Month: December 2015

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Night Film

Night Film Paper CoverI just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I received this novel in paperback for Christmas in 2014, and so I was really keen on getting it read by Christmas 2015. I totally succeeded….  Anyway, I read Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and decided then that I would read whatever she wrote next. Granted, I read that novel in 2011 and it was originally released in 2006.  So, Night Film‘s release in 2013 was a hefty pause for any Pessl fans.

This novel, like her first, is a weighty thing. Nearly 600 pages, it suffers from the flaw of just dang not knowing when to end. In my review of her first work I wrote that she needed a more stringent editor.  I almost want to say the same thing for this novel. However, I think that a lot less could be edited out of this one. Say, only 100 pages or so. That is a bit of an improvement, then.

Also, Pessl’s use of the metaphor is reduced in this novel, thank heavens. In the first novel, everything was like something and then like something again and then every sentence was a metaphor and that was like….. well, you know. So, if it took seven years for Pessl to write and publish this, I think that she definitely improved. That, my fellow readers, is a very key point not to be overlooked or dismissed. I am usually slightly more lenient with a new author’s first novel. However, for their second, I demand improvement. Pessl meets the measuring stick.

I did not expect a good novel. I am not artsy-fartsy (please, no one get their feathers ruffled with that expression) enough to understand and appreciate film theory. No matter the quality of the first novel, I think Pessl demonstrated she is hardly a bonehead ready to join the ranks pumping out pulpy drivel. In other words, she is a smart one. I like smart people. Still, the topic of this novel was not something that I would read if it was not written by Pessl. I am really leery of film-novels. I really make the effort to avoid gory things, depraved things, suicide-stories, etc. And, well, let’s face it, Pessl was in the NY Times Bestseller’s List. Not a bonus for my preferences of vintage, obscure, and classic choices.  Pessl was starting in the red for me with this one, not her fault, but factually true.

Ultimately, this is a novel about investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his investigations into the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of very famous cult-filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova. That is the main thread, but just slightly below that line is the work Pessl does to blur, shake, and disrupt the line between reality/fantasy, real/fiction.  It is this subplot that makes the novel fit the category of noir as opposed to some John Grisham-like thriller.

But those are not the only two threads. There are several other lines running constantly throughout the whole novel. For example:  McGrath and Cordova’s lives have plenty of similarities. Also, there is a heap of film theory and understanding of film work here.  Pessl deserves an “A” for her effort here. She literally created a detailed and vibrant body of work for a fictional filmmaker.

Not only did Pessl create this detailed body of work for a fictional filmmaker, but she remains consistent with it – and, amazingly, builds it into a whole society:  actors and actresses, fans and film critics, etc. Serious “world-building.” This was no easy thing and I can appreciate the effort, though, again, film and I are not really cozy. (I’m about as appreciative of Michael Bay’s work as Alfred Hitchcock’s. I’m a bad person. LOL)

The main thing about Stanislaus Cordova is that he is aloof, mysterious, and his films are completely captivating and disturbing. They are known for having a long-lasting, life-changing effect on his audience.  One of the many characteristics of Cordova’s works is that he manages to constantly upend the viewers by truly twisting reality/fantasy around and seemingly constantly forcing his audiences to seek the “really real.”

Now, some may scoff at Pessl’s use of “background” media. But this is 2013 – and her inclusion of internet items and media makes this a contemporary force.  This is, perhaps, where novels will go futuristically. So, readers who consider these items as “gimmicks,” might want to think again. The novel begins with a series of these faux-news articles and online snippets. These give a nontraditional feel to the novel, as well as providing a lot of background for the reader – without another 250 pages of droll background history. This is an innovative and interesting method.

McGrath is a little aggravating after awhile. Pessl clearly sees this and buffers his narrative presence with two other characters; young folk who “join” his investigation into Ashely’s death.  These characters develop throughout the novel and are not just stagnant place-holders for McGrath to bounce off of. Like I said, Pessl is not a bad writer.

The novel had me up late into the night reading along. The middle chunk is definitely suspenseful and mysterious and creepy. Yes, it is sometimes a little bit scary.  I love that Pessl was able to develop this slow-building terror. She does not heavy-hand scare the reader, which I appreciate. I do not know exactly how she did it, but Pessl definitely steadily increases the suspense until the reader is swept along with McGrath down whatever rabbit trail he heads – with a pounding heart. Who would have thought film theory and a suicide investigation would be this gripping?

Still, there are a couple elements that Pessl does take too far. She probably does overwork them a little more than necessary, to be honest. And some readers, the very critical, will suggest that she went over-the-top with some of the Voodoo/fantasy elements. I am undecided; an argument could be made either way on this point. But be advised:  the settings and suspense do build into quite a dark and depraved possible picture.

This is a good novel. It is one of those, however, that readers will love to pick apart and sink their claws into. Well, and Pessl knows that they will. But for the majority of things published, this is a very developed novel with a lot going on in it. And, further, separately, each ingredient of the novel (setting, pacing, characters, etc.) can be praised. Maybe the overall is not five-stars, but at its base this is a solid bestselling novel. I would recommend it to people who enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and also Pessl’s first novel.

A hundred pages less and this would be a five star novel, I think. Its not a storyline I love, but the pages kept turning and I must praise the effort. I guess I just hope her next novel is sooner than another seven years………

4 stars

Twists in Time

Twists in Time - Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time – Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time is a collection of short stories and novelettes by Murray Leinster that was first published in 1960. The cover reads “Six Startling Stories of Twists in Time,” but there are most definitely seven pieces in the book. It seems six of the stories were previously published in periodicals etc., but it is the first publication for the first story in the collection, Rogue Star.

Overall, these stories are generally unique and interesting stories. I have issues with stories that tackle time travel/concepts of time.  The thing is, there is hardly anything more interesting or exciting in science fiction, I suppose, than playing with concepts of time.  It is, indeed, one of the larger categories for story plotlines. Another is “first contact” stuff.  However, while playing with time is vastly interesting, it generally results in a big letdown for the reader.  Superficially, stories that twist time are exciting and seem to have endless possibilities. They are definitely filled with potential for fun and mayhem. But then you think about the science or metaphysics of the matter…. and all the fun gets smashed into little nibbets of “used-to-be-fun, but-not-anymore.”

Time is tough. It is unforgiving. And the allure of potential and smash-ups pulls authors in.  But the science/history/logic spits them right back out.  It is really challenging to find very good “time” stories.  Leinster’s work here is definitely unique. I think he has some very different storylines and he works to make the stories something other than carbon copy pulp.  Nevertheless, nearly every story tanks solely due to the time problem. Not that Leinster does not give it the best effort he can, it just is too demanding a topic.

  • Rogue Star – 3 stars
  • Dear Charles – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Dead City – 2 stars – (1946)
  • Sam, This is You – 2 stars – (1955)
  • The Other Now – 4 stars – (1951)
  • The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator -3 stars – (1935)
  • The End – 3 stars – (1946)

Rogue Star is the first story, taking its name from an entity of “contraterrene matter with negatrons instead of positrons in the nuclei of its atoms, and antielectrons in the orbits where electrons ought to be. Consequently, its gravity was reversed with respect to Earth and Sol and all the normal bodies in the galaxy.”  On Earth, Cytheria is a old freighter spaceship that launches without its crew. In fact, only three persons are aboard at takeoff. Rex Hall and Marge Daly are basically minor crewmen that were not destined to launch with the ship. They were running final checks and such before the launch. They find themselves in space, captured by the seemingly mad Thomas Brent who explains much of the “science” in the story.

Marge complains: “I was so sure we’d run into self-contradictions —“  To which Brent replies:

“You thought of time-travel as like a ground-car on a highway, going north.  You thought you’d have to stop and back up to go south, and something similar to travel in time.  But a ground-car heading north, my dear, can make a U-turn and head south, though the police may protest.  We made a U-turn with the help of the Rogue Star and presently the galaxy will turn us U-fashion again, we will rejoin the traffic, only a great many cars or days behind what was formerly to our rear.”

Well, needless to say, Brent estimates they will be as far as ten-year back. That ends up being a ridiculously low estimate.  Anyway, this is the kind of time-travel work that Leinster plays with.  Now, I forgive him his 1950s physics, of course, and certainly, I am no physicist.  So look past what science doesn’t “work.”  Still, I like that Leinster at least acknowledges the fact that time-travel is screwy and difficult (Cp. Marge’s fear of “self-contradictions”).  But this is one of the better stories in the collection. Several of the others are definitely not worked out even to this level and the “contradictions” are not even nodded at.

Dear Charles is one such story where the time-traveling is a little bit confused.  The story is a little chunk of metafictional layers. The structure is the most novel part of the story, in my opinion.  A story written in the form of a letter is found in the 34th Century in an antique rare book at the University Library. It is addressed to a Charles Fabius Granver.  One of Charles’ friends finds this “story/letter” and brings it to Charles’ attention. Of course, Charles dismisses it as a prank or coincidence. But then the events of the story come true, so to speak.  In places, it was a little too non-linear for my liking and that detracted from the story. It is definitely a unique way to consider time-travel, but I am not sure it was polished to a really good mirror-shine.

The Other Now is the story I rated highest in the collection.  It is not so much time-travel, per se, as it is parallel overlapping realities. (I say with a blasé tone, as if that was a bland sentence.)  Jimmy Patterson is a rather normal fellow who is the survivor of a vehicular accident which killed his wife, Jane.  Leinster starts this story with the sentence:  “This story is self-evident nonsense,”  which is cool because it means that the author preempts the incredulous elements of all of these stories. Jimmy starts having eerie and out-of-sync experiences. Naturally, he doubts them (and himself) and takes his problems to his friend, a lawyer named Haynes.  The best part of Patterson’s character is that he is not immediately excitable and grasping at straws. He is dubious, sullen, and honest.  I have never seen the movie The Lake House (2006; K. Reeves & S. Bullock), but I suspect this is a much better, cooler idea than whatever that movie was about.  I liked this story because it has that subtle creepiness to it – along with a dose of melancholy and a pinch of satisfaction. This is the story to read and retain from this collection.

I wanted to give The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator four stars, but it just doesn’t deserve them. There are heaps of charmingly absurd elements in this story, though.  Indeed, as I was reading it, I felt like this is the sort of thing that would happen in my world. The whole thing is ridiculous and silly; probably not one the serious, grumpy reader should bother with. But Arthur, the kangaroo, is outrageous! He steals the show. No. The butler, Thomas, does. NO! The main character, Pete Davidson, is clearly the winner with his deadpan reaction to everything! Well, let’s just say the science is mauled in this one, but the entertainment is high.

3 stars