1980s

Ender’s Game

Enders GameEnder’s Game is a very famous science fiction novel from the 1980s.  I could have read it in any number of decades – the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and yet I only just read it this month in 2017.  Please do not think that I was avoiding it for any reason. I was not. I, quite simply, never had the opportunity or occasion to read the novel.  There are a lot of novels that fall into this category with me (yeah, Lord of the Flies is still unread), but Ender’s Game was a standout omission because it always seemed like *everyone* had read it multiple times.

And now that I have read this novel, I feel it is vaguely moot to bother writing a review of it. I mean, what can I really add or mention that has not been already said, alluded to, or complained about? It seems everyone, except maybe infants in underdeveloped countries, has already formed their opinion of this novel.  And what hubris to think anyone has interest in my opinion….

Keeping that in mind, I did not love this book, nor did I hate it. I feel like a heavy majority of readers either love it or hate it, but most do not fall into the category of simply enjoying it as a decent science fiction novel.  The Introduction (written by the author in 1991) is a bit that I found very obnoxious. However, I read it after I read the novel, so that did not sway any of my sentiment.

I believe that this novel will return to the reader what he brings to it. By this I mean that however the reader feels about the world – his own experiences, judgments, ethics, feelings – will be cemented or enforced by this novel.  In other words, this is not one that will change people’s opinions; you know, opening hearts and minds, or whatever. So, if a reader feels strongly pro/anti-military, his reading will reassert those positions. And what a reader prioritizes in their worldview, is what the reader will highlight and evaluate most in their reading of this novel. Not to say that that this is the most philosophical or intellectual novel ever written. At heart, it is the story of Earth military versus Alien military.

Considering that I believe the above, viz. that the reader will focus on things in the book that are focused on in his own life, I am not sure how to write this review without at least some personal revelatory comment.  Is Ender a tragic character? Yes, he is and, perhaps what is worse for him, he knows that he is. As are, more or less, the other selected student-soldiers.  I would not have been opposed to the techniques in Battle School. Nor was I shocked at the mentalities and realities of Ender’s early schooling. The pressure that Ender and his mates are put under did not bother me. However, the part that made me feel empathy for Ender was during Battle School and Command School they (from Ender’s perspective) kept changing the rules on him. I hated this on Ender’s behalf. I did not hate the extreme pressure, nor the fierce competition, the intense training. But I did feel badly for Ender when it seemed all his work was for naught because the rules suddenly would change, seemingly spoiling his efforts.

Granted, as you read, you learn that even these harsh “rule changes” are part of the process of training Ender.  But even knowing this, it is the one thing that really made me feel any empathy.

The brother/sister dynamic was weird – much weirder and odder than I expected. In fact, that is the segment of the book that is disturbing, not anything with Ender. I cringed any time the story turned to those two. It is interesting to a point, I guess, but I cannot say that I cared much about that part of the storyline. I know it shows this overarching schema in which the author juxtaposes Ender and with his siblings (all of them genetically enhanced). Card even throws in there a nice metaphor about a coin. It works, but I did not care.

Finally, the ending was too odd for me to enjoy and it made me consider giving the novel three stars and not four. The weird Bugger-mind-ansible-cocoon thing. All of it. All of it after the Earth Civil Wars was just throw away, in my opinion. I do see how it neatly wraps up some questions about the computer game Ender plays and I do see how it might generate sympathy from readers.  The Buggers are a misunderstood situation, condemned because of their mode of communication, and Ender is maybe also their beginner. For me, though, the book ends when the “final exam” ends.

So do I read on in the series? I think Ender’s Game is perfectly standalone. But Card knew he had a golden franchise. And, I cannot say I am uninterested in the storyline. I will probably read book two, at least. Officially, between you and me this is a 3.75 star rating.

4 stars

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A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

3 stars

Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars

Death of a Dissident

Death of a DissidentToday I finished Death of a Dissident by Stuart M. Kaminsky (1934 – 2009) .  This is the first book that I have read by Kaminsky.  I started purchasing the Kaminsky novels in the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series that I find at cheap prices.  Unfortunately, I do not have book two.  Death of a Dissident was first published in 1981, but I read the 1989 edition.  I picked up my copy used for $2.

I was not sure what to expect from this novel.  I was wary of trying out a new author.  I generally enjoy cozy mysteries, but am leery of bloody, crazed murderers (as you should be, too).  I was okay with the Michael Connelly novel I read, I really enjoy Agatha Christie, and I have been pleased with the few other light mysteries that I have read in the past.  I was worried, though, that this novel might be a bit too gory or dark.  That is generally one of the main reasons I am nervous about reading mysteries.  I do not like reading thriller/mysteries which are filled with depravity and gore.  Another reason I was wary was that I worried the background and setting of this novel might feel really dated.  Or that the author would try to over-write the whole USSR background.

Luckily, my fears were unfounded.  I actually really liked this novel and read it fairly quickly.  The best part of the novel is that Kaminsky did not overwrite the “dismal, politically-charged” USSR setting.  It is actually written really well and gives a really good insight into Kaminsky’s interpretation of the USSR.  The characters were also really well done, I think.  Nothing massively in-depth, but I came to like all of them.  They are all interesting and make the novel much better than it would be with flat or hideous characters.  The subtle and not-so-subtle political awkwardness of the police force dealing with the political structure made for a unique and interesting setting.

Rostnikov was worried about the girl, true, but he was also worried about how he might explain the destruction of the automobile.  His body and that of the driver could be repaired by doctors.  Doctors in Moscow were good and there would be no cost.  But to repair an automobile. Ah, thought Rostnikov, that may be much more difficult.  (Chapter Twelve)

The villain was a bit twisted, to be honest.  There was a scene toward the end of the book where I was worried things were going to cross that line into “too graphic and gory” for me to want to read.  But the whole thing turned out okay and Kaminsky did not cross the line-of-yucky.   The main character, Porfiry Rostnikov, is a big hit, I think.  He is a fairly good Russian imitation of a war-hardened hard-boiled detective.  He is patient and brooding, just as one would expect.  But he also is politically savvy – although he is not completely subservient and whipped by the political edifice.   I like the supporting characters, too, particularly Emil Karpo.  Karpo is really fun and awesome – I am glad I met this character.

This is the sort of book you want to see as a movie – but done well, not ruined by some ridiculous Hollywood interpretation.  I am giving it four stars for the writing style (dry-humor and subtle) and for the characters.  The background of the USSR is worthy and should interest those with a fondness for Russia.

Moscow begins work at five in the morning.  The few hours before are for the criminals, the police, taxi drivers, government officials at parties, and party officials working on government.   (Chapter Two)

4 stars

The Curse of the Blue Figurine

Blue FigurineThe Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs is the first in the Johnny Dixon series.  I have never read it before – but finally, in 2013, now that I am old and haggard, I finally got a copy.  I actually am working my way through as many John Bellairs novels as I can.  Overall, these are excellent.  I recently re-read The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt, which was as awesome as I remember it being when I was a small person.

But this novel is even better.  I was thoroughly impressed. I thought for sure that I was going to be somewhat disappointed – how could Bellairs do better than the other book I read?  And yet! And YET! This one is excellent.

As I mentioned, this is the first book in the Johnny Dixon series.  So here, I finally got a lot more background on Johnny’s grandparents and Professor Childermass. I learned more about how Johnny came to live in this town and about the school he attends. And the church that he attends.

First of all:  yeah, parents in 2013 who are all stuffy and politically-correct and shelter their munchkins are never going to let them read these books.  These books are all kinds of “inappropriate” – but not because of the usual reasons you might think.  There’s alcohol and Church and the adults are realistic.  Nothing sanitized, really, in here.  But it isn’t bawdy, rowdy, or uncouth, don’t get me wrong. Secondly:  Johnny is so full of guilt and low self-esteem that he probably isn’t the type of character one finds in current-day novels.  But he’s really a great kid! In fact, he’s the best! I love Johnny!

I love all of the characters.   And this story is creepy and eerie and has a lot of supernatural elements in it. And the supernatural elements are kept real and true – no one attempts to erase, explain, or devolve them. Awesome! I love the language and constructions that Bellairs uses.  He’s really a charming author and he writes with such a fun style.  I am subtly pressurizing my entire household to read this novel.

5 stars

The Mummy, The Will and the Crypt

TMWC

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Puffin, 1996

I re-read this novel this month. I had been looking for it (new and used) for a long time – I finally found it at Mr. K’s in Charleston, SC for $1.50.  I really cannot emphasize what a difficult time it was locating this book.  I think it was out of print for awhile? I am surprised they did not charge at least $3 for it.  It was originally published in 1983, but the copy I read is the 1996 edition.   I have a bit of a history with this book. I attempted to read it once when I was a small person.  But I grew bored with it and did not get far into it.  A year or so later, I picked it up again and found it gripping and intense and scary.  I remembered it a few years ago and started hunting for it.

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt is the second in the Johnny Dixon series of novels written by John Bellairs (1938 – 1991).  I have never read the first, but it is quite famous.  I own the next in the Johnny Dixon series and I have never read that one. I intend to do so once I make a bit more headway into my to-be-read-mountain.

Is this a “kid’s” novel? I suppose, technically, it is.  It’s to be found in the kid’s section, the size and language are accessible to most kids, and the main character is a young boy.  However, it is written in the Gothic-style that Bellairs is known for.  Reading along, you do feel that Bellairs was influenced by Lovecraft.  I find Lovecraftian influences everywhere, by the way.

This novel is a bit somber.  The young main character is shy, anxious, and intense.  He’s a good kid that plays chess, is in the Boy Scouts, and has no friends his own age.  His best friend is a retired ex-military professor who lives in the house across the street from Johnny’s grandparents. Johnny lives with his grandparents because his mother passed away and his father is overseas in the Korean War.  So, the novel, though published in the 1980s seems to be set in the 1950s.

The MWC

The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt – John Bellairs; Bantam 1983

There are several elements that are great about this novel.  The first is the Lovecraftian-horror-Gothic style.  I love it.  And nowadays children are not supposed to read such things.  Their “literature” is sanitized and factory-produced.  Bellairs’ novels have this macabre feeling to them that is just not “okay” with the yuppie-parenting of today.  I don’t have any offspring, but if I did, I would definitely have this on their bookshelves.  It is not grossly horrific.  It is not filthy.  It’s just creepy and Lovecraftian and excellent for rainy autumn nights.

The second element which I absolutely love (and which also makes the novel “unacceptable” for children) is the element of religion.  Bellairs is a graduate of Notre Dame and University of Chicago.  He was most likely Roman Catholic.  And Johnny Dixon is too.  And I absolutely approve of the way religion is written in this novel.  This is not a novel about religion – and Bellairs does not make it into one.  However, he does not write a sanitized “religion doesn’t exist in the world” novel, either.  He doesn’t preach or turn the novel into some pseudo-morality tale soggy and dripping with Bible interpretations.  Bellairs writes it all perfectly.  Johnny is a Roman Catholic. Let’s not make that into a thing.  It is what it is.  There are Roman Catholics in the world and Johnny is one of them. Not really anything remarkable about this.  And the novel does not make a big deal of it – but you know when Johnny is about to enter the Crypt that he’s making the Sign of the Cross.

The main character is so interesting and the reader loves empathizing with the kid. He’s an honest kid – neither impossibly awesome, nor pathetically lame.  He’s real, which might be why he is so relate-able.  Authors need to learn how to write like Bellairs – everything so smooth and yet, so meaningful.  Macabre and not gross.  Honest, but yet a good yarn. I hear this is not really Bellairs greatest work – I cannot wait to read more and really be wow-ed by J. Bellairs.

4 stars

Consider Phlebas

Consider PhlebasConsider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks was first published in 1987 and is the author’s first science fiction novel.  It’s title comes from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  It has, since then, been generally accepted as being “space opera.”  It is also the first in Banks’ Culture series of novels. I read the 2008 Orbit edition.

I really liked much of this book, but I also didn’t like some things about it.  First of all, I felt the first three chapters were interesting and I was a little unsure of who was doing what why – but it was full of action.  I, therefore, expected the novel to be more of the same.  But then it seemed that whole chunk was over suddenly and now we were reading a new, but similar, story. (The chapters introducing the Clean Air Turbulence.)  I felt that we had left the first storyline a little behind, but that was okay because this new “story” aboard the Clean Air Turbulence was interesting.  The main character gets to stay aboard this “Free Mercenary/Trade” ship if he wins a fight.  Okay, I’m invested in the main character – go Horza! Win the fight!

Then there are chapters wherein the pirate ship attempts a mission.  They are severely under-geared for this event and the mission fails. I actually did not really like this section because I was not sure what we were supposed to glean from it besides meeting characters.  Nevertheless, the pirates try again – the captain has a new mission for his crew.  They are going to the Orbital Vavatch – a ringworld.  And having read Niven’s Ringworld, I was all good with this sort of construct.  This was actually interesting for awhile, but ends poorly for many characters.

Insert new storyline:  Horza survives and ends up on island of crazy cannibal weirdos.  This is the part of the book that lots of reviewers like to comment on.  It has a lot of graphic imagery, but it is definitely creative and well, I hate to say it again, but it was interesting.  Next section:  the Damage game.  This part is a good example of something I disliked about this novel. There is a lot of build up to certain things.  However, the events seem to fall flat a bit.  The Damage game was probably my favorite section of the book.  Banks explains it well, gives us motives and concepts, and makes the whole thing seem really exciting.  And there’s a lot of elements here that make it unique and creative.  But overall, there’s something missing from it.  There’s something missing that would take it from good to great.  The trippy-LSD parts with Horza and his experience as a “changer” is different – especially the vague connection between him and Kraiklyn.

Horza’s adventures continue. We’re headed back to Schar’s World to capture the Mind.  I am not entirely sure why we are after the Mind – except in the very general sense of the war between the Idirans and the Culture.  Throughout the novel, we are given little interludes wherein we meet the Mind.  These interludes are somewhat tedious and somewhat interesting.  Sometimes they seem rambling and at other times, they seem to be really good at showing us the Mind.  I’m rather torn on whether these are well written or not.  Anyway, this last chunk of the novel is very action-oriented, except, really the last sixty pages, or so, is all build up for a very speedy ending.

The ending comes quickly, I guess I cared about the characters sufficiently, but I was not really upset or affected by anything that happened. There were several elements that were kind of just thrown in there to make it seem like small detailed twists. For example, Yalson’s pregnancy – I don’t really see how that’s anything other than the author trying to force a little plot twist.  The Idiran Xoxarle is a decent enemy, I suppose, but I really feel that he is there (this late in the novel) to finally give us some sense of the other major group in the war – the Idirans.  Up until meeting him, the Idirans are introduced via Horza’s thoughts about them.  But my biggest complaint was that for the whole last chunk of the book – the Mind – which was this amorphous entity with deep thoughts – now is reduced to a non-entity object.  It is incongruous.  I wanted another “interlude” regarding the Mind.

I really didn’t care for most of the chapters with Fal ‘Ngeestra.  I think they are there to get us to understand The Culture.  Which they did.  But also, the chapters seemed rambling and somewhat tangential.  I don’t know.  They served their purpose, but I guess I just didn’t really care for them.  Nevertheless, I really liked the drone. All readers seem to like the drone. (Personally, I think we all think of C3-PO from Star Wars and Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

I liked this novel – though I seem to be complaining a bit about it.  I really did enjoy it, even if it isn’t the greatest science fiction novel ever.  I liked a lot of what Banks did.  I liked the Culture concepts, the Idiran concepts, the Mind, etc.  I enjoyed a lot of the action scenes and the galaxy they are in.  The characters grow on the reader – but when Banks kills them off, it’s quick and to the point and we move on quickly.  I wanted to get to know more about several characters, but it didn’t happen, which was a little disappointing.  Fans of space opera will enjoy this novel.  I want to give it 3.5 stars, but I think I’m going to go with 3 stars.  Honestly, if you twist my arm on days that start with S or T, maybe I’ll give it 4 stars. If I tilt my head left, 3 stars, but if I tilt it right, then I give the novel 4 stars. This is a tough book for me to rate.  There’s a lot of good and some not-so-good.  Nevertheless, I definitely want to read more of Banks’ Culture series.

3 stars