1950s

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

Question and Answer

Question and AnswerQuestion and Answer is the 1978 ACE title of a story written by Poul Anderson in 1954 in Astounding Science Fiction.  The serialized story was then published in entirety as:  Planet of No Return (1956). My 1978 edition has Michael Whelan’s cover art on it.  No part of the text was changed since its serialization.

Originally, the narrative tells us, a professional scientist was approached to “design a planet” which was Earth-like.  Three writers were then provided this setting and asked to write about it. Sort of an early “shared universe” attempt.  The three writers were allegedly Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish.  There is only speculation regarding the so-called “professional scientist.”  Anyway, this short history is given as the introduction in this edition.  Poul Anderson makes a further comment about how planet-building is fun.

The careless publishers also made an error on the back-of-the-book’s write-up. They put the wrong spaceship (De Gama instead of the Hudson).  This isn’t a big thing, but it irked me.

The story itself does not seem too far removed from the present day.  The civilizations of Sol (our galaxy) are overpopulated and are looking for another Earth to colonize.  Apparently, colonies have already struck out onto Luna (the moon), Venus, and Mars. There has been a lot of war in the last two centuries, political/religious agendas have divided the people of Sol.

The first character we meet in the novel is actually not the main character. Kemal Gummus-lugil is in the process of a radiation meltdown situation aboard a spaceship.  We meet the main character, John Lorenzen, next.  Immediately, I took a dislike to him.  He is mopey and weak. Frankly, other characters in the novel often call him weak. Naturally, he has to overcome his fatal personality flaw by the end of the novel and has to be the “determined/strong” character.  It is obvious and a little annoying.

The next character we meet is Edward Avery. He is a psychomed and he plays the role of therapist/human resources on the ship.  He is subordinate to Captain Hamilton, but also seems to be always on his own agenda. There are several other characters that are mentioned by name, Thornton and Fernandez.  But also Friedrich von Osten.  The thing is, the reader is led to believe (via storyline and Avery’s presence) that humanity and psychology plays some role in this novel. So, the seemingly diverse (ethnicity, backgrounds, political/religious affiliations) might be relevant to the story. And they are – except Anderson writes all of von Osten’s dialogue phonetically. It gets really aggravating to read; especially because von Osten is also portrayed as combative and aggressive. He is the only character that Anderson tries to demonstrate lingo-ethnicity.

Some residual (post WW2) distancing/transference regarding Germans/Germany, eh Poul?

Avery tells us:

The human mind is a weird and tortuous thing.  It’s perfectly possible to believe in a dozen mutually contradictory things at once.  Few people ever really learn how to think at all; those who do, think only with the surface of their minds.  The rest is still conditioned reflex and rationalization of a thousand subconscious fears and hates and longings.  We’re finally getting a science of man – a real science; we’re finally learning how a child must be brought up if he is to be truly sane. But it’ll take a long time before the results show on any large scale.  There is so much insanity left over from all our history, so much built into the very structure of human society. – pg. 13, Chapter 2

Well, this paragraph, early in the novel, should give readers a pretty fat clue as to how this whole sucker is going to turn out in the end.  Frankly, I am only giving this novel two stars because Poul Anderson is not a writer I like because of what he does in novels like this.

They had a professional scientist play make-believe and create a planet. They had celebrity writers (Asimov, Blish) lined up to write in a shared universe about said planet.  And Anderson had so much potential, because, well, he is not an idiot and he does write with sufficient skill. But somehow, just like whatever else I read by Anderson, he sucks all of the fun totally out of the story.

Stories can be written with moralizing, with ruminating on humankind, with criticisms about politics and religion – that do not sacrifice every single fun part of a story. I have said this before, if Anderson wants to write non-fiction (e.g. memoirs, journals, aphorisms, etc.) he should have done that. But man, he kills a story like no one else.

Like a gigantic kosmic fun-sucker. SSSSSSSLLLLUUURRRRP.

So, a diverse group of humans (and their crazy personalities) with a lot at stake, travel to Troas to find a “new Earth.” There is so much science to be done. And on top of this, the grand mystery of why the first expedition (the De Gama) did not return should be investigated and resolved. Tension! Adventure! Excitement! Hard empirical science!  So much potential.

Instead, a slow-moving story with obvious plotlines. An annoying main character who is utterly predictable.  Opinions and pseudo-lectures on what is good for Man, what Man ought to do, who has the right path selected for Man, and what Man deserves. It renders the plot pointless, ignores all of the cool potential available, and makes a slog of a novel.

It is not a bad novel, per se. It just has no fun in it whatsoever – which is made worse by the fact that it is super-obvious that there should be fun contained within.

2 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

The Universe Maker

The Universe Maker - A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker – A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker by A. E. Van Vogt was first published 1953. I read the 1974 ACE novel with 127 pages. The cover was created by Bart Forbes – and looks exactly like one would think it should for a 1970s cover art piece. A. E. Van Vogt is one of those “classic” science fiction authors who seems to have nothing really good said about him. He wrote a lot of things, but he seems to usually be held up as the standard for a low-water mark. I read this novel because I am certainly not afraid of reading terrible novels and because it is another 1950s sci-fi novel I can tick off the non-list.

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about this novel. It is bad. Really bad. In fact, of all the novels I have reviewed on this blog it is only the second to achieve the 1 star rating. So, if you’ve heard bad things about Van Vogt or his novels, you may not be too surprised. I cannot say that I was surprised – I was well aware that this had a high potential for being awful. Honestly, it was worse than I expected.

Most of this novel is incoherent at best. I do not mean in some…… Finnegans Wake sort of way. I mean in a “this author wrote this in one sitting and didn’t stop to re-read a single sentence” sort of way. I feel like the first two chapters are good enough. They set up a fairly interesting scenario and the characters are passable. Chapters three through seven seem like they belong to a slightly different novel. Sure, they have a tenuous relationship to the previous chapters, but it really seems a little forced. They are still not part of a “bad story” yet, but they are not what I expected.

Then, Chapters eight and nine happen. Again, the story seems really off. What is strange? Maybe the trajectory of the storyline, maybe the characters seem very removed. At this point, it has become very difficult to really isolate a plot. In fact, even the main character, Morton Cargill, does not seem to be a consistent character. He’s all over the place in his mannerisms, thinking, skills, psychology.

Finally in chapter ten it feels somewhat like we might be getting back to the early chapters of the book, circling back to pick up storyline threads. But sadly, that is not the case. Scenes are repeated, but this is a different path down the possible trajectory. So, if Van Vogt wanted this to seem like an alternative, cyclic time-travel story – he has very vaguely and minimally presented us with one.

But the interspersed communities/civilizations/tribes – there are three to keep track of, but we really learn very little about them – are mushy and thick. Was the author attempting to include some political/social seriousness as a plot? The first two chapters present a mystery, but by chapter eight, the novel has a very heavy-handed social dimension – that is also poorly written.

Things get worse because our main character, Cargill, has visions and dreams and things get really…. abstract. Let’s say abstract, but let us understand “distorted and random.” Throughout the book there is this obnoxious, never-ever developed superficiality regarding religion/faith. As if the author felt that religion (like politics) should be included to give a novel depth. Oh, bad mistake in this novel. It is just another nail in the coffin of a wretched little novel that should never have been written.

Maybe this is about time-travel? Or… something? I don’t know. Its really not good. By that I mean: it is quite awful, do not read this. I am not kidding. This is not just a novel “not near my tastes.” This is plainly a poorly written jumble of junk. Only read it if you are purposely trying to read really badly written things.

1 star

Level 7

Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.

This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe.  Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages.  That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing.  The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012).  To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!

These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions.  Character-driven and dramatic.  Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific.  The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.

The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127.  We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food.  The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task.  So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew).  His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.

This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one:  “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.

No, no fooling on Level 7.  This is a serious place.  No tricks, no jokes, no April fools.  We are all wise down here even on April 1.  Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year.  We are deceiving each other.  We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel.  We are doing it all the time.

We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves.  Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable.  Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)

Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation.  And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel.  He has a philosopher on Level 7.  Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical.  We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra.  Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation.  The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian.  I know full well that philosophers are “useless.”  They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations.  His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.

However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher.  The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable.  And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario.  It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate.  And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.

Why did I have such a long and intensive training?  Was it really necessary? Or was it really training?  What skill had I acquired?  Enough to push the buttons!  And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function.  My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists.  They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)

The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start.  But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline.  And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.

This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact.  It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.

Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.

4 stars

I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars