I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

vintage-sf-badgeIt is Vintage Science Fiction Month – so designated by my fellow blogger friend, the Little Red Reviewer. Generally, I like participating in this non-challenge reading fun, but this January I’ve been traveling and busy and I am worried I will not have many entries. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out one novel so far. I went with a “classic” vintage work to start off. Honestly, I do not remember if I have read I, Robot before – all or in parts, or other. I do know I have never read further in the “robot series,” so I thought this was a good way to march back down the Asimov-pathway.

I, Robot is generally considered a collection because it contains stories that were originally published in periodicals in the 1940s. I think it can be successfully referred to as a sort of fix-up novel at this point, as well. The collection as titled I, Robot was first published in 1950 and I read the 2004 (movie cover art) version this time around.  As we all *should* know, the movie starring Will Smith has only a basic and tenuous connection to these stories.  The nine stories contained in the collection form a general timeline utilizing the life of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men employee Dr. Susan Calvin as a waypoint marker. Therefore, the collected stories form a more cohesive, although faceted, whole than I think Asimov originally created.  For anyone interested in trivia, this collection is dedicated to “John W. Campbell, jr., who godfathered the robots.”

I, Robot is considered a classic for a number of valid reasons.  It is an “early” science fiction work that is not embarrassingly dated by today’s milestones.  It is an intelligent read, unlike much of the 1940s pulp fiction that was being published.  It contains new and exciting ideas that demonstrated Asimov’s wit, knowledge, and forward-thinking mastery.  It ended up influencing and spawning all kinds of science, science fiction, and literary offspring. So, not only were Asimov’s ideas new at the time, but they didn’t wear out after a decade had passed, either.

Since this collection was published in 1950 and is so extremely well-known, it is difficult to know what to say that has not already been said hundreds of times. I am certain that this work has been examined every which way and with all sorts of hermeneutics. Many readers are already quite familiar with this book. If you are not familiar with this book, there are some key things I think you should know.  First of all, don’t connect the same-titled movie to this novel. There is not much connection there, so do not be put off by that.  Secondly, this is a quick-read, therefore it will not pull you too far from your current to-be-read stack trajectory.  Thirdly, it is an intelligent read, but it is not pretentious or high-brow.

The book is an undisputed classic.  However, I only give it four stars for a rating.  The main thrust behind each and every story in this collection is logic.  Literally, logic is what this collection is built upon.  That is fairly congruous since this is a book about “mechanical men” and mathematics and machines.  Asimov is a talented logician.  From only what this book tells me, I can promise that Asimov was comfortable with Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, etc.  Building all these stories on logic – while making them actually suspenseful and interesting – is really awesome.  However, at the end of the day, the skeleton is just logic and its really not enough.

Since the skeleton is logic, we must say that the Laws of Robotics are the flesh of the stories, the meat as it were. And boy, Asimov does drill these laws into the reader! He actually takes these laws and looks at them from a multitude of contexts and usages and no reader is going to escape this book without a very solid understanding of the laws.  Sometimes, this gets a bit exhausting. On the other hand, Asimov was an excellent teacher. He’s the guy you want teaching you logic, physics, and mathematics. His is the challenging class that you struggle through but your knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even though the laws are hammered at throughout these stories, the number of ways in which Asimov constructs the stories around them is quite masterful. Nevertheless, some readers might get a bit bored.

The most important character throughout this collection is Dr. Susan Calvin.  I am pretty sure someone, somewhere has ruefully commented on her last name and made some sketchy connection to John Calvin and his ideas, so I don’t need to go further on that point. But if this is a valid juxtaposition, it is something some enterprising student should run with in a paper or two.  Calvin is a robopsychologist.  She works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although most of the time I feel she would rather not.  It is unclear if there exist other such robopsychologists or if Susan is the only one.  Anyway, this “soft science” balance to the hard science of mechanical, mathematical robotics shows that Asimov was a keen observer of humanity.  When I first met Calvin in these stories, I really disliked her. Overall, she is really aggressive and hostile.  She is also, allegedly, really good at her job.  She is definitely a character study for those interested in such things.  More food for thought:  casting her role in a motion picture. . . who is that actress?

Overall, I give this four stars because I can see what Asimov is capable of – and, frankly, he is capable of so much more.  Yeah, I am saying it:  Asimov was a big intellect – but I want to push him for more and better. The skeleton and flesh of these stories is good – but at points also a little monotonous. This is a necessary, classic read that should satisfy most readers.

4 stars

Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar

Arsène LupinArsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar (aka: Exploits of Arsène Lupin) is the first collection of stories about the character Lupin.  It was published in 1907, but the contents were all previously published.  The author, Maurice, Leblanc (1864 – 1941) was born in Rouen.  He dropped out of law school and is generally known only as a writer – famous for the Lupin catalog.  Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar collects nine stories that present a continuous, albeit hyphenated, timeline in the early exploits of the so-called gentleman thief, Lupin.

I gave this collection four stars in total, but I really did enjoy reading these stories. There is no great literary depth to these stories, however they are fun and have just enough suspense included to make the reader turn the pages with interest. I suppose anyone who enjoys Nero Wolf, Poirot, and Holmes will also enjoy this collection.  It is easy reading and entertaining writing.

After having read this collection, I would read further in the Arsène Lupin canon. I like these stories and even if they are sometimes simplistic, I think Lupin is a character that major readers should recognize.  I think Lupin is most famous for his connection to Sherlock Holmes; particularly in this collection wherein they cross paths for the first time.  The whole scene is written perfectly and the reader should be able to imagine it vividly.  It also begs to be put on stage/screen.

I rated the nine stories included in this collection separately and then averaged them for rating the whole. The dates provided are for their first publishing in magazines, etc. :

  • The Arrest of Arsène Lupin – July 1905 – 4 stars
  • Arsène Lupin in Prison – December 1905 – 4 stars
  • The Escape of Arsène Lupin – January 1906 – 4 stars
  • The Mysterious Traveler – February 1906 – 5 stars
  • The Queen’s Necklace – April 1906 – 4 stars
  • Seven of Hearts – May 1907 – 3 stars
  • The Safe of Madame Imbert – May 1906 – 3 stars
  • The Black Pearl – July 1906 – 3 stars
  • Sherlock Holmes Arrives Too Late – June 1906 – 4 stars

Readers really must start with the first story in the collection: The Arrest of Arsène Lupin.  This story connects, beautifully, with the last in the collection and so there is a definite reading order to be followed. I liked the first story quite a bit, because Leblanc toys with the reader enough to make the story fun and witty.  I feel that it is also a curious thing to start off a catalog of stories about a thief with a story about his arrest!

My favorite story in the collection is The Mysterious Traveler because it is one in which Leblanc displays his skill at position his characters in different roles and swapping the points-of-view.  This is one of the noteworthy things about Leblanc’s style in this collection:  the narrator is rarely the same and Leblanc seems to enjoy such little tricks in storytelling.  It is part of what makes these stories so much fun.

Overall, as I have mentioned, these stories are quite easy reading and entertaining.  Still I can count at least three times in which the reader is given a deeper glimpse into Lupin’s heart and history.  Lupin, though adventurous and clever, also possesses a measure of sorrow, of loss, and of romanticism. Maybe this is because Leblanc is French and was influenced by Flaubert.  Whatever the cause, there are moments of gasp-worthy romanticism and melancholy. But Leblanc doesn’t wallow in these fleeting moments – the insensitive reader will probably miss them entirely. Lupin hides his melancholy and toska. [toska – a Russian word meaning………… ?]

Recommended for a quick, fun read. Also for readers interested in “gentlemen burglars” and Sherlock Holmes.

4 stars

Autobiography of a Corpse

Autobiography of a Corpse - S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

Autobiography of a Corpse – S. Krzhizhanovsky; nyrb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Castle Skull

Castle Skull - John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

Castle Skull – John Dickson Carr; 1960 Berkley

 I finished John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull this evening.  It is the second Carr novel that I’ve read and also the second in the series starring Henri Bencolin.  It was originally published in 1931; I read the April 1960 Berkley edition with the super-awesome cover artwork.

The previous Bencolin novel that I read was a “locked-room” mystery.  It was decent; I gave it three stars.  I liked a lot about the novel, but it had some sections that did not work so well.  I really wanted to get to this novel sooner, but I ended up waiting until late in December to get to it.  The cover artwork really makes me happy and I am glad I have this edition. It reminds me of the first Three Investigators novel and also Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat.  I like haunted house mysteries and stories. I would probably get a kick out of those haunted dinner party events.  Anyway, I made sure I did not raise my expectations too high prior to reading this novel, so I was ready for anything.

This novel surprised me with how good it ended up being.  Two things stand out for me:  the juxtaposition of characters is top notch excellent work and the macabre ambiance of the setting is great.  The basic storyline is a brutal murder that takes place on the bank of the Rhine River.

The novel begins masterfully:  our star characters, Bencolin and Marle, are at a restaurant on the Champs Elysées drinking Vichy water and other things.  The first line of the novel is:

D’Aunay talked of murder, castles, and magic.

That is how you start an interesting novel!  It seems a bit obvious, I suppose, but on the other hand – the reader must read the next line, just to see what follows that opener. And so on.  And through this novel, I have decided that John Carr Dickson certainly knew how to write for his audience.  Throughout the novel, there are dozens of paragraphs and lines that jump out at the reader as just really nice pieces of prose. Really effective writing bits. Witty and interesting sentences that make this novel worth every cent.

I really do not want to give away a single tidbit or spoiler or detail that might ruin the reading experience for another reader.  So, I am being somewhat careful in what I write in this review.  Nevertheless, I can share some basic things.  Once again, the story is narrated by Jeff Marle, Bencolin’s pal from the first novel.  Bencolin himself is aloof, mysterious, and rather arrogant.  He’s described by characters as somewhat sinister – but definitely a man’s man. He’s a bigger fellow who can drink folks under the table, match wits in chess, gunplay, and poker.  Reminiscent of Christie’s Poirot, Bencolin can be disdainful and he purposely leaves the other characters (and, therefore, the reader) out of his deductive processes.  Marle seems a bit more intelligent in this novel than he did in the first.  But by no means is he a simpleton in either novel.

The plot pits the murdered character, an actor, against his neighbor and nemesis, a very sinister magician.  As Bencolin and Marle arrive at the scene to investigate, another official from the locale arrives. This is a German official who has a long-standing (not always friendly) competition with Bencolin.  So, the juxtaposition of these sets of characters is presented and the reader should really appreciate this.  At the nearby home of the murdered actor, a group of people is present – kept there by the police during the investigation.  These people are a variety of socialite-types who ran in somewhat of the same circle as the actor and his heirs.

There is a flavor, there is an old, dangerous, twilight charm, about the warrior Rhine when it leaves its lush wideness at Bingen.  Thence it seems to grow darker.  The green deepens almost to black, grey rock replaces vineyards, on the hills which close it in.  Narrow and widening now, a frothy olive-green, it rushes through a world of ghosts. – pg 12, Chapter 2

I’ve mentioned that the setting is awesome in this novel. And I mean so, even if I think it could have been utilized even more.  Maybe this is the sort of thing we expect Orson Welles and Hitchcock to collaborate on.  A castle that looks like a skull – on the deep-rooted heritage of the Rhine river – amidst difficult and steep terrain – with tumultuous weather patterns…  this novel has setting galore.  But it is not just dark and evil – there is also the brilliant juxtaposition of the two “houses.”  Like the actor vs. magician and detective vs. inspector, there is also the  house vs. house conflict.

All of the characters have intense personalities.  Sometimes, I did think that they may all be too melodramatic – but then, that’s why I read novels – not for banal and mundane characters!  There is a character in this novel, though, that is one of those super-memorable characters that the reader won’t forget anytime soon.  It is a little significant to remember this novel was published in 1931 and then to place these characters in that time period.  I say this because one of the characters would have an overwhelmingly potent personality in contemporary society – back then, this character would have been shocking. Literally: a real scream! A hoot! An undeniably hysterical classic! A cigar-smoking, Poker-playing, cocktail-drinking larger than life character! Reading just to meet this character (if not also for the mystery) is worthwhile.

I like the overall plot and throughout the novel there are a number of red herrings, diversions, and intrigues subsidiary to the actual crime that bulk out the plot. Some of these are interesting, some are a bit stereotypical.  But all in all, they are interesting and valuable to an entertaining story.  The “active” parts of the investigation are well written and the macabre setting is not overdone.  Marle is a good narrator. The reveal of the deduction is shocking and graphic (a bit gory, even). It’s really not for the tame.  But the last chapter of the story is also surprising and left me with a “ha! how about that!” sort of feeling.

I definitely recommend this novel.  It is not a speedy read, but it is not laborious.  Readers of vintage things, mystery fans, and fans of Clue should all enjoy this one.

5 stars

The Haunted Looking Glass

nyrb, 2001

nyrb, 2001

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

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

The stories contained within are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Cosmic Engineers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

The Joy Makers

The Joy Makers - James E. Gunn

The Joy Makers – James E. Gunn

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

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

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

“Are you happy?” Wright asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

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