1960s

The Whole Man

The Whole Man - John Brunner

The Whole Man – John Brunner

The Whole Man by John Brunner was published in 1964.  In the UK, it was published as Telepathist.  I read the Ballantine 1973 edition with the cover by artist Charles Moll.  I really dislike the cover. I recognize it may be decent artwork, but I really dislike it – it is so…. 1970s. This is kind of how I feel about this novel. Not much in this novel was exciting or very interesting for me. However, it is still a rather impressive novel. So here is The Whole Man – a good novel to read, but not one that will thrill. At the end of the day, it is an contemplative read, not an entertaining read.

The novel takes place in an alternate Earth reality in which telepaths exist and are generally employed in socio-political functions. The whole sphere of interest of this novel is sociology and psychology.  If a reader does not care for these subject areas, then they will find this work a slog.  The main character is Gerry Howson, who is one of the most powerful telepaths (perhaps the most powerful) to live.  He is also a very deformed cripple.  (Except that it is now 2016 and I think I’m supposed to type: “handicapable.”  Howson calls himself a cripple, so we are gonna go with that term for the duration of this entry.)  The novel begins with Howson’s mother in a clinic-style hospital with the background setting of a tumultuous social upheaval.

I did not really speed through the opening chunk of the novel. It was, well, boring. And I feel there was unnecessary or undue focus on Howson’s mother.  It is this opening section that makes me really feel like Brunner was going somewhere entirely different with the novel – something more political, probably. The social turmoil – rioting? terrorism? It is not entirely specified and it is quite vague. And meanwhile the storyline loses traction. I struggled to get started in this book (while pausing a lot to glance at the nearby bookshelves).

The novel does not develop quickly. After the opening chunk, the next section shows us Howson as a young man struggling to survive in a world that is not open to cripples or telepaths. And then there is a whole segment where Howson is wandering sidewalks and having a lot of heavy introspection. I have to be honest, this part was rough for me. It was just so heavy and I am really disinterested in any navel-gazing/sidewalk-wandering in any plot.

However, there are vivid and gripping sections of the storyline; usually parts wherein Howson is actually doing the “real work” of being a professional telepathist. Brunner did not write a child’s conception of telepathy.  This is not some goofy superpower from the comic books.  This is a “scientifically” considered physical scenario in the character’s brains that results in this immaterial power. Howson is a professional telepathist, which has earned him the title of Doctor.  This means that he does this sort of work as a career and there is nothing silly about it whatsoever. I appreciate the solemn and serious attitude in how Brunner approaches this mental power.  Still, the seriousness also gives the novel a very heavy feeling.

Also, because this story is very connected to psychological scenarios Brunner sometimes seems to come across as if he breezed through an introduction to Freudian psychology and just incorporated some stereotypical ideas as he develops Howson’s character.  It is not that these parts are overdone, it just seems like unless a writer is really willing to jump in and is capable of swimming, just splashing around with Freud 101 does not suit.

In the latter half of the book there are a couple of events that occur that are very well written and had me rather fascinated with the story.  Those who have read the novel probably can guess I am discussing Hao Sen/ Tiger City stuff, which is where Brunner takes us into the “subconscious/dream world” of telepathists. Another event is the Rudi Allef event. The Rudi Allef character is the big key to Gerry Howson’s character, so the fact that we only meet Allef at the tail end of the storyline seems to confirm some of my sentiments from the start of the novel:  Brunner was not entirely certain where he was driving this storyline. Now, as I understand it, this is a “fix-up” novel in which Brunner combined a couple of previously written novellas.  I am not sure we “fixed it up” in a good way. Or maybe the third section alone should have been expanded?

The situation (I do not want to put out any spoilers!) with Rudi is quite interesting and intelligent. I appreciate a lot of what Brunner developed conceptually in this section. It made me consider a whole host of things including:  autism, synesthesia, and aesthetics.  However, suddenly using these concepts this late in the novel kind of makes it seem as if Brunner threw it together too late and just because. It shows that it is a “fix up.”

I think I was more interested in the societal impact of having telepathists and so forth over the personal development thread that focuses on Howson and his challenges. Big picture over human interest……

Overall, the storyline has a lot of peaks and valleys.  The concepts are intelligent and interesting, but there is a weight to the novel that slows the read down and makes it a little more like reading a case study than entertainment fiction.  I am glad I read this novel, but I sure cannot think of a person I would recommend this to. Its a good book, but it is not easy to like.  I would give it 3.83 stars if I could – 4 seems a gift.

4 stars

Hospital Station

Hospital Station - James White; Del Rey; 1979

Hospital Station – James White; Del Rey; 1979

I just managed to squeeze in one more read for January. Remember, January is Vintage Science Fiction Month as proclaimed by Little Red Reviewer! My final review for January, then, is Hospital Station by James White (1928 – 1999).  It is a “collected/fix-up” book featuring five stories that describe some early incidents at Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital.   Originally, this was published in 1962, but it collects stories that were published in New Worlds between 1957 and 1960.  Hospital Station is also the first book in White’s Sector General series, which has twelve books in total (the last released in 1999).

The stories in this collection are very obviously “collected” stories and do not follow a specific timeline. In fact, as one reads the stories, there is a lot of obvious shifting with the elements of the stories.  By this I mean that White seems to have really enjoyed creating the “landscape” for these stories and he definitely worked hard on the extra-terrestrial/alien lifeforms, however, he does not really seem to know exactly where to write from or who to write about.  I did not rate the individual “stories” separately.

Please do look at the cover, which has a scene presumably from one of the stories contained within (Trouble With Emily).  The cover art here was done by H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010).  Dongen is a pretty interesting character who died not too long ago. Anyway, this is never going to be one of my favorite science fiction covers, but there are not that many, I would think, with levitating/flying brontosaurus…… thunder lizard!

The five stories contained in Hospital Station and their original publication dates:

  • Medic (variant of O’Mara’s Orphan) – 1960
  • Sector General – 1957
  • Trouble With Emily – 1958
  • Visitor at Large – 1959
  • Out-Patient – 1960

The first two stories in the book did not win me over. The first, Medic, begins in media res, is choppy and caustic. Until I got a sense of how White was writing these stories, this one seemed kind of messy. Frankly, I would not be too surprised if this was one of those stories that one hears about – vintage stories with ugly publications because of cheap payment, mean publishers/editors, and a necessity to put food on the table and fill pages in a pulp magazine. The main character is O’Mara who seems all over the place. But we learn he is a really well-built muscular fellow who also is nearly brilliant. So, immediately, he is off-putting because in current novels, readers expect flawed and damaged loser-types characters.

vintage-sf-badge

My third review for 2016

Maybe the most annoying facet of this story is that White does not seem to know what he wants O’Mara to be or to do. That sort of uncertainly just makes the choppy story even more so.  However, straightaway the best part of the story is the alien.  Somehow White created some fairly awesome alien beings throughout these stories and maybe it was easier for me to continue reading because this alien was so unexpectedly interesting.

The second story, Sector General, threw me a bit because the main character is not O’Mara, but Dr. Conway.  And while I found O’Mara a little over-the-top, Conway is downright aggravating.  He’s a newer member of the medical team at this superb medical station.  This is where White’s uncertainly enters again:  we are led to believe that this Hospital Station is supposed to be state-of-the-art, brand new, high-tech and so if one is assigned here, or hired on here, this is proof of that person’s elite status within the medical community.  But in so many ways, as I read this story, Conway seems tentative, perplexed, and naive. It almost seems like he got hired on at the station totally oblivious to what he would be dealing with.

Oh, well, and the notable thing with Conway is that he is a big pacifist. Totally anti-war, anti-killing, anti-military. In fact, throughout the story he displays an immature and silly attitude toward the “Monitors” (military) at the station.  All of this is fine, well, and good, but why IS the military at the station?  Not to make it seem like I am siding with Conway (in this story) with all his confusion and puzzlement regarding the military, but it seems like White just has the Monitors crewing the station to provide a contrast to pacifist Conway.  Also, I suppose it (military presence, and therefore activity) provides “patients” for the hospital.  Forward to 1993 – 1998, and this turns into (I bet….) Babylon 5 on Warner Bros. TV.

I enjoyed the third, fourth, and fifth stories a whole lot more than the first two.  The point of view settles on Dr. Conway.  We learn a lot more about the station and the stories are a lot less choppy and whiny.  In these, White’s work with creating alien beings and posing medical challenges is brought to the forefront, which, honestly, is probably the main reason why readers would seek out these stories.  Hospital in space – admit it, there’s potential for interesting fun there!  Hospital dramas on TV have always flourished. I think the soap opera General Hospital first aired in 1963:  only one year after this collection is released.

There is not an extreme amount of medical science, however.  That may or may not be a dealbreaker for many readers. For me, it was fine. Other readers may complain that the lack of detailed medical knowledge makes the stories lighter or sketchier than they could be.  There is something to that sort of complaint, but I think White makes up for it by focusing on the necessity for diagnostics.  The team of diagnosticians at Sector General play a major, vital role at the station and when these characters enter the story, it really fleshes out the story and pushes it beyond the views/actions of Dr. Conway.  Focusing less on the doctoring and highlighting the role of diagnosticians is fairly interesting.  May I also provide the date for the FOX TV show House, M.D. (2004 – 2012) that was entirely centered on the activities of a crack-diagnostics team.

White borrowed the alien species “classification system” from writer E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This system uses a four-letter code which designates the type and needs of the aliens that are encountered. This is explained briefly in one of the stories, but I did not care enough to learn it or make sure it was internally consistent.  White has these future space-doctors have access to “educator tapes” which are like the knowledge plug-ins in the Matrix movies. Except in White’s stories, these tapes are practically “taped” educators of another species.  Doctors can “plug-in” these tapes (for a limited time) and have a very essential (i.e. they psychologically become) understanding of the species they are seeking to learn about and treat.  This is pretty neat, I think.  I like watching authors present and solve and wrestle with epistemological scenarios like this.

Overall, O’Mara and Conway are aggravating and tedious.  However, I really like all of the alien creatures we meet. In a couple of stories, Conway is forced to work alongside aliens and these are the high points of those stories, in my opinion.  Naturally, White advances some alien species to include elements of telepathy/empathy, but its not as goofy as Counselor Troi in Star Trek.  Frankly, with all these ideas, floating around in this book, it is surprising some other authors have not really taken to such scenarios and made shared-worlds or other series with some of these concepts.

There is a lot to like here.  Ideas and concepts and aliens are fun.  The main characters, though, are a bit tedious to read about.  And there are some gaps and challenges, if the reader wants to pick through and point such things out. I was entertained and I would gladly read on in the Sector General series. I kind of expect the series to improve because I am hoping White got a handle on what he wanted to do with the series after these stories. The three star rating is for the choppiness and uncertainty.

3 stars

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars

Space Opera

Space Opera

Space Opera – Jack Vance; Pyramid Books, 1965

Space Opera by Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) was published in 1965. I read it this December and it is the sixth Vance novel I have read. I am also pleased that the first review of the year (and for Vintage Science Fiction Month) is a work by Vance.  I really like starting off the new year with the Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.  Usually, I only get two or three reviews posted; maybe this year I’ll do better?

Sadly, I cannot give this novel a glowing five-star big hearts sort of rating. Trust me, it pains me to give a Vance novel such a low rating. Nevertheless, in the vein of one of the main characters of this novel, we must not allow mere sentimentality to get in the way of our overarching efforts and goals.

I read the Pyramid Books 1965 edition. The cover art is by John Schoenherr and I think it is the best of the editions of this book. I love the dark red background.  Anyway, the title is a play on words.  ‘Space opera’ being one of those not clear or distinct subcategories of science fiction literature.  The term has a long and varied history full of opinions and redefining. It is a fluid concept that is, really, in existence mainly to give people something to endlessly discuss over coffee. Vance uses the term as the title of this novel in a more literal manner. He rather does mean space opera, i.e. off-planet musical performance.

vintage-sf-badgeVance was an intelligent fellow. It was not possible for him to keep his intelligence out of his novels – and we would not have wanted him to do that. However, this means that sometimes his novels lose an ounce of fun and entertainment as a sacrifice on the altar of wisdom and intelligence. I am totally okay with this. Some readers dislike this.  For example, The Languages of Pao (1958) is really good; I gave it five stars. Many readers found it to be a slog, which I understand – linguistics/language can be very, very boring. (Yeah, Kripke and Salmon, we are lookin’ at you fellas!)

For Space Opera, Vance has come up with an awesome idea. I am really impressed and enthused and tickled by this.  The writing skill is also there – this is intelligently written with generally well-moving mechanics and structure.  There is also an unstated, but obvious, perspective on imperialism.  For this, too, Vance deserves praise because he did not succumb to a violent, aggressive, bitter tone about the dark evils of imperialism.  Instead, he just leaves it almost unstated and lets the reader have a laugh at the expense of the frustrated imperialist.  Tactful and witty, Jack.

Basically, a very wealthy older woman, Dame Isabel Grayce, has decided to gather up the best musicians (singers, orchestra, etc.) and pack everyone into a spaceship and go forth into the galaxies on a musical tour. Her motives are, mainly, arrogant and obnoxious. However, some mitigation is due her because she is quite honest. She is absolutely ignorant of her arrogance and her imperialism.  Her goals – in her mind – are to undertake a musical tour, bringing the expert performances of the human race upon earth to a variety of lesser-equipped, unfortunate, and less-advanced cultures/species.  This, in essence, for Dame Isabel, is a magnanimous gift which will enhance the lives of the foreign species and, minimally, open the channels of diplomacy and public relations to other planets/cultures.

Of course, in her mind, the other cultures/species cannot fail to be awed by the greatness and expertise of the opera company she has assembled. She admits, due to the backwardness of some of these cultures, they may not be able to fully appreciate the performances. Yet, she fully expects this tour to be a massive success. To her credit, she is neither quitter, nor lazy.

Naturally, the reader is generally repulsed by such blatant imperialism. They are supposed to be – but this is not a serious book, at heart. There is no debate that sort of imperialism is horrible. The reader should understand that Vance is setting it up not so he can knock it down (which would be too obvious and heavy-handed), but rather to amuse the reader endlessly with this operatic farce.  The fact that Dame Isabel takes the whole thing so seriously is part of the laugh – because it is that absurd!

It is important to share here that Vance knows his stuff, too. He does not fudge and fluff the details of this novel. He actually has Dame Isabel select specific operas and her company debate the best selection for their audience, etc.  And Vance is not just rattling off the titles of operas – he actually has put valid reasoning into the pieces mentioned or performed. Indeed, every time, I considered the proposed options and debated with myself about the pieces. Vance was intelligent and thank God for that! Needless to say, the reader familiar with operas is going to get more out of these details than the reader who cannot name a Wagnerian piece.

So,why did I give this novel such a low rating?  Execution.  There are a number of aggravating “side threads” that instead of enhancing the overall plot, actually compete with it.  For example, Gondar’s motives, or anything involving the girl Roswyn. Further, while Vance had opportunity to really make for some colorful and outlandish silliness (as would be expected in a farce) whenever the Tour meets a new culture, he drops the ball. The actual scenes are a bit stagnant and dull. This really sucks because these are the moments for the humor and the morality and the absurdity and the creativity to flourish. Finally, the novel ends without much resolution, with the plot having become somewhat stalled and repetitive, and the characters really just flatlining. Dame Isabel is as ignorant as when the tour began. The last chapter is stupidly focused on the very minor romantic subplot.

Overall, I can only give this two stars. I truly appreciate Vance’s intelligence and effort, but in order to make this work, it needed to be far more vibrant and creative.  It stalls out and gets boring in places. I wish it were better executed, because the idea is awesome.

2 stars

Twists in Time

Twists in Time - Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time – Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time is a collection of short stories and novelettes by Murray Leinster that was first published in 1960. The cover reads “Six Startling Stories of Twists in Time,” but there are most definitely seven pieces in the book. It seems six of the stories were previously published in periodicals etc., but it is the first publication for the first story in the collection, Rogue Star.

Overall, these stories are generally unique and interesting stories. I have issues with stories that tackle time travel/concepts of time.  The thing is, there is hardly anything more interesting or exciting in science fiction, I suppose, than playing with concepts of time.  It is, indeed, one of the larger categories for story plotlines. Another is “first contact” stuff.  However, while playing with time is vastly interesting, it generally results in a big letdown for the reader.  Superficially, stories that twist time are exciting and seem to have endless possibilities. They are definitely filled with potential for fun and mayhem. But then you think about the science or metaphysics of the matter…. and all the fun gets smashed into little nibbets of “used-to-be-fun, but-not-anymore.”

Time is tough. It is unforgiving. And the allure of potential and smash-ups pulls authors in.  But the science/history/logic spits them right back out.  It is really challenging to find very good “time” stories.  Leinster’s work here is definitely unique. I think he has some very different storylines and he works to make the stories something other than carbon copy pulp.  Nevertheless, nearly every story tanks solely due to the time problem. Not that Leinster does not give it the best effort he can, it just is too demanding a topic.

  • Rogue Star – 3 stars
  • Dear Charles – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Dead City – 2 stars – (1946)
  • Sam, This is You – 2 stars – (1955)
  • The Other Now – 4 stars – (1951)
  • The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator -3 stars – (1935)
  • The End – 3 stars – (1946)

Rogue Star is the first story, taking its name from an entity of “contraterrene matter with negatrons instead of positrons in the nuclei of its atoms, and antielectrons in the orbits where electrons ought to be. Consequently, its gravity was reversed with respect to Earth and Sol and all the normal bodies in the galaxy.”  On Earth, Cytheria is a old freighter spaceship that launches without its crew. In fact, only three persons are aboard at takeoff. Rex Hall and Marge Daly are basically minor crewmen that were not destined to launch with the ship. They were running final checks and such before the launch. They find themselves in space, captured by the seemingly mad Thomas Brent who explains much of the “science” in the story.

Marge complains: “I was so sure we’d run into self-contradictions —“  To which Brent replies:

“You thought of time-travel as like a ground-car on a highway, going north.  You thought you’d have to stop and back up to go south, and something similar to travel in time.  But a ground-car heading north, my dear, can make a U-turn and head south, though the police may protest.  We made a U-turn with the help of the Rogue Star and presently the galaxy will turn us U-fashion again, we will rejoin the traffic, only a great many cars or days behind what was formerly to our rear.”

Well, needless to say, Brent estimates they will be as far as ten-year back. That ends up being a ridiculously low estimate.  Anyway, this is the kind of time-travel work that Leinster plays with.  Now, I forgive him his 1950s physics, of course, and certainly, I am no physicist.  So look past what science doesn’t “work.”  Still, I like that Leinster at least acknowledges the fact that time-travel is screwy and difficult (Cp. Marge’s fear of “self-contradictions”).  But this is one of the better stories in the collection. Several of the others are definitely not worked out even to this level and the “contradictions” are not even nodded at.

Dear Charles is one such story where the time-traveling is a little bit confused.  The story is a little chunk of metafictional layers. The structure is the most novel part of the story, in my opinion.  A story written in the form of a letter is found in the 34th Century in an antique rare book at the University Library. It is addressed to a Charles Fabius Granver.  One of Charles’ friends finds this “story/letter” and brings it to Charles’ attention. Of course, Charles dismisses it as a prank or coincidence. But then the events of the story come true, so to speak.  In places, it was a little too non-linear for my liking and that detracted from the story. It is definitely a unique way to consider time-travel, but I am not sure it was polished to a really good mirror-shine.

The Other Now is the story I rated highest in the collection.  It is not so much time-travel, per se, as it is parallel overlapping realities. (I say with a blasé tone, as if that was a bland sentence.)  Jimmy Patterson is a rather normal fellow who is the survivor of a vehicular accident which killed his wife, Jane.  Leinster starts this story with the sentence:  “This story is self-evident nonsense,”  which is cool because it means that the author preempts the incredulous elements of all of these stories. Jimmy starts having eerie and out-of-sync experiences. Naturally, he doubts them (and himself) and takes his problems to his friend, a lawyer named Haynes.  The best part of Patterson’s character is that he is not immediately excitable and grasping at straws. He is dubious, sullen, and honest.  I have never seen the movie The Lake House (2006; K. Reeves & S. Bullock), but I suspect this is a much better, cooler idea than whatever that movie was about.  I liked this story because it has that subtle creepiness to it – along with a dose of melancholy and a pinch of satisfaction. This is the story to read and retain from this collection.

I wanted to give The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator four stars, but it just doesn’t deserve them. There are heaps of charmingly absurd elements in this story, though.  Indeed, as I was reading it, I felt like this is the sort of thing that would happen in my world. The whole thing is ridiculous and silly; probably not one the serious, grumpy reader should bother with. But Arthur, the kangaroo, is outrageous! He steals the show. No. The butler, Thomas, does. NO! The main character, Pete Davidson, is clearly the winner with his deadpan reaction to everything! Well, let’s just say the science is mauled in this one, but the entertainment is high.

3 stars

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men - Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963.  Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men – Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963. Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1962.  I read the 1963 MacFadden paperback edition – the one with the Richard Powers artwork on the cover.  The first edition hardback by Doubleday has artwork by Lawrence Ratzkin.  Generally, I really like Powers’ work, but on this cover the pink hues are too aggravating. Or, mainly, it just looks dingy.  I do not usually discuss the cover art – I’m not qualified to discuss art, really – but the Doubleday is worth mentioning because it really works with the story and keeps the cover simple and interesting.  It is one of those covers that I would have no complaints about if it were expanded into a small poster and slapped on one of the walls in my house.

This is the second Simak novel that I have read; I still own a bunch of others to work through.  Similar to my thoughts on the other novel of his that I read, I think that They Walked Like Men has a whole lot going for it, but also a lot that just seems too lame and too simplistic.  However, regardless of how grumbly and critical we readers might be, Simak is a good author and should not be ignored or dismissed.  Simak is an above-average wordsmith and is capable of coming up with at least one solidly fascinating idea each novel.

The opening chapter introduces the main character – who will also be our first-person narrator – named Parker Graves. I really appreciate the interesting manner in which we meet Parker:  he is half-drunk and standing outside of his apartment door struggling with his keys.  This section is really well written and I really enjoyed reading it. It immediately brought the setting and characters to life. Simak presents a situation with such skill that most readers will read further just to find out what the heck is going on.

Somewhere in the tangled depths of the half-dark newsroom a copyboy was whistling – one of those high-pitched, jerky tunes that are no tunes at all.  I shuddered at the sound of it.  There was something that was almost obscene about someone whistling at this hour of the morning. – pg. 15

To my mind, this novel has two sections.  The first quarter of the novel is full of eerie, scary suspense and tension. It has a heap of bone-chilling, heart-racing stuff that builds on the mysterious and unknown.  That’s the best horror stuff in my opinion:  the unknown.  (I’ve mentioned before that I am only a rookie regarding anything in the horror genre.)  Anyway, as I read that first chunk of the book, I really was surprised at how scary it was.  I think writing effectively frightening prose must be super difficult.  How can one make words transmit something terrifying?  Matter-of-fact style won’t work.  Purposely being obtuse won’t work.  So, I have to praise Simak’s work here. And I decided maybe I had read enough for one night to suffer plenty of nightmares….

I gave him the intersection just beyond the McCandless Bulding.

The light changed and the cab edged along.

“Have you noticed, mister,” said the cabby, by way of starting a conversation, “how the world has gone to hell?”   – pg. 45

What I think of as the “second section,” is really the rest of novel. Here is where Simak actually displays his hand, so to speak.  We learn what his “big idea” for the novel is and the creepy horror stuff is over as the novel takes a turn toward the action-esque side of things.  Light-action, if you please; there’s no Mack Bolan running around here. Also, the novel utilizes some ridiculous elements to tell the story.  I think if you took Simak’s “big idea” and then gave it to a far more serious and dark minded writer that the story would go one of two ways:  very, very droll and boring or it would retain a lot of the creepiness of the early part of the novel.

The “big idea,” by the way, is that the rather bizarre aliens are using economic pressure to control the planet (eradicate the humans).  Lacking in this is a lot of motive, or relationship of aliens to anything in the universe, etc. Without Simak’s writing skill, we really do have a novel about economics. Not too many folk will be racing to read that story!

Let me be honest, I do not hate the sort of ridiculousness that Simak then writes.  I am generally a magnet for the absurd and the ridiculous (sometimes to my chagrin). But I really disliked the transition between being horrifying and then just ridiculous.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I should probably share that there is a talking-alien-dog that helps the main character.

That is one of Simak’s big failures – he never fully and completely fleshes out elements of his story.  Things just are and even though they are extremely ridiculous – he doesn’t give us any causes for them. No reasons or answers. Now, maybe things are so ridiculous that to speak on them would make it all worse. On the other hand, the lack of explanation sometimes makes the story feel loose and that perhaps some of these elements are really extraneous and should have been edited out.

Finally, I really liked the supporting character.  Joy Kane is a co-worker of Graves.  She is also his sweetheart.  Unlike the majority of female characters in books dating from before 1970, Joy is quite awesome.  She is smart, sharp, witty, kind, stubborn, and realistic.  The novel is over and I do not care if I run into Graves again, but I am going to miss Joy Kane.

3 stars

The Watch Below

The Watch Below - James White; 1966

The Watch Below – James White; 1966

Today I finished The Watch Below by James White (1928 – 1999).  It was first published in 1966 and the copy that I read is the February 1966 edition.  It is also the first of White’s novels that I have read. Since reading it, I have been considering whether or not this novel would be different if it were written this year. In many ways, the outcome would be very different. Definitely more negative.  But at the same time, I do not think this novel is particularly dated – an interesting fact for a mid-1960s work.

White’s genius in this novel is to juxtapose the survival efforts of two generation ships:  one human and one alien, one earthbound and one in outer space.  There are a number of pseudo-opposite items that White uses to create the comparison and contrast among the two generation ships.  For example, the aliens are sentient, scientific, and fallible.  They are also aquatic “water-breathers.”  Their planet has suffered from their sun’s effects and their race has been forced to evacuate in an elaborate effort to seek out a new “homeworld.”  Naturally, such a new world needs to have significant water resources.

The Gulf Trader is a converted tanker that in the early 1940s suffered a torpedo assault.  Probabilities and magic aside, though the ship is hit twice by torpedoes, several humans survive the attack and remain trapped within the partially submerged Gulf Trader. Of course, their first concerns involve the necessity of oxygen resources and keeping the remnants of the tanker from being flooded by water.

I was far more interested in the Gulf Trader than the fleet of survival ships with the aliens.  Mainly because having survivors in a sunken vessel seems more unique and exciting than flying around space looking for a new homeworld.  In fact, if the novel had solely been about the Gulf Trader, I would still have enjoyed it.  The contrast with the aliens is worthwhile and interesting, but maybe not as exciting as just focusing on the submerged ship.  Anyway, the survivors include a doctor, a first officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and two nurses.

One of the issues with the novel is that the nurses (women) are treated like they are idiots.  To be nurses in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy, I would assume they would have some medical knowledge and functional skills.  Instead, White writes them as if they are helpless, hapless, empty-headed dolls.  Several times, I found myself asking: “well, aren’t these women nurses? shouldn’t they be able to provide something to this stranded group?”  And, yes, of course White has them provide something – they are the mothers of the “generations.”  Basically, the plot has these two women survive so they can repopulate this sunken vessel and turn it into the “generation ship.”  Aggravatingly, they have to be coddled and reassured and treated with kid gloves.  (Has White ever even met a nurse?)

Anyway, I took a rather immediate shine to Lieutenant Commander Wallis – even before the torpedoes hit. After the explosions, he becomes the leader of the group.  However, he has big help from Dr. Radford.  In fact, it is difficult to say who is more integral to the survival of this group – Radford or Wallis.  The key point regarding the Gulf Trader is that this is a survival episode wherein the survivors are forced to suddenly adapt, innovate, and struggle on their own.  The humans are thrust into an entirely unbelievable situation and forced to deal with it.

The alien fleet which is headed toward Earth is the result of the whole civilization’s efforts to create a survival situation involving a strong and planned strategy.  And maybe this very fact is why I was more fascinated by the humans below the sea than the aliens in space.  The unexpectedness of the Gulf Trader’s scenario engenders more sympathy and excitement than the strategic efforts of the aliens.  Several times as I read, I was slightly annoyed by the interruption of having to read about the aliens.

The most important fact in the humans’ survival is not that they creatively solve the mundane issues of oxygen, waste-removal, flood-prevention, heat-sourcing, and nutrition.  Rather, it is that they find a way to, almost error-freely, transmit knowledge.  They are able to adapt to their surroundings and maintain their level of intelligence through several generations.  The first group of survivors begins to practice “The Game.”  This is first suggested by Wallis, but adjusted as needed by everyone else who ever lives in the vessel.  The Game is never completely outlined in detail (how could White do this?) but it does remind me of both Hermann Hess’ Magister Ludi/The Glass-Bead Game as-well-as Iain Banks’ The Player of Games (1988).

The Game, is it is always called, is how the humans survive the claustrophobia, monotony, and other psychological effects of their experience.  It is used for transmitting knowledge, ideas, and for entertainment.  It does seem so implausible, but there is something that is also very appealing and interesting in this concept.  Ultimately, it explains how generations after the original crew, the survivors still have someone called Wallis that is considered a doctor/Commander – and he thinks cogently on topics of bacterial infection, survival tactics, and leadership.

Another downside to the writing:  it gets a bit confusing as to the layout of the Gulf Trader.  So many compartments and “tanks” that I think the reader can get lost or stop caring too much about the specifics of the locations.  Also, while this novel focuses on the parallels of surviving generation ships, I think a little more description and environmental development could have helped out.  Yes, the reader is exposed to the many issues facing the crews.  However, I think a few moments of “descriptive prose” could have enhanced the eeriness and tension of the setting.  White’s writing tends to be factual and direct.

The ending is a lot more positive than I expected it to be.  Frankly, if this story was written today – I doubt it would be written with such a positive outcome.  Maybe 2015 is a lot more negative and apocalyptic-minded than 1966…. that’s kind of depressing, I guess.  In any case, the latest Wah-lass is a hoot and I liked him just as much as his ancestor.

4 stars

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax - Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax – Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

I finished the first novel in the Pollifax series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.  It was first published in 1966 and is not a mystery novel, but a spy-novel.  That is actually the main reason for its relative fame.  The main character, Emily Pollifax, is a senior citizen who decides that she should finally pursue one of her greatest dreams – to be a spy.  She is a widow and has two adult children with lives of their own.  Pollifax realizes her life has become tedious, boring, and dull.  In fact, she has even suffered some rather self-destructive thoughts.  After visiting her medical doctor and having a brief meeting with an elderly neighbor, Pollifax decides to visit Washington, D.C.

Well, what a different world 1966 must have been that Pollifax could enter the CIA in D.C. and just sort of be selected as a spy.  That’s basically what happens – with a little coincidental help.  Pollifax hits the public library, looks up the address to the CIA headquarters, and takes a metro-train right on over.  Luckily, one of the handlers is working on a project wherein he requires an older operative for a courier-type mission.

Pollifax’s gig starts off with her heading off on a flight to Mexico City.  Events transpire and the majority of the rest of the novel takes place in Albania.  Now, Albania is not exactly one of the most commonly researched countries.  It is my strong recommendation that readers interested in this novel brush up on Albania.  A deep and exhaustive examination is not necessary, but do glance at a map and orient yourself.  Remember to pay particular attention to Albania in the 1950s/1960s (Eastern Bloc timeframe).  (Also, Albania has a cool flag.)

Anyway, all of this is tremendously exciting and unique. And should be full of comic relief and edge-of-one’s seat intrigue.  But somehow, I found this novel really difficult to plod through.  It just moves very slowly.  I think it is well-written and there is plenty of unique stuff in it to keep interest – but it just moves like a snail!  It took me months to force myself to read it.  Yes, Pollifax is charming – she is the epitome of down-to-earth and civilized. But she is also quite annoying and aggravating, too.  The main thing is that with Pollifax, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief.  She actually accomplishes some things in this book that would thoroughly lay out many 30 or 40 year old gentlemen.  Do I know any elderly women who could do some of these things that Pollifax does? Oddly, yes. I also realize that many people do not.

There is a light amount of the typical American patriotism and such going on, too.  It works in this novel, though, because one would expect a civilized elderly woman to hold certain views and ideas.  So, in that way, Pollifax is also an authentic character. An upper class, elderly WASP in the 1960s probably has some not-so-politically correct views regarding Chinese people, Communists, Mexicans, etc. I’ve read worse….

Still, I cannot put my finger on why this novel was so tedious for me. Spy novels in Albania with eccentric elderly women (and there are also goats in this novel) should not be sluggish.  So here is an odd anomaly:  I found the plot and characters charming and interesting, but the pacing and the novel itself was painfully slow. I would read another Mrs. Pollifax novel – but maybe only in the dead of winter and I am out of comic books and movies to play with.

3 stars

The Joy Makers

The Joy Makers - James E. Gunn

The Joy Makers – James E. Gunn

This book was published in 1961 as The Joy Makers by James E. Gunn.  However, this is a fix-up novel of three shorter pieces of fiction that Gunn published in 1955.  Each of these three pieces remains separate in this book; Part One is the story The Unhappy Man, Part Two is The Naked Sky, and Part Three is Name Your Pleasure.  These parts are separate but remain vaguely connected through the fictional timeline. Without a doubt, my favorite part was the first. Overall, though, I only found this book to be a worthy of three stars.

I read Gunn’s This Fortress World and also Station in Space. I think the latter is also a fix-up novel; it’s actually one of my favorite works I’ve read since keeping this blog. I easily gave it five stars – because it shocks and impresses. This Fortress World was okay – but the story got away from Gunn. I forgave him because it was an early effort. Needless to say, I am a fan and I really wanted to love The Joy Makers.

The Unhappy Man (part one) is my favorite part of this book because it contains a lot of the noir/suspense that is both typical of vintage science fiction and is an element of good storytelling.  This piece feels very much like a Gunn-piece and is reminiscent (the character’s demeanor, the settings) of Station in Space.  Even if a reader chose not to continue through The Joy Makers, I think reading this short part is worthwhile. Be warned the ending is relatively open-ended, so those readers who need tight closure to stories may be slightly frustrated.  I liked the ending and spent some quality time contemplating “what happened next.”

“Are you happy?” Wright asked quietly.

Josh realized, with a start, that it wasn’t a rhetorical question. “I think that is an indecent question.”

The second part takes place forward in time from part one. In many ways it is the likely outcome of events and ideas in part one. While part one shows us the concepts in an individualized context, part two demonstrates the concepts that Gunn is exploring by contextualizing them in a society.  At first I did not like the main character, Morgan the Hedonist.  A Hedonist is a profession and title in society; something like a psychiatrist or philosopher. The Hedonist lives (theoretically) entirely for the pleasure of others – meaning, his life is devoted to the principle that everyone ought to be happy. The Hedonist fixes the lifestyles of his patients so that they can be happy. Well, from the start this guy seemed like a sleezy charlatan. Okay, but by the end of this part, I decided that I had misjudged him.  He’s just naive and stubborn.

Habit is a technique for simplifying existence, for saving time and the energy of decision.  It is a pleasure tool.

The Hedonist is also something of a well-trained monk.  He has applied the principles of his field to his own life.  He is adept at devaluing, suppressing, and substituting values, choices, and opinions so that he remains happy.  The idea here is something like a combination of Stoicism + Epicureanism.  Immense and regulated self-control over one’s desires, opinions, viewpoints, and physical instincts allows for the possibility of remaining happy.

I like some of the things Gunn talks about here (the education system of this society of hedonics).  However, in ruminating on eudaimonia, Gunn totally loses all of his threads that this is a fiction story. Suddenly, this becomes a semi-tedious journal entry contemplating ethics. I pressed onward and the storyline came back – now it was an action-oriented conspiracy scenario.  Some of this was interesting (and I had images of the most recent Mission Impossible movie in my head).

The third part is really the weirdest part. Things get a little more esoteric and “new age.”  I felt that in parts Gunn was imitating a Platonic dialogue (no plot, all conversation). I struggled with deciding whether there was logic in this rambling part or if it was disjointed.  My favorite section is the first one (with the Duplicates) because that could have been a super-creepy, eerie plot! I see and understand what Gunn did here – I rather dislike it and am not entirely sure it is the obvious trajectory for the story. It is difficult to say because I am entirely too biased. I’m a philosopher by education and trade – to me, much of this was just tedious and droll. Maybe other readers are able to find something better in it? The God-references are somewhat stretched, in my opinion. Or maybe they are a natural result of the 1955 – 1961 time period and the real life societal changes that were occurring. Also, at the base of it all, well, a ruined planet that is run by a god-like machine has been done in many ways and places – and better than this iteration.

3 stars

The Blue World

The Blue World - Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World – Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966.  I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best.  Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award.  It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.

This was an average-rated read for me.  It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet.  I have definitely seen Vance do better.  Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached.  Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel.  In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion.  Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.

Blue world is a waterworld.  Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.”  The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts.  One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore.  So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea.  Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea.  Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants.  It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.

Also living on this planet are kragens.  Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories.  Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.

True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book.  I really like the idea of the setting:  a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum.  One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications.  Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats.  There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor.  Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.”  Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments.  He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters.  And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.

This is a straightforward storyline.  The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society.  He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts.  Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats.  Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away.  Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy.  Finally, there are instances of tyranny.  However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel.  The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative.  More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.

The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too.  For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story.  One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”

I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.

3 stars