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  Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were mostly unpublished during his lifespan and nyrb has published several new translations and collections of his works.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

Guest Review: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

I started reading this book based on a recommendation from my friend, AQ. The title was an immediate attention grabber! Not many books have such ludicrous titles. If nothing else, this book would get mad props from me for just the sheer ridiculousness of the title. And true to form, the title bespoke a lot about the book itself.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub – Stanislaw Lem

Though I am usually put off by introductions and editor’s notes, the introduction to this book is really a misnomer. The introduction is witty and intelligent in Lem’s imagining of an apocalyptic world bereft of paper, in which it has somehow lost meaning and substance.  Structure exists but devoid of content.

I started reading the book and instantly felt I was pulled into “The Castle” (Kafka) meets “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare” (Chesterton) in a “1984” (Orwell) kind of setting. As with all these books, the effect is surreal and defies any kind of formulaic plot. You are just thrown in media res into a world in which you cannot adhere to the regular norms and conventions of what is sensical and what is absurd.

It is a world not only involving intrigue, conspiracies, agents, double agents but going all the way up to sextuple agents; and that is something one does not get to say/write often. It is a mind-spinning tale written with such vivid details that some of the scenes, such as the one with the professors, are the embodiment of the absurd with the all the underlying senses of meaning and depth.

Even after I had finished the book, it kept resonating with me. The key question I found myself speculating and contemplating was the reason for the protagonist not leaving. It struck me because of what it implied about human nature in its quest for structure and meaning.

Here’s a world in which there is structure, an obscene amount of it actually, yet, with a myriad of schemes and plots in the absence of any real content. The protagonist chooses to cling to structure and the machinations of the absurd, and even propagate it, rather than attempt to use his logical skills in arriving at the conclusion that there simply is no meaning to what is happening inside the building, a reality in which he is has found himself entrenched.

It is as if logical reasoning cannot abide by a lack of meaning. Though logic is essentially a set of rules that contributes to inferences and meaning, it operates independently from actual reality / substance for you can always posit the existence of hairy pink dragons and derive logical conclusions.  However, as gifted as our protagonist may be in questioning and following the rules of logic, yet, he is caught in the loop of trying to derive meaning from the meaningless instead of venturing outside the building to change the paradigm.

He opts for the illusion of meaning instead of seeing if there is actual meaning that can be derived from the “outside.” The possibility of there being no meaning or no content is what drives the protagonist to persist in the bureaucratic intrigue, in the paranoid absurdity of structure.

The protagonist is persistent, but what kind of fortitude, grit, or strength does it take for a person to choose a course in which the realization that no readily available meaning is an actual possibility. How many would actually let go of the illusion to achieve certainty whichever way it turned out.

This book is truly brilliant and I am sure that each reader will take from it something different. Just be ready for a book that defies formulaic plots, for it is nowhere near ordinary. 4 stars

Teneen, the author of this review, has written a previous review (here) for this blog. She is a busy reader, but not a frequent reviewer.

The Blue World

The Blue World - Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World – Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966.  I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best.  Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award.  It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.

This was an average-rated read for me.  It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet.  I have definitely seen Vance do better.  Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached.  Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel.  In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion.  Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.

Blue world is a waterworld.  Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.”  The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts.  One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore.  So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea.  Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea.  Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants.  It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.

Also living on this planet are kragens.  Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories.  Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.

True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book.  I really like the idea of the setting:  a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum.  One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications.  Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats.  There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor.  Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.”  Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments.  He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters.  And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.

This is a straightforward storyline.  The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society.  He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts.  Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats.  Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away.  Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy.  Finally, there are instances of tyranny.  However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel.  The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative.  More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.

The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too.  For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story.  One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”

I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.

3 stars

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