Michael Whelan

Brother Assassin

Brother AssassinBrother Assassin by Fred Saberhagen (1930 – 2007) is the second book in his Berserker series, which began with the 1967 collection Berserker.  This book is a sort of “fix-up” novel of three shorter works that were published in issues of the magazine If in 1967.  I gave the first book in the series four stars and I think I will be doing the same thing with this one. I own two copies of Brother Assassin; the 1969 Ballantine Books edition with Richard Powers cover art is very nice, but I read my other copy:  the 1978 ACE edition with art by Michael Whelan. Truthfully, this first ACE edition has a bunch of typos in it, but the font was easier for me to look at than in the Ballantine.

As one reads this book, it is very easy to notice that it is not from contemporary writers. The book feels vintage. It also feels a bit campy and pulpy, which it is, of course. Nevertheless, I do not think readers should be speedily dismissive of it just because it does not have the same feel to it as more recently published science fiction.  Brother Assassin is written somewhat simply – this is not the prose we would expect from China Mieville.  The characters are not pounded out in exasperating, excruciating detail. In fact, many may seem superficial or obvious. Yes, and, of course, the female character of the book is emotional and a bit immature (dare I say witless?)

Brother Assassin firstThis novel is broken into three sections. Each section is one of the shorter works previously published in If.  The whole novel describes the Berserker attack (infiltration of the past) on the already war-weary planet Sirgol. Each section of the novel focuses on  a particular insertion of Berserker forces into the timeline. How about that as a strategy – if you cannot defeat your enemy in the current time, defeat him by going to the past and destroying crucial elements of the historical timeline.  Certainly, this is not perfect science – it is not meant to be. It is written well enough, though, that the reader can pretend that it is possible and really invest in the well-being of the characters.

Continuity among all this timeline movement is held by the main character, Derron, who twice is sent back in time to deal with the Berserker “assassins.” Derron Odegard is an unhappy, but dutiful time operative. One would have to return to the original stories and then see what (if any?) differences were made or interludes added regarding Derron – but I think in its final form, this fix-up can be read as a redemptive storyline.

It’s not really ideal to think of this as a strict time-travel novel. It’s almost more ontological than it has any right to be. And there’s a delicious amount of heartstring-plucking ethics thrown in each section to make the novel more than just an action sequence.

The last section of the book is going to have different levels of depth and meaning for various readers.  Those of us GenX and back who were raised in the Church are probably going to have a different feel here than those Z-Gen types who have never been inside a church. So, reader perspective will change the feel. Nevertheless, the story is still interesting…. a re-imagining of the business with Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. Saberhagen does an interesting job here of making all the participants in the debate seem real. St. Francis of Assisi is the other character that is juxtaposed between the heliocentric drama and the struggles of Derron and his timeline. Let me admit, while many parents read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, I was read the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  Like I mentioned: a reader’s background will change the level to which this story resonates with him.

Overall this is not high-tech hard science fiction. The work is flawed here and there.  I just plain and simple liked Saberhagen’s work with the main character Derron. I liked his work with the character Matt. I liked his styling of a Renaissance drama in the last section. So, based on feel – as opposed to anything else – I give this four stars. Its not great literature, but it was a good thing for me to read.

4 stars

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Time and Again

time and again aceToday is Clifford D. Simak’s birthday (1904 – 1988).  It is a happy coincidence that I am writing this review today, after having finished reading his 1951 novel Time and Again.  I read the Ace 1983 edition with cover by Romas Kukalis.  I also own the 1976 Ace edition with cover by Michael Whelan. I like the Whelan cover more so I read the 1983 one.

This is the fourth Simak novel I have read.  It took awhile to get through this one – and I managed to polish off other novels during the time I was also reading this one. I admit, I got stuck on page 90 for a couple of weeks and the book sat abandoned.

 I got stuck at page 90 on June 15th. (Today is August 3.)  So, the book sat there because I did believe this might be a book I have to abandon. And abandoning a book mid-read is not really something I do, unless there is a very good reason. The novel starts all right, gets ridiculously awful – disjointed, confusing, and random – and then suddenly most of it straightens out and things make sense. The ending continues on too long and gets a little out of hand, honestly.

I am impressed that Simak pulled this one together. Still, there is no excuse for the nonsense and total random that goes on early in the book. It is REALLY tough to read through – literally, I was just reading words and they were not stringing together to make a coherent plot or even any basic sense. I could not have told you what this book was about for anything. I forced myself to keep reading (weeks later) – and then Simak pulled some threads together and the writing improved by leaps and bounds.

The story has less to do with time travel and more to do with Simak’s views on quasi-religion (destiny/life). The questions revolving around destiny and life are juxtaposed against the natures of humans and androids. (Simak’s androids are different than Asimov’s.) Finally, over all of this, to make this a science fiction story, rather than a pondering, there is a “war” of sorts that is fought by far-future humans and robots. All of this makes for a confused book. I see what Simak was doing, and its not a bad idea, but the execution got muddied. He sorts it out – mostly, but there are some rough sections that are really tough to get through.

The middle and middle-end part of the book is quite good. You really could not read it without the beginning and actual end, though. So readers are stuck with that murky front end with the total chaos.  Still, when Simak is “on” the writing is great.

And he didn’t say it because he was interested at the moment in war, whether in three or four dimensions, but because he felt that it was his turn to talk, his turn to keep this Mad Hare tea chatter at its proper place.

For that was what it was, he told himself… an utterly illogical situation, a madcap, slightly psychopathic interlude that might have its purpose, but a hidden, tangled purpose. -pg. 145  Chapter XXIV

I really liked this quote and I feel that I can relate to the character’s feelings here. Haven’t you been in a conversation where it seems you are talking around something and everyone seems smiley and fake and bizarre, but everyone plays along? Anyway, the next lines are quotes from Carroll, so Simak’s usage of the Mad Hare (as opposed to Mad Hatter) is clearly deliberate. Similarly, this is somewhat of the feeling you get when you read the early chunk of the novel:  we are all talking about something illogical, random, but we sense a hidden and tangled plot in there somewhere.

At the end of the day, the basic concept of the novel is that of Destiny. Or destiny. I do not believe Simak is a theist, so I do not think that is a euphemism for a deity, but there is definitely a pseudo-Tao concept being played with here. I am not suggesting that it is totally worked out in an academic way, but it is a solid concept for a 1950s novel.

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

Destiny, the way of men and races and of worlds.

Destiny, the way you made your life, the way you shaped your living. . . the way it was meant to be, the way that it would be if you listened to the still, small voice that talked to you at the many turning points and crossroads.

But if you did not listen. . . why, then, you did not listen and you did not hear.  And there was no power that could make you listen.  There was no penalty if you did not listen except the penalty of having gone against your destiny. – pg. 175 Chapter XXIX

This page sums up what Simak is playing with in this novel. I am not sure it is clear for most of the book, but this page lays it out plain as can be – or, as plain as the concept of destiny can be, anyway. And the action and characters and storyline are all accidental, it seems, to this discussion, which does not even occur until late in the novel. Its fairly interesting, but the reader will suffer getting to that point. Depends on if it is their destiny or not, right?

time and again ace whiteNow, there is a bit of time travel – but its not very much like time travel stories we know and “love.”  This time travel is juxtaposed with the concept of destiny, so it kind of applies. And in the last quarter of the novel, the main character ends up in the year 2000 or so in Wisconsin. On a farm near a river in Wisconsin. (Simak students will know this is Simak’s home of which he had a great fondness for and often plays a part in his novels.) Simak really likes Wisconsin, because when he writes about it, it is descriptive and meandering and he draws it out and praises everything about it.  Its so dang rural. And farmy. It kills me when Simak does this. I do not doubt his sentiments and I understand his love for the location, but my word do I suffer reading about grass and hay!

Lastly, Simak had me grinning in chapter XXXIII, when Sutton (the main character) first arrives in Wisconsin in 2000. Sutton meets a resident of the time just fishing and smoking a pipe…a fellow named “Old Cliff.”

This is a difficult, but relatively rewarding read. Definitely for Simak fans. Those with interest in 1950s robots/androids could find interesting bits here, too. And, of course, readers curious about Simak’s concept of destiny would enjoy this. The first half of the book, however, will require a bit of effort from all.

3 stars

Question and Answer

Question and AnswerQuestion and Answer is the 1978 ACE title of a story written by Poul Anderson in 1954 in Astounding Science Fiction.  The serialized story was then published in entirety as:  Planet of No Return (1956). My 1978 edition has Michael Whelan’s cover art on it.  No part of the text was changed since its serialization.

Originally, the narrative tells us, a professional scientist was approached to “design a planet” which was Earth-like.  Three writers were then provided this setting and asked to write about it. Sort of an early “shared universe” attempt.  The three writers were allegedly Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish.  There is only speculation regarding the so-called “professional scientist.”  Anyway, this short history is given as the introduction in this edition.  Poul Anderson makes a further comment about how planet-building is fun.

The careless publishers also made an error on the back-of-the-book’s write-up. They put the wrong spaceship (De Gama instead of the Hudson).  This isn’t a big thing, but it irked me.

The story itself does not seem too far removed from the present day.  The civilizations of Sol (our galaxy) are overpopulated and are looking for another Earth to colonize.  Apparently, colonies have already struck out onto Luna (the moon), Venus, and Mars. There has been a lot of war in the last two centuries, political/religious agendas have divided the people of Sol.

The first character we meet in the novel is actually not the main character. Kemal Gummus-lugil is in the process of a radiation meltdown situation aboard a spaceship.  We meet the main character, John Lorenzen, next.  Immediately, I took a dislike to him.  He is mopey and weak. Frankly, other characters in the novel often call him weak. Naturally, he has to overcome his fatal personality flaw by the end of the novel and has to be the “determined/strong” character.  It is obvious and a little annoying.

The next character we meet is Edward Avery. He is a psychomed and he plays the role of therapist/human resources on the ship.  He is subordinate to Captain Hamilton, but also seems to be always on his own agenda. There are several other characters that are mentioned by name, Thornton and Fernandez.  But also Friedrich von Osten.  The thing is, the reader is led to believe (via storyline and Avery’s presence) that humanity and psychology plays some role in this novel. So, the seemingly diverse (ethnicity, backgrounds, political/religious affiliations) might be relevant to the story. And they are – except Anderson writes all of von Osten’s dialogue phonetically. It gets really aggravating to read; especially because von Osten is also portrayed as combative and aggressive. He is the only character that Anderson tries to demonstrate lingo-ethnicity.

Some residual (post WW2) distancing/transference regarding Germans/Germany, eh Poul?

Avery tells us:

The human mind is a weird and tortuous thing.  It’s perfectly possible to believe in a dozen mutually contradictory things at once.  Few people ever really learn how to think at all; those who do, think only with the surface of their minds.  The rest is still conditioned reflex and rationalization of a thousand subconscious fears and hates and longings.  We’re finally getting a science of man – a real science; we’re finally learning how a child must be brought up if he is to be truly sane. But it’ll take a long time before the results show on any large scale.  There is so much insanity left over from all our history, so much built into the very structure of human society. – pg. 13, Chapter 2

Well, this paragraph, early in the novel, should give readers a pretty fat clue as to how this whole sucker is going to turn out in the end.  Frankly, I am only giving this novel two stars because Poul Anderson is not a writer I like because of what he does in novels like this.

They had a professional scientist play make-believe and create a planet. They had celebrity writers (Asimov, Blish) lined up to write in a shared universe about said planet.  And Anderson had so much potential, because, well, he is not an idiot and he does write with sufficient skill. But somehow, just like whatever else I read by Anderson, he sucks all of the fun totally out of the story.

Stories can be written with moralizing, with ruminating on humankind, with criticisms about politics and religion – that do not sacrifice every single fun part of a story. I have said this before, if Anderson wants to write non-fiction (e.g. memoirs, journals, aphorisms, etc.) he should have done that. But man, he kills a story like no one else.

Like a gigantic kosmic fun-sucker. SSSSSSSLLLLUUURRRRP.

So, a diverse group of humans (and their crazy personalities) with a lot at stake, travel to Troas to find a “new Earth.” There is so much science to be done. And on top of this, the grand mystery of why the first expedition (the De Gama) did not return should be investigated and resolved. Tension! Adventure! Excitement! Hard empirical science!  So much potential.

Instead, a slow-moving story with obvious plotlines. An annoying main character who is utterly predictable.  Opinions and pseudo-lectures on what is good for Man, what Man ought to do, who has the right path selected for Man, and what Man deserves. It renders the plot pointless, ignores all of the cool potential available, and makes a slog of a novel.

It is not a bad novel, per se. It just has no fun in it whatsoever – which is made worse by the fact that it is super-obvious that there should be fun contained within.

2 stars

The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home AndersonI am stuck in 1955 – 1958.   I just finished Poul Anderson’s The Long Way Home.  It was originally published in bits in 1955 as No World of Their Own, but then re-assembled in 1958 as The Long Way Home.  I think; honestly, the history of this particular work is a somewhat sketchy.  My copy is the Ace February 1978 edition with the fun Michael Whelan cover art.  It has a very short introduction by the author:

This novel was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction.  The paperback book edition appeared as No World of Their Own.  That was not my idea, nor were the cuts which mutilated the text.  Both have remained until now, when editor Jim Baen generously gave me a chance to restore things.

In such cases, it is always a temptation to go ahead and rewrite, with the benefit of many additional years’ experience.  I have refrained from that.  Although today I would handle the tale rather differently, it is, I think, a good story as it stands.

I read this, mainly, because it is the earliest Poul Anderson novel that I currently own.  I already knew enough about Anderson to have an idea of what to expect.  Anderson writes about sociological/political themes, theories, and backgrounds.  He was a writer that brings good things to the genre.  By this I mean that he is not just creating action-pulp stories with creepy aliens.  Anderson utilizes the genre to delve into a variety of sociological/political scenarios that are “conceptually-relevant.”

This novel is written with a bluntness that sometimes is too direct.  There is no finesse.

Peggy was dead.  For five thousand years she had been dust, darkness in her eyes and mold in her mouth, for five thousand years she had not been so much as a memory.  He had held back the realization, desperately focusing himself on the unimportant details of survival, but it was entering him now like a knife. pg. 37, Chapter 3

The sentence structure is not beautiful whatsoever.  There are many places where the writing seems as droll and banal as if we were reading a dry engineering textbook.  This is not a crushing condemnation of the author’s style, but it seems to me if you want to write sociology – do so, and write articles, texts, etc.  If you want to write fiction – work on sprucing it up a bit. Here we could have a good discussion regarding “form and function,” but I don’t know that anyone besides myself would be reading along.  Pretend the discussion has occurred – move to next paragraph of this review.

So, what Anderson does do very well is to create a far-flung future in which very specific (psychological) characteristics of humans are magnified and driven to their “conclusion.”  Anderson is presenting a number of ideas here that may interest certain readers.  For example, what makes humans inquisitive?  Is a one-world-incorruptible governing body the best possible government for civilization?  Is there always to be a sort of caste system in human civilization – based on intelligence, perhaps?  What factors cause humanity to become stagnant?  Can the extent of possible progress be reached?

All of these questions (which are not as delineated as I have made them) are rolled into the scenario of a Dune-like scheming background.  Several interest groups (economic, local, foreign) are all trying to get their hands on an alien who was traveling with the main character, Edward Langely.  This alien is actually the only truly creative element in the entire novel.  Saris Hronna is, basically, a humanoid-cat, from a far away planet.  He is also equipped with a type of telepathy and among his people is a style of philosopher.  Once this novel gets going, he quickly becomes a fugitive and provides the impetus for most of the action of the novel.

Overall, the novel is interesting because of the commentary/questions Anderson presents in the sociological arena.  However, the main character is repetitive and bland.  The other characters are flat and are just there to represent the three factions.  Most of the book is in dialogue format, wherein the characters give us very general information about what this future looks like and what their opinions on humanity are.  The resolution of the whole novel is rather neat – it made me give a nod to it, but it is nothing wildly creative and exciting.  This is a good novel if you are into vintage science fiction and/or sociology.  A lot of readers who devour current science fiction books might not be interested in this thing.  It does not really “show its age,” because Anderson keeps the whole thing so general.  And maybe that’s the worst part of the whole thing – it is all too general and broad.

3 stars