Author: nawfalaq

Thinking. Reading. Writing. Punching.

Under the Green Star

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“Under the Green Sky” – Lin Carter; DAW 1972 (cover: Tim Kirk)

Under the Green Star by Lin Carter was first published in 1972.  It is the first of five novels in the Green Star series.  I think this is the first thing that I have read by Carter, but it is really hard to know for certain.  Anyway, the key fact about this novel is that it is Carter’s attempt to emulate the style and subject of the so-called Burroughs tradition.  This, of course, refers to Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950).  Burroughs is the creator of the super famous archetype-level characters:  Tarzan and John Carter. In any case, even the title of this book refers to Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was originally (in some form) entitled Under the Moons of Mars. So, Lin Carter gives us an excellent homage to this sort of sword & planet tradition.

I enjoyed reading this novel because I am always entertained by adventure-pulp stories. There is something wonderfully raw about them and their constant headlong rush into constant adventure.  It is sometimes a relief how authors of this style usually hand-wave and shrug regarding all the tedious details.  They and their characters are not omniscient and all of that is besides the point.  The point is to have adventures and be heroic and carry a sword.

Which is real – the fantastic adventure I feel compelled to relate – or the world beyond my windows?  Have I only dreamed that I have stood where no man of my race has ever set foot before, or is this dull world of tax returns and ball-point pens, of air pollution and TV talk shows, itself by a dream? Are both worlds real? – pg. 7

Carter did a very good job of matching the original form that he was trying to homage.  He clearly has a fondness for and a sharp understanding of that former style.  The vocabulary is just ever-so-slightly less archaic.  Really only people who care a lot about words would notice that his word-choice is not exactly Robert E. Howard’s or H. P. Lovecraft’s.  The descriptions are just barely not quite Burroughs’ descriptions.  But only to those who read a great deal and, as I said, love words.  The style, the milieu, the storyline, the characters, all seem to solidly come from the Burroughs tradition.  And perhaps, even Burroughs himself, if you did not know better.

Similarly with John Carter, the main character in this novel manages to end up on a different planet.  Of course, here is a referential sequence of the nameless main character:

To walk the surface of another planet – to go where no man of my world had yet been in all the ages of infinite time!  Vague thoughts of the books I had read with such fascination in my boyhood came back to me – memories of old Edgar Rice Burroughs and his unforgettable Martian adventure classics – now I, too, like John Carter, could stride the dead sea bottoms of mysteries and romantic Barsoom! – pg. 15, chapter two

But, in the end, Lin Carter knows enough that he cannot duel on Burroughs’ home turf, so to speak.  He knows he has to take us somewhere new. So, the main character manages to get himself to the planet under the green star.

And the setting is actually interesting. I mean, I have to admit that I was reminded a lot of the 2013 children’s animated movie Epic (which was itself based on the story by William Joyce:  The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs).  I do not think it spoils too much to say that on this planet of the Green Star, the people are miniaturized and the flora and fauna is gigantic.  Now, like the nameless narrator, I have no idea if the people are truly miniaturized (Cp. sizing in Lilliput of Jonathan Swift’s work. The people there are about one-twelfth the size we are used to.) or if the people are normally-sized and the trees and insects are just outrageously large.  Imagine huge trees such that their branches are like four-lane highways!  Imagine the peril from things like spiders and lizards!

One does not, however, look for stones in the upper branches of a tree. – pg. 74

And the entirely of the novel is spent within the trees of this world. The ground, if there is one, is not seen and remains an unknown.  Imagine a world with trees so large, that one could live their entire lives without seeing the earth below.  And this food for the imagination is partially why adventure-pulp novels are so much fun.  Now, it is no good if a reader just blazes over the words in the novel and does not actually allow his imagination to enjoy these items.  In fact, without imagination or fun, this is a super-fast and extremely silly read.

We could have done with a bit of tomato sauce, or a twist of lemon, but I suppose Crusoes cannot be choosy. – pg. 77

That is my favorite line in the entire novel. It really amuses me and I feel like I should incorporate it into my daily speech.  Remember that, fans of swords & planets – you take adventure as it comes and you do not act all picky about it!

Well, this is immensely readable especially if you enjoy the Burroughs tradition.  However, even if you have not read all that much Burroughs and/or Howard, this is enjoyable. Sure, it is a pastiche of a time gone by and maybe of authors who were not perfect, but it is excellent escape reading.  Only the hardest-hearted reader would, I think, not find this enjoyable. I’m so glad I own book two, because like our main character also feels, there is something magical about that planet under the Green Sun.

3 stars

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The Penultimate Truth

Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1964.  I have not read a PKD novel since August 2016 and I really feel bad about that. This novel made me feel better about my reading; PKD is a heckuva writer. The only really bad thing about this novel was that my copy is the 1998 Harper/Voyager edition. The cover is awful; allegedly by artist Chris Moore. The female on the cover looks android-ish; strange skull shape and her neck seems too long. But the issue is that there are no female main characters, only very minor ones, so why is there a weird girl on the cover?

Anyway, the main characteristic of this novel is that it is the most like the “typical” and “usual” style of novels that one reads.  I mean, structurally and style-wise. It is somehow the most normal of the PKD novels. There is a linear storyline and the plot, though futuristic, is not bizarre. The ending is actually one of PKD’s better ones! Sometimes I cannot recommend a PKD novel to a fellow reader because his novels do not appeal to all readers, even if I think they are interesting or exceptional. This novel, a dystopian imagining, should appeal widely. Still, it feels PKD was really holding the reins tightly on this one.

Not to say that there are not key PKD elements to this novel.  This entire novel is about one’s possible worst fears regarding governmental control. So, it belongs in that category of 1984, We, and other works that highlight extreme totalitarian governments. In this story, however, the “government” (and I use that term quite loosely) is a gigantic facade that the masses wholeheartedly believe is working for their best interests. Perhaps it was originally, because this novel depicts a future that takes place during/after World War III.

The War is between West-Dem and Pac-Peop.  Human soldiers are not involved in the actual combat. Instead, leadies, which are intensely powerful robots that can survive nearly anything, fight the battles.  The entire planet is enveloped in warfare. Extreme hazardous conditions result from the war and humans are forced into “ant tanks” in order to be protected.  These ant tanks are deep underground. The inhabitants spend their lives on rations and they are employed in repairing leadies and sending the parts back into the war effort.  Above ground remain the few necessary figures – the government and other such ranking groups.

But the war ends and nobody tells the majority of human population that is underground.  Instead, the simulacrum of a world still at war is fed to the masses.  Thoroughly misinformed about the state of their country, the war, the planet, the people in the tanks are held as prisoners not by force, really, but by fear and lies.

Now, this sounds fairly interesting, but probably not too unique. There are plenty of novels that have similar totalitarian dystopian visions. However, what is great about this novel is that PKD does not let us have one truth, two truths, three truths. And, really, at the end of the novel we may only have reached the “penultimate truth.”  What is truth?

For decades truth has been manufactured – and it is always manufactured – by the group in power. So, layers and layers of lies/truths are the reality and are there no good men left to save us all?  No matter how the storyline plays out, there is a deep feeling that in this novel PKD truly loses his faith in humanity.  I have now read twelve PKD novels. Some are more frivolous, some are more bitter. Some are soul-searching. But this one, I am starting to believe, is the turning point. From early PKD with some hope to latter PKD, who is without hope for humanity.

None of the characters in this novel are good. They are not wholly altruistic, moral, self-sacrificing men.  In fact, in several places, they are despicable and conniving and utterly self-serving. They display cowardice, greed, violence, and deceit.  PKD even manages to squeeze in a little moralizing here:  in a cruel, totalitarian simulacra, does traditional morality get displaced? Are some actions, normally taboo and immoral, now considered necessary?

This is a very good novel. It is creepy and frightening in many ways. The characters are a little difficult to follow every so often, but its easy reading and not slow and sluggish.  It is also accessible to most readers, I would think. However, most of us spoiled-rotten readers do not turn to PKD for worlds that “make sense” are “typical” and stories which have a “beginning, middle, end.”  We read PKD when we want to be put in a super-fast rocket as everything is  turned upside-down and inside-out. The bizarre and wacky that PKD usually paints his dystopian stories in is missing. And I missed it.

4 stars

 

Time’s Arrow

Times ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven.  Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was.  I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.

The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life.  The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.

Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.

There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93

So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.

Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969).  I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology.  Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.

I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.

The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.

The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story.  Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.

The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.

Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.

This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.

Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.

2 stars

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Temple Golden Pavilion

“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” – Yukio Mishima

This is actually the second time I read this novel. But since one cannot step into the same river twice, I suppose, this is also my “first” time reading “this” novel. Written by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970), it was published in Japan in 1956 and was translated into English in 1959. I read the Vintage International edition, translated by Ivan Morris.  It is a literary fictional re-telling of the life of Hayashi Yōken, a Zen Buddhist Acolyte, the arsonist who burned down the original Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Hayashi Yōken committed this horrible act in 1950 and six years later, this novel was published.

The main overarching point that I want to assert regarding all of this is that no other author in the universe ought to have written this novel. Yukio Mishima is precisely the one that would, could, and did write this. Allegedly, Mishima met with the young monk once the monk was imprisoned. Somehow this is accepted as near-fact, though, I do wonder how Mishima was allowed this access?  I do not doubt he was, though. Mishima was enigmatic, overwhelming, significant. He was also a member of the samurai class; even if this was already 1950.

Take note, I think if all the dates can be trusted, Mishima was nearly the same age as the young acolyte – allegedly, Hayashi Yōken was 22, Mishima was 25.

Mishima was not one who would stop a rumor, I suppose, were one to circulate. But he might be pleased to give contradictory reports, just to see what would happen. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but also knew to keep his cards close and covered. The alleged interview with the mad monk may have been worthless and useless. Or it may have be everything. Or, most likely, it was nothing to most people, but everything to Mishima’s insightful, perceptive, literary eye.  All of this is to say, this could be one-hundred percent rubbish created by Mishima who enjoyed making idols and knocking them down and shocking his readership. It could also be totally peppered with truths and the reader is at a loss for any tools to distinguish what is true and what is not.

Hardly could there be another author who would dare and who would care in the same way as Mishima to write this notorious novel of this national tragedy. Not to mention, using some of the material of the story for esoteric considerations of beauty and nihilism. So, when it is all said and done, I am not entirely sure what Mishima actually thought of the event. It was horrible and shocking and he loved that it occurred because of its horror, is what I think.

Moving from Mishima to history and the temple itself, it should be noted that this event occurred not too distant from WWII. The Nanking Massacre started in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack was in 1941, and, of course, the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  While the boy was likely isolated to an extent by his life at the temple, the war doubtlessly crept into every nook and cranny and had profound effects on everyone.

My concern, what confronted me with my real problem, was beauty alone. But I do not think that the war affected me by filling my mind with gloomy thoughts.  When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world.  – pg. 48

The temple known as Kinkakuji was originally built in 1400 or so. And after the young acolyte committed arson, it was painstakingly rebuilt and it is likely rebuilt to restore the original glory of the early temple, and not simply that of the 1950s. I think that even as recent as the early 2000s, highly detailed repairs were being completed. I would be interested to know if Mishima knew of these efforts, what he thought of them, etc.

Mishima changes the name of the acolyte to Mizoguchi, a boy afflicted with a serious stutter who is also the son of a Buddhist priest. Hayashi Yōken was allegedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died from tuberculosis. Mishima has Mizoguchi narrate this story.  As a narrator, Mizoguchi is entirely self-centered and self-occupied.  If this is something that Mishima intended, I do not know. However, it is difficult to truly sympathize or empathize with Mizoguchi, although he often seems simple and awkward enough to merit some mitigation for his thoughts/actions.

“For what purpose do I live? At such thoughts people feel uneasy and even kill themselves. . . Just to exist was more than enough to satisfy me.  In the first place, doesn’t uneasiness about one’s existence spring precisely from a sort of luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully?” – pg. 100

Readers who may take an interest in this story because they want to watch the development of Mizoguchi; from a young boy with his ill father, to an acolyte obsessed with the Temple, to a madman with a nihilistic spark [sic!], will be disappointed. The slope that Mishima takes us on is not steep and daring and breakneck.  If such development is present, it is very subtle. The story is indeed told in episodic fashion, mainly in a variety of relationships that Mizoguchi has with his Superior at the Temple, his fellow acolytes, and his fellow schoolmates.

Many of the episodes that Mizoguchi undergoes are, in a sense, difficult to read through.  He is not a comfortable individual and it seems that he is unable to discern the normal from the abnormal. Bizarre situations fascinate him and affect him strongly.  Mishima suggests that Mizoguchi is a fully-aware of the evilness or sin in his actions.  Mizoguchi seems, at points, to revel in the sin, to perform the evil action just to bring evil into the world – as if it is a thing of beauty. The way Mishima presents all of this is weird, because Mizoguchi does not seem to want to commit any particular sin for the sake of that sin. Instead, he just wants to do anything evil, any sort of immoral act will suffice.

Was one obliged to pay back one’s debts in the face of a world catastrophe?  I was tempted to give Kashiwagi the tiniest hint of what was in my mind, but I stopped myself – pg. 208

Kashiwagi is a character possessed of a big personality that strongly affects Mizoguchi. Its clear that Kashiwagi is a toxic relationship for the young acolyte, even if Mizoguchi is unable to discern this.  If Mizoguchi had toyed with self-loathing feelings and dabbled in a variety of profanities, it is after Kashiwagi’s influence that Mizoguchi embraces the truly destructive. Mishima likes to juxtapose these two characters and both and neither are his some-time mouthpiece throughout the novel.

“Why does the Golden Temple try to protect me?  Why does it try to separate me from life without asking it?  Of course it may be that the temple is saving me from falling into hell. But by so doing, the Golden Temple is making me even more evil than those people who actually do fall into hell, it is making me into ‘the man who knows more about hell than anyone.’ ” – pg. 153

Unfortunately, Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Temple seems to cloud his judgment and he is unable to discern who or what is influencing him.  To top it off, he has no close confidants or role models to look toward.  There is no one to turn to in the hopes of pulling him back onto a better path.  So the question is not always “what is the evil influence?” but sometimes:  “why can’t Mizoguchi find, create, and maintain close relationships?”  Of course Mizoguchi would tell us it is due to his stutter. Sometimes he believes the Temple – and all that it represents – forms a blockade between himself and others.

There are definite sordid and profane moments in this novel.  Mishima likes to look at the concepts of evil, beauty, war, religion, relationships and show them both at their best and worst. Sometimes Mishima comes across as quite nasty.  At other points, Mishima seems to crave purity and and beauty more than anyone. This book is not for gentle readers.  It is not an easy read – even just textually, though there are only ten chapters in this novel, there are several whole chapters that really slog, especially when Mishima allows Mizoguchi’s mental meanderings to go wide-open.  It can get boring and rambling.  Nevertheless, though I have read this twice, I don’t like this book. But I know I will probably re-read it in the future. Its a good book that is really tough to enjoy.

2 stars

Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars

Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars