1960s

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

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