The Universe Maker

The Universe Maker - A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker – A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker by A. E. Van Vogt was first published 1953. I read the 1974 ACE novel with 127 pages. The cover was created by Bart Forbes – and looks exactly like one would think it should for a 1970s cover art piece. A. E. Van Vogt is one of those “classic” science fiction authors who seems to have nothing really good said about him. He wrote a lot of things, but he seems to usually be held up as the standard for a low-water mark. I read this novel because I am certainly not afraid of reading terrible novels and because it is another 1950s sci-fi novel I can tick off the non-list.

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about this novel. It is bad. Really bad. In fact, of all the novels I have reviewed on this blog it is only the second to achieve the 1 star rating. So, if you’ve heard bad things about Van Vogt or his novels, you may not be too surprised. I cannot say that I was surprised – I was well aware that this had a high potential for being awful. Honestly, it was worse than I expected.

Most of this novel is incoherent at best. I do not mean in some…… Finnegans Wake sort of way. I mean in a “this author wrote this in one sitting and didn’t stop to re-read a single sentence” sort of way. I feel like the first two chapters are good enough. They set up a fairly interesting scenario and the characters are passable. Chapters three through seven seem like they belong to a slightly different novel. Sure, they have a tenuous relationship to the previous chapters, but it really seems a little forced. They are still not part of a “bad story” yet, but they are not what I expected.

Then, Chapters eight and nine happen. Again, the story seems really off. What is strange? Maybe the trajectory of the storyline, maybe the characters seem very removed. At this point, it has become very difficult to really isolate a plot. In fact, even the main character, Morton Cargill, does not seem to be a consistent character. He’s all over the place in his mannerisms, thinking, skills, psychology.

Finally in chapter ten it feels somewhat like we might be getting back to the early chapters of the book, circling back to pick up storyline threads. But sadly, that is not the case. Scenes are repeated, but this is a different path down the possible trajectory. So, if Van Vogt wanted this to seem like an alternative, cyclic time-travel story – he has very vaguely and minimally presented us with one.

But the interspersed communities/civilizations/tribes – there are three to keep track of, but we really learn very little about them – are mushy and thick. Was the author attempting to include some political/social seriousness as a plot? The first two chapters present a mystery, but by chapter eight, the novel has a very heavy-handed social dimension – that is also poorly written.

Things get worse because our main character, Cargill, has visions and dreams and things get really…. abstract. Let’s say abstract, but let us understand “distorted and random.” Throughout the book there is this obnoxious, never-ever developed superficiality regarding religion/faith. As if the author felt that religion (like politics) should be included to give a novel depth. Oh, bad mistake in this novel. It is just another nail in the coffin of a wretched little novel that should never have been written.

Maybe this is about time-travel? Or… something? I don’t know. Its really not good. By that I mean: it is quite awful, do not read this. I am not kidding. This is not just a novel “not near my tastes.” This is plainly a poorly written jumble of junk. Only read it if you are purposely trying to read really badly written things.

1 star

Twenty-One Stories

Twenty-One Stories - Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories – Graham Greene; Penguin, 1983

Twenty-One Stories is a 1954 collection of Graham Greene’s (1904 – 1991) short stories/novellas. As expected, it contains twenty-one stories, which is an expansion of the collection published in 1947 aptly named Nineteen Stories. All of the editions that I have come across have the stories in reverse chronological order, which (according to Wikipedia) is typical. I  read the 1983 Penguin edition with cover illustration by Paul Hogarth.

My overall impression of Greene is that he is an excellent writer. He knows what he is doing and he has plenty of published works to prove it.  He is definitely in the top ten list for most influential/important authors of the 20th Century. I also think Greene is difficult to pigeon-hole into some narrow category. I cannot tell you if he wrote noir, espionage, religious-themed, etc. The diversity of his writing is subtle but wide. I also feel this is somewhat descriptive of Greene himself. It seems critics and readers have always debated on Greene’s personality, career, and lifestyle. Regardless, Greene is certainly not some hack writer.

Nevertheless, I cannot give this collection (or, really, any of the stories in it) fantastic ratings.  This is tough, because I can see the quality and effort and skill in these stories. I also understand the symbolism and the contextualization of many of the stories. However, as far as entertaining reads – gripping, thrilling, stunning, or invigorating…. well, I cannot say that these stories fit the bill, so to speak. Most of the stories are good, none of them are great.

  1. The Destructors – (1954) – 3 stars.
  2. Special Duties – (1954) – 4 stars.
  3. The Blue Film – (1954) – 3 stars.
  4. The Hint of an Explanation – (1948) – 3 stars
  5. Greek Meets Greek – (1941) – 2 stars.
  6. Men At Work – (1940) – 2 stars
  7. Alas, Poor Maling – (1940) – 1 star
  8. The Case for the Defence – (1939) – 2 stars
  9. A Little Place off of Edgware Road – (1939) – 3 stars.
  10. Across the Bridge – (1938) – 3 stars.
  11. A Drive in the Country – (1937) – 3 stars.
  12. The Innocent – (1937) –1 star.
  13. The Basement Room – (1936) – 2 stars.
  14. A Chance for Mr Lever – (1936) – 2 stars.
  15. Brother – (1936) – 3 stars.
  16. Jubilee – (1936) – 1 star.
  17. A Day Saved – (1935) – 1 star.
  18. I Spy – (1930) – 3 stars.
  19. Proof Positive – (1930) – 3 stars.
  20. The Second Death – (1929) – 3 stars.
  21. The End of the Party – (1929) – 2 stars.

The Destructors is probably one of the most famous of all of these stories.  It has all the post-war angst and societal symbolism one could want.  Nihilistic, fatalistic, and dark, this is not an easy read.  Well, it is not easy if you have any sort of positive view of humanity and society.  Still, this should not be surprising – the story is titled appropriately. I gave it three stars because I do not think I will forget it, but I do not really want to remember it, either.

Special Duties was a fairly good read. I have to admit, it being about a female secretary’s duties for her fussy male boss – I could not help but think this was going to be an entirely different “dutiful” secretary. I guess in 2015 my mind is as corrupt as yours. Kidding! Anyway, this was an interesting piece – cynical all over the place.  I know that a lot of people probably think this is Greene being critical of the Roman Catholic Church, but that is missing the point. The true cynicism is directed straight-as-an-arrow at humans. Which character is more devious in this story? And, because of that corrupt morality, which one is more likeable in spite of it?  Maybe the characters are not as bad as we think.  Don’t they both just want happiness?

The Blue Film is also a very good read. I would have to say that this is the most introspective and deepest story of the bunch.  Greene manages to give us a rather superficial and bare story, which someone contains a wealth of emotion and psychology.  Of course, it also contains that cynicism and pessimism that we have seen so far in Greene.  If you can only read one story in this collection, I suggest this one.

The Hint of An Explanation is the fourth story. It is one of the most religious-themed stories in this collection.  However, even though the religion is a bit more overt, there is a depth to it that focuses, again, on the human condition and psychology.  If you have heard good things about this story, let me confirm them.  This is definitely worth reading and I would re-read it.

After these first four stories, I felt the rest were not as good.  I found the suggested “humor” of the seventh story (Alas, Poor Maling) to be cruddy. The most popular and well-known story seems to be The Basement Room, which I must admit I found unappealing.  I found the child to be absurd and I felt no sympathy for him. I also felt no sympathy for Baines. The story itself was too long.

At one point, I woke in the middle of the night and could not return to sleep, so I figured I would read whatever story was next in the book. It happened to be Jubilee. Now, I don’t know if it was because I was drowsy or if the story is that odd, but I kept thinking: “what the heck am I reading here?” It was funnily ridiculous. I guess its an “interesting” story, though. Definitely different (particularly in 1936).

Overall, these are good stories. Nothing here is truly awesome. A couple are very worthy reads.  My rating will seem low – numerically. I think that this is an important collection to read. It reads longer than it seems, too, so you get your money’s worth.  While the stories do not get rated super highly, I do think that anyone needing to access Greene’s style and writing, this is a very good starter set.  Reading these stories should let the reader know if they want to commit to any of his novels. Greene is an interesting thinker/writer, even if his stories are not the most entertaining ever written.  He has a distinctive voice and style. And his stories (n.b. I do not say Greene qua Greene) have a recognizable cynicism and pessimism.  I think it is a major point, though, that you understand I do not think Greene has the bitterness that others possess (Cp. Céline).  Greene doesn’t hate humanity and he actually still likes it. A lot.

2.38 stars

Level 7

Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.

This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe.  Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages.  That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing.  The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012).  To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!

These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions.  Character-driven and dramatic.  Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific.  The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.

The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127.  We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food.  The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task.  So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew).  His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.

This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one:  “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.

No, no fooling on Level 7.  This is a serious place.  No tricks, no jokes, no April fools.  We are all wise down here even on April 1.  Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year.  We are deceiving each other.  We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel.  We are doing it all the time.

We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves.  Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable.  Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)

Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation.  And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel.  He has a philosopher on Level 7.  Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical.  We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra.  Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation.  The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian.  I know full well that philosophers are “useless.”  They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations.  His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.

However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher.  The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable.  And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario.  It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate.  And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.

Why did I have such a long and intensive training?  Was it really necessary? Or was it really training?  What skill had I acquired?  Enough to push the buttons!  And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function.  My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists.  They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)

The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start.  But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline.  And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.

This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact.  It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.

Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.

4 stars

The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 steps

The Thirty-Nine Steps – John Buchan; Dover Thrift Editions

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was first published in book format in 1915.  It has been the source material that has been adapted in numerous ways; the most famous being the Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.  Beyond adaptations of varying faithfulness, the story has also influenced all sorts of adventure, espionage, and thriller stories and characters.  The novel itself contains ten short chapters.  My Dover Thrift edition was a spare eighty-eight pages.

The story begins in May 1914 on the cusp of the First World War (accepted start date: July 28, 1914).  The work was not Buchan’s first work – he wrote a number of non-fiction and fiction works prior to this novel – but he alleged that it was his first “adventure/shocker” novel. It is the first of five novels starring the character Richard Hannay.  After the second novel, Greenmantle, Buchan enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a lieutenant serving in the Intelligence Corps.

There are a number of similarities between the character Hannay and Buchan himself. Obviously, Buchan made Hannay to be a very robust character, but he still drew from his own personal experiences.  Hannay is Scottish and enjoys strenuous outdoor activities, hunting, and when he is in London experiences boredom.  In many ways, Hannay is the macho archetype of a “man’s man.”  Hannay spent time in Africa where he worked as a mining engineer.  He often uses his experiences throughout the novel to make sense of his predicaments and challenges. He thinks things through with a healthy balance of Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain.  Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance is 1887 and Allan Quatermain’s first appearance is 1885, so clearly Buchan could have had either or both in mind while writing.

We meet a relatively bored and underwhelmed Hannay located in London on a May evening.  The first thing we are told about the character is that he is disgusted with life. He is vexed by the weather, the conversation, and the entertainments. But luckily, that very night as Hannay is entering the rooms of his flat, a bearded blue-eyed stranger seeks him out for assistance.  The man is granted entry into Hannay’s rooms where he begins to tell Hannay a seemingly far-fetched and outlandish story of political intrigue and scheming. Principally, Constantine Karolides is in danger.

The thing about the stranger’s (Scudder) story is that it sounds to the reader just as it may have sounded to Hannay. Names, places, hints and clues all swirl around in a way that makes it seem like there is a dark and abiding danger.  There is enough fact to make the story seem true, but not enough detail to have the story really knowable.  A lot of espionage stories contain a super-complex weaving of threads that dance around the shadows.  This story is told in a frantic way to a very bored Scotsman. Hannay (and us readers) can hear the story and either place our bets on Scudder’s story being too far-fetched because he is off his rocker, or he is telling the truth and if there are gaps in the story they will make sense as we go along.

Hannay is motivated to accept Scudder’s story by the fact that the latter winds up murdered in Hannay’s flat.

The novel progresses rapidly. I think most readers expect that the espionage-story told by Scudder and relevant intrigue will be developed. Instead, the majority of this novel involves the fugitive adventures of Hannay as he avoids the London police and the conspirators of Scudder’s tale. The adventures take Hannay far from London and into the countryside. Time and again Hannay avoids detective and capture by using any number of skills that fugitives have recourse to.  Ultimately, Hannay ends up seeming like Batman or John Carter (of Burroughs’ works).  He is tireless, he is strong, he is determined.  And I think this hero character agitates readers who expect their characters to be horribly flawed and bumbling.

I like heroes who are heroic. I like that they defy odds and survive. Many readers may complain that this is “unrealistic,” and that they don’t like pure adventure stories. Well, I can see such a point, but in this particular novel, I think Hannay is a charmer. He sees his “mission” through to the end.  Now, the end of this novel is rather weak and sudden. It does not feel all that satisfying if readers were looking forward to saving the British Empire from the threat of the Black Stone. However, if readers were cheering a bored Scotsman who loves adventure – well, its a good yarn and well worth reading.

This is less an espionage novel than an adventure novel, but readers who enjoy the tradition of Allan Quatermain and John Carter should find this entertaining. And I do intend to read the next book in the Hannay series.

3 stars

*** Roughly a month after posting this review, The Guardian posted a podcast episode about this book. Apparently I read this novel nearly on its 100th year anniversary. The Guardian Books Podcast of Aug. 14, 2015. ***

March Violets

March Violets - Philip Kerr

March Violets – Philip Kerr

March Violets by Philip Kerr was first published in 1989.  It is the first of the “opening trilogy” of novels starring German detective Bernhard Gunther.  March Violets was republished in 1993 along with the other two novels of the trilogy.  The novel is set in Germany during the 1936 Summer Olympics, but there is no strong connection between the Olympics and the murder-mystery of the plot.  I think this is Kerr’s first published novel.

March Violets has a lot going for it to make it an interesting read.  However, there are a couple of elements that really take away from giving this novel a great rating.  Largely, Kerr wrote this “historical novel” in a way that emulates all of the stereotypes of “noir/hard-boiled” fiction.  Now, depending on whether readers are looking for that style or not, will determine how tolerant they will be of the novel.  If readers are seeking a rough and tumble detective who saw military action, is an ex-cop, drinks like a fish, and has a mighty libido, well, Bernie Gunther will be a hit.  If not, this novel will seem tedious and aggravating.

“It’s just typical of the bloody Nazis,” said Inge, “to build the People’s roads before the People’s car.” – pg. 153, Chapter 13

I was rather impressed with the setting.  Kerr manages to portray the reactions of the citizens living in this tumultuous Germany with skill.  With every character met and with every darkened Berlin street traveled, the reader feels the Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque oppression of the Nazi government.  The factions within the Nazi party create hazy divisions. Everyone is suspect, everyone tries to look like they are obedient to whatever authority is in their proximity. Berlin is overrun with thugs with badges who bully and abuse the citizens – sometimes on official business, sometimes on a whim. Newspapers have turned into propaganda. And anti-Semitism is the rule of the day.  All of these pressures are quite palpable and significant in the novel.

The voice was fastidious, suave even:  soft and slow, with just a hint of cruelty.  The sort of voice, I thought, that could lead you into incriminating yourself quite nicely, thank you.  The sort of voice that would have done well for its owner had he worked for the Gestapo. – pg. 11, Chapter 2

Gunther is an ex-soldier and ex-cop widower. His wife died many years previous and he has left the police force where he was a Kriminalinspektor of some repute.  He now works as a private detective.  This is not exactly a career that makes the official policing agents of Germany happy. Also, the reader is forced to share Gunther’s frustration at practicing this career in a regime wherein truth, legality, and morality are not the norm.  It is usually difficult enough for detectives to hunt down criminals and seek out the truth, but in 1936 Berlin, that seems like a ridiculous task.

Dogs are not at all keen on private investigators, and it’s an antipathy that is entirely mutual. – pg. 78, Chapter 7

The main noir-stereotype that Kerr uses is the metaphor.  Not sweet pastoral metaphors, but gritty tough-guy metaphors. Some of these are amusing and witty. At other times, they are overused. Where this stereotype comes from, I don’t know. But I have never met an individual (detective or otherwise) who thinks so frequently in metaphors as noir-characters do. Still, some of the lingo is fun: bulls = cops, lighters = handguns, etc.

Gunther is collected in the middle of the night by the associates of an industry tycoon. He is taken to that industrialist’s house and is hired to investigate a murder-robbery of the tycoon’s daughter and son-in-law.  The couple were shot and their house (including corpses) suffered arson in an attempt to destroy evidence. In the course of this investigation is where I lost track of the murder-mystery story and just learned to enjoy the setting. I probably was not paying careful enough attention. But Gunther’s “investigations” seem disjointed and without much profit. The cast of characters keeps expanding and I stopped differentiating between them all. Of course, this is meant to show the variety of forces acting in the case, but many times, it just seemed overcrowded and really stretched. Gunther even has a late night meeting with Göring.

Honestly, I spent a large portion of the novel thinking that Dr. Fritz Schemm was the same as the character Haupthandler. I’m still not sure where the latter came in and why he was significant?  He is one of the bodycount, though, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

Another issue I have with the story:  the number of times Gunther is knocked unconscious.  He is beaten senseless at least five times in this novel. I don’t know how many readers have been purposefully clobbered on the head, but that many times knocked down and out is not a light matter. In fact, it is absurd. And many times, Gunther is smacked by a blunt object, falls unconscious, and wakes up and just continues on with the investigation – perhaps muttering about a sore neck/head.

I didn’t need my deerstalker-hat to realize that the place had been turned over, from top to bottom. – pg. 115, Chapter 10

The largest issue I have with the novel is that there are several scenes – particularly the climactic ones near the end – that are what I think of as over-the-line graphic and gory. The scenes are meant to show depravity or inhumanity and they do. But I think the reader has enough to deal with considering the anti-Semitism, the political machinations, the general violence and crime throughout without needing the descriptively gross scenes. I thought about it and without these scenes – or reducing them to a milder level – does nothing harmful to the story. The scenes are unnecessary and bluntly repulsive. Yes, Nazis were brutal, but that is obvious in the novel without moving to the level that these scenes do.

Overall, I give this three stars.  The storyline gets lost and unclear. There is a horrific level of brutality in several scenes. The use of metaphors is a bit too frequent and too heavy-handed, even for noir.  Based on these complaints, one would expect a lower rating. However, the environment of the novel is very well-crafted and the main character, while not unique, is still a real trooper. I may read the next in the series (The Pale Criminal ), but certainly not until I’ve forgotten some of the gross of this novel.

3 stars

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District - Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District – Nikolai Leskov; Penguin Classics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov (1831 – 1895) is a major work that is often forgotten or ignored. The whole history of this work – and its derivatives – is controversial and shocking. Yet, what else could be expected from a story that showcases violence, love, ennui, sex, revenge, obsession, betrayal, and societal classes? What is at the heart of the story – money? Love? The story is shocking, disturbing, gripping, and wild. I maintain it is one of those stories that a reader either hates or loves, there’s no middle ground, and they never forget it once they read it (for better or worse).

In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. – Chapter 1

This story first appeared in the magazine Epoch in 1865. Epoch was a literary magazine published by Dostoyevsky; it featured chapbooks, articles, and serials in its short two-year span. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District has 15 short chapters and was likely titled to imitate Turgenev’s 1859 Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District.

The story then was the subject of a four-act opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. It was first performed in January of 1934. Here is where the most well-known controversy comes in. The opera was a success until it was attacked by an anonymous article in the Pravda. (Legend has it that the author was Stalin). Nevertheless, the opera was then banned in Russia by the Communist Party for thirty years and Shostakovich suffered the fallout for this condemnation/censorship.

In 1962, the story was made into a Polish film by Andrzej Wajda entitled: Siberian Lady Macbeth. Finally, in 1966, it was made into a Russian film by director Mikhail Shapiro: entitled Katerina Izmailova. It was an entrant (one of twenty-four) into the 1967 Cannes Film Festival.

That is the bare bones history of this piece. The main character is Katerina Lvovna, who is dubbed the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. She was born in the Kursk province and at age 23, married a merchant named Zinovy Borisych Ismailov. Zinovy is an averagely wealthy merchant who runs a mill. He is a widower. His previous marriage lasted twenty years and produced no offspring. At the property also resides Zinovy’s father, Boris Timofeich, and a variety of workers.

Katerina was born and raised in poverty, we are not told much directly, but compared to her new married life we assume she grew up in freedom and simplicity. The contrast here is relevant particularly to the time in which it was written. The existence of a raznochintsy social class (meaning: a variety of middle-class persons) is often overlooked in understanding Russian society. It is one aspect that Leskov, unlike other writers, focused on with great success. The manor in which she now lives is boring. Everything is strict, stark, clean, and business-like. Katerina spends the first five years of her marriage in boredom. She moves from room to room in the manor doing nothing.

Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom. . . she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up – again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house… Chapter 1

Zinovy eventually leaves on a business-trip. Katerina ventures out to the storehouses and stables. Here, she interacts with the workers and meets Sergei, a farmhand who has a reputation for being a womanizer. In chapter three, the sly Sergei has had his way with Katerina.

Boris finds out and has Sergei whipped mercilessly and locked up on the property. Katerina kills Boris in Chapter 5. Chapter 5 has a spare four paragraphs, but Leskov manages to show the abrupt change in Katerina. Or is it really a change at all? Perhaps Katerina has always been thus, as if her personality were behind a dam that has now cracked. This is my opinion, because Leskov begins chapter two by telling us:

In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailov’s mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible.

And compare this with the words of chapter 5, right after she poisons Boris and frees Sergei from his imprisonment:

Having settled this matter, Katerina Lvovna let herself go entirely. She had not been a timid one before, but now there was no telling what she would think up for herself; she strutted about, gave orders to everyone in the house, and would not let Sergei leave her side.

The rest of the story details Katerina’s chilling obsession with Sergei.  The two lovers kill Zinovy, after he confronts Katerina about her adultery.  Unlike so many stories with this theme, Katerina is brazen, daring, and fearless. The most disturbing and chilling part of the story, for me, was how Katerina coldly cleans up the blood from Zinovy’s murder.

Katerina Lvovna took the copper basin and the soapy sponge. – Chapter 8

The story proceeds further to include cruel murder of Katerina’s nephew. Sergei confesses and the two lovers are sentenced to prison.  Katerina’s obsession with Sergei continues, though he now finds her repugnant and disturbing. He often savagely taunts and menaces her.  He remains a womanizer in the prison convoy, although it is difficult to say if this is because it is in his nature, or if these actions are to spite Katerina.  Unlike a lot of Western stories, Katerina does not become melodramatic or overemotional.  Instead, Leskov tells us that the result of all of Sergei’s taunts has made Katerina emotionless.

Katerina lvovna, however, was by now offended by nothing.  Having wept out her tears, she turned to stone, and with a wooden calm prepared to go to the roll call. – Chapter 15

Katerina’s obsession once again drives her to a murder-suicide. This story is consistently shocking and brutal.  The characters are so much more realistic and human than many portrayals of such people. I think this is because Leskov spent much of his life around criminal investigators and criminal court offices.  Leskov’s brutal honesty in this story is what makes the story so good – it is upsettingly real and tragic.  After reading it, one should go back and re-read chapters and continue to ponder the story.  It is really well-done and though it is hardly a tale of good morals, the psychology and the characterizations are outstanding.  It will haunt readers.

4 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

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