The Whole Man

The Whole Man - John Brunner

The Whole Man – John Brunner

The Whole Man by John Brunner was published in 1964.  In the UK, it was published as Telepathist.  I read the Ballantine 1973 edition with the cover by artist Charles Moll.  I really dislike the cover. I recognize it may be decent artwork, but I really dislike it – it is so…. 1970s. This is kind of how I feel about this novel. Not much in this novel was exciting or very interesting for me. However, it is still a rather impressive novel. So here is The Whole Man – a good novel to read, but not one that will thrill. At the end of the day, it is an contemplative read, not an entertaining read.

The novel takes place in an alternate Earth reality in which telepaths exist and are generally employed in socio-political functions. The whole sphere of interest of this novel is sociology and psychology.  If a reader does not care for these subject areas, then they will find this work a slog.  The main character is Gerry Howson, who is one of the most powerful telepaths (perhaps the most powerful) to live.  He is also a very deformed cripple.  (Except that it is now 2016 and I think I’m supposed to type: “handicapable.”  Howson calls himself a cripple, so we are gonna go with that term for the duration of this entry.)  The novel begins with Howson’s mother in a clinic-style hospital with the background setting of a tumultuous social upheaval.

I did not really speed through the opening chunk of the novel. It was, well, boring. And I feel there was unnecessary or undue focus on Howson’s mother.  It is this opening section that makes me really feel like Brunner was going somewhere entirely different with the novel – something more political, probably. The social turmoil – rioting? terrorism? It is not entirely specified and it is quite vague. And meanwhile the storyline loses traction. I struggled to get started in this book (while pausing a lot to glance at the nearby bookshelves).

The novel does not develop quickly. After the opening chunk, the next section shows us Howson as a young man struggling to survive in a world that is not open to cripples or telepaths. And then there is a whole segment where Howson is wandering sidewalks and having a lot of heavy introspection. I have to be honest, this part was rough for me. It was just so heavy and I am really disinterested in any navel-gazing/sidewalk-wandering in any plot.

However, there are vivid and gripping sections of the storyline; usually parts wherein Howson is actually doing the “real work” of being a professional telepathist. Brunner did not write a child’s conception of telepathy.  This is not some goofy superpower from the comic books.  This is a “scientifically” considered physical scenario in the character’s brains that results in this immaterial power. Howson is a professional telepathist, which has earned him the title of Doctor.  This means that he does this sort of work as a career and there is nothing silly about it whatsoever. I appreciate the solemn and serious attitude in how Brunner approaches this mental power.  Still, the seriousness also gives the novel a very heavy feeling.

Also, because this story is very connected to psychological scenarios Brunner sometimes seems to come across as if he breezed through an introduction to Freudian psychology and just incorporated some stereotypical ideas as he develops Howson’s character.  It is not that these parts are overdone, it just seems like unless a writer is really willing to jump in and is capable of swimming, just splashing around with Freud 101 does not suit.

In the latter half of the book there are a couple of events that occur that are very well written and had me rather fascinated with the story.  Those who have read the novel probably can guess I am discussing Hao Sen/ Tiger City stuff, which is where Brunner takes us into the “subconscious/dream world” of telepathists. Another event is the Rudi Allef event. The Rudi Allef character is the big key to Gerry Howson’s character, so the fact that we only meet Allef at the tail end of the storyline seems to confirm some of my sentiments from the start of the novel:  Brunner was not entirely certain where he was driving this storyline. Now, as I understand it, this is a “fix-up” novel in which Brunner combined a couple of previously written novellas.  I am not sure we “fixed it up” in a good way. Or maybe the third section alone should have been expanded?

The situation (I do not want to put out any spoilers!) with Rudi is quite interesting and intelligent. I appreciate a lot of what Brunner developed conceptually in this section. It made me consider a whole host of things including:  autism, synesthesia, and aesthetics.  However, suddenly using these concepts this late in the novel kind of makes it seem as if Brunner threw it together too late and just because. It shows that it is a “fix up.”

I think I was more interested in the societal impact of having telepathists and so forth over the personal development thread that focuses on Howson and his challenges. Big picture over human interest……

Overall, the storyline has a lot of peaks and valleys.  The concepts are intelligent and interesting, but there is a weight to the novel that slows the read down and makes it a little more like reading a case study than entertainment fiction.  I am glad I read this novel, but I sure cannot think of a person I would recommend this to. Its a good book, but it is not easy to like.  I would give it 3.83 stars if I could – 4 seems a gift.

4 stars

Illuminae

Illuminae CoverIf you know me or read my blog enough, you realize I have…. opinions… on what is now called “young adult fiction.”  I don’t care to climb on my soapbox today (however, last week a blogger called one of my reviews “dyspeptic,” which periodically has me in giggling fits.) Needless to say, I don’t really read a great deal of whatever passes for “ya fiction,” but this novel just kept interesting me whenever I saw it. So it got lumped in with an Amazon order.  Illuminae was first published in 2015 and is co-authored by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  It is, allegedly, the first in a trilogy of novels (I believe the second is to be released in October 2016.)

There will be some spoilers (as usual) in this review, so read at your own peril.  The story takes place in 2575, beginning on the planet Kerenza IV.  The planet is of interest because it has large amounts of hermium, a particular ore.  The Ulyanov Consortium mines, illegally, the hermium.  BeiTech Industries launched a surprise attack on this mining colony.  Distress calls were answered by the United Terran Authority.

The entire novel is presented in a somewhat unique format. Technically, it is told in digital files that have been collated of the event into a sort of long dossier.  So, the reader “reads the story” in the form of e-mails, documents, and memos that were real time during the event, but then were saved and packaged into a complete dossier.  The majority of the documentation is instant messaging communication, e-mail, and memos from the two main characters:  Kady Grant and Ezra Mason.  These two are teenage survivors from Kerenza who are on “refugee” ships.  The day of the attack, these two teens broke up from their romantic relationship.

I recently read Marisha Pessl’s Night Film and that novel also utilized some non-traditional formatting to enhance the storyline.  I reviewed that favorably, and in my review I did suggest that readers should prepare to see more of this sort of inclusion of faux digital media in novels. I think Illuminae is the first novel that I have read that relies entirely on this sort of format.  Honestly, at first, it is slightly difficult to get into, as they say.  However, by page 100, I think the formatting is very engaging and the reader should enjoy the process.

For the most part the characters are okay, a little bit stereotypical qua teenagers, but still likeable enough. I guess this is considered young adult fiction, but I don’t really quite see why. I’m thinking about the actual content here. I mean, whenever there is a cuss word within the text it is blacked out (like old censorship documents), but there is enough context to know exactly what is being said.  And, well, some of the non-cussing parts push the boundaries more toward an older reader than a younger. I have no idea, really, what age group, but I don’t think anyone under 17.  (But I have a USSR attitude when it comes to youth, so……………..)

The novel has zombies in it. Well, they are not called zombies in the novel.  But what else are they?  They are victims of the virulent Phobos virus.  The patients display symptoms 12 – 24 hours after exposure.  They have increased physical stamina, but most interesting is that the victims also display intense psychological changes. They become highly paranoid and emotional.

Pop culture seemed to me to be saturated with vampires. And then zombies. I guess I feel like the zombie-craze [pun!] should be winding down.  I am quite tired of zombies, myself, but perhaps teenagers cannot get enough of them. I did not hate the usage of this zombie stuff in the novel, but I honestly would have rather seen a more technological problematic for the heroes. Like androids, computers, or clones. I suspect the authors really wanted to give the characters some emotional torment. After all, they are survivors of an attack that wiped out most of their friends and family. What other survivors there may be are now victims to a zombie-making disease. So, if the authors were going for traumatize the youth – this works fairly well. Still….. zombies…..

The best part of the book is that the villain changes. Who is the villain?  There is no obvious, simple villain here and I think that is very good.  Obviously, the authors want the reader to take a look at morality within a shifting context. The UTA refugee-holding ship is partially run by a massive artificial intelligence.  It’s nicknamed AIDAN.  It becomes damaged in the original battle above Kerenza and it may or may not be malfunctioning to a varying degree.  The storyline has a lot of twists and turns involving this “character”  and most of the thrill factor in the book comes from dealing with AIDAN.  However, I was disappointed that towards the middle and middle-end of the novel the authors turned this machine into that eye-rolling, daydreaming, Tinman-wishes-he-had-a-heart thing.  I don’t necessarily think that all A.I. dream of being human and having emotions or whatever the heck a multitude of authors think. (Cp. Data on Star Trek).  This was a little bit of a let down for me.  However, I must reiterate, this is a “ya” novel, which I take to mean:  stuffed with emotional drivel.

Looking past these criticisms, though, I did enjoy this novel. I will try to remember to get ahold of book two when it is released. I liked the characters and I do want to continue the storyline.  Overall, three stars is a fair rating, I think, because though the whole plot is not entirely unique, the format is.

3 stars

Hospital Station

Hospital Station - James White; Del Rey; 1979

Hospital Station – James White; Del Rey; 1979

I just managed to squeeze in one more read for January. Remember, January is Vintage Science Fiction Month as proclaimed by Little Red Reviewer! My final review for January, then, is Hospital Station by James White (1928 – 1999).  It is a “collected/fix-up” book featuring five stories that describe some early incidents at Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital.   Originally, this was published in 1962, but it collects stories that were published in New Worlds between 1957 and 1960.  Hospital Station is also the first book in White’s Sector General series, which has twelve books in total (the last released in 1999).

The stories in this collection are very obviously “collected” stories and do not follow a specific timeline. In fact, as one reads the stories, there is a lot of obvious shifting with the elements of the stories.  By this I mean that White seems to have really enjoyed creating the “landscape” for these stories and he definitely worked hard on the extra-terrestrial/alien lifeforms, however, he does not really seem to know exactly where to write from or who to write about.  I did not rate the individual “stories” separately.

Please do look at the cover, which has a scene presumably from one of the stories contained within (Trouble With Emily).  The cover art here was done by H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010).  Dongen is a pretty interesting character who died not too long ago. Anyway, this is never going to be one of my favorite science fiction covers, but there are not that many, I would think, with levitating/flying brontosaurus…… thunder lizard!

The five stories contained in Hospital Station and their original publication dates:

  • Medic (variant of O’Mara’s Orphan) – 1960
  • Sector General – 1957
  • Trouble With Emily – 1958
  • Visitor at Large – 1959
  • Out-Patient – 1960

The first two stories in the book did not win me over. The first, Medic, begins in media res, is choppy and caustic. Until I got a sense of how White was writing these stories, this one seemed kind of messy. Frankly, I would not be too surprised if this was one of those stories that one hears about – vintage stories with ugly publications because of cheap payment, mean publishers/editors, and a necessity to put food on the table and fill pages in a pulp magazine. The main character is O’Mara who seems all over the place. But we learn he is a really well-built muscular fellow who also is nearly brilliant. So, immediately, he is off-putting because in current novels, readers expect flawed and damaged loser-types characters.

vintage-sf-badge

My third review for 2016

Maybe the most annoying facet of this story is that White does not seem to know what he wants O’Mara to be or to do. That sort of uncertainly just makes the choppy story even more so.  However, straightaway the best part of the story is the alien.  Somehow White created some fairly awesome alien beings throughout these stories and maybe it was easier for me to continue reading because this alien was so unexpectedly interesting.

The second story, Sector General, threw me a bit because the main character is not O’Mara, but Dr. Conway.  And while I found O’Mara a little over-the-top, Conway is downright aggravating.  He’s a newer member of the medical team at this superb medical station.  This is where White’s uncertainly enters again:  we are led to believe that this Hospital Station is supposed to be state-of-the-art, brand new, high-tech and so if one is assigned here, or hired on here, this is proof of that person’s elite status within the medical community.  But in so many ways, as I read this story, Conway seems tentative, perplexed, and naive. It almost seems like he got hired on at the station totally oblivious to what he would be dealing with.

Oh, well, and the notable thing with Conway is that he is a big pacifist. Totally anti-war, anti-killing, anti-military. In fact, throughout the story he displays an immature and silly attitude toward the “Monitors” (military) at the station.  All of this is fine, well, and good, but why IS the military at the station?  Not to make it seem like I am siding with Conway (in this story) with all his confusion and puzzlement regarding the military, but it seems like White just has the Monitors crewing the station to provide a contrast to pacifist Conway.  Also, I suppose it (military presence, and therefore activity) provides “patients” for the hospital.  Forward to 1993 – 1998, and this turns into (I bet….) Babylon 5 on Warner Bros. TV.

I enjoyed the third, fourth, and fifth stories a whole lot more than the first two.  The point of view settles on Dr. Conway.  We learn a lot more about the station and the stories are a lot less choppy and whiny.  In these, White’s work with creating alien beings and posing medical challenges is brought to the forefront, which, honestly, is probably the main reason why readers would seek out these stories.  Hospital in space – admit it, there’s potential for interesting fun there!  Hospital dramas on TV have always flourished. I think the soap opera General Hospital first aired in 1963:  only one year after this collection is released.

There is not an extreme amount of medical science, however.  That may or may not be a dealbreaker for many readers. For me, it was fine. Other readers may complain that the lack of detailed medical knowledge makes the stories lighter or sketchier than they could be.  There is something to that sort of complaint, but I think White makes up for it by focusing on the necessity for diagnostics.  The team of diagnosticians at Sector General play a major, vital role at the station and when these characters enter the story, it really fleshes out the story and pushes it beyond the views/actions of Dr. Conway.  Focusing less on the doctoring and highlighting the role of diagnosticians is fairly interesting.  May I also provide the date for the FOX TV show House, M.D. (2004 – 2012) that was entirely centered on the activities of a crack-diagnostics team.

White borrowed the alien species “classification system” from writer E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This system uses a four-letter code which designates the type and needs of the aliens that are encountered. This is explained briefly in one of the stories, but I did not care enough to learn it or make sure it was internally consistent.  White has these future space-doctors have access to “educator tapes” which are like the knowledge plug-ins in the Matrix movies. Except in White’s stories, these tapes are practically “taped” educators of another species.  Doctors can “plug-in” these tapes (for a limited time) and have a very essential (i.e. they psychologically become) understanding of the species they are seeking to learn about and treat.  This is pretty neat, I think.  I like watching authors present and solve and wrestle with epistemological scenarios like this.

Overall, O’Mara and Conway are aggravating and tedious.  However, I really like all of the alien creatures we meet. In a couple of stories, Conway is forced to work alongside aliens and these are the high points of those stories, in my opinion.  Naturally, White advances some alien species to include elements of telepathy/empathy, but its not as goofy as Counselor Troi in Star Trek.  Frankly, with all these ideas, floating around in this book, it is surprising some other authors have not really taken to such scenarios and made shared-worlds or other series with some of these concepts.

There is a lot to like here.  Ideas and concepts and aliens are fun.  The main characters, though, are a bit tedious to read about.  And there are some gaps and challenges, if the reader wants to pick through and point such things out. I was entertained and I would gladly read on in the Sector General series. I kind of expect the series to improve because I am hoping White got a handle on what he wanted to do with the series after these stories. The three star rating is for the choppiness and uncertainty.

3 stars

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars

Space Opera

Space Opera

Space Opera – Jack Vance; Pyramid Books, 1965

Space Opera by Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) was published in 1965. I read it this December and it is the sixth Vance novel I have read. I am also pleased that the first review of the year (and for Vintage Science Fiction Month) is a work by Vance.  I really like starting off the new year with the Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.  Usually, I only get two or three reviews posted; maybe this year I’ll do better?

Sadly, I cannot give this novel a glowing five-star big hearts sort of rating. Trust me, it pains me to give a Vance novel such a low rating. Nevertheless, in the vein of one of the main characters of this novel, we must not allow mere sentimentality to get in the way of our overarching efforts and goals.

I read the Pyramid Books 1965 edition. The cover art is by John Schoenherr and I think it is the best of the editions of this book. I love the dark red background.  Anyway, the title is a play on words.  ‘Space opera’ being one of those not clear or distinct subcategories of science fiction literature.  The term has a long and varied history full of opinions and redefining. It is a fluid concept that is, really, in existence mainly to give people something to endlessly discuss over coffee. Vance uses the term as the title of this novel in a more literal manner. He rather does mean space opera, i.e. off-planet musical performance.

vintage-sf-badgeVance was an intelligent fellow. It was not possible for him to keep his intelligence out of his novels – and we would not have wanted him to do that. However, this means that sometimes his novels lose an ounce of fun and entertainment as a sacrifice on the altar of wisdom and intelligence. I am totally okay with this. Some readers dislike this.  For example, The Languages of Pao (1958) is really good; I gave it five stars. Many readers found it to be a slog, which I understand – linguistics/language can be very, very boring. (Yeah, Kripke and Salmon, we are lookin’ at you fellas!)

For Space Opera, Vance has come up with an awesome idea. I am really impressed and enthused and tickled by this.  The writing skill is also there – this is intelligently written with generally well-moving mechanics and structure.  There is also an unstated, but obvious, perspective on imperialism.  For this, too, Vance deserves praise because he did not succumb to a violent, aggressive, bitter tone about the dark evils of imperialism.  Instead, he just leaves it almost unstated and lets the reader have a laugh at the expense of the frustrated imperialist.  Tactful and witty, Jack.

Basically, a very wealthy older woman, Dame Isabel Grayce, has decided to gather up the best musicians (singers, orchestra, etc.) and pack everyone into a spaceship and go forth into the galaxies on a musical tour. Her motives are, mainly, arrogant and obnoxious. However, some mitigation is due her because she is quite honest. She is absolutely ignorant of her arrogance and her imperialism.  Her goals – in her mind – are to undertake a musical tour, bringing the expert performances of the human race upon earth to a variety of lesser-equipped, unfortunate, and less-advanced cultures/species.  This, in essence, for Dame Isabel, is a magnanimous gift which will enhance the lives of the foreign species and, minimally, open the channels of diplomacy and public relations to other planets/cultures.

Of course, in her mind, the other cultures/species cannot fail to be awed by the greatness and expertise of the opera company she has assembled. She admits, due to the backwardness of some of these cultures, they may not be able to fully appreciate the performances. Yet, she fully expects this tour to be a massive success. To her credit, she is neither quitter, nor lazy.

Naturally, the reader is generally repulsed by such blatant imperialism. They are supposed to be – but this is not a serious book, at heart. There is no debate that sort of imperialism is horrible. The reader should understand that Vance is setting it up not so he can knock it down (which would be too obvious and heavy-handed), but rather to amuse the reader endlessly with this operatic farce.  The fact that Dame Isabel takes the whole thing so seriously is part of the laugh – because it is that absurd!

It is important to share here that Vance knows his stuff, too. He does not fudge and fluff the details of this novel. He actually has Dame Isabel select specific operas and her company debate the best selection for their audience, etc.  And Vance is not just rattling off the titles of operas – he actually has put valid reasoning into the pieces mentioned or performed. Indeed, every time, I considered the proposed options and debated with myself about the pieces. Vance was intelligent and thank God for that! Needless to say, the reader familiar with operas is going to get more out of these details than the reader who cannot name a Wagnerian piece.

So,why did I give this novel such a low rating?  Execution.  There are a number of aggravating “side threads” that instead of enhancing the overall plot, actually compete with it.  For example, Gondar’s motives, or anything involving the girl Roswyn. Further, while Vance had opportunity to really make for some colorful and outlandish silliness (as would be expected in a farce) whenever the Tour meets a new culture, he drops the ball. The actual scenes are a bit stagnant and dull. This really sucks because these are the moments for the humor and the morality and the absurdity and the creativity to flourish. Finally, the novel ends without much resolution, with the plot having become somewhat stalled and repetitive, and the characters really just flatlining. Dame Isabel is as ignorant as when the tour began. The last chapter is stupidly focused on the very minor romantic subplot.

Overall, I can only give this two stars. I truly appreciate Vance’s intelligence and effort, but in order to make this work, it needed to be far more vibrant and creative.  It stalls out and gets boring in places. I wish it were better executed, because the idea is awesome.

2 stars

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Night Film

Night Film Paper CoverI just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I received this novel in paperback for Christmas in 2014, and so I was really keen on getting it read by Christmas 2015. I totally succeeded….  Anyway, I read Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and decided then that I would read whatever she wrote next. Granted, I read that novel in 2011 and it was originally released in 2006.  So, Night Film‘s release in 2013 was a hefty pause for any Pessl fans.

This novel, like her first, is a weighty thing. Nearly 600 pages, it suffers from the flaw of just dang not knowing when to end. In my review of her first work I wrote that she needed a more stringent editor.  I almost want to say the same thing for this novel. However, I think that a lot less could be edited out of this one. Say, only 100 pages or so. That is a bit of an improvement, then.

Also, Pessl’s use of the metaphor is reduced in this novel, thank heavens. In the first novel, everything was like something and then like something again and then every sentence was a metaphor and that was like….. well, you know. So, if it took seven years for Pessl to write and publish this, I think that she definitely improved. That, my fellow readers, is a very key point not to be overlooked or dismissed. I am usually slightly more lenient with a new author’s first novel. However, for their second, I demand improvement. Pessl meets the measuring stick.

I did not expect a good novel. I am not artsy-fartsy (please, no one get their feathers ruffled with that expression) enough to understand and appreciate film theory. No matter the quality of the first novel, I think Pessl demonstrated she is hardly a bonehead ready to join the ranks pumping out pulpy drivel. In other words, she is a smart one. I like smart people. Still, the topic of this novel was not something that I would read if it was not written by Pessl. I am really leery of film-novels. I really make the effort to avoid gory things, depraved things, suicide-stories, etc. And, well, let’s face it, Pessl was in the NY Times Bestseller’s List. Not a bonus for my preferences of vintage, obscure, and classic choices.  Pessl was starting in the red for me with this one, not her fault, but factually true.

Ultimately, this is a novel about investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his investigations into the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of very famous cult-filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova. That is the main thread, but just slightly below that line is the work Pessl does to blur, shake, and disrupt the line between reality/fantasy, real/fiction.  It is this subplot that makes the novel fit the category of noir as opposed to some John Grisham-like thriller.

But those are not the only two threads. There are several other lines running constantly throughout the whole novel. For example:  McGrath and Cordova’s lives have plenty of similarities. Also, there is a heap of film theory and understanding of film work here.  Pessl deserves an “A” for her effort here. She literally created a detailed and vibrant body of work for a fictional filmmaker.

Not only did Pessl create this detailed body of work for a fictional filmmaker, but she remains consistent with it – and, amazingly, builds it into a whole society:  actors and actresses, fans and film critics, etc. Serious “world-building.” This was no easy thing and I can appreciate the effort, though, again, film and I are not really cozy. (I’m about as appreciative of Michael Bay’s work as Alfred Hitchcock’s. I’m a bad person. LOL)

The main thing about Stanislaus Cordova is that he is aloof, mysterious, and his films are completely captivating and disturbing. They are known for having a long-lasting, life-changing effect on his audience.  One of the many characteristics of Cordova’s works is that he manages to constantly upend the viewers by truly twisting reality/fantasy around and seemingly constantly forcing his audiences to seek the “really real.”

Now, some may scoff at Pessl’s use of “background” media. But this is 2013 – and her inclusion of internet items and media makes this a contemporary force.  This is, perhaps, where novels will go futuristically. So, readers who consider these items as “gimmicks,” might want to think again. The novel begins with a series of these faux-news articles and online snippets. These give a nontraditional feel to the novel, as well as providing a lot of background for the reader – without another 250 pages of droll background history. This is an innovative and interesting method.

McGrath is a little aggravating after awhile. Pessl clearly sees this and buffers his narrative presence with two other characters; young folk who “join” his investigation into Ashely’s death.  These characters develop throughout the novel and are not just stagnant place-holders for McGrath to bounce off of. Like I said, Pessl is not a bad writer.

The novel had me up late into the night reading along. The middle chunk is definitely suspenseful and mysterious and creepy. Yes, it is sometimes a little bit scary.  I love that Pessl was able to develop this slow-building terror. She does not heavy-hand scare the reader, which I appreciate. I do not know exactly how she did it, but Pessl definitely steadily increases the suspense until the reader is swept along with McGrath down whatever rabbit trail he heads – with a pounding heart. Who would have thought film theory and a suicide investigation would be this gripping?

Still, there are a couple elements that Pessl does take too far. She probably does overwork them a little more than necessary, to be honest. And some readers, the very critical, will suggest that she went over-the-top with some of the Voodoo/fantasy elements. I am undecided; an argument could be made either way on this point. But be advised:  the settings and suspense do build into quite a dark and depraved possible picture.

This is a good novel. It is one of those, however, that readers will love to pick apart and sink their claws into. Well, and Pessl knows that they will. But for the majority of things published, this is a very developed novel with a lot going on in it. And, further, separately, each ingredient of the novel (setting, pacing, characters, etc.) can be praised. Maybe the overall is not five-stars, but at its base this is a solid bestselling novel. I would recommend it to people who enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and also Pessl’s first novel.

A hundred pages less and this would be a five star novel, I think. Its not a storyline I love, but the pages kept turning and I must praise the effort. I guess I just hope her next novel is sooner than another seven years………

4 stars

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