Month: April 2016

The Shores of Space

The Shores of Space - R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space – R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013) was a quick read for me. The thirteen stories zipped by in no time at all.  Originally published in 1957, the book collects some of Matheson’s stories from the early 1950s.  Matheson seems most well known for his horror stories, including:  I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come – all of which were adapted (some multiple times) into film.  It is not really fair to lock authors into one category or another. While there may be some “genre authors,” many writers pen works in a variety of genres/subgenres. Nevertheless, I confess I am not really into horror fiction and so I have never really delved into any of Matheson’s works.  This collection does contain some stories that might qualify as “horror” and few that would be “science fiction,” so it typifies the so-called speculative fiction genre.

One of the things that had me reading this collection, besides the push to get through the 1950s, is that Matheson’s works are so often plumbed by pop culture.  It seems like when a screenwriter/scriptwriter/producer does not know what to do – they all turn to Matheson’s stuff. I do not even know that most people who are pop culture nuts even realize how much material seems to get pulled from Matheson.  Well, in order to familiarize myself, I grabbed this early collection of his works. On the whole, I was not incredibly impressed – and it is difficult to say if my lack of enthusiasm was due to a latent unconscious familiarity due to the popularity of Matheson’s work?

  • Being3 stars –  1954
  • Pattern For Survival1 star – 1955
  • Steel2 stars – 1956
  • The Test2 stars – 1954
  • Clothes Make the Man3 stars – 1951
  • Blood Son2 stars – 1951
  • Trespass3 stars – 1953
  • When Day is Dun3 stars – 1954
  • The Curious Child4 stars – 1954
  • The Funeral 4 stars – 1955
  • The Last Day3 stars – 1953
  • Little Girl Lost3 stars – 1953
  • The Doll That Does Everything2 stars – 1954

Being was a good piece to put at the front of this collection. I think it is very well written and though I feel the basic story has been told or shown to us a million times, this was still rather gripping and harrying.  Starting off with Being really lets the reader know that this is not goofy, silly stuff. The stories in this collection are scary and sometimes even dark.

 

I did not love the second story, Pattern For Survival. It is one of “those” stories where you are supposed to close one eye and consider the whole thing after you read it. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes, I could do without. This was a time of the latter.

 

As soon as I started reading Steel, I was reminded of the 2011 movie starring Hugh Jackman. I later checked this out and yes, the movie was allegedly based on this story.  I am somewhat grumpy because since 2011 I have wanted to see Real Steel, but have not had the opportunity.  Because: Robots.  What can I say, I am a child. Anyway, the story itself I only gave two stars, mainly because it tends to focus on the human-side of things.  The main characters are fighting losing battles against technology and refuse to give up the “glory days.”  I am not impressed by futile stubbornness.

 

Interesting to note,  Steel was also made into a Twilight Zone episode. The main character of interest was played by Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987), one of Hollywood’s more interesting actors; you may know him as Liberty Valance. Anyway, the Twilight Zone episode is in Season 5 as Episode 2.

 

The Test is a disturbing drama.  Several of the stories in this collection carry a heavy drama involving family. I think The Test is a good story but I did not enjoy reading it. And frankly, I have to say, the solution to problems for a number of characters in these stories is often suicide. It is not a comforting or gentle scenario.  However, Matheson writes these stories with a lot of skill. He really drops the reader right into the scene and every tick of the clock, every ambient sound in the story seems realistic and tangible.

 

I think Clothes Make the Man is my favorite story in the collection, though I was not able to give it the highest rating. The way it is written as it gradually reveals its plot twist just tickled me. I really enjoyed this one, though it is short and slightly obvious. I think the best part is that the “main character” is so snarky.

 

Blood Son is a definite horror. I do not think it was written well, I do not like the storyline, and it ends ridiculously. I feel instead of being truly horrific – like it begins – it turns comedic or stupid. Pass on this one.

 

Trespass is one of the longer stories in the collection. The storyline itself is obvious from the start, but the point of it is for the reader to have to watch the horrific struggles of the characters. I am not sure that I am so cruel as to enjoy watching the characters suffer and struggle like this. At the same time, the story is well-written because Matheson really gets into the character’s guts and presents their struggles with twisting, wrenching feeling. Again his skill in drawing the reader into the scenes, so that we are frustrated and restless and angry along with the characters, is demonstrated here.

 

When Day Is Dun is well-written, as is expected by this point. However, I found it disturbing and miserable. Sometimes, it is not easy to look at humanity qua humanity. And some authors do take a dismal view of the subject. Here is another theme found in several of these stories:  end of the world (hence the title).

 

The Curious Child is another of my favorites in this collection. This is the kind of horror that I can read and enjoy. I appreciate the psychological/existential horror a lot more than the blood and guts monsters stuff. So, in this short story we follow the main character as his day falls apart into a chaos that only he experiences. This is really “fun” and gripping. With Matheson’s ability to put the reader in the scene, this story works really well.

 

The Funeral is the comedic episode in this set. This story takes place in a funeral home.  A quite unusual client arrives to make funeral arrangements – for himself.  Very expertly written, I love Matheson’s descriptions and directions of the character Morton Silkline. Seriously, his work here in presenting this character is magical.  There is a lot to like about this story, particularly its light-heartedness that gives one a break from some of the dismality in some of the other stories in this collection.  Matheson’s ability to describe the character’s voices and their mannerisms is expert level. Aspiring authors need to read this to get schooled….

 

The Last Day is a tough story to get through.  It involves family drama and also the miserableness of end of days. If that is not enough, it begins in a sordid, foul scene.  This contains suicide and murder and general human decay.  Not that it is entirely out of place – if it was indeed the last day, this is likely how humans would react. As I said earlier, it can be difficult to look at humans qua humans.  Also, the undercurrent of mother/son relationship is strange and when juxtaposed with the chaos of the plot, it is disturbing.

 

Little Girl Lost again contains some comedy, heavy doses of characters struggling, and also family drama. It also highlights Matheson’s ability to make the reader panic and stress alongside the characters. This short piece takes place in a small apartment in which we find the husband, wife, young daughter, and pet dog.  My main complaint about this story is the very sudden, without explanation, inclusion of an outside character (Bill).  It is jarring when he is introduced because it interrupts the storyline – the reader is busy being confused as to why Bill was summoned. Still, it is a nice, tight read.

 

The Doll That Does Everything is really bland. It is totally skippable. Especially because it is very obvious and I would say it is the most heavy-handed of the collection.  A husband and wife, who are focused on their hobbies, dislike the demands their young son places on the household. So they get him a playmate. Things go poorly.

 

The best thing about this collection is the display Matheson puts on with his ability to put the reader in the scenes. And, perhaps, that is why a lot of his work ended up being made into film – the whole concept of reaching the audience, etc.  Matheson also likes looking at characters who are frustrated and struggling and making the reader watch these battles. I am not so sure I like this style of entertainment, however it works well within the horror/speculative fiction genres. One can safely read The Curious Child, Clothes Make the Man, and The Funeral and be rewarded for their time spent.  Reading the other stories is a good idea as long as the reader can take a little of the gritty, dismal stuff.

Average:  2.69

Most: 3

Recalled to Life

rtlrsRecalled to Life by Robert Silverberg was a quick read that was rather apropos for a major election year.  This novel was originally published, as a novel, in 1962 (Lancer). There was a revised edition published by Doubleday in 1972 and then the ACE edition that I read, published 1977.  Frankly, I think the ACE has the best cover art – courtesy Don Punchatz.  Also included in the ACE edition is an Introduction written by Silverberg in which he tells us much of the history of the novel.

The Introduction tells us that Silverberg was influenced, at least for the title of the story, by Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (a work that I find over-rated and epitomizing Western European writing).  Silverberg says he first encountered the phrase “recalled to life” when he was eight or nine years old. In June 1976, when he penned this Introduction, he shares that upon re-reading this “thirteen year old novel” it struck him that it is not written very well.

I cannot say that I agree with Silverberg. The writing style is no polished Nabokov or Dostoevsky or Flannery O’Connor. It does not have to be; because the rather sparing and direct way that it is written melds well with the political and social nature of the plot. I have certainly read things that were far more poorly written. In fact, if Silverberg had not brought it up, I would not have even thought to make comparisons.

So, the plot of the novel is quite straight-forward.  This novel is about the reanimation of recently deceased persons.  This science fiction novel is realist and focused on political and social context. Throughout the novel, the reader is forced to consider how the reanimation of the dead affects society – in both the sphere of morality and in everyday living. The novel takes place in the year 2033 during the 123rd Congress of the Union.  (For reference, in the real world, 2015 – 2016 brought us the 114th Congress in the USA.)  The main character is James Harker – former Governor of New York State with aspirations of attaining the presidency.

From what I have said already, the realist nature of the novel should be clear.  This is no pseudo-Frankenstein situation with hocus pocus and monsters.  The word “zombie” is bandied about, but this is very far away from the Walking Dead and anything of that genre. In this novel, a group of doctors and scientists approach Harker to be their lawyer/public relations front.  They work for Beller Industries and have managed to successfully bring corpses back to life – using medical advancements. Ultimately, their main development is the stimulation of specific brain-cell regeneration processes.

Harker is a politician and lawyer.  He is no scientist or magician.  His world is the world of political agendas, political parties, shifting alliances, and fickle journalism. So, the novel does focus more on the political machinations and social ramifications of the medical advancement than on character development.  The reader follows Harker’s (and Beller Industries’) struggles that occur once their practice of experimentation becomes public knowledge.

If nothing else, the shifting sands of the ill-informed, irrational, emotional masses is very disturbing, but not unfamiliar.  Similarly, the two political parties in the novel are as obnoxious and toxic and ridiculous as the current day political parties. Petty, knee-jerk reactions with concern over elections and “holding the Party line” as opposed to public welfare, common good, and social stability.  Again, there’s nothing new about any of these scenarios.  However, the hypothetical situation that Silverberg presents does place the political/social mess in an interesting light. Frankly, yes, it would be exactly as Silverberg has imagined it here. And probably worse….

One of the best parts of Silverberg’s novel is that he does not divorce religion from the plot. There is this horrendous exclusivism rampant in people’s thinking that tends to draw a severe and harsh line between religion and science. As if the two must be opposed. And even if they seem to contradict, that it is somehow possible to blindly ignore one or the other in the face of a problematic. In this novel, Silverberg does a bang up job presenting a very reasonable and strong religious position.  This comes in the form of a Roman Catholic priest with whom the main character consults.  And neither the priest nor the science suffers due to the inclusion of this character and his thoughts. No one is mocked or insulted.

Now, the main character ends up having to play a sort of combo Jesus/Sydney Carton rôle. I think Silverberg manages this subtly, but maybe not as realistically as the rest of the plot demands. Still, it is not impossible for the hypothetical to follow this trajectory, just, perhaps, a bit unlikely. Overall, it is an interesting Jesus/Carton play; not too overdone, thankfully.

This is an excellent novel for readers who like politics and morality in their fiction.  I would have students read this for a philosophy contemporary issues course.  Heaven knows they won’t read De Anima any more.  This might suffice as a substitute point of departure. Anyway, this is my first Silverberg read and though this is not a five-star novel, it definitely has shown me that Silverberg is an intriguing author.

3 stars

Rosemary and Rue

Rosemary and RueRosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire is the first novel in the October Daye urban fantasy series.  It was first released in 2009, I read the DAW paperback edition with cover art by Chris McGrath.  April is a busy month for a lot of reasons and I have been running into articles, blogs, and media highlighting the author, so I figured this was a good novel to read in between denser, meatier books.

The main character is October Daye.  She is considered a changeling, which is the term used for the offspring of pureblood Fae and human parents. One of the things that is attractive about this novel (and, presumably, the series it begins) is that it is about Fae/Fairies/Faerie.  I am under the impression that urban fantasy novels are heavily focused on creatures such as:  werewolves, zombies, and vampires.  So, reading a novel in this subgenre that does not involve the usual suspects seemed a bit more interesting.  To her credit, the author does build up a world of Fae in which it does seem to matter that these are Fae and not some other mythical being.

The fact is:  with urban fantasy there is a very obvious paradigm that gets followed.  The inhuman world is structured nearby or parallel to the human world.  There is magic, which generally we learn about practically, but never theoretically. By this I mean, the reader learns that magic operates because the characters use it.  However, the novels never really seem to take this activity beyond that superficial level. Characters are magic users or they are not.  As a comparison, so-called Epic Fantasy novels tend to flesh out their magic concepts a bit more. By not developing the concept at all, it tends to make all the urban fantasy novels seem similar, making magic just a stock element of all stories.  Further, the majority of inhuman societies are always feudal or medieval or courtly.  I do not know if this is some holdover from authors/readers attending too many Renaissance Fairs or having romantic ideals, but I find it too common and obvious in this subgenre.  Finally, urban fantasy seems to really want to meld with the noir detective novel. A lot.

Rosemary and Rue is no different, in many ways, from all the other urban fantasy I have read. I mean, the setting, plot, and main character is very similar to what I have read before. This is no great literature – however, the story was entertaining and comfortably distracting from daily stressors.  In other words, this will read like all other urban fantasy, more or less. And, I suspect, readers will enjoy this one just as they enjoy other urban fantasy novels, more or less.

That is not to say I do not appreciate some things in this novel. As I mentioned above, the usage of the Fae mythology is relatively unique. But also the author seems to have woven a few interesting threads of Shakespeare and his mythos into this series.  That is fun and I liked it. Another key thing is the prologue of the novel is a rather unique way to introduce readers to the character and setting; I was surprised by it!

As a main character, October Daye, or Toby, manifests all the usual personality traits readers have come to know and love. Their actual life is a messy struggle. They are aloof, sullen, snarky, and/or impatient.  They think they are more independent than they are, but yet are constantly seeking assistance from people. I liked October well enough, she struck me as an honest personality…..even though in the beginning she really did seem to be trying too hard to be too snarky.  (The best example of forced snark, for me, is Ben Aaronovitch’s series.)  However, I have to tell you, I did laugh at a couple of her lines…….. like I said:  entertaining!

Still, the villain is probably quite obvious from the start – although the author really does try to give us a nice selection of options to pick from.  The reason the villain is so obvious, though, is that they are also a yucky character. So, even if they were not the villain, they are still the yuckiest in the novel. The end scenes are also very stereotypical and standard “end of story” scenes. Almost so much so that it was ridiculous.  I could have written out what was about to happen next. Anyway, the scenario is resolved.  Unlike a lot of fiction these days, I really appreciated the closure that this novel gives. No loose ends, no mysterious groan-worthy hangers-on, no sickening setups for future novels in the series.  I have to give props to the author for ending the novel tightly.

For fans of Grimm tv series, urban fantasy readers, fans of the Faerie realm.

3 stars

Conquest of Earth

Conquest of EarthConquest of Earth by Manly Banister was originally published in Amazing Stories in 1956.  I read the Airmont Books edition from 1964. This edition sports famous Ed Emshwiller’s artwork, which I like.  It has that blessed vintage flavor to it. Banister is largely considered an “amateur”publisher/writer. Personally, I think this is a bit obnoxious to continue to say in 2016. Nevertheless, although he wrote a pile of short fiction, this is his only novel that was published.

Overall, I can see why this novel would be treated as “second-rate” by a lot of readers and critics. On the other hand, I have read the first novels of a lot of authors and debut novels often have that rough-edged feel to them. I wish more authors would learn from the experience and then develop beyond it. In any case, Banister’s Conquest of Earth is not going to be on any “Best Of” lists, though I will probably treat it a bit more kindly than other readers.

Without reservation, I really enjoyed pages 1-79, or Chapters 1 – 12.  Something about the character and the writing was appealing and fun. Kor Danay, the main character, is something like a pseudo-Tibetan monk combined with some of Marvel’s X-Men mutants. We meet him as he is undergoing a sort of final exam at his Institute (monastery?). It is a do-or-die Examination for Kor and he displays some interesting and powerful skills.

Kor is then assigned to a position outside of the Institute.  He is to go to No-Ka-si, which is a human settlement outside of the larger Ka-si.  The position that Kor is taking was recently vacated. Throughout these chapters, the reader is given to understand there is a basic “us versus them” scenario on Earth.  The planet is a wasteland, dried and overheated, the population in service (knowingly or not) to the conquering alien race referred to as the Trisz.  Little is known of this mysterious race; contact between Trisz and humans is done through a tiered society, which includes the Triszmen – humans loyal to the Trisz. There are the People – which I guess are the general populace of Earth – and there are the Brotherhoods, religious groups.

Honestly, this is one of Banister’s major flaws.  He uses some of the groupings of humans interchangeably.  Man (with the capital-M) is meaningful because it refers to a “meta-human” person.  Many of these are Sages (they wear scarlet robes) and are not to be confused with the Blue Brotherhood (blue robes, folks), the members of which were the ones not fit to continue training in the Institute.   And then there are Trisz, Triszmen, etc. Banister needed to lock down these terms with a bit more consistency.

Anyway, my favorite parts of this novel are Kor’s first experiences outside of the Institute.  This includes his travel to Ka-si and his introduction to the “city.”  I really liked all the intrigue and events of these chapters. If this novel kept to these areas, this would be a very respectable, solid novel.  But in chapter thirteen, Banister decides to take this stuff Underground.  The female character, who had been mysterious and shifty, turns into a stereotype.  All of a sudden all of the specialized training and lifestyle that Kor lived in the Institute seems to fall away and he is ruled by emotions.  Also, characters who were connected to the Institute show up suddenly as if they are some sort of spy agents. It gets messy. Chapter 13 begins a mess.

The mess continues for the rest of the novel – increasing in disaster levels as Kor heads off planet.  Kor, in his spaceship, goes to the far reaches of the galaxy where he encounters primitive peoples.  Naturally, they treat him as a hero/god-figure.  There are events. Things get worse. Storylines get lost.  Eventually, there is a rescue and a wrap-up conclusion.  The final bit is just ridiculous, let’s not discuss it…..hide your eyes.

In chapter 19, there is a big explanatory section that attempts to delve into some epistemological territory and provides a nice pile of nonsense. Or pseudo-nonsense, as it were. Banister really wants to explain and develop these powers and skills that the meta-human Men possess.  I guess I should not fault him for being explanatory, but really, it turns into a babbling stink.

Kor lectures:

“Deductive reasoning is our first order of rationalization.  It is most highly exemplified in the field of mathematics.  Mathematics, however, deals entirely with exact premises and exactness exists nowhere in our Universe.  Mathematics, as a means of reasoning, therefore, can express only ideal conclusions.

Inductive reasoning is the second order of rationalization.  Isolated facts are brought together, and from their behavior, a general law is induced to explain them.

….largely discredited functions of the human mind that the first Men received what they thought to be hints of the existence of a third order of logic – that method of rationalization which transcends both deduction and induction and is the survival factor which works toward the preservation of the individual when all other methods of conscious reasoning fail.  The form of third-order rationalization cannot be consciously detected as a function.  The function is inferred by analyzing its results.”

If this so-called “third-order” method seems to you like intuition or instinct, and it should, that’s only because, Kor tells us, mankind has just not really explored this process.

Somehow, no matter how much instinct to survive we have, I do not see us breaking the time-space continuum and/or shuffling molecules around at will using our “third-order” powers.  On the other side:  Hey, Marvel!  Here’s your Mutants! Give Banister a couple of bucks for the ideas!

Anyway, I emphasize, again, that I thought highly of the first chunk of the book – and wish that part had been extended. I would love to have this novel re-written and we keep the first part and ditch all the off planet rubbish.

3 stars