily reminded me of things that Nabokov was doing in his novel Despair.  And at some points, I felt like Auster was basically ripping off Nabokov.  Now, Despair is not my favorite novel, but it certainly does all of this stuff better and stronger than Auster’s third segment here.  Definitely recommend to readers who are interested in this to compare these two works.

So, this final part can only be given two stars.  But, averaged with the previous parts, that still gives this whole “trilogy” a 3 star rating.  Totally acceptable reading.  I would probably tell folks the first two parts are recommended while the third is entirely optional. I do not feel it added anything to what Auster was trying to accomplish or added any new ideas to the themes he was exploring.

2 stars