1950s

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

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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

The Shores of Space

The Shores of Space - R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space – R. Matheson; Berkley, 1979

The Shores of Space by Richard Matheson (1926 – 2013) was a quick read for me. The thirteen stories zipped by in no time at all.  Originally published in 1957, the book collects some of Matheson’s stories from the early 1950s.  Matheson seems most well known for his horror stories, including:  I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man, and What Dreams May Come – all of which were adapted (some multiple times) into film.  It is not really fair to lock authors into one category or another. While there may be some “genre authors,” many writers pen works in a variety of genres/subgenres. Nevertheless, I confess I am not really into horror fiction and so I have never really delved into any of Matheson’s works.  This collection does contain some stories that might qualify as “horror” and few that would be “science fiction,” so it typifies the so-called speculative fiction genre.

One of the things that had me reading this collection, besides the push to get through the 1950s, is that Matheson’s works are so often plumbed by pop culture.  It seems like when a screenwriter/scriptwriter/producer does not know what to do – they all turn to Matheson’s stuff. I do not even know that most people who are pop culture nuts even realize how much material seems to get pulled from Matheson.  Well, in order to familiarize myself, I grabbed this early collection of his works. On the whole, I was not incredibly impressed – and it is difficult to say if my lack of enthusiasm was due to a latent unconscious familiarity due to the popularity of Matheson’s work?

  • Being3 stars –  1954
  • Pattern For Survival1 star – 1955
  • Steel2 stars – 1956
  • The Test2 stars – 1954
  • Clothes Make the Man3 stars – 1951
  • Blood Son2 stars – 1951
  • Trespass3 stars – 1953
  • When Day is Dun3 stars – 1954
  • The Curious Child4 stars – 1954
  • The Funeral 4 stars – 1955
  • The Last Day3 stars – 1953
  • Little Girl Lost3 stars – 1953
  • The Doll That Does Everything2 stars – 1954

Being was a good piece to put at the front of this collection. I think it is very well written and though I feel the basic story has been told or shown to us a million times, this was still rather gripping and harrying.  Starting off with Being really lets the reader know that this is not goofy, silly stuff. The stories in this collection are scary and sometimes even dark.

 

I did not love the second story, Pattern For Survival. It is one of “those” stories where you are supposed to close one eye and consider the whole thing after you read it. Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes, I could do without. This was a time of the latter.

 

As soon as I started reading Steel, I was reminded of the 2011 movie starring Hugh Jackman. I later checked this out and yes, the movie was allegedly based on this story.  I am somewhat grumpy because since 2011 I have wanted to see Real Steel, but have not had the opportunity.  Because: Robots.  What can I say, I am a child. Anyway, the story itself I only gave two stars, mainly because it tends to focus on the human-side of things.  The main characters are fighting losing battles against technology and refuse to give up the “glory days.”  I am not impressed by futile stubbornness.

 

Interesting to note,  Steel was also made into a Twilight Zone episode. The main character of interest was played by Lee Marvin (1924 – 1987), one of Hollywood’s more interesting actors; you may know him as Liberty Valance. Anyway, the Twilight Zone episode is in Season 5 as Episode 2.

 

The Test is a disturbing drama.  Several of the stories in this collection carry a heavy drama involving family. I think The Test is a good story but I did not enjoy reading it. And frankly, I have to say, the solution to problems for a number of characters in these stories is often suicide. It is not a comforting or gentle scenario.  However, Matheson writes these stories with a lot of skill. He really drops the reader right into the scene and every tick of the clock, every ambient sound in the story seems realistic and tangible.

 

I think Clothes Make the Man is my favorite story in the collection, though I was not able to give it the highest rating. The way it is written as it gradually reveals its plot twist just tickled me. I really enjoyed this one, though it is short and slightly obvious. I think the best part is that the “main character” is so snarky.

 

Blood Son is a definite horror. I do not think it was written well, I do not like the storyline, and it ends ridiculously. I feel instead of being truly horrific – like it begins – it turns comedic or stupid. Pass on this one.

 

Trespass is one of the longer stories in the collection. The storyline itself is obvious from the start, but the point of it is for the reader to have to watch the horrific struggles of the characters. I am not sure that I am so cruel as to enjoy watching the characters suffer and struggle like this. At the same time, the story is well-written because Matheson really gets into the character’s guts and presents their struggles with twisting, wrenching feeling. Again his skill in drawing the reader into the scenes, so that we are frustrated and restless and angry along with the characters, is demonstrated here.

 

When Day Is Dun is well-written, as is expected by this point. However, I found it disturbing and miserable. Sometimes, it is not easy to look at humanity qua humanity. And some authors do take a dismal view of the subject. Here is another theme found in several of these stories:  end of the world (hence the title).

 

The Curious Child is another of my favorites in this collection. This is the kind of horror that I can read and enjoy. I appreciate the psychological/existential horror a lot more than the blood and guts monsters stuff. So, in this short story we follow the main character as his day falls apart into a chaos that only he experiences. This is really “fun” and gripping. With Matheson’s ability to put the reader in the scene, this story works really well.

 

The Funeral is the comedic episode in this set. This story takes place in a funeral home.  A quite unusual client arrives to make funeral arrangements – for himself.  Very expertly written, I love Matheson’s descriptions and directions of the character Morton Silkline. Seriously, his work here in presenting this character is magical.  There is a lot to like about this story, particularly its light-heartedness that gives one a break from some of the dismality in some of the other stories in this collection.  Matheson’s ability to describe the character’s voices and their mannerisms is expert level. Aspiring authors need to read this to get schooled….

 

The Last Day is a tough story to get through.  It involves family drama and also the miserableness of end of days. If that is not enough, it begins in a sordid, foul scene.  This contains suicide and murder and general human decay.  Not that it is entirely out of place – if it was indeed the last day, this is likely how humans would react. As I said earlier, it can be difficult to look at humans qua humans.  Also, the undercurrent of mother/son relationship is strange and when juxtaposed with the chaos of the plot, it is disturbing.

 

Little Girl Lost again contains some comedy, heavy doses of characters struggling, and also family drama. It also highlights Matheson’s ability to make the reader panic and stress alongside the characters. This short piece takes place in a small apartment in which we find the husband, wife, young daughter, and pet dog.  My main complaint about this story is the very sudden, without explanation, inclusion of an outside character (Bill).  It is jarring when he is introduced because it interrupts the storyline – the reader is busy being confused as to why Bill was summoned. Still, it is a nice, tight read.

 

The Doll That Does Everything is really bland. It is totally skippable. Especially because it is very obvious and I would say it is the most heavy-handed of the collection.  A husband and wife, who are focused on their hobbies, dislike the demands their young son places on the household. So they get him a playmate. Things go poorly.

 

The best thing about this collection is the display Matheson puts on with his ability to put the reader in the scenes. And, perhaps, that is why a lot of his work ended up being made into film – the whole concept of reaching the audience, etc.  Matheson also likes looking at characters who are frustrated and struggling and making the reader watch these battles. I am not so sure I like this style of entertainment, however it works well within the horror/speculative fiction genres. One can safely read The Curious Child, Clothes Make the Man, and The Funeral and be rewarded for their time spent.  Reading the other stories is a good idea as long as the reader can take a little of the gritty, dismal stuff.

Average:  2.69

Most: 3

Conquest of Earth

Conquest of EarthConquest of Earth by Manly Banister was originally published in Amazing Stories in 1956.  I read the Airmont Books edition from 1964. This edition sports famous Ed Emshwiller’s artwork, which I like.  It has that blessed vintage flavor to it. Banister is largely considered an “amateur”publisher/writer. Personally, I think this is a bit obnoxious to continue to say in 2016. Nevertheless, although he wrote a pile of short fiction, this is his only novel that was published.

Overall, I can see why this novel would be treated as “second-rate” by a lot of readers and critics. On the other hand, I have read the first novels of a lot of authors and debut novels often have that rough-edged feel to them. I wish more authors would learn from the experience and then develop beyond it. In any case, Banister’s Conquest of Earth is not going to be on any “Best Of” lists, though I will probably treat it a bit more kindly than other readers.

Without reservation, I really enjoyed pages 1-79, or Chapters 1 – 12.  Something about the character and the writing was appealing and fun. Kor Danay, the main character, is something like a pseudo-Tibetan monk combined with some of Marvel’s X-Men mutants. We meet him as he is undergoing a sort of final exam at his Institute (monastery?). It is a do-or-die Examination for Kor and he displays some interesting and powerful skills.

Kor is then assigned to a position outside of the Institute.  He is to go to No-Ka-si, which is a human settlement outside of the larger Ka-si.  The position that Kor is taking was recently vacated. Throughout these chapters, the reader is given to understand there is a basic “us versus them” scenario on Earth.  The planet is a wasteland, dried and overheated, the population in service (knowingly or not) to the conquering alien race referred to as the Trisz.  Little is known of this mysterious race; contact between Trisz and humans is done through a tiered society, which includes the Triszmen – humans loyal to the Trisz. There are the People – which I guess are the general populace of Earth – and there are the Brotherhoods, religious groups.

Honestly, this is one of Banister’s major flaws.  He uses some of the groupings of humans interchangeably.  Man (with the capital-M) is meaningful because it refers to a “meta-human” person.  Many of these are Sages (they wear scarlet robes) and are not to be confused with the Blue Brotherhood (blue robes, folks), the members of which were the ones not fit to continue training in the Institute.   And then there are Trisz, Triszmen, etc. Banister needed to lock down these terms with a bit more consistency.

Anyway, my favorite parts of this novel are Kor’s first experiences outside of the Institute.  This includes his travel to Ka-si and his introduction to the “city.”  I really liked all the intrigue and events of these chapters. If this novel kept to these areas, this would be a very respectable, solid novel.  But in chapter thirteen, Banister decides to take this stuff Underground.  The female character, who had been mysterious and shifty, turns into a stereotype.  All of a sudden all of the specialized training and lifestyle that Kor lived in the Institute seems to fall away and he is ruled by emotions.  Also, characters who were connected to the Institute show up suddenly as if they are some sort of spy agents. It gets messy. Chapter 13 begins a mess.

The mess continues for the rest of the novel – increasing in disaster levels as Kor heads off planet.  Kor, in his spaceship, goes to the far reaches of the galaxy where he encounters primitive peoples.  Naturally, they treat him as a hero/god-figure.  There are events. Things get worse. Storylines get lost.  Eventually, there is a rescue and a wrap-up conclusion.  The final bit is just ridiculous, let’s not discuss it…..hide your eyes.

In chapter 19, there is a big explanatory section that attempts to delve into some epistemological territory and provides a nice pile of nonsense. Or pseudo-nonsense, as it were. Banister really wants to explain and develop these powers and skills that the meta-human Men possess.  I guess I should not fault him for being explanatory, but really, it turns into a babbling stink.

Kor lectures:

“Deductive reasoning is our first order of rationalization.  It is most highly exemplified in the field of mathematics.  Mathematics, however, deals entirely with exact premises and exactness exists nowhere in our Universe.  Mathematics, as a means of reasoning, therefore, can express only ideal conclusions.

Inductive reasoning is the second order of rationalization.  Isolated facts are brought together, and from their behavior, a general law is induced to explain them.

….largely discredited functions of the human mind that the first Men received what they thought to be hints of the existence of a third order of logic – that method of rationalization which transcends both deduction and induction and is the survival factor which works toward the preservation of the individual when all other methods of conscious reasoning fail.  The form of third-order rationalization cannot be consciously detected as a function.  The function is inferred by analyzing its results.”

If this so-called “third-order” method seems to you like intuition or instinct, and it should, that’s only because, Kor tells us, mankind has just not really explored this process.

Somehow, no matter how much instinct to survive we have, I do not see us breaking the time-space continuum and/or shuffling molecules around at will using our “third-order” powers.  On the other side:  Hey, Marvel!  Here’s your Mutants! Give Banister a couple of bucks for the ideas!

Anyway, I emphasize, again, that I thought highly of the first chunk of the book – and wish that part had been extended. I would love to have this novel re-written and we keep the first part and ditch all the off planet rubbish.

3 stars

Star Bridge

Star Bridge - Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

Star Bridge – Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

According to Wikipedia, Star Bridge was originally the idea of Jack Williamson (1908 – 2006), who wrote about a third of the novel and set out the remainder in some form of outline.  Allegedly, James E. Gunn got involved with the novel and finished the writing.  This information on Wikipedia is sourced from the January 2007 Locus article by Gunn. Needless to say, I have no idea how true any of that is.  However, after reading the novel, it does feel a little choppier than one would expect. Anyway, the novel was first published in 1955 and republished a couple of times by different publishers. I read the 1989 Collier Nucleus edition with cover art by Alan Gutierrez.

The novel has twenty-one fairly short chapters.  There are also very short interludes which are something like an outside viewpoint commenting on the events detailed in the chapters. They are presented as “history.”  From the first, the reader is told that Eron is the greatest empire ever and that it has/utilizes the Tube.  The reader is also told that “Empire is communication.” (pg. 1) The Tube is the Star Bridge.

The first five chapters seemed very sluggish. In fact, the first chapter had me raising my eyebrows a little thinking that this was not what I expected.  Perhaps the first five chapters were not really sluggish, but they seemed to be written in an unfamiliar style.  Throughout this opening chunk, I was unsure if this novel was going to be more of an action-thriller or a pondering, roaming sort of thing. Everything opens up, let us say, in chapter six. I mean, once an assassination takes place, of course things get chaotic.  Chapters six and seven are, at once, very well written and also frustrating. They are well written when they focus on the emotional turmoil of the main character, Alan Horn.  It is almost as if the reader can feel Horn’s panic, stress, and doubt.  Yet, there is a lot of this chapter that is not so well done – a feeling I had about the first five chapters, as well.  Somehow the environment/setting is not described sufficiently.

It is one thing to tell the reader that it is nighttime and there is a desert. However, if you are going to have the reader chase the character(s) through caves, into megalopolis structures, and around vast technology, you have to believe the reader is not as familiar with these things as the characters themselves.  I think of Jack Vance; when he describes a setting or technology or mechanics – I think that the reader could practically build whatever is being described.  You know how the device works and how the landscape looks.  In Star Bridge, I feel like there are general ideas that smart readers can understand, but they are choppy and do not (at least for me) result in a full diagram in the imagination.

On this point, Eron, the planet which is the hub for all Tubes, is covered in some sort of structure, because it is an old and used-up planet. It exists only as a seat for the Empire’s directorship and as the hub of the Empire. However, when our main character arrives there, it seems like he navigates the place quickly. I mean, within hours. So, this must also be a very small planet. However, that’s not the sense that the author(s) give, either. So, basically, I just focused on the “action” and “philosophical” parts of the novel and gave up actually following the path of the characters through the Empire.  Our first exposure to usage of the Tube is interesting and the experience of Horn is related in a decent manner, but I feel like PKD could have really rocked our brains. So…. good, just not great.

There are two aspects to this story.  Overall, it is the story of the many poor versus the empowered few. This is the juxtaposition of freedom and dependence. The second aspect to the story is the discussion wherein Horn (and the reader) question to what degree individual choices/actions are free/independent.  At many points it is suggested that the answer is different for an empire than an individual.  At other points, there is a hint that maybe the same forces affect both, just not with results that occur in the same time ratio. Simply, what is the catalyst for a man’s actions/choices?  What is the catalyst for an empire/society’s actions and goals?

One of the elements that this novel does well is how there is a layered mystery of power.  Several times the “true hand” at work moving events and people is revealed….. and then is shown to be only a puppet for a deeper more removed hand.  In a couple of cases, one of the empowered actually is unaware that they are merely puppets.  This stuff was creepy, and the intrigue and “unknowable-ness” really gives depth to the novel. Of course when dealing with power, there are lots of ways to look at the situation and lots of segments of society with their role to play.  The novel does touch on a bunch of them, but it is still a short (215 pages) novel and just does not have the length to examine each one of these roles.

The novel most similar to this is Asimov’s Foundation.  One of the similarities is the disinterest the reader develops for the characters.  After awhile, Horn seems superhuman and “too awesomized.” And those that help him are  stereotypical. (For example, one particular violent character wears black and has snarling overgrown dogs.)  I really liked Foundation and I liked this novel…. I will always have more interest in the macro than the single individual. It is interesting that this novel does an okay job of making the reader look at both simultaneously.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel.  Unfortunately, I think the execution suffers a bit. Also the length. After all, it is not often that I actually wish a novel was longer; usually I am complaining that the author did not know when to end the thing! Well, this book could use another hundred pages and it would be a definite four-star rating.  As it is:  a standard action novel with sporadic choppy writing – three stars.  It is a good novel, though. I would not want readers to think that this is something to be skipped just because it is not perfect.

3 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