books

The Demolished Man

the demolished manIts Vintage Science Fiction Month 2019! I see a lot more participation this year from readers and I am happy about it. I, so far, have only read one novel. I actually cannot guarantee that this is the first time I have read the novel. Its hard to know with some of the more famous older ones. Anyway, I read The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1913 – 1987).  The novel was originally published in periodicals in 1952. One of its biggest claims to fame is that it won the first Hugo Award. Now, in the last decade or so, I have read a lot of dissent regarding the Hugo Awards. I have read a few. Some seemed quite deserving of a prized award, others not so much. Having read several novels from the 1950s, I think that this novel is a reasonable and worthy selection for the award. I can see vintage-sf-badgehow it was selected.

I read the 1996 hardcover edition by Vintage. I also own the 1970 Signet paperback. Looking at the various covers this novel has seen through the years, I gotta say there is not yet one that really appeals to me.

So the story takes place in the future, but a future that is not marvelously different from our current world.  The biggest element is that there are espers – peepers; telepaths who are known to exist and are employed in a variety of jobs in the governmental and corporate worlds.  In fact, there is some effort to produce these espers – for example, a peeper has to marry a peeper. There are grooming places where potential peepers are farmed.

This telepathic society is probably what Bester is most known for. It helped that Babylon 5 (TV series, 1993 – 1998) showcase a Psi Corps in which Walter Koenig (Cp. the character Chekhov in Star Trek) plays a Psi Corps commander named “Bester”.  In any case, while Alfred Bester did not write a large number of novels, this is the one people seem at ease in recalling.

The storyline is interesting – until its not.  It’s good when it’s a page-turning game of cat-and-mouse between two slick characters. Detective versus murderer. But when it moves into the very pseudo-psychological-trippin’ territory, I got bored and uninterested and, frankly, a little lost.  And the motive for the killing….well, it was there all along, but I was hoping it wasn’t true because it’s rather lame and unsatisfactory, anyway.  Because FREUD.  I am thoroughly sick of Freud. But I do wonder a little bit how nifty and edgy authors thought of themselves when they decided to use Freudian concepts in their works.  Now it seems ridiculously overdone and tedious and, sometimes, ridiculous.  However, its 2019 – I am sure when it was first done it was fresh and novel or a little bit edgy.

The thing is, authors tend to cherry-pick their Freud when it suits their stories. Which is fine, but if they get too in-depth with it all, like in this story, it gets blurry and muddy.  It harms their stories – turning them from unique and interesting into sketchy inexact mush. Novelists might like to borrow from Freud, but few of them actually are Freudian, I guess.

Anyway, what is good:  I really think the first half of the novel is good stuff. Its fast-paced, there are guns, men-of-action, and cool cats who smooth talk like noir kings.  I like the way the game pits the wealthy Reich versus the telepaths. Can money beat “omniscience”? Can telepaths always play by the rules even when it might seem the end justifies any means? Can one man outwit the masses?  Can a crime that has allegedly been extinct be committed and gotten away with?  These are super fun questions the first half of the book brings us.

The canvassing the scene of the crime is one of my favorite sections in the book. I like the way the telepath detective works with and upon the witnesses/suspects and his fellow investigators. Its well-written and fun.

The bad is when the game of chase changes into a weird Freudian exploration. See, when Freud comes in, it gets bad. So, there are some quite rough parts here where it is really heavy-handed in the psychology arena. And at this point, so much Freudian stuff makes the novel seem really dated and not well-kept.

Also there is hideous love-interest business. Its really awful. I mean, I tried to look at it as optimistically and kindly as I could – I mean, if you speak in Klingon, stand on your head, close one eye, and spin tops – then you may be able to see the small ounce of romanticism in this scenario.  However, nowadays and without all that effort, it just comes across as majorly uncomfortable and very weird. In defense of it all – this whole love-arc is couched [sic!] [I had to…sorry!] in a hugely Freudian architecture. So, maybe its not as bad from that perspective.

There’s some good fun science fiction in here. Concepts and methods writers needed to have and build on. But I don’t see a big need for us to return to it. Recommended for the strong readers of vintage science fiction. Readers who dig psychological focus may find something here to enjoy.

3 stars

Advertisements

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

Recently, discussions and thoughts on this novel had been circulating/re-circulating around my small corner of the internet. Motivated by what I read, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down this novel (paperback version by Academy Chicago Publishers 1997). Its a 240-page read, which was perfect for my end of the year reading in the middle of all the usual events and such that take place. Originally published in 1936 by Leo Bruce; that is a penname, though. The author is Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979) and this is the first in the small “Sergeant Beef” series of novels.

This is quite a well-known work and most fans of vintage/classic British detective novels have already read it or know of it. There is not a lot I could possibly share about this novel that the many better-informed mystery readers of the internet have not already discussed.  I am no expert in mystery novels – I read them for entertainment and I am forever unable to guess who-done-it. But I can mention a few of my thoughts here.

This is something of a country-house murder. The three detectives in the title refer to three quite well-known fictional detectives. Told in the first-person from the character Townsend’s perspective, the novel is also a decent murder mystery. Most readers should enjoy the parody of this type of country house murder combined with locked-room.  Townsend knowingly provides the tag-along simpleton position that allows the famous detectives to pontificate and show-off. Its really quite funny.

The author does a bang up job on representing each of the three detectives, though I think he overuses Lord Simon and underuses Smith. Still, he accurately parodies the famous three – without, somehow, going too far and making the detectives completely foolish. In a sense, mocking these beloved characters – but respectfully and tastefully, I suppose.

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us.  It was not extraordinary for there to be three total strangers questioning the servants, or for the police to be treated with smiling patronage, or for the corpse to be pulled about by anyone who was curious to know how it had become a corpse….. I really wondered how these queer customs had arisen. — pg. 59

This amused me because it is so very true – and even until present day where you can see it all the time in TV serials (e.g. Monk, Castle, Columbo, etc.).  Detective fiction has its ups and downs, flaws and idiosyncrasies.  Perhaps the largest is this situation wherein all the laymen, neighbors, and whomever else happens by, all become part of the “detective squad.”  And murders are more like adventure quests wherein any of the usual horrors and miseries of a sudden death are forgotten.

Some reviews about this novel:

At the Scene of the Crime’s Nobody Invited the Fourth Detective (2011)

Cross-Examining Crime’s Case for Three Detectives (2016)

My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Sunday Mystery (2011)

The Reader is Warned’s Reflections on Parody in Detective Fiction (2018)

While I was amused throughout, there was one laugh aloud moment that I want to share. In chapter 6 (in which we meet Picon), Picon and Townsend examine the room where the murder occurred. Sergeant Beef is doing some detecting there as well. Picon in true-to-Poirot-form exclaims: “Ah, the good Boeuf!” This was such a funny moment for me, I laughed and laughed. Its so perfectly Poirot and so funny even if you don’t know much of Poirot.

Overall, an super entertaining read. Perfect for fans of vintage classic detective fiction. Bruce was clearly an able writer with a good skill for parody. I like that his parody does not turn cruel or nasty. I also enjoyed how he mocks a multitude of aspects of the genre – not solely the “amateur experts.” I can definitely recommend this to most readers.

4 stars

Under the Green Star

NDRTHGRNSC1972

“Under the Green Sky” – Lin Carter; DAW 1972 (cover: Tim Kirk)

Under the Green Star by Lin Carter was first published in 1972.  It is the first of five novels in the Green Star series.  I think this is the first thing that I have read by Carter, but it is really hard to know for certain.  Anyway, the key fact about this novel is that it is Carter’s attempt to emulate the style and subject of the so-called Burroughs tradition.  This, of course, refers to Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950).  Burroughs is the creator of the super famous archetype-level characters:  Tarzan and John Carter. In any case, even the title of this book refers to Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was originally (in some form) entitled Under the Moons of Mars. So, Lin Carter gives us an excellent homage to this sort of sword & planet tradition.

I enjoyed reading this novel because I am always entertained by adventure-pulp stories. There is something wonderfully raw about them and their constant headlong rush into constant adventure.  It is sometimes a relief how authors of this style usually hand-wave and shrug regarding all the tedious details.  They and their characters are not omniscient and all of that is besides the point.  The point is to have adventures and be heroic and carry a sword.

Which is real – the fantastic adventure I feel compelled to relate – or the world beyond my windows?  Have I only dreamed that I have stood where no man of my race has ever set foot before, or is this dull world of tax returns and ball-point pens, of air pollution and TV talk shows, itself by a dream? Are both worlds real? – pg. 7

Carter did a very good job of matching the original form that he was trying to homage.  He clearly has a fondness for and a sharp understanding of that former style.  The vocabulary is just ever-so-slightly less archaic.  Really only people who care a lot about words would notice that his word-choice is not exactly Robert E. Howard’s or H. P. Lovecraft’s.  The descriptions are just barely not quite Burroughs’ descriptions.  But only to those who read a great deal and, as I said, love words.  The style, the milieu, the storyline, the characters, all seem to solidly come from the Burroughs tradition.  And perhaps, even Burroughs himself, if you did not know better.

Similarly with John Carter, the main character in this novel manages to end up on a different planet.  Of course, here is a referential sequence of the nameless main character:

To walk the surface of another planet – to go where no man of my world had yet been in all the ages of infinite time!  Vague thoughts of the books I had read with such fascination in my boyhood came back to me – memories of old Edgar Rice Burroughs and his unforgettable Martian adventure classics – now I, too, like John Carter, could stride the dead sea bottoms of mysteries and romantic Barsoom! – pg. 15, chapter two

But, in the end, Lin Carter knows enough that he cannot duel on Burroughs’ home turf, so to speak.  He knows he has to take us somewhere new. So, the main character manages to get himself to the planet under the green star.

And the setting is actually interesting. I mean, I have to admit that I was reminded a lot of the 2013 children’s animated movie Epic (which was itself based on the story by William Joyce:  The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs).  I do not think it spoils too much to say that on this planet of the Green Star, the people are miniaturized and the flora and fauna is gigantic.  Now, like the nameless narrator, I have no idea if the people are truly miniaturized (Cp. sizing in Lilliput of Jonathan Swift’s work. The people there are about one-twelfth the size we are used to.) or if the people are normally-sized and the trees and insects are just outrageously large.  Imagine huge trees such that their branches are like four-lane highways!  Imagine the peril from things like spiders and lizards!

One does not, however, look for stones in the upper branches of a tree. – pg. 74

And the entirely of the novel is spent within the trees of this world. The ground, if there is one, is not seen and remains an unknown.  Imagine a world with trees so large, that one could live their entire lives without seeing the earth below.  And this food for the imagination is partially why adventure-pulp novels are so much fun.  Now, it is no good if a reader just blazes over the words in the novel and does not actually allow his imagination to enjoy these items.  In fact, without imagination or fun, this is a super-fast and extremely silly read.

We could have done with a bit of tomato sauce, or a twist of lemon, but I suppose Crusoes cannot be choosy. – pg. 77

That is my favorite line in the entire novel. It really amuses me and I feel like I should incorporate it into my daily speech.  Remember that, fans of swords & planets – you take adventure as it comes and you do not act all picky about it!

Well, this is immensely readable especially if you enjoy the Burroughs tradition.  However, even if you have not read all that much Burroughs and/or Howard, this is enjoyable. Sure, it is a pastiche of a time gone by and maybe of authors who were not perfect, but it is excellent escape reading.  Only the hardest-hearted reader would, I think, not find this enjoyable. I’m so glad I own book two, because like our main character also feels, there is something magical about that planet under the Green Sun.

3 stars

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Temple Golden Pavilion

“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” – Yukio Mishima

This is actually the second time I read this novel. But since one cannot step into the same river twice, I suppose, this is also my “first” time reading “this” novel. Written by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970), it was published in Japan in 1956 and was translated into English in 1959. I read the Vintage International edition, translated by Ivan Morris.  It is a literary fictional re-telling of the life of Hayashi Yōken, a Zen Buddhist Acolyte, the arsonist who burned down the original Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Hayashi Yōken committed this horrible act in 1950 and six years later, this novel was published.

The main overarching point that I want to assert regarding all of this is that no other author in the universe ought to have written this novel. Yukio Mishima is precisely the one that would, could, and did write this. Allegedly, Mishima met with the young monk once the monk was imprisoned. Somehow this is accepted as near-fact, though, I do wonder how Mishima was allowed this access?  I do not doubt he was, though. Mishima was enigmatic, overwhelming, significant. He was also a member of the samurai class; even if this was already 1950.

Take note, I think if all the dates can be trusted, Mishima was nearly the same age as the young acolyte – allegedly, Hayashi Yōken was 22, Mishima was 25.

Mishima was not one who would stop a rumor, I suppose, were one to circulate. But he might be pleased to give contradictory reports, just to see what would happen. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but also knew to keep his cards close and covered. The alleged interview with the mad monk may have been worthless and useless. Or it may have be everything. Or, most likely, it was nothing to most people, but everything to Mishima’s insightful, perceptive, literary eye.  All of this is to say, this could be one-hundred percent rubbish created by Mishima who enjoyed making idols and knocking them down and shocking his readership. It could also be totally peppered with truths and the reader is at a loss for any tools to distinguish what is true and what is not.

Hardly could there be another author who would dare and who would care in the same way as Mishima to write this notorious novel of this national tragedy. Not to mention, using some of the material of the story for esoteric considerations of beauty and nihilism. So, when it is all said and done, I am not entirely sure what Mishima actually thought of the event. It was horrible and shocking and he loved that it occurred because of its horror, is what I think.

Moving from Mishima to history and the temple itself, it should be noted that this event occurred not too distant from WWII. The Nanking Massacre started in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack was in 1941, and, of course, the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  While the boy was likely isolated to an extent by his life at the temple, the war doubtlessly crept into every nook and cranny and had profound effects on everyone.

My concern, what confronted me with my real problem, was beauty alone. But I do not think that the war affected me by filling my mind with gloomy thoughts.  When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world.  – pg. 48

The temple known as Kinkakuji was originally built in 1400 or so. And after the young acolyte committed arson, it was painstakingly rebuilt and it is likely rebuilt to restore the original glory of the early temple, and not simply that of the 1950s. I think that even as recent as the early 2000s, highly detailed repairs were being completed. I would be interested to know if Mishima knew of these efforts, what he thought of them, etc.

Mishima changes the name of the acolyte to Mizoguchi, a boy afflicted with a serious stutter who is also the son of a Buddhist priest. Hayashi Yōken was allegedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died from tuberculosis. Mishima has Mizoguchi narrate this story.  As a narrator, Mizoguchi is entirely self-centered and self-occupied.  If this is something that Mishima intended, I do not know. However, it is difficult to truly sympathize or empathize with Mizoguchi, although he often seems simple and awkward enough to merit some mitigation for his thoughts/actions.

“For what purpose do I live? At such thoughts people feel uneasy and even kill themselves. . . Just to exist was more than enough to satisfy me.  In the first place, doesn’t uneasiness about one’s existence spring precisely from a sort of luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully?” – pg. 100

Readers who may take an interest in this story because they want to watch the development of Mizoguchi; from a young boy with his ill father, to an acolyte obsessed with the Temple, to a madman with a nihilistic spark [sic!], will be disappointed. The slope that Mishima takes us on is not steep and daring and breakneck.  If such development is present, it is very subtle. The story is indeed told in episodic fashion, mainly in a variety of relationships that Mizoguchi has with his Superior at the Temple, his fellow acolytes, and his fellow schoolmates.

Many of the episodes that Mizoguchi undergoes are, in a sense, difficult to read through.  He is not a comfortable individual and it seems that he is unable to discern the normal from the abnormal. Bizarre situations fascinate him and affect him strongly.  Mishima suggests that Mizoguchi is a fully-aware of the evilness or sin in his actions.  Mizoguchi seems, at points, to revel in the sin, to perform the evil action just to bring evil into the world – as if it is a thing of beauty. The way Mishima presents all of this is weird, because Mizoguchi does not seem to want to commit any particular sin for the sake of that sin. Instead, he just wants to do anything evil, any sort of immoral act will suffice.

Was one obliged to pay back one’s debts in the face of a world catastrophe?  I was tempted to give Kashiwagi the tiniest hint of what was in my mind, but I stopped myself – pg. 208

Kashiwagi is a character possessed of a big personality that strongly affects Mizoguchi. Its clear that Kashiwagi is a toxic relationship for the young acolyte, even if Mizoguchi is unable to discern this.  If Mizoguchi had toyed with self-loathing feelings and dabbled in a variety of profanities, it is after Kashiwagi’s influence that Mizoguchi embraces the truly destructive. Mishima likes to juxtapose these two characters and both and neither are his some-time mouthpiece throughout the novel.

“Why does the Golden Temple try to protect me?  Why does it try to separate me from life without asking it?  Of course it may be that the temple is saving me from falling into hell. But by so doing, the Golden Temple is making me even more evil than those people who actually do fall into hell, it is making me into ‘the man who knows more about hell than anyone.’ ” – pg. 153

Unfortunately, Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Temple seems to cloud his judgment and he is unable to discern who or what is influencing him.  To top it off, he has no close confidants or role models to look toward.  There is no one to turn to in the hopes of pulling him back onto a better path.  So the question is not always “what is the evil influence?” but sometimes:  “why can’t Mizoguchi find, create, and maintain close relationships?”  Of course Mizoguchi would tell us it is due to his stutter. Sometimes he believes the Temple – and all that it represents – forms a blockade between himself and others.

There are definite sordid and profane moments in this novel.  Mishima likes to look at the concepts of evil, beauty, war, religion, relationships and show them both at their best and worst. Sometimes Mishima comes across as quite nasty.  At other points, Mishima seems to crave purity and and beauty more than anyone. This book is not for gentle readers.  It is not an easy read – even just textually, though there are only ten chapters in this novel, there are several whole chapters that really slog, especially when Mishima allows Mizoguchi’s mental meanderings to go wide-open.  It can get boring and rambling.  Nevertheless, though I have read this twice, I don’t like this book. But I know I will probably re-read it in the future. Its a good book that is really tough to enjoy.

2 stars

Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars