1960s

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

Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect – James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect by James Gunn is a collection of short stories first published in 1964. I read a copy of the January 1964 edition by Bantam. I’m sad to report that this particular copy has come to its end. It was not in any good condition when I purchased it from an old mill’s basement a decade ago. After my reading it, there just is not much to salvage. I do not know what to make of the cover art, which is allegedly by Paul Lehr. I have read Gunn’s work before and found it generally hit or miss according to my liking. I really enjoyed Station in Space. The Joy Makers, though, left me underwhelmed.

The book contains ten pieces, however, the first and second are related and ought to be read together, even though originally published over ten years apart. For the most part the stories were quick reads. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that I felt was outstanding or excellent. These are good, serviceable reads for afternoons, though. If you can only read one story from these, select the sixth: “Every Day is Christmas.”

  • The Misogynist – (1952) – 2 stars
  • The Last Word – (1964) – 2 stars
  • Little Orphan Android – (1955) – 3 stars
  • The Stilled Patter – (1956) – 2 stars
  • Skin Game – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Every Day Is Christmas – (1957) – 4 stars
  • The Girls Who Were Really Built – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Survival Policy – (1952) – 3 stars
  • Tsylana – (1956) – 3 stars
  • Feeding Time – (1955) – 3 stars

So, the first story, The Misogynist, and the second story, The Last Word, should probably be read together. Even so, they have not aged well and are a little uncomfortable to read. Honestly, it is probably meant to be witty based on perspectives, but in 2019 it does not come across well. Of note, Gunn had The Misogynist published in November’s issue of Galaxy. Over ten years later The Last Word was written – for this collection.

Little Orphan Android is a better showing than the first two stories. Originally published in 1955 in September’s Galaxy, it feels somewhat like a piggybacking on Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).  This story contains one of the themes that is present in this collection: a future society that is trapped in consumerism and uselessness. I liked this story fairly well, I do think it would make a great made-for-TV release movie. Its interesting and I am sure it could be spiced up by an adept screenwriter. Nearly cyberpunk in its tone.

I did not like The Stilled Patter. However, it does fit in with the theme of a maligned future society.

Skin Game is unique-ish, but Gunn doesn’t pull it off. As with all of the stories in this collection, I feel the setup is there, the execution is okay, but the finish just does not have the snap and pizzazz that it should. So, the same theme Gunn has been toying with in other stories is here, too, but taken off-planet. A future society with consumerism/ownership ideals shuffled around a bit. This time, the point of view is from a crook who is stranded on a planet and their ideas regarding ownership are entirely opposite of what he is accustomed to. Again, the setup is interesting and there is potential. But its only maybe a double. No home run.

Every Day Is Christmas is the story I liked best. It is the theme of consumerism and ownership taken to an utter extreme. I like when writers go bold on ideas like this. One of the thoughts I had while reading this one was a sardonic thought: “Geez, supposed to be futuristic, but maybe its just around the corner; 2025 or something….”  This one is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. It has the most complete feel to it and it works the theme better than the rest of the collection.

The Girls Who Were Really Built is not very good. It paints people in Neosho, Kansas in rather a bad light – both the men and women, that is.  Here are some menfolk, representing a future society, that are being undermined very subtly by being provided what they wish for in wives. They were really built – refers to their seemingly awesome wives who enable the men to better themselves and the world around them, but at the price of a key, valuable item:  new live man.  I see what Gunn was doing here, I just did not care much for it in general.

Survival Policy has a potentially strong story, that gets really difficult at the end. It is a sort of pastiche of the Agatha Christie Poirot and Hastings characters. But what an odd setting and storyline for such characters. They are overdone and very obvious. The motives and the actual plot kind of fail, or, let me just say it is not smoothly worked out. There are some very fun/interesting moments in the story though, just too much going on or something. Its sketchy; I like the pastiche, I like the idea, execution not so good.

The final two stories are somewhat similar. They are definitely the most fun reads, particularly if you enjoy a wee bit of wordplay/semantics, mocking psychoanalysts, and puns. In fact, you can see one wordplay right there on the table of contents. Not sure if that is a spoiler or not. Sorry. Its still a decent read. Tsylana has another odd future society in which “everyone has their place” so as to reduce crime, weed out bad dispositions, etc. But like the rest, there is not a solid clincher; Gunn wins on points, he does not win with a stunning KO!  Feeding time is quick and dirty. Relatively fun while it lasts, which is not very long. I will remember it, but only because it is unique, not because it is excellent.

Overall, its worth a look if you really do not know what else to read. It does read quickly, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory in execution.  Gunn fans will want to read it for completeness sake. Vintage science fiction fans will find value here. I wanted this collection to be a lot better.

mean: 2.6

But I think I will drop down to 2 stars

All Flesh is Grass

All Flesh is Grass

“All Flesh is Grass” – Clifford D. Simak; Avon, 1978. Cover art: Jan Esteves

All Flesh is Grass by Clifford D. Simak is the sixth Simak novel that I have read. I think this one is my favorite. First published in 1965, I read the Avon 1978 edition with cover art by Jan Esteves.  The title of the novel comes from the Old Testament book Isaiah.

A voice says, “Call out.”
Then he answered, “What shall I call out?”
All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Isaiah 40 6-8 (NASB)

I like wordplay so this was an interesting title choice by Simak. It does tie into his story quite nicely – the main character’s father was a bit of a botanist/gardener. He ran the town “nursery,” such as it was. It was a particularly remarkable situation in that he was able to develop a specific type of robust purple flowers.

I am really impressed with the way Simak works the first quarter (let’s say) of his novels. He is able to create suspense and wonder and capture the reader entirely. This book is exceedingly good at this. Simak begins the story with a bit of a harrowing moment that combines action with the unknown juxtaposed with the most benign of settings. It is not much of a spoiler to share that one of the key elements to the story is the sudden appearance of a “dome” over the rural town in which the main character lives. Millville awakens one morning to discover that no one can exit or enter through an invisible barrier that surrounds the town.

The first quarter of this novel is just really well written. So, within the first few pages, there is a car crash, a woman screaming about her infants, and a hint of a previous youthful love. Simak very seamlessly develops the plot showing the reader what is currently happening to the main character as-well-as letting the main character tell us about what had happened in the recent past. The main character, Bradshaw Carter, was born and raised in Millville and he has not left except for one year at college.  His parents are deceased and we learn that Bradshaw made a poor showing of trying to run a business in Millville as a realtor/insurance agent. Brad never had the skill with gardening that his father displayed.

One of the things that has been difficult for me when reading Simak novels is that Simak’s pacing feels very slow to me – largely because of the rural mid-Western settings. Some people find the grassroots-hometown-apple pie-rural American settings to be comforting. I find them so very tedious. I am rather cosmopolitan in my fundamentals; I was born and raised in New York. Simak loves Millville and he knows well all of the idiosyncrasies of rural towns.  Here, Simak puts on display his thorough and deep understanding of people…particularly those in small, rural towns. And I am not just referring to small town stereotype things. Simak gives each character a strong and individual existence in his writing. The characters are real-istic. He writes his characters with an uncanny and impressive knowledge and fluidity. Reading this book, perhaps more than the previous ones I have read, I wondered if Simak did not actually know these “characters” in the real Millville, Wisconsin.

I appreciate that Simak does not romanticize this Millville. Just because it is a rural town does not make its inhabitants heroic or friendly or even just nice. A lot of times the stereotype is that people who come from small towns where everybody knows each other very well are especially kind or just or upright folk. In my experience, I have found the opposite to be more likely.

However, like the other Simak novels that I have read, I feel the story builds and builds and then just peters out. The middle of his novels sort of stall and sputter and then the ending just happens…. In this one, the resolution/ending is particularly unsatisfying. I mean, for all the good work of the previous pages – really skilled and adept writing – Simak just tanks the ending.

This is one of the most difficult things to come to terms with when reading Simak. He seems to have fantastic ideas, great writing skills, and mature wordsmithing. Though I struggle with Simak’s rural settings, he still manages to pull me in and make me care about his characters.  However, somewhere around the middle of his novels, he just loses his storyline. It is not necessarily bad, but it really does not match all of the wonderful build-up and development. For the first quarter of the novel, there is panic, fear, tension, suspense! By the second half, things have slowed down and a lot of information is provided. The last chunk of the novel just peters out – sometimes even gets a little psychedelic. The last chapter in this novel is really quite awful because the resolution is just so crappy. I am sure Simak knew this. I also feel like he did not know what to do with the plot and so he just grabbed the first solution, wrote it in the story, and then dropped the typewriter.

I had a similar feeling when I read Cosmic Engineers. Simak writes an adventurous story with some huge ideas in it. Unfortunately, it gets convoluted, absurd, and out of hand. I really enjoyed how Simak was writing a big (really huge) idea, as opposed to a re-tread puny storyline. In They Walked Like Men, I really felt the eerie panic in the first quarter of the novel. It was great writing, but then the story turned into an action story and really ridiculous elements got introduced.

All Flesh is Grass has an excellent beginning. Simak does have several big (and I do mean very large) concepts/ideas running behind the storyline. However, once again he just does not seem to fully complete them before the end of the story. This novel has an ending just as bad as PKD’s typically jarring endings. Nevertheless, readers would be remiss to not read Simak. Top-notch wordsmithing, unique ideas, and mature writing otherwise.

4 stars

Echo Round His Bones

Echo round his bonesEcho Round His Bones by Thomas Disch is the second novel I have read by this author. Previously, I read Camp Concentration.  Disch is definitely one of the most intelligent writers I have read in awhile. I suspect that no matter what genre/style of book he wrote, he would be unable to hide his intelligence. Echo Round His Bones was published in book format in 1967. I read the Berkley Medallion edition.  This is a difficult novel for me to rate because it has some really excellent features and some messy elements.

The main character in this novel is a Captain in the US Army, Nathan Hansard. Throughout, we are told Hansard is nearly ideal military officer material. He is very stern, disciplined, and has an unwavering moral code.  We are frequently told that there could not be a more sane or more steadfast individual.  However, we are also shown that Hansard suffers from nightmares, from guilt and regret, and is divorced.  He misses his son, Nathan jr., and his woes seem to stem from situations in the Vietnam War.

Many readers have pointed out the very anti-Vietnam War tone to this novel. I agree that this tone is present, however I would struggle to consider this characteristic one of the novel’s major features.  In fact, if anything, I would say it is simply an anti-mass destruction novel (Cp. the bombs released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The novel also contains many subtle negative comments regarding Nazi Germany and even the Cold War (i.e. USA vs. CCCP).  I am stressing/clarifying this broadened scope because I think that it is very commonplace for readers to expect a 1960s novel to be anti-Vietnam War and then pigeon hole the novel as if that is just another “one of those” lightly-veiled critical works. Disch, as I mentioned above, was quite intelligent; too intelligent to be caught in such narrowness.

Chapter one is a subtle and delicate lead-in to the novel; it sets the mood and introduces characters as-well-as gives characters motives. Chapter two and three are when the story really begins – Captain Hansard and his men perform a “jump.”  This is Hansard’s first – but other men in his company have made jumps before. A “jump” is a trip through a matter transmitter.  In this case, Hansard and crew jump to Mars Command Post.

The mission is to deliver, by carrying a briefcase containing an envelope, orders to the commanding officer, General Pittmann, of Mars Command Post:

The letter directed that the total nuclear arsenal of Camp Jackson/Mars be released on the enemy, who did not need to be named, on the first day of June 1990, according to existing Operational Plan B. It was signed by President Lee Madigan and sealed with the Great Seal. — pg. 26

Well, that also gives us a date for the setting. The novel basically lasts the last half of April to the end of May in 1990.  Honestly, without this clue, I would not have been able to guess the setting, though I may have guessed the 1980s – simply because I feel  that Pittmann would be too old to be on Mars in 1990.

So, it would be enough of a novel to focus on the impending nuclear event.  However, that takes a side-seat for awhile because we learn the disturbing fact that every jump creates an echo (hence the title). This is the difficult part. I love the boldness with which Disch writes this. However, the science (or whatever we would like to call it) is really challenging. By this I mean that when all of this is explained to the reader – and yes, Disch does make a heavy attempt to “explain” how this all occurs, it is not easy to follow. But what is this criticism, anyway? I mean, I feel like I am complaining about an explanation that is difficult to understand that purports to be an explanation of unreal, fictional scientific events. Be that as it may, I absolutely could not keep all of the explanation sorted out, whether that is my fault or Disch’s, and I just pared it down as I read to: “it multiplies existences, in a fashion.”

Naturally there is a massive headache-inducing mess here of metaphysics vs. physics. The reader has a few options, assuming they, too, cannot make sense of Disch’s character’s explanations of the science. They can find all of this ridiculous and frustrating and chuck the novel or they can close all the Aristotle books and read this novel as it is, for what its worth. Remember, though, that I said Disch is intelligent.  Disch knows better than to pretend like all his readers are materialist atheists and he directly confronts the question of the “doubling” of characters who have jumped. That is to say, when a character makes a jump, another pseudo-clone of that character is split off from the original. We cannot say “created” – its not just semantics. In fact, it is best called an echo. Now, there are characters who have made multiple jumps. These characters, then have also had multiple echoes split off from their original, real selves. How many souls? Are the echoes soulless? Is the one soul divided amongst them? Welcome back, Avicenna and Averroes.

This stuff is really convoluted and messy. Its rough reading at points if you really want an ontological ratio of these matters [pun!].  Probably, authors should avoid trying to explain this stuff at all costs. But yet…. that Disch put forth the effort and wrangled with it is, in its own way, endearing. I glanced at reviews on a site and one person mentioned how this was related to Star Trek and their transporter usage. I was totally thinking the same thing when I was reading along and was so glad that another reader had noticed this. So, all those hundreds of times when the transporter is fired up – did they create echoes? OH NO! See – it is easy to forget all of the miseries of the ontology if one can just enjoy being entertained. I admit, I have been amusing myself imagining the multitudes of echoes just from Star Trek!

Matter transmission has been invented by this scientist named Doctor Bernard Panofsky.  Bernard Panofsky is in a wheelchair and has a strong liking for opera/theatre. I often thought that this character was going to turn out to be a bad guy, that he was going to betray the reader and Hansard in some way. (Please refrain from psychoanalyzing me on this; I’m aware of the hints here, too.) Anyway, Panofsky did not betray any of us! Indeed, at the end he even brought a wry smile to my face.  Panofsky ends up being a really neat character and I feel like he should have a spin-off series of his own.

In chapter five, I think Disch makes an error. It has to do with Hansard’s writing out a check and putting it in the hotel’s lockbox. I think this betrays all of Disch’s pseudo-science: sublimation of matter, etc. Otherwise, I have to say that even if matter transmission (like time travel) can be messy and entangling to writers – I am still appreciative when authors grapple with it. I really enjoyed Harrison’s One Step From Earth, which also has matter transmission as its foundational concept.

Finally, Disch and Catholicism. I think a lot (if not most) readers will make one-dimensional judgments on this problematic and, similar to pigeon-holing the novel as anti-Vietnam War, will just superficially decide Disch is anti-Roman Catholic. He would most desperately want you to think that he is. In fact, this tone seems to get stronger as he ages. The vehemence and directness with which Disch wrestles with the RCC is actually encouraging. It contains the frustration and the burden of a very intelligent, very-much-so Catholic. He has overtly put himself in tension with the Church (his lifestyle), but I’m unconvinced. But I really do not care to delve more into this topic – particularly in this blog on this internet in today’s world.

Overall, this is a very interesting novel. It has some challenges for the astute reader, but the concepts and the storyline are worthwhile. Disch’s overwhelming intelligence shows through in his writing and more than makes up for any holes in the plot or errors in the story. His characters are developed without seeming melodramatic. Vintage science fiction readers will enjoy this. Readers with big imaginations will be worrying about the echoes along with me.

4 stars

The Wind From Nowhere

The Wind from NowhereThe Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) was first published as a novel in 1962. However, it was published originally in two parts as “Storm-Wind” in 1961 in New Worlds Science Fiction issue #110 edited by John Carnell.  This is the second novel by Ballard that I have read; I read High-Rise in 2016.

I read the 1966 Berkley Medallion edition with Richard Powers cover art.

This novel is both good and bad, but unfortunately, overall it cannot be rated highly. Ballard disliked, disowned, and denigrated this novel as nothing more than a quickly written piece to make some cash to support his new family. It is Ballard’s first novel and it is probably true (I haven’t read enough Ballard to assess properly) that he improved. I do not imagine most authors want their first published novel to be some choppy entertainment written speedily for whatever money they could sell it for.

Yet Ballard does deserve five stars for the awesomeness of a steadily increasing, totally destructive, all-planet windstorm. He even has this windstorm destroy whole cities and countries and does not shy away from the mega-destruction. When reading about the wind, reading the descriptions and about its effects, it is really terrifying and awesome.

Some of the best parts of this windstorm are that it is unexplained. In the beginning, some characters just assume its localized. Some think it is just a particularly awful storm. And then as infrastructure starts breaking down and the wind speeds increase, its too late to get answers to the why and how, instead the characters (humanity, generally) is busy trying to survive. The lack of knowledge makes the windstorm even more terrifying. We follow the events as the wind is around 55 mph and, toward the end of the novel, somewhere around 500 mph. Unbelievable, but yet so enthralling as a science fiction disaster novel.

However, as a novel, leaving so much unexplained also feels unsatisfying and unfinished. The worst part of the this whole novel is that it seems like Ballard did not know who the main character was or what their story was going to be. Throughout, he just flips around between characters who all seem to be thrown in the plot randomly. Instead of following a character’s path, it gets extremely discordant and random. Following the characters is easily the most miserable part of the novel.

Also, the characters randomly go and attempt to do some stupid, useless thing all together in their heavy armored vehicles. This usually does not work and everyone ends up scattered in other temporary bunkers. In other words: the storyline does not progress, everything is mangled again, and the characters are flip-flopped.

When the novel begins, Donald Maitland is leaving his wife. She is a rich playgirl type who has a new boy on her arm every week. She likes parties and the lifestyle. The husband has quit his job to head for a university in Montreal. Oddly, Maitland becomes the action-hero star of the novel (if there is one), though in the early going he hardly seems capable of what he is written into. He seems like a jilted husband who is wrapped up in his own drama. He is, at best, a bookish academic, it seems.

One of the oddest characters is the character Steve Lanyon. Commander Lanyon is a submarine commander in the US Navy. Perhaps the oddest segment of the novel is how he is sent to Italy to run the countryside on a bizarre mission to acquire the corpse of an American dignitary. Naturally, this fails and just turns into an action scene adventure. But how very odd to have a submarine commander anywhere but water.

And then there is RH. The initials of a millionaire character with the surname Hardoon. Hardoon is eccentric (he has henchmen and a pyramid) and bizarre and on the level of the very “best” Bond villains. He gets written into the plot sideways and has connections with characters, so that he seems somewhat like a secret hand moving in the shadows. When we get the displeasure of meeting him, he is ego-centric and ridiculous and any of the build up regarding what he is about dissipates into nothing. The worst part is that there is no real reason for this character and all his associations to have been written into this novel at all.

Anyway, the characters are awful. However, the actual disaster is exciting and terrifying. So, while this is not a good novel, it is also unique and awesome in its own manner. I cannot really recommend it to readers who love a good, completed story. But for fans of Ballard and/or disaster fiction, this one is worthwhile. Probably those who enjoyed Level 7 by Roshwald or October the First is Too Late by Hoyle would get something out of this one. I wish Ballard had not been so angry with it – it really deserved to be re-written and republished. For fans of disaster and over-the-top scenarios.

2 stars

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Sailor Fell Grace MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (a pen-name) was first published in 1963, but published in English in 1965. The translation of the title has been the cause of much debate.  Allegedly, the Japanese title is something like “Tugging in the Afternoon” or “Afternoon Shiptowing,” referring to a tugboat, perhaps. The translator confesses in a memoir that he consulted his publisher and also with Mishima. Mishima suggested the English title be a lengthy mess. His personality would indeed have preferred such an elaborate title, but it does not mean it was the accurate choice. I have said this previously, I really think Mishima’s works need new translations. It is not that I can bring any scholarly criticism to the current ones, but I am sure I would love to see what another translator could provide. Anyway, this is the fifth piece by Mishima that I have read. I confess that I did not and still do not have much interest in reading the other works by him. I probably will, but it will not be anything I look forward to.

What to say about the tagline at the top of the book cover? “A novel of the homicidal hysteria that lies latent in the Japanese character….”  Wow. This reflects that Western fear-hate of things Far East in such a hideous way. Can you imagine seeing that in 2019? Well, and the terrible part of it is that I think Mishima would have delighted in the ugliness of the tagline.

Mishima is trying to shock readers again. His issues with his father are present, his issues with women are present, his issues with society are present….. Mishima had lots of troubles and they are all on display in this novel.  If you read any synopsis or review of this novel, it seems that it is all “figured out.” By this I mean, readers have decided on all the themes, symbolism, and meanings in the novel.  I am not saying they are right or wrong – but I dislike when a novel is dissected in the same cavalier and disinterested way that the characters in this novel dissect a kitten.  It feels like it is a dissection done just to prove the already expected outcome as opposed to an open-minded, possibility-filled discovering.

The thirteen-year old, Noboru, lives with his widowed mother. He is intelligent and most of the time disgusted with life around him. This draws him nearer to the group of kids who have all developed the same revulsion for the inauthentic and deluded practices that they see around them.  Obviously, some of this is Mishima’s disgust toward the Westernization of Japan post-WW2. However, this is not, as I see it, the only source for this.  Mishima fancies himself a philosophical writer – digging at the “really real.”  Much of his life was spent among fiction, actors, film, theatre, etc. At the end of the day, Mishima is not a philosopher or a scientist – he is a writer. As such, demonstrated in all of his writings, he is also the most unreliable narrator/storyteller I have ever read.

Mishima blathers and struts around and makes outrageous statements until suddenly some of the most beautiful and insightful paragraphs appear.

He never cried, not even in his dreams, for hard-heartedness was a point of pride.  A large iron anchor withstanding the corrosion of the sea and scornful of the barnacles and oysters that harass the hulls of ships, sinking polished and indifferent through heaps of broken glass, toothless combs, bottle caps, and prophylactics into the mud at harbor bottom – that was how he liked to imagine his heart. Someday he would have an anchor tattooed on his chest. – pg 13

Mishima is soon back to proving how tough he is, how “woke” he is, how frivolous and un-Nietszche everyone else is. Whenever I read Mishima I have only one comment:  ‘you are the most inauthentic of them all, aren’t you?’ He pushes the limits with raw and ugly scenes. He makes everything awkward and chafed.

So, it’s easy to see him as an approval-seeking, self-deluded punk who loved to make the image of himself seem so very really real. His writing sometimes has the opposite effect of what it seems he expected it to have. Until every once in awhile, something so heartfelt, intense, and beautiful shows up that the reader cannot help but think Mishima must be anything but a troubled punk.

Noboru is a difficult character to even read about because he is at once so insightful and yet so self-centered. He is very merciless and while he deludes himself into thinking that he is genuine, he is often found speaking/acting contrary to his true state because he wants to manipulate others. So, he is as condescending and inauthentic as the people he is so infuriated with. However, every time he thinks or speaks of the sea a wondrous change comes over him and it is almost the joy and expansiveness that one wishes he would have built his personality upon. Is that a trait of Noboru? I think, rather, it is a power of the sea itself.

The Chief (the leader of the pack of youngsters) is nearly the same character as Kashiwagi who features in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He comes from a wealthy family, is notably intelligent, and he speaks with sneering and smirking. He likes to seem mysterious or noir and is often derisive to his fellow mates.  Indeed, while other readers may be fascinated by the characters Ryuji or Noboru, its really The Chief that is most telling about Mishima qua Mishima.  Maybe a biographer would enjoy ferreting out possible suspects and presenting likely candidates for someone in the author’s life who is represented by this character.

He hadn’t been able to explain his ideas of glory and death, or the longing and the melancholy pent up in his chest, or the other dark passions choking in the ocean’s swell. Whenever he tried to talk about these things, he failed.  -pg 34

This novel, not for the faint or even most readers, to be honest, contains both ‘styles’ of writing that make up a Mishima novel. The profane and repugnant as well as the beautiful and the substantial. Uniquely Mishima.

2 stars

Brother Assassin

Brother AssassinBrother Assassin by Fred Saberhagen (1930 – 2007) is the second book in his Berserker series, which began with the 1967 collection Berserker.  This book is a sort of “fix-up” novel of three shorter works that were published in issues of the magazine If in 1967.  I gave the first book in the series four stars and I think I will be doing the same thing with this one. I own two copies of Brother Assassin; the 1969 Ballantine Books edition with Richard Powers cover art is very nice, but I read my other copy:  the 1978 ACE edition with art by Michael Whelan. Truthfully, this first ACE edition has a bunch of typos in it, but the font was easier for me to look at than in the Ballantine.

As one reads this book, it is very easy to notice that it is not from contemporary writers. The book feels vintage. It also feels a bit campy and pulpy, which it is, of course. Nevertheless, I do not think readers should be speedily dismissive of it just because it does not have the same feel to it as more recently published science fiction.  Brother Assassin is written somewhat simply – this is not the prose we would expect from China Mieville.  The characters are not pounded out in exasperating, excruciating detail. In fact, many may seem superficial or obvious. Yes, and, of course, the female character of the book is emotional and a bit immature (dare I say witless?)

Brother Assassin firstThis novel is broken into three sections. Each section is one of the shorter works previously published in If.  The whole novel describes the Berserker attack (infiltration of the past) on the already war-weary planet Sirgol. Each section of the novel focuses on  a particular insertion of Berserker forces into the timeline. How about that as a strategy – if you cannot defeat your enemy in the current time, defeat him by going to the past and destroying crucial elements of the historical timeline.  Certainly, this is not perfect science – it is not meant to be. It is written well enough, though, that the reader can pretend that it is possible and really invest in the well-being of the characters.

Continuity among all this timeline movement is held by the main character, Derron, who twice is sent back in time to deal with the Berserker “assassins.” Derron Odegard is an unhappy, but dutiful time operative. One would have to return to the original stories and then see what (if any?) differences were made or interludes added regarding Derron – but I think in its final form, this fix-up can be read as a redemptive storyline.

It’s not really ideal to think of this as a strict time-travel novel. It’s almost more ontological than it has any right to be. And there’s a delicious amount of heartstring-plucking ethics thrown in each section to make the novel more than just an action sequence.

The last section of the book is going to have different levels of depth and meaning for various readers.  Those of us GenX and back who were raised in the Church are probably going to have a different feel here than those Z-Gen types who have never been inside a church. So, reader perspective will change the feel. Nevertheless, the story is still interesting…. a re-imagining of the business with Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. Saberhagen does an interesting job here of making all the participants in the debate seem real. St. Francis of Assisi is the other character that is juxtaposed between the heliocentric drama and the struggles of Derron and his timeline. Let me admit, while many parents read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, I was read the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  Like I mentioned: a reader’s background will change the level to which this story resonates with him.

Overall this is not high-tech hard science fiction. The work is flawed here and there.  I just plain and simple liked Saberhagen’s work with the main character Derron. I liked his work with the character Matt. I liked his styling of a Renaissance drama in the last section. So, based on feel – as opposed to anything else – I give this four stars. Its not great literature, but it was a good thing for me to read.

4 stars

The Penultimate Truth

Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1964.  I have not read a PKD novel since August 2016 and I really feel bad about that. This novel made me feel better about my reading; PKD is a heckuva writer. The only really bad thing about this novel was that my copy is the 1998 Harper/Voyager edition. The cover is awful; allegedly by artist Chris Moore. The female on the cover looks android-ish; strange skull shape and her neck seems too long. But the issue is that there are no female main characters, only very minor ones, so why is there a weird girl on the cover?

Anyway, the main characteristic of this novel is that it is the most like the “typical” and “usual” style of novels that one reads.  I mean, structurally and style-wise. It is somehow the most normal of the PKD novels. There is a linear storyline and the plot, though futuristic, is not bizarre. The ending is actually one of PKD’s better ones! Sometimes I cannot recommend a PKD novel to a fellow reader because his novels do not appeal to all readers, even if I think they are interesting or exceptional. This novel, a dystopian imagining, should appeal widely. Still, it feels PKD was really holding the reins tightly on this one.

Not to say that there are not key PKD elements to this novel.  This entire novel is about one’s possible worst fears regarding governmental control. So, it belongs in that category of 1984, We, and other works that highlight extreme totalitarian governments. In this story, however, the “government” (and I use that term quite loosely) is a gigantic facade that the masses wholeheartedly believe is working for their best interests. Perhaps it was originally, because this novel depicts a future that takes place during/after World War III.

The War is between West-Dem and Pac-Peop.  Human soldiers are not involved in the actual combat. Instead, leadies, which are intensely powerful robots that can survive nearly anything, fight the battles.  The entire planet is enveloped in warfare. Extreme hazardous conditions result from the war and humans are forced into “ant tanks” in order to be protected.  These ant tanks are deep underground. The inhabitants spend their lives on rations and they are employed in repairing leadies and sending the parts back into the war effort.  Above ground remain the few necessary figures – the government and other such ranking groups.

But the war ends and nobody tells the majority of human population that is underground.  Instead, the simulacrum of a world still at war is fed to the masses.  Thoroughly misinformed about the state of their country, the war, the planet, the people in the tanks are held as prisoners not by force, really, but by fear and lies.

Now, this sounds fairly interesting, but probably not too unique. There are plenty of novels that have similar totalitarian dystopian visions. However, what is great about this novel is that PKD does not let us have one truth, two truths, three truths. And, really, at the end of the novel we may only have reached the “penultimate truth.”  What is truth?

For decades truth has been manufactured – and it is always manufactured – by the group in power. So, layers and layers of lies/truths are the reality and are there no good men left to save us all?  No matter how the storyline plays out, there is a deep feeling that in this novel PKD truly loses his faith in humanity.  I have now read twelve PKD novels. Some are more frivolous, some are more bitter. Some are soul-searching. But this one, I am starting to believe, is the turning point. From early PKD with some hope to latter PKD, who is without hope for humanity.

None of the characters in this novel are good. They are not wholly altruistic, moral, self-sacrificing men.  In fact, in several places, they are despicable and conniving and utterly self-serving. They display cowardice, greed, violence, and deceit.  PKD even manages to squeeze in a little moralizing here:  in a cruel, totalitarian simulacra, does traditional morality get displaced? Are some actions, normally taboo and immoral, now considered necessary?

This is a very good novel. It is creepy and frightening in many ways. The characters are a little difficult to follow every so often, but its easy reading and not slow and sluggish.  It is also accessible to most readers, I would think. However, most of us spoiled-rotten readers do not turn to PKD for worlds that “make sense” are “typical” and stories which have a “beginning, middle, end.”  We read PKD when we want to be put in a super-fast rocket as everything is  turned upside-down and inside-out. The bizarre and wacky that PKD usually paints his dystopian stories in is missing. And I missed it.

4 stars

 

Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars