Month: April 2020

Ring Around The Sun

Ring Around the Sun

ACE 1959

Ring Around the Sun is the seventh novel by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that I have read. I read the ACE 1959 edition, but the novel was originally a serial publication in 1952-1953. The cover art to the ACE edition was done by Robert E. Schultz, but ACE utilized this artwork on other books, to include the 1955 ACE Double The Big Jump by L. Brackett.

Ultimately, of the seven novels I have read by Simak, this is the most complete and well-formed novel, in my opinion. Unlike most of the others, this novel has a solid start, middle, and ending, which is a bit of a pedestrian manner of speaking. The truth is, I have previously written that I feel Simak’s novels have dissatisfying endings and that this detracts from a measure of completeness of his novels. In Ring Around the Sun, the ending is sufficient – the resolution to the novel is downright cool!

So, seven novels of Simak and I feel like I am reading the same story at this point. Well, not in the details, of course, but the themes are still the same. Simak has big ideas that get demonstrated in the relationships between three “character types.”  There is usually the Everyman that is well-represented, the alien or non-human, and then there is a human of an evolved nature or who possesses some paranormal quality.  In this novel, the big idea is that there are multiple, but not entirely “parallel,” earths in which advanced humans are trying to “save” humanity from humanity.

Just like in other Simak novels, the first quarter of the novel has that creepy intensity wherein the reader could be convinced this is not quite science fiction, but maybe also some crime/thriller read. Just like in other Simak novels the pastoral, rural setting comes into play. Old country homes, farms, sole proprietor hardware stores, wooden fences, crabapple trees – all the stuff of rural middle America serve to anchor the novel’s character.  Just like in other Simak novels, the main character is a middle-aged chap who is likeable, but aloof. Jay Vickers lives alone, but sufficiently, in Cliffwood. (Get it? CLIFFwood? Har, har har…) The opening of the novel introduces us to Jay in a gentle way, but yet giving us huge clues and valuable plot pieces for the rest of the novel. Unlike so many novels where we find plot elements descending on us like ACME Anvils, these are subtly written and gently placed so that the development of the novel is not heavy-handed.

There is a major goings-on that is the deciding factor for humanity as a whole – and not in a long-distant future. The tipping point is now, with Jay Vickers! Another trademark of Simak is how he focuses on individuals, but yet writes events that affect the whole planet. Jay Vickers is not simply human and as he discovers more about this fact, the novel progresses to show that while Vickers might be abnormal, that specialness is in the process of becoming the norm.

Present in this novel, are also the long moments of philosophical thought wherein the main character questions and wrestles with a variety of existential questions. In this novel, these segments did seem longer than in the other novels, but they also were written with more acuity, I think. Chapter 36 is a big philosophical think for Vickers. In this novel, Simak really ties in a lot of the novel’s subplots, mechanical elements, and incidentals better than in the other novels. I think his work with a child’s top (remember those spinning devices?) is exceptionally well-done. Simak also understands that for the depth that his big idea needs, he has to look at things from a variety of spheres – so he does consider man-as-laborer, man-as-social, economics, culture, and oddly, love. His consideration is also not limited to the here and now; Simak’s big idea always takes a big timeframe. He does a strong examination of humanity in this novel, but I will say, his results are somewhat negative. As in other novels, I feel that Simak is a bit dismal, but that its not as direct or overwhelming as some very miserable dystopia authors.

Although almost all of the elements that make up this novel are found in Simak’s other novels that I have read, I feel they are just done better in this one. From the plot, to the pieces of the storyline, including the characters and their motivations, the props and incidentals, this big idea is both satisfying and complete. It contains all of the key Simak trademarks and has a consistency I don’t find in some of his works. Therefore, if I was to select one Simak work that (out of those I have read) best exemplifies what Simak is about, I would choose this novel.  Further, this novel also serves as an excellent example contra those readers who are under the mistaken belief that science fiction is goofy and inane. This is a serious novel written by an author that is deeply concerned with the state of the world and humanity.

The odd thing, to me, is why, after writing this one, did Simak then attempt the same basic plot so many other times? If it was to sell novels and make money, okay, I accept that. However, an author of this much obvious skill could have written more diverse stories with equal gravity and insight. Instead, this novel seems to be something of a template that Simak then returned to, at least a few more times, in other novels. It is because Simak is a skilled writer that the other novels remain valuable and are well-liked. But, I admit, after reading this one, I think the other novels seem less original and more like template-fill-ins. I guess Simak just really wanted to hammer these concepts down and they were what was vital to his thinking and writing.

Inception posterRecommended for good readers, vintage science fiction readers, readers who like philosophical speculation, and Simak maniacs! (Also, I don’t know that I will ever look at/think about/use a toy top in the same way!)

Lastly, the “originality” of the film Inception (2010) fades after reading this. But fans of Inception should surely love this novel as well.

4 stars

 

Japanese Gothic Tales

"Japanese Gothic Tales" - Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai'i Press, 1996

“Japanese Gothic Tales” – Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai’i Press, 1996

I read this collection of four stories by Izumi Kyoka (1873 – 1939) in April 2020. I decided to read this because, honestly, I was avoiding the next (chronological) novel by Yukio Mishima. This book caught my eye and I decided to read it. The author is considered a major writer of modern Japan; there is even a prize for literature that is in his name given by his home city:  Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (Izumi Kyouka Bungaku Shou).  He was a contemporary of Junichiro Tanizaki, Nagai Kafu, and Natsume Soseki.

This particular collection, with its title “Japanese Gothic Tales” is edited by Charles Shiro Inouye.  Inouye wrote his dissertation on Kyoka at Harvard and his deep knowledge of Kyoka shows in his extensive introduction as-well-as the end notes that serve as a brief textual analysis at the end of the book.  This book was first published in 1996 by the University of Hawai’i Press and Inouye also provides the dates for each of the four stories contained in the book.  However, I do not recall Inouye sharing why these four stories were specifically selected for this collection. Inouye also does not provide a bibliography of the author’s works. Inouye might have included one in his 1998 work The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka (1873–1939), Japanese Novelist and Playwright, which I do not own.

Inouye starts his introduction to this book by bringing up a comparison of Kyoka and Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). Inouye builds his discussion upon the notion of “Gothic.” Personally, I think Inouye must be very brave to make this his point of departure because, I think, in literary studies “gothic” has so many interpretations, some narrow and some wide-open, that anyone bringing the term up must also be ready to defend their usage. Its overused and often ill-used as a term/genre, in my not-so-humble opinion. However, Inouye was brave enough to use the term even in the title of the collection, so he must feel it brings some value to the collection.  As this is really my first foray into Kyoka’s writings, and because I am a novice in Japanese literary theory (if even that!), I know better than to make any further assertions on whether Inouye is making strong arguments or not. This is my way of saying, in this review I use all the terminology very loosely and tentatively.

Kyoka’s stories here collected are:

  • The Surgery Room (Gekashitsu, 1895)
  • The Holy Man of Mount Koya (Koya hijiri, 1900)
  • One Day in Spring (Shunshu / Shunshu gokoku, 1906)
  • Osen and Sokichi (Baishoku kamonanban, 1920)

All four of these stories feature elements that a reader might classify as Gothic.  For example, the usage and reiteration of specific colors (especially red), beings that are not what they seem, scenes in hospitals, clergy/religious individuals, forlorn romance, and fantastic components. If, as suggested by Inouye, there is any valid comparison between Poe and Kyoka on their place in Gothic literature, it seems to me that Inouye is more pastoral and poetic than Poe. That really does not have a whole lot of meaning, other than my stating my reader reaction to this collection. It is basically my saying that in these four stories I did not find the outright horror that is sometimes associated with Poe’s work.

The damp and sweaty plum blossoms nearby, a flame ready to flutter away into the crimson sunset, swayed brilliantly with the chatter of small birds. – pg 73 (One Day in Spring)

I see why Inouye put the first and last stories as bookends, so to speak, in this collection. They actually balance each other and work well in this collection even though they were written twenty-five years apart. It is interesting because the core of each of these stories, a sort of failed and forlorn romance, culminates in a hospital room with surgeons. And I know it seems that I am leaving something out, or as if I did not finish my thought, but that is precisely how Kyoka wrote these stories. The endings are unfinished, that is to say, they are as far as they need to go and Kyoka has the strength and bravery to let the reader come to whatever conclusion they very well like. It is not quite the same as saying that the stories are incomplete, although one might accuse me of playing semantic games here. I just mean, the stories are as complete as they need to be, whether there is a traditional “…and this is what happened. The End.” stamped on them or not.

Obviously I do not know how these stories sound and feel in their original language. However, in English, they have an extremely fragmentary feel, but not as jarring as they might be because the near-poetic wordsmithing seems to smooth out fragmented pieces. All of the stories are written as if it was a sleeper awoken who might be retelling their dreams and the linear cause and effect of reality, utterly absent in dreams, causes them to just move from scene to scene without worrying about all the pesky academic details. The reader who only enjoys very clear-cut and straightforward writing will not like these stories; I daresay they would be frustrated and find the stories to be incoherent.

The four stories involve mysterious, inscrutable women, clergymen or surgeons, and odd moments of nature in the scenes. In the first story there is a segment where Kyoka must tell us the azaleas are in bloom. The second story is magnificent for its descriptions of nature; in particular a frightful, deep forest in the mountains.  The third story has a kigo (seasonal word) right in its title (Spring) and devotes long sections to describing rapeseed fields/blossoms. The fourth story has intense imagery describing rains, mud, and the moon.

“…the woman wore thick, lacquered clogs, fastened with wisteria-colored thongs and splashed with mud.” – pg. 141 (Osen and Sokichi)

At the end of the day, I really won’t care much about the stories for the plots. I do not actually feel like the characters were all that important either. I give the shortest of the four stories the highest marks, because it is so abrupt and disturbing and poignant. The second story is remarkable not for any character or plot, but I want to sit down with J. R. R. Tolkien and also Terry Brooks (author of The Sword of Shannara, 1977) and I want to talk about, really talk about, those forest scenes and those descriptions. I will remember this story for its images of nature. The third story is the weakest of the bunch. I really feel that Kyoka wanted the reader to get something from this, maybe a sense of third-party witnessing unrequited love? or something? but the story gets really meandering – just like its main character. The descriptions of water, though, are well done. Finally, the last story, with its weird focus on eyebrows is the strangest of the four. However, I feel it probably best explains a lot of Kyoka as a person and as a writer and the topics that were significant to him and his work.

Do I know what these stories were all about? Honestly, no, not really. But that does not mean that they are crap or I am stupid. “One Day in Spring” is a story retold in ‘onion layers’ – a previous traveler told segments to a temple priest, who is telling segments currently to a traveler, who somehow can be discussed by a narrator, as well. Its not easy to follow.  Still, I really feel like the value in this collection is in the unique manner of storytelling and sudden vivid descriptions. This is not, however, some pretty collection of nature poems; there is plenty of “Gothic” material here:  death, fear, misery, and deformity.  Therefore, this collection is for very strong readers.

3 stars