science fiction

Under the Green Star

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“Under the Green Sky” – Lin Carter; DAW 1972 (cover: Tim Kirk)

Under the Green Star by Lin Carter was first published in 1972.  It is the first of five novels in the Green Star series.  I think this is the first thing that I have read by Carter, but it is really hard to know for certain.  Anyway, the key fact about this novel is that it is Carter’s attempt to emulate the style and subject of the so-called Burroughs tradition.  This, of course, refers to Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950).  Burroughs is the creator of the super famous archetype-level characters:  Tarzan and John Carter. In any case, even the title of this book refers to Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was originally (in some form) entitled Under the Moons of Mars. So, Lin Carter gives us an excellent homage to this sort of sword & planet tradition.

I enjoyed reading this novel because I am always entertained by adventure-pulp stories. There is something wonderfully raw about them and their constant headlong rush into constant adventure.  It is sometimes a relief how authors of this style usually hand-wave and shrug regarding all the tedious details.  They and their characters are not omniscient and all of that is besides the point.  The point is to have adventures and be heroic and carry a sword.

Which is real – the fantastic adventure I feel compelled to relate – or the world beyond my windows?  Have I only dreamed that I have stood where no man of my race has ever set foot before, or is this dull world of tax returns and ball-point pens, of air pollution and TV talk shows, itself by a dream? Are both worlds real? – pg. 7

Carter did a very good job of matching the original form that he was trying to homage.  He clearly has a fondness for and a sharp understanding of that former style.  The vocabulary is just ever-so-slightly less archaic.  Really only people who care a lot about words would notice that his word-choice is not exactly Robert E. Howard’s or H. P. Lovecraft’s.  The descriptions are just barely not quite Burroughs’ descriptions.  But only to those who read a great deal and, as I said, love words.  The style, the milieu, the storyline, the characters, all seem to solidly come from the Burroughs tradition.  And perhaps, even Burroughs himself, if you did not know better.

Similarly with John Carter, the main character in this novel manages to end up on a different planet.  Of course, here is a referential sequence of the nameless main character:

To walk the surface of another planet – to go where no man of my world had yet been in all the ages of infinite time!  Vague thoughts of the books I had read with such fascination in my boyhood came back to me – memories of old Edgar Rice Burroughs and his unforgettable Martian adventure classics – now I, too, like John Carter, could stride the dead sea bottoms of mysteries and romantic Barsoom! – pg. 15, chapter two

But, in the end, Lin Carter knows enough that he cannot duel on Burroughs’ home turf, so to speak.  He knows he has to take us somewhere new. So, the main character manages to get himself to the planet under the green star.

And the setting is actually interesting. I mean, I have to admit that I was reminded a lot of the 2013 children’s animated movie Epic (which was itself based on the story by William Joyce:  The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs).  I do not think it spoils too much to say that on this planet of the Green Star, the people are miniaturized and the flora and fauna is gigantic.  Now, like the nameless narrator, I have no idea if the people are truly miniaturized (Cp. sizing in Lilliput of Jonathan Swift’s work. The people there are about one-twelfth the size we are used to.) or if the people are normally-sized and the trees and insects are just outrageously large.  Imagine huge trees such that their branches are like four-lane highways!  Imagine the peril from things like spiders and lizards!

One does not, however, look for stones in the upper branches of a tree. – pg. 74

And the entirely of the novel is spent within the trees of this world. The ground, if there is one, is not seen and remains an unknown.  Imagine a world with trees so large, that one could live their entire lives without seeing the earth below.  And this food for the imagination is partially why adventure-pulp novels are so much fun.  Now, it is no good if a reader just blazes over the words in the novel and does not actually allow his imagination to enjoy these items.  In fact, without imagination or fun, this is a super-fast and extremely silly read.

We could have done with a bit of tomato sauce, or a twist of lemon, but I suppose Crusoes cannot be choosy. – pg. 77

That is my favorite line in the entire novel. It really amuses me and I feel like I should incorporate it into my daily speech.  Remember that, fans of swords & planets – you take adventure as it comes and you do not act all picky about it!

Well, this is immensely readable especially if you enjoy the Burroughs tradition.  However, even if you have not read all that much Burroughs and/or Howard, this is enjoyable. Sure, it is a pastiche of a time gone by and maybe of authors who were not perfect, but it is excellent escape reading.  Only the hardest-hearted reader would, I think, not find this enjoyable. I’m so glad I own book two, because like our main character also feels, there is something magical about that planet under the Green Sun.

3 stars

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The Penultimate Truth

Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1964.  I have not read a PKD novel since August 2016 and I really feel bad about that. This novel made me feel better about my reading; PKD is a heckuva writer. The only really bad thing about this novel was that my copy is the 1998 Harper/Voyager edition. The cover is awful; allegedly by artist Chris Moore. The female on the cover looks android-ish; strange skull shape and her neck seems too long. But the issue is that there are no female main characters, only very minor ones, so why is there a weird girl on the cover?

Anyway, the main characteristic of this novel is that it is the most like the “typical” and “usual” style of novels that one reads.  I mean, structurally and style-wise. It is somehow the most normal of the PKD novels. There is a linear storyline and the plot, though futuristic, is not bizarre. The ending is actually one of PKD’s better ones! Sometimes I cannot recommend a PKD novel to a fellow reader because his novels do not appeal to all readers, even if I think they are interesting or exceptional. This novel, a dystopian imagining, should appeal widely. Still, it feels PKD was really holding the reins tightly on this one.

Not to say that there are not key PKD elements to this novel.  This entire novel is about one’s possible worst fears regarding governmental control. So, it belongs in that category of 1984, We, and other works that highlight extreme totalitarian governments. In this story, however, the “government” (and I use that term quite loosely) is a gigantic facade that the masses wholeheartedly believe is working for their best interests. Perhaps it was originally, because this novel depicts a future that takes place during/after World War III.

The War is between West-Dem and Pac-Peop.  Human soldiers are not involved in the actual combat. Instead, leadies, which are intensely powerful robots that can survive nearly anything, fight the battles.  The entire planet is enveloped in warfare. Extreme hazardous conditions result from the war and humans are forced into “ant tanks” in order to be protected.  These ant tanks are deep underground. The inhabitants spend their lives on rations and they are employed in repairing leadies and sending the parts back into the war effort.  Above ground remain the few necessary figures – the government and other such ranking groups.

But the war ends and nobody tells the majority of human population that is underground.  Instead, the simulacrum of a world still at war is fed to the masses.  Thoroughly misinformed about the state of their country, the war, the planet, the people in the tanks are held as prisoners not by force, really, but by fear and lies.

Now, this sounds fairly interesting, but probably not too unique. There are plenty of novels that have similar totalitarian dystopian visions. However, what is great about this novel is that PKD does not let us have one truth, two truths, three truths. And, really, at the end of the novel we may only have reached the “penultimate truth.”  What is truth?

For decades truth has been manufactured – and it is always manufactured – by the group in power. So, layers and layers of lies/truths are the reality and are there no good men left to save us all?  No matter how the storyline plays out, there is a deep feeling that in this novel PKD truly loses his faith in humanity.  I have now read twelve PKD novels. Some are more frivolous, some are more bitter. Some are soul-searching. But this one, I am starting to believe, is the turning point. From early PKD with some hope to latter PKD, who is without hope for humanity.

None of the characters in this novel are good. They are not wholly altruistic, moral, self-sacrificing men.  In fact, in several places, they are despicable and conniving and utterly self-serving. They display cowardice, greed, violence, and deceit.  PKD even manages to squeeze in a little moralizing here:  in a cruel, totalitarian simulacra, does traditional morality get displaced? Are some actions, normally taboo and immoral, now considered necessary?

This is a very good novel. It is creepy and frightening in many ways. The characters are a little difficult to follow every so often, but its easy reading and not slow and sluggish.  It is also accessible to most readers, I would think. However, most of us spoiled-rotten readers do not turn to PKD for worlds that “make sense” are “typical” and stories which have a “beginning, middle, end.”  We read PKD when we want to be put in a super-fast rocket as everything is  turned upside-down and inside-out. The bizarre and wacky that PKD usually paints his dystopian stories in is missing. And I missed it.

4 stars

 

Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

Time and Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destiny, not fatalism.

Destiny, not foreordination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Ender’s Game

Enders GameEnder’s Game is a very famous science fiction novel from the 1980s.  I could have read it in any number of decades – the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and yet I only just read it this month in 2017.  Please do not think that I was avoiding it for any reason. I was not. I, quite simply, never had the opportunity or occasion to read the novel.  There are a lot of novels that fall into this category with me (yeah, Lord of the Flies is still unread), but Ender’s Game was a standout omission because it always seemed like *everyone* had read it multiple times.

And now that I have read this novel, I feel it is vaguely moot to bother writing a review of it. I mean, what can I really add or mention that has not been already said, alluded to, or complained about? It seems everyone, except maybe infants in underdeveloped countries, has already formed their opinion of this novel.  And what hubris to think anyone has interest in my opinion….

Keeping that in mind, I did not love this book, nor did I hate it. I feel like a heavy majority of readers either love it or hate it, but most do not fall into the category of simply enjoying it as a decent science fiction novel.  The Introduction (written by the author in 1991) is a bit that I found very obnoxious. However, I read it after I read the novel, so that did not sway any of my sentiment.

I believe that this novel will return to the reader what he brings to it. By this I mean that however the reader feels about the world – his own experiences, judgments, ethics, feelings – will be cemented or enforced by this novel.  In other words, this is not one that will change people’s opinions; you know, opening hearts and minds, or whatever. So, if a reader feels strongly pro/anti-military, his reading will reassert those positions. And what a reader prioritizes in their worldview, is what the reader will highlight and evaluate most in their reading of this novel. Not to say that that this is the most philosophical or intellectual novel ever written. At heart, it is the story of Earth military versus Alien military.

Considering that I believe the above, viz. that the reader will focus on things in the book that are focused on in his own life, I am not sure how to write this review without at least some personal revelatory comment.  Is Ender a tragic character? Yes, he is and, perhaps what is worse for him, he knows that he is. As are, more or less, the other selected student-soldiers.  I would not have been opposed to the techniques in Battle School. Nor was I shocked at the mentalities and realities of Ender’s early schooling. The pressure that Ender and his mates are put under did not bother me. However, the part that made me feel empathy for Ender was during Battle School and Command School they (from Ender’s perspective) kept changing the rules on him. I hated this on Ender’s behalf. I did not hate the extreme pressure, nor the fierce competition, the intense training. But I did feel badly for Ender when it seemed all his work was for naught because the rules suddenly would change, seemingly spoiling his efforts.

Granted, as you read, you learn that even these harsh “rule changes” are part of the process of training Ender.  But even knowing this, it is the one thing that really made me feel any empathy.

The brother/sister dynamic was weird – much weirder and odder than I expected. In fact, that is the segment of the book that is disturbing, not anything with Ender. I cringed any time the story turned to those two. It is interesting to a point, I guess, but I cannot say that I cared much about that part of the storyline. I know it shows this overarching schema in which the author juxtaposes Ender and with his siblings (all of them genetically enhanced). Card even throws in there a nice metaphor about a coin. It works, but I did not care.

Finally, the ending was too odd for me to enjoy and it made me consider giving the novel three stars and not four. The weird Bugger-mind-ansible-cocoon thing. All of it. All of it after the Earth Civil Wars was just throw away, in my opinion. I do see how it neatly wraps up some questions about the computer game Ender plays and I do see how it might generate sympathy from readers.  The Buggers are a misunderstood situation, condemned because of their mode of communication, and Ender is maybe also their beginner. For me, though, the book ends when the “final exam” ends.

So do I read on in the series? I think Ender’s Game is perfectly standalone. But Card knew he had a golden franchise. And, I cannot say I am uninterested in the storyline. I will probably read book two, at least. Officially, between you and me this is a 3.75 star rating.

4 stars

Second Foundation

Second Foundation Youll cover

Second Foundation – I. Asimov; 1991 (Cover: Stephen Youll)

Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov is the third novel in the Foundation trilogy. It was first published in 1953; I read the Bantam 1991 edition. I read the first novel in the trilogy, Foundation, in January of 2012.  I read the next in the series in August of that same year. Unfortunately, I failed to return to this series until now in 2017. I gave both of the previous novels four stars in my rating/review and I think this novel will also get the same.  It was a bit of a struggle to read this one, because Asimov has a very distinctive writing style that does not lend itself, in my opinion, to brisk reading.  I think this is at the core of the reasons why many readers dislike the Foundation series and rate them lower than other novels.

Asimov was an intelligent fellow. Fiercely intelligent, even. I do not think that this can be disputed whatsoever.  His science fiction is also creative – full of big ideas.  Asimov also stuffs the presentation of all his big ideas with logic. I believe when he sat down to write his novels, he did not go about it by writing:  and then the character did this.  No, I believe Asimov did say that the character did some action – and then Asimov considered why this character did the action.  Asimov’s intellect does not seem to tolerate random and empty things.  Unfortunately, in contemporary society, I find a lot of people who accept prima facie anything and everything. Many times, their interest is very superficial. Asimov does not strike me as a writer who will just write stuff for the sake of word count.

Asimov’s considerations of things (which sometimes make it onto the pages and sometimes hide in the background – barely discernible) made his writing very much his own.  I found many reviews and comments on his novels wherein the readers complain about how “slow” his writing is. Or how the characters are “wooden.” Or how the novels are so “boring” that they could not finish reading them.  Maybe these reviewers are not the most articulate in describing what they experience when they read Asimov, but I can understand where they are coming from.  There is a perfect example in Second Foundation of this sort of writing. Chapters five and six of the novel (pgs. 64 – 96 in my edition) are exactly what readers complain about regarding Asimov’s writing.

In all honesty, I stalled out in my reading during these chapters. I think I re-read these pages nightly for a week because they kept putting me to sleep. Literally. It is indeed boring writing and it seems repetitive and it did take some effort to push through. Are these chapters integral to the overall story (both in this novel and in the series)? Yes, I think they are and so would be very against excising them at all. Could these chapters have been shortened or otherwise edited to make them less tedious?  I am not sure.  I think to do so would be to lose the very Asimovian aspect of the whole series.  I would not care to do that to the author or his works.  Honest to goodness, once I marched through these pages, the novel picked up pace and it was very good the rest of the way.

What the heck goes on in those pages? Asimov has several characters confront each other and they converse back and forth about what happened and why it happened and what the possibilities are. Who is lying? Who has incomplete knowledge of the subject? Who is being fooled? What are the intentions behind these matters?  In other words, Asimov is digging into the characters’ minds to root out the purposes in their actions. He is logically arguing among them. And he is also showing all the likely possibilities that the storyline could follow.  From this standpoint, it really is not bad. However, considering the pacing and style in a novel, it is quite numbing. Readers who make the effort and want to care and understand Asimov, will appreciate what he does when he writes segments like that. Readers who just want to be entertained probably will not pull much from such sections.

In this novel I really like Darell and Arcadia. They are awesome – in their own way. I want their continuing adventures, so to speak. I want to get to know them and have their backstories with all the nuances in good fiction. However, this is another aspect of Asimov’s writing.   It seems he is so potent a personality himself that his characters tend to all seem flat and cardboard – wooden, if you will. So many readers complain about the lack of “character development” in Asimov’s novels. But in my opinion, this does not precisely state what happens. I think that all of Asimov’s characters are all very flat and similar – because he, himself, shows through so strongly in all of them.  There is something subtle and familiar about all the characters – even though, on the surface, they are totally different.  I am willing to bet Asimov, when he wrote, often asked himself something like:  now, what would I do if I were this character? And then took his response into consideration when writing the story.

Overall, this is an excellent ending to the trilogy. I can see so many places where this series could be expanded and developed and re-examined. The big idea of it is so awesome, I think the novels all get four stars just because they present it. Sure, there are valid complaints about Asimov’s writing style throughout, but at the end of the day, the novels are very much Asimov’s novels and not something churned out by machine or a “novel generator.”

4 stars

The Man Who Japed

The Man Who JapedAfter reading a couple “young adult” novels and a couple of mysteries, I hopped back into vintage science fiction with Philip K. Dick’s The Man Who Japed.  It was first published in 1956. It is the ninth PKD novel that I have read.  Straightaway, let me share that I give this novel three stars.  This is not unusual – this seems to be my standard rating for a PKD novel. However, I do think that although this novel contains all of the “standard” PKD elements, it is not one of his finest works. Still, it is worth reading and I do recommend it to most readers.

All of the elements that make PKD novels “PKD Novels” are included in this one.  Because this is one of his earlier works, I think that maybe some of the elements are a bit messier and choppy than in some of his truly excellent novels.  Frankly, though the reader of PKD should be comfortable with his in media res action thrillers, this one did seem even more challenging for the reader to get a foothold.  I think I was well into chapter six or seven before I was feeling much of the story.

The thing is, it is difficult to read PKD without knowing something about the novels. I knew something of what this novel was about because this is 2016 and there is an Internet and I read a lot. By this I mean:  yeah, I knew the basic broad strokes here.  However, I did try to imagine a reader approaching this novel without that knowledge and I do think they would not get very far with it or it would frustrate them a little too much. Needless to say, I think this, early work or not, should not be one of the first novels a reader reads of this author.

The novel is set in 2114 and the main character is Allen Purcell, a late-20s administrator in a corporation designed to produce propaganda for the Committee.  Society, after a terrible worldwide war, has fallen to a totalitarian state as directed by a South African military general named Streiter. Streiter assumed control of society by enacting “Moral Reclamation” policies.  These policies are basically forms of Puritanical reduction. The totalitarian government operates mass surveillance and, through propaganda and coercion, enforces an oppressive moral code.  In 2114, the government is led by a descendant of Streiter, Ida Pease Hoyt.

Elements of PKD that readers should recognize: Purcell’s life is nearly totally demolished and deconstructed.  He is backed into situations in which there is no escape or option. PKD was merciful because in this novel, Purcell manages to keep his wife.  Purcell fights against the current government by subversive actions and mild disobedience.  But he is no saintly hero.  It seems his rôle is almost coincidence.

Another element is that of the oppressive and ever-intrusive government.  PKD is forever afraid and suspicious of who the government really is and what their actions are.  It is really very strong in this novel and it does parallel the Orwell novel 1984. Still, the novel ends with hope for the citizens regarding this totalitarian government.  Not jaded and bitter PKD – yet.

The other major element is that of psychology/psychoanalysis. PKD’s obsession with this field is apparent here in the form of spoofs and satire.  In fact, he is extremely obnoxious with his handling of this sphere in this novel.  As I alluded to earlier, I feel like the key elements are in this novel, as in his later works, but the writing itself is smoothed and refined in those later ones.

Now, some websites (including the publisher’s) consider this a “light-hearted” or amusing read.  Well, there are satirical elements, I suppose. But this is not a comedy.  And if the reader is laughing it is a rueful sarcastic sort of laugh, I think.  Dark humor, I guess. It is lightweight because it is a fast read and there is not a lot of heavy pontificating.  But in PKD there never is.  Purcell’s actions are subversive and taken as mockery – japing – but it is not necessarily amusing. Extremely absurd sometimes, but I do not think “humorous.”

My favorite part of the novel – and one that I wish was expanded or developed a wee bit more – was when Purcell visits Hokkaido in chapter nine.  It is really interesting and I was rather curious about the relics from the pre-war time that were bandied about. Ulysses by James Joyce is one of them, for anyone interested in knowing.

It is a silly thing to say that some of this novel was a little difficult to follow along. I mean, its a PKD novel. However, I guess, I mean that the writing is not as polished and snazzy as I am used to from the author. This is a good novel for all those loving dystopian societies, for those who love Orwell, for those who like satire and characters who are crushed by the unseen Establishment.  But it is not the best of that subgenre and it is not the best of PKD. Nevertheless, readers and writers could get quite metafictional about all of this – and I am surprised it has not yet been attempted (to my knowledge.) I mean, it could be japed. And circle back.

3 stars