Month: March 2016

Star Bridge

Star Bridge - Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

Star Bridge – Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

According to Wikipedia, Star Bridge was originally the idea of Jack Williamson (1908 – 2006), who wrote about a third of the novel and set out the remainder in some form of outline.  Allegedly, James E. Gunn got involved with the novel and finished the writing.  This information on Wikipedia is sourced from the January 2007 Locus article by Gunn. Needless to say, I have no idea how true any of that is.  However, after reading the novel, it does feel a little choppier than one would expect. Anyway, the novel was first published in 1955 and republished a couple of times by different publishers. I read the 1989 Collier Nucleus edition with cover art by Alan Gutierrez.

The novel has twenty-one fairly short chapters.  There are also very short interludes which are something like an outside viewpoint commenting on the events detailed in the chapters. They are presented as “history.”  From the first, the reader is told that Eron is the greatest empire ever and that it has/utilizes the Tube.  The reader is also told that “Empire is communication.” (pg. 1) The Tube is the Star Bridge.

The first five chapters seemed very sluggish. In fact, the first chapter had me raising my eyebrows a little thinking that this was not what I expected.  Perhaps the first five chapters were not really sluggish, but they seemed to be written in an unfamiliar style.  Throughout this opening chunk, I was unsure if this novel was going to be more of an action-thriller or a pondering, roaming sort of thing. Everything opens up, let us say, in chapter six. I mean, once an assassination takes place, of course things get chaotic.  Chapters six and seven are, at once, very well written and also frustrating. They are well written when they focus on the emotional turmoil of the main character, Alan Horn.  It is almost as if the reader can feel Horn’s panic, stress, and doubt.  Yet, there is a lot of this chapter that is not so well done – a feeling I had about the first five chapters, as well.  Somehow the environment/setting is not described sufficiently.

It is one thing to tell the reader that it is nighttime and there is a desert. However, if you are going to have the reader chase the character(s) through caves, into megalopolis structures, and around vast technology, you have to believe the reader is not as familiar with these things as the characters themselves.  I think of Jack Vance; when he describes a setting or technology or mechanics – I think that the reader could practically build whatever is being described.  You know how the device works and how the landscape looks.  In Star Bridge, I feel like there are general ideas that smart readers can understand, but they are choppy and do not (at least for me) result in a full diagram in the imagination.

On this point, Eron, the planet which is the hub for all Tubes, is covered in some sort of structure, because it is an old and used-up planet. It exists only as a seat for the Empire’s directorship and as the hub of the Empire. However, when our main character arrives there, it seems like he navigates the place quickly. I mean, within hours. So, this must also be a very small planet. However, that’s not the sense that the author(s) give, either. So, basically, I just focused on the “action” and “philosophical” parts of the novel and gave up actually following the path of the characters through the Empire.  Our first exposure to usage of the Tube is interesting and the experience of Horn is related in a decent manner, but I feel like PKD could have really rocked our brains. So…. good, just not great.

There are two aspects to this story.  Overall, it is the story of the many poor versus the empowered few. This is the juxtaposition of freedom and dependence. The second aspect to the story is the discussion wherein Horn (and the reader) question to what degree individual choices/actions are free/independent.  At many points it is suggested that the answer is different for an empire than an individual.  At other points, there is a hint that maybe the same forces affect both, just not with results that occur in the same time ratio. Simply, what is the catalyst for a man’s actions/choices?  What is the catalyst for an empire/society’s actions and goals?

One of the elements that this novel does well is how there is a layered mystery of power.  Several times the “true hand” at work moving events and people is revealed….. and then is shown to be only a puppet for a deeper more removed hand.  In a couple of cases, one of the empowered actually is unaware that they are merely puppets.  This stuff was creepy, and the intrigue and “unknowable-ness” really gives depth to the novel. Of course when dealing with power, there are lots of ways to look at the situation and lots of segments of society with their role to play.  The novel does touch on a bunch of them, but it is still a short (215 pages) novel and just does not have the length to examine each one of these roles.

The novel most similar to this is Asimov’s Foundation.  One of the similarities is the disinterest the reader develops for the characters.  After awhile, Horn seems superhuman and “too awesomized.” And those that help him are  stereotypical. (For example, one particular violent character wears black and has snarling overgrown dogs.)  I really liked Foundation and I liked this novel…. I will always have more interest in the macro than the single individual. It is interesting that this novel does an okay job of making the reader look at both simultaneously.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel.  Unfortunately, I think the execution suffers a bit. Also the length. After all, it is not often that I actually wish a novel was longer; usually I am complaining that the author did not know when to end the thing! Well, this book could use another hundred pages and it would be a definite four-star rating.  As it is:  a standard action novel with sporadic choppy writing – three stars.  It is a good novel, though. I would not want readers to think that this is something to be skipped just because it is not perfect.

3 stars


SynthajoySynthajoy by D. G. Compton was first published in 1968.  It is the first thing that I have read by Compton. I read the 1968 ACE Books edition – in hideous brown. I wish the little cube of art at the bottom was the whole entire cover. Everything I read about this novel tells me it is a “forgotten” novel – even in items that are quite forgotten themselves. So, basically, this is a forgotten novel, which was “forgotten” back in the day and still has not been remembered.  For the life of me, I cannot imagine why?  It seems perfectly like something that the contemporary world would love to “rediscover” and gobble up.

This is a difficult review for me to write because the book was difficult for me to read. I know why this book was difficult for me to read, but I can certainly see how well it was written and how many readers might not find it difficult to read whatsoever!  I rather want to give this novel a two-star rating – simply because, for me, reading about the very personal, human, and relational aspects of a very small group of people bores me to tears and is more or less incomprehensible to me. I said this about another recently reviewed book:  I am far more interested in the big picture, the effect on technology to society, than the micro picture (the interpersonal relationships of the individuals who developed the technology).  However, I fully recognize that a majority of readers really do understand and enjoy the opposite.  The above is somewhat key to reading my review. Readers may find my review callous, but it is honest.

Who even lets autistic Russian Thomists read novels like this? Where is censorship when you need it? Sheesh!

Synthajoy is about the creation of technology that allows essential psychological experience to be shared and transmitted between humans.  The vital word there is ‘essential.’  The technology, supposedly originally developed to assist in the care of mentally ill patients, allows for the essential transmission/experience of particular “senses/emotions.”  The hardware is a sort of tape-deck (look, it was the 1960s!) which is attached to a helmet-headphones set up.  The patient dons the helmet and nodes are affixed to their skull. Very much like “virtual reality” but more like “essential reality transmitted virtually.” Then the patient runs the tape on the tape deck and experiences whatever is on the tape.  This is a pretty neat and awesome science fiction concept.

Imagine the possibilities:  transmitting specific emotional states – joy, guilt. Providing specific experiences – the moments of aesthetic creation by composers, painters, et al. Or how about specific actions?  The moments of death, sexual intercourse, murders murdering, etc.  All captured and transmitted into the patient’s psyche. Of course, this sounds exciting and great – because originally the technology is to assist with the ill and infirm.  But then money enters the scenario and it is realized that this technology can be marketed and traded.

It is one thing to purchase a recording of a musical performance and have the experience of listening to the music.  It is another to actually purchase the psychological experience of the musician/composer actually making that music.

Anyway, even when morality concerns are raised the ambitious and strategic inventors of the technology are able to argue that they are supplying for the needs of an overcrowded and saturated society. After all, it takes place on tapes and in the mental realm only.

The story is told in first-person narrative by one of the three individuals who developed the technology, a nurse named Thea.  The novel takes place in the near future, in the Kingston, a hospital, in which Thea is being treated.  She was the co-worker and wife of the main inventor, Edward Cadence.  Thea shares her narrative in a non-linear manner, via flashbacks and odd jarring memories.  Why? Because as part of her treatment at Kingston, she is only awake and semi-lucid for a few hours a day. This sort of storytelling was extremely well-written and it makes the narrative and scenery seem incredibly realistic. Frankly, I rarely read anything that is so disjointed and yet written so skillfully.

Thea is a smart woman – smart in the old 1940s sort of connotation, not just the synonym for intelligent.  Thea is insightful and savvy. She is no bumbling intellect.  I love her formal attitude, her official manner, and her rapier-like usage of conversation with her fellow characters. Compton wrote Thea perfectly; letting us hear what she says aloud and what she keeps to herself as a seamless and fascinating whole.

However, ninety-percent of this novel is Thea remembering and explaining her relationship to Edward as the development of the technology took place and, therefore, the effect that this technology has on her career and her marital life.  There is a subtle complexity to the way in which Compton wrote all of this. And I am sure it is very good. Excellent, even.  Yet, at its base, this is a novel about interpersonal human interactions and no matter how awesome it was written, it is still incomprehensible and boring to me in many places.  Often, in her flashback narrative, Thea shares with us what she must consider to be integral moments and while each should provide the reader insight and clues and data, I was unenthused and frustrated.

Literally, I cannot imagine why this novel has not been made into a film. It is perfect for that sort of psychological film that would do great on the screen. It is complex and subtle and winds around itself and its so full of interpersonal character relationships that even I can see that it would be great as a film. Motives, ambitions, affairs, formal arrangements, and wry, slightly inappropriate humor; dark moments, tense moments, etc.  It screams to be a movie.  (Which actress could pull off a spot-on Thea?)

I am sure there is a lot to like about this novel. I am certain that it is well-written. However, there is a lot of it that I found tedious beyond compare and that I recognize as “some-thing,” but yet cannot fully grasp. I like Thea, but after reading the novel, I confess I do not understand a single thing about her. If quizzed, I would not be able to explain anything that she shared.

4 stars

The Whole Man

The Whole Man - John Brunner

The Whole Man – John Brunner

The Whole Man by John Brunner was published in 1964.  In the UK, it was published as Telepathist.  I read the Ballantine 1973 edition with the cover by artist Charles Moll.  I really dislike the cover. I recognize it may be decent artwork, but I really dislike it – it is so…. 1970s. This is kind of how I feel about this novel. Not much in this novel was exciting or very interesting for me. However, it is still a rather impressive novel. So here is The Whole Man – a good novel to read, but not one that will thrill. At the end of the day, it is an contemplative read, not an entertaining read.

The novel takes place in an alternate Earth reality in which telepaths exist and are generally employed in socio-political functions. The whole sphere of interest of this novel is sociology and psychology.  If a reader does not care for these subject areas, then they will find this work a slog.  The main character is Gerry Howson, who is one of the most powerful telepaths (perhaps the most powerful) to live.  He is also a very deformed cripple.  (Except that it is now 2016 and I think I’m supposed to type: “handicapable.”  Howson calls himself a cripple, so we are gonna go with that term for the duration of this entry.)  The novel begins with Howson’s mother in a clinic-style hospital with the background setting of a tumultuous social upheaval.

I did not really speed through the opening chunk of the novel. It was, well, boring. And I feel there was unnecessary or undue focus on Howson’s mother.  It is this opening section that makes me really feel like Brunner was going somewhere entirely different with the novel – something more political, probably. The social turmoil – rioting? terrorism? It is not entirely specified and it is quite vague. And meanwhile the storyline loses traction. I struggled to get started in this book (while pausing a lot to glance at the nearby bookshelves).

The novel does not develop quickly. After the opening chunk, the next section shows us Howson as a young man struggling to survive in a world that is not open to cripples or telepaths. And then there is a whole segment where Howson is wandering sidewalks and having a lot of heavy introspection. I have to be honest, this part was rough for me. It was just so heavy and I am really disinterested in any navel-gazing/sidewalk-wandering in any plot.

However, there are vivid and gripping sections of the storyline; usually parts wherein Howson is actually doing the “real work” of being a professional telepathist. Brunner did not write a child’s conception of telepathy.  This is not some goofy superpower from the comic books.  This is a “scientifically” considered physical scenario in the character’s brains that results in this immaterial power. Howson is a professional telepathist, which has earned him the title of Doctor.  This means that he does this sort of work as a career and there is nothing silly about it whatsoever. I appreciate the solemn and serious attitude in how Brunner approaches this mental power.  Still, the seriousness also gives the novel a very heavy feeling.

Also, because this story is very connected to psychological scenarios Brunner sometimes seems to come across as if he breezed through an introduction to Freudian psychology and just incorporated some stereotypical ideas as he develops Howson’s character.  It is not that these parts are overdone, it just seems like unless a writer is really willing to jump in and is capable of swimming, just splashing around with Freud 101 does not suit.

In the latter half of the book there are a couple of events that occur that are very well written and had me rather fascinated with the story.  Those who have read the novel probably can guess I am discussing Hao Sen/ Tiger City stuff, which is where Brunner takes us into the “subconscious/dream world” of telepathists. Another event is the Rudi Allef event. The Rudi Allef character is the big key to Gerry Howson’s character, so the fact that we only meet Allef at the tail end of the storyline seems to confirm some of my sentiments from the start of the novel:  Brunner was not entirely certain where he was driving this storyline. Now, as I understand it, this is a “fix-up” novel in which Brunner combined a couple of previously written novellas.  I am not sure we “fixed it up” in a good way. Or maybe the third section alone should have been expanded?

The situation (I do not want to put out any spoilers!) with Rudi is quite interesting and intelligent. I appreciate a lot of what Brunner developed conceptually in this section. It made me consider a whole host of things including:  autism, synesthesia, and aesthetics.  However, suddenly using these concepts this late in the novel kind of makes it seem as if Brunner threw it together too late and just because. It shows that it is a “fix up.”

I think I was more interested in the societal impact of having telepathists and so forth over the personal development thread that focuses on Howson and his challenges. Big picture over human interest……

Overall, the storyline has a lot of peaks and valleys.  The concepts are intelligent and interesting, but there is a weight to the novel that slows the read down and makes it a little more like reading a case study than entertainment fiction.  I am glad I read this novel, but I sure cannot think of a person I would recommend this to. Its a good book, but it is not easy to like.  I would give it 3.83 stars if I could – 4 seems a gift.

4 stars


Illuminae CoverIf you know me or read my blog enough, you realize I have…. opinions… on what is now called “young adult fiction.”  I don’t care to climb on my soapbox today (however, last week a blogger called one of my reviews “dyspeptic,” which periodically has me in giggling fits.) Needless to say, I don’t really read a great deal of whatever passes for “ya fiction,” but this novel just kept interesting me whenever I saw it. So it got lumped in with an Amazon order.  Illuminae was first published in 2015 and is co-authored by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  It is, allegedly, the first in a trilogy of novels (I believe the second is to be released in October 2016.)

There will be some spoilers (as usual) in this review, so read at your own peril.  The story takes place in 2575, beginning on the planet Kerenza IV.  The planet is of interest because it has large amounts of hermium, a particular ore.  The Ulyanov Consortium mines, illegally, the hermium.  BeiTech Industries launched a surprise attack on this mining colony.  Distress calls were answered by the United Terran Authority.

The entire novel is presented in a somewhat unique format. Technically, it is told in digital files that have been collated of the event into a sort of long dossier.  So, the reader “reads the story” in the form of e-mails, documents, and memos that were real time during the event, but then were saved and packaged into a complete dossier.  The majority of the documentation is instant messaging communication, e-mail, and memos from the two main characters:  Kady Grant and Ezra Mason.  These two are teenage survivors from Kerenza who are on “refugee” ships.  The day of the attack, these two teens broke up from their romantic relationship.

I recently read Marisha Pessl’s Night Film and that novel also utilized some non-traditional formatting to enhance the storyline.  I reviewed that favorably, and in my review I did suggest that readers should prepare to see more of this sort of inclusion of faux digital media in novels. I think Illuminae is the first novel that I have read that relies entirely on this sort of format.  Honestly, at first, it is slightly difficult to get into, as they say.  However, by page 100, I think the formatting is very engaging and the reader should enjoy the process.

For the most part the characters are okay, a little bit stereotypical qua teenagers, but still likeable enough. I guess this is considered young adult fiction, but I don’t really quite see why. I’m thinking about the actual content here. I mean, whenever there is a cuss word within the text it is blacked out (like old censorship documents), but there is enough context to know exactly what is being said.  And, well, some of the non-cussing parts push the boundaries more toward an older reader than a younger. I have no idea, really, what age group, but I don’t think anyone under 17.  (But I have a USSR attitude when it comes to youth, so……………..)

The novel has zombies in it. Well, they are not called zombies in the novel.  But what else are they?  They are victims of the virulent Phobos virus.  The patients display symptoms 12 – 24 hours after exposure.  They have increased physical stamina, but most interesting is that the victims also display intense psychological changes. They become highly paranoid and emotional.

Pop culture seemed to me to be saturated with vampires. And then zombies. I guess I feel like the zombie-craze [pun!] should be winding down.  I am quite tired of zombies, myself, but perhaps teenagers cannot get enough of them. I did not hate the usage of this zombie stuff in the novel, but I honestly would have rather seen a more technological problematic for the heroes. Like androids, computers, or clones. I suspect the authors really wanted to give the characters some emotional torment. After all, they are survivors of an attack that wiped out most of their friends and family. What other survivors there may be are now victims to a zombie-making disease. So, if the authors were going for traumatize the youth – this works fairly well. Still….. zombies…..

The best part of the book is that the villain changes. Who is the villain?  There is no obvious, simple villain here and I think that is very good.  Obviously, the authors want the reader to take a look at morality within a shifting context. The UTA refugee-holding ship is partially run by a massive artificial intelligence.  It’s nicknamed AIDAN.  It becomes damaged in the original battle above Kerenza and it may or may not be malfunctioning to a varying degree.  The storyline has a lot of twists and turns involving this “character”  and most of the thrill factor in the book comes from dealing with AIDAN.  However, I was disappointed that towards the middle and middle-end of the novel the authors turned this machine into that eye-rolling, daydreaming, Tinman-wishes-he-had-a-heart thing.  I don’t necessarily think that all A.I. dream of being human and having emotions or whatever the heck a multitude of authors think. (Cp. Data on Star Trek).  This was a little bit of a let down for me.  However, I must reiterate, this is a “ya” novel, which I take to mean:  stuffed with emotional drivel.

Looking past these criticisms, though, I did enjoy this novel. I will try to remember to get ahold of book two when it is released. I liked the characters and I do want to continue the storyline.  Overall, three stars is a fair rating, I think, because though the whole plot is not entirely unique, the format is.

3 stars