robots

Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect – James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect by James Gunn is a collection of short stories first published in 1964. I read a copy of the January 1964 edition by Bantam. I’m sad to report that this particular copy has come to its end. It was not in any good condition when I purchased it from an old mill’s basement a decade ago. After my reading it, there just is not much to salvage. I do not know what to make of the cover art, which is allegedly by Paul Lehr. I have read Gunn’s work before and found it generally hit or miss according to my liking. I really enjoyed Station in Space. The Joy Makers, though, left me underwhelmed.

The book contains ten pieces, however, the first and second are related and ought to be read together, even though originally published over ten years apart. For the most part the stories were quick reads. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that I felt was outstanding or excellent. These are good, serviceable reads for afternoons, though. If you can only read one story from these, select the sixth: “Every Day is Christmas.”

  • The Misogynist – (1952) – 2 stars
  • The Last Word – (1964) – 2 stars
  • Little Orphan Android – (1955) – 3 stars
  • The Stilled Patter – (1956) – 2 stars
  • Skin Game – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Every Day Is Christmas – (1957) – 4 stars
  • The Girls Who Were Really Built – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Survival Policy – (1952) – 3 stars
  • Tsylana – (1956) – 3 stars
  • Feeding Time – (1955) – 3 stars

So, the first story, The Misogynist, and the second story, The Last Word, should probably be read together. Even so, they have not aged well and are a little uncomfortable to read. Honestly, it is probably meant to be witty based on perspectives, but in 2019 it does not come across well. Of note, Gunn had The Misogynist published in November’s issue of Galaxy. Over ten years later The Last Word was written – for this collection.

Little Orphan Android is a better showing than the first two stories. Originally published in 1955 in September’s Galaxy, it feels somewhat like a piggybacking on Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).  This story contains one of the themes that is present in this collection: a future society that is trapped in consumerism and uselessness. I liked this story fairly well, I do think it would make a great made-for-TV release movie. Its interesting and I am sure it could be spiced up by an adept screenwriter. Nearly cyberpunk in its tone.

I did not like The Stilled Patter. However, it does fit in with the theme of a maligned future society.

Skin Game is unique-ish, but Gunn doesn’t pull it off. As with all of the stories in this collection, I feel the setup is there, the execution is okay, but the finish just does not have the snap and pizzazz that it should. So, the same theme Gunn has been toying with in other stories is here, too, but taken off-planet. A future society with consumerism/ownership ideals shuffled around a bit. This time, the point of view is from a crook who is stranded on a planet and their ideas regarding ownership are entirely opposite of what he is accustomed to. Again, the setup is interesting and there is potential. But its only maybe a double. No home run.

Every Day Is Christmas is the story I liked best. It is the theme of consumerism and ownership taken to an utter extreme. I like when writers go bold on ideas like this. One of the thoughts I had while reading this one was a sardonic thought: “Geez, supposed to be futuristic, but maybe its just around the corner; 2025 or something….”  This one is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. It has the most complete feel to it and it works the theme better than the rest of the collection.

The Girls Who Were Really Built is not very good. It paints people in Neosho, Kansas in rather a bad light – both the men and women, that is.  Here are some menfolk, representing a future society, that are being undermined very subtly by being provided what they wish for in wives. They were really built – refers to their seemingly awesome wives who enable the men to better themselves and the world around them, but at the price of a key, valuable item:  new live man.  I see what Gunn was doing here, I just did not care much for it in general.

Survival Policy has a potentially strong story, that gets really difficult at the end. It is a sort of pastiche of the Agatha Christie Poirot and Hastings characters. But what an odd setting and storyline for such characters. They are overdone and very obvious. The motives and the actual plot kind of fail, or, let me just say it is not smoothly worked out. There are some very fun/interesting moments in the story though, just too much going on or something. Its sketchy; I like the pastiche, I like the idea, execution not so good.

The final two stories are somewhat similar. They are definitely the most fun reads, particularly if you enjoy a wee bit of wordplay/semantics, mocking psychoanalysts, and puns. In fact, you can see one wordplay right there on the table of contents. Not sure if that is a spoiler or not. Sorry. Its still a decent read. Tsylana has another odd future society in which “everyone has their place” so as to reduce crime, weed out bad dispositions, etc. But like the rest, there is not a solid clincher; Gunn wins on points, he does not win with a stunning KO!  Feeding time is quick and dirty. Relatively fun while it lasts, which is not very long. I will remember it, but only because it is unique, not because it is excellent.

Overall, its worth a look if you really do not know what else to read. It does read quickly, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory in execution.  Gunn fans will want to read it for completeness sake. Vintage science fiction fans will find value here. I wanted this collection to be a lot better.

mean: 2.6

But I think I will drop down to 2 stars

The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel FawcettIt seems like this book is not as well-known nowadays as it was a few decades ago. I think that is because many readers started to feel that it was dated and when other readers heard that, they became less enthusiastic about reading this novel. The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was first published in novel format in 1954. I read the Fawcett Crest 1972 edition with cover art by John Berkey.  I have tested the title out on a few people – they had no recognition of it. But when I said something like: “Asimov’s robots stuff,” there was immediate recall and familiarity (at least of some concept of the book). Frankly, I love Asimov and his works; he’s one of my answers to those tedious questions of: “Who would you invite to a dinner party if you could pick any six people, deceased or living?” I mention this to say, no, the work does not seem especially dated, and yes, I think this is still a vital read. (By the way, the title comes from a rather poetic line in the novel and represents the state of civilization on Earth.)

Of course other readers will disagree; that’s fine, I just hope they hear me out, too.

One of the reasons that I love Asimov is that he loves to take up a challenge and then chew on it until he has made it his. Can science fiction be a detective mystery? Cross-genre fiction that remains top-notch? The Caves of Steel is such an example. Now, in 2019, readers may not be all that impressed. There are dozens of steampunk-westerns, romantic-urban-fantasy, high fantasy-technothrillers, and mystery novel time-travel stories. How many are any good? Well, that’s a different question. But the familiarity of this mixing is taken for granted now.

I love that Asimov writes about robots. But this isn’t the “juvenile” fiction that we might get from, perhaps, Hal Clement or John Christopher and I always associate with the TV show Flipper (1964 – 1967).  Asimov takes the concept “robot” and chews the heck out of it. I think he even forgets that he’s still chewing on it. The result is a concept of robots that spans nearly all of his fiction works in a consistent manner. The concept is detailed and well-examined. It is also lasting, since everybody seems to run into the Three Laws of Robotics in some fashion. Readers, writers, actors, philosophers, historians, programmers – at one point or another the topic will come up and someone will name drop Isaac. The robots are not tin cans with antennas.

Asimov wrote this novel as a detective story. But he has a few sections where he forgets (this happens often with him) that he is writing a story and he gets on a soapbox, using his characters as mouthpieces, and he runs on about some issue. I am sure some readers find this so very tedious. To me, I love it because this is Asimov chewing on that topic. He is never going to simply hand-wave at a concept. Once he gets on it, though, he really has to flesh out this matter before he can move on.

It sometimes seems to me like readers are always complaining about how they want more depth in their novels. They don’t want wooden motives, cardboard characters, and superficial matter-of-fact plot devices. Well, this is how you get depth sometimes; by getting to the crux of the matter and just working your way around it and carving it out – maybe even using some long-winded soapboxes.

Finally, besides the novel having robots and future-science, besides it being a detective mystery, here are problems of overpopulation, complacency, and stubborn-minded societies. If that was all I mentioned about a book, viz. that it deals with overpopulation and how society needs to be more forward-thinking and tend less toward a nostalgic mentality, who would immediately assume I was talking about a 1950s novel? No one, because such a novel could easily be written and popular in present day!

The biggest complaint that I can justify about this novel is that it is a bit dry sometimes. Dry as in a little bitter, a little dull, and maybe needs a little more gas pedal.  It is true that the main female character is really tough to deal with because she is so hideous a caricature. I would hope that we will reach a stage when it is moot to mention that the female characters in 1950s novels are usually written hideously, demonstrating a chauvinistic mentality common in that era. Certainly there will be some louts today who are still a degree more barbarian in their thinking, but a word from me is not going to change that.  Nevertheless, I understand the level to which the female character (Jessie is her name) vexes readers. Literally, in places, it seems like the entire problem of the storyline is all her fault. The fact that Asimov actually names her Jezebel is just ridiculous. But there it is; do not read this novel for a female role model or strong female lead to identify with, okay?

The characters in the novel (excepting robots) are all tempestuous creatures. Readers might find their stubbornness and their opinionated attitudes disagreeable. None of that is because the novel is dated. Go on Twitter and look at any tweet about anything – you will get the same indignant vehemence and triggered psychoses. One of the robot Daneel Olivaw’s neat abilities is that he can study a person’s psyche by cerebroanalysis. It is as pseudo-science as Asimov gets in this novel. The robot is able to sense when/why humans are willing to change their minds or are receptive to concepts and ideas outside of their own. Definitely this is relevant today – from marketing to ethics.

It is difficult for me to dislike an author who understands that humans, including himself, can be irrationally stubborn or pig-headed. Asimov wrote a detective novel – with some science fiction elements. At the same time, he presented an unnervingly unfriendly look at human attitudes and mentalities. Unlike some modern dystopia novels wherein all is lost and we are waiting for a special, unique hero, The Caves of Steel offers a solution. Shunning the “hold on for heroes” ideas, it makes some strong suggestions for us to roll out of our caves and rekindle our curiosity and bravery.

4 stars

 

Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars