John Picacio

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event HorizonBeyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl was first published in 1980. This novel is the second in the Heechee series that begins with the well-known novel Gateway (1977). I read Gateway in 2012 and I really did not like it. I loved the cover that John Picacio did for Gateway, but as for the novel itself I was disappointed because the novel went places I did not appreciate. It does not take too long into the novel to realize Pohl is writing rather euphemistically and this earned him an unflattering nickname in my household that I will not share here. Needless to say, I was in no hurry to read the next in the series. In fact, at that time I did not actually think I ever would. Lately, I’ve been trying to get through some of the old “hanging on” novels, particularly “book twos.”

Having read none of the secondary literature regarding Gateway and just judging on my reading of the two books, I do not think Pohl intended (in 1977) to write a sequel or series.  However, this book (Beyond the Blue Event Horizon) is not that book (Gateway).  By this I mean that I suspect some readers who truly enjoyed Gateway will find that this second book is lacking in most of the elements that Gateway exhibited.  Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is written with a different tone – one of the most notable aspects of Gateway is its eerie and dismal atmosphere. It approaches a sort of horror mood.  The main character, Robinette Broadhead is detestable. Often there is depiction of a helpless/hopelessness in the characters. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is far more accessible. Its readability is much higher. The characters are all, relatively, likeable, and the plot makes sense. There are more explanations and the story is good, nearly space opera-esque, science fiction.

But it does not read at all like Gateway.

The main character, Robin Broadhead, is not the Robin Broadhead of Gateway. This one is more like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) than the riddled-with-issues character of the previous novel.  Does Stark have issues – yes, of course. However, his writers frequently give him characteristics (and a persona as Iron Man) that allow him to overcome his personality (Tony Stark) and his psychological difficulties. In Gateway, Broadhead is just wretched.

Gateway was daring. Pohl did a lot with that novel. The unknown, the horror, the helplessness, the ugliness is well-written, I guess. Pohl’s usage of Freudian psychoanalysis also adds a snarled and uncomfortable feel to the novel. Finally, the homoerotic threads in the novel also make Gateway quite a bit different than standard science fiction fare.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon really does not contain any of the eerie-unknown that was so strong in Gateway. Instead, this really feels like space opera. So, it also feels like a sell-out. Perhaps it was.

All of that being said, these evaluations are because we are comparing the two novels. On its own, this sequel is actually a good read. It stays above the level of pulp and basic space opera. The characters are all interesting and face different challenges, which keeps them from being cardboard tools. I was rooting for them all, I guess. Pohl makes a strong effort to include what is referred to as “hard scifi” elements, which basically just means he tries to keep the science and mathematics realistic and heavy as opposed to hand-waving and just ignoring it for the sake of the plot. This novel is an engaging read with a lot of good things to be said for it. The varying points-of-view keeps this galactic-wide storyline manageable.

I believe that this novel can be read without having first read Gateway. Perhaps it is better to separate the two, anyway. I appreciate some of the elements of the former, but I really dislike it as a whole. This novel is good but is in no way as daring or provocative as the first. It comes down to what style the reader prefers when consuming their science fiction.

I enjoyed it because it had so much less of the sordid and unpleasantness of the first novel. However, I know that just because something is more accessible, it does not make it a better novel, per se. I did, in some sense, miss the eerie emptiness and psychologically-disturbed style of Gateway, so I can sympathize with readers who found this second novel to be too mundane/accessible. Lastly, the sex-stuff and Pohl… I would find it easy to believe if I learned he wrote soft-porn under some house-name.

4 stars

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Gateway

"Gateway" - F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

“Gateway” – F. Pohl; DelRey/Ballantine; cover: John Picacio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller jr.; EOS

A Canticle for Leibowitz was first published in 1960 by Walter M. Miller jr.  It won the Hugo Award in 1961 and since it’s first publication, it has never gone “out of print.”  Miller is an interesting study:  he fought with the Air Force in WWII, flying over fifty missions in the European theatre.  After the war, Miller converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of short stories.  A Canticle for Leibowitz is the only novel he published in his lifetime.  In his later years, Miller became reclusive and suffered from depression.  He committed suicide in 1996.

The cover art for this edition was done by the famous artist John Picacio, who has done a number of covers for novels. I am very fond of his artwork, which includes an edition of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and several Michael Moorcock novels. Since it’s publication, A Canticle for Leibowitz has been blessed [sic] with the seemingly unending fortune of having excellent cover art.  One of the things that I like about Picacio’s cover is that there are elements that reflect religion, time, and apocalypse – but also hope and stability.  The color work is excellent and this edition is a keeper.

The introduction to this edition is by author Mary Doria Russell.  She is the author of the book The Sparrow. Now, I tried several times to read and finish that book, but it was too much and I ended up quitting and selling the book – not that I like to admit that.  Her introduction to Miller’s novel is good and bad. I agree with her at some points and yet she seems just slightly too sycophantic about it at other points. As I read the novel, Russell’s introduction stuck in the back of my head and I kept turning it around to see if I really agreed or disagreed. Since I kept at it, I guess that’s a signal of being a good introduction.

The novel is divided into three parts:

  • Fiat Homo
  • Fiat Lux
  • Fiat Voluntas Tua

Before starting the book, I was interested in a “destruction of knowledge/apocalypse” novel. So, I built up my expectations on that front. After reading the first part, I was disappointed – not in the novel, per se, but rather that my expectations were slightly off.  Nevertheless, I was enjoying my reading even if the story was not going where I had thought it would.

Reading the second part of the book, I kept waiting for one of the main characters to “turn traitor.”  I guess it’s a sign of the jaded and bitter times I live in that I was expecting that to happen. Surely, not all the good guys are that good, right? Thankfully, none of the characters “turned traitor.”  I say thankfully because not every book has to use that twist to make the story significant. Sometimes, the good guys are simply good guys. Sometimes it’s okay for people not to give in to evil.

The third part of the book was the most intense part of the book. I do not want to give away anything, but the last part displays all the “history repeats itself because human hubris refuses to learn from it’s mistakes” theme that I feel Miller really wrestled with during his lifetime.  Some of the scenes in this last chapter are a bit graphic, although not too terrible for anyone who watches any TV in 2012.  And in the end, the concept of hope still hangs in there, regardless of all the stupidity, stubbornness, and violence.

There is a lot of Latin in this book, but not just Latin – it’s basically Church Latin.  And in 2012, I am as dismal as Miller is regarding the state of anti-intellectualism and even general knowledge of the Church Herself.  I think that non-Catholics will not get as much out of the book as Roman Catholics will. Sure, the plot and themes remain accessible, but some of the tone and feeling is probably going to be lost on many non-Catholics. Some of the themes of the book include religion vs. science, state vs. religion, and faith vs. despair.  However, Miller does not write a church that cannot laugh at itself or take a rueful look at itself.  There are plenty of times in the novel where there is wry humor and bemused characters reflect on their plight.

I can see why it won a Hugo Award.  This is by no means a crappy novel.  In parts it is intense, saddening, amusing, and shocking.  I really liked the Abbots of the monastery and they are really the tools through which Miller tells us this story.  The hints of Leibowitz throughout the story are just enough to be curious and intriguing, but without any solidity.  Ultimately, the Church is the one bulwark of salvation – perhaps more material than spiritual – in the novel and that fact in and of itself will agitate some readers. However, readers who are not vehemently opposed to organized religion and who are willing to take a look at human progress as a whole will enjoy this novel.  If enjoy is the right word:  nuclear warfare/fallout is not really enjoyable, right? I gave it three stars, but I think an argument can be made for four stars. I think I give it three because the first section really seems less purposeful (in a writing sense) than the other two sections. I can honestly say I have not read a book with a plot that was similar and I have a feeling that I will be ruminating on many elements in this novel for years to come.

3 stars