The Universe Maker

The Universe Maker - A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker – A. E. Van Vogt; ACE, 1974

The Universe Maker by A. E. Van Vogt was first published 1953. I read the 1974 ACE novel with 127 pages. The cover was created by Bart Forbes – and looks exactly like one would think it should for a 1970s cover art piece. A. E. Van Vogt is one of those “classic” science fiction authors who seems to have nothing really good said about him. He wrote a lot of things, but he seems to usually be held up as the standard for a low-water mark. I read this novel because I am certainly not afraid of reading terrible novels and because it is another 1950s sci-fi novel I can tick off the non-list.

Well, there is not a whole lot to say about this novel. It is bad. Really bad. In fact, of all the novels I have reviewed on this blog it is only the second to achieve the 1 star rating. So, if you’ve heard bad things about Van Vogt or his novels, you may not be too surprised. I cannot say that I was surprised – I was well aware that this had a high potential for being awful. Honestly, it was worse than I expected.

Most of this novel is incoherent at best. I do not mean in some…… Finnegans Wake sort of way. I mean in a “this author wrote this in one sitting and didn’t stop to re-read a single sentence” sort of way. I feel like the first two chapters are good enough. They set up a fairly interesting scenario and the characters are passable. Chapters three through seven seem like they belong to a slightly different novel. Sure, they have a tenuous relationship to the previous chapters, but it really seems a little forced. They are still not part of a “bad story” yet, but they are not what I expected.

Then, Chapters eight and nine happen. Again, the story seems really off. What is strange? Maybe the trajectory of the storyline, maybe the characters seem very removed. At this point, it has become very difficult to really isolate a plot. In fact, even the main character, Morton Cargill, does not seem to be a consistent character. He’s all over the place in his mannerisms, thinking, skills, psychology.

Finally in chapter ten it feels somewhat like we might be getting back to the early chapters of the book, circling back to pick up storyline threads. But sadly, that is not the case. Scenes are repeated, but this is a different path down the possible trajectory. So, if Van Vogt wanted this to seem like an alternative, cyclic time-travel story – he has very vaguely and minimally presented us with one.

But the interspersed communities/civilizations/tribes – there are three to keep track of, but we really learn very little about them – are mushy and thick. Was the author attempting to include some political/social seriousness as a plot? The first two chapters present a mystery, but by chapter eight, the novel has a very heavy-handed social dimension – that is also poorly written.

Things get worse because our main character, Cargill, has visions and dreams and things get really…. abstract. Let’s say abstract, but let us understand “distorted and random.” Throughout the book there is this obnoxious, never-ever developed superficiality regarding religion/faith. As if the author felt that religion (like politics) should be included to give a novel depth. Oh, bad mistake in this novel. It is just another nail in the coffin of a wretched little novel that should never have been written.

Maybe this is about time-travel? Or… something? I don’t know. Its really not good. By that I mean: it is quite awful, do not read this. I am not kidding. This is not just a novel “not near my tastes.” This is plainly a poorly written jumble of junk. Only read it if you are purposely trying to read really badly written things.

1 star

Level 7

Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.

This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe.  Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages.  That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing.  The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012).  To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!

These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions.  Character-driven and dramatic.  Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific.  The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.

The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127.  We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food.  The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task.  So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew).  His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.

This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one:  “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.

No, no fooling on Level 7.  This is a serious place.  No tricks, no jokes, no April fools.  We are all wise down here even on April 1.  Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year.  We are deceiving each other.  We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel.  We are doing it all the time.

We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves.  Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable.  Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)

Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation.  And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel.  He has a philosopher on Level 7.  Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical.  We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra.  Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation.  The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian.  I know full well that philosophers are “useless.”  They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations.  His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.

However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher.  The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable.  And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario.  It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate.  And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.

Why did I have such a long and intensive training?  Was it really necessary? Or was it really training?  What skill had I acquired?  Enough to push the buttons!  And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function.  My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists.  They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)

The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start.  But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline.  And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.

This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact.  It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.

Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.

4 stars

Star Science Fiction 1

Star Science Fiction 1 - ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 – ed. Frederik Pohl; Ballantine Books 1972

Star Science Fiction 1 is the first book in the anthology series, Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederik Pohl.  It was first published in 1953 by Ballantine Books and reprinted in 1972.  The book is especially notable because it contains the first appearance of Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Nine Billion Names of God.  I read the 1972 edition with the John Berkey cover. I picked up my copy on a clearance display for $1. Editor Pohl provides a little opinion paragraph on the start page for each story. These little comments are interesting, but sometimes a little obnoxious.

My overall impression is that Pohl worked hard to select and present stories that would appeal to science fiction fans as well as to a more general readership.  Many of these stories emphasize or highlight some aspect of humanity or human relationships.  These are not simply “laser gun/alien” stories.  And the science is very minimal.  This is a decent collection of strong stories, but I did not feel that the stories were outstandingly awesome. Nothing here wow-ed me – maybe Pohl was playing it safe.  These are solid stories to be enjoyed, but maybe not to be all that excited about. The table of contents reads like a hall of fame inductee list.

  • Country Doctor • by William Morrison – 2 stars
  • Dominoes •  by C. M. Kornbluth – 2 stars
  • Idealist • by Lester del Rey – 3 stars
  • The Night He Cried • by Fritz Leiber – 1 star
  • Contraption • by Clifford D. Simak – 3 stars
  • The Chronoclasm • by John Wyndham – 3 stars
  • The Deserter • by William Tenn – 3 stars
  • The Man with English • by H. L. Gold – 3 stars
  • So Proudly We Hail • by Judith Merril – 2 stars
  • A Scent of Sarsaparilla • by Ray Bradbury – 2 stars
  • “Nobody Here But …”  • by Isaac Asimov – 3 stars
  • The Last Weapon •  by Robert Sheckley – 4 stars
  • A Wild Surmise • by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore – 3 stars
  • The Journey •  by Murray Leinster – 1 star
  • The Nine Billion Names of God • by Arthur C. Clarke – 4 stars

The majority of stories in this collection focus on the effect science fiction situations and scenarios have on humans.  In some cases, there is an exploration of emotions.  In other cases, authors consider humanity’s common traits.  It seems odd to say it, but the stories are more about humanity than about science fiction.  And maybe that is why my ratings seem a tad bit lower – I tend to prefer my science fiction to be strongly science fiction.

The stories by Leiber, Merril, and Bradbury were not as good as the rest.  These three were let-downs and were rather poor. I have read so much better by both Bradbury and Leiber.  This is the first writing that I read by Merril, but I can see why Pohl selected it – it fits the theme of this collection nicely.  Leinster’s was pretty weak, in my opinion; a big fat “who cares!” for the plot. My favorite story of the bunch is by Sheckley.  Hands down it is a good story that matches the theme of this collection without turning sappy or overdramatic.  It maintained the “science fiction” aspect very well.

I guess the big take-away for this collection is something along the lines of:  science, the future, space exploration, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. Such things do not happen without humans. Without a doubt, it is necessary to consider humanity as the main delta in the equation.  Humans are not pure machines with perfectly predictable actions and reactions.  They are susceptible to a variety of traits and tendencies – but they remain unique and spontaneous.  Many times humans respond with their emotions rather than with pure calculated rationality.  Therefore, any vision of the future or of science [science fiction], must not ignore the humanity that drives it along. These stories work diligently to present a multitude of situations in which the humanity of the characters is the main focal point.

All of these stories are definitely classic stories. They are ones that science fiction readers ought to read because they are early 1950s stories that present a deep and relevant understanding of what science (and, therefore, science fiction) is about and how it reflects upon humans.  The majority of science fiction tends to focus on how mankind changes his universe.  These stories investigate how the universe (and the advancement of science) changes mankind – mostly on an individual/personal level.

I am probably too Russian or too autistic to really appreciate some of these stories. Or, I understand them, but I am just not excited about them.  However, this does not mean that they will not appeal to other readers. In fact, I think these stories will actually have a vast appeal because they are so personal-centric.  The characters are all realistic people who seem to react in realistic ways.  And these characters have a relationship with their kin – marriages, families, society at large.  These stories explore those relationships and that basically is one of the interests of all the readers that I know!

A few comments on the actual stories:

As soon as I began reading the Asimov story, it seemed a higher calibre than some of the others. Asimov was a good writer, regardless of how people criticize some of his stuff. This story, whether you like the plot or not, is very well-written.

Similarly, John Wyndam’s entry is well-written and stylish. It is certainly levels above almost all of the current day short story offerings.  It is unique and fun and if it was about anything but time travel, I would have given it five stars. But time travel is a train wreck for writers – its siren song pulls them in, but philosophy beats down all their exciting ideas.

“Contraption” by Simak was heart-breaking in parts. It is an emotion-filled tale, from which even I could not remain distant.  I would suggest reading this one and Sheckley’s if you only have time for two stories.

Fifteen stories – all very classic and classy.  Definitely worth the $1 I paid for this volume. Definitely worth recommending to other science fiction (even more so to non-science-fiction) fans.

3 stars

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men - Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963.  Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men – Clifford D. Simak; MacFadden, 1963. Cover: Richard Powers

They Walked Like Men by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was first published in 1962.  I read the 1963 MacFadden paperback edition – the one with the Richard Powers artwork on the cover.  The first edition hardback by Doubleday has artwork by Lawrence Ratzkin.  Generally, I really like Powers’ work, but on this cover the pink hues are too aggravating. Or, mainly, it just looks dingy.  I do not usually discuss the cover art – I’m not qualified to discuss art, really – but the Doubleday is worth mentioning because it really works with the story and keeps the cover simple and interesting.  It is one of those covers that I would have no complaints about if it were expanded into a small poster and slapped on one of the walls in my house.

This is the second Simak novel that I have read; I still own a bunch of others to work through.  Similar to my thoughts on the other novel of his that I read, I think that They Walked Like Men has a whole lot going for it, but also a lot that just seems too lame and too simplistic.  However, regardless of how grumbly and critical we readers might be, Simak is a good author and should not be ignored or dismissed.  Simak is an above-average wordsmith and is capable of coming up with at least one solidly fascinating idea each novel.

The opening chapter introduces the main character – who will also be our first-person narrator – named Parker Graves. I really appreciate the interesting manner in which we meet Parker:  he is half-drunk and standing outside of his apartment door struggling with his keys.  This section is really well written and I really enjoyed reading it. It immediately brought the setting and characters to life. Simak presents a situation with such skill that most readers will read further just to find out what the heck is going on.

Somewhere in the tangled depths of the half-dark newsroom a copyboy was whistling – one of those high-pitched, jerky tunes that are no tunes at all.  I shuddered at the sound of it.  There was something that was almost obscene about someone whistling at this hour of the morning. – pg. 15

To my mind, this novel has two sections.  The first quarter of the novel is full of eerie, scary suspense and tension. It has a heap of bone-chilling, heart-racing stuff that builds on the mysterious and unknown.  That’s the best horror stuff in my opinion:  the unknown.  (I’ve mentioned before that I am only a rookie regarding anything in the horror genre.)  Anyway, as I read that first chunk of the book, I really was surprised at how scary it was.  I think writing effectively frightening prose must be super difficult.  How can one make words transmit something terrifying?  Matter-of-fact style won’t work.  Purposely being obtuse won’t work.  So, I have to praise Simak’s work here. And I decided maybe I had read enough for one night to suffer plenty of nightmares….

I gave him the intersection just beyond the McCandless Bulding.

The light changed and the cab edged along.

“Have you noticed, mister,” said the cabby, by way of starting a conversation, “how the world has gone to hell?”   – pg. 45

What I think of as the “second section,” is really the rest of novel. Here is where Simak actually displays his hand, so to speak.  We learn what his “big idea” for the novel is and the creepy horror stuff is over as the novel takes a turn toward the action-esque side of things.  Light-action, if you please; there’s no Mack Bolan running around here. Also, the novel utilizes some ridiculous elements to tell the story.  I think if you took Simak’s “big idea” and then gave it to a far more serious and dark minded writer that the story would go one of two ways:  very, very droll and boring or it would retain a lot of the creepiness of the early part of the novel.

The “big idea,” by the way, is that the rather bizarre aliens are using economic pressure to control the planet (eradicate the humans).  Lacking in this is a lot of motive, or relationship of aliens to anything in the universe, etc. Without Simak’s writing skill, we really do have a novel about economics. Not too many folk will be racing to read that story!

Let me be honest, I do not hate the sort of ridiculousness that Simak then writes.  I am generally a magnet for the absurd and the ridiculous (sometimes to my chagrin). But I really disliked the transition between being horrifying and then just ridiculous.  I do not want to spoil anything, but I should probably share that there is a talking-alien-dog that helps the main character.

That is one of Simak’s big failures – he never fully and completely fleshes out elements of his story.  Things just are and even though they are extremely ridiculous – he doesn’t give us any causes for them. No reasons or answers. Now, maybe things are so ridiculous that to speak on them would make it all worse. On the other hand, the lack of explanation sometimes makes the story feel loose and that perhaps some of these elements are really extraneous and should have been edited out.

Finally, I really liked the supporting character.  Joy Kane is a co-worker of Graves.  She is also his sweetheart.  Unlike the majority of female characters in books dating from before 1970, Joy is quite awesome.  She is smart, sharp, witty, kind, stubborn, and realistic.  The novel is over and I do not care if I run into Graves again, but I am going to miss Joy Kane.

3 stars

Our Friends From Frolix 8

Our Friends From Frolix 8 - PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

Our Friends From Frolix 8 – PKD; Vintage Books, 2003

I just finished reading my eighth novel by Philip K. Dick, Our Friends From Frolix 8 (1970).  I read the 2003 Vintage Books edition. I really felt this novel was going to be somewhere in the 4 – 5 star range as far as my rating goes.  It surprises me (maybe not that much) that it is going to get a solid three star rating.  I think there are two “halves” of the book, the first half is exciting, wild, and unique.  It is typical of what I have come to expect from PKD’s writing.  The second half had parts that tanked and the ending was miserable.  This is unsurprising as well, because PKD’s endings are always poorly done.

The year is 2208 and, as usual, everything is falling apart.  In this novel, PKD disassembles the lives of every character and the political/social structure of the planet.  The two main characters that get tore up by PKD are Nick Appleton and Willis Gram. Nick Appleton is one of the Old Men – normal, unenhanced,citizens.  Willis Gram is the telepathic Council Chairman of Earth – he is basically the President of the planet. The catalysts that start the whole mess are that Nick’s son allegedly fails a government test and Thors Provoni is allegedly returning to Earth after a ten-year absence in order to overthrow the current political schema.  (Willis Gram has been Chairman for over two decades.)

The best thing about PKD’s writing is how it makes the pages turn.  Readers starting a PKD need to wear their seatbelt and watch for wind sheer from the pages turning.  This novel begins by presenting a multilayered madness of future awesome.  That sounds neat, but actually does not say much, so let me say this:  events occur and PKD does not build up to big events or let the reader acclimate to the setting.  There is a lot going on, on a variety of plot levels, and you do not need to worry about all the details. Standard, masterful PKD writing.

In my opinion, there is a lot more emotion in this novel than in early PKD novels. Emotion from PKD himself, but also in the characters – as motive or as part of their personality.  For example, Willis Gram is one of the most temperamental characters I’ve met in awhile. Gram is positioned as the antagonist of the novel, but hardly the villain.  PKD rarely has heroes and villains. Anyway, Gram is full of emotion – he is impulsive, stubborn, and resentful.  His largest challenge is trying to separate his personal life (and its difficulties) from his role in the public sphere as Chairman.  [Here’s a really good essay to be written by a college student:  the concept of holistic characters in PKD novels.]

When we meet Nick (protagonist), he is disheartened, confused, and unsettled by the status of the government and its social policies.  Most of his actions in this novel are driven by his emotions, particularly after he meets Charlotte Boyer.  Nick’s world goes to pieces in this novel, sometimes because of his own choices, but many times because of his bad luck and coincidence.  Nick, several times, traces back the pattern of events to find out the catalyst.  Oftentimes, it is some minor choice or event that sends his life down a wild trajectory towards mayhem.  My main issue with Nick is that toward the end of the novel, this emotional and busy man seems to be burned out.  His character becomes quite a bit duller and matter-of-fact. So much so that I think it is one of the reasons that the ending is so poor.

Beyond that, there is a large measure of emotion from PKD.  Maybe it is my imagination, but it really seems to be there throughout the novel. The author seems angrier and more sorrowful than usual.  There is a seething undercurrent in many of the characters and scenes. Nothing I can necessarily put my finger on – but a definite recurring tone throughout the novel.  Maybe an example is in how Nick deals with his wife. Or perhaps how Nick feels the emotion jealousy, truly, for the first time. Gram, too, has to deal with his own wife, and it involves the same anger and frustration that Nick feels.

Chapters 14 and 15 are particularly well-written.  PKD loves aggravating his characters. The chapters also include a very good sample of how Gram is temperamental and the extreme emotion in the novel:

“What a renegade.  What a dispiteous, low-class, self-serving, power-hungry, ambitious, unprincipled renegade.  He ought to go down in the history books with that statement about him.  . . . . Add to that mentally-disturbed, fanatically radical, a creature – note that: a creature, not a man – who believes any means whatsoever is justified by the end.  And what is the end in this case? A destruction of a system by which authority is put and kept in the hands of those physically constructed so as to have the ability to rule.” – Willis Gram discussing Thors Provoni, pg. 94

No, Gram is not friendly with Provoni.  Rarely do I come across a character so vehemently obvious in their distaste. And yeah, if I didn’t tell you who was speaking and who they were speaking about – I think there are actually several viable choices for this quote.  I think I could be convinced that that quote was spoken by Nick about Gram.

Thors Provoni, isolated as he is from Earth and humanity, seems very worn out.  He is sorrowful and depressed – even though he still is carrying on his “mission.”  Physically and psychologically, Provoni is quite beaten down and sad. Chapter Eighteen is the most thoughtful writing of the novel. Parts of this chapter even caused me a sniffle – definitely a bit sad (the pets thing).

Overall, this is typical PKD.  Everything is crumbling, the government cannot be trusted, and people’s choices are what spin the globe.  There is a bit more emotion and depth to the characters in this novel, but PKD still stinks at writing endings. I have to mention that throughout the novel, I felt that the character Thors Provoni was actually PKD. So, three stars for a rating and recommended mainly to PKD fans and people who like tortured characters.

3 stars

I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

vintage-sf-badgeIt is Vintage Science Fiction Month – so designated by my fellow blogger friend, the Little Red Reviewer. Generally, I like participating in this non-challenge reading fun, but this January I’ve been traveling and busy and I am worried I will not have many entries. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out one novel so far. I went with a “classic” vintage work to start off. Honestly, I do not remember if I have read I, Robot before – all or in parts, or other. I do know I have never read further in the “robot series,” so I thought this was a good way to march back down the Asimov-pathway.

I, Robot is generally considered a collection because it contains stories that were originally published in periodicals in the 1940s. I think it can be successfully referred to as a sort of fix-up novel at this point, as well. The collection as titled I, Robot was first published in 1950 and I read the 2004 (movie cover art) version this time around.  As we all *should* know, the movie starring Will Smith has only a basic and tenuous connection to these stories.  The nine stories contained in the collection form a general timeline utilizing the life of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men employee Dr. Susan Calvin as a waypoint marker. Therefore, the collected stories form a more cohesive, although faceted, whole than I think Asimov originally created.  For anyone interested in trivia, this collection is dedicated to “John W. Campbell, jr., who godfathered the robots.”

I, Robot is considered a classic for a number of valid reasons.  It is an “early” science fiction work that is not embarrassingly dated by today’s milestones.  It is an intelligent read, unlike much of the 1940s pulp fiction that was being published.  It contains new and exciting ideas that demonstrated Asimov’s wit, knowledge, and forward-thinking mastery.  It ended up influencing and spawning all kinds of science, science fiction, and literary offspring. So, not only were Asimov’s ideas new at the time, but they didn’t wear out after a decade had passed, either.

Since this collection was published in 1950 and is so extremely well-known, it is difficult to know what to say that has not already been said hundreds of times. I am certain that this work has been examined every which way and with all sorts of hermeneutics. Many readers are already quite familiar with this book. If you are not familiar with this book, there are some key things I think you should know.  First of all, don’t connect the same-titled movie to this novel. There is not much connection there, so do not be put off by that.  Secondly, this is a quick-read, therefore it will not pull you too far from your current to-be-read stack trajectory.  Thirdly, it is an intelligent read, but it is not pretentious or high-brow.

The book is an undisputed classic.  However, I only give it four stars for a rating.  The main thrust behind each and every story in this collection is logic.  Literally, logic is what this collection is built upon.  That is fairly congruous since this is a book about “mechanical men” and mathematics and machines.  Asimov is a talented logician.  From only what this book tells me, I can promise that Asimov was comfortable with Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, etc.  Building all these stories on logic – while making them actually suspenseful and interesting – is really awesome.  However, at the end of the day, the skeleton is just logic and its really not enough.

Since the skeleton is logic, we must say that the Laws of Robotics are the flesh of the stories, the meat as it were. And boy, Asimov does drill these laws into the reader! He actually takes these laws and looks at them from a multitude of contexts and usages and no reader is going to escape this book without a very solid understanding of the laws.  Sometimes, this gets a bit exhausting. On the other hand, Asimov was an excellent teacher. He’s the guy you want teaching you logic, physics, and mathematics. His is the challenging class that you struggle through but your knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even though the laws are hammered at throughout these stories, the number of ways in which Asimov constructs the stories around them is quite masterful. Nevertheless, some readers might get a bit bored.

The most important character throughout this collection is Dr. Susan Calvin.  I am pretty sure someone, somewhere has ruefully commented on her last name and made some sketchy connection to John Calvin and his ideas, so I don’t need to go further on that point. But if this is a valid juxtaposition, it is something some enterprising student should run with in a paper or two.  Calvin is a robopsychologist.  She works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although most of the time I feel she would rather not.  It is unclear if there exist other such robopsychologists or if Susan is the only one.  Anyway, this “soft science” balance to the hard science of mechanical, mathematical robotics shows that Asimov was a keen observer of humanity.  When I first met Calvin in these stories, I really disliked her. Overall, she is really aggressive and hostile.  She is also, allegedly, really good at her job.  She is definitely a character study for those interested in such things.  More food for thought:  casting her role in a motion picture. . . who is that actress?

Overall, I give this four stars because I can see what Asimov is capable of – and, frankly, he is capable of so much more.  Yeah, I am saying it:  Asimov was a big intellect – but I want to push him for more and better. The skeleton and flesh of these stories is good – but at points also a little monotonous. This is a necessary, classic read that should satisfy most readers.

4 stars

Cosmic Engineers

Cosmic Engineers - Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers – Clifford D. Simak; 1970, Paperback Library

Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) was published in 1950.  It was originally published as a shorter version in Astounding Magazine. I read a 1970 Paperback Library edition that I paid $1.00 for.  This is the first item that I have read by Simak, though I own a three or four other books with his name on their spines. This was a quick read, without any major brain drain.

The most important thing that I think you should know about this novel is that it is not at all like the contemporary science fiction that is pumped out.  This is not a dystopia. There are no zombies. And there is no anti-hero. Just because of these facts, I was tempted to give this novel four stars.  However, that is not really playing fair.  Anyway, what this novel does contain is big ideas; not great ideas, not specific ideas.  The ideas in this novel are epic. I would say they are universe-spanning, but that is actually understating the setting of this novel.

The writing is passable, nothing standout or odd for the time period it was written. However there are no beautiful, poetic flowers to quote.  Eighteen chapters of functional writing tell us a story taking place in the year 6948.  Time is a difficult thing to write about, I think. So, sure, even though it is the far-away future, many elements seem like the 1990s at their maximum.  For example, the mindset of the humans, the speech, a few societal items, etc. all retain that 1950s sort of flavor.

The novel begins by jumping onboard the space ship “Space Pup” with newsmen Gary Nelson and Herb Harper.  Their ship is nearing Pluto.  They have been sent by their circulation-driven boss to go through the galaxy giving accounts of life in space.  Here are a few of those temporal discrepancies.  In 6948 should newspaper circulation really be this important? And by this year are we really sure the readership would still be paying to read accounts of space?  Anyway, the two newsmen are bickering and grumpy.  At once the reader discovers that Simak’s characters will be very face-value, one-dimensional things.  Herb is treated as a happy-go-lucky goofball.  Gary is a bit cantankerous and a bit more intelligent than Herb.  The characters retain these qualities throughout and do not develop beyond this state.

Soon, the “Space Pup” locates a small, drifting older ship.  Gary, who is bored and grumpy, immediately decides to put on his spacesuit and investigate. This part is sort of eerie and is probably one of the more interesting segments of this novel. Upon breaching the ship, Gary discovers there is little of interest except for a large tank in one of the rooms. In this tank is a floating woman.  There are one-liner “instructions” here and there on the ship, which of course Gary follows.  The woman is released from her suspended animation and we learn her name is Caroline Martin.  She has been in this tank on this ship for 1,000 years!

Here is one of the first problems with Simak’s conceptual work in this novel. Caroline’s big “thing” is that she was physically in “suspended animation” while in the tank.  She had reduced her metabolism and physical functioning.  But she says she made one “mistake.”  Caroline’s brain kept working.  So, even though her body was powered down, she was not just asleep. Basically, she has just been contemplating for 1,000 years.  Obvious issues with this include:  brains require energy to operate (being in a near-dead coma-like suspended state wouldn’t let the brain work).  And this brings us to the epistemological “not her brain, per se, but perhaps her mind” sort of scenario.  Insert discussion on immateriality, etc. Also, compare with Ibn Sina’s “floating man” concept.

Anyway, by this point in the novel (chapter three) the reader should realize that he will have to be forgiving, suspend disbelief, and have a big imagination. I can understand that really empirical folk might dislike this novel, but this is an entertainment, not a textbook.  Nevertheless, this book still has a whole pile of outrageous big ideas to throw at us.  So, Gary, Herb, and Caroline land on Pluto, as they continue the newsmens’ “mission.”  Here they find some scientist-innovators who are planning to travel to the edge of the universe in a fancy spaceship.  Instead, they share that they are receiving odd communications that arrive via strange method. Of course, Caroline can understand them using her pseudo-telepathic skills.

These mental communications translated by Caroline are from the Cosmic Engineers.  They are sentient beings calling for help.  These beings request that the humans come to them and they are prepared to assist the humans in making devices that will allow them to travel to the farthest edge of the universe.  The whole reason is that there is great danger to the whole universe and the Engineers need the humans help to save the universe.

The reason the universe is in danger is that another universe is about to crash into it.

We know this is about to happen because beings in the other universe told the Engineers about it.

The solution involves going to the far-future (millions of years) Earth and seeking answers there. But this far-future Earth (on which lives only one elderly gentleman) is only a shadow Earth. Merely possible.  On the way back from there, the humans get waylaid by another species – a disembodied, senile mind.

So, I mention these things to let you be advised:  there are some wildly huge ideas here.  And even though this all seems ridiculously far-fetched and absurd (and it is!), there is a joy to reading science fiction that is on the far end of the spectrum of imagination.  I read so many novels where humans are challenged even just building a spaceship.  Or where a small segment of people putters around a planet dealing with “the same old stuff” that humans have dealt with for thousands of years:  food, clothing, shelter.  And I am tired of specific human stories, wherein we meet Bob and he earns redemption, or his bravery saves the day, or something similar.  Reading about the year 6948, wherein universes are about to collide is refreshing in its own way.  There is something wide-open about this novel that is endearing.

Critics might mutter under their breath about finally having a female character who is a brilliant and awesome – but being told it is the year 6948 before such a dame shows up on the human timeline. Others will howl at the ridiculous convolutions that Simak takes while playing in a multiverse.  Overall, though, I think it is important to look at this novel as one that at least tries to tackle a really, really huge playing field. Sure, at times it feels like a fix-up novel, but at least it can boast it has a huge panorama.

3 stars

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