Month: June 2019

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

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The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Sailor Fell Grace MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (a pen-name) was first published in 1963, but published in English in 1965. The translation of the title has been the cause of much debate.  Allegedly, the Japanese title is something like “Tugging in the Afternoon” or “Afternoon Shiptowing,” referring to a tugboat, perhaps. The translator confesses in a memoir that he consulted his publisher and also with Mishima. Mishima suggested the English title be a lengthy mess. His personality would indeed have preferred such an elaborate title, but it does not mean it was the accurate choice. I have said this previously, I really think Mishima’s works need new translations. It is not that I can bring any scholarly criticism to the current ones, but I am sure I would love to see what another translator could provide. Anyway, this is the fifth piece by Mishima that I have read. I confess that I did not and still do not have much interest in reading the other works by him. I probably will, but it will not be anything I look forward to.

What to say about the tagline at the top of the book cover? “A novel of the homicidal hysteria that lies latent in the Japanese character….”  Wow. This reflects that Western fear-hate of things Far East in such a hideous way. Can you imagine seeing that in 2019? Well, and the terrible part of it is that I think Mishima would have delighted in the ugliness of the tagline.

Mishima is trying to shock readers again. His issues with his father are present, his issues with women are present, his issues with society are present….. Mishima had lots of troubles and they are all on display in this novel.  If you read any synopsis or review of this novel, it seems that it is all “figured out.” By this I mean, readers have decided on all the themes, symbolism, and meanings in the novel.  I am not saying they are right or wrong – but I dislike when a novel is dissected in the same cavalier and disinterested way that the characters in this novel dissect a kitten.  It feels like it is a dissection done just to prove the already expected outcome as opposed to an open-minded, possibility-filled discovering.

The thirteen-year old, Noboru, lives with his widowed mother. He is intelligent and most of the time disgusted with life around him. This draws him nearer to the group of kids who have all developed the same revulsion for the inauthentic and deluded practices that they see around them.  Obviously, some of this is Mishima’s disgust toward the Westernization of Japan post-WW2. However, this is not, as I see it, the only source for this.  Mishima fancies himself a philosophical writer – digging at the “really real.”  Much of his life was spent among fiction, actors, film, theatre, etc. At the end of the day, Mishima is not a philosopher or a scientist – he is a writer. As such, demonstrated in all of his writings, he is also the most unreliable narrator/storyteller I have ever read.

Mishima blathers and struts around and makes outrageous statements until suddenly some of the most beautiful and insightful paragraphs appear.

He never cried, not even in his dreams, for hard-heartedness was a point of pride.  A large iron anchor withstanding the corrosion of the sea and scornful of the barnacles and oysters that harass the hulls of ships, sinking polished and indifferent through heaps of broken glass, toothless combs, bottle caps, and prophylactics into the mud at harbor bottom – that was how he liked to imagine his heart. Someday he would have an anchor tattooed on his chest. – pg 13

Mishima is soon back to proving how tough he is, how “woke” he is, how frivolous and un-Nietszche everyone else is. Whenever I read Mishima I have only one comment:  ‘you are the most inauthentic of them all, aren’t you?’ He pushes the limits with raw and ugly scenes. He makes everything awkward and chafed.

So, it’s easy to see him as an approval-seeking, self-deluded punk who loved to make the image of himself seem so very really real. His writing sometimes has the opposite effect of what it seems he expected it to have. Until every once in awhile, something so heartfelt, intense, and beautiful shows up that the reader cannot help but think Mishima must be anything but a troubled punk.

Noboru is a difficult character to even read about because he is at once so insightful and yet so self-centered. He is very merciless and while he deludes himself into thinking that he is genuine, he is often found speaking/acting contrary to his true state because he wants to manipulate others. So, he is as condescending and inauthentic as the people he is so infuriated with. However, every time he thinks or speaks of the sea a wondrous change comes over him and it is almost the joy and expansiveness that one wishes he would have built his personality upon. Is that a trait of Noboru? I think, rather, it is a power of the sea itself.

The Chief (the leader of the pack of youngsters) is nearly the same character as Kashiwagi who features in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He comes from a wealthy family, is notably intelligent, and he speaks with sneering and smirking. He likes to seem mysterious or noir and is often derisive to his fellow mates.  Indeed, while other readers may be fascinated by the characters Ryuji or Noboru, its really The Chief that is most telling about Mishima qua Mishima.  Maybe a biographer would enjoy ferreting out possible suspects and presenting likely candidates for someone in the author’s life who is represented by this character.

He hadn’t been able to explain his ideas of glory and death, or the longing and the melancholy pent up in his chest, or the other dark passions choking in the ocean’s swell. Whenever he tried to talk about these things, he failed.  -pg 34

This novel, not for the faint or even most readers, to be honest, contains both ‘styles’ of writing that make up a Mishima novel. The profane and repugnant as well as the beautiful and the substantial. Uniquely Mishima.

2 stars

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel FawcettIt seems like this book is not as well-known nowadays as it was a few decades ago. I think that is because many readers started to feel that it was dated and when other readers heard that, they became less enthusiastic about reading this novel. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was first published in novel format in 1954. I read the Fawcett Crest 1972 edition with cover art by John Berkey.  I have tested the title out on a few people – they had no recognition of it. But when I said something like: “Asimov’s robots stuff,” there was immediate recall and familiarity (at least of some concept of the book). Frankly, I love Asimov and his works; he’s one of my answers to those tedious questions of: “Who would you invite to a dinner party if you could pick any six people, deceased or living?” I mention this to say, no, the work does not seem especially dated, and yes, I think this is still a vital read. (By the way, the title comes from a rather poetic line in the novel and represents the state of civilization on Earth.)

Of course other readers will disagree; that’s fine, I just hope they hear me out, too.

One of the reasons that I love Asimov is that he loves to take up a challenge and then chew on it until he has made it his. Can science fiction be a detective mystery? Cross-genre fiction that remains top-notch? The Caves of Steel is such an example. Now, in 2019, readers may not be all that impressed. There are dozens of steampunk-westerns, romantic-urban-fantasy, high fantasy-technothrillers, and mystery novel time-travel stories. How many are any good? Well, that’s a different question. But the familiarity of this mixing is taken for granted now.

I love that Asimov writes about robots. But this isn’t the “juvenile” fiction that we might get from, perhaps, Hal Clement or John Christopher and I always associate with the TV show Flipper (1964 – 1967).  Asimov takes the concept “robot” and chews the heck out of it. I think he even forgets that he’s still chewing on it. The result is a concept of robots that spans nearly all of his fiction works in a consistent manner. The concept is detailed and well-examined. It is also lasting, since everybody seems to run into the Three Laws of Robotics in some fashion. Readers, writers, actors, philosophers, historians, programmers – at one point or another the topic will come up and someone will name drop Isaac. The robots are not tin cans with antennas.

Asimov wrote this novel as a detective story. But he has a few sections where he forgets (this happens often with him) that he is writing a story and he gets on a soapbox, using his characters as mouthpieces, and he runs on about some issue. I am sure some readers find this so very tedious. To me, I love it because this is Asimov chewing on that topic. He is never going to simply hand-wave at a concept. Once he gets on it, though, he really has to flesh out this matter before he can move on.

It sometimes seems to me like readers are always complaining about how they want more depth in their novels. They don’t want wooden motives, cardboard characters, and superficial matter-of-fact plot devices. Well, this is how you get depth sometimes; by getting to the crux of the matter and just working your way around it and carving it out – maybe even using some long-winded soapboxes.

Finally, besides the novel having robots and future-science, besides it being a detective mystery, here are problems of overpopulation, complacency, and stubborn-minded societies. If that was all I mentioned about a book, viz. that it deals with overpopulation and how society needs to be more forward-thinking and tend less toward a nostalgic mentality, who would immediately assume I was talking about a 1950s novel? No one, because such a novel could easily be written and popular in present day!

The biggest complaint that I can justify about this novel is that it is a bit dry sometimes. Dry as in a little bitter, a little dull, and maybe needs a little more gas pedal.  It is true that the main female character is really tough to deal with because she is so hideous a caricature. I would hope that we will reach a stage when it is moot to mention that the female characters in 1950s novels are usually written hideously, demonstrating a chauvinistic mentality common in that era. Certainly there will be some louts today who are still a degree more barbarian in their thinking, but a word from me is not going to change that.  Nevertheless, I understand the level to which the female character (Jessie is her name) vexes readers. Literally, in places, it seems like the entire problem of the storyline is all her fault. The fact that Asimov actually names her Jezebel is just ridiculous. But there it is; do not read this novel for a female role model or strong female lead to identify with, okay?

The characters in the novel (excepting robots) are all tempestuous creatures. Readers might find their stubbornness and their opinionated attitudes disagreeable. None of that is because the novel is dated. Go on Twitter and look at any tweet about anything – you will get the same indignant vehemence and triggered psychoses. One of the robot Daneel Olivaw’s neat abilities is that he can study a person’s psyche by cerebroanalysis. It is as pseudo-science as Asimov gets in this novel. The robot is able to sense when/why humans are willing to change their minds or are receptive to concepts and ideas outside of their own. Definitely this is relevant today – from marketing to ethics.

It is difficult for me to dislike an author who understands that humans, including himself, can be irrationally stubborn or pig-headed. Asimov wrote a detective novel – with some science fiction elements. At the same time, he presented an unnervingly unfriendly look at human attitudes and mentalities. Unlike some modern dystopia novels wherein all is lost and we are waiting for a special, unique hero, The Caves of Steel offers a solution. Shunning the “hold on for heroes” ideas, it makes some strong suggestions for us to roll out of our caves and rekindle our curiosity and bravery.

4 stars

 

Survivor

Survivor 1977 ACE

Survivor by Laurence M. Janifer (1933 – 2002) was first published in 1977. It is the first novel in the six-book Gerald Knave series.  It is the first item I’ve read by Janifer, I think, though he did write under a variety of pen-names throughout his career. Survivor is a short work – just 172 pages in the ACE edition that I read.

The novel takes place on the planet Cub IV, which is a human colonized planet. Humans have been there for twenty years and the planet has been nicknamed the World With No Problems. Some novels have worlds that are perfect because of the extreme-resort spa style of the planet.  That is not the style of “perfect” on Cub IV; there is not a marked amount of hedonism and/or wide-open mentality. This colonization just does not have any troubles – as if this new colonization “did it right.”

Survivor is a spare novel told in the first-person by the main character, Gerald Knave. The novel is not about endless world-building, character development, background information, or tedious descriptions. It is very much a punchy pseudo-pulpy late-70s novel. So, it will not stand up to pointed questions about its plot or setting. I miss these sorts of novels a little bit. What sort? Hard to explain; but the ones that feel – to me – like they are just speedy entertaining blasts in various science fiction settings. I do not always feel like committing to the burden of reading ridiculously detailed and expansive universes with more characters than I can keep track of.  Survivor requires nothing from the reader and is vaguely entertaining.

The native species on the planet are dubbed the Vesci by Gerald Knave. They start “taking over” the human populace telepathically.  So the first two humans to be controlled by the Vesci are Johnny James and Laia Kodorko; two citizens of Cub IV that have become the “patient zero” of the Vesci infiltration.  Some things:  since the Vesci are attacking the humans telepathically, they are all also one unit. Both Laia and Johnny and all others taken over by the Vesci speak the same – they use the pronoun “we” and they say things like: “we are here” and “we are all the same.”  Here is where the reader needs to make the choice to not ask the messy questions.  Ontologically the story just face-planted into the Problem of the One and the Many.  So, unless you want to have a read-along with Avicenna or someone, just put it aside and have fun.

The fight between the humans and the Vesci gets funneled into the manipulation of the telephone network. I get it, because communication is one of those things that is key in war, apocalypse, and disaster. Janifer just really focuses on the telecoms here. But the story is, more or less, the same as all the contemporary zombie stories/shows pop culture has been circulating. Telepathy aliens taking over humans versus contagions taking over humans – not a big plot difference, except I dislike the gore that comes along with the zombie stories.

Janifer, and therefore Knave, is a little less “politically correct” than people born post-2000. But I remember when everyone thought more like Janifer/Knave. Its likely a few things in here will make people roll their eyes, which is fine. Now, the big reveal at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution possible and gives us the happy ending, is not very satisfying. It really is smirk-worthy. I will not spoil it here, but it is a weak element to the story.

Here is a good quick read for someone who just needs to read something light and basic that does not require much from the reader. General 1970s science fiction lightweight. And maybe meeting Gerald Knave is a good idea for true science fiction addicts.

2 stars

Brother Assassin

Brother AssassinBrother Assassin by Fred Saberhagen (1930 – 2007) is the second book in his Berserker series, which began with the 1967 collection Berserker.  This book is a sort of “fix-up” novel of three shorter works that were published in issues of the magazine If in 1967.  I gave the first book in the series four stars and I think I will be doing the same thing with this one. I own two copies of Brother Assassin; the 1969 Ballantine Books edition with Richard Powers cover art is very nice, but I read my other copy:  the 1978 ACE edition with art by Michael Whelan. Truthfully, this first ACE edition has a bunch of typos in it, but the font was easier for me to look at than in the Ballantine.

As one reads this book, it is very easy to notice that it is not from contemporary writers. The book feels vintage. It also feels a bit campy and pulpy, which it is, of course. Nevertheless, I do not think readers should be speedily dismissive of it just because it does not have the same feel to it as more recently published science fiction.  Brother Assassin is written somewhat simply – this is not the prose we would expect from China Mieville.  The characters are not pounded out in exasperating, excruciating detail. In fact, many may seem superficial or obvious. Yes, and, of course, the female character of the book is emotional and a bit immature (dare I say witless?)

Brother Assassin firstThis novel is broken into three sections. Each section is one of the shorter works previously published in If.  The whole novel describes the Berserker attack (infiltration of the past) on the already war-weary planet Sirgol. Each section of the novel focuses on  a particular insertion of Berserker forces into the timeline. How about that as a strategy – if you cannot defeat your enemy in the current time, defeat him by going to the past and destroying crucial elements of the historical timeline.  Certainly, this is not perfect science – it is not meant to be. It is written well enough, though, that the reader can pretend that it is possible and really invest in the well-being of the characters.

Continuity among all this timeline movement is held by the main character, Derron, who twice is sent back in time to deal with the Berserker “assassins.” Derron Odegard is an unhappy, but dutiful time operative. One would have to return to the original stories and then see what (if any?) differences were made or interludes added regarding Derron – but I think in its final form, this fix-up can be read as a redemptive storyline.

It’s not really ideal to think of this as a strict time-travel novel. It’s almost more ontological than it has any right to be. And there’s a delicious amount of heartstring-plucking ethics thrown in each section to make the novel more than just an action sequence.

The last section of the book is going to have different levels of depth and meaning for various readers.  Those of us GenX and back who were raised in the Church are probably going to have a different feel here than those Z-Gen types who have never been inside a church. So, reader perspective will change the feel. Nevertheless, the story is still interesting…. a re-imagining of the business with Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. Saberhagen does an interesting job here of making all the participants in the debate seem real. St. Francis of Assisi is the other character that is juxtaposed between the heliocentric drama and the struggles of Derron and his timeline. Let me admit, while many parents read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, I was read the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  Like I mentioned: a reader’s background will change the level to which this story resonates with him.

Overall this is not high-tech hard science fiction. The work is flawed here and there.  I just plain and simple liked Saberhagen’s work with the main character Derron. I liked his work with the character Matt. I liked his styling of a Renaissance drama in the last section. So, based on feel – as opposed to anything else – I give this four stars. Its not great literature, but it was a good thing for me to read.

4 stars