Question and Answer

Question and AnswerQuestion and Answer is the 1978 ACE title of a story written by Poul Anderson in 1954 in Astounding Science Fiction.  The serialized story was then published in entirety as:  Planet of No Return (1956). My 1978 edition has Michael Whelan’s cover art on it.  No part of the text was changed since its serialization.

Originally, the narrative tells us, a professional scientist was approached to “design a planet” which was Earth-like.  Three writers were then provided this setting and asked to write about it. Sort of an early “shared universe” attempt.  The three writers were allegedly Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish.  There is only speculation regarding the so-called “professional scientist.”  Anyway, this short history is given as the introduction in this edition.  Poul Anderson makes a further comment about how planet-building is fun.

The careless publishers also made an error on the back-of-the-book’s write-up. They put the wrong spaceship (De Gama instead of the Hudson).  This isn’t a big thing, but it irked me.

The story itself does not seem too far removed from the present day.  The civilizations of Sol (our galaxy) are overpopulated and are looking for another Earth to colonize.  Apparently, colonies have already struck out onto Luna (the moon), Venus, and Mars. There has been a lot of war in the last two centuries, political/religious agendas have divided the people of Sol.

The first character we meet in the novel is actually not the main character. Kemal Gummus-lugil is in the process of a radiation meltdown situation aboard a spaceship.  We meet the main character, John Lorenzen, next.  Immediately, I took a dislike to him.  He is mopey and weak. Frankly, other characters in the novel often call him weak. Naturally, he has to overcome his fatal personality flaw by the end of the novel and has to be the “determined/strong” character.  It is obvious and a little annoying.

The next character we meet is Edward Avery. He is a psychomed and he plays the role of therapist/human resources on the ship.  He is subordinate to Captain Hamilton, but also seems to be always on his own agenda. There are several other characters that are mentioned by name, Thornton and Fernandez.  But also Friedrich von Osten.  The thing is, the reader is led to believe (via storyline and Avery’s presence) that humanity and psychology plays some role in this novel. So, the seemingly diverse (ethnicity, backgrounds, political/religious affiliations) might be relevant to the story. And they are – except Anderson writes all of von Osten’s dialogue phonetically. It gets really aggravating to read; especially because von Osten is also portrayed as combative and aggressive. He is the only character that Anderson tries to demonstrate lingo-ethnicity.

Some residual (post WW2) distancing/transference regarding Germans/Germany, eh Poul?

Avery tells us:

The human mind is a weird and tortuous thing.  It’s perfectly possible to believe in a dozen mutually contradictory things at once.  Few people ever really learn how to think at all; those who do, think only with the surface of their minds.  The rest is still conditioned reflex and rationalization of a thousand subconscious fears and hates and longings.  We’re finally getting a science of man – a real science; we’re finally learning how a child must be brought up if he is to be truly sane. But it’ll take a long time before the results show on any large scale.  There is so much insanity left over from all our history, so much built into the very structure of human society. – pg. 13, Chapter 2

Well, this paragraph, early in the novel, should give readers a pretty fat clue as to how this whole sucker is going to turn out in the end.  Frankly, I am only giving this novel two stars because Poul Anderson is not a writer I like because of what he does in novels like this.

They had a professional scientist play make-believe and create a planet. They had celebrity writers (Asimov, Blish) lined up to write in a shared universe about said planet.  And Anderson had so much potential, because, well, he is not an idiot and he does write with sufficient skill. But somehow, just like whatever else I read by Anderson, he sucks all of the fun totally out of the story.

Stories can be written with moralizing, with ruminating on humankind, with criticisms about politics and religion – that do not sacrifice every single fun part of a story. I have said this before, if Anderson wants to write non-fiction (e.g. memoirs, journals, aphorisms, etc.) he should have done that. But man, he kills a story like no one else.

Like a gigantic kosmic fun-sucker. SSSSSSSLLLLUUURRRRP.

So, a diverse group of humans (and their crazy personalities) with a lot at stake, travel to Troas to find a “new Earth.” There is so much science to be done. And on top of this, the grand mystery of why the first expedition (the De Gama) did not return should be investigated and resolved. Tension! Adventure! Excitement! Hard empirical science!  So much potential.

Instead, a slow-moving story with obvious plotlines. An annoying main character who is utterly predictable.  Opinions and pseudo-lectures on what is good for Man, what Man ought to do, who has the right path selected for Man, and what Man deserves. It renders the plot pointless, ignores all of the cool potential available, and makes a slog of a novel.

It is not a bad novel, per se. It just has no fun in it whatsoever – which is made worse by the fact that it is super-obvious that there should be fun contained within.

2 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars

The Old Man in the Corner

The Old Man in the Corner - Baroness Orczy

The Old Man in the Corner – Baroness Orczy

I’ve had an exceedingly busy October. It started on the first with epic “1,000 year rain/floods” and then this past weekend I took part in the 30th Anniversary of my kung fu school.  In between the 1st and the 24th, there was mainly chaos, pandemonium, and a definite lack of sleep. Nevertheless, I was able to read this book, which I think is actually one that has slipped the memory of many contemporary readers.  I am glad I read it and I am giving it a generally favorable review here.

Having mentioned that I have been a wee bit busy, let me be honest and say I do not know the publishing history of this book. I suppose I could have bothered to do better with researching that, but I just did not. So, I am not sure if this is the first bunch of stories featuring the title character or the second. Also, there is something on the internet about the author reworking these stories – I have no idea about the extent of said reworkings.  None of that, however, truly matters when reading this book.

The author, Baroness Emma Orczy is certainly better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Now, I can tell you that this work was originally a play (1903) that the author also rewrote into a novel (1905).  I feel like “back in the day” (so, think 1950s – 1970s) this story was read a lot more and a lot more readers were familiar with it. I feel its popularity has waned quite a bit. I say all of this, but then must be obnoxious and admit that I have not read it, either.

  • The Fenchurch Street Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Robbery in Phillimore Terrace – 4 stars
  • The York Mystery – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway – 2 stars
  • The Liverpool Mystery – 3 stars
  • The Edinburgh Mystery – 2 stars
  • The Theft at the English Provident Bank – 4 stars
  • The Dublin Mystery – 4 stars
  • An Unparalleled Outrage (The Brighton Mystery) – 4 stars
  • The Regent’s Park Murder – 4 stars
  • The De Genneville Peerage (The Birmingham Mystery) – 3 stars
  • The Mysterious Death in Percy Street – 3 stars

Now, I hesitate to consider this a “collection” of short stories because the author has written them to be somewhat seamless. As if the structure of the collection is presenting a fluid timeline. I suppose one could read these stories in any order, but I don’t see any reason for doing that.

The entire work starts with a few sentences that basically explain and contextualize the rest of the book. Straightaway we meet the title character, known to us as “The Man in the Corner” and his interlocutor, Polly Burton.

The man in the corner pushed aside his glass, and leant across the table.

“Mysteries!” he commented.  “There is no such thing as a mystery in connection with any crime, provided intelligence is brought to bear upon its investigation.”

Very much astonished Polly Burton looked over the top of her newspaper, and fixed a pair of very severe, coldly inquiring brown eyes upon him.

That is how, more or less, every story begins.  The man in the corner comes across as cantankerous and slightly overbearing. Polly comes across as shrewd, strong-willed, and keen. Together, they make for an interesting scene, if you imagine it.

The structure of each story is the same:  the man randomly blurts out an assertion/comment regarding a relatively famous crime that has been committed.  His statements pique the interest of Polly Burton, who is a young journalist.  The man then retells the story of the crime and the investigation/court case associated with the crime.  Polly is a journalist for the Evening Observer, but the newspaper she is reading (in quote above) is the Daily Telegraph. Polly is decidedly proud of her status as a member of the British Press.

After Polly affixes the man with a icy glare, she authoritatively states that: “And yet, this article will tell you that, even within the last year, no fewer than six crimes have completely baffled the police, and the perpetrators of them are still at large.”

“Pardon me,” he said gently, “I never for a moment ventured to suggest that there were no mysteries to the police; I merely remarked that there were none where intelligence was brought to bear upon the investigation of crime.”

So, of course, Polly attempts to test this arrogant old man’s assertions.  She suggests the Fenchurch Street Mystery, and thus begins the push and pull nature of their conversations.  One of them puts forth a particular “mystery,” and the old man relates the details of the case. By the middle of the book, Polly is less hostile toward the old man, and eagerly anticipates his arrival and his discussion.

All of the mysteries are roughly the same in presentation. A case baffles the police because something does not quite add up. The crimes are Edwardian (circa. 1900 – 1915) and generally involve the middle and upper class. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but overall they are decent reads.  The old man leads Polly to a conclusion wherein it seems like the perpetrator of the crime is revealed, although not all the time does he actually name the criminal. And his “evidence” or proof is not always tangible.  His deductions are generally logical and reasonable, but not to the extent that it is watertight and defensible.

Still, before hard-core mystery lovers attack the author, let me just say that these are entertaining reads.  The context and characters are unique and she deserves praise for her setting and presentation of the stories. Also, Polly (though we do not get to learn enough of her) is not a pushover and deserves her own spin-off series, I think.  If you want to play with logic, go get Asimov and Lewis Carroll and Spinoza and wedge, tilde, instantiate yourself giddy.  Orczy does just fine providing us a fun read with interesting little story twists and points of view. The quirky nervous habit that the old man has of tying knots in string is fantastic for its symbolism and psychology. Well done, Orczy.

The setting of these stories kept interesting me. They take place in a branch of the Aerated Bread Company (often simply referred to as an ABC – which, yes, has different connotations here in USA South.)  I was curious, so I did research this part of the book.  The Aerated Bread Co. was founded in 1862 by Dr. John Dauglish and hinged on a new process of bread-making.  Two years later, the company opened teashops, starting with a location in the Fenchurch Street Railway Station (Cp. the first mystery story in the book).  Dauglish was a graduate of Edinburgh university and passed away in 1866.  His efforts and experiments in bread-making are interesting, though outside the scope of this review. Similarly, the relevance of teashops is also a good study. Sadly, the company was bought out in 1955 and that gobbler corporation closed the business in the 1980s.

Overall, I really like the presentation and setting of these stories. I really want spinoff series for both Polly and the old man. I am tickled by many of the details throughout and I had fun reading these. Recommended for people who have busy Octobers and anyone seeking Edwardian-era things.

3 stars
average: 3.25

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


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