Month: January 2021

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

Vintage Science Fiction Month:

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Beyond This Horizon

115409I finished another book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein (1948). I read the Signet/New American 1979 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  I have read some science fiction since I started this blog, but never have I read any Heinlein.  I run into conversations, lists, topics related to Heinlein a lot on the internet; he seems nearly as talked about as Asimov.  However, I have never really felt drawn to read his novels.  So, it has taken quite awhile to work up to reading one – and I have “Vintage Science Fiction Month” to thank as a motivation.

As expected from various snippets read here and there, this one was good and bad. The good was okay and workable. The bad was really quite awful. It was rather a slog to read, but I’ve read worse. I will not be recommending this to anyone, really, except maybe the true hardcore science fiction addict. I rate it two of five stars, but I am glad I read it. I mean, there are few books that I actually (honestly) regret reading.  All of that being said, a much better review from 2013 can be found here:  Beyond This Horizon review.  For the most part, I agree with it and bless the man for having spent that much time typing out his thoughts on this clunker.

I’m no expert on Heinlein’s writing/thoughts and sure do not want to be. The author is frustrating and at points ridiculous.  However, he does earn (based solely on this novel, mind you) a begrudging respect because he did not write a fluffy turd of a novel.  Sadly, at times it is somewhat unclear if this actually qualifies as a novel.  Facts: this was first published in magazine-serial format and this was early in his career.  If you asked me what this novel is about, you know – in that general bookstore conversation sort of way – I would probably not be able to give you an answer. It really does not have a decent plot. So, either the thing is plotless, overly forced in its plot, or unfortunately and ill-advisedly mashed together. 

This is an author who obviously values science in his science fiction.  He does work hard at making his ideas “scientific.”  Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he was not an engaging writer. So those hefty segments of science are really tedious and dull.  No, as a reader, we should be open and care a bit about what the author is saying, even if it is a bit of an “info-dump.”  Except by the tenth page when you are starting to skip past paragraphs “accidentally…..”

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
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The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

Worst part of the novel? Any time the characters interact with or discuss women. It is cringe-worthy and awkward. And I am certain that criticisms focusing on these points are available all over the internet, so I do not care to examine them any further here. 

The rest of the book is peppered with ideas and elements that go nowhere, are there for no reason, do not have a real explanation, or just seem like whims that Heinlein felt like mentioning. The society of this far future novel is mainly genetically engineered. The people do not experience illnesses. They all seem to have conquered economics in some mysterious way, yet remain consumers and still work and actually have finanacial management. 

Society is armed and dangerous – and they act with an outdated pseudo-chivalrous manner. Duels are normal but Heinlein did not develop the duelling/mores protocols properly. (My favorite scene is, as it is everyone’s, the famous scene in the restaurant early on in the novel where a main character manages to flip his seafood over a railing to a table on the first floor and a bizarre interaction of exaggerated politeness occurs.)  There is a fascinating segment in chapter twelve regarding football. Considering reading it in 1948 and then considering the milieu of football now, this segment is probably most worth reading. Its cynical and amusing.

My biggest complaint with this messy novel is the characters’ names. It is so difficult for me to read books in which major characters all have names that start with the same letters. I literally lose track instantly. In this one there is a Mordan and a Monroe and they are different people and I could never keep the names straight. 

Well, the thing probably should have been forcibly stopped after chapter thirteen, if it had to be published at all. I am glad I read it. I am glad I will not re-read it! Recommended for no one.  Historians and science fiction maniacs may find some value in reading it. 

2 stars

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Now Wait For Last Year

Now Wait for Last YearI challenge you to tell me a better novel to read in order to start the year after the infamous 2020 besides a PKD novel…  I just finished reading Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I read the Mariner Books edition (sometimes I vaguely wish all my PKD novels were by the same publisher). Anyway, I will share upfront that I unashamedly give this novel four stars and I am glad to have read it – I have missed PKD pandemonium in my reading life.

The thing with PKD novels is that they tend to linger in your mind after you finish them. I do not know if it is an unsettled, unresolved feeling or a chewing on certain ideas or scenes or something. I have noticed it several times reading his works; you do not simply just close the book and move on. Or, if you do, you probably are not an honest reader. (Honest with yourself, that is, and certainly not with the books you are reading.) Some readers really do not like PKD books and carry on a frowning distaste for the book they just finished. Others just keep seeing little symbols and signifiers from the book in the world around them. Its really interesting to look at how readers process PKD novels.

vintage-sf-badgeThis is another PKD novel containing all of his usual writing style elements that we know and love. This one was quite a bit more difficult for me to get into. I resisted enjoying this one for the first quarter of the book, I think. The central theme and focus was distasteful and uninteresting and so very miserable that I really did not want to continue reading. But, it is a mark of PKD’s skill that I kept on reading and am giving this thing four stars. Literally, I think this plot runs around in circles for 260 pages. Within that, reality collapses and the drug-induced mania is intense. I mean, any time hallucinatory drugs are a major storyline, I am sure there will be some chaos – but PKD takes this stuff to a whole different level. It is difficult to know if his writing is brilliant or one hundred percent insanity. Readers will probably have their heads swimming – are they sure PKD didn’t slip them a capsule?

About two thirds of the way through, I decided this is the “real-ist” novel of PKDs. Its so very realistic and sobering and grounded. And this thought made me chuckle because I promise, most readers are not going to agree with that. But I do not mean it is most real in a superficial sense. I feel it is most real in a human sense – wherein personal drama and turmoil often overwhelms people – even destroying other aspects of their lives (professional, political, etc.) And the agony PKD was writing about had to have been real – TO HIM, at least. (Whether or not the agonies that he suffered were ones he caused or not is another, separate question.)

I really like Eric (the main character) because he is such an interesting miserable thing. His complete confidence in his career, his questioning of his morals, his agony regarding his marriage – these are all very human characteristics, if not “idealistic” traits. And PKD shows them off with a constant barrage of throwing messy scenarios at Eric. Loyalty, war, professionalism, temptation to do evil, etc. Eric is a character that I think will stick in my head for a long time. He originally read like a bland salaryman and then I started to see him as a sort of PKD-Everyman. His status as hero rose and fell and rose and fell throughout the storyline and PKD is such a cruel Creator for doing these things to this man. See how much sympathy Eric ended up finding in me?

As with all PKD novels, there is a lot going on. His works can be approached from so many points, but this one, perhaps, has the strongest grappling with morality. All of PKD’s books have this morality-wrestling and I do see readers get incensed at his perspectives or feelings and then miss out on this horrific existentialist turmoil that he describes.  The science fiction aspects are here, but not in some goofy space opera manner. They are just woven seamlessly into this whirlwind. I love how this novel is utterly science fiction, but I really felt all the science fiction was natural and reasonable. Yeah, there are bunch of sections that aren’t “pretty” reading. It seems some reviewers only want to read sanitized things as if because they don’t “like” a thing, it should not exist……. PKD’s whole oeuvre is to shatter reality, destroy reader’s comfort zones, and make characters and readers transcend themselves. Also, just like EVERY OTHER PKD novel I have read – the ending chapter sucks. He cannot end a novel for nothin’ …. and that, in itself, speaks a lot about what goes on with PKD’s psychology.

4 stars

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