A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

I have not read/reviewed nearly enough books this year. In fact, this is the first review since late January. I moved – and all of my books are still packed in boxes in a room that is also packed tightly. It has been frustrating. However, I did read this Ngaio Marsh novel in February – finally getting around to reviewing it now in April.  A Man Lay Dead is the first (of thirty-two) Roderick Alleyn mystery.  It was first published in 1934. I read the Jove Mysteries 1980 edition.

I have been attempting to read a lot more of the classic detective mystery novels lately. And maybe even some of the not-so classics.  Many of these early stories involve the character archetype of the “gentleman detective/burglar.”  This includes Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, and Arsene Lupin.  The star detective of this Marsh novel falls under this category.  I have a hit-or-miss sort of opinion of these sorts of characters.  I love Lupin. I love Poirot and Whimsey.  Campion and Alleyn irritate me and I find them pompous and unlikeable. Of course, let’s be honest, I have not really read very many books in any of these series.

The novel that I read before A Man Lay Dead was Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, which was published in 1929. The lesson to be learned between these two novels is clearly:  avoid house parties. So, apparently, no matter the decade (1930s or 1990s, etc.) house parties have a strong tendency to turn ugly.

This short novel has sixteen chapters, all of them generally focusing on the true main character, Nigel Bathgate.  He, and several others, have been invited to a weekend at Frantock. The group is attending another of Sir Hubert Handesley’s parties.  En route to the destination, Bathgate inquires of his distant cousin (Charles Rankin) who will be attending the party.  Rankin says “the usuals,” which includes the Wildes and Angela North and Rosamund Grant. Also, a Doctor Foma Tokareff – a Russian doctor whom Handesley knows from his “Embassy days in Petrograd.”

Not unlike Allingham’s novel, this house party decides to play with a particular rare and interesting dagger.  I am not sure what the authors were thinking utilizing this prop.  Do people really go to house parties and fanny around with daggers?  Does anyone really think that this is a good idea and will end well?  Have they considered Scrabble or Yahtzee?  Anyway, no reader should be surprised that there is a murder – yes, the dagger was used. Second lesson:  If you simply must attend a house party and someone hauls out a dagger – for God’s sake, leave the house immediately.

Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder.  He is cryptic and mysterious and annoyingly arrogant.  He begins his investigation by interrogating the members of the house.  However, his interrogation is certainly unique – he suggests they have a “mock trial” through which he will learn the details of the night’s events.  Nigel Bathgate is the most cooperative and interested member of the party.  At some point he seems like he wants Alleyn to think highly of him.  At other points, he is clearly not comfortable with revealing all of his thoughts to the detective. Angela North is a fiery young girl, who is not cowed by Alleyn, nor impressed by Bathgate, though she does take a shine to him.

Alleyn does not do all the work himself. He comes with a team of helpers (to do the grunt work).  Eventually, the storyline moves beyond the Frantock property and there are adventures involving Russian spies and gangs and foreign agents.

Overall, a lot better than Allingham’s showing.  Still, Nigel is the star and he is the one I enjoyed.  Alleyn was average and blah at best.  I am slightly put off with the “Russians are villains” trope, though. I do think I will read more of Marsh’s novels.  Everyone who wants to read 1920s and 1930s detective novels should add this to their list.

3 stars

A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

3 stars

Autobiography of a Corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse - S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse – S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse is a collection of eleven stories written between 1922 and 1939 by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (1887 – 1950).  Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.  Autobiography of a Corpse was published in 2013, but Memories of the Future was published in 2009.  Both collections were translated by Joanne Turnbull in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov.   Turnbull was the winner of the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for her translations of 7 Stories (seven stories by Krzhizhanovsky).  The publications received reviews from a number of literary sources.

Krzhizhanovsky, of Polish descent, was born in Kiev, where he attended University.  In 1922, he relocated to Moscow, where he more or less spent the rest of his life. Throughout his life, his writings did not get published for a variety of reasons including:  bankrupt publishers and Soviet censorship.  He was writing roughly around the same time as H. P. Lovecraft in America, but Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are much more cosmopolitan and urban.  Generally, he is compared to Borges, but Borges comes much later in history.  Kafka, too, couldn’t have had an impression on him.  Likely, influences were E. T. A. Hoffmann, Poe, Gogol, and the theatre director Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov.

Krzhizhanovsky is not afraid to philosophize in public. His stories are fatalistic, fantastic, and satirical.  These are stories that are full of shadows and trees and city streets.  Repeatedly, Krzhizhanovsky investigates “I” and “the other” (or the “not-I”); reminding readers of Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923) and Levinas’ concept of alterity.  Krzhizhanovsky tries to explore the difference between the real and the not-real using architecture and personhood, etc.  He was a contemporary of Mayakovsky and it feels that way.More than anything, however, Krzhizhanovsky loves wordplay and language.  Lacanians and linguists might enjoy these stories for the wordplay.  Somehow Krzhizhanovsky is a master satirist, but without the savage bitterness that seeps through many satirists’ writings.

  • Autobiography of a Corpse – 3 stars – (1925)
  • In the Pupil – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Seams – 3 stars – (1928)
  • The Collector of Cracks – 2 stars – (1927)
  • The Land of Nots – 2 stars – (1922)
  • The Runaway Fingers – 4 stars – (1922)
  • The Unbitten Elbow – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Yellow Coal – 3 stars – (1939)
  • Bridge Over the Styx – 3 stars – (1931)
  • Thirty Pieces of Silver – 4 stars – (1927)
  • Postcard:  Moscow – 3 stars – (1925)

The title story (Autobiography of a Corpse) was an average read – honestly, I wanted more out of it.  My expectations were set fairly high because I had never read this author previously, so I did not know what to expect.  I actually re-read this story a few times before moving onward through this collection.  I admit that my appreciation increased after reading this story again.  Still, with this sort of title, a reader wants an awesome story, not one that is just average.

In the Pupil is my favorite story in this collection. I am giving it four stars, but truly, I could easily give this one five stars. I may have been feeling excessively critical to give it only four stars.  I think this is one of the most original and unique stories I have ever read.  It is also extremely heartfelt – and heart-rending – and also shows the depth of understanding that Krzhizhanovsky has regarding time and space.  This is a lover’s story, a philosopher’s story, and a rueful comic’s story. Excellent.

Seams, The Collector of Cracks, and The Land of Nots were all roughly of the same ilk.  These are a bit obscure and inaccessible.  “I” and “not-I” are used here, as well as being and not-being. But do these ideas come to fruition? Sometimes it feels like there is some interesting philosophical concept being investigated.  At other times, it feels like Krzhizhanovsky is just babbling in a stream of consciousness.  One is slightly reminded of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – but without all of the really bizarre Irish musicality.

The Runaway Fingers is another entirely fun and unique story.  It is macabre and thrilling and again shows Krzhizhanovsky’s familiarity with the physicality of cities and streets. I really liked this one and I would think that it is one of his most well-known.  If you are gonna read any of Krzhizhanovsky, I would definitely recommend this one.

The Unbitten Elbow is the most macabre and bizarre of the collection.  It is another unique and interesting read. The satire in it is extraordinary.  Krzhizhanovsky is definitely making some comments about contemporary society – trends and government involvement and, above all, profiteering.  He even tosses some of his scalding water on the academics like scientists and philosophers.  Yellow Coal, however, is even more satirical and sharper.  It is really well written and utilizes excellent concepts about society.  There is plenty of witty wordplay, particularly on “yellow” and the symbolism of it.  This story presents the downfall of society via the demand for economic and natural resources, which outweighs good morality. Moral turpitude seems to overcome society in a revaluation of matters.  People live better now that “love” is an archaic notion.  They live better right up until they become lazy, enfattened, and deadened. . . Hearts Versus Livers.

Thirty Pieces of Silver is also exceedingly satirical – but I feel this is less of a commentary on the greed and slime of mankind’s money-grubbing and more of a statement on how “schools” of writers in Krzhizhanovsky’s time adjudicate how/why works get published.  Soviet censorship and cliqueish writer-groups came to my mind while reading this.  Judas’ blood money is used under the guise of a writing prompt for this story. What is the silver itch – and are we all victims to it?

3 stars

The Haunted Looking Glass

nyrb, 2001

nyrb, 2001

The Haunted Looking Glass is a collection of short stories that was published by the New York Review of Books (nyrb) in 2001. The collection purports to be artist/writer Edward Gorey’s (1925 – 2000) favorite horror stories. Well, I see no evidence of these being Gorey’s actual favorites, but I do think these stories were some that he selected to illustrate during his career.  The collection has twelve stories, one of which I had read previously and therefore skipped this time around.  I believe there is an “earlier version” of this collection and the artwork, but I do not have any information on that.

One of the things lacking in this book by nyrb is the lack of Introduction and other informational things. There is a brief paragraph about each of the authors at the end of the book, but that is all.  I feel like someone somewhere would have been willing to write an essay or something for this text.

The stories contained within are:

  • “The Empty House” – Algernon Blackwood  (1906) – 4 stars
  • “August Heat” – William F. Harvey  (1910) – 2 stars
  • “The Signalman” – Charles Dickens  (1866) – 4 stars
  • “A Visitor From Down Under” – L. P. Hartley  – 2 stars
  • “The Thirteenth Tree” – Richard H. Malden – (1942) – 2 stars
  • “The Body-Snatcher” – Robert Louis Stevenson – (1884) – 4 stars
  • “Man-Size in Marble” – Edith Nesbit – (1893) – 4 stars
  • “The Judge’s House” – Bram Stoker – (1891) -4 stars
  • “The Shadow of a Shade” – Tom Hood – 3 stars
  • “The Monkey’s Paw” – W. W. Jacobs  (rated previously) – 4 stars
  • “The Dream Woman” – Wilkie Collins – (1874) – 3 stars
  • “Casting the Runes” – Montague R. James – (1911) –  3 stars

All of these stories are rather famous and well-known examples of horror/occult/supernatural stories.  Almost every one of those authors is probably known to most readers. If I had to pick my favorite stories of this small collection, I would choose the Blackwood and the Dickens.  However, those other stories that I also rated four stars are really good as well.

There are a few things I need to admit to you before I go further in this entry.  The first admission is that I am not a seasoned reader of horror or the occult. This is because that genre tends to disgust me or scare me – effects I do not equate with entertainment.  The second admission is that I rated the stories based a bit on the plot and quite a lot on the “thrills/chills” factor.  The final admission is that I read these in the dead of night. I will also share that at one point my black cat pounced on me and I had a near cardiac emergency. (I did not read any further that night.)

The first story in the book is the Blackwood story and it scared the living tar out of me. I am sure this is because I read it very late with only a dim lamp on in the whole house. Setting and ambiance is very crucial, I think, to reading such genres.  Anyway, I jumped and sweat and yelped my way through this whole story. I will be honest, I think most of the people I know probably wouldn’t even be slightly spooked by this story. Anyway, the whole “this is a vintage Ghost Hunters episode” sure got my pulse racing.

The second story, “August Heat,” was really the only bomb of the book. It was obvious, really contrived, and not interesting.  However, I needed the break from the first story!   I have never been a fan of Dickens. I basically dislike his novels, so I did not come to this third story, “The Signalman,” expecting anything much. It does not start out with clarity and sense. I think some of the setting is tough to get because I am not in England in the mid-1800s.  Once I got a handle on the setting though, I began to feel the creepy factor.  After I read it, I felt the story was a little bit of a letdown.  Then I let it stew and I read sections again – and then I realized that this is a very well done bit of writing.  I looked up some biographical stuff on Dickens and apparently he had a few experiences with trains that may have influenced this story.

The Edith Nesbit story was probably the next scariest story for me.  Maybe because I was able to really visualize this cottage near the church.  There are also elements of slight humor besides all the terrifying things. The narrator is a very doting and compassionate husband.  The fact that his young wife is so put out over a little housework is ridiculous! This story builds up as it goes, it becomes obvious what will happen – but it is still disturbing when it occurs!

The thing is, I do not like really gory, graphic so-called horror. I do not think blood and guts is scary, per se. I am in it for the thrills and chills. I want to be spooked by the little things. I want the ambiance and the setting to pull me in. I want the descriptions to be something I can imagine.  Not all ghost stories or stories of the macabre can accomplish a good scare. Blackwood’s scared me. Dickens’ left me with an eerie feeling. Nesbit’s was humorous and shocking all at once.  Stoker’s was probably the closest to the edge of this genre that I will read.  Stoker’s was the most graphic and violent of these stories, but even so, it was very well written.

Therefore, 3 stars for twelve stories seems correct. The average came out a solid average, let’s say.  I am taking away a few good titles that I will hope to share with fellow readers in the future, I am going to forget a few others. For the two-day read that it was, this was a good collection. Recommend to readers of vintage things and “horror rookies.”

3 stars

Cosmic Engineers

Cosmic Engineers - Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers – Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was published in 1950.  It was originally published as a shorter version in Astounding Magazine. I read a 1970 Paperback Library edition that I paid $1.00 for.  This is the first item that I have read by Simak, though I own a three or four other books with his name on their spines. This was a quick read, without any major brain drain.

The most important thing that I think you should know about this novel is that it is not at all like the contemporary science fiction that is pumped out.  This is not a dystopia. There are no zombies. And there is no anti-hero. Just because of these facts, I was tempted to give this novel four stars.  However, that is not really playing fair.  Anyway, what this novel does contain is big ideas; not great ideas, not specific ideas.  The ideas in this novel are epic. I would say they are universe-spanning, but that is actually understating the setting of this novel.

The writing is passable, nothing standout or odd for the time period it was written. However there are no beautiful, poetic flowers to quote.  Eighteen chapters of functional writing tell us a story taking place in the year 6948.  Time is a difficult thing to write about, I think. So, sure, even though it is the far-away future, many elements seem like the 1990s at their maximum.  For example, the mindset of the humans, the speech, a few societal items, etc. all retain that 1950s sort of flavor.

The novel begins by jumping onboard the space ship “Space Pup” with newsmen Gary Nelson and Herb Harper.  Their ship is nearing Pluto.  They have been sent by their circulation-driven boss to go through the galaxy giving accounts of life in space.  Here are a few of those temporal discrepancies.  In 6948 should newspaper circulation really be this important? And by this year are we really sure the readership would still be paying to read accounts of space?  Anyway, the two newsmen are bickering and grumpy.  At once the reader discovers that Simak’s characters will be very face-value, one-dimensional things.  Herb is treated as a happy-go-lucky goofball.  Gary is a bit cantankerous and a bit more intelligent than Herb.  The characters retain these qualities throughout and do not develop beyond this state.

Soon, the “Space Pup” locates a small, drifting older ship.  Gary, who is bored and grumpy, immediately decides to put on his spacesuit and investigate. This part is sort of eerie and is probably one of the more interesting segments of this novel. Upon breaching the ship, Gary discovers there is little of interest except for a large tank in one of the rooms. In this tank is a floating woman.  There are one-liner “instructions” here and there on the ship, which of course Gary follows.  The woman is released from her suspended animation and we learn her name is Caroline Martin.  She has been in this tank on this ship for 1,000 years!

Here is one of the first problems with Simak’s conceptual work in this novel. Caroline’s big “thing” is that she was physically in “suspended animation” while in the tank.  She had reduced her metabolism and physical functioning.  But she says she made one “mistake.”  Caroline’s brain kept working.  So, even though her body was powered down, she was not just asleep. Basically, she has just been contemplating for 1,000 years.  Obvious issues with this include:  brains require energy to operate (being in a near-dead coma-like suspended state wouldn’t let the brain work).  And this brings us to the epistemological “not her brain, per se, but perhaps her mind” sort of scenario.  Insert discussion on immateriality, etc. Also, compare with Ibn Sina’s “floating man” concept.

Anyway, by this point in the novel (chapter three) the reader should realize that he will have to be forgiving, suspend disbelief, and have a big imagination. I can understand that really empirical folk might dislike this novel, but this is an entertainment, not a textbook.  Nevertheless, this book still has a whole pile of outrageous big ideas to throw at us.  So, Gary, Herb, and Caroline land on Pluto, as they continue the newsmens’ “mission.”  Here they find some scientist-innovators who are planning to travel to the edge of the universe in a fancy spaceship.  Instead, they share that they are receiving odd communications that arrive via strange method. Of course, Caroline can understand them using her pseudo-telepathic skills.

These mental communications translated by Caroline are from the Cosmic Engineers.  They are sentient beings calling for help.  These beings request that the humans come to them and they are prepared to assist the humans in making devices that will allow them to travel to the farthest edge of the universe.  The whole reason is that there is great danger to the whole universe and the Engineers need the humans help to save the universe.

The reason the universe is in danger is that another universe is about to crash into it.

We know this is about to happen because beings in the other universe told the Engineers about it.

The solution involves going to the far-future (millions of years) Earth and seeking answers there. But this far-future Earth (on which lives only one elderly gentleman) is only a shadow Earth. Merely possible.  On the way back from there, the humans get waylaid by another species – a disembodied, senile mind.

So, I mention these things to let you be advised:  there are some wildly huge ideas here.  And even though this all seems ridiculously far-fetched and absurd (and it is!), there is a joy to reading science fiction that is on the far end of the spectrum of imagination.  I read so many novels where humans are challenged even just building a spaceship.  Or where a small segment of people putters around a planet dealing with “the same old stuff” that humans have dealt with for thousands of years:  food, clothing, shelter.  And I am tired of specific human stories, wherein we meet Bob and he earns redemption, or his bravery saves the day, or something similar.  Reading about the year 6948, wherein universes are about to collide is refreshing in its own way.  There is something wide-open about this novel that is endearing.

Critics might mutter under their breath about finally having a female character who is a brilliant and awesome – but being told it is the year 6948 before such a dame shows up on the human timeline. Others will howl at the ridiculous convolutions that Simak takes while playing in a multiverse.  Overall, though, I think it is important to look at this novel as one that at least tries to tackle a really, really huge playing field. Sure, at times it feels like a fix-up novel, but at least it can boast it has a huge panorama.

3 stars

The Joy Makers

The Joy Makers - James E. Gunn

The Joy Makers – James E. Gunn

This book was published in 1961 as The Joy Makers by James E. Gunn.  However, this is a fix-up novel of three shorter pieces of fiction that Gunn published in 1955.  Each of these three pieces remains separate in this book; Part One is the story The Unhappy Man, Part Two is The Naked Sky, and Part Three is Name Your Pleasure.  These parts are separate but remain vaguely connected through the fictional timeline. Without a doubt, my favorite part was the first. Overall, though, I only found this book to be a worthy of three stars.

I read Gunn’s This Fortress World and also Station in Space. I think the latter is also a fix-up novel; it’s actually one of my favorite works I’ve read since keeping this blog. I easily gave it five stars – because it shocks and impresses. This Fortress World was okay – but the story got away from Gunn. I forgave him because it was an early effort. Needless to say, I am a fan and I really wanted to love The Joy Makers.

The Unhappy Man (part one) is my favorite part of this book because it contains a lot of the noir/suspense that is both typical of vintage science fiction and is an element of good storytelling.  This piece feels very much like a Gunn-piece and is reminiscent (the character’s demeanor, the settings) of Station in Space.  Even if a reader chose not to continue through The Joy Makers, I think reading this short part is worthwhile. Be warned the ending is relatively open-ended, so those readers who need tight closure to stories may be slightly frustrated.  I liked the ending and spent some quality time contemplating “what happened next.”

“Are you happy?” Wright asked quietly.

Josh realized, with a start, that it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “I think that is an indecent question.”

The second part takes place forward in time from part one. In many ways it is the likely outcome of events and ideas in part one. While part one shows us the concepts in an individualized context, part two demonstrates the concepts that Gunn is exploring by contextualizing them in a society.  At first I did not like the main character, Morgan the Hedonist.  A Hedonist is a profession and title in society; something like a psychiatrist or philosopher. The Hedonist lives (theoretically) entirely for the pleasure of others – meaning, his life is devoted to the principle that everyone ought to be happy. The Hedonist fixes the lifestyles of his patients so that they can be happy. Well, from the start this guy seemed like a sleezy charlatan. Okay, but by the end of this part, I decided that I had misjudged him.  He’s just naive and stubborn.

Habit is a technique for simplifying existence, for saving time and the energy of decision.  It is a pleasure tool.

The Hedonist is also something of a well-trained monk.  He has applied the principles of his field to his own life.  He is adept at devaluing, suppressing, and substituting values, choices, and opinions so that he remains happy.  The idea here is something like a combination of Stoicism + Epicureanism.  Immense and regulated self-control over one’s desires, opinions, viewpoints, and physical instincts allows for the possibility of remaining happy.

I like some of the things Gunn talks about here (the education system of this society of hedonics).  However, in ruminating on eudaimonia, Gunn totally loses all of his threads that this is a fiction story. Suddenly, this becomes a semi-tedious journal entry contemplating ethics. I pressed onward and the storyline came back – now it was an action-oriented conspiracy scenario.  Some of this was interesting (and I had images of the most recent Mission Impossible movie in my head).

The third part is really the weirdest part. Things get a little more esoteric and “new age.”  I felt that in parts Gunn was imitating a Platonic dialogue (no plot, all conversation). I struggled with deciding whether there was logic in this rambling part or if it was disjointed.  My favorite section is the first one (with the Duplicates) because that could have been a super-creepy, eerie plot! I see and understand what Gunn did here – I rather dislike it and am not entirely sure it is the obvious trajectory for the story. It is difficult to say because I am entirely too biased. I’m a philosopher by education and trade – to me, much of this was just tedious and droll. Maybe other readers are able to find something better in it? The God-references are somewhat stretched, in my opinion. Or maybe they are a natural result of the 1955 – 1961 time period and the real life societal changes that were occurring. Also, at the base of it all, well, a ruined planet that is run by a god-like machine has been done in many ways and places – and better than this iteration.

3 stars

The Blue World

The Blue World - Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World – Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966.  I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best.  Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award.  It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.

This was an average-rated read for me.  It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet.  I have definitely seen Vance do better.  Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached.  Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel.  In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion.  Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.

Blue world is a waterworld.  Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.”  The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts.  One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore.  So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea.  Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea.  Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants.  It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.

Also living on this planet are kragens.  Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories.  Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.

True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book.  I really like the idea of the setting:  a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum.  One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications.  Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats.  There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor.  Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.”  Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments.  He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters.  And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.

This is a straightforward storyline.  The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society.  He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts.  Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats.  Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away.  Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy.  Finally, there are instances of tyranny.  However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel.  The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative.  More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.

The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too.  For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story.  One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”

I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.

3 stars

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