1960s

The Werewolf Principle

THe Werewolf PrincipleThe Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1967. I read the Berkley paperback with the Richard Powers (1921 – 1996) cover art.  My copy was only 216 pages, but I think it took over a week to read – because I had just gotten home from travel and for whatever reason, my mind was feeling listless and disinterested.  This is the eighth Simak novel that I have read, though, so I feel he and I are old friends, so to speak.

First of all, there are no “werewolves” and there is no “werewolf principle.”  Like all of our favorite science fiction grandmasters, Simak had a keen, uncanny eye for the future, but I doubt even he could have guessed our pop culture fascination with werewolves – and the many iterations of them that we have designed. Unfortunately, it seems we have saturated ourselves with werewolves (yes, and other monsters associated with them like vampires) and so the title of this novel from 1967 might be off-putting to someone in 2022.

Second of all, Simak’s love for pastoral, middle-America farms and woodlands is once again present. It seems no matter the storyline or the characters, Simak will find a way to take the reader fishing. He will also tell you all about the woods nearby, the critters that roam those woods, the farmland across the way, and the hills that overlook it all.  I, personally, am not a big fan of scenery, but it is such a part of Simak and his writing that I have come to accept it and understand it as necessary to enjoying Simak’s worldview and creations.  By the way, I do enjoy fishing. Trout, panfish, Bass, etc. although in my youth I did more big lake stuff like Walleye and Pike.

Generally I find Simak’s novels to be uneven.  Whether it is uneven in plotting, pacing, or execution, it does not really matter because the result is always somewhat of a rolling up and down read. This novel may be slightly more uneven than some of the others I have read, but its, again, something I have learned to expect with Simak. Specifically, the opening quarter of the novel is very in media res.  And chapter six is especially difficult/frustrating to read.  The novel moves in and out of a variety of “action/fugitive” moments to segments of introspection and description that seem so very sluggish.

Solar panels on houses – houses that are really Smart Homes. The A.I. of the houses is very intrusive and oppressive. The various rooms of the house are very often harassing the people in the house. Its really invasive and annoying – and I am just reading about it. I pity the main character. But, on the other hand, I think of some of the Smart Homes in society currently and I have to shrug a little. Perspectives….. Anyway, I really snorted at one of the interactions of the overbearing Kitchen in chapter seven.  While its obnoxious, I can relate to it. Many times my household has to throttle back my cooking. Literally, massive meals with Old World styled courses and plating. Also, enough to feed a battalion. So, when in chapter seven the Kitchen lets loose, I had to cheer!

The theme of the overall novel is about the meaning of the Self or what it is to be a mind. I am taken back to my graduate school days where we read things like Gilbert Ryle and argued about BIVs [Brain in Vat] for endless semesters. In this novel, Simak has BIVs. This fact is a little unnerving because I swear Simak predates a lot of the academic inquiry. It is not just about BIVs, though. There is also a wrangling that the characters do with what it means to be human and what it means to have/be a self.  I remember there was a lot of Macquarrie and Calvin O. Schrag that I had to read through. Everyone after Heidegger is very busy discovering themselves, you know…. I digress….

While this may sound interesting to some readers, it is very uneven and at some point in the novel, the tone changes. There is a very negative feeling that comes through the writing toward and about humanity. The main character, though full of knowledge and data, is also extremely emotional. Toward the end of the book, he basically makes a sudden decision that “oh, humans will be mean to me, so bye, I’m leaving.” It feels ridiculously abrupt and nearly childish.

The main character has three selves (so to speak), two of which are very alien to a human. In fact, the main character is not exactly a natural specimen of humanity. So, there is a lot going on there.  Some of this Simak looks at, some of it he does not. Its a lot to unpack and the story instead grinds along. Some of the “internal” dialogue between the three is interesting, most of it is tedious. They have names for each other (that symbolically designate themselves). Changer, Quester, Thinker. These seem like as good of names as any, but look too closely and they do not really stand up to scrutiny.

The very ending is a little bit better than some of Simak’s works. This ending had a surprise twist that I did not see coming, but that is very welcome – to the reader and to the main character. It pleases the main character a great deal, but it does not erase the bad taste of him being a bit impulsive and harboring a jealousy/bitterness.

With Simak’s writing there is also sometimes what I call a “comic book” feel to it. For example, the characters will have an epiphany in a very comic book manner. They might be on a long introspection jag and when an idea comes to them, the writing just feels like the yellow narrative boxes instead of a prose edit. It does not happen often, but its there in most of the Simak novels. Just a brief section where it feels like a novelization of some tense moment from a comic.

Anyway, I liked the usual things one likes about Simak novels. I disliked the unevenness and I definitely did not like the sudden negative mood of the main character. Like I have said, some of these themes arise in other novels by Simak, and I would not be surprised if the next novel I read of his also contains a character who does not fit in with humanity, finds a deep nostalgia for Earth and nature, but has a uncomfortable attitude toward humans.  This is NOT a bad read, certainly not at all. It just is not the high level of Simak’s work.

3 stars

Love In Amsterdam

Love In AmsterdamContinuing in my reading crime spree (a lovely ambiguous way of putting it) I finished Love In Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling (1927 – 2003).  The novel was first published in 1962 and was the source for at least one film and two television series. It seems to me that this novel was read more frequently when the years began with 19– than in the contemporary times.  I have to be honest and say that this is a difficult novel to review and rate.  It makes sense that readers seem to be a bit polar opposite in their feelings toward it.

The difficulties in discussing this novel begin straightaway because this is a crime novel but the bulk of it is really a psychological non-thriller.  Definitely a very slow-burn, as they say.  Being honest, there were plenty of points that I would have given this, just barely, a weak 2-star rating. My reaction immediately upon finishing the novel was that it was a 4-star novel, for sure, and certainly the author is underrated and incredibly talented.

Truthfully, I strongly disliked all of the characters.  Every one of these characters I could spend a paragraph or two complaining about – pointing out their flaws and the things about them that I found off-putting.  For example, the main character, Martin is wretched with emotions and opinions and he is just generally lazy and self-centered.  The deceased of the novel is absolutely horrible in that she is very toxic and rotten.  All of the characters seem to lack morality on some level.  Usually a lack of morals or a nasty ethics is a good thing in a crime novel, but here it just makes things slog on in a claustrophobic and uncomfortable manner. The characters hang on each other, as if there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go.  Similar feathers flocking together. Drawn to each other out of lethargy and stupidity – love and hate having nothing to do with it.

She blossomed on dramas and scenes, loved upheavals, denouncements, tremendous rages, weeping reconciliations.  That kind of thing was her daily bread and butter.  – pg. 16

I mean, thankfully, most people are not as extreme in these scenarios as this character is, but I am sure we have all met or known a person who seems to thrive on drama – creating it when there is none. Now, there are people who enjoy such theatrics, but on a lesser scale. Almost as if having any drama validates their lives or situations. Most of these people, I think, tend to just be exaggerative, acting overwrought about water cooler moments, so to speak. But the character who blossoms on great upheavals – of course becomes the murder victim, because the reader would think this sort of person developed dozens of tumultuous relationships that would result, maybe, in murder.

Yet, here we are:  the police are focused on one gentleman, Martin, because there actually are no other suspects. Immediately, more or less, we are given to believe that the chief detective, Van Der Valk, believes in Martin’s innocence.  However, throughout the entire novel, I was convinced that Van Der Valk was being duplicitous.  I did not, and do not, trust him – not even after the last page was turned. Of course, throughout the novel the detective is very much a tertiary character.  He is really nothing more than dialogue – a specifically stilted dialogue at that. We learn nothing about him; he remains more or less an empty concept with barely an outline.  Again, I do not trust him.

The novel is divided, unequally, into three sections.  The first seems choppy, but is readable. We meet some characters and its a bit difficult to believe how unlikeable so much of the novel is. Still, there is a little sleuthing, albeit very unique and immersive detecting. Martin is innocent, Van Der Valk also thinks so, except it seems like Van Der Valk is trying to make Martin “crack” and confess. Maybe he is just trying to see what Martin knows subconsciously. It is difficult to tell.

The second section is, obviously, the part that loses readers. If readers are going to quit or complain – it is definitely in this second section.  It is such a slog. It repeats the entire history of the relationship between Martin and the deceased.  The relationship, too, is hideously toxic. It is insanely claustrophobic and emotional and the characters really seem to dislike each other and just use each other – but only in a vague and lethargic manner.  The cigars and gin are not spicy and sharp like in Red Harvest.  Here, they are smog and lay heavy in the small crowded homes.  Martin quotes stupid quotes from artists and writers. The characters fight about nothing.  Obsession and stubbornness are on every page.

As I read this lengthy slog, I kept wondering why this was happening – both the chapters and words and also the in-story relationships. Why. Why any of this. Sure, it would be all right for an author to give us some background, to describe the characters by using their past narrative history.  However, after all the gray and lethargic days and nights sitting drinking first coffee then liquor, and frequently noting the runners in the lady’s stockings, the matchboxes that are used to gesture with, its too much. It feels like no background story could be worth this.

On one hand, the two main characters are written as if they are in near-poverty.  Neither has employment or works at well, anything other than being miserable. Yet, they seem to have an endless supply of liquor, cigars, coffees, etc.  People in dire straits do not usually lounge around draped in armchairs, sprawled on carpeted floors, leisurely wandering around bedrooms. In other words, the characters ought to be eating snow and licking dirt for meals and yet they are acting like the lords and ladies of manor homes. The characters are utterly self-absorbed creatures.  The best example is how the husband of the deceased character, Elsa, comes and goes and the characters seem to misinterpret his feelings and actions completely. As if the husband inhabits a parallel, but ultimately different world than they do.  Do not get me wrong, the husband, too, has a bunch of hideous and unpleasant personality traits that make him as unlikeable as the lot of them.

Somehow, though, I made it out the other end of this middle third. Immediately, the novel was improved. The storyline picked up again and the action and intensity was reasonable and then the resolution. The last third is intense, relatively exciting, and interesting. As I said, though, I still do not trust the detective. I thought for certain in this last section he was going to show his true face and show that he was being deceptive.  The odd thing about this is that I really do not like the main character.  So the fact that I was worried and concerned about Martin’s case does not make a whole lot of sense to me. It is probably less that I was caring about Martin and more so I could not stand to have Van Der Valk be cruel.

The water of the Amsterdamse Vaart was shaking itself and rattling at the canal banks like a bored child in a playpen. – pg. 189

The setting and place do not play enough of a rôle in this novel as I, the judicial reader, think that they should.  I think more descriptions of cold, ice, gray clouds would have suited this story. However, there is very little discussion of the location and setting whatsoever.  Actually, there is a great deal of words in Dutch, German, French that pepper the whole story. (Allegedly, Martin is fluent in multiple languages, I guess.) But using all of these languages does not help situate the story. I wonder if that is how Amsterdam was (1960s) – a place known by the multi-lingual conversations.

“….but I haven’t the men to go nosing in every corner; we aren’t the FBI with a thousand judo experts and television hidden in a baker’s van.  Not having all of this tripe means we have to use our brains, though.” – 198

I admit this quote from Van Der Valk had me chortle. The dig at USA FBI measures was delivered perfectly. Tongue-in-cheek, amphiboly sort of thing with no emotion or snark. True wit, I guess. Anyway, this is about Van Der Valk’s only good line in the novel. As I said above, readers are not really given anything about him. He remains an outline at best. Maybe the novel could have used more of him. Literally, more of him, rather than just whatever lines he was handing Martin all the time (see, I don’t trust Van Der Valk).

Anyway, this is a slow, slow-burning noir. It looks at unpleasant people and their obsessions and connections in their unhealthy relationship.  Guilt and revenge and stubbornness are examined. That whole immensely tiring middle section of the novel is horrible to have to read through. However, once its read, it fits perfectly and makes the weight of the novel and gives the characters a reality that otherwise would not be there. It is a well developed investigation of what was a gross relationship. Why did this relationship exist? Was the murder, at the end of the day, just a form of entropy? Was it revenge? And, did the relationship end before or after the murder? There is a lot to sort through for those readers who do like pondersome, heavy novels.

The best scene in the novel is a series of about five pages in which Martin is returned to his prison cell after his examination with the state-hired Psychiatrist. Martin, for the only time in the novel, is at wit’s end. The guilt, imagination, worries, fantastical thinking, catastrophic thinking, rationalization, etc show Martin’s breakdown. Alone in his cell he, for once, seems to be engaged in introspection.  One wishes he had been so introspective as he was smoking in the armchair of Elsa’s home the first few times.  But this writing is what Freeling excels at.  Its nearly perfect for this novel and would work in any sort of noir crime fiction.  Its gripping and intense – even if Martin is no one’s hero. I am giving this novel three stars. It could deserve four, to be honest. But the brutality on the reader of that middle historical section is a very muddy slog – I say that knowing that there really was not another method to plot this storyline.

3 stars

East of Desolation

East of DesolationFinally, after eighteen other ratings this year, I am giving a novel a four-star rating! East of Desolation by Jack Higgins aka Henry Patterson (1929 – 2022) is my first four-star novel of the year.  East of Desolation was first published in 1968 and I think is one of the author’s first novels – if not the first – to be released under his pen name “Jack Higgins.”  Incidentally, after reading this novel, I have read a novel with this year with the words Abomination and Desolation in the titles.

East of Desolation is hands-down a four-star read.  It is a very good example of what I look for when I read thriller/adventure pulp fiction.  It is only 244 pages in the paperback that I read through, but it is so much better than the 400+ page thriller/adventure novels.  I really like the spare writing without immense amounts of background for everything.  I liked the unique, seldom-used setting.  The story is set in Greenland and features the usage of small aircraft to travel around.  I liked the way the characters were written, each of them felt lively and significant in their rôle. I liked that they were all daring and interesting and perfectly written for this sort of novel. They all had motives and some were rogues and most had shadowy pasts.

Frankly, this is the key point, it is a thriller novel with the correct tone, pacing, and tension. So, it definitely feels satisfying to pick up a thriller novel and to get to read a thriller novel.  In other words, it was not sneaky agenda fiction, did not fall into some vague romance fiction, turn into a discourse on some obscurity, did not become a boring slog, and kept my interest for the full 244 pages. Further, and get this, the ending was very good. Imagine that – reading a good story from start to finish.

Of course this is not high-brow literature. However, it is quite a few levels up from some of the other novels that I have read this year. Somehow you can tell that the author knows what he is doing with pen and paper and is a little more intelligent than maybe some other authors.  Its nothing I could point to with precision – but its an overall feeling; maybe stemming from word choice or method of description or something. I cannot give you an example, but it felt like a fresh, crisp breath of Greenland air instead of the smoggy mush I have read lately.

The novel dares the film industry to make it into a movie – maybe that is why it has not been so adapted, yet. I cannot imagine why, though. I mean, when I consider what the people I know watch on their screens, the comparison begs for this to be a summer flick. Which actor plays the main character, Joe Martin? Well, Joe is a pilot. He is a very independent fellow, but he has a lot of skeletons in his closet.  He is a team player until he is not and he does not give warning when his loyalties shift.  He is brave and prudent, for the most part, making friends easily.  He has a surly temper on occasion, maybe saying harsh things that a softer person might not have said. The other characters tend to look past these moments as if they can see that he is a better person than he allows himself to be.

The plot is perfect for a thriller story. Excellent for a July summer read. The novel is filled out with liquor, crashed planes, gemstones, gunplay, bar fights, skiing and hunting, and sexy ladies. 1960s thriller fiction at its best. I recommend this for most readers, particularly those who are sick of over-written and overly-gruesome “thrillers” of the last few years.

4 stars

From Doon With Death

From Doon with DeathI finished another book, but its another that I really did not like.  In fact, I may actually dislike this one. I read Ruth Rendell’s From Doon With Death from 1964.  I have heard that Baroness Rendell (1930 – 2015) is considered a strong mystery writer, so of course I started with the first of her famous Inspector Wexford novels.  After having read this one, I have to say that I certainly hope that her other novels are big improvements. I think there are twenty-four novels in the Inspector Wexford series – and Rendell also wrote a bunch of other novels, besides.

In a sense, Rendell is up against some stiff competition. This year I have read novels by Dorothy Sayers, Simon Brett, Rex Stout, Ngaio Marsh, and Georgette Heyer.  I do have plans for a Christie novel, too, sometime this year.  Unfortunately, Rendell might never had a chance with this novel.

I do not want to spoil the mystery, let us say, of the story, but I find this sort of resolution lame.  It reminds me of what Simon Brett said about Mrs. Pargeter – about how Pargeter had “a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.”  Same thing here, in my opinion, it tends to be awkward and stupid. Seems like letting detectives off of the hook or something…. So, needless to say, the resolution was a big let down and felt like a stupid trickery.

Now, among the things that I really disliked about this novel is the main character, Inspector Wexford.  I do not know how or why or when – there are lots of vintage mystery experts who can trace this sort of thing – but having a pompous, obnoxious, jerkface lead detective seems to be so accepted that it is expected in a so-called British mystery.  I would love a novel to be written, a sort of parody, starring Roderick Alleyn and Reginald Wexford.  These two are grating on the reader’s nerves. Absolute jerks. It does not seem, either, that they deserve to be exonerated for such behavior – for example, in this novel Wexford’s co-detective Burden does more work than Wexford. So, imagine a novel in which the arrogant Alleyn has to co-star with the obnoxious Wexford! Let them torture each other like they vexed readers!

“Cigarette, sir?”

“Have you gone raving mad, Burden?  Maybe you’d like to take your tie off.  This is Sussex, not Mexico.” – pg. 52, chapter four

Another element I strongly disliked, and it is pervasive, was the constant highlighting and backbiting and commentary regarding social classes.  I do not have first hand experience of London, say, in 1964.  But I am sure that Baroness Rendell did.  Now, whether she felt all of this class conflict in her novel would separate her from either side of the debate or if she was purposely trying to critique one or the other, I cannot say.  I just know that an undue portion of the novel is spent mentioning who fits into which class and, usually, it comes with sharp, critical comment. Every little aspect of the storyline has some sort of economic/social class status attached to it and running through it.  Even characters who never actually appear in the story and who are living in other continents are appraised. Its another tedious thing in a novel that already has Wexford to deal with.

Well, its obvious I was not too impressed with Wexford, but truthfully, all of the characters are unlikeable. None of them are even endearing or curious.  Several of the characters are caustic and scratchy. So, this could be a method of an author keeping all the characters in front of readers as “likely suspects” – we do not befriend anyone, so readers are ready for any of them to be the criminal, I guess. The method is too unreasonable and it makes for some rough reading; I do not have to adore characters, but making me dislike all of them is a story albatross.

Overall, this is a short novel so it seems fine that it was not very good; more or less a throw-away read. I do not see why it is necessary to start reading Wexford with this one, if one is inclined to read the Wexford series.  I cannot recommend this one to anyone, its not really of any interest, and the writing style itself is nothing special.  Again, compared to the other authors I read this year, Rendell just did not compete.

2 stars

This Immortal

This Immortal ACEOnce again enjoying some vintage science fiction, I finished up This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995). It is the first Zelazny that I have read, I think (unless I’ve come upon some short fiction that I have forgotten about). This is such an odd novel I actually feel bad for anyone reading this review because I feel like my review will be scattered and swirly. Sorry about that in advance.

The first thing to mention is the publishing history of the work.  Originally, This Immortal was …And Call Me Conrad and was published in two parts in issues (October and November) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the first collected, novel-edition of the work was released by ACE in July 1966 under the title This Immortal.  I read the 1981 ACE edition with the Rowena Morrill cover. If you look at the cover of the edition I read, you see in the upper right the words: THE HUGO WINNING NOVEL……

….because this novel won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was presented in Cleveland in September of 1966. Some readers just read that line and felt no significance whatsoever and briefly wondered why I am giving them a boring history lesson. Some other readers thought something like, “Wait, what? 1966… Are you sure?” and the most precise of readers said, “Oh! I know where you are going with this! Hahaha!”

….because, actually, this novel tied for first in the Hugo Award for Best Novel.  The novel that it shared the win with is none other than Dune by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986).

Dune is not an easy read.  It is subversive and complex and at its heart, it is a space opera. It has layers and agendas and ideas. Readers could complain about how slow it reads or how involved it is. Or even its often derivative elements making it seem very borrowed-ish. And then there is This Immortal, which is so obviously different in many ways.  Frankly, I cannot lie, I do not see how Zelazny’s novel competes.  I am not saying that it does not have merit, but sheesh, even if you hate Dune, how is This Immortal a tie with it? Now, one thing I do not want this review to turn into is a comparison-contrast piece pitting the two against one another again.

Zelazny wrote a novel with some deep, heavy ideas in such a breezy and pulpy manner that it, I think, does somewhat of a disservice to itself.  At the same time, I really do not know if Zelazny could have written it differently, say, in order to not be so utterly flippant and almost wispy with the weighty things.  The problem with being breezy and wispy is that I am willing to bet that the majority of readers are unable to pick up on all of the neat connections and “Easter eggs” and such. One of the biggest demands is that the reader be familiar with Greek mythology and culture – and the familiarity is not one from a glossary or a handbook on ancient Greece.  The familiarity has to come from study, schooling, and honestly, years of letting that stuff ferment and simmer in one’s mental slow-cooker. Here’s the first line:

“You are a kallikanzaros,” she announced suddenly.

Of course this was sudden, I doubt there is any other way of stating such a thing to someone. Anyway, the novel is off and running at this point. For a good quarter of the novel, the dialogue keeps a breezy, choppy flow to it. It is the style that one would find in noir crime novels and/or pulp fiction novels.  Another example of this writing would be John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stuff. Snappy and sarcastic and never taking anything seriously. Everything said with a shot glass in hand and tongue-in-cheek, because the state of the world is so bad that we certainly cannot take it seriously.

The main character is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives.  Its after the “Three Days,” which is presumably when the massive bad event occurred (one suspects it involved nuclear destruction).  The Earth’s main continent lands are destroyed and the population, such as it is, lives on islands.  There are Hot Spots (likely radiation-filled zones) and a whole lot of mutated and deranged creatures that roam Earth.  There are aliens, too, the Vegans, and a Sprung-Samser medical treatment, and a Vite-Stats Register.  No details on any of these things whatsoever. Accept them at face value and build them however you, as a science fiction reader, would like.

The main character is recalled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to join a social event and be assigned as a tour guide to a visiting alien. All very farcical and strange.  So, a motley crew of whomever gets assembled to tour around with the alien – the alien wanting to go to various places to research a book or something that he is creating.  The world has gone to rot and those of us left are having theatre productions and drunken social mixers and we are all going to pop out on the skimmers with the Commissioner and the alien to see how ravaged our world is. Also, someone invited the super famous assassin to the social party.

They set off to visit a voodoo ritual – like, a pre-cursor event before they start the actual tour. It is as weird as it sounds.  I have no idea why this scene is in a novel. Bored rich folk visit voodoo shrine before they tour radiated Cairo; probably alien’s fault.

This theme of a mobile social gala continues throughout the entire book – even in the most pulpy and action-scene segments.  Very much the story felt, to me, like those British novels wherein the upper-middle class packs their bags and their Baedekers and travelled to Florence and Athens and the “coast.”  Instead of sedate tourism, though, there are several incidents of savage violence and mayhem in a post-apolocalyptic setting.  Literally, at one point, the alien sets up an easel and is painting a river scene and then everyone gets attacked by a mutant crocodile. Drama and intrigue and pulpy action all in one scene.

The weirdest scenes include one that is along the road to Volos in which a fifty-meter clearing is nearby and things get super bizarre because they see a satyr and the biologist wants to shoot it, but instead the main character (kallikanzaros, remember?) starts playing a shepherd’s pipe and more goat things appear. A strange 1960s interlude of weirdness.

Another dip into the insane is the whole segment wherein the group gets captured and there is a obese albino and Procrustes shows up and fighting and what in the ever-living-heck is this crap about? One wonders if Zelazny just felt like writing while inebriated or if he wrote scenes just to weave some weird ancient Greek mythology into them or if some editor demanded pulp action scenes. Whatever the case may be, these are basically absurdist and once overlayed on the frustrated, apathetic social gathering that is filled with ennui and motives – it just deflates the whole effort.

Constantly the novel is filled with allusions and hints and name-dropping and metaphors that display Zelazny’s interest and knowledge of ancient Greek (and other) mythologies. However, instead of peppering and simmering, he just dumps the whole spicy bottle into the stew and we get heavy-handed writing with no plot and stupid characters. For example, Cassandra – if you can believe it – is here. Why? I honestly do not know. A lot of the book actually involves her in some way, but why? At the end of the thing, I have no idea why this character is even here except maybe to fill the final scene with that happy all-wrapped-up easy peasy action novel ending. (Cassandra with a high-powered rifle is a painting I want on my walls, though.)

Overall, the novel wants you to like it and as a reader I really wanted to, as well. So engaging and breezy, but ultimately ridiculous and stupid. It is really quite like taking the well-worn concept of “humans do not treat their planet well” and then turning it into some Edwardian/ancient Greek farce. What did Zelazny want to do with this? He did not know, either, I think. Its mid-1960s sentiment with some leftover 1940s pulp. Good luck, readers.

2 stars

The Escape Orbit

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

The Escape Orbit by James White (1928 – 1999) was first published in 1964 as Open Prison. The next year the variant The Escape Orbit was released with the fancy Jack Gaughan cover art.  I read the 1983 edition with Wayne Barlowe’s cover art.  This is the fifth book by James White that I have read. Two of the five have been part of White’s Sector General series.  White’s works have run the gamut as far as my ratings.  This novel was nominated in 1965 for a Nebula Award….. and so was Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh is Grass, PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Obviously, White’s work did not win. But it seems that those 1964-1966 years were really something for science fiction and some great things were written/published.

I decided after reading this novel that it is a five star novel.  At the end of the day, ratings are mostly subjective.  Those novels that I think are five stars, others may hotly contest that they even deserve three stars! It is what it is. I think that it being my blog, the rating should reflect my readings/opinions.  I do try to make the case for five star novels being rated so – I do not just say ‘oh, I liked it a lot’ and leave it at that.  And then, perhaps, my tastes or criteria have adjusted in the years since I read a work; not making my rating of a book invalid, but heavily locating it in a definite time/place.  Further, I think it is important to remind readers that a five star rating does not mean that I think the novel is perfect.  I actually do not think there are “perfect” novels.

The Escape Orbit is not a book that I expected was going to be given high marks when I started reading it. I knew it had some good potential and that White is a decent author.  The one element that I think continually convinced me of the five star rating was the unanticipated amount of effort that the author put into this novel.  My copy is 184 pages and I feel like it contains more of the author’s blood, sweat, and tears (so to speak) than many of the 364 page novels published nowadays.  I mean it – several times during my reading I was caught like this, ‘Oh wow, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that’ or ‘yeah, that makes sense, great workaround!’

White knew he was writing a novel in which he might also be accused of helping the characters a bit too much with the problems they faced. White did respond to this:

“It was a simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong…. it would be workable with just the average amount of good luck instead of a multiple chain of miracles.” – pg. 39, chapter five

The book is fiction and while it attempts to be quite realistic, let us say, we all know we are going to allow a lot of leeway for the characters to get what they need in service of the plot.  So, sure, at points White knew readers might think he handed the characters some easy fixes.  However, it was not done utterly unknowingly and there were plenty of struggles so that the characters did not get handed chains of miracles (a phrasing that is tickling me).

There has been a long, long running interstellar war between humans and the “Bugs.”  Both sides are worn thin from the war effort and the war was never total war, so to speak.  White details some of this at the start of chapter two so that the reader can get a grasp of something near a century of warfare between the species.  The keeping of prisoners, on both sides, has become an issue.  There is no need to slaughter prisoners, but at the same time, supporting the number of prisoners in a “humane” fashion is also untenable. So, the Bugs, at least, have found envirnomentally human-friendly planets and they drop humans prisoners (military) off on this planet to fend for themselves. Thus, a prison planet.

We join the story with the survivors of the warship Victorious being dropped off on the planet.  Among them is our main character, Sector Marshal Warren, who turns out to be the highest-ranking prisoner on the planet.  It is somewhat impressive that James White, himself, was not (as far as I know) in the military because from the books of his that I have read, he does display a decent working knowledge of aspects of the military.  That is to say, he writes very convincingly and his characters are reasonably created.

Overall, the story is one of survival, escape, and leadership.  In one sense, this can be a rather dull story – it is completely full of nothing more than problem-solving and maybe that gives it the somewhat slower-feeling pacing.  However, actually considered, there are plenty of character-tensions, action scenes, and plot twists.  Its good writing, believe it or not, and maybe I did not even realize that until late in the novel. It feels slow-moving at times, but there is a lot going on, I think. And its only 184 pages! I am still surprised by how much happened in the book compared to its length.

Warren had wondered briefly how it was possible to both like and dislike what he was doing, and the people who were helping him do it, intensely at one and the same time. – pg 121, chapter fourteen

This book, after all, is all from Warren’s point of view, although it is not exactly fair-play in the sense that Warren plays his cards close, if you will, and never fully reveals all of his decisions to the other characters or to us readers.  However, it does not feel deceitful or contrived because Warren himself lets us all know that he is playing it close and he knows it has to be that way and it may frustrate others.

Right up until the very last page readers are, I would think, torn between whether each character is a good guy or a bad guy.  Because, truly, most novels have good and bad.  This novel is realistic because the characters are dynamic and their motivations and insights are reasonable – and typically human. Right up until the last page, readers may still be wondering about Warren’s motives and morality. Keeping readers off-balance so they are not sure what side they are on is a tough feat.  It resembles some of those other excellent novels of the time period that were nominated for awards. That’s some very strong writing skill.

The amount of strategy and planning and devising in the book is quite impressive. I do not want to simply say it is a study of leadership and strategy, because this makes it seem like the book is something it is not.  This is still a novel, which at times is nearly pastoral and ruminative.  It is not The Art of War or something from Tacitus. Readers wanting a pulpy adventure story of a prison planet will be very disappointed. Similarly, readers wanting hard science fiction in which the characters are just barely names and ranks will also be frustrated.  Instead, White wrote a very human novel about humans in a difficult situation being constantly confronted with problems to solve – including the main one:  the rôle of goals in human activity/psychology.

There are a lot of ethics/pyschology concepts for an intelligent reader to wrangle with here. At the heart of it, this is not fluffy.  If a reader does not come away questioning or wondering as they read through the chapters, they are doing it wrong.

This is not a difficult read, but it is not something to blaze through on the beach.  I am impressed with it and I do recognize it is not a perfect novel (whatever that could be). I am really glad I read it – it was not what I expected and I can say afterwards that it was definitely worth reading.  This is for thoughtful readers and fans of vintage science fiction. If a reader is going to read about the prison planet setting, this one is necessary.

5 stars

The Atlantic Abomination

The Atlantic Abomination

ACE, 1960 cover art: Ed Emshwiller

The temperatures crept up over 100° this week and so that limited some of my activities.  To pass the time during the worst parts of the day, I found myself reading The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner. It was on a stack of books that I had forgotten about. The novel was first published in 1960, but I read the pocket-sized ACE edition from 1969.  It is a slender novel, I think; only 128 pages, but printed in that miniscule font on yellowed paper.  Overall, this is not a perfect novel.  However, the “wow-factor” of the parts that were well done overshadows the not-so-good parts of the novel.

The first chapter is amazingly well written.  Not only that, but the cover artist, Ed Emshwiller, drew the cover based on that first chapter and his vision matches the absolute horror and awesomeness of Brunner’s story.  I do not know all the details of the publishers’ history, but there exists an edition of the novel from 1977 that is by ACE and/or Grosset & Dunlap.  The cover art on that edition is uncredited and, in my opinion, not as amazing as Emshwiller’s original artwork.  I do not usually talk a whole lot about cover art, but the strikingly horrifying nature of Emshwiller’s cover/Brunner’s concept is really worth it to a reader to take a few moments to admire and consider.

Feeling roasted and listless it would take a great chapter to get me really interested in a book. Frankly, if the second chapter and the first chapter had been switched, I likely would have tossed this book aside.  In fact, I would believe that this first chapter was a piece that Brunner just belted out all at once and did not have a storyline for, but had a great idea and got it down and then did not quite know what to do with it.  Publishing being what it was, I suspect he built it into a somewhat more “commonplace” storyline and it became a novel not unlikely to be found in the 1960s.  The first chapter, though, is five stars. Masterfully [pun!] horrific and utterly merciless.

The remainder of the novel has its ups and downs.  Generally, its pacing is a little off and at points it does feel like the writer is not sure where he wants to go with his storyline and is stalling for time. So, current day, oceanography exploration with really high-end technology.  A slightly awkward, but not untoward hint of human drama/romance.  Vague feelings about the Russians and a vague societal competitiveness.  Predictably, the little submariner pod goes very, very deep into the ocean and something goes “wrong.”  Predictably, humans taking major actions based on assumptions or pressed at deadlines causes bad decisions. Mayhem is unleashed.

There are two female characters in the book, both are scientists. One, Eloise, is very marginal.  The second, Mary, is a main character. She is often present in scenes and she is engaged in matters and not superficial, but at the same time, she still remains irrelevant.  I am not the most sensitive to reading characters, but even I noticed that there was this effort to include Mary all the time – but for no real reason at all.

Anyway, the storyline rather runs to the humans-all-band-together deal and readers know that monsters and aliens are apt to underestimate human ingenuity.  So, the storyline grinds along with humans working together to stumble upon solutions, which they, basically, do because they all work together and science never fails. The President of the USA admits to as much in the last page or two of the novel. Go team human! Go science!

The ending is lame. I have to say that I do not know what I expected, but I did want something more spectacular and thrilling than what was delivered. I guess the author was done writing it at that point and enough was enough. I just feel like it is unbalanced compared with how we started this novel – I want the ending that the beginning promised me.

A good read because, as they say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Very good first chapter, as I have said, and general easy reading the rest of the way.  Nothing standout, but nothing utterly atrocious. Definitely something “fun” to consider for those that like catastrophic science fiction or scary alien science fiction.

3 stars

The Deep Blue Good-by

176166I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett.  In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.  

This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be.  It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters.  There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy.  To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel.  Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny.  No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude. 

I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way.  If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho 

However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity.  The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things.  I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee.  Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan.  Travis McGee is not a nice guy.   He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society.  He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people.  There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.

However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction.  This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant.  This writing is not dull or bland.

I began checking the marinas.  All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm.  But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez

Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well.  No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe.  Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader:  you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn.  Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida.  I am a bit impressed.  

McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making.  Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip.  I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels. 

So here is book one in the Travis McGee series.  Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle.  It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.

Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.

3 stars

Now Wait For Last Year

Now Wait for Last YearI challenge you to tell me a better novel to read in order to start the year after the infamous 2020 besides a PKD novel…  I just finished reading Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I read the Mariner Books edition (sometimes I vaguely wish all my PKD novels were by the same publisher). Anyway, I will share upfront that I unashamedly give this novel four stars and I am glad to have read it – I have missed PKD pandemonium in my reading life.

The thing with PKD novels is that they tend to linger in your mind after you finish them. I do not know if it is an unsettled, unresolved feeling or a chewing on certain ideas or scenes or something. I have noticed it several times reading his works; you do not simply just close the book and move on. Or, if you do, you probably are not an honest reader. (Honest with yourself, that is, and certainly not with the books you are reading.) Some readers really do not like PKD books and carry on a frowning distaste for the book they just finished. Others just keep seeing little symbols and signifiers from the book in the world around them. Its really interesting to look at how readers process PKD novels.

vintage-sf-badgeThis is another PKD novel containing all of his usual writing style elements that we know and love. This one was quite a bit more difficult for me to get into. I resisted enjoying this one for the first quarter of the book, I think. The central theme and focus was distasteful and uninteresting and so very miserable that I really did not want to continue reading. But, it is a mark of PKD’s skill that I kept on reading and am giving this thing four stars. Literally, I think this plot runs around in circles for 260 pages. Within that, reality collapses and the drug-induced mania is intense. I mean, any time hallucinatory drugs are a major storyline, I am sure there will be some chaos – but PKD takes this stuff to a whole different level. It is difficult to know if his writing is brilliant or one hundred percent insanity. Readers will probably have their heads swimming – are they sure PKD didn’t slip them a capsule?

About two thirds of the way through, I decided this is the “real-ist” novel of PKDs. Its so very realistic and sobering and grounded. And this thought made me chuckle because I promise, most readers are not going to agree with that. But I do not mean it is most real in a superficial sense. I feel it is most real in a human sense – wherein personal drama and turmoil often overwhelms people – even destroying other aspects of their lives (professional, political, etc.) And the agony PKD was writing about had to have been real – TO HIM, at least. (Whether or not the agonies that he suffered were ones he caused or not is another, separate question.)

I really like Eric (the main character) because he is such an interesting miserable thing. His complete confidence in his career, his questioning of his morals, his agony regarding his marriage – these are all very human characteristics, if not “idealistic” traits. And PKD shows them off with a constant barrage of throwing messy scenarios at Eric. Loyalty, war, professionalism, temptation to do evil, etc. Eric is a character that I think will stick in my head for a long time. He originally read like a bland salaryman and then I started to see him as a sort of PKD-Everyman. His status as hero rose and fell and rose and fell throughout the storyline and PKD is such a cruel Creator for doing these things to this man. See how much sympathy Eric ended up finding in me?

As with all PKD novels, there is a lot going on. His works can be approached from so many points, but this one, perhaps, has the strongest grappling with morality. All of PKD’s books have this morality-wrestling and I do see readers get incensed at his perspectives or feelings and then miss out on this horrific existentialist turmoil that he describes.  The science fiction aspects are here, but not in some goofy space opera manner. They are just woven seamlessly into this whirlwind. I love how this novel is utterly science fiction, but I really felt all the science fiction was natural and reasonable. Yeah, there are bunch of sections that aren’t “pretty” reading. It seems some reviewers only want to read sanitized things as if because they don’t “like” a thing, it should not exist……. PKD’s whole oeuvre is to shatter reality, destroy reader’s comfort zones, and make characters and readers transcend themselves. Also, just like EVERY OTHER PKD novel I have read – the ending chapter sucks. He cannot end a novel for nothin’ …. and that, in itself, speaks a lot about what goes on with PKD’s psychology.

4 stars

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DNDRDSDRMF2010Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1968. It is arguably one of PKD’s most celebrated works.  This is partially due to the fact that it was the fiction work that was the basis for the famous Blade Runner film (1982). This is also the eleventh novel by PKD that I have read and it is probably among my favorites of his works.

The movie uses a lot of concepts from the novel. But is not a strict presentation of the novel’s storyline.  In fact, both movie and film seem very different and yet very similiar.  I like both – and I should add that I also really enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  If I have to point out the largest gap between the movie (or should I say movies?) and the novel, I would say that the novel really drives home the point of ecological collapse. The demise of the animal world is really a major part of the plot of the novel, and the novel does look at the concepts of “living beings” and “pets” relative to the situation of ecological failure. As the movie portrays, the setting is post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk.  So, while the focus of the loss of animals is absent in the film, the film presents the setting very well.

I do not want to compare the two mediums endlessly. However, I wanted to bring up these two points because I thought they were the easiest entry points when discussing this novel. I think the setting is absolutely crucial because a lot of the other concepts in the novel do not work as well without the heavy, post-nuclear war landscape.  The radiation fallout, the fog/dust, makes the questions PKD looks at a little more realistic. I am quite sure that humanity would be asking themselves a lot of introspective questions of a different tone than before such calamity.

Regarding these questions, well, one of things readers need to keep in mind is that PKD is not a philosopher. What is the nature of man? What is humanity? What is a robot/clone/android? It is unfair to compare the novels of Asimov and PKD and conclude that PKD’s novels are not well-thought-out. Asimov possessed a scientific-mind that was cultivated through some excellent academic studies. PKD was a writer in California. This is not to say that PKD was not, at times, brilliant, but the expectation that he would have the ability to attain the rigor for conceptual analysis that Asimov did is unfair. However, many times, the manner in which PKD approaches these so-called philosophical questions is more engaging and delightful than some of Asimov’s efforts.

PKD’s writing in this novel contains a driving insistence that makes all the questions about humanity seem poignant and pressing. PKD’s writing is always messy – he rarely (if ever) gives the reader the background detail and he never ever gets muddied by explanations. PKD is not Gregory Benford or Greg Egan – he is not writing “hard” science fiction and attempting to make plausible high-end mathematical or metaphysical concepts. He is literally forcing the reader into a storyline without any explanations and right into the middle of things, and he immediately will give them a test of their knowledge. Seems quite unfair to the reader – if the reader is expecting to be led along step-by-step with a syllabus.  Add in to this PKD’s fondness of writing stories wherein everything falls apart and breaks down, and you have a story that has urgency and immediacy and can seem very mad to the general unsuspecting reader.

This novel really is built on the idea of being able to (or not able to, as the question presents itself) determine humanity based on a test. Sometimes this test is response-related like a pseudo-psychology exam as with the story’s Voigt-Kampff test (Cp. a stanza of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem), and some are more physiological related like the Boneli Relfex-Arc Test.

In this novel, PKD has a sort of dark science fiction tone coupled with an intense investigation into questioning what makes a human human? Some of the entry points for PKD’s wondering include: the quality of empathy, love of music, care of pets, relationship with animal realm, off-world colonization, reliance on slave-labor, relationship with suffering as presented by religion, consumption of media/broadcasting, manipulation of emotional states by artificial means, and “crime” as committed by and against non-humans. The copy I read is just over 200 pages, so a lot of the effort is placed on the reader, but PKD just keeps the questions coming so the reader does not get lazy.

One of the effects that works so marvelously in this novel is how deadpan Rick Deckard is. I think in both Blade Runner movies, this was portrayed fairly well, too. I find it absolutely chilling and perfectly aligned with the setting and storyline. Chapter eight is a mighty thing, from a literature standpoint – I think PKD wrote this one so perfectly so it can ensnare the reader, draw them in, toy with their ideas, etc. Of course, this only works if the reader is really, truly, invested in the novel, in which case it is edge-of-your-seat. If the reader is distracted or not fully-invested, I think this section will seem abrupt. I like chapter eight because I thought it was thrilling and intense. Also, it is the first real point at which PKD is showing how much he can shake things up and twist around reality for his characters and maybe even for his readers! Super cool PKD.

The props like Sidney’s catalog work really well for PKD – it jogs old memories from my childhood… black and white paper listings of pigeon racing, sales, etc… you could roll them up and crumple them up just like Deckard does – and they were just margin to margin listings of sales and races and other related things. Whenever Deckard encounters an animal in the story, I felt it quite natural to reach in my back pocket and pull out my tattered, rolled up copy of Sidney’s as well.

This review would, indeed, be very remiss if it did not touch on the fun word/concept of kipple. I am surprised it is not as well known by today’s readers. But there you have the eventual end of all the consumerism and manufacturing. Entropy for all things – garbage mountains of endless kipple. The meaningful and sentimental objects humans keep close slowly deteriorating into landfills and mountains of waste. So, what is truly important to a human? Endless fun can be had pondering kipple.

The storyline has some bizarre segments in it, but this is PKD, so that should be expected. The entire Wilbur Mercer thread is messy and crazy. But maybe that’s just because this story is in the future and you are in the past so, of course, you don’t understand what everyone there in the future understands.

4 stars