novels

Echo Round His Bones

Echo round his bonesEcho Round His Bones by Thomas Disch is the second novel I have read by this author. Previously, I read Camp Concentration.  Disch is definitely one of the most intelligent writers I have read in awhile. I suspect that no matter what genre/style of book he wrote, he would be unable to hide his intelligence. Echo Round His Bones was published in book format in 1967. I read the Berkley Medallion edition.  This is a difficult novel for me to rate because it has some really excellent features and some messy elements.

The main character in this novel is a Captain in the US Army, Nathan Hansard. Throughout, we are told Hansard is nearly ideal military officer material. He is very stern, disciplined, and has an unwavering moral code.  We are frequently told that there could not be a more sane or more steadfast individual.  However, we are also shown that Hansard suffers from nightmares, from guilt and regret, and is divorced.  He misses his son, Nathan jr., and his woes seem to stem from situations in the Vietnam War.

Many readers have pointed out the very anti-Vietnam War tone to this novel. I agree that this tone is present, however I would struggle to consider this characteristic one of the novel’s major features.  In fact, if anything, I would say it is simply an anti-mass destruction novel (Cp. the bombs released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The novel also contains many subtle negative comments regarding Nazi Germany and even the Cold War (i.e. USA vs. CCCP).  I am stressing/clarifying this broadened scope because I think that it is very commonplace for readers to expect a 1960s novel to be anti-Vietnam War and then pigeon hole the novel as if that is just another “one of those” lightly-veiled critical works. Disch, as I mentioned above, was quite intelligent; too intelligent to be caught in such narrowness.

Chapter one is a subtle and delicate lead-in to the novel; it sets the mood and introduces characters as-well-as gives characters motives. Chapter two and three are when the story really begins – Captain Hansard and his men perform a “jump.”  This is Hansard’s first – but other men in his company have made jumps before. A “jump” is a trip through a matter transmitter.  In this case, Hansard and crew jump to Mars Command Post.

The mission is to deliver, by carrying a briefcase containing an envelope, orders to the commanding officer, General Pittmann, of Mars Command Post:

The letter directed that the total nuclear arsenal of Camp Jackson/Mars be released on the enemy, who did not need to be named, on the first day of June 1990, according to existing Operational Plan B. It was signed by President Lee Madigan and sealed with the Great Seal. — pg. 26

Well, that also gives us a date for the setting. The novel basically lasts the last half of April to the end of May in 1990.  Honestly, without this clue, I would not have been able to guess the setting, though I may have guessed the 1980s – simply because I feel  that Pittmann would be too old to be on Mars in 1990.

So, it would be enough of a novel to focus on the impending nuclear event.  However, that takes a side-seat for awhile because we learn the disturbing fact that every jump creates an echo (hence the title). This is the difficult part. I love the boldness with which Disch writes this. However, the science (or whatever we would like to call it) is really challenging. By this I mean that when all of this is explained to the reader – and yes, Disch does make a heavy attempt to “explain” how this all occurs, it is not easy to follow. But what is this criticism, anyway? I mean, I feel like I am complaining about an explanation that is difficult to understand that purports to be an explanation of unreal, fictional scientific events. Be that as it may, I absolutely could not keep all of the explanation sorted out, whether that is my fault or Disch’s, and I just pared it down as I read to: “it multiplies existences, in a fashion.”

Naturally there is a massive headache-inducing mess here of metaphysics vs. physics. The reader has a few options, assuming they, too, cannot make sense of Disch’s character’s explanations of the science. They can find all of this ridiculous and frustrating and chuck the novel or they can close all the Aristotle books and read this novel as it is, for what its worth. Remember, though, that I said Disch is intelligent.  Disch knows better than to pretend like all his readers are materialist atheists and he directly confronts the question of the “doubling” of characters who have jumped. That is to say, when a character makes a jump, another pseudo-clone of that character is split off from the original. We cannot say “created” – its not just semantics. In fact, it is best called an echo. Now, there are characters who have made multiple jumps. These characters, then have also had multiple echoes split off from their original, real selves. How many souls? Are the echoes soulless? Is the one soul divided amongst them? Welcome back, Avicenna and Averroes.

This stuff is really convoluted and messy. Its rough reading at points if you really want an ontological ratio of these matters [pun!].  Probably, authors should avoid trying to explain this stuff at all costs. But yet…. that Disch put forth the effort and wrangled with it is, in its own way, endearing. I glanced at reviews on a site and one person mentioned how this was related to Star Trek and their transporter usage. I was totally thinking the same thing when I was reading along and was so glad that another reader had noticed this. So, all those hundreds of times when the transporter is fired up – did they create echoes? OH NO! See – it is easy to forget all of the miseries of the ontology if one can just enjoy being entertained. I admit, I have been amusing myself imagining the multitudes of echoes just from Star Trek!

Matter transmission has been invented by this scientist named Doctor Bernard Panofsky.  Bernard Panofsky is in a wheelchair and has a strong liking for opera/theatre. I often thought that this character was going to turn out to be a bad guy, that he was going to betray the reader and Hansard in some way. (Please refrain from psychoanalyzing me on this; I’m aware of the hints here, too.) Anyway, Panofsky did not betray any of us! Indeed, at the end he even brought a wry smile to my face.  Panofsky ends up being a really neat character and I feel like he should have a spin-off series of his own.

In chapter five, I think Disch makes an error. It has to do with Hansard’s writing out a check and putting it in the hotel’s lockbox. I think this betrays all of Disch’s pseudo-science: sublimation of matter, etc. Otherwise, I have to say that even if matter transmission (like time travel) can be messy and entangling to writers – I am still appreciative when authors grapple with it. I really enjoyed Harrison’s One Step From Earth, which also has matter transmission as its foundational concept.

Finally, Disch and Catholicism. I think a lot (if not most) readers will make one-dimensional judgments on this problematic and, similar to pigeon-holing the novel as anti-Vietnam War, will just superficially decide Disch is anti-Roman Catholic. He would most desperately want you to think that he is. In fact, this tone seems to get stronger as he ages. The vehemence and directness with which Disch wrestles with the RCC is actually encouraging. It contains the frustration and the burden of a very intelligent, very-much-so Catholic. He has overtly put himself in tension with the Church (his lifestyle), but I’m unconvinced. But I really do not care to delve more into this topic – particularly in this blog on this internet in today’s world.

Overall, this is a very interesting novel. It has some challenges for the astute reader, but the concepts and the storyline are worthwhile. Disch’s overwhelming intelligence shows through in his writing and more than makes up for any holes in the plot or errors in the story. His characters are developed without seeming melodramatic. Vintage science fiction readers will enjoy this. Readers with big imaginations will be worrying about the echoes along with me.

4 stars

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The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross was published in 2004. It is the first in the Laundry Series of novels. I think I acquired my copy (Ace 2009) of the novel in 2016. This is the first Stross novel I’ve read although the stacks have a few of his other works.

Stross seems to have a following of die-hard fans much like Neil Gaiman has.  I can see why; Stross’ work is rather original and it is clear that Stross is an intelligent person. I had high hopes for this novel, and I felt odd after reading it because so many readers have given this one such high marks – did I miss something? Thinking about this for awhile, it seems readers are reviewing the book they think that they read – or wanted to read, and maybe not actually the book that they really read. It happens more than one wants to realize….. My review is utterly honest, so if anyone disagrees with me, they can at least be satisfied I am not being disingenuous.

I read a lot of reviews saying this book is funny/comedic. Readers really seem to warm to the obnoxiousness of the bureaucratic silliness. Being bluntly honest: I don’t see it. There is some snark, which maybe is a little smirk-level amusing. There are some eye-rolling scenes wherein the “paper-clip-counters” are shuffling paperwork. But there’s nothing hysterical or laugh aloud here; a little sarcasm isn’t going to make me laugh my head off. Another novel that I read that has this issue is Midnight Riot / Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. (See my review.)

Stross is an ideas man – he’s very smart and he has some interesting concepts. As far as a writer? Well, honestly, this isn’t an example of great writing. The worst of it is dialogue; most of the characters seem written very stilted. They are archetypes, at best, not characters. In other words, they act/sound just like you think they should. Stilted writing. And wow, Dominique “Mo” is written awfully. Every dialogue or conversation is cringe-worthy. Its like…. if you took all the ill-conceived and incorrect stereotypes about autism and then made them even uglier. If the other characters are stilted, Mo is like a bad stereotyped autist developed by a computer that is beleaguered with viruses. Ugh.

The book rambles around and takes some time to find its feet. Seriously, the first third is perhaps introducing us to characters, but the storyline just sputters and spins. Now, once the story gets moving, it does turn into an action-thriller sort of business. Techno-fantasy-alternate history plot.

Stross has some great ideas that were fun to explore. I liked a lot of the concepts in the story. But they are not all written smoothly and seamlessly. A spy agency (the Laundry) that is full of techno-mages is super cool. But, for what its worth, I found the entire Nazi/Reich stuff to be off-putting. Its…. just too much… It made the novel feel a lot heavier and darker than it should have been. Its hard to laugh when Nazis are summoning demons.

At times I was wondering if the real flaw of the novel is that there is just too much stuff stuffed in it. Nazis, Old Ones, computer-jargon, physics, the Laundry, Middle Eastern terrorists, museums, summoning spirits, PDA-style tools, bureaucratic satire, references to a whole pile of what used to be consider geek/nerd material, etc. I do not doubt Stross knows about these things, but jammed on top of one another, all of it is cumbersome and tedious.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas, I liked the action scenes – I liked the Robert Howard homage, the Wolfenstein castle imagery, the pseudo-science mixed with real physics/math. I appreciated Stross mentioning Martin Heidegger (he doesn’t really feature in novels much, but I often feel like he would be awesome in science fiction stuff). But I did not find this very amusing and as a whole it seems like the author was trying too hard. It seems forced everywhere. Now, I have book two, so I think I will give Stross and The Laundry another shot.

2 stars

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

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

Time’s Arrow

Times ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven.  Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was.  I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.

The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life.  The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.

Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.

There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93

So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.

Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969).  I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology.  Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.

I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.

The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.

The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story.  Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.

The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.

Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.

This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.

Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.

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

Thousand Cranes

Thousand CranesThousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in 1952 and in English in 1958. It is the second Yasunari Kawabata novel that I have read. I disliked his main characters, however, in this novel they do seem to possess a measure of realism. I felt that the characters in Snow Country were not realistic. While this is a speedy read, one can finish it in a day, it is not really an easy story to penetrate. There is a great deal of native culture within that can keep non-Japanese readers at bay. Further, this entire novel is very much focused on human interrelationships and their responses to each other. For some readers, this could be challenging.

Wikipedia’s entry, in very forthright style, explains precisely what this book is about. This means this, that means that. And while some of that is probably true, I think there are deeper and more complex interpretations possible.

The storyline, the characters, and the other general dimensions of the novel were not anything I was particularly drawn to. It is quite a dramatic work and does not immediately appeal to any of my major interests. As I mentioned above, this work is very heavily focused on human relationships. The defect is in me, clearly, because I am usually disinterested and bored and even confused by novels like this. Autistic. Russian. I have a hard time with some aspects of stuff in this genre. All of this being said, though, I will admit wholeheartedly and very profusely that in this novel, Kawabata’s skills are on showcase. In a sense, I feel this is almost a brag novel – Kawabata knows he is that good of a writer and he is showing off. He is an excellent novelist and even if this particular storyline does not appeal to everyone – the skill with which it is written is undeniable.

Do not suppose, however, that this novel is arrogant or that it is over-the-top with writerly flourishes.  Perhaps in its minimalist oh-so-Tanizaki/Japanese manner, it is precisely what it needs to be:  no more and no less; and Kawabata deserves all the praise he gets for it.  He proves himself an acutely aware, highly sensitive, perfectly edited, writer. He is a master-writer.

Layered upon the story are tea ceremony items and elements of Japanese aesthetics, specifically pottery. This would be best understood by someone with familiarization with such topics. To some readers, the frivolous and fastidious obsession with which tea bowl to use, which vase, what tokonoma flower, may seem massively tedious. I was able to assimilate my personal cultural experiences fairly easily and completely empathize with the discussions of the tea items etc. To some people, such concerns seem “petty” or “decorative” as opposed to practical. The tea ceremony is such a THING, though, that I hardly know what to say about it. From its origins, to all of its iterations throughout history, and from the praises of it, to those who scorn it… whatever one thinks of it, it is not something to merely hand wave at.  Yet, I struggle to discuss it.  Regardless, if someone were to ask me about the tea ceremony, I do think I would recommend that they read this book. It sort of provides a situation for the whole process without directly confronting it.

Like the back of book says: “a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.” Again, this is going to be felt more by a reader who can assimilate certain cultural/religious aspects. This blurb accurately describes the novel. But I liked all the smaller points, symbolism of water, of mould, of the thousand cranes. And more than anything, the very subtle presentation of old Japan crashing with modern Japan.

The symbolism in this work is significant and excellently written. And while I dislike the main character, Kikuji Mitani, even I could not help but be caught up in some of the sensitivities Mitani faces and is caught up in.  The dispositions and inheritances (both in objects and relationships) that befall him from his deceased father are mighty and certainly not pristine “black and white” dichotomies.

This is a very good novel. I think I took it for granted as I was reading it and only afterwards was I able to process how good a work it is. I think it is a written by a master writer, but the storyline itself does not interest me at all. Three stars is a very good rating for a plot that I was uninterested in…….  Recommended for all fans of Japanese literature, students of the tea ceremony, ikebana scholars, and readers of quality literature.

3 stars