Science Fiction

Ring Around The Sun

Ring Around the Sun

ACE 1959

Ring Around the Sun is the seventh novel by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that I have read. I read the ACE 1959 edition, but the novel was originally a serial publication in 1952-1953. The cover art to the ACE edition was done by Robert E. Schultz, but ACE utilized this artwork on other books, to include the 1955 ACE Double The Big Jump by L. Brackett.

Ultimately, of the seven novels I have read by Simak, this is the most complete and well-formed novel, in my opinion. Unlike most of the others, this novel has a solid start, middle, and ending, which is a bit of a pedestrian manner of speaking. The truth is, I have previously written that I feel Simak’s novels have dissatisfying endings and that this detracts from a measure of completeness of his novels. In Ring Around the Sun, the ending is sufficient – the resolution to the novel is downright cool!

So, seven novels of Simak and I feel like I am reading the same story at this point. Well, not in the details, of course, but the themes are still the same. Simak has big ideas that get demonstrated in the relationships between three “character types.”  There is usually the Everyman that is well-represented, the alien or non-human, and then there is a human of an evolved nature or who possesses some paranormal quality.  In this novel, the big idea is that there are multiple, but not entirely “parallel,” earths in which advanced humans are trying to “save” humanity from humanity.

Just like in other Simak novels, the first quarter of the novel has that creepy intensity wherein the reader could be convinced this is not quite science fiction, but maybe also some crime/thriller read. Just like in other Simak novels the pastoral, rural setting comes into play. Old country homes, farms, sole proprietor hardware stores, wooden fences, crabapple trees – all the stuff of rural middle America serve to anchor the novel’s character.  Just like in other Simak novels, the main character is a middle-aged chap who is likeable, but aloof. Jay Vickers lives alone, but sufficiently, in Cliffwood. (Get it? CLIFFwood? Har, har har…) The opening of the novel introduces us to Jay in a gentle way, but yet giving us huge clues and valuable plot pieces for the rest of the novel. Unlike so many novels where we find plot elements descending on us like ACME Anvils, these are subtly written and gently placed so that the development of the novel is not heavy-handed.

There is a major goings-on that is the deciding factor for humanity as a whole – and not in a long-distant future. The tipping point is now, with Jay Vickers! Another trademark of Simak is how he focuses on individuals, but yet writes events that affect the whole planet. Jay Vickers is not simply human and as he discovers more about this fact, the novel progresses to show that while Vickers might be abnormal, that specialness is in the process of becoming the norm.

Present in this novel, are also the long moments of philosophical thought wherein the main character questions and wrestles with a variety of existential questions. In this novel, these segments did seem longer than in the other novels, but they also were written with more acuity, I think. Chapter 36 is a big philosophical think for Vickers. In this novel, Simak really ties in a lot of the novel’s subplots, mechanical elements, and incidentals better than in the other novels. I think his work with a child’s top (remember those spinning devices?) is exceptionally well-done. Simak also understands that for the depth that his big idea needs, he has to look at things from a variety of spheres – so he does consider man-as-laborer, man-as-social, economics, culture, and oddly, love. His consideration is also not limited to the here and now; Simak’s big idea always takes a big timeframe. He does a strong examination of humanity in this novel, but I will say, his results are somewhat negative. As in other novels, I feel that Simak is a bit dismal, but that its not as direct or overwhelming as some very miserable dystopia authors.

Although almost all of the elements that make up this novel are found in Simak’s other novels that I have read, I feel they are just done better in this one. From the plot, to the pieces of the storyline, including the characters and their motivations, the props and incidentals, this big idea is both satisfying and complete. It contains all of the key Simak trademarks and has a consistency I don’t find in some of his works. Therefore, if I was to select one Simak work that (out of those I have read) best exemplifies what Simak is about, I would choose this novel.  Further, this novel also serves as an excellent example contra those readers who are under the mistaken belief that science fiction is goofy and inane. This is a serious novel written by an author that is deeply concerned with the state of the world and humanity.

The odd thing, to me, is why, after writing this one, did Simak then attempt the same basic plot so many other times? If it was to sell novels and make money, okay, I accept that. However, an author of this much obvious skill could have written more diverse stories with equal gravity and insight. Instead, this novel seems to be something of a template that Simak then returned to, at least a few more times, in other novels. It is because Simak is a skilled writer that the other novels remain valuable and are well-liked. But, I admit, after reading this one, I think the other novels seem less original and more like template-fill-ins. I guess Simak just really wanted to hammer these concepts down and they were what was vital to his thinking and writing.

Inception posterRecommended for good readers, vintage science fiction readers, readers who like philosophical speculation, and Simak maniacs! (Also, I don’t know that I will ever look at/think about/use a toy top in the same way!)

Lastly, the “originality” of the film Inception (2010) fades after reading this. But fans of Inception should surely love this novel as well.

4 stars

 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DNDRDSDRMF2010Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1968. It is arguably one of PKD’s most celebrated works.  This is partially due to the fact that it was the fiction work that was the basis for the famous Blade Runner film (1982). This is also the eleventh novel by PKD that I have read and it is probably among my favorites of his works.

The movie uses a lot of concepts from the novel. But is not a strict presentation of the novel’s storyline.  In fact, both movie and film seem very different and yet very similiar.  I like both – and I should add that I also really enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  If I have to point out the largest gap between the movie (or should I say movies?) and the novel, I would say that the novel really drives home the point of ecological collapse. The demise of the animal world is really a major part of the plot of the novel, and the novel does look at the concepts of “living beings” and “pets” relative to the situation of ecological failure. As the movie portrays, the setting is post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk.  So, while the focus of the loss of animals is absent in the film, the film presents the setting very well.

I do not want to compare the two mediums endlessly. However, I wanted to bring up these two points because I thought they were the easiest entry points when discussing this novel. I think the setting is absolutely crucial because a lot of the other concepts in the novel do not work as well without the heavy, post-nuclear war landscape.  The radiation fallout, the fog/dust, makes the questions PKD looks at a little more realistic. I am quite sure that humanity would be asking themselves a lot of introspective questions of a different tone than before such calamity.

Regarding these questions, well, one of things readers need to keep in mind is that PKD is not a philosopher. What is the nature of man? What is humanity? What is a robot/clone/android? It is unfair to compare the novels of Asimov and PKD and conclude that PKD’s novels are not well-thought-out. Asimov possessed a scientific-mind that was cultivated through some excellent academic studies. PKD was a writer in California. This is not to say that PKD was not, at times, brilliant, but the expectation that he would have the ability to attain the rigor for conceptual analysis that Asimov did is unfair. However, many times, the manner in which PKD approaches these so-called philosophical questions is more engaging and delightful than some of Asimov’s efforts.

PKD’s writing in this novel contains a driving insistence that makes all the questions about humanity seem poignant and pressing. PKD’s writing is always messy – he rarely (if ever) gives the reader the background detail and he never ever gets muddied by explanations. PKD is not Gregory Benford or Greg Egan – he is not writing “hard” science fiction and attempting to make plausible high-end mathematical or metaphysical concepts. He is literally forcing the reader into a storyline without any explanations and right into the middle of things, and he immediately will give them a test of their knowledge. Seems quite unfair to the reader – if the reader is expecting to be led along step-by-step with a syllabus.  Add in to this PKD’s fondness of writing stories wherein everything falls apart and breaks down, and you have a story that has urgency and immediacy and can seem very mad to the general unsuspecting reader.

This novel really is built on the idea of being able to (or not able to, as the question presents itself) determine humanity based on a test. Sometimes this test is response-related like a pseudo-psychology exam as with the story’s Voigt-Kampff test (Cp. a stanza of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem), and some are more physiological related like the Boneli Relfex-Arc Test.

In this novel, PKD has a sort of dark science fiction tone coupled with an intense investigation into questioning what makes a human human? Some of the entry points for PKD’s wondering include: the quality of empathy, love of music, care of pets, relationship with animal realm, off-world colonization, reliance on slave-labor, relationship with suffering as presented by religion, consumption of media/broadcasting, manipulation of emotional states by artificial means, and “crime” as committed by and against non-humans. The copy I read is just over 200 pages, so a lot of the effort is placed on the reader, but PKD just keeps the questions coming so the reader does not get lazy.

One of the effects that works so marvelously in this novel is how deadpan Rick Deckard is. I think in both Blade Runner movies, this was portrayed fairly well, too. I find it absolutely chilling and perfectly aligned with the setting and storyline. Chapter eight is a mighty thing, from a literature standpoint – I think PKD wrote this one so perfectly so it can ensnare the reader, draw them in, toy with their ideas, etc. Of course, this only works if the reader is really, truly, invested in the novel, in which case it is edge-of-your-seat. If the reader is distracted or not fully-invested, I think this section will seem abrupt. I like chapter eight because I thought it was thrilling and intense. Also, it is the first real point at which PKD is showing how much he can shake things up and twist around reality for his characters and maybe even for his readers! Super cool PKD.

The props like Sidney’s catalog work really well for PKD – it jogs old memories from my childhood… black and white paper listings of pigeon racing, sales, etc… you could roll them up and crumple them up just like Deckard does – and they were just margin to margin listings of sales and races and other related things. Whenever Deckard encounters an animal in the story, I felt it quite natural to reach in my back pocket and pull out my tattered, rolled up copy of Sidney’s as well.

This review would, indeed, be very remiss if it did not touch on the fun word/concept of kipple. I am surprised it is not as well known by today’s readers. But there you have the eventual end of all the consumerism and manufacturing. Entropy for all things – garbage mountains of endless kipple. The meaningful and sentimental objects humans keep close slowly deteriorating into landfills and mountains of waste. So, what is truly important to a human? Endless fun can be had pondering kipple.

The storyline has some bizarre segments in it, but this is PKD, so that should be expected. The entire Wilbur Mercer thread is messy and crazy. But maybe that’s just because this story is in the future and you are in the past so, of course, you don’t understand what everyone there in the future understands.

4 stars

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event HorizonBeyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl was first published in 1980. This novel is the second in the Heechee series that begins with the well-known novel Gateway (1977). I read Gateway in 2012 and I really did not like it. I loved the cover that John Picacio did for Gateway, but as for the novel itself I was disappointed because the novel went places I did not appreciate. It does not take too long into the novel to realize Pohl is writing rather euphemistically and this earned him an unflattering nickname in my household that I will not share here. Needless to say, I was in no hurry to read the next in the series. In fact, at that time I did not actually think I ever would. Lately, I’ve been trying to get through some of the old “hanging on” novels, particularly “book twos.”

Having read none of the secondary literature regarding Gateway and just judging on my reading of the two books, I do not think Pohl intended (in 1977) to write a sequel or series.  However, this book (Beyond the Blue Event Horizon) is not that book (Gateway).  By this I mean that I suspect some readers who truly enjoyed Gateway will find that this second book is lacking in most of the elements that Gateway exhibited.  Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is written with a different tone – one of the most notable aspects of Gateway is its eerie and dismal atmosphere. It approaches a sort of horror mood.  The main character, Robinette Broadhead is detestable. Often there is depiction of a helpless/hopelessness in the characters. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is far more accessible. Its readability is much higher. The characters are all, relatively, likeable, and the plot makes sense. There are more explanations and the story is good, nearly space opera-esque, science fiction.

But it does not read at all like Gateway.

The main character, Robin Broadhead, is not the Robin Broadhead of Gateway. This one is more like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) than the riddled-with-issues character of the previous novel.  Does Stark have issues – yes, of course. However, his writers frequently give him characteristics (and a persona as Iron Man) that allow him to overcome his personality (Tony Stark) and his psychological difficulties. In Gateway, Broadhead is just wretched.

Gateway was daring. Pohl did a lot with that novel. The unknown, the horror, the helplessness, the ugliness is well-written, I guess. Pohl’s usage of Freudian psychoanalysis also adds a snarled and uncomfortable feel to the novel. Finally, the homoerotic threads in the novel also make Gateway quite a bit different than standard science fiction fare.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon really does not contain any of the eerie-unknown that was so strong in Gateway. Instead, this really feels like space opera. So, it also feels like a sell-out. Perhaps it was.

All of that being said, these evaluations are because we are comparing the two novels. On its own, this sequel is actually a good read. It stays above the level of pulp and basic space opera. The characters are all interesting and face different challenges, which keeps them from being cardboard tools. I was rooting for them all, I guess. Pohl makes a strong effort to include what is referred to as “hard scifi” elements, which basically just means he tries to keep the science and mathematics realistic and heavy as opposed to hand-waving and just ignoring it for the sake of the plot. This novel is an engaging read with a lot of good things to be said for it. The varying points-of-view keeps this galactic-wide storyline manageable.

I believe that this novel can be read without having first read Gateway. Perhaps it is better to separate the two, anyway. I appreciate some of the elements of the former, but I really dislike it as a whole. This novel is good but is in no way as daring or provocative as the first. It comes down to what style the reader prefers when consuming their science fiction.

I enjoyed it because it had so much less of the sordid and unpleasantness of the first novel. However, I know that just because something is more accessible, it does not make it a better novel, per se. I did, in some sense, miss the eerie emptiness and psychologically-disturbed style of Gateway, so I can sympathize with readers who found this second novel to be too mundane/accessible. Lastly, the sex-stuff and Pohl… I would find it easy to believe if I learned he wrote soft-porn under some house-name.

4 stars

Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect – James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect by James Gunn is a collection of short stories first published in 1964. I read a copy of the January 1964 edition by Bantam. I’m sad to report that this particular copy has come to its end. It was not in any good condition when I purchased it from an old mill’s basement a decade ago. After my reading it, there just is not much to salvage. I do not know what to make of the cover art, which is allegedly by Paul Lehr. I have read Gunn’s work before and found it generally hit or miss according to my liking. I really enjoyed Station in Space. The Joy Makers, though, left me underwhelmed.

The book contains ten pieces, however, the first and second are related and ought to be read together, even though originally published over ten years apart. For the most part the stories were quick reads. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that I felt was outstanding or excellent. These are good, serviceable reads for afternoons, though. If you can only read one story from these, select the sixth: “Every Day is Christmas.”

  • The Misogynist – (1952) – 2 stars
  • The Last Word – (1964) – 2 stars
  • Little Orphan Android – (1955) – 3 stars
  • The Stilled Patter – (1956) – 2 stars
  • Skin Game – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Every Day Is Christmas – (1957) – 4 stars
  • The Girls Who Were Really Built – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Survival Policy – (1952) – 3 stars
  • Tsylana – (1956) – 3 stars
  • Feeding Time – (1955) – 3 stars

So, the first story, The Misogynist, and the second story, The Last Word, should probably be read together. Even so, they have not aged well and are a little uncomfortable to read. Honestly, it is probably meant to be witty based on perspectives, but in 2019 it does not come across well. Of note, Gunn had The Misogynist published in November’s issue of Galaxy. Over ten years later The Last Word was written – for this collection.

Little Orphan Android is a better showing than the first two stories. Originally published in 1955 in September’s Galaxy, it feels somewhat like a piggybacking on Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).  This story contains one of the themes that is present in this collection: a future society that is trapped in consumerism and uselessness. I liked this story fairly well, I do think it would make a great made-for-TV release movie. Its interesting and I am sure it could be spiced up by an adept screenwriter. Nearly cyberpunk in its tone.

I did not like The Stilled Patter. However, it does fit in with the theme of a maligned future society.

Skin Game is unique-ish, but Gunn doesn’t pull it off. As with all of the stories in this collection, I feel the setup is there, the execution is okay, but the finish just does not have the snap and pizzazz that it should. So, the same theme Gunn has been toying with in other stories is here, too, but taken off-planet. A future society with consumerism/ownership ideals shuffled around a bit. This time, the point of view is from a crook who is stranded on a planet and their ideas regarding ownership are entirely opposite of what he is accustomed to. Again, the setup is interesting and there is potential. But its only maybe a double. No home run.

Every Day Is Christmas is the story I liked best. It is the theme of consumerism and ownership taken to an utter extreme. I like when writers go bold on ideas like this. One of the thoughts I had while reading this one was a sardonic thought: “Geez, supposed to be futuristic, but maybe its just around the corner; 2025 or something….”  This one is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. It has the most complete feel to it and it works the theme better than the rest of the collection.

The Girls Who Were Really Built is not very good. It paints people in Neosho, Kansas in rather a bad light – both the men and women, that is.  Here are some menfolk, representing a future society, that are being undermined very subtly by being provided what they wish for in wives. They were really built – refers to their seemingly awesome wives who enable the men to better themselves and the world around them, but at the price of a key, valuable item:  new live man.  I see what Gunn was doing here, I just did not care much for it in general.

Survival Policy has a potentially strong story, that gets really difficult at the end. It is a sort of pastiche of the Agatha Christie Poirot and Hastings characters. But what an odd setting and storyline for such characters. They are overdone and very obvious. The motives and the actual plot kind of fail, or, let me just say it is not smoothly worked out. There are some very fun/interesting moments in the story though, just too much going on or something. Its sketchy; I like the pastiche, I like the idea, execution not so good.

The final two stories are somewhat similar. They are definitely the most fun reads, particularly if you enjoy a wee bit of wordplay/semantics, mocking psychoanalysts, and puns. In fact, you can see one wordplay right there on the table of contents. Not sure if that is a spoiler or not. Sorry. Its still a decent read. Tsylana has another odd future society in which “everyone has their place” so as to reduce crime, weed out bad dispositions, etc. But like the rest, there is not a solid clincher; Gunn wins on points, he does not win with a stunning KO!  Feeding time is quick and dirty. Relatively fun while it lasts, which is not very long. I will remember it, but only because it is unique, not because it is excellent.

Overall, its worth a look if you really do not know what else to read. It does read quickly, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory in execution.  Gunn fans will want to read it for completeness sake. Vintage science fiction fans will find value here. I wanted this collection to be a lot better.

mean: 2.6

But I think I will drop down to 2 stars

All Flesh is Grass

All Flesh is Grass

“All Flesh is Grass” – Clifford D. Simak; Avon, 1978. Cover art: Jan Esteves

All Flesh is Grass by Clifford D. Simak is the sixth Simak novel that I have read. I think this one is my favorite. First published in 1965, I read the Avon 1978 edition with cover art by Jan Esteves.  The title of the novel comes from the Old Testament book Isaiah.

A voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Isaiah 40 6-8 (NASB)

I like wordplay so this was an interesting title choice by Simak. It does tie into his story quite nicely – the main character’s father was a bit of a botanist/gardener. He ran the town “nursery,” such as it was. It was a particularly remarkable situation in that he was able to develop a specific type of robust purple flowers.

I am really impressed with the way Simak works the first quarter (let’s say) of his novels. He is able to create suspense and wonder and capture the reader entirely. This book is exceedingly good at this. Simak begins the story with a bit of a harrowing moment that combines action with the unknown juxtaposed with the most benign of settings. It is not much of a spoiler to share that one of the key elements to the story is the sudden appearance of a “dome” over the rural town in which the main character lives. Millville awakens one morning to discover that no one can exit or enter through an invisible barrier that surrounds the town.

The first quarter of this novel is just really well written. So, within the first few pages, there is a car crash, a woman screaming about her infants, and a hint of a previous youthful love. Simak very seamlessly develops the plot showing the reader what is currently happening to the main character as-well-as letting the main character tell us about what had happened in the recent past. The main character, Bradshaw Carter, was born and raised in Millville and he has not left except for one year at college.  His parents are deceased and we learn that Bradshaw made a poor showing of trying to run a business in Millville as a realtor/insurance agent. Brad never had the skill with gardening that his father displayed.

One of the things that has been difficult for me when reading Simak novels is that Simak’s pacing feels very slow to me – largely because of the rural mid-Western settings. Some people find the grassroots-hometown-apple pie-rural American settings to be comforting. I find them so very tedious. I am rather cosmopolitan in my fundamentals; I was born and raised in New York. Simak loves Millville and he knows well all of the idiosyncrasies of rural towns.  Here, Simak puts on display his thorough and deep understanding of people…particularly those in small, rural towns. And I am not just referring to small town stereotype things. Simak gives each character a strong and individual existence in his writing. The characters are real-istic. He writes his characters with an uncanny and impressive knowledge and fluidity. Reading this book, perhaps more than the previous ones I have read, I wondered if Simak did not actually know these “characters” in the real Millville, Wisconsin.

I appreciate that Simak does not romanticize this Millville. Just because it is a rural town does not make its inhabitants heroic or friendly or even just nice. A lot of times the stereotype is that people who come from small towns where everybody knows each other very well are especially kind or just or upright folk. In my experience, I have found the opposite to be more likely.

However, like the other Simak novels that I have read, I feel the story builds and builds and then just peters out. The middle of his novels sort of stall and sputter and then the ending just happens…. In this one, the resolution/ending is particularly unsatisfying. I mean, for all the good work of the previous pages – really skilled and adept writing – Simak just tanks the ending.

This is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with when reading Simak. He seems to have fantastic ideas, great writing skills, and mature wordsmithing. Though I struggle with Simak’s rural settings, he still manages to pull me in and make me care about his characters.  However, somewhere around the middle of his novels, he just loses his storyline. It is not necessarily bad, but it really does not match all of the wonderful build-up and development. For the first quarter of the novel, there is panic, fear, tension, suspense! By the second half, things have slowed down and a lot of information is provided. The last chunk of the novel just peters out – sometimes even gets a little psychedelic. The last chapter in this novel is really quite awful because the resolution is just so crappy. I am sure Simak knew this. I also feel like he did not know what to do with the plot and so he just grabbed the first solution, wrote it in the story, and then dropped the typewriter.

I had a similar feeling when I read Cosmic Engineers. Simak writes an adventurous story with some huge ideas in it. Unfortunately, it gets convoluted, absurd, and out of hand. I really enjoyed how Simak was writing a big (really huge) idea, as opposed to a re-tread puny storyline. In They Walked Like Men, I really felt the eerie panic in the first quarter of the novel. It was great writing, but then the story turned into an action story and really ridiculous elements got introduced.

All Flesh is Grass has an excellent beginning. Simak does have several big (and I do mean very large) concepts/ideas running behind the storyline. However, once again he just does not seem to fully complete them before the end of the story. This novel has an ending just as bad as PKD’s typically jarring endings. Nevertheless, readers would be remiss to not read Simak. Top-notch wordsmithing, unique ideas, and mature writing otherwise.

4 stars

Echo Round His Bones

Echo round his bonesEcho Round His Bones by Thomas Disch is the second novel I have read by this author. Previously, I read Camp Concentration.  Disch is definitely one of the most intelligent writers I have read in awhile. I suspect that no matter what genre/style of book he wrote, he would be unable to hide his intelligence. Echo Round His Bones was published in book format in 1967. I read the Berkley Medallion edition.  This is a difficult novel for me to rate because it has some really excellent features and some messy elements.

The main character in this novel is a Captain in the US Army, Nathan Hansard. Throughout, we are told Hansard is nearly ideal military officer material. He is very stern, disciplined, and has an unwavering moral code.  We are frequently told that there could not be a more sane or more steadfast individual.  However, we are also shown that Hansard suffers from nightmares, from guilt and regret, and is divorced.  He misses his son, Nathan jr., and his woes seem to stem from situations in the Vietnam War.

Many readers have pointed out the very anti-Vietnam War tone to this novel. I agree that this tone is present, however I would struggle to consider this characteristic one of the novel’s major features.  In fact, if anything, I would say it is simply an anti-mass destruction novel (Cp. the bombs released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The novel also contains many subtle negative comments regarding Nazi Germany and even the Cold War (i.e. USA vs. CCCP).  I am stressing/clarifying this broadened scope because I think that it is very commonplace for readers to expect a 1960s novel to be anti-Vietnam War and then pigeon hole the novel as if that is just another “one of those” lightly-veiled critical works. Disch, as I mentioned above, was quite intelligent; too intelligent to be caught in such narrowness.

Chapter one is a subtle and delicate lead-in to the novel; it sets the mood and introduces characters as-well-as gives characters motives. Chapter two and three are when the story really begins – Captain Hansard and his men perform a “jump.”  This is Hansard’s first – but other men in his company have made jumps before. A “jump” is a trip through a matter transmitter.  In this case, Hansard and crew jump to Mars Command Post.

The mission is to deliver, by carrying a briefcase containing an envelope, orders to the commanding officer, General Pittmann, of Mars Command Post:

The letter directed that the total nuclear arsenal of Camp Jackson/Mars be released on the enemy, who did not need to be named, on the first day of June 1990, according to existing Operational Plan B. It was signed by President Lee Madigan and sealed with the Great Seal. — pg. 26

Well, that also gives us a date for the setting. The novel basically lasts the last half of April to the end of May in 1990.  Honestly, without this clue, I would not have been able to guess the setting, though I may have guessed the 1980s – simply because I feel  that Pittmann would be too old to be on Mars in 1990.

So, it would be enough of a novel to focus on the impending nuclear event.  However, that takes a side-seat for awhile because we learn the disturbing fact that every jump creates an echo (hence the title). This is the difficult part. I love the boldness with which Disch writes this. However, the science (or whatever we would like to call it) is really challenging. By this I mean that when all of this is explained to the reader – and yes, Disch does make a heavy attempt to “explain” how this all occurs, it is not easy to follow. But what is this criticism, anyway? I mean, I feel like I am complaining about an explanation that is difficult to understand that purports to be an explanation of unreal, fictional scientific events. Be that as it may, I absolutely could not keep all of the explanation sorted out, whether that is my fault or Disch’s, and I just pared it down as I read to: “it multiplies existences, in a fashion.”

Naturally there is a massive headache-inducing mess here of metaphysics vs. physics. The reader has a few options, assuming they, too, cannot make sense of Disch’s character’s explanations of the science. They can find all of this ridiculous and frustrating and chuck the novel or they can close all the Aristotle books and read this novel as it is, for what its worth. Remember, though, that I said Disch is intelligent.  Disch knows better than to pretend like all his readers are materialist atheists and he directly confronts the question of the “doubling” of characters who have jumped. That is to say, when a character makes a jump, another pseudo-clone of that character is split off from the original. We cannot say “created” – its not just semantics. In fact, it is best called an echo. Now, there are characters who have made multiple jumps. These characters, then have also had multiple echoes split off from their original, real selves. How many souls? Are the echoes soulless? Is the one soul divided amongst them? Welcome back, Avicenna and Averroes.

This stuff is really convoluted and messy. Its rough reading at points if you really want an ontological ratio of these matters [pun!].  Probably, authors should avoid trying to explain this stuff at all costs. But yet…. that Disch put forth the effort and wrangled with it is, in its own way, endearing. I glanced at reviews on a site and one person mentioned how this was related to Star Trek and their transporter usage. I was totally thinking the same thing when I was reading along and was so glad that another reader had noticed this. So, all those hundreds of times when the transporter is fired up – did they create echoes? OH NO! See – it is easy to forget all of the miseries of the ontology if one can just enjoy being entertained. I admit, I have been amusing myself imagining the multitudes of echoes just from Star Trek!

Matter transmission has been invented by this scientist named Doctor Bernard Panofsky.  Bernard Panofsky is in a wheelchair and has a strong liking for opera/theatre. I often thought that this character was going to turn out to be a bad guy, that he was going to betray the reader and Hansard in some way. (Please refrain from psychoanalyzing me on this; I’m aware of the hints here, too.) Anyway, Panofsky did not betray any of us! Indeed, at the end he even brought a wry smile to my face.  Panofsky ends up being a really neat character and I feel like he should have a spin-off series of his own.

In chapter five, I think Disch makes an error. It has to do with Hansard’s writing out a check and putting it in the hotel’s lockbox. I think this betrays all of Disch’s pseudo-science: sublimation of matter, etc. Otherwise, I have to say that even if matter transmission (like time travel) can be messy and entangling to writers – I am still appreciative when authors grapple with it. I really enjoyed Harrison’s One Step From Earth, which also has matter transmission as its foundational concept.

Finally, Disch and Catholicism. I think a lot (if not most) readers will make one-dimensional judgments on this problematic and, similar to pigeon-holing the novel as anti-Vietnam War, will just superficially decide Disch is anti-Roman Catholic. He would most desperately want you to think that he is. In fact, this tone seems to get stronger as he ages. The vehemence and directness with which Disch wrestles with the RCC is actually encouraging. It contains the frustration and the burden of a very intelligent, very-much-so Catholic. He has overtly put himself in tension with the Church (his lifestyle), but I’m unconvinced. But I really do not care to delve more into this topic – particularly in this blog on this internet in today’s world.

Overall, this is a very interesting novel. It has some challenges for the astute reader, but the concepts and the storyline are worthwhile. Disch’s overwhelming intelligence shows through in his writing and more than makes up for any holes in the plot or errors in the story. His characters are developed without seeming melodramatic. Vintage science fiction readers will enjoy this. Readers with big imaginations will be worrying about the echoes along with me.

4 stars

The Wind From Nowhere

The Wind from NowhereThe Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) was first published as a novel in 1962. However, it was published originally in two parts as “Storm-Wind” in 1961 in New Worlds Science Fiction issue #110 edited by John Carnell.  This is the second novel by Ballard that I have read; I read High-Rise in 2016.

I read the 1966 Berkley Medallion edition with Richard Powers cover art.

This novel is both good and bad, but unfortunately, overall it cannot be rated highly. Ballard disliked, disowned, and denigrated this novel as nothing more than a quickly written piece to make some cash to support his new family. It is Ballard’s first novel and it is probably true (I haven’t read enough Ballard to assess properly) that he improved. I do not imagine most authors want their first published novel to be some choppy entertainment written speedily for whatever money they could sell it for.

Yet Ballard does deserve five stars for the awesomeness of a steadily increasing, totally destructive, all-planet windstorm. He even has this windstorm destroy whole cities and countries and does not shy away from the mega-destruction. When reading about the wind, reading the descriptions and about its effects, it is really terrifying and awesome.

Some of the best parts of this windstorm are that it is unexplained. In the beginning, some characters just assume its localized. Some think it is just a particularly awful storm. And then as infrastructure starts breaking down and the wind speeds increase, its too late to get answers to the why and how, instead the characters (humanity, generally) is busy trying to survive. The lack of knowledge makes the windstorm even more terrifying. We follow the events as the wind is around 55 mph and, toward the end of the novel, somewhere around 500 mph. Unbelievable, but yet so enthralling as a science fiction disaster novel.

However, as a novel, leaving so much unexplained also feels unsatisfying and unfinished. The worst part of the this whole novel is that it seems like Ballard did not know who the main character was or what their story was going to be. Throughout, he just flips around between characters who all seem to be thrown in the plot randomly. Instead of following a character’s path, it gets extremely discordant and random. Following the characters is easily the most miserable part of the novel.

Also, the characters randomly go and attempt to do some stupid, useless thing all together in their heavy armored vehicles. This usually does not work and everyone ends up scattered in other temporary bunkers. In other words: the storyline does not progress, everything is mangled again, and the characters are flip-flopped.

When the novel begins, Donald Maitland is leaving his wife. She is a rich playgirl type who has a new boy on her arm every week. She likes parties and the lifestyle. The husband has quit his job to head for a university in Montreal. Oddly, Maitland becomes the action-hero star of the novel (if there is one), though in the early going he hardly seems capable of what he is written into. He seems like a jilted husband who is wrapped up in his own drama. He is, at best, a bookish academic, it seems.

One of the oddest characters is the character Steve Lanyon. Commander Lanyon is a submarine commander in the US Navy. Perhaps the oddest segment of the novel is how he is sent to Italy to run the countryside on a bizarre mission to acquire the corpse of an American dignitary. Naturally, this fails and just turns into an action scene adventure. But how very odd to have a submarine commander anywhere but water.

And then there is RH. The initials of a millionaire character with the surname Hardoon. Hardoon is eccentric (he has henchmen and a pyramid) and bizarre and on the level of the very “best” Bond villains. He gets written into the plot sideways and has connections with characters, so that he seems somewhat like a secret hand moving in the shadows. When we get the displeasure of meeting him, he is ego-centric and ridiculous and any of the build up regarding what he is about dissipates into nothing. The worst part is that there is no real reason for this character and all his associations to have been written into this novel at all.

Anyway, the characters are awful. However, the actual disaster is exciting and terrifying. So, while this is not a good novel, it is also unique and awesome in its own manner. I cannot really recommend it to readers who love a good, completed story. But for fans of Ballard and/or disaster fiction, this one is worthwhile. Probably those who enjoyed Level 7 by Roshwald or October the First is Too Late by Hoyle would get something out of this one. I wish Ballard had not been so angry with it – it really deserved to be re-written and republished. For fans of disaster and over-the-top scenarios.

2 stars

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel FawcettIt seems like this book is not as well-known nowadays as it was a few decades ago. I think that is because many readers started to feel that it was dated and when other readers heard that, they became less enthusiastic about reading this novel. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was first published in novel format in 1954. I read the Fawcett Crest 1972 edition with cover art by John Berkey.  I have tested the title out on a few people – they had no recognition of it. But when I said something like: “Asimov’s robots stuff,” there was immediate recall and familiarity (at least of some concept of the book). Frankly, I love Asimov and his works; he’s one of my answers to those tedious questions of: “Who would you invite to a dinner party if you could pick any six people, deceased or living?” I mention this to say, no, the work does not seem especially dated, and yes, I think this is still a vital read. (By the way, the title comes from a rather poetic line in the novel and represents the state of civilization on Earth.)

Of course other readers will disagree; that’s fine, I just hope they hear me out, too.

One of the reasons that I love Asimov is that he loves to take up a challenge and then chew on it until he has made it his. Can science fiction be a detective mystery? Cross-genre fiction that remains top-notch? The Caves of Steel is such an example. Now, in 2019, readers may not be all that impressed. There are dozens of steampunk-westerns, romantic-urban-fantasy, high fantasy-technothrillers, and mystery novel time-travel stories. How many are any good? Well, that’s a different question. But the familiarity of this mixing is taken for granted now.

I love that Asimov writes about robots. But this isn’t the “juvenile” fiction that we might get from, perhaps, Hal Clement or John Christopher and I always associate with the TV show Flipper (1964 – 1967).  Asimov takes the concept “robot” and chews the heck out of it. I think he even forgets that he’s still chewing on it. The result is a concept of robots that spans nearly all of his fiction works in a consistent manner. The concept is detailed and well-examined. It is also lasting, since everybody seems to run into the Three Laws of Robotics in some fashion. Readers, writers, actors, philosophers, historians, programmers – at one point or another the topic will come up and someone will name drop Isaac. The robots are not tin cans with antennas.

Asimov wrote this novel as a detective story. But he has a few sections where he forgets (this happens often with him) that he is writing a story and he gets on a soapbox, using his characters as mouthpieces, and he runs on about some issue. I am sure some readers find this so very tedious. To me, I love it because this is Asimov chewing on that topic. He is never going to simply hand-wave at a concept. Once he gets on it, though, he really has to flesh out this matter before he can move on.

It sometimes seems to me like readers are always complaining about how they want more depth in their novels. They don’t want wooden motives, cardboard characters, and superficial matter-of-fact plot devices. Well, this is how you get depth sometimes; by getting to the crux of the matter and just working your way around it and carving it out – maybe even using some long-winded soapboxes.

Finally, besides the novel having robots and future-science, besides it being a detective mystery, here are problems of overpopulation, complacency, and stubborn-minded societies. If that was all I mentioned about a book, viz. that it deals with overpopulation and how society needs to be more forward-thinking and tend less toward a nostalgic mentality, who would immediately assume I was talking about a 1950s novel? No one, because such a novel could easily be written and popular in present day!

The biggest complaint that I can justify about this novel is that it is a bit dry sometimes. Dry as in a little bitter, a little dull, and maybe needs a little more gas pedal.  It is true that the main female character is really tough to deal with because she is so hideous a caricature. I would hope that we will reach a stage when it is moot to mention that the female characters in 1950s novels are usually written hideously, demonstrating a chauvinistic mentality common in that era. Certainly there will be some louts today who are still a degree more barbarian in their thinking, but a word from me is not going to change that.  Nevertheless, I understand the level to which the female character (Jessie is her name) vexes readers. Literally, in places, it seems like the entire problem of the storyline is all her fault. The fact that Asimov actually names her Jezebel is just ridiculous. But there it is; do not read this novel for a female role model or strong female lead to identify with, okay?

The characters in the novel (excepting robots) are all tempestuous creatures. Readers might find their stubbornness and their opinionated attitudes disagreeable. None of that is because the novel is dated. Go on Twitter and look at any tweet about anything – you will get the same indignant vehemence and triggered psychoses. One of the robot Daneel Olivaw’s neat abilities is that he can study a person’s psyche by cerebroanalysis. It is as pseudo-science as Asimov gets in this novel. The robot is able to sense when/why humans are willing to change their minds or are receptive to concepts and ideas outside of their own. Definitely this is relevant today – from marketing to ethics.

It is difficult for me to dislike an author who understands that humans, including himself, can be irrationally stubborn or pig-headed. Asimov wrote a detective novel – with some science fiction elements. At the same time, he presented an unnervingly unfriendly look at human attitudes and mentalities. Unlike some modern dystopia novels wherein all is lost and we are waiting for a special, unique hero, The Caves of Steel offers a solution. Shunning the “hold on for heroes” ideas, it makes some strong suggestions for us to roll out of our caves and rekindle our curiosity and bravery.

4 stars

 

Survivor

Survivor 1977 ACE

Survivor by Laurence M. Janifer (1933 – 2002) was first published in 1977. It is the first novel in the six-book Gerald Knave series.  It is the first item I’ve read by Janifer, I think, though he did write under a variety of pen-names throughout his career. Survivor is a short work – just 172 pages in the ACE edition that I read.

The novel takes place on the planet Cub IV, which is a human colonized planet. Humans have been there for twenty years and the planet has been nicknamed the World With No Problems. Some novels have worlds that are perfect because of the extreme-resort spa style of the planet.  That is not the style of “perfect” on Cub IV; there is not a marked amount of hedonism and/or wide-open mentality. This colonization just does not have any troubles – as if this new colonization “did it right.”

Survivor is a spare novel told in the first-person by the main character, Gerald Knave. The novel is not about endless world-building, character development, background information, or tedious descriptions. It is very much a punchy pseudo-pulpy late-70s novel. So, it will not stand up to pointed questions about its plot or setting. I miss these sorts of novels a little bit. What sort? Hard to explain; but the ones that feel – to me – like they are just speedy entertaining blasts in various science fiction settings. I do not always feel like committing to the burden of reading ridiculously detailed and expansive universes with more characters than I can keep track of.  Survivor requires nothing from the reader and is vaguely entertaining.

The native species on the planet are dubbed the Vesci by Gerald Knave. They start “taking over” the human populace telepathically.  So the first two humans to be controlled by the Vesci are Johnny James and Laia Kodorko; two citizens of Cub IV that have become the “patient zero” of the Vesci infiltration.  Some things:  since the Vesci are attacking the humans telepathically, they are all also one unit. Both Laia and Johnny and all others taken over by the Vesci speak the same – they use the pronoun “we” and they say things like: “we are here” and “we are all the same.”  Here is where the reader needs to make the choice to not ask the messy questions.  Ontologically the story just face-planted into the Problem of the One and the Many.  So, unless you want to have a read-along with Avicenna or someone, just put it aside and have fun.

The fight between the humans and the Vesci gets funneled into the manipulation of the telephone network. I get it, because communication is one of those things that is key in war, apocalypse, and disaster. Janifer just really focuses on the telecoms here. But the story is, more or less, the same as all the contemporary zombie stories/shows pop culture has been circulating. Telepathy aliens taking over humans versus contagions taking over humans – not a big plot difference, except I dislike the gore that comes along with the zombie stories.

Janifer, and therefore Knave, is a little less “politically correct” than people born post-2000. But I remember when everyone thought more like Janifer/Knave. Its likely a few things in here will make people roll their eyes, which is fine. Now, the big reveal at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution possible and gives us the happy ending, is not very satisfying. It really is smirk-worthy. I will not spoil it here, but it is a weak element to the story.

Here is a good quick read for someone who just needs to read something light and basic that does not require much from the reader. General 1970s science fiction lightweight. And maybe meeting Gerald Knave is a good idea for true science fiction addicts.

2 stars