James E. Gunn

Star Bridge

Star Bridge - Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

Star Bridge – Williamson & Gunn; Collier Nucleus; 1989

According to Wikipedia, Star Bridge was originally the idea of Jack Williamson (1908 – 2006), who wrote about a third of the novel and set out the remainder in some form of outline.  Allegedly, James E. Gunn got involved with the novel and finished the writing.  This information on Wikipedia is sourced from the January 2007 Locus article by Gunn. Needless to say, I have no idea how true any of that is.  However, after reading the novel, it does feel a little choppier than one would expect. Anyway, the novel was first published in 1955 and republished a couple of times by different publishers. I read the 1989 Collier Nucleus edition with cover art by Alan Gutierrez.

The novel has twenty-one fairly short chapters.  There are also very short interludes which are something like an outside viewpoint commenting on the events detailed in the chapters. They are presented as “history.”  From the first, the reader is told that Eron is the greatest empire ever and that it has/utilizes the Tube.  The reader is also told that “Empire is communication.” (pg. 1) The Tube is the Star Bridge.

The first five chapters seemed very sluggish. In fact, the first chapter had me raising my eyebrows a little thinking that this was not what I expected.  Perhaps the first five chapters were not really sluggish, but they seemed to be written in an unfamiliar style.  Throughout this opening chunk, I was unsure if this novel was going to be more of an action-thriller or a pondering, roaming sort of thing. Everything opens up, let us say, in chapter six. I mean, once an assassination takes place, of course things get chaotic.  Chapters six and seven are, at once, very well written and also frustrating. They are well written when they focus on the emotional turmoil of the main character, Alan Horn.  It is almost as if the reader can feel Horn’s panic, stress, and doubt.  Yet, there is a lot of this chapter that is not so well done – a feeling I had about the first five chapters, as well.  Somehow the environment/setting is not described sufficiently.

It is one thing to tell the reader that it is nighttime and there is a desert. However, if you are going to have the reader chase the character(s) through caves, into megalopolis structures, and around vast technology, you have to believe the reader is not as familiar with these things as the characters themselves.  I think of Jack Vance; when he describes a setting or technology or mechanics – I think that the reader could practically build whatever is being described.  You know how the device works and how the landscape looks.  In Star Bridge, I feel like there are general ideas that smart readers can understand, but they are choppy and do not (at least for me) result in a full diagram in the imagination.

On this point, Eron, the planet which is the hub for all Tubes, is covered in some sort of structure, because it is an old and used-up planet. It exists only as a seat for the Empire’s directorship and as the hub of the Empire. However, when our main character arrives there, it seems like he navigates the place quickly. I mean, within hours. So, this must also be a very small planet. However, that’s not the sense that the author(s) give, either. So, basically, I just focused on the “action” and “philosophical” parts of the novel and gave up actually following the path of the characters through the Empire.  Our first exposure to usage of the Tube is interesting and the experience of Horn is related in a decent manner, but I feel like PKD could have really rocked our brains. So…. good, just not great.

There are two aspects to this story.  Overall, it is the story of the many poor versus the empowered few. This is the juxtaposition of freedom and dependence. The second aspect to the story is the discussion wherein Horn (and the reader) question to what degree individual choices/actions are free/independent.  At many points it is suggested that the answer is different for an empire than an individual.  At other points, there is a hint that maybe the same forces affect both, just not with results that occur in the same time ratio. Simply, what is the catalyst for a man’s actions/choices?  What is the catalyst for an empire/society’s actions and goals?

One of the elements that this novel does well is how there is a layered mystery of power.  Several times the “true hand” at work moving events and people is revealed….. and then is shown to be only a puppet for a deeper more removed hand.  In a couple of cases, one of the empowered actually is unaware that they are merely puppets.  This stuff was creepy, and the intrigue and “unknowable-ness” really gives depth to the novel. Of course when dealing with power, there are lots of ways to look at the situation and lots of segments of society with their role to play.  The novel does touch on a bunch of them, but it is still a short (215 pages) novel and just does not have the length to examine each one of these roles.

The novel most similar to this is Asimov’s Foundation.  One of the similarities is the disinterest the reader develops for the characters.  After awhile, Horn seems superhuman and “too awesomized.” And those that help him are  stereotypical. (For example, one particular violent character wears black and has snarling overgrown dogs.)  I really liked Foundation and I liked this novel…. I will always have more interest in the macro than the single individual. It is interesting that this novel does an okay job of making the reader look at both simultaneously.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel.  Unfortunately, I think the execution suffers a bit. Also the length. After all, it is not often that I actually wish a novel was longer; usually I am complaining that the author did not know when to end the thing! Well, this book could use another hundred pages and it would be a definite four-star rating.  As it is:  a standard action novel with sporadic choppy writing – three stars.  It is a good novel, though. I would not want readers to think that this is something to be skipped just because it is not perfect.

3 stars

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The Joy Makers

The Joy Makers - James E. Gunn

The Joy Makers – James E. Gunn

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

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

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

“Are you happy?” Wright asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Station in Space

Station in SpaceStation in Space by James E. Gunn (b. 1923) is the second book that I have read by the author.  Station in Space was published in 1958, but its contents were all previously published.  I don’t know if I would call this a novel or even a “fix-up” novel.  It is not a collection of short stories, either – because all five pieces in this book actually tell a linear, if broad, story.

The first piece in this book is The Cave of Night.  It was originally published in 1955 in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine.  It was also adapted into an episode of the NBC radio show X-Minus-One.  It aired on February 1, 1956 and was adapted by Ernest Kinoy.  I started reading and did not really like any of it, but somehow it hooked me.  It was more emotionally drawing than I expected it to be.  And I did not expect any of the last two pages.  Other savvy readers will, but for me it was a surprise.  So, the author gives a good grippy setup and then WHAM! he turns the tables on us.  Very cool. A story from the perspective of an American observing the space program.

The next section is Hoax.  This was originally from 1955 If magazine.  This introduces the character Amos Danton, a young man who is leaving for the orbital space station for the first time. He meets grizzled space veterans and is faced with the authentic dangers and miseries of life not “Inside” (on Earth).  We learn a lot about Cadet Amos in this story that will play a role in the rest of the book.  At this point, I had read the first two pieces in this book and was surprised by how good they were and also impressed with Gunn’s writing skill.  A story from the perspective of a young man going to the station, leaving behind his mother, his childhood, and the Academy.

I had read an earlier novel by Gunn and though it had plenty of good ideas, it was a little “out-in-left-field” and the writing itself was a bit awkward.  In these shorter works, Gunn’s writing skill shows through.  His characters have depth because Gunn lets the reader consider the situations and come to their own opinion of the character.  Spacemen, we learn, have some similar standout characteristics:  stubbornness, dreams and drive, ambition, and resilience.

The third piece is The Big Wheel, originally found in Fantastic Universe, 1956.  This is the longest of the three so far and it starts with a rather unique scenario.  In fact, Gunn is at his most profound in this story.  He gives us quick thoughts on clothes, economics, and the plight of the worker.  Bruce Patterson is the main character in this story, but as I reader I was really pulling for all the guys to succeed and survive. Kendrix is one of characters in this mix – he’s an ex-professor and he is the mouthpiece for a lot of criticism toward society and the government/economy.  He makes some salient points in his brief rants, but I swear some of these quotes were lifted from Gunn’s earlier work, This Fortress World.

“There speaks humanity!” Kendrix cried, pointing.  “Listen to it snore! Don’t disturb it with truths. Like an angry bear, it will smash the man who wakes it.  Sleep, my friend. Sleep on. When the world collapses around you, sleep, sleep. . . “

In any case, this is a story about the men who are struggling for jobs to support themselves/their family.  They have been selected for this “investment” project – to build the Big Wheel – a big orbital in space. The training is grueling.  The reason behind the entire project calls into question a number of opinions and beliefs. And it is also a realistic look at the demands of a space program.

The next section is Powder Keg, originally found in If, April 1958.  I did not love this one as much as I liked the others – but there can be no doubt that it is a solid, well-written entry.  In this piece, we meet Air Force psychologist Lloyd Phillips as he blasts off to the orbital under orders to discover if the men there are sane and can be counted on.  Of course, the orders come from a General who has motives and psychological issues which impinge on the situation heavily.  Phillips is forced into the miserable nerve-racking station. He meets insubordination, rudeness, challenge.  He also undergoes the strain of an emergency which threatens the lives of all the crew.  And he is forced to realize the situation on the station is not understood by those “Inside” (back on Earth.)  This story is tough on humans. It portrays them as heroic and honest, but also stubborn, difficult, and intractable.

venturemay1957The final story, Space is a Lonely Place is my favorite of the bunch.  It is a really good piece to end this collection.  Here is a story about men making the strained trip to Mars. And of all the harrowing, ship-bound, “out of food/water/O2 stories that fill out the science fiction genre, I really like this one the best.  It is kind of what Gateway (F. Pohl) should have gotten right.  This is one creepy, disturbing, morally-challenging, gripping story. Shepherd! (You will understand after reading it!) Holy cow, Shepherd!  And the last line in the story is a statement by Lloyd Phillips and it is so creepy and eerie it seems straight out of The Twilight Zone and Hitchcock.  I actually own the magazine wherein it first appeared:  Venture Science Fiction, May 1957.

Anyway, I loved this collection – more so as it was put together, than anything separately. It reads really well.  And this is science fiction without ray guns and aliens.  It is science fiction from the mid-1950s that deals directly with the space program – and the dreams and demands of mankind regarding it.  I appreciated the psychological elements the most, I think. The economic scenario was not lost on me, and I could grant that some good marks.  But overall, Gunn captures the concept of mankind’s indefatigable “dreams” and what mankind will sacrifice for dreams – how dreams are this driving force, shoving man across frontiers and boundaries, having him take risks over and over again.

5 stars

This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars