Science Fiction

Dark Matter

Dark MatterIf you, as I did, decide to “pseudo-hurricane evac,” you cannot bring every book on your tbr-mountain. As distressing as this is, it is possible to just take one single book along with you. And mainly, this is for space constraints. To be honest, I did not evac for safety reasons, but for sanity reasons. So, I was not really worried about the destruction some locations had, but sitting around in power outages while 50-mph wind whips nature at you is not exactly relaxing. So, what book did I grab? Well, I grabbed Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Mainly because I figured it would last a day or two and I really had been meaning to knock it off of the tbr list for awhile.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch (b. 1978) was first published in 2016. I am aware that it has been a popular read since then, but I have never gotten around to reading it. For the most part, the reviews and ratings that I have seen for this novel have been positive.

The novel is a very speedy read – its very obvious that the author is comfortable with screenplays. I think he writes line-by-line, especially dialogue. The author never really turns this into a novel. Maybe someday, if it has not already, it will be picked up by a film company and it will be easy to turn into a TV show/movie. I do not watch much TV and I never read screenplays, so this sort of writing did not grip me and pull me in.

Overall, though, this novel was disappointing. I enjoy science fiction and everyone who says that phrase also has a special little part of their heart reserved for parallel universes, time travel, quantum physics, and alternate realities. Even if they brush you off and deny this fact, ignore them – it is just that they are scared you know a secret.  Unfortunately, because this is a common fact among all science fiction fans, there are a great number of works that have attempted to, in some way, provide an exciting story within these themes. Another unfortunate fact is that these themes are particularly high-level science. Traditionally, it has been difficult to write very engaging/entertaining novels that are also filled with accurate and technically brilliant high-level “hard” science. I am not a quantum physicist, so I am not going to judge Crouch’s effort here from that angle. It seems to me that Crouch did not totally flub the science here. In fact, in several parts, he does a decent job of explaining to a reader what is going on, what is happening to the characters. Its not hard science that would block most readers who are not scientifically inclined, let us say.

However, the whole story is nearly like Quantum Leap (1989-1993).  Crouch, being born in 1978, should know about this show and maybe should have realized he was a little too close to it. The influence and proximity comes from the fugitive aspect of the storyline. Do not get me wrong, this is also where any action and excitement come from.  Yes, some of these segments are kind of thrilling and interesting.  Unfortunately, I remember watching Quantum Leap on TV back when it was originally on and I cannot say skipping through the realities is not fun – but its not super new for me.

Secondly, though this book really should be hard science fiction all the way, the book is mainly a love story. The love story (the main character is focused on his wife and teenage son), is his sole motivation for all that he endures. Like any good writer, Crouch knows that he needs to give his characters reasons. Jason Dessen’s “reason” is his family.  So when the main character has to find the motivation, he finds it in the “need” to return to and protect his family. Also, whenever the main character is feeling any sort of way, it is related to his relationship and emotions regarding his family.  This is a logical and reasonable motivation – but danged if this did not start to really annoy me. It definitely makes me sound like a cold-blooded, heartless reader, but I got pretty tired of hearing Jason go on and on about how his family makes him feel, etc.  In a sense, the storyline had me feeling some compassion and worry toward him. However the constant pounding on this theme made me actually start to dislike the characters and it turned my sympathy for him right around.

Choosing Well cover

my paperback 1982 edition

Further, the novel is actually not about the multiverse/parallel realities.  This novel is, at its very core, a question about ethics. Now, I am not an ethicist. I am, by training and trade, a metaphysician. Ostensive and defensive, if you please, along the Aristotelian lines. However, I know that most fiction writers are not very aware of what goes on in academia and think they have hit upon a new and unique vantage point or question or what have you. Rarely is this the case. Original thought and ideas are so incredibly rare…. ANYWAY, Crouch, whether he knew it or not, was literally writing very closely to the ideas put forth by Germain G. Grisez (1929 – 2018) and Russell B. Shaw in his Choosing Well (1982). Choosing Well is such an infamous book in my household because it routinely wins ugliest book ever. Its a decently academic read, short and very readable; printed by University of Notre Dame and organized logically. But it has the ugliest cover in the galaxy…. reminiscent of some 1960s self-help manual or something. There is actually a household rule that if you use/read this book you have to always have cover down (like on a table or whatever) so others don’t puke looking at it.  I suppose I could also mention John Finnis (b. 1940) here (not that I expect anyone to have followed this far down the rabbit trail of ethics texts, but I like being thorough).

Choosing Well backBecause at the end of the day, Crouch has his main character working on a problem – and it is not the problem of quantum physics or how to return to a specific universe. It is actually:  what is happiness? how does one have a happy life? of what does a happy life consist – and how do our choices determine this?

Sometimes it is really tough to be a philosopher, because you often get books spoiled because even if you want to read a new and exciting novel, the author hands you retread tires. It is difficult to keep any feeling of wonder or curiosity or excitement when its old news.

Dark Matter is a modernized Quantum Leap full of GGG-Shaw-Finnis ethics.  Now, I suppose, even such a work could be interesting because those items, on their own, are relatively interesting, of course. But – written in this screenplay manner with the limited number of characters, the endless droning about the main character’s wife, and the inevitable repetitive nature of the story – any wonder and thrill is quickly lost.

I tried to imagine this book being read by a reader who has no background in physics (or Quantum Leap) or academic ethics and maybe they would enjoy the very emotive, fast-paced plot. I am not sure. Sadly, I could not grant this thing more than two stars, though I honestly wanted it to be better. After all, it was the only book I had with me.

2 stars

The Werewolf Principle

THe Werewolf PrincipleThe Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1967. I read the Berkley paperback with the Richard Powers (1921 – 1996) cover art.  My copy was only 216 pages, but I think it took over a week to read – because I had just gotten home from travel and for whatever reason, my mind was feeling listless and disinterested.  This is the eighth Simak novel that I have read, though, so I feel he and I are old friends, so to speak.

First of all, there are no “werewolves” and there is no “werewolf principle.”  Like all of our favorite science fiction grandmasters, Simak had a keen, uncanny eye for the future, but I doubt even he could have guessed our pop culture fascination with werewolves – and the many iterations of them that we have designed. Unfortunately, it seems we have saturated ourselves with werewolves (yes, and other monsters associated with them like vampires) and so the title of this novel from 1967 might be off-putting to someone in 2022.

Second of all, Simak’s love for pastoral, middle-America farms and woodlands is once again present. It seems no matter the storyline or the characters, Simak will find a way to take the reader fishing. He will also tell you all about the woods nearby, the critters that roam those woods, the farmland across the way, and the hills that overlook it all.  I, personally, am not a big fan of scenery, but it is such a part of Simak and his writing that I have come to accept it and understand it as necessary to enjoying Simak’s worldview and creations.  By the way, I do enjoy fishing. Trout, panfish, Bass, etc. although in my youth I did more big lake stuff like Walleye and Pike.

Generally I find Simak’s novels to be uneven.  Whether it is uneven in plotting, pacing, or execution, it does not really matter because the result is always somewhat of a rolling up and down read. This novel may be slightly more uneven than some of the others I have read, but its, again, something I have learned to expect with Simak. Specifically, the opening quarter of the novel is very in media res.  And chapter six is especially difficult/frustrating to read.  The novel moves in and out of a variety of “action/fugitive” moments to segments of introspection and description that seem so very sluggish.

Solar panels on houses – houses that are really Smart Homes. The A.I. of the houses is very intrusive and oppressive. The various rooms of the house are very often harassing the people in the house. Its really invasive and annoying – and I am just reading about it. I pity the main character. But, on the other hand, I think of some of the Smart Homes in society currently and I have to shrug a little. Perspectives….. Anyway, I really snorted at one of the interactions of the overbearing Kitchen in chapter seven.  While its obnoxious, I can relate to it. Many times my household has to throttle back my cooking. Literally, massive meals with Old World styled courses and plating. Also, enough to feed a battalion. So, when in chapter seven the Kitchen lets loose, I had to cheer!

The theme of the overall novel is about the meaning of the Self or what it is to be a mind. I am taken back to my graduate school days where we read things like Gilbert Ryle and argued about BIVs [Brain in Vat] for endless semesters. In this novel, Simak has BIVs. This fact is a little unnerving because I swear Simak predates a lot of the academic inquiry. It is not just about BIVs, though. There is also a wrangling that the characters do with what it means to be human and what it means to have/be a self.  I remember there was a lot of Macquarrie and Calvin O. Schrag that I had to read through. Everyone after Heidegger is very busy discovering themselves, you know…. I digress….

While this may sound interesting to some readers, it is very uneven and at some point in the novel, the tone changes. There is a very negative feeling that comes through the writing toward and about humanity. The main character, though full of knowledge and data, is also extremely emotional. Toward the end of the book, he basically makes a sudden decision that “oh, humans will be mean to me, so bye, I’m leaving.” It feels ridiculously abrupt and nearly childish.

The main character has three selves (so to speak), two of which are very alien to a human. In fact, the main character is not exactly a natural specimen of humanity. So, there is a lot going on there.  Some of this Simak looks at, some of it he does not. Its a lot to unpack and the story instead grinds along. Some of the “internal” dialogue between the three is interesting, most of it is tedious. They have names for each other (that symbolically designate themselves). Changer, Quester, Thinker. These seem like as good of names as any, but look too closely and they do not really stand up to scrutiny.

The very ending is a little bit better than some of Simak’s works. This ending had a surprise twist that I did not see coming, but that is very welcome – to the reader and to the main character. It pleases the main character a great deal, but it does not erase the bad taste of him being a bit impulsive and harboring a jealousy/bitterness.

With Simak’s writing there is also sometimes what I call a “comic book” feel to it. For example, the characters will have an epiphany in a very comic book manner. They might be on a long introspection jag and when an idea comes to them, the writing just feels like the yellow narrative boxes instead of a prose edit. It does not happen often, but its there in most of the Simak novels. Just a brief section where it feels like a novelization of some tense moment from a comic.

Anyway, I liked the usual things one likes about Simak novels. I disliked the unevenness and I definitely did not like the sudden negative mood of the main character. Like I have said, some of these themes arise in other novels by Simak, and I would not be surprised if the next novel I read of his also contains a character who does not fit in with humanity, finds a deep nostalgia for Earth and nature, but has a uncomfortable attitude toward humans.  This is NOT a bad read, certainly not at all. It just is not the high level of Simak’s work.

3 stars

Count Zero

Count Zero coverCount Zero by William Gibson was published in 1986. It is the pseudo-sequel to 1984’s Neuromancer novel. I read Neuromancer in 2012 and it has taken me ten years to get the motivation to read Count Zero. Sure, in the years I have picked the book up and read a page or two and every time I just did not feel like this was the novel I wanted to read. Well, I had enough of this behavior and I brought it with me to the middle of Appalachia. There is nothing much around besides kudzu and deer. I read Count Zero in about a day and a half.

After having finished two Gibson novels, I am no expert. However, I can confirm some of the things said online about his work.  Its said that he writes dense novels. I have been debating today about this particular word choice. I am not certain “dense” is the best word, though it is not utterly incorrect, either.  So, I feel “dense” has a connotation of being especially difficult to penetrate and examples of “dense” writing might include Finnegans Wake or The Name of the Rose. I think Gibson novels are very compressed. I am aware that this seems very picayune. The reason I prefer “compressed” is that when I read Gibson, I realize I have to read each and every word absolutely. There is no speed-reading these novels and there is no skipping. No skimming and no skipping – absolutely none, not one word. Not ever.

Reading Gibson novels is a bit tiring because he does have his own architecture and lingo that he does not explain to the reader and the context is not a huge assist, either.  Having to read every single word carefully is also tedious because it makes this 246 page novel seem much longer. It also shows that readers get lazy in their reading – maybe not intentionally skimming, but certainly not giving novels their full focus. The reader definitely loses out on a lot if they skim. So I also have to praise Gibson for his very precise writing. The demand on himself is even more, since if the reader dare not skim, the writer must have also very precisely selected each and every word. Gibson’s novels are a lot of work. The sort of plotting and conversation that other authors spread out over chapters and chapters is compressed into a few paragraphs. Readers better respect that or the book will quickly turn to total confusion for them.

Count Zero is a bit of a sequel to the previous novel – one would definitely want to read Neuromancer first. However, it is not much of a direct continuation of the storyline; it is more of a continuation of the environment and setting. I liked Count Zero more because the novel just seemed a bit easier to follow. Neuromancer was quite mysterious… I could not find my footing easily, and not in the good PKD sort of way. Perhaps this is because the first novel gave me necessary familiarization.  I just think this sequel has a better flow to it – even if it has all the cyberpunk/futuristic elements. Count Zero is not about getting readers to bond with characters. I think many readers find this off-putting; many readers seem to want to develop relationships with characters.  Gibson’s characters are significant and distinct, but they remain aloof and out of reach of the reader. I like that, other readers might be more critical of this. 

Some things, though, readers need to know. For example, Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) plays a vague rôle in this novel due to his artwork. It gets really jumbled in the cybertechnology. However, if a reader is at least somewhat familiar with his work, it will make their reading of this novel quite a bit easier. Other things, like the voodoo stuff would be really tough to draw strictly from the novel. Reading these segments feels really bizarre and nutty. So, somehow, lucky readers might find out what all of this is about, but without reading spoilers (somehow) that would ruin their overall enjoyment of the plot.

The receptionist in the cool gray anteroom of the Galerie Duperey might well have grown there, a lovely and likely poisonous plant, rooted behind a slab of polished marble inlaid with an enameled keyboard. – pg. 11, chapter 2

The plot in this novel has three threads that are distinct, but converge at the end. The ending is a little bit of a mess, but maybe it was just my weariness talking. Overall, there is a lot of fodder here (back in the mid-80s) for the future cyberpunks. This is an action novel, believe it or not, it just has some slow parts that make you think of those really dull moments in certain movies – those segments that you wonder (during your first watch) why they are there, but then afterwards you see how they got everything all connected together. Remember, you cannot skip slow parts in this book. Every word has been selected and trimmed for the sake of the novel. 

This is a really strong novel for strong readers. Its definitely for fans of a certain style of cyberpunk/cybertechnology. It is demanding and it has its own landscape, language, culture, and tech that on occasion might look like ours (i.e. what we have going on in 2000+). At its heart it is an action novel, though. It is just a different style of action than the usual mass market paperback style of thriller novels.  Once you read Gibson, you cannot undo what you pick up from them, unless you are some kind of wilson. And yeah, when things go sideways, you might blurt to your pals that it got witchy.  I hope to finish off this “trilogy” – and I really hope it does not take me another ten years to read the last book in the set.

4 stars

This Immortal

This Immortal ACEOnce again enjoying some vintage science fiction, I finished up This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995). It is the first Zelazny that I have read, I think (unless I’ve come upon some short fiction that I have forgotten about). This is such an odd novel I actually feel bad for anyone reading this review because I feel like my review will be scattered and swirly. Sorry about that in advance.

The first thing to mention is the publishing history of the work.  Originally, This Immortal was …And Call Me Conrad and was published in two parts in issues (October and November) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the first collected, novel-edition of the work was released by ACE in July 1966 under the title This Immortal.  I read the 1981 ACE edition with the Rowena Morrill cover. If you look at the cover of the edition I read, you see in the upper right the words: THE HUGO WINNING NOVEL……

….because this novel won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was presented in Cleveland in September of 1966. Some readers just read that line and felt no significance whatsoever and briefly wondered why I am giving them a boring history lesson. Some other readers thought something like, “Wait, what? 1966… Are you sure?” and the most precise of readers said, “Oh! I know where you are going with this! Hahaha!”

….because, actually, this novel tied for first in the Hugo Award for Best Novel.  The novel that it shared the win with is none other than Dune by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986).

Dune is not an easy read.  It is subversive and complex and at its heart, it is a space opera. It has layers and agendas and ideas. Readers could complain about how slow it reads or how involved it is. Or even its often derivative elements making it seem very borrowed-ish. And then there is This Immortal, which is so obviously different in many ways.  Frankly, I cannot lie, I do not see how Zelazny’s novel competes.  I am not saying that it does not have merit, but sheesh, even if you hate Dune, how is This Immortal a tie with it? Now, one thing I do not want this review to turn into is a comparison-contrast piece pitting the two against one another again.

Zelazny wrote a novel with some deep, heavy ideas in such a breezy and pulpy manner that it, I think, does somewhat of a disservice to itself.  At the same time, I really do not know if Zelazny could have written it differently, say, in order to not be so utterly flippant and almost wispy with the weighty things.  The problem with being breezy and wispy is that I am willing to bet that the majority of readers are unable to pick up on all of the neat connections and “Easter eggs” and such. One of the biggest demands is that the reader be familiar with Greek mythology and culture – and the familiarity is not one from a glossary or a handbook on ancient Greece.  The familiarity has to come from study, schooling, and honestly, years of letting that stuff ferment and simmer in one’s mental slow-cooker. Here’s the first line:

“You are a kallikanzaros,” she announced suddenly.

Of course this was sudden, I doubt there is any other way of stating such a thing to someone. Anyway, the novel is off and running at this point. For a good quarter of the novel, the dialogue keeps a breezy, choppy flow to it. It is the style that one would find in noir crime novels and/or pulp fiction novels.  Another example of this writing would be John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stuff. Snappy and sarcastic and never taking anything seriously. Everything said with a shot glass in hand and tongue-in-cheek, because the state of the world is so bad that we certainly cannot take it seriously.

The main character is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives.  Its after the “Three Days,” which is presumably when the massive bad event occurred (one suspects it involved nuclear destruction).  The Earth’s main continent lands are destroyed and the population, such as it is, lives on islands.  There are Hot Spots (likely radiation-filled zones) and a whole lot of mutated and deranged creatures that roam Earth.  There are aliens, too, the Vegans, and a Sprung-Samser medical treatment, and a Vite-Stats Register.  No details on any of these things whatsoever. Accept them at face value and build them however you, as a science fiction reader, would like.

The main character is recalled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to join a social event and be assigned as a tour guide to a visiting alien. All very farcical and strange.  So, a motley crew of whomever gets assembled to tour around with the alien – the alien wanting to go to various places to research a book or something that he is creating.  The world has gone to rot and those of us left are having theatre productions and drunken social mixers and we are all going to pop out on the skimmers with the Commissioner and the alien to see how ravaged our world is. Also, someone invited the super famous assassin to the social party.

They set off to visit a voodoo ritual – like, a pre-cursor event before they start the actual tour. It is as weird as it sounds.  I have no idea why this scene is in a novel. Bored rich folk visit voodoo shrine before they tour radiated Cairo; probably alien’s fault.

This theme of a mobile social gala continues throughout the entire book – even in the most pulpy and action-scene segments.  Very much the story felt, to me, like those British novels wherein the upper-middle class packs their bags and their Baedekers and travelled to Florence and Athens and the “coast.”  Instead of sedate tourism, though, there are several incidents of savage violence and mayhem in a post-apolocalyptic setting.  Literally, at one point, the alien sets up an easel and is painting a river scene and then everyone gets attacked by a mutant crocodile. Drama and intrigue and pulpy action all in one scene.

The weirdest scenes include one that is along the road to Volos in which a fifty-meter clearing is nearby and things get super bizarre because they see a satyr and the biologist wants to shoot it, but instead the main character (kallikanzaros, remember?) starts playing a shepherd’s pipe and more goat things appear. A strange 1960s interlude of weirdness.

Another dip into the insane is the whole segment wherein the group gets captured and there is a obese albino and Procrustes shows up and fighting and what in the ever-living-heck is this crap about? One wonders if Zelazny just felt like writing while inebriated or if he wrote scenes just to weave some weird ancient Greek mythology into them or if some editor demanded pulp action scenes. Whatever the case may be, these are basically absurdist and once overlayed on the frustrated, apathetic social gathering that is filled with ennui and motives – it just deflates the whole effort.

Constantly the novel is filled with allusions and hints and name-dropping and metaphors that display Zelazny’s interest and knowledge of ancient Greek (and other) mythologies. However, instead of peppering and simmering, he just dumps the whole spicy bottle into the stew and we get heavy-handed writing with no plot and stupid characters. For example, Cassandra – if you can believe it – is here. Why? I honestly do not know. A lot of the book actually involves her in some way, but why? At the end of the thing, I have no idea why this character is even here except maybe to fill the final scene with that happy all-wrapped-up easy peasy action novel ending. (Cassandra with a high-powered rifle is a painting I want on my walls, though.)

Overall, the novel wants you to like it and as a reader I really wanted to, as well. So engaging and breezy, but ultimately ridiculous and stupid. It is really quite like taking the well-worn concept of “humans do not treat their planet well” and then turning it into some Edwardian/ancient Greek farce. What did Zelazny want to do with this? He did not know, either, I think. Its mid-1960s sentiment with some leftover 1940s pulp. Good luck, readers.

2 stars

The Escape Orbit

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

The Escape Orbit by James White (1928 – 1999) was first published in 1964 as Open Prison. The next year the variant The Escape Orbit was released with the fancy Jack Gaughan cover art.  I read the 1983 edition with Wayne Barlowe’s cover art.  This is the fifth book by James White that I have read. Two of the five have been part of White’s Sector General series.  White’s works have run the gamut as far as my ratings.  This novel was nominated in 1965 for a Nebula Award….. and so was Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh is Grass, PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Obviously, White’s work did not win. But it seems that those 1964-1966 years were really something for science fiction and some great things were written/published.

I decided after reading this novel that it is a five star novel.  At the end of the day, ratings are mostly subjective.  Those novels that I think are five stars, others may hotly contest that they even deserve three stars! It is what it is. I think that it being my blog, the rating should reflect my readings/opinions.  I do try to make the case for five star novels being rated so – I do not just say ‘oh, I liked it a lot’ and leave it at that.  And then, perhaps, my tastes or criteria have adjusted in the years since I read a work; not making my rating of a book invalid, but heavily locating it in a definite time/place.  Further, I think it is important to remind readers that a five star rating does not mean that I think the novel is perfect.  I actually do not think there are “perfect” novels.

The Escape Orbit is not a book that I expected was going to be given high marks when I started reading it. I knew it had some good potential and that White is a decent author.  The one element that I think continually convinced me of the five star rating was the unanticipated amount of effort that the author put into this novel.  My copy is 184 pages and I feel like it contains more of the author’s blood, sweat, and tears (so to speak) than many of the 364 page novels published nowadays.  I mean it – several times during my reading I was caught like this, ‘Oh wow, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that’ or ‘yeah, that makes sense, great workaround!’

White knew he was writing a novel in which he might also be accused of helping the characters a bit too much with the problems they faced. White did respond to this:

“It was a simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong…. it would be workable with just the average amount of good luck instead of a multiple chain of miracles.” – pg. 39, chapter five

The book is fiction and while it attempts to be quite realistic, let us say, we all know we are going to allow a lot of leeway for the characters to get what they need in service of the plot.  So, sure, at points White knew readers might think he handed the characters some easy fixes.  However, it was not done utterly unknowingly and there were plenty of struggles so that the characters did not get handed chains of miracles (a phrasing that is tickling me).

There has been a long, long running interstellar war between humans and the “Bugs.”  Both sides are worn thin from the war effort and the war was never total war, so to speak.  White details some of this at the start of chapter two so that the reader can get a grasp of something near a century of warfare between the species.  The keeping of prisoners, on both sides, has become an issue.  There is no need to slaughter prisoners, but at the same time, supporting the number of prisoners in a “humane” fashion is also untenable. So, the Bugs, at least, have found envirnomentally human-friendly planets and they drop humans prisoners (military) off on this planet to fend for themselves. Thus, a prison planet.

We join the story with the survivors of the warship Victorious being dropped off on the planet.  Among them is our main character, Sector Marshal Warren, who turns out to be the highest-ranking prisoner on the planet.  It is somewhat impressive that James White, himself, was not (as far as I know) in the military because from the books of his that I have read, he does display a decent working knowledge of aspects of the military.  That is to say, he writes very convincingly and his characters are reasonably created.

Overall, the story is one of survival, escape, and leadership.  In one sense, this can be a rather dull story – it is completely full of nothing more than problem-solving and maybe that gives it the somewhat slower-feeling pacing.  However, actually considered, there are plenty of character-tensions, action scenes, and plot twists.  Its good writing, believe it or not, and maybe I did not even realize that until late in the novel. It feels slow-moving at times, but there is a lot going on, I think. And its only 184 pages! I am still surprised by how much happened in the book compared to its length.

Warren had wondered briefly how it was possible to both like and dislike what he was doing, and the people who were helping him do it, intensely at one and the same time. – pg 121, chapter fourteen

This book, after all, is all from Warren’s point of view, although it is not exactly fair-play in the sense that Warren plays his cards close, if you will, and never fully reveals all of his decisions to the other characters or to us readers.  However, it does not feel deceitful or contrived because Warren himself lets us all know that he is playing it close and he knows it has to be that way and it may frustrate others.

Right up until the very last page readers are, I would think, torn between whether each character is a good guy or a bad guy.  Because, truly, most novels have good and bad.  This novel is realistic because the characters are dynamic and their motivations and insights are reasonable – and typically human. Right up until the last page, readers may still be wondering about Warren’s motives and morality. Keeping readers off-balance so they are not sure what side they are on is a tough feat.  It resembles some of those other excellent novels of the time period that were nominated for awards. That’s some very strong writing skill.

The amount of strategy and planning and devising in the book is quite impressive. I do not want to simply say it is a study of leadership and strategy, because this makes it seem like the book is something it is not.  This is still a novel, which at times is nearly pastoral and ruminative.  It is not The Art of War or something from Tacitus. Readers wanting a pulpy adventure story of a prison planet will be very disappointed. Similarly, readers wanting hard science fiction in which the characters are just barely names and ranks will also be frustrated.  Instead, White wrote a very human novel about humans in a difficult situation being constantly confronted with problems to solve – including the main one:  the rôle of goals in human activity/psychology.

There are a lot of ethics/pyschology concepts for an intelligent reader to wrangle with here. At the heart of it, this is not fluffy.  If a reader does not come away questioning or wondering as they read through the chapters, they are doing it wrong.

This is not a difficult read, but it is not something to blaze through on the beach.  I am impressed with it and I do recognize it is not a perfect novel (whatever that could be). I am really glad I read it – it was not what I expected and I can say afterwards that it was definitely worth reading.  This is for thoughtful readers and fans of vintage science fiction. If a reader is going to read about the prison planet setting, this one is necessary.

5 stars

The Atlantic Abomination

The Atlantic Abomination

ACE, 1960 cover art: Ed Emshwiller

The temperatures crept up over 100° this week and so that limited some of my activities.  To pass the time during the worst parts of the day, I found myself reading The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner. It was on a stack of books that I had forgotten about. The novel was first published in 1960, but I read the pocket-sized ACE edition from 1969.  It is a slender novel, I think; only 128 pages, but printed in that miniscule font on yellowed paper.  Overall, this is not a perfect novel.  However, the “wow-factor” of the parts that were well done overshadows the not-so-good parts of the novel.

The first chapter is amazingly well written.  Not only that, but the cover artist, Ed Emshwiller, drew the cover based on that first chapter and his vision matches the absolute horror and awesomeness of Brunner’s story.  I do not know all the details of the publishers’ history, but there exists an edition of the novel from 1977 that is by ACE and/or Grosset & Dunlap.  The cover art on that edition is uncredited and, in my opinion, not as amazing as Emshwiller’s original artwork.  I do not usually talk a whole lot about cover art, but the strikingly horrifying nature of Emshwiller’s cover/Brunner’s concept is really worth it to a reader to take a few moments to admire and consider.

Feeling roasted and listless it would take a great chapter to get me really interested in a book. Frankly, if the second chapter and the first chapter had been switched, I likely would have tossed this book aside.  In fact, I would believe that this first chapter was a piece that Brunner just belted out all at once and did not have a storyline for, but had a great idea and got it down and then did not quite know what to do with it.  Publishing being what it was, I suspect he built it into a somewhat more “commonplace” storyline and it became a novel not unlikely to be found in the 1960s.  The first chapter, though, is five stars. Masterfully [pun!] horrific and utterly merciless.

The remainder of the novel has its ups and downs.  Generally, its pacing is a little off and at points it does feel like the writer is not sure where he wants to go with his storyline and is stalling for time. So, current day, oceanography exploration with really high-end technology.  A slightly awkward, but not untoward hint of human drama/romance.  Vague feelings about the Russians and a vague societal competitiveness.  Predictably, the little submariner pod goes very, very deep into the ocean and something goes “wrong.”  Predictably, humans taking major actions based on assumptions or pressed at deadlines causes bad decisions. Mayhem is unleashed.

There are two female characters in the book, both are scientists. One, Eloise, is very marginal.  The second, Mary, is a main character. She is often present in scenes and she is engaged in matters and not superficial, but at the same time, she still remains irrelevant.  I am not the most sensitive to reading characters, but even I noticed that there was this effort to include Mary all the time – but for no real reason at all.

Anyway, the storyline rather runs to the humans-all-band-together deal and readers know that monsters and aliens are apt to underestimate human ingenuity.  So, the storyline grinds along with humans working together to stumble upon solutions, which they, basically, do because they all work together and science never fails. The President of the USA admits to as much in the last page or two of the novel. Go team human! Go science!

The ending is lame. I have to say that I do not know what I expected, but I did want something more spectacular and thrilling than what was delivered. I guess the author was done writing it at that point and enough was enough. I just feel like it is unbalanced compared with how we started this novel – I want the ending that the beginning promised me.

A good read because, as they say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Very good first chapter, as I have said, and general easy reading the rest of the way.  Nothing standout, but nothing utterly atrocious. Definitely something “fun” to consider for those that like catastrophic science fiction or scary alien science fiction.

3 stars

All Systems Red

"All Systems Red" - Martha Wells (2017) Tor - cover: Jaime Jones

“All Systems Red” – Martha Wells (2017) Tor – cover: Jaime Jones

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author.  This first book was published in 2017.  The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size.  Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem.  But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.

This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight.  The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots.  Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact.  A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.

Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor.  A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical.  So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans.  So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?

Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters.  Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.

And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?

Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech.  The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.

Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable.  Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review.  I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

One Way

One WayI just finished reading One Way by Jeff Lane. It is a self-published work that I think was first released in 2011 or 2012, I am not entirely certain. I was led to the novel by a YouTube creator SteveTalksBooksandStuff.  I have been, lately, making the effort to read things that I, honestly, would not normally select.  So, honestly, a self-published work recommended by a YouTube “booktuber” chap is one that in the past I would have not read.  That being said, now that I have read the novel, I think that the plot and content is actually not too far off of the path I normally find my reading on; it was not that strange a selection.

I have mentioned a couple of times that it is a self-published work.  I have often avoided self-published works because I really dislike reading unpolished/draft-level things.  I have a particular self-published work on a bookshelf that I could not read past the first two pages what with the errors and uglyness.  Here’s the facts:  there were a couple of typos. I think about five. That is not terrible and I can see these are ones that “spell check” would not have caught. But still, a careful reading would fix this manuscript and perfect it. I do not want to seem nitpicky; I want to excuse the author for these things.  I also want the author to not be bogged down by this stuff.  Yes, it is his name on the cover, but I would bet he had review-readers. They should have helped find these errors, they let him down. And this is a novel that should not suffer these mistakes – because it is a really good novel.

This is a unique and suspenseful story with a great concept behind it. I do not want to give away ANY plot points whatsoever. Let me say that usually authors are unable to consistently carry “suspense” over a duration.  Further, I have found that there is a specific science fiction element that many, many authors attempt to utilize, but it becomes their pitfall.  In this book, the element is actually a big success; the author handled it with adept skill and I was very impressed.  Both of these factors are huge reasons why I hope this author continues writing and gets whatever measure of commercial/artistic success that he is aiming for. (I recognize there are some folk that just want to write a good store and share it.)

Lane wrote a well-paced, consistent, suspenseful, harrowing story with just the right amounts of tension, background, and setting. Seriously, this is really well-written and because of that, I would move this author to the “must read” list.  I would not want to rush him or his work…. but I want to read more great stories because I am a selfish gluttonous reader!

There were a couple lines that stood out more than the rest as far as interesting and resonant.  In chapter 21 the main character Barry has a realization: “Apparently, his Rockport loafters were not optimal for this snowy trek.” pg. 131.   This line really worked well right there in the story. The brand-name, the semi-sarcastic tone, the shock to reader that one’s footwear choice can be nearly life or death…. all worked to make this one line come across so lively and potent.

In chapter 15 we find: “Jenny felt uncomfortable, fidgety, like she had suddenly forgotten how to sit still.” pg. 91  This line hinging on that “forgotten” word choice really stuck with me.  So often authors might write “she couldn’t sit still,” but that is not the same sense as “suddenly forgotten” – and if you have ever been very nervous or uncomfortable – it very much so is like forgetting how to be still as opposed to just “cannot” sit still. It is like knowing you used to be able to and not, for the life of you, currently remembering just how to do that.  It is a very intuitive and careful writer that picked up on this.

I did not love the main character, Jenny, in the way that maybe I should have. And maybe one can sort of admire her or her choices, perhaps. However, she often comes across very snappish and mean. If the author had been able to make me, as a reader, like the character a bit more – I think I would give this five stars.  I took an immediate distaste to the woman and, though I was rooting for her, I never really liked her much.  I suspect that the impact of this novel would have been massive if the character was able to worm her way into the reader’s heart just a bit.  Not that she does not have an impact whatsoever.  Indeed, she is a gut punch and a resilient character and because of that it feels wrong to call her mean.

I also want to praise the author’s story for being the “correct” length.  Not too long, not too condensed, well paced, and with a really good Epilogue that has so much usefulness.  Usually, readers complain about endings a lot. This one ended very well.

Recommended for fans of thrillers/suspense. Really intense reading with just the right balance of pages and pacing.  If I ever did a top five books of the year – I think this one would make that list.

4 stars

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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