1970s

One Step From Earth

One Step From EarthOne Step From Earth is a collection of vignettes by Harry Harrison and published in 1970.  The collection presents a possible timeline in human history that follows the development of “matter transmission” technology.  I read the Macmillan hardback edition with cover art by Carl Titolo.

Harry Harrison (1925 – 2012) is known for his Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, The Galactic Hero series. He was a fairly prolific writer – besides his own works, he wrote many reviews and essays as-well-as editing a number of anthologies. The only other item that I have read by Harrison is The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), which I rather enjoyed. In contrast to the SSR novels, this collection is more serious-minded and was better than I expected it to be.

I admit that I was skeptical of this endeavor by Harrison. I might have been suspicious because I was thinking that such a collection of stories would be very forced and heavy-handed. All of the stories are on “matter transmission,” so I did wonder how much interesting stuff could be plumbed from this topic. One always hopes the authors are creative and insightful, but there is always the worry that the stories will be awfully boring and tedious. Or, worse, that the stories are more like “etudes” and practice-writing than fully developed pieces. After all, anything can be a writing prompt, but very little of what gets written is quality.

Luckily, all of these stories are decent enough works. Overall, the entire collection ends up with an average feel to it. I gave the whole thing three stars.  However, there are several stories that rated a bit higher because they were well done. Nothing here is something extraordinary or vastly superior to the great stock of science fiction writing, but there was not a story that was so wretched that it tanked the whole group. This ended up being a great read for mellow evenings. So, no pulse-pounding, action-thriller, pulp pandemonium here!

  • Introduction: The Matter Transmitter (essay)
  • One Step from Earth – (1970) – 3 stars
  • Pressure – (1969) – 4 stars
  • No War, or Battle’s Sound – (1968) – 3 stars
  • Wife to the Lord – (1970) – 2 stars
  • Waiting Place – (1968) – 4 stars
  • The Life Preservers – (1970) – 3 stars
  • From Fanaticism, or for Reward – (1969) – 2 stars
  • Heavy Duty – (1970) – 2 stars
  • A Tale of the Ending – (1970) – 4 stars

As expected, the vignettes here are glimpses into the usage of the matter transmitter technology.  Naturally, I assumed Harrison would try to present a variety of aspects of the technology, and Harrison did do this, but I feel there were also many other points of view that could have been used for even more stories. The ones here are decent and do present a variety so that the reader does not feel like the same story is being retold. The introductory essay is good enough, letting the reader understand some of the purpose behind this collection.

Most MT stories have been of this fun-and-games variety, all involved with building the machine and seeing what it does to the first victims who are fed therein.  All of which can be very interesting, but is by no means a complete picture of the possibilities of MT.  Let us think ahead a bit.  If we can imagine an operating MT we can certainly consider the possibility of the widespread use of MTs.  If the machine works it can be made to work cheaper and better and soon we might be using MTs the same way we use telephones now.

But what is the effect on man and his institutions when this happens? – pg. x

Well, what Harrison refers to as MT is something very like a portal in a videogame that allows the player to “zone” to a new area. Where have we seen things like this? Sliders TV show (1995 – 2000), portals in EverQuestII and in World of Warcraft, Nether portals in Minecraft, etc.  But most obviously, we are all thinking of the transporter in Star Trek, which is the one example I have listed here that predates this collection by Harrison. It is 2016 and so we (particularly looking at pop culture and entertainment) are so familiar with MT that it really does not impress us at all. But in 1970, this would be a far more interesting subject to ponder. And, yes, Harrison’s MTs do not operate like Star Trek‘s (this is not a molecular dissolution via energy source, but rather like doorways Cp. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series).

All of this background stated, I do not think that Harrison really does present the effect on mankind and his institutions. Maybe just peripherally, but not to the depth or with the facets that a scientifically/philosophically-minded reader would want from such an investigation.  In the end, most of these stories are more on the superficial side of that investigation, instead of giving a deep examination of repercussions and reactions. Still, let us also recognize that Harrison is writing fiction – meant to entertain, so it is probably a good thing that we are left with entertaining stories that are not desperately boring, which is how scientific investigations could have turned out.

Anyway, it is no sweat or work to get through this comfortable-reading collection.  The couple of slips are the stories I gave two stars. Those pieces were ones that I felt just did not carry enough purpose or value. The three stories that I rated four stars are really the ones readers should focus on, but there really should not be any challenge to just reading all of the collection regardless. I liked the setting of Pressure the best and while I feel it is not the most realistic set-up for the story, the setting is exciting enough to carry it through. Plus, Harrison gives props to Yuri Gagarin (hero!). The overarching setting is the planet Saturn (a far under-used planet in science fiction, in my opinion).  Another disturbing element of this story is the cigarette smoking, which, by 1970, Harrison should have known not to include here.

The story A Tale of The Ending was one I was very worried about. It takes place (as one can surmise on its place in the contents) in the far, far, very super-far future. Obviously, it takes a vast imagination and good writing skill to pull off any kind of story that takes place so far in the future. Generally, writers who attempt such settings usually fail and their stories seem either straight out of an LSD-trip or cannot maintain the futuristic-ness of their original insight. So, I must admit I was really surprised that this one came out so very nicely done. I like the little hints of academic fields, I liked the hints of communication protocol, and overall, I liked the characters – for as short a time as I got to know them.

In some stories (e.g. One Step From Earth) Harrison puts a lot of the story’s weight on the actual MT. In other stories (e.g. Wife to the Lord) the MT is in the background as a foundation element, but not highlighted. Overall this balance holds throughout the collection. Sure, the stories are about the MT, but not always an MT crammed in our face. A gentle, mellow read; above pulp, below “hard scifi.”

3 stars

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Our Friends From Frolix 8

Our Friends From Frolix 8 - PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

Our Friends From Frolix 8 – PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970).  I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes.  It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating.  I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique.  It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing.  The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable.  This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.

The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart.  In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet.  The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens.  Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema.  (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)

The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn.  Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning.  This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome.  That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this:  events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting.  There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.

In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality.  For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain.  PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful.  His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman.  [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student:  the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]

When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies.  Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer.  Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence.  Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst.  Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem.  My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out.  His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.

Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD.  Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual.  There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel.  Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.

Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written.  PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:

“What a renegade.  What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade.  He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him.  . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end.  And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94

No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni.  Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote.  I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.

Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out.  He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.”  Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).

Overall, this is typical PKD.  Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe.  There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.

3 stars

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers - John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

The Stardroppers – John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

I finished The Stardroppers this afternoon.  Written by John Brunner and first published in this form (and under this title) in 1972, it was a super fast read for me.  I really like the Jack Gaughan cover art on this novel.  This is the sort of thing I would probably buy a poster of and put somewhere odd – like in the kitchen, or something.   In full disclosure:  the last two novels I read were quite bad, so anything I had read next would probably have gotten at least three stars from me.

In this book we meet the main character, Dan Cross, as he lands in future London, England from the USA.  Dan is proceeding through “customs” with his “stardropper.”  Chapter 1 is fairly interesting; the reader should be drawn into the novel by what is given.  In Chapter 2, we meet another major character, Hugo Samuel Redvers.  From Redvers we learn that our main character is actually Special Agent Cross.  The scene in this chapter is really typical of those scenes in all spy movies. Character is having a meal/drink in fancy hotel restaurant.  Second character surprises him and sits at his table with an arrogant air and a caustic warning.  The reason I mention this is because this first impression of Redvers stuck with me throughout the book – but not so much with Redvers.  As the story went onward, I started to feel that this cocky know-it-all Redvers moves far away from the Redvers in this scene.  By the last chapter, I feel like Redvers is a sniveling, annoying wimp.   There really was not any reason for this change, either.

Anyway, stardroppers are these machines that are something like AM/FM radios.  No one really knows how they truly work, or what they actually work on.  Allegedly, their discovery was accidental – a scientist was experimenting on another project and noticed anomalies.  Throughout the book, I imagined them generally as those old school binoculars that came in carrying cases or something like “ham” radios.  Stardroppers can also refer to the persons who use stardroppers.  The usage of these items is described many times in the story and Brunner works hard to make the reader feel their usage is commonplace and relatively easy.  The results are kept vague.  Basically, you turn on the machine and put earphones in.  After tuning, you “listen.”

The phenomenon/practice of stardropping (Cp. eavesdropping) is treated as if it were a cross-cultural, cross-generational fad or hobby.  There are plenty of suggestions that it is harmful, addictive, and similar to psychotropic usage.  In other cases, it seems the practice is for research and for those persons who would like to investigate UFOs and other kosmic occurrences. Either way, no one really seems to know much about it – and the scientist who “discovered” this phenomenon is taken to be authoritative for no better reason than he discovered it.  This is the bulk of the novel – and it is the sort of thing that would interest readers who like anthropology and sociology.  But readers of space adventure and space opera might find this sort of ruminating a bit dull.

The whole story culminates in the last three chapters – which do seem a bit of a departure from the storyline that came before.  The main character is fun in the sense that he is a “special agent/spy” type.  But he also is not really fantastic at his job.  However, the super cool concepts get tagged onto him.  For example, the Agency uses hypnosis and neo-Freudian personal associations with words to create a specific user-only language.  It’s bulky and, in reality, untenable.  But it sure is fun to think about.   This plays a role in the resolution of the novel, as well, so it’s good to pay attention when you read about it first in chapter 8.

Overall, this was an okay read.  I feel like a lot of time was spent making stardropping seem murky and like LSD-usage.  It is at the root of social-disorder.  Stardroppers seem to run the gamut between hopeful dreamers, childish addicts, and physics students.  Either way the usage has become so pervasive that the governments have become involved in monitoring this situation.  So, beyond just a personal-level of intrigue, the novel contextualizes stardropping in terms of global politics.  And in the end, the world is saved…. by what was first presented as a fringe, drug-like culture.  I wonder what Brunner really wanted our take-away to be………

3 stars

The Figure in the Shadows

Figure in the ShadowsThe Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

The Falling Astronauts

Falling AStroThe Falling Astronauts by Barry Malzberg was first published in 1971.  It is the first Malzberg novel that I have read. I read the ACE edition with cover by Davis Meltzer.

It took me quite a long time to get through this novel.  And I am not going to give it a rave review.  Basically, I think this novel might not really even qualify as actual science fiction, but I am rarely thrilled with such pigeon-holing.  All of the characters are unlikeable, which is fine.  I am used to disliking characters. However, in this particular novel, this is really a significant problem.

The novel is about the repercussions of the government agency in Washington and their space program.  Without being stated, it is obvious Malzberg is alluding to NASA.  Also, it takes place during wartime, presumably the Vietnam War.  Some comparisons are made here between the government and public interest in the war versus the interest in the space program.  Very heavy-handedly, the reader is to understand that the space program regardless of its facade of noble goals or scientific advances is utilitarian in nature.  The agency, in its methods and goals, dehumanizes and devalues humans – the astronauts who actually run the missions are treated as little more than machinery.  Their training turns them into machinery, tools, pieces within a greater (and more important) machine.

However, lest readers feel this is a direct attack on a specific organization, there are indeed hints in the novel that this attitude of the agency is actually a reflection of the entire societal structure within which the space agency operates.  Further, if this is so, a parallel assessment can (in theory) be drawn regarding the soldiers sent off to fight in the war effort.  Several times Malzberg includes references to “the war,” which could suggest this being read as a subtle anti-war novel.

The evidence for the dehumanizing of the astronauts is shown in their emotional and mental breakdowns.  Particularly in the character Richard Martin.  The novel begins with a sex scene – one in which the sex is described to us in very mechanical terminology. Literally:  docking procedure.  Gears, transmission, whines of engines, hiss of static, etc.  And this segues into the depiction of Martin having a ruined marriage.  His wife blames him and, more so, the Agency/Administration.  It has ruined his life, her life, and their life.  How so?  Because he is a machine; dehumanized and mechanical.  On the most recent mission, Martin had a mental breakdown which almost resulted in a significant tragedy.  The actual events were hushed up and when he returned from the mission, he was given treatment as a malfunctioning machine might be given.  Finally, he was proclaimed by the agency to be “all better.”  In reality, he carries extreme post-traumatic stress and he struggles with the remembering the “person” he used to be, as opposed to the mere individual he is now.

Malzberg’s writing is very interesting.  I like the actual style of writing qua writing.  It is remarkable and refreshing – his sentence structure and chapter-structure actually take a little bit to get used to.  I was re-reading a few sentences here and there when I started the novel.  Malzberg also uses a lot of subtle allusions and connotations that you have to pause a breath to consider before racing on.  Nevertheless, the reason why I give this novel such a low rating is because scenes just go on and on and on.  I mean, some of them feel interminable.  The whole novel is quite heavy-handed and with these scenes that just never end, the novel suffers.

Also, as I mentioned above, if the novel is built on the problematic of the agency dehumanizing astronauts, making such unlikeable and miserable characters does not really make me feel any great amount of care or concern for this problem.  I am not saying that is actually what Malzberg was aiming for.  I am just saying that it is hard to connect at all with characters and their problems as a whole when as a reader I just do not give a rip what happens to them, anyway.

There are sections where Malzberg’s wit shows through.  But all the words in between these sections really make the novel even more dismal than the situation it presents.  There are sections where Malzberg has Martin describing the room he is in, the interactions and relationships of the persons in the room, and so forth.  It is at these points that the writing really seems insightful and skilled.  Describing the intangible feelings in the room without seeming emotive or dreadful is tough to do, and I can praise Malzberg for that.

Discussing television/news programming, the character Oakes says:

“You see, as far as I can deduce anyway, these things were so devalued a long time ago that they’re just another kind of television.  People don’t believe what they see on television anymore so this becomes part of the general mix.  It’s very hard to get people really involved these days.  They’ve seen so much.  And television, I’m sorry to say, is a very poor medium for what we like to think of as reality.” – Chapter XXI, pg 175

That is my favorite quote in the book. I like that it is valid in 1971 and in present day.  It’s something to think about, surely, particularly on the topic of the simulacra/simulation theory.  Enter:  Badiou, Deleuze, Zizek.

2 stars

Gateway

Gateway

Gateway by Frederik Pohl; Del Rey

Gateway was published in 1977 by Frederik Pohl.  It won a heap of awards including the 1978 Hugo Award for Best Novel,the 1978 Locus Award for Best Novel, the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1978 John W. Campbell Award.  The cover of the edition I read is an example of the awesome artwork created by John Picacio.  You should go visit his website and be on the lookout for books with his covers. His artwork is fantastic.

So, how does a novel that won all those awards (won more, was nominated for a bunch more) and have such a beautiful cover suck so much?  I am extremely disappointed in this novel.  For one thing, this was the first Pohl work I’ve read and disliking this work so much does not bode well for future forays into his writing.  Another thing is that I was really hyped to read Pohl since he is considered a “Grandmaster” of science fiction.  After all, look at all the awards this novel and it’s author have won? Surely, if there was a book that was going to rock the house – this has got to be it, right?

Well, and it was a ridiculous chore to acquire this book.  Bookstore did not have it (shock…) and I had to order it. I actually had to order it thrice, and it took about three months to get it shipped to the store.  I am not going to order books from that store location anymore.  Now, I know this has nothing to do with Pohl or Gateway – but it was a sure omen that I ignored.  And, well, it did not help that after finally getting the book in hand I was practically ravenous for reading it. And then WHAM! let down.

The structure of the book is pretty neat. I really like how there are three sections happening simultaneously.  One is the past (but told as if it is still present) which takes place on Gateway and involves all the coolest aspects of the storyline.  One part is the current time in which the main character visits his psychiatrist, Sigfrid. This is unique because the psychiatrist is a machine – a computer.  The third, and lesser, section is the miscellany from the explorations and studies related to Gateway.  These are cool and would be good fodder for the series.

The main character, Robinette Broadhead, is infinitely hateable. I do not mean that I dislike the character – I mean I pretty much despise him.  He’s a whiney, cowardly, selfish jerk.  He only goes to Gateway because (1.) he wins the lottery to do so; (2.) he’s looking for a get-rich-fast scheme to get out of his miserable life.  He has mommy issues, he has girlfriend issues, and he has money issues.  He’s consumed by guilt. Well, I guess it’s not difficult to see why he sees a shrink.

Gateway is a planet that is a portal and space-dock that was constructed by the presumably extinct Heechee alien race.  They left their ships and their tunnels and cleaned up all the rest of the artefacts.  Basically, the Heechee are a big mystery, but the Corporation finances “prospectors” to get into completely uncontrollable Heechee ships and fly out into space.  The ships control themselves to whatever destinations the Heechee have programmed into them.  Most prospectors do not return alive. Some do. Some return with information or artefacts, which the Corporation buys and pays out royalties for. Hence, the prospectors’ get-rich dreams.

I have two problems with this plot. (1.)  it makes humans seem like they have lost all of their technological and scientific ingenuity. Sure, they are attempting to reverse-engineer Heechee things, but throughout the novel, humans seem woefully clueless. (2.)  the Corporation paying out huge sums based on a random rubric for the prospectors’ efforts seems off – humanity is supposedly struggling – hungry or impoverished in general (except for the ultra-rich).  So who is buying/selling the Heechee info and items? To whom? And why? There seems to be a supply/demand issue that isn’t really thought out perfectly. There are options that Pohl could have used, but he doesn’t get into it and it leaves a little bit of a blank there.

For the majority of the book, Robinette mopes around Gateway trying to trick himself into working up the courage to go out in a ship.  His friend Shicky makes the best point in the whole novel:

You don’t need so much courage. You only need courage for one day:  just to get in the ship and go.  Then you don’t have to have courage anymore, because you don’t anymore have a choice. – pg. 233, chapter 26

However, throughout the book in the sections where Robinette is seeing Sigfrid it is presented to the reader that Robinette has become very rich.  By chapter 26, the reader still does not get the how and where. While on Gateway, Robinette blows money left and right at the bar and the casino.

The worst part of the book, which makes it hover a bit closer to a one star rating, is the R-rated sex throughout the book. No, there are not graphic detailed scenes – this isn’t (thankfully) erotica.  However, Robinette confuses sex for love, uses sex to distract himself from his cowardice, taunts Sigfrid with Freudian Oedipal comments, continually is agitated by the character Dane Metchnikov, and, once off of Gateway, runs through girls like they are paper towels.  There is one scene where Robinette gets a bit physically violent with his supposed-girlfriend, and does so in front of a young child.  And there is the last paragraph of chapter 25, which is really horrendous and actually made me want to chuck the book into a wall. Dreck.  None of this wins any points for the novel.  In fact, I mention this here, because there are not too many people to whom I would recommend this novel because of these parts. Some reviewers have commented that this is typical of 1970s mentality – I don’t think so; I have read bunches of books from the 1970s and I don’t really feel like making excuses for this dreck. I suppose the title is supposed to be punny…..

None of the marvel, grand adventure, wonder, or awe that is found in the best science fiction space-going novels.

Two stars is kind of a gift.  This is science fiction. But if someone was looking for great reads in science fiction, I would not suggest this.  Why all the awards? Maybe 1977/1978 was just a really bad year for science fiction novels.

2 stars

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

TYSBGTo Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer is the first in the author’s Riverworld series of novels.  This novel was first published in 1971 and won the Hugo Award in 1972.   The book’s title is from the seventh of the “Holy Sonnets” by English poet John Donne.

To be completely honest, I am not sure if I want to give this book two or three stars.  I feel that three is more accurate, but I feel that is just one star too many.  Hopefully, I can explain my reasons in this review.  Sir Richard Burton “wakes up” alongside a very large river along with roughly 36,006,009,637 other people.  Everyone that appears with Burton there has already died (on earth) and is resurrected naked with a canister of sorts in their hands.   As to be expected, not everyone who “wakes up” is from the same time (on earth), speaks the same language, or comes from the same location.  For the most part, people wander around dazed, upset, and unsteady.  Right from the start, however, our main character Richard Burton has a keen and survivalist mind.

Luckily the author gives us Burton as a main character.  Historical Burton was a well-traveled, hearty fellow adept at sociology, anthropology, and languages.  The character Burton maintains these skills and the knowledge with them so is able to adapt and function exponentially better than any of the fellow lazari.  For the first quarter of the book, Burton gathers a group around him of people from various societies, but who recognize the need to survive as a group.  One of the most interesting characters in the novel is actually a “subhuman” – a primitive man who is named Kazz.  Kazz is the most happy-go-lucky of the group and is also the muscle of the group.  He immediately gives his loyalty to Burton, whom he recognizes as a type of “chief” or leader.

Another member of the group is Alice Hargreaves. Alice Hargreaves is actually the historical Alice Liddell, the girl whom inspired the story Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  She’s a unique character, the only female character that the author even pretends to develop or give a personality to.  Not that she is very likeable.  Alice disapproves of the nudity of the lazari and rebuffs every (constant) attempt by Burton to engage in sexual conduct.  This frustrates Burton, but he is also attracted to her staunch moral code, as well.  The friction between the two of these characters continues well into half of the book, but thankfully the storyline separates the two and the reader does not have to deal with this annoying scenario any further.

I got the feeling that the author came up with a neat idea and then was unsure how to make a story around it.  The story seems to get lost and it feels like Farmer is “making it up as he goes along.”  The first quarter of the book made it seem like the nudity and sex among the lazari were going to drive the plot – the moralizing and the relationships developing around the scenario.  But then, halfway into the book, the focus changes to exploration and suddenly Burton does not simply want to survive – but has this self-imposed quest.  There is a whole chunk of story wherein we meet Hermann Göring, who has captured Burton’s little group and has made them slaves in his pseudo-dictatorship society.  The author seems to want to moralize about the problem of Jews vs. Nazis and the repercussions of WWII, but it gets a bit boring, and I am not sure (after all the chapters) what the reader should take away from the event.  And then Burton realizes he must get away from everyone – because he is, presumably, endangering them because he alone wants to find out the truth behind the Riverworld.

The whole Hermann Göring thing is weird.  It’s like the author just includes him for the sake of torturing the crap out of him and showing us he is a madman.  Burton and Göring spend much of the rest of the novel meeting again and again, fighting, debating, and so forth.  It gets comical eventually. Anyway, by the end of the book, Burton knows a little more than he knew to start, but once again (after eleven years after the original resurrection) is reunited with some of his original groupies.  The novel is peppered with random discussions on government, religion, and culture – but these discussions are so scattered and not well formed that it just seems tedious.  The idea behind the novel is a good one, but it’s presentation is not very good.  Even if Farmer wanted to make a ponderous, philosophizing novel – I still think he could have included some of the wonder and marvel that would be present in a resurrection of all these diverse humans/cultures.

Frankly, the book is bleak and dark.  There is little optimism in this story.  I do not even think any of the characters are particularly likeable.  Mainly, it gives the feeling that humans are a real disagreeable lot, prone to conflict and greed.  On page nine I did read a phrase that was short and full of imagery: “a cataract of flesh” – Burton has some experience of prior to being resurrected on the beach.  I have never read the words cataract of flesh, but it certainly was remarkable to do so.  Anyway, as much as I did not like this novel, I actually find myself wanting to read the next book.  Not, of course, because I expect something great, but just because I have been drawn in and want more closure to the story than this novel provided.

3 stars