1950s

Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars

Advertisements

The Sound of Waves

The Sound of WavesThe Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970) was first published in 1954 in Japanese. If you do not know who Mishima was, then you are missing out on one of the scandalous stories of the century. The translator for the novel is Meredith Weatherby (1914 – 1997) – yet another scandalous character. Both Mishima and Weatherby ran in some of the same circles as Tamotsu Yato (1928 – 1973) and Donald Richie (1924 – 2013), who were involved in film, art, and photography. Much of the work and interests of these people crossed paths repeatedly; especially because much of their production was classified in the homoerotic genre. For example, Tamtosu Yato’s photography books of young Japanese males contained introductions written by Mishima and/or were dedicated to Mishima. Weatherby was an actor (Cp. Tora! Tora! Tora) and publisher (hence, translating and publishing Mishima’s writing), and also Tamtosu Yato’s lover. Needless to say, intentional or not, engagement with one of these folks usually contains a connection to one of the others.

All of that being said, I read the Vintage International edition translated by Weatherby. I feel that the closeness of those folks [sic] probably guarantees that the translation was faithful to the original Japanese. However, I also think that proximity causes bias, and I would definitely purchase and read another translation if one were to be published.

A last note on the book itself – there are ink drawings at each of the chapter beginnings. These were done by Yoshinori Kinoshita and they are perfect. They complement the story perfectly and I found myself pausing in my reading to look at these illustrations.

Anyway, The Sound of Waves is one of Mishima’s earlier novels. I read it because it is the earliest novel of his that I own. I have owned it for decades, but there are so many books that are on shelves waiting to be read. I think this is a very good novel for a number of reasons, although I can also agree with most of the criticisms of the novel that I have read.

The novel takes place, mainly, on Uta-jima, a small island. It is important to note that in the first sentence this is translated as Song Island. The greatest element of this novel, in my opinion, is the setting. Being titled The Sound of Waves and setting the story on Song Island, should cause the reader to immediately sense the carefully selected wording that the author chooses. The word selection that develops each and every scene is deliberate and not frivolous.  The nice thing that comes from this deliberateness is a vivid and robust description of Uta-jima that does not come from a deluge of adjectival verbosity, but rather from spare, precise, nearly-poetic writing. The setting is so realistic and strong that it is almost another character in the novel.

At 183 pages, this could easily be an afternoon read. However, it does not seem like the sort of novel one should read-through with haste. Uta-jima is not an island in which the residents live with haste. Home to fourteen-hundred residents, the novel spins around the connections that exist between a handful of characters. We meet the main character, Shinji, in the evening of a day like most days – a day occupied by the main industry of the residents of the island, fishing.  Shinji, who is eighteen years old, is bringing a halibut caught that day to the lighthouse, for the lighthouse-keeper. En route to the lighthouse, Shinji comes upon a young lady whom he has never seen before, the surprise of this confuses him and he silently tries to identify her. This whole event is but a moment in the twilight, but it sets up the entire rest of the novel.

In retrospect, is this novel a story of love-at-first-sight? Most descriptions of this novel call it a “coming-of-age” novel.  That is a categorization that really vexes me. I usually avoid novels that are classified that way because I find it absurd and ridiculous. I guess in a way, Shinji is at a turning point in his life. He has been supporting his family for awhile and he is old enough to consider a career/marriage/etc.  However, even though this focus is on Shinji, I feel like Mishima is not writing about how Shinji develops into a young man and the decisions that occur. In fact, there is little or no “character growth” at all when it comes to Shinji. The stolid young man we meet on page 6, is nearly the exact same as the young man we depart on page 183. In fact, I might even go so far as to suggest the novel is a demonstration of how success comes to such a solid, unchanging, and strong character. An ode, perhaps, to the rigid and dependable ideal of the samurai that Mishima was always so enamored.

Still, on the surface, its a love story. Shinju and Hatsue forever – carve it in a tree trunk or something. They are good kids, and the reader is going to root for them. Because the story, on the surface, is fairly straightforward and unsurprising. This is another criticism that I read. Some readers felt that the story was too basic and not nuanced; I guess readers did not feel challenged. Well, the story is one that, in one form or another, we are all familiar with in novels and film and in real life. Two kids fall in love, this affects the others who are connected in some way to the situation. The others react in various ways, which causes further effects that spread out like the Doppler system. In the end, everyone has to play a rôle and adjust to the events.

Frankly, I think that because it is such a common storyline that the novel is actually worthy of more praise. Such a well-known and obvious storyline is elevated by such good writing and style that this begs the question of whether this is not what, precisely, art is supposed to do. In other words, taking the common in life and making it elevated or highlighting the spiritual, the magical, the extraordinary within the everydayness.

Finally, Mishima’s passion for physicality is apparent with every deliberate scene. The materiality and the tangibility of character’s bodies, the wind and the waves, the temperatures and the scenery, all are very important to Mishima. For example, readers can feel the rain, they can feel the hole in the sweater, and they can see the too-bright sunshine on blinding sand. Now, not all of readership wants to focus on what Mishima focuses on, but for a short novel, it is poignant and powerful. Definitely worthwhile reading.

The very subtle usage of elements of Shinto are also noteworthy. In delicate and significant scenes, the faith of Shinji is like all other characteristics displayed by him – solid and diligent. I liked these little moments of religion on this little island.

Overall, this is a novel with a lot to offer readers who are careful not to heap expectations on it before they start reading. It contains a somewhat timelessly familiar story within a careful arrangement of setting and sound. Even if readers do not necessarily like the novel, I suspect it is still a novel they will be glad to have read.

4 stars

Time and Again

time and again aceToday is Clifford D. Simak’s birthday (1904 – 1988).  It is a happy coincidence that I am writing this review today, after having finished reading his 1951 novel Time and Again.  I read the Ace 1983 edition with cover by Romas Kukalis.  I also own the 1976 Ace edition with cover by Michael Whelan. I like the Whelan cover more so I read the 1983 one.

This is the fourth Simak novel I have read.  It took awhile to get through this one – and I managed to polish off other novels during the time I was also reading this one. I admit, I got stuck on page 90 for a couple of weeks and the book sat abandoned.

 I got stuck at page 90 on June 15th. (Today is August 3.)  So, the book sat there because I did believe this might be a book I have to abandon. And abandoning a book mid-read is not really something I do, unless there is a very good reason. The novel starts all right, gets ridiculously awful – disjointed, confusing, and random – and then suddenly most of it straightens out and things make sense. The ending continues on too long and gets a little out of hand, honestly.

I am impressed that Simak pulled this one together. Still, there is no excuse for the nonsense and total random that goes on early in the book. It is REALLY tough to read through – literally, I was just reading words and they were not stringing together to make a coherent plot or even any basic sense. I could not have told you what this book was about for anything. I forced myself to keep reading (weeks later) – and then Simak pulled some threads together and the writing improved by leaps and bounds.

The story has less to do with time travel and more to do with Simak’s views on quasi-religion (destiny/life). The questions revolving around destiny and life are juxtaposed against the natures of humans and androids. (Simak’s androids are different than Asimov’s.) Finally, over all of this, to make this a science fiction story, rather than a pondering, there is a “war” of sorts that is fought by far-future humans and robots. All of this makes for a confused book. I see what Simak was doing, and its not a bad idea, but the execution got muddied. He sorts it out – mostly, but there are some rough sections that are really tough to get through.

The middle and middle-end part of the book is quite good. You really could not read it without the beginning and actual end, though. So readers are stuck with that murky front end with the total chaos.  Still, when Simak is “on” the writing is great.

And he didn’t say it because he was interested at the moment in war, whether in three or four dimensions, but because he felt that it was his turn to talk, his turn to keep this Mad Hare tea chatter at its proper place.

For that was what it was, he told himself… an utterly illogical situation, a madcap, slightly psychopathic interlude that might have its purpose, but a hidden, tangled purpose. -pg. 145  Chapter XXIV

I really liked this quote and I feel that I can relate to the character’s feelings here. Haven’t you been in a conversation where it seems you are talking around something and everyone seems smiley and fake and bizarre, but everyone plays along? Anyway, the next lines are quotes from Carroll, so Simak’s usage of the Mad Hare (as opposed to Mad Hatter) is clearly deliberate. Similarly, this is somewhat of the feeling you get when you read the early chunk of the novel:  we are all talking about something illogical, random, but we sense a hidden and tangled plot in there somewhere.

At the end of the day, the basic concept of the novel is that of Destiny. Or destiny. I do not believe Simak is a theist, so I do not think that is a euphemism for a deity, but there is definitely a pseudo-Tao concept being played with here. I am not suggesting that it is totally worked out in an academic way, but it is a solid concept for a 1950s novel.

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

Destiny, the way of men and races and of worlds.

Destiny, the way you made your life, the way you shaped your living. . . the way it was meant to be, the way that it would be if you listened to the still, small voice that talked to you at the many turning points and crossroads.

But if you did not listen. . . why, then, you did not listen and you did not hear.  And there was no power that could make you listen.  There was no penalty if you did not listen except the penalty of having gone against your destiny. – pg. 175 Chapter XXIX

This page sums up what Simak is playing with in this novel. I am not sure it is clear for most of the book, but this page lays it out plain as can be – or, as plain as the concept of destiny can be, anyway. And the action and characters and storyline are all accidental, it seems, to this discussion, which does not even occur until late in the novel. Its fairly interesting, but the reader will suffer getting to that point. Depends on if it is their destiny or not, right?

time and again ace whiteNow, there is a bit of time travel – but its not very much like time travel stories we know and “love.”  This time travel is juxtaposed with the concept of destiny, so it kind of applies. And in the last quarter of the novel, the main character ends up in the year 2000 or so in Wisconsin. On a farm near a river in Wisconsin. (Simak students will know this is Simak’s home of which he had a great fondness for and often plays a part in his novels.) Simak really likes Wisconsin, because when he writes about it, it is descriptive and meandering and he draws it out and praises everything about it.  Its so dang rural. And farmy. It kills me when Simak does this. I do not doubt his sentiments and I understand his love for the location, but my word do I suffer reading about grass and hay!

Lastly, Simak had me grinning in chapter XXXIII, when Sutton (the main character) first arrives in Wisconsin in 2000. Sutton meets a resident of the time just fishing and smoking a pipe…a fellow named “Old Cliff.”

This is a difficult, but relatively rewarding read. Definitely for Simak fans. Those with interest in 1950s robots/androids could find interesting bits here, too. And, of course, readers curious about Simak’s concept of destiny would enjoy this. The first half of the book, however, will require a bit of effort from all.

3 stars

Second Foundation

Second Foundation Youll cover

Second Foundation – I. Asimov; 1991 (Cover: Stephen Youll)

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov is the third novel in the Foundation trilogy. It was first published in 1953; I read the Bantam 1991 edition. I read the first novel in the trilogy, Foundation, in January of 2012.  I read the next in the series in August of that same year. Unfortunately, I failed to return to this series until now in 2017. I gave both of the previous novels four stars in my rating/review and I think this novel will also get the same.  It was a bit of a struggle to read this one, because Asimov has a very distinctive writing style that does not lend itself, in my opinion, to brisk reading.  I think this is at the core of the reasons why many readers dislike the Foundation series and rate them lower than other novels.

Asimov was an intelligent fellow. Fiercely intelligent, even. I do not think that this can be disputed whatsoever.  His science fiction is also creative – full of big ideas.  Asimov also stuffs the presentation of all his big ideas with logic. I believe when he sat down to write his novels, he did not go about it by writing:  and then the character did this.  No, I believe Asimov did say that the character did some action – and then Asimov considered why this character did the action.  Asimov’s intellect does not seem to tolerate random and empty things.  Unfortunately, in contemporary society, I find a lot of people who accept prima facie anything and everything. Many times, their interest is very superficial. Asimov does not strike me as a writer who will just write stuff for the sake of word count.

Asimov’s considerations of things (which sometimes make it onto the pages and sometimes hide in the background – barely discernible) made his writing very much his own.  I found many reviews and comments on his novels wherein the readers complain about how “slow” his writing is. Or how the characters are “wooden.” Or how the novels are so “boring” that they could not finish reading them.  Maybe these reviewers are not the most articulate in describing what they experience when they read Asimov, but I can understand where they are coming from.  There is a perfect example in Second Foundation of this sort of writing. Chapters five and six of the novel (pgs. 64 – 96 in my edition) are exactly what readers complain about regarding Asimov’s writing.

In all honesty, I stalled out in my reading during these chapters. I think I re-read these pages nightly for a week because they kept putting me to sleep. Literally. It is indeed boring writing and it seems repetitive and it did take some effort to push through. Are these chapters integral to the overall story (both in this novel and in the series)? Yes, I think they are and so would be very against excising them at all. Could these chapters have been shortened or otherwise edited to make them less tedious?  I am not sure.  I think to do so would be to lose the very Asimovian aspect of the whole series.  I would not care to do that to the author or his works.  Honest to goodness, once I marched through these pages, the novel picked up pace and it was very good the rest of the way.

What the heck goes on in those pages? Asimov has several characters confront each other and they converse back and forth about what happened and why it happened and what the possibilities are. Who is lying? Who has incomplete knowledge of the subject? Who is being fooled? What are the intentions behind these matters?  In other words, Asimov is digging into the characters’ minds to root out the purposes in their actions. He is logically arguing among them. And he is also showing all the likely possibilities that the storyline could follow.  From this standpoint, it really is not bad. However, considering the pacing and style in a novel, it is quite numbing. Readers who make the effort and want to care and understand Asimov, will appreciate what he does when he writes segments like that. Readers who just want to be entertained probably will not pull much from such sections.

In this novel I really like Darell and Arcadia. They are awesome – in their own way. I want their continuing adventures, so to speak. I want to get to know them and have their backstories with all the nuances in good fiction. However, this is another aspect of Asimov’s writing.   It seems he is so potent a personality himself that his characters tend to all seem flat and cardboard – wooden, if you will. So many readers complain about the lack of “character development” in Asimov’s novels. But in my opinion, this does not precisely state what happens. I think that all of Asimov’s characters are all very flat and similar – because he, himself, shows through so strongly in all of them.  There is something subtle and familiar about all the characters – even though, on the surface, they are totally different.  I am willing to bet Asimov, when he wrote, often asked himself something like:  now, what would I do if I were this character? And then took his response into consideration when writing the story.

Overall, this is an excellent ending to the trilogy. I can see so many places where this series could be expanded and developed and re-examined. The big idea of it is so awesome, I think the novels all get four stars just because they present it. Sure, there are valid complaints about Asimov’s writing style throughout, but at the end of the day, the novels are very much Asimov’s novels and not something churned out by machine or a “novel generator.”

4 stars

The Secret Visitors

The Secret VisitorsThe Secret Visitors is James White’s first novel, published in 1957. I read the darling ACE edition that has tiny font that hurts my eyes. Cover by Schinella (???).  However, it should be noted that it was originally (at least parts of it) serialized in 1956’s New Worlds Science Fiction publications.  This is significant because I am allowing for the storyline to have been originally meant as a serialized work, digested in segments, and perhaps mauled a bit when put into novel format.  And it is White’s first novel. (Another attempt at presenting mitigation.)  Because, folks, this one is a stinker.

Anywhere on the Internet where you find someone giving this novel either four or five stars as a rating, you need to discard that person’s review/rating.  They are lying. Seriously, there is no way, that I can see, in which a reader can give this book anything higher than a three star rating. And, frankly, in all seriousness, I cannot really imagine anyone giving it that many stars.

Now, I have read a very good White novel ( The Watch Below ) and also a decent, endearing story ( Hospital Station ).  I have also heard rumor of some other good pieces by White. This, novel, however, is not good. I suspect that any good reviews it has ever received are out of sentimentality or because in this novel readers discern the germ out of which grew White’s best works.

The novel begins in media res in such a mess. Starting in media res is a frequently used method of beginning a story. However, authors who utilize this, need to pull it together and sort out the mess in a cogent way.  White gives the reader just a little bit more, but it is unsatisfying and still seems random and rushed. By chapter VI, though, it really just does not matter any more.

A big issue with White’s storytelling, in my opinion, is that he spends most of the work telling readers what is.  By this I mean that he does not explain or give any background. He presents a world of current-time facts. So, readers do not know how anything got to this point, the background on anything, the reasons for anything, etc.  Some of this is okay – and PKD is a master of pulling this writing style off with charm.  However, White just seems like Cratylus pointing at facts.

Lockhart, a doctor, races over to a body on the sidewalk. He is supposed to…. do something medically. Simultaneously, Hedley (an Intelligence Agent) is nagging him and shooing away bystanders.

Then, we are in hotel rooms. We meet “the girl” and several other wooden characters. A professor is there, he is apparently an older gentleman because he is cantankerous and does not fit in with the others. There are a couple of hazy, confused scenes in the hotel. Fistfight and then a needle stabbing? (I’m mad about the Cedric character – he is the worst-written, ill-explained, incomprehensible part of the novel.)

Lockhart is suddenly playing the rôle of tour guide for Kelly (the girl).  She is hideous and annoying. At first she really vexes him, but then he falls in love with her? I’m at a loss for this chaos.  Here, at least, we are given some information about the actual storyline. Apparently, there are off-worlders who are bored and our planet has stuff. So, they like to tour our planet and collect photographs and music and postcards.

Oddly enough, according to Miss Kelly, Earth was the only planet that changed its seasons, that had so infinitely lush variety in its flora and fauna, that was capable of producing such rich music, such gorgeous scenery.  No other inhabited planet had an axial tilt; this meant that the other worlds had no change of seasons, that their plants and animals had never had to adapt to changing circumstances, thereby producing variety.  Consequently, their inhabitants found the other worlds unbearably dreary and monotonous, while Earth would have been a veritable tourists’ paradise. – pg. 40, Chapter Four

Can you spot the dozens of logical/reasoning/scientific errors there?
Anyway, the story continues to a nearly-indecipherable scene on a beachfront with the landing of the off-worlders’ ship.  Suddenly, everyone is mentally and physically all good with hopping on the ship and heading into space with off-worlders. Aboard, we learn there are strange clothing, customs, and political machinations.  There is an interesting interlude wherein on a planet an alien body is ruining the planet and Lockhart becomes a hero by playing doctor.

Scenes take place involving guns and even a little kid with a water gun.

A weird trial occurs when the ship finally reaches its destination planet. Turns out the earthlings were doped. The little kid saves the trial. But it does not really matter because we have to have a space-navy battle. Hedley, at this point, is completely beyond any reader’s connection to character. And Lockhart decides on his “life’s work.”

I want to give this 1.5 stars. I guess I can give it two…. because the scenes with the “Grosni” are worthwhile. So, only read this if you are a White fanatic. It was a rough time reading this one.

2 stars

High Vacuum

High Vacuum

“High Vacuum” – C. E. Maine; Ballantine, 1957

“It could happen! A taut, authentic tale of tomorrow’s headlines.” – the tagline on the front cover of my 1957 Ballantine Books edition of High Vacuum by Charles Eric Maine (1921 – 1981).  The cover art is by Richard Powers.  This entire novel is about a lunar landing by a developing space program. The first manned lunar landing (Cp. Armstrong and Aldrin – Apollo 11) was in 1969, but the first spacecraft to reach the moon was in 1959 (the CCCP “Lunik 2” craft).  My parents were alive quite prior to there being any sort of lunar landing. I have never lived in such a time. I have met Sen. John Glenn, who is (at the time of this entry) ninety-four years old. Space flight/lunar landings have never not been (peripherally) a part of my existence.

So, it is interesting from a sociological perspective to imagine what it was like to witness major milestones (……a heavily terrestrial word for something relating to the words “space flight”…..) in astronautics.  As the tagline of this 1957 novel says: “It could happen!” – which I take to mean, both a manned lunar landing and the way that landing plays out.  But having been published in 1957, it is right on the cusp of some big milestones and so that tagline might not have seemed so far fetched.

Alpha rocket and its four official crew-members experience Moonwreck.  So, unlike the Apollo 11 event, this mission is considered a failure.  The rocket carrying the crew crashes on the moon. The novel begins (the very first sentence, indeed) with the crew regaining consciousness after the crash.

He remembered now the long deceleration through space toward the eroded silver mass of the moon, and Caird’s increasing uneasiness as the fuel meters ticked off the tons, and the flashing of the servomechanism pilot lamps as the rocket responded to the precise indications of the radar altimeter, and above all he remembered the sudden quivering silence as all the jets cut out together while the Alpha was still more than a quarter of a mile above the lunar surface; then the brief, too brief, fall through space, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, the last moment rush to check pressure suits and adjust helmets……… pg. 3

Well, it is only a little spoiler when I say that, as hinted at in the above excerpt, Alpha rocket ran out of gas. Further, the crash-damage was extensive enough to change the mission from one of exploration, experimentation, construction into one of survival. Unsurprisingly, there are further complications:  all of the crew did not survive the crash and the Alpha rocket also landed in a lethally radioactive crater. According to the Ministry of Astronautics handbook, memorized by the crew:  “Vacuum is the first and last enemy of the astronaut.  Every aspect of the problem of survival in space devolves from this basic consideration.”  Hence the novel’s title.

The science of the novel is not always the best. Some of this can be excused simply because it pre-dates actual lunar landings and activity. However, it should be noted that the author himself was a pilot and probably possessed at least a rudimentary understanding of aeronautics. Generally, I feel like the science was tolerable (again, this is not a scientific treatise on astronautics), but in many places the general logical/reasonability level was off-kilter.

The storyline focuses on the need to reduce time spent in the radioactive zone and on acquiring/keeping oxygen. Basically, the crew is left to constantly wear their spacesuits, which have removable-replaceable oxygen tanks.  The only time the crew can remove their enclosures is when they are in the Alpha rocket’s cabin, where they have created a sealed non-vacuum.  It is in here where the astronauts relieve themselves and take nutrition.

Very early on in the novel I disliked almost all of the characters. For one thing, they are all trained under the Ministry of Astronautics, but they seem to be lacking in a lot of skills. And not just skills, but actual psychological characteristics.  The commander of the mission is level-headed, but he also seems the most whimsical and wandering.  Patterson is an absolutely miserable character.  He is the source of what I think is the worst element of the storyline. There are other characters that exhibit similar distasteful psychologies.

To me, speaking in a world in which manned lunar landings are not unheard of, the crew of Alpha rocket is too ornery and difficult to be on this mission.  Would a space program assemble a team that does not completely work together without friction?  Would not teamwork and coordination be among the highest regarded attributes for a team trying to land on a different celestial body? Further, Patterson has a bizarre personality and through the course of the story, various amoral/immoral tendencies present themselves. However, Patterson is also the only crew-member that seems capable of any mechanical or technical knowledge and skill.

I would think that on a team that was landing on the moon, because there is limited number of persons, each member would be highly trained in a multitude of skills and areas of interest.  I really felt that the survivors were narrowly trained or that they lacked basic engineering skills. Each crewman can quote the Handbook, but they are not cross-trained on radar or communications?

I suppose Caird is the character I most liked. I really did appreciate his efforts to keep the crew united and focused. I also really appreciated his efforts to at least provide some value to the mission by doing a limited amount of research and exploration. I like that he had the foresight to keep a logbook.  However, he failed at being a good leader because he failed to truly understand the crew under him. His end is due to his abundance of trust.

Overall, the story involves a lot of traipsing around a section of the moon and jockeying for possession of the oxygen tanks.  There is some concern about lunar night and radiation poisoning, but the story is driven by the concept of a vacuum.  To me it seems like this crew did a lot better than they should have based on their lack of knowledge and the challenges faced. So, the novel has an unevenness to it.

Some of the scientific validity and technical scope of the novel could be mitigated if the author chose to focus on the psychological scenario of the survival attempt.  Letting readers watch the changes and adaptions of the crew as they undergo the various trials of the event would have been interesting.  After all, being the first humans on the moon lends itself to an eerie and abstractness.  This, the author did do well.  I admit I liked his presentation of the setting – he describes the moon and the terrain effectively.  It is not over-written in purple-prose, nor is the writing empty and vague.  Very functional and it probably could have been expanded even more.  For example, when Maine describes the difficulty the crew has with sleeping in their spacesuits, I really did imagine it to be difficult and miserable.

The storyline is fairly well-paced, but the imbalance between the characters’ skills and the challenges seems too much.  Also, I truly hate the particular “crime” Patterson commits. But there is a lot to like about the concept of this novel.  Though the ending is ridiculous and the outcome rather quite unlikely, I guess it is a valid imagining of a lunar landing.  And we cannot go back to 1957; we cannot return to a time when manned lunar landing was un-happened. Authors cannot really rewrite this story without at least some influence of knowledge of lunar landings.  It did not happen like this, thankfully.

2 stars

Search the Sky

search the skySearch the Sky is a jointly-authored novel by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl.  I am not a very big fan of Pohl’s writing, so at the outset, I  was probably not giving a totally fair shot to the novel.  It was published in 1954.  I read the paperback version with Richard Powers artwork. I bought my copy for a $1 at a local book hovel.

Well, overall I do not think this is a very good novel. The book really takes some time to get started; I feel like the first three chapters are very much spinning their wheels and not really directed anywhere specific. The reader is introduced to the main character, Ross, and his restlessness and struggle with living on Halsey’s Planet and working for Oldham Trading Company. Straightaway in the novel, we are told how disgruntled Ross is with his life and how the civilization on Halsey’s Planet is in “decay.”

Now, when I think of “in decay” I am thinking of some post-apocalyptic scene with weed-grasses growing in pavement, deserted buildings, mushrooms growing out of ex-living things, and nary a human in sight. I suppose some of that is sort of what is being described, but not to the same extent.  Basically, we are to understand that this planet’s civilization seems to have peaked and is now in a decline – how steep that decline is, is rather unclear.  Ross (who is melodramatic as all get out) seems to think it is very steep.

So the first 45 pages, or so, of this novel seem to not have a proper direction. We meet melodramatic Ross, but there are little scenes that take place that do not advance the storyline and sometimes seem to derail it. Several times I figured that a particular trajectory would be taken but it was ignored or forgotten. Penguin, Bantam, and Baen also republished this novel – though, one of the authors was deceased by then, the other author may have had the opportunity to edit it. Frankly, I would want to see this whole opening chunk edited and anything not truly related to the storyline should be excised.

Finally in chapter five, the storyline picks up and marches along what the reader has been expecting all along:  the faster-than-light spacecraft headed to exotic planets. Of course, not too exotic, this version of the kosmos seems to be populated mainly by humans. So, Ross and his ship head spaceward to visit a predetermined list of planets.  His mission is to discover the status of these planets – for the purposes of trade and for monitoring the “level of civilization” of humanity. We do not even get to see the first planet and join Ross as he lands on Gemser, the second planet on his list.

Everything the Internet says about the remainer of this novel is more or less true. Yes, the rest of it does seem like little, loosely-connected segments that show the reader interesting “infographics” of the planets that Ross visits. And if there is anything one reads on the Internet about this novel, it is that it is so very satirical.  Most of the people commenting on the novel online are people who have read the novel since 2000. So, there is a bit of a timeline scenario in that most reviewers did not read this when it was originally published. Living in the 1950s may have given this novel a different reader response; faster-than-light spacecraft, human civilizations stagnating, and gender equality all have a very different feel to them in 1955 versus 2016. Therefore, I think that this novel, being read nowadays, needs to be read with a sort of nuanced viewpoint.

The overarching premise is quite interesting to me. I like the idea of launching a character out into the galaxy to learn/re-learn about the status of human civilization on distant planets and to re-establish FTL science or jump-start their trading/commerce. Okay, this is a little ridiculous because this is a tall order for one fellow. And yes, it is a bit space opera-esque, zooming around the planets in this way. However, given a little tidying, this is not a horrific story-starter.

Instead, the authors approach these distant planets via Ross with a remarkably heavy-handed style. Certainly, we should all read this as satirical (Cp. Gulliver’s Travels or something), but I have never liked satire that was like a bludgeon.

So, the next two planets Ross visits are treated with all the subtlety of a bulldozer. In places, the writing is even cringe-worthy. There are, of course, some sections that are interesting and have potential for something more, but generally, this is heavy-handed direct satire that does not really pause to ever ask “what if?” or “how come, Hoss?”

One of the wretched things about this novel is that Ross, though he does not start off as a favored, honorable, awesome character, seems to degenerate into an impulsive, juvenile, melodramatic clown.  It is really wearying by the last few chapters and I rather wanted to punch his teeth out.

The last segment of the novel is not very good whatsoever and I had to muscle through it. It is confusing and disjointed throughout.  The “resolution” is really vague, idiotic, and also heavy-handed. The characters by the end are insufferable. And even if the reader considers some of the novel’s satirical points favorably, there still is not enough depth to make this a meaningful heavyweight of science fiction.

It has some good points. It has a lot of bad areas. Ultimately, it has not really aged well and does not give a lot of reason for recommendation. I blame it all on Pohl.

2 stars