science fiction

This Immortal

This Immortal ACEOnce again enjoying some vintage science fiction, I finished up This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995). It is the first Zelazny that I have read, I think (unless I’ve come upon some short fiction that I have forgotten about). This is such an odd novel I actually feel bad for anyone reading this review because I feel like my review will be scattered and swirly. Sorry about that in advance.

The first thing to mention is the publishing history of the work.  Originally, This Immortal was …And Call Me Conrad and was published in two parts in issues (October and November) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the first collected, novel-edition of the work was released by ACE in July 1966 under the title This Immortal.  I read the 1981 ACE edition with the Rowena Morrill cover. If you look at the cover of the edition I read, you see in the upper right the words: THE HUGO WINNING NOVEL……

….because this novel won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was presented in Cleveland in September of 1966. Some readers just read that line and felt no significance whatsoever and briefly wondered why I am giving them a boring history lesson. Some other readers thought something like, “Wait, what? 1966… Are you sure?” and the most precise of readers said, “Oh! I know where you are going with this! Hahaha!”

….because, actually, this novel tied for first in the Hugo Award for Best Novel.  The novel that it shared the win with is none other than Dune by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986).

Dune is not an easy read.  It is subversive and complex and at its heart, it is a space opera. It has layers and agendas and ideas. Readers could complain about how slow it reads or how involved it is. Or even its often derivative elements making it seem very borrowed-ish. And then there is This Immortal, which is so obviously different in many ways.  Frankly, I cannot lie, I do not see how Zelazny’s novel competes.  I am not saying that it does not have merit, but sheesh, even if you hate Dune, how is This Immortal a tie with it? Now, one thing I do not want this review to turn into is a comparison-contrast piece pitting the two against one another again.

Zelazny wrote a novel with some deep, heavy ideas in such a breezy and pulpy manner that it, I think, does somewhat of a disservice to itself.  At the same time, I really do not know if Zelazny could have written it differently, say, in order to not be so utterly flippant and almost wispy with the weighty things.  The problem with being breezy and wispy is that I am willing to bet that the majority of readers are unable to pick up on all of the neat connections and “Easter eggs” and such. One of the biggest demands is that the reader be familiar with Greek mythology and culture – and the familiarity is not one from a glossary or a handbook on ancient Greece.  The familiarity has to come from study, schooling, and honestly, years of letting that stuff ferment and simmer in one’s mental slow-cooker. Here’s the first line:

“You are a kallikanzaros,” she announced suddenly.

Of course this was sudden, I doubt there is any other way of stating such a thing to someone. Anyway, the novel is off and running at this point. For a good quarter of the novel, the dialogue keeps a breezy, choppy flow to it. It is the style that one would find in noir crime novels and/or pulp fiction novels.  Another example of this writing would be John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stuff. Snappy and sarcastic and never taking anything seriously. Everything said with a shot glass in hand and tongue-in-cheek, because the state of the world is so bad that we certainly cannot take it seriously.

The main character is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives.  Its after the “Three Days,” which is presumably when the massive bad event occurred (one suspects it involved nuclear destruction).  The Earth’s main continent lands are destroyed and the population, such as it is, lives on islands.  There are Hot Spots (likely radiation-filled zones) and a whole lot of mutated and deranged creatures that roam Earth.  There are aliens, too, the Vegans, and a Sprung-Samser medical treatment, and a Vite-Stats Register.  No details on any of these things whatsoever. Accept them at face value and build them however you, as a science fiction reader, would like.

The main character is recalled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to join a social event and be assigned as a tour guide to a visiting alien. All very farcical and strange.  So, a motley crew of whomever gets assembled to tour around with the alien – the alien wanting to go to various places to research a book or something that he is creating.  The world has gone to rot and those of us left are having theatre productions and drunken social mixers and we are all going to pop out on the skimmers with the Commissioner and the alien to see how ravaged our world is. Also, someone invited the super famous assassin to the social party.

They set off to visit a voodoo ritual – like, a pre-cursor event before they start the actual tour. It is as weird as it sounds.  I have no idea why this scene is in a novel. Bored rich folk visit voodoo shrine before they tour radiated Cairo; probably alien’s fault.

This theme of a mobile social gala continues throughout the entire book – even in the most pulpy and action-scene segments.  Very much the story felt, to me, like those British novels wherein the upper-middle class packs their bags and their Baedekers and travelled to Florence and Athens and the “coast.”  Instead of sedate tourism, though, there are several incidents of savage violence and mayhem in a post-apolocalyptic setting.  Literally, at one point, the alien sets up an easel and is painting a river scene and then everyone gets attacked by a mutant crocodile. Drama and intrigue and pulpy action all in one scene.

The weirdest scenes include one that is along the road to Volos in which a fifty-meter clearing is nearby and things get super bizarre because they see a satyr and the biologist wants to shoot it, but instead the main character (kallikanzaros, remember?) starts playing a shepherd’s pipe and more goat things appear. A strange 1960s interlude of weirdness.

Another dip into the insane is the whole segment wherein the group gets captured and there is a obese albino and Procrustes shows up and fighting and what in the ever-living-heck is this crap about? One wonders if Zelazny just felt like writing while inebriated or if he wrote scenes just to weave some weird ancient Greek mythology into them or if some editor demanded pulp action scenes. Whatever the case may be, these are basically absurdist and once overlayed on the frustrated, apathetic social gathering that is filled with ennui and motives – it just deflates the whole effort.

Constantly the novel is filled with allusions and hints and name-dropping and metaphors that display Zelazny’s interest and knowledge of ancient Greek (and other) mythologies. However, instead of peppering and simmering, he just dumps the whole spicy bottle into the stew and we get heavy-handed writing with no plot and stupid characters. For example, Cassandra – if you can believe it – is here. Why? I honestly do not know. A lot of the book actually involves her in some way, but why? At the end of the thing, I have no idea why this character is even here except maybe to fill the final scene with that happy all-wrapped-up easy peasy action novel ending. (Cassandra with a high-powered rifle is a painting I want on my walls, though.)

Overall, the novel wants you to like it and as a reader I really wanted to, as well. So engaging and breezy, but ultimately ridiculous and stupid. It is really quite like taking the well-worn concept of “humans do not treat their planet well” and then turning it into some Edwardian/ancient Greek farce. What did Zelazny want to do with this? He did not know, either, I think. Its mid-1960s sentiment with some leftover 1940s pulp. Good luck, readers.

2 stars

The Escape Orbit

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

The Escape Orbit by James White (1928 – 1999) was first published in 1964 as Open Prison. The next year the variant The Escape Orbit was released with the fancy Jack Gaughan cover art.  I read the 1983 edition with Wayne Barlowe’s cover art.  This is the fifth book by James White that I have read. Two of the five have been part of White’s Sector General series.  White’s works have run the gamut as far as my ratings.  This novel was nominated in 1965 for a Nebula Award….. and so was Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh is Grass, PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Obviously, White’s work did not win. But it seems that those 1964-1966 years were really something for science fiction and some great things were written/published.

I decided after reading this novel that it is a five star novel.  At the end of the day, ratings are mostly subjective.  Those novels that I think are five stars, others may hotly contest that they even deserve three stars! It is what it is. I think that it being my blog, the rating should reflect my readings/opinions.  I do try to make the case for five star novels being rated so – I do not just say ‘oh, I liked it a lot’ and leave it at that.  And then, perhaps, my tastes or criteria have adjusted in the years since I read a work; not making my rating of a book invalid, but heavily locating it in a definite time/place.  Further, I think it is important to remind readers that a five star rating does not mean that I think the novel is perfect.  I actually do not think there are “perfect” novels.

The Escape Orbit is not a book that I expected was going to be given high marks when I started reading it. I knew it had some good potential and that White is a decent author.  The one element that I think continually convinced me of the five star rating was the unanticipated amount of effort that the author put into this novel.  My copy is 184 pages and I feel like it contains more of the author’s blood, sweat, and tears (so to speak) than many of the 364 page novels published nowadays.  I mean it – several times during my reading I was caught like this, ‘Oh wow, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that’ or ‘yeah, that makes sense, great workaround!’

White knew he was writing a novel in which he might also be accused of helping the characters a bit too much with the problems they faced. White did respond to this:

“It was a simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong…. it would be workable with just the average amount of good luck instead of a multiple chain of miracles.” – pg. 39, chapter five

The book is fiction and while it attempts to be quite realistic, let us say, we all know we are going to allow a lot of leeway for the characters to get what they need in service of the plot.  So, sure, at points White knew readers might think he handed the characters some easy fixes.  However, it was not done utterly unknowingly and there were plenty of struggles so that the characters did not get handed chains of miracles (a phrasing that is tickling me).

There has been a long, long running interstellar war between humans and the “Bugs.”  Both sides are worn thin from the war effort and the war was never total war, so to speak.  White details some of this at the start of chapter two so that the reader can get a grasp of something near a century of warfare between the species.  The keeping of prisoners, on both sides, has become an issue.  There is no need to slaughter prisoners, but at the same time, supporting the number of prisoners in a “humane” fashion is also untenable. So, the Bugs, at least, have found envirnomentally human-friendly planets and they drop humans prisoners (military) off on this planet to fend for themselves. Thus, a prison planet.

We join the story with the survivors of the warship Victorious being dropped off on the planet.  Among them is our main character, Sector Marshal Warren, who turns out to be the highest-ranking prisoner on the planet.  It is somewhat impressive that James White, himself, was not (as far as I know) in the military because from the books of his that I have read, he does display a decent working knowledge of aspects of the military.  That is to say, he writes very convincingly and his characters are reasonably created.

Overall, the story is one of survival, escape, and leadership.  In one sense, this can be a rather dull story – it is completely full of nothing more than problem-solving and maybe that gives it the somewhat slower-feeling pacing.  However, actually considered, there are plenty of character-tensions, action scenes, and plot twists.  Its good writing, believe it or not, and maybe I did not even realize that until late in the novel. It feels slow-moving at times, but there is a lot going on, I think. And its only 184 pages! I am still surprised by how much happened in the book compared to its length.

Warren had wondered briefly how it was possible to both like and dislike what he was doing, and the people who were helping him do it, intensely at one and the same time. – pg 121, chapter fourteen

This book, after all, is all from Warren’s point of view, although it is not exactly fair-play in the sense that Warren plays his cards close, if you will, and never fully reveals all of his decisions to the other characters or to us readers.  However, it does not feel deceitful or contrived because Warren himself lets us all know that he is playing it close and he knows it has to be that way and it may frustrate others.

Right up until the very last page readers are, I would think, torn between whether each character is a good guy or a bad guy.  Because, truly, most novels have good and bad.  This novel is realistic because the characters are dynamic and their motivations and insights are reasonable – and typically human. Right up until the last page, readers may still be wondering about Warren’s motives and morality. Keeping readers off-balance so they are not sure what side they are on is a tough feat.  It resembles some of those other excellent novels of the time period that were nominated for awards. That’s some very strong writing skill.

The amount of strategy and planning and devising in the book is quite impressive. I do not want to simply say it is a study of leadership and strategy, because this makes it seem like the book is something it is not.  This is still a novel, which at times is nearly pastoral and ruminative.  It is not The Art of War or something from Tacitus. Readers wanting a pulpy adventure story of a prison planet will be very disappointed. Similarly, readers wanting hard science fiction in which the characters are just barely names and ranks will also be frustrated.  Instead, White wrote a very human novel about humans in a difficult situation being constantly confronted with problems to solve – including the main one:  the rôle of goals in human activity/psychology.

There are a lot of ethics/pyschology concepts for an intelligent reader to wrangle with here. At the heart of it, this is not fluffy.  If a reader does not come away questioning or wondering as they read through the chapters, they are doing it wrong.

This is not a difficult read, but it is not something to blaze through on the beach.  I am impressed with it and I do recognize it is not a perfect novel (whatever that could be). I am really glad I read it – it was not what I expected and I can say afterwards that it was definitely worth reading.  This is for thoughtful readers and fans of vintage science fiction. If a reader is going to read about the prison planet setting, this one is necessary.

5 stars

The Atlantic Abomination

The Atlantic Abomination

ACE, 1960 cover art: Ed Emshwiller

The temperatures crept up over 100° this week and so that limited some of my activities.  To pass the time during the worst parts of the day, I found myself reading The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner. It was on a stack of books that I had forgotten about. The novel was first published in 1960, but I read the pocket-sized ACE edition from 1969.  It is a slender novel, I think; only 128 pages, but printed in that miniscule font on yellowed paper.  Overall, this is not a perfect novel.  However, the “wow-factor” of the parts that were well done overshadows the not-so-good parts of the novel.

The first chapter is amazingly well written.  Not only that, but the cover artist, Ed Emshwiller, drew the cover based on that first chapter and his vision matches the absolute horror and awesomeness of Brunner’s story.  I do not know all the details of the publishers’ history, but there exists an edition of the novel from 1977 that is by ACE and/or Grosset & Dunlap.  The cover art on that edition is uncredited and, in my opinion, not as amazing as Emshwiller’s original artwork.  I do not usually talk a whole lot about cover art, but the strikingly horrifying nature of Emshwiller’s cover/Brunner’s concept is really worth it to a reader to take a few moments to admire and consider.

Feeling roasted and listless it would take a great chapter to get me really interested in a book. Frankly, if the second chapter and the first chapter had been switched, I likely would have tossed this book aside.  In fact, I would believe that this first chapter was a piece that Brunner just belted out all at once and did not have a storyline for, but had a great idea and got it down and then did not quite know what to do with it.  Publishing being what it was, I suspect he built it into a somewhat more “commonplace” storyline and it became a novel not unlikely to be found in the 1960s.  The first chapter, though, is five stars. Masterfully [pun!] horrific and utterly merciless.

The remainder of the novel has its ups and downs.  Generally, its pacing is a little off and at points it does feel like the writer is not sure where he wants to go with his storyline and is stalling for time. So, current day, oceanography exploration with really high-end technology.  A slightly awkward, but not untoward hint of human drama/romance.  Vague feelings about the Russians and a vague societal competitiveness.  Predictably, the little submariner pod goes very, very deep into the ocean and something goes “wrong.”  Predictably, humans taking major actions based on assumptions or pressed at deadlines causes bad decisions. Mayhem is unleashed.

There are two female characters in the book, both are scientists. One, Eloise, is very marginal.  The second, Mary, is a main character. She is often present in scenes and she is engaged in matters and not superficial, but at the same time, she still remains irrelevant.  I am not the most sensitive to reading characters, but even I noticed that there was this effort to include Mary all the time – but for no real reason at all.

Anyway, the storyline rather runs to the humans-all-band-together deal and readers know that monsters and aliens are apt to underestimate human ingenuity.  So, the storyline grinds along with humans working together to stumble upon solutions, which they, basically, do because they all work together and science never fails. The President of the USA admits to as much in the last page or two of the novel. Go team human! Go science!

The ending is lame. I have to say that I do not know what I expected, but I did want something more spectacular and thrilling than what was delivered. I guess the author was done writing it at that point and enough was enough. I just feel like it is unbalanced compared with how we started this novel – I want the ending that the beginning promised me.

A good read because, as they say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Very good first chapter, as I have said, and general easy reading the rest of the way.  Nothing standout, but nothing utterly atrocious. Definitely something “fun” to consider for those that like catastrophic science fiction or scary alien science fiction.

3 stars

All Systems Red

"All Systems Red" - Martha Wells (2017) Tor - cover: Jaime Jones

“All Systems Red” – Martha Wells (2017) Tor – cover: Jaime Jones

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author.  This first book was published in 2017.  The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size.  Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem.  But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.

This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight.  The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots.  Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact.  A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.

Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor.  A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical.  So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans.  So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?

Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters.  Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.

And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?

Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech.  The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.

Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable.  Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review.  I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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Beyond This Horizon

115409I finished another book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein (1948). I read the Signet/New American 1979 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  I have read some science fiction since I started this blog, but never have I read any Heinlein.  I run into conversations, lists, topics related to Heinlein a lot on the internet; he seems nearly as talked about as Asimov.  However, I have never really felt drawn to read his novels.  So, it has taken quite awhile to work up to reading one – and I have “Vintage Science Fiction Month” to thank as a motivation.

As expected from various snippets read here and there, this one was good and bad. The good was okay and workable. The bad was really quite awful. It was rather a slog to read, but I’ve read worse. I will not be recommending this to anyone, really, except maybe the true hardcore science fiction addict. I rate it two of five stars, but I am glad I read it. I mean, there are few books that I actually (honestly) regret reading.  All of that being said, a much better review from 2013 can be found here:  Beyond This Horizon review.  For the most part, I agree with it and bless the man for having spent that much time typing out his thoughts on this clunker.

I’m no expert on Heinlein’s writing/thoughts and sure do not want to be. The author is frustrating and at points ridiculous.  However, he does earn (based solely on this novel, mind you) a begrudging respect because he did not write a fluffy turd of a novel.  Sadly, at times it is somewhat unclear if this actually qualifies as a novel.  Facts: this was first published in magazine-serial format and this was early in his career.  If you asked me what this novel is about, you know – in that general bookstore conversation sort of way – I would probably not be able to give you an answer. It really does not have a decent plot. So, either the thing is plotless, overly forced in its plot, or unfortunately and ill-advisedly mashed together. 

This is an author who obviously values science in his science fiction.  He does work hard at making his ideas “scientific.”  Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he was not an engaging writer. So those hefty segments of science are really tedious and dull.  No, as a reader, we should be open and care a bit about what the author is saying, even if it is a bit of an “info-dump.”  Except by the tenth page when you are starting to skip past paragraphs “accidentally…..”

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
vintage-sf-badge

The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

Worst part of the novel? Any time the characters interact with or discuss women. It is cringe-worthy and awkward. And I am certain that criticisms focusing on these points are available all over the internet, so I do not care to examine them any further here. 

The rest of the book is peppered with ideas and elements that go nowhere, are there for no reason, do not have a real explanation, or just seem like whims that Heinlein felt like mentioning. The society of this far future novel is mainly genetically engineered. The people do not experience illnesses. They all seem to have conquered economics in some mysterious way, yet remain consumers and still work and actually have finanacial management. 

Society is armed and dangerous – and they act with an outdated pseudo-chivalrous manner. Duels are normal but Heinlein did not develop the duelling/mores protocols properly. (My favorite scene is, as it is everyone’s, the famous scene in the restaurant early on in the novel where a main character manages to flip his seafood over a railing to a table on the first floor and a bizarre interaction of exaggerated politeness occurs.)  There is a fascinating segment in chapter twelve regarding football. Considering reading it in 1948 and then considering the milieu of football now, this segment is probably most worth reading. Its cynical and amusing.

My biggest complaint with this messy novel is the characters’ names. It is so difficult for me to read books in which major characters all have names that start with the same letters. I literally lose track instantly. In this one there is a Mordan and a Monroe and they are different people and I could never keep the names straight. 

Well, the thing probably should have been forcibly stopped after chapter thirteen, if it had to be published at all. I am glad I read it. I am glad I will not re-read it! Recommended for no one.  Historians and science fiction maniacs may find some value in reading it. 

2 stars

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Now Wait For Last Year

Now Wait for Last YearI challenge you to tell me a better novel to read in order to start the year after the infamous 2020 besides a PKD novel…  I just finished reading Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I read the Mariner Books edition (sometimes I vaguely wish all my PKD novels were by the same publisher). Anyway, I will share upfront that I unashamedly give this novel four stars and I am glad to have read it – I have missed PKD pandemonium in my reading life.

The thing with PKD novels is that they tend to linger in your mind after you finish them. I do not know if it is an unsettled, unresolved feeling or a chewing on certain ideas or scenes or something. I have noticed it several times reading his works; you do not simply just close the book and move on. Or, if you do, you probably are not an honest reader. (Honest with yourself, that is, and certainly not with the books you are reading.) Some readers really do not like PKD books and carry on a frowning distaste for the book they just finished. Others just keep seeing little symbols and signifiers from the book in the world around them. Its really interesting to look at how readers process PKD novels.

vintage-sf-badgeThis is another PKD novel containing all of his usual writing style elements that we know and love. This one was quite a bit more difficult for me to get into. I resisted enjoying this one for the first quarter of the book, I think. The central theme and focus was distasteful and uninteresting and so very miserable that I really did not want to continue reading. But, it is a mark of PKD’s skill that I kept on reading and am giving this thing four stars. Literally, I think this plot runs around in circles for 260 pages. Within that, reality collapses and the drug-induced mania is intense. I mean, any time hallucinatory drugs are a major storyline, I am sure there will be some chaos – but PKD takes this stuff to a whole different level. It is difficult to know if his writing is brilliant or one hundred percent insanity. Readers will probably have their heads swimming – are they sure PKD didn’t slip them a capsule?

About two thirds of the way through, I decided this is the “real-ist” novel of PKDs. Its so very realistic and sobering and grounded. And this thought made me chuckle because I promise, most readers are not going to agree with that. But I do not mean it is most real in a superficial sense. I feel it is most real in a human sense – wherein personal drama and turmoil often overwhelms people – even destroying other aspects of their lives (professional, political, etc.) And the agony PKD was writing about had to have been real – TO HIM, at least. (Whether or not the agonies that he suffered were ones he caused or not is another, separate question.)

I really like Eric (the main character) because he is such an interesting miserable thing. His complete confidence in his career, his questioning of his morals, his agony regarding his marriage – these are all very human characteristics, if not “idealistic” traits. And PKD shows them off with a constant barrage of throwing messy scenarios at Eric. Loyalty, war, professionalism, temptation to do evil, etc. Eric is a character that I think will stick in my head for a long time. He originally read like a bland salaryman and then I started to see him as a sort of PKD-Everyman. His status as hero rose and fell and rose and fell throughout the storyline and PKD is such a cruel Creator for doing these things to this man. See how much sympathy Eric ended up finding in me?

As with all PKD novels, there is a lot going on. His works can be approached from so many points, but this one, perhaps, has the strongest grappling with morality. All of PKD’s books have this morality-wrestling and I do see readers get incensed at his perspectives or feelings and then miss out on this horrific existentialist turmoil that he describes.  The science fiction aspects are here, but not in some goofy space opera manner. They are just woven seamlessly into this whirlwind. I love how this novel is utterly science fiction, but I really felt all the science fiction was natural and reasonable. Yeah, there are bunch of sections that aren’t “pretty” reading. It seems some reviewers only want to read sanitized things as if because they don’t “like” a thing, it should not exist……. PKD’s whole oeuvre is to shatter reality, destroy reader’s comfort zones, and make characters and readers transcend themselves. Also, just like EVERY OTHER PKD novel I have read – the ending chapter sucks. He cannot end a novel for nothin’ …. and that, in itself, speaks a lot about what goes on with PKD’s psychology.

4 stars

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Ring Around The Sun

Ring Around the Sun

ACE 1959

Ring Around the Sun is the seventh novel by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that I have read. I read the ACE 1959 edition, but the novel was originally a serial publication in 1952-1953. The cover art to the ACE edition was done by Robert E. Schultz, but ACE utilized this artwork on other books, to include the 1955 ACE Double The Big Jump by L. Brackett.

Ultimately, of the seven novels I have read by Simak, this is the most complete and well-formed novel, in my opinion. Unlike most of the others, this novel has a solid start, middle, and ending, which is a bit of a pedestrian manner of speaking. The truth is, I have previously written that I feel Simak’s novels have dissatisfying endings and that this detracts from a measure of completeness of his novels. In Ring Around the Sun, the ending is sufficient – the resolution to the novel is downright cool!

So, seven novels of Simak and I feel like I am reading the same story at this point. Well, not in the details, of course, but the themes are still the same. Simak has big ideas that get demonstrated in the relationships between three “character types.”  There is usually the Everyman that is well-represented, the alien or non-human, and then there is a human of an evolved nature or who possesses some paranormal quality.  In this novel, the big idea is that there are multiple, but not entirely “parallel,” earths in which advanced humans are trying to “save” humanity from humanity.

Just like in other Simak novels, the first quarter of the novel has that creepy intensity wherein the reader could be convinced this is not quite science fiction, but maybe also some crime/thriller read. Just like in other Simak novels the pastoral, rural setting comes into play. Old country homes, farms, sole proprietor hardware stores, wooden fences, crabapple trees – all the stuff of rural middle America serve to anchor the novel’s character.  Just like in other Simak novels, the main character is a middle-aged chap who is likeable, but aloof. Jay Vickers lives alone, but sufficiently, in Cliffwood. (Get it? CLIFFwood? Har, har har…) The opening of the novel introduces us to Jay in a gentle way, but yet giving us huge clues and valuable plot pieces for the rest of the novel. Unlike so many novels where we find plot elements descending on us like ACME Anvils, these are subtly written and gently placed so that the development of the novel is not heavy-handed.

There is a major goings-on that is the deciding factor for humanity as a whole – and not in a long-distant future. The tipping point is now, with Jay Vickers! Another trademark of Simak is how he focuses on individuals, but yet writes events that affect the whole planet. Jay Vickers is not simply human and as he discovers more about this fact, the novel progresses to show that while Vickers might be abnormal, that specialness is in the process of becoming the norm.

Present in this novel, are also the long moments of philosophical thought wherein the main character questions and wrestles with a variety of existential questions. In this novel, these segments did seem longer than in the other novels, but they also were written with more acuity, I think. Chapter 36 is a big philosophical think for Vickers. In this novel, Simak really ties in a lot of the novel’s subplots, mechanical elements, and incidentals better than in the other novels. I think his work with a child’s top (remember those spinning devices?) is exceptionally well-done. Simak also understands that for the depth that his big idea needs, he has to look at things from a variety of spheres – so he does consider man-as-laborer, man-as-social, economics, culture, and oddly, love. His consideration is also not limited to the here and now; Simak’s big idea always takes a big timeframe. He does a strong examination of humanity in this novel, but I will say, his results are somewhat negative. As in other novels, I feel that Simak is a bit dismal, but that its not as direct or overwhelming as some very miserable dystopia authors.

Although almost all of the elements that make up this novel are found in Simak’s other novels that I have read, I feel they are just done better in this one. From the plot, to the pieces of the storyline, including the characters and their motivations, the props and incidentals, this big idea is both satisfying and complete. It contains all of the key Simak trademarks and has a consistency I don’t find in some of his works. Therefore, if I was to select one Simak work that (out of those I have read) best exemplifies what Simak is about, I would choose this novel.  Further, this novel also serves as an excellent example contra those readers who are under the mistaken belief that science fiction is goofy and inane. This is a serious novel written by an author that is deeply concerned with the state of the world and humanity.

The odd thing, to me, is why, after writing this one, did Simak then attempt the same basic plot so many other times? If it was to sell novels and make money, okay, I accept that. However, an author of this much obvious skill could have written more diverse stories with equal gravity and insight. Instead, this novel seems to be something of a template that Simak then returned to, at least a few more times, in other novels. It is because Simak is a skilled writer that the other novels remain valuable and are well-liked. But, I admit, after reading this one, I think the other novels seem less original and more like template-fill-ins. I guess Simak just really wanted to hammer these concepts down and they were what was vital to his thinking and writing.

Inception posterRecommended for good readers, vintage science fiction readers, readers who like philosophical speculation, and Simak maniacs! (Also, I don’t know that I will ever look at/think about/use a toy top in the same way!)

Lastly, the “originality” of the film Inception (2010) fades after reading this. But fans of Inception should surely love this novel as well.

4 stars

 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DNDRDSDRMF2010Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1968. It is arguably one of PKD’s most celebrated works.  This is partially due to the fact that it was the fiction work that was the basis for the famous Blade Runner film (1982). This is also the eleventh novel by PKD that I have read and it is probably among my favorites of his works.

The movie uses a lot of concepts from the novel. But is not a strict presentation of the novel’s storyline.  In fact, both movie and film seem very different and yet very similiar.  I like both – and I should add that I also really enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  If I have to point out the largest gap between the movie (or should I say movies?) and the novel, I would say that the novel really drives home the point of ecological collapse. The demise of the animal world is really a major part of the plot of the novel, and the novel does look at the concepts of “living beings” and “pets” relative to the situation of ecological failure. As the movie portrays, the setting is post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk.  So, while the focus of the loss of animals is absent in the film, the film presents the setting very well.

I do not want to compare the two mediums endlessly. However, I wanted to bring up these two points because I thought they were the easiest entry points when discussing this novel. I think the setting is absolutely crucial because a lot of the other concepts in the novel do not work as well without the heavy, post-nuclear war landscape.  The radiation fallout, the fog/dust, makes the questions PKD looks at a little more realistic. I am quite sure that humanity would be asking themselves a lot of introspective questions of a different tone than before such calamity.

Regarding these questions, well, one of things readers need to keep in mind is that PKD is not a philosopher. What is the nature of man? What is humanity? What is a robot/clone/android? It is unfair to compare the novels of Asimov and PKD and conclude that PKD’s novels are not well-thought-out. Asimov possessed a scientific-mind that was cultivated through some excellent academic studies. PKD was a writer in California. This is not to say that PKD was not, at times, brilliant, but the expectation that he would have the ability to attain the rigor for conceptual analysis that Asimov did is unfair. However, many times, the manner in which PKD approaches these so-called philosophical questions is more engaging and delightful than some of Asimov’s efforts.

PKD’s writing in this novel contains a driving insistence that makes all the questions about humanity seem poignant and pressing. PKD’s writing is always messy – he rarely (if ever) gives the reader the background detail and he never ever gets muddied by explanations. PKD is not Gregory Benford or Greg Egan – he is not writing “hard” science fiction and attempting to make plausible high-end mathematical or metaphysical concepts. He is literally forcing the reader into a storyline without any explanations and right into the middle of things, and he immediately will give them a test of their knowledge. Seems quite unfair to the reader – if the reader is expecting to be led along step-by-step with a syllabus.  Add in to this PKD’s fondness of writing stories wherein everything falls apart and breaks down, and you have a story that has urgency and immediacy and can seem very mad to the general unsuspecting reader.

This novel really is built on the idea of being able to (or not able to, as the question presents itself) determine humanity based on a test. Sometimes this test is response-related like a pseudo-psychology exam as with the story’s Voigt-Kampff test (Cp. a stanza of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem), and some are more physiological related like the Boneli Relfex-Arc Test.

In this novel, PKD has a sort of dark science fiction tone coupled with an intense investigation into questioning what makes a human human? Some of the entry points for PKD’s wondering include: the quality of empathy, love of music, care of pets, relationship with animal realm, off-world colonization, reliance on slave-labor, relationship with suffering as presented by religion, consumption of media/broadcasting, manipulation of emotional states by artificial means, and “crime” as committed by and against non-humans. The copy I read is just over 200 pages, so a lot of the effort is placed on the reader, but PKD just keeps the questions coming so the reader does not get lazy.

One of the effects that works so marvelously in this novel is how deadpan Rick Deckard is. I think in both Blade Runner movies, this was portrayed fairly well, too. I find it absolutely chilling and perfectly aligned with the setting and storyline. Chapter eight is a mighty thing, from a literature standpoint – I think PKD wrote this one so perfectly so it can ensnare the reader, draw them in, toy with their ideas, etc. Of course, this only works if the reader is really, truly, invested in the novel, in which case it is edge-of-your-seat. If the reader is distracted or not fully-invested, I think this section will seem abrupt. I like chapter eight because I thought it was thrilling and intense. Also, it is the first real point at which PKD is showing how much he can shake things up and twist around reality for his characters and maybe even for his readers! Super cool PKD.

The props like Sidney’s catalog work really well for PKD – it jogs old memories from my childhood… black and white paper listings of pigeon racing, sales, etc… you could roll them up and crumple them up just like Deckard does – and they were just margin to margin listings of sales and races and other related things. Whenever Deckard encounters an animal in the story, I felt it quite natural to reach in my back pocket and pull out my tattered, rolled up copy of Sidney’s as well.

This review would, indeed, be very remiss if it did not touch on the fun word/concept of kipple. I am surprised it is not as well known by today’s readers. But there you have the eventual end of all the consumerism and manufacturing. Entropy for all things – garbage mountains of endless kipple. The meaningful and sentimental objects humans keep close slowly deteriorating into landfills and mountains of waste. So, what is truly important to a human? Endless fun can be had pondering kipple.

The storyline has some bizarre segments in it, but this is PKD, so that should be expected. The entire Wilbur Mercer thread is messy and crazy. But maybe that’s just because this story is in the future and you are in the past so, of course, you don’t understand what everyone there in the future understands.

4 stars