Hospital Station

Hospital Station - James White; Del Rey; 1979

Hospital Station – James White; Del Rey; 1979

I just managed to squeeze in one more read for January. Remember, January is Vintage Science Fiction Month as proclaimed by Little Red Reviewer! My final review for January, then, is Hospital Station by James White (1928 – 1999).  It is a “collected/fix-up” book featuring five stories that describe some early incidents at Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital.   Originally, this was published in 1962, but it collects stories that were published in New Worlds between 1957 and 1960.  Hospital Station is also the first book in White’s Sector General series, which has twelve books in total (the last released in 1999).

The stories in this collection are very obviously “collected” stories and do not follow a specific timeline. In fact, as one reads the stories, there is a lot of obvious shifting with the elements of the stories.  By this I mean that White seems to have really enjoyed creating the “landscape” for these stories and he definitely worked hard on the extra-terrestrial/alien lifeforms, however, he does not really seem to know exactly where to write from or who to write about.  I did not rate the individual “stories” separately.

Please do look at the cover, which has a scene presumably from one of the stories contained within (Trouble With Emily).  The cover art here was done by H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010).  Dongen is a pretty interesting character who died not too long ago. Anyway, this is never going to be one of my favorite science fiction covers, but there are not that many, I would think, with levitating/flying brontosaurus…… thunder lizard!

The five stories contained in Hospital Station and their original publication dates:

  • Medic (variant of O’Mara’s Orphan) – 1960
  • Sector General – 1957
  • Trouble With Emily – 1958
  • Visitor at Large – 1959
  • Out-Patient – 1960

The first two stories in the book did not win me over. The first, Medic, begins in media res, is choppy and caustic. Until I got a sense of how White was writing these stories, this one seemed kind of messy. Frankly, I would not be too surprised if this was one of those stories that one hears about – vintage stories with ugly publications because of cheap payment, mean publishers/editors, and a necessity to put food on the table and fill pages in a pulp magazine. The main character is O’Mara who seems all over the place. But we learn he is a really well-built muscular fellow who also is nearly brilliant. So, immediately, he is off-putting because in current novels, readers expect flawed and damaged loser-types characters.

vintage-sf-badge

My third review for 2016

Maybe the most annoying facet of this story is that White does not seem to know what he wants O’Mara to be or to do. That sort of uncertainly just makes the choppy story even more so.  However, straightaway the best part of the story is the alien.  Somehow White created some fairly awesome alien beings throughout these stories and maybe it was easier for me to continue reading because this alien was so unexpectedly interesting.

The second story, Sector General, threw me a bit because the main character is not O’Mara, but Dr. Conway.  And while I found O’Mara a little over-the-top, Conway is downright aggravating.  He’s a newer member of the medical team at this superb medical station.  This is where White’s uncertainly enters again:  we are led to believe that this Hospital Station is supposed to be state-of-the-art, brand new, high-tech and so if one is assigned here, or hired on here, this is proof of that person’s elite status within the medical community.  But in so many ways, as I read this story, Conway seems tentative, perplexed, and naive. It almost seems like he got hired on at the station totally oblivious to what he would be dealing with.

Oh, well, and the notable thing with Conway is that he is a big pacifist. Totally anti-war, anti-killing, anti-military. In fact, throughout the story he displays an immature and silly attitude toward the “Monitors” (military) at the station.  All of this is fine, well, and good, but why IS the military at the station?  Not to make it seem like I am siding with Conway (in this story) with all his confusion and puzzlement regarding the military, but it seems like White just has the Monitors crewing the station to provide a contrast to pacifist Conway.  Also, I suppose it (military presence, and therefore activity) provides “patients” for the hospital.  Forward to 1993 – 1998, and this turns into (I bet….) Babylon 5 on Warner Bros. TV.

I enjoyed the third, fourth, and fifth stories a whole lot more than the first two.  The point of view settles on Dr. Conway.  We learn a lot more about the station and the stories are a lot less choppy and whiny.  In these, White’s work with creating alien beings and posing medical challenges is brought to the forefront, which, honestly, is probably the main reason why readers would seek out these stories.  Hospital in space – admit it, there’s potential for interesting fun there!  Hospital dramas on TV have always flourished. I think the soap opera General Hospital first aired in 1963:  only one year after this collection is released.

There is not an extreme amount of medical science, however.  That may or may not be a dealbreaker for many readers. For me, it was fine. Other readers may complain that the lack of detailed medical knowledge makes the stories lighter or sketchier than they could be.  There is something to that sort of complaint, but I think White makes up for it by focusing on the necessity for diagnostics.  The team of diagnosticians at Sector General play a major, vital role at the station and when these characters enter the story, it really fleshes out the story and pushes it beyond the views/actions of Dr. Conway.  Focusing less on the doctoring and highlighting the role of diagnosticians is fairly interesting.  May I also provide the date for the FOX TV show House, M.D. (2004 – 2012) that was entirely centered on the activities of a crack-diagnostics team.

White borrowed the alien species “classification system” from writer E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This system uses a four-letter code which designates the type and needs of the aliens that are encountered. This is explained briefly in one of the stories, but I did not care enough to learn it or make sure it was internally consistent.  White has these future space-doctors have access to “educator tapes” which are like the knowledge plug-ins in the Matrix movies. Except in White’s stories, these tapes are practically “taped” educators of another species.  Doctors can “plug-in” these tapes (for a limited time) and have a very essential (i.e. they psychologically become) understanding of the species they are seeking to learn about and treat.  This is pretty neat, I think.  I like watching authors present and solve and wrestle with epistemological scenarios like this.

Overall, O’Mara and Conway are aggravating and tedious.  However, I really like all of the alien creatures we meet. In a couple of stories, Conway is forced to work alongside aliens and these are the high points of those stories, in my opinion.  Naturally, White advances some alien species to include elements of telepathy/empathy, but its not as goofy as Counselor Troi in Star Trek.  Frankly, with all these ideas, floating around in this book, it is surprising some other authors have not really taken to such scenarios and made shared-worlds or other series with some of these concepts.

There is a lot to like here.  Ideas and concepts and aliens are fun.  The main characters, though, are a bit tedious to read about.  And there are some gaps and challenges, if the reader wants to pick through and point such things out. I was entertained and I would gladly read on in the Sector General series. I kind of expect the series to improve because I am hoping White got a handle on what he wanted to do with the series after these stories. The three star rating is for the choppiness and uncertainty.

3 stars

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars

Space Opera

Space Opera

Space Opera – Jack Vance; Pyramid Books, 1965

Space Opera by Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) was published in 1965. I read it this December and it is the sixth Vance novel I have read. I am also pleased that the first review of the year (and for Vintage Science Fiction Month) is a work by Vance.  I really like starting off the new year with the Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.  Usually, I only get two or three reviews posted; maybe this year I’ll do better?

Sadly, I cannot give this novel a glowing five-star big hearts sort of rating. Trust me, it pains me to give a Vance novel such a low rating. Nevertheless, in the vein of one of the main characters of this novel, we must not allow mere sentimentality to get in the way of our overarching efforts and goals.

I read the Pyramid Books 1965 edition. The cover art is by John Schoenherr and I think it is the best of the editions of this book. I love the dark red background.  Anyway, the title is a play on words.  ‘Space opera’ being one of those not clear or distinct subcategories of science fiction literature.  The term has a long and varied history full of opinions and redefining. It is a fluid concept that is, really, in existence mainly to give people something to endlessly discuss over coffee. Vance uses the term as the title of this novel in a more literal manner. He rather does mean space opera, i.e. off-planet musical performance.

vintage-sf-badgeVance was an intelligent fellow. It was not possible for him to keep his intelligence out of his novels – and we would not have wanted him to do that. However, this means that sometimes his novels lose an ounce of fun and entertainment as a sacrifice on the altar of wisdom and intelligence. I am totally okay with this. Some readers dislike this.  For example, The Languages of Pao (1958) is really good; I gave it five stars. Many readers found it to be a slog, which I understand – linguistics/language can be very, very boring. (Yeah, Kripke and Salmon, we are lookin’ at you fellas!)

For Space Opera, Vance has come up with an awesome idea. I am really impressed and enthused and tickled by this.  The writing skill is also there – this is intelligently written with generally well-moving mechanics and structure.  There is also an unstated, but obvious, perspective on imperialism.  For this, too, Vance deserves praise because he did not succumb to a violent, aggressive, bitter tone about the dark evils of imperialism.  Instead, he just leaves it almost unstated and lets the reader have a laugh at the expense of the frustrated imperialist.  Tactful and witty, Jack.

Basically, a very wealthy older woman, Dame Isabel Grayce, has decided to gather up the best musicians (singers, orchestra, etc.) and pack everyone into a spaceship and go forth into the galaxies on a musical tour. Her motives are, mainly, arrogant and obnoxious. However, some mitigation is due her because she is quite honest. She is absolutely ignorant of her arrogance and her imperialism.  Her goals – in her mind – are to undertake a musical tour, bringing the expert performances of the human race upon earth to a variety of lesser-equipped, unfortunate, and less-advanced cultures/species.  This, in essence, for Dame Isabel, is a magnanimous gift which will enhance the lives of the foreign species and, minimally, open the channels of diplomacy and public relations to other planets/cultures.

Of course, in her mind, the other cultures/species cannot fail to be awed by the greatness and expertise of the opera company she has assembled. She admits, due to the backwardness of some of these cultures, they may not be able to fully appreciate the performances. Yet, she fully expects this tour to be a massive success. To her credit, she is neither quitter, nor lazy.

Naturally, the reader is generally repulsed by such blatant imperialism. They are supposed to be – but this is not a serious book, at heart. There is no debate that sort of imperialism is horrible. The reader should understand that Vance is setting it up not so he can knock it down (which would be too obvious and heavy-handed), but rather to amuse the reader endlessly with this operatic farce.  The fact that Dame Isabel takes the whole thing so seriously is part of the laugh – because it is that absurd!

It is important to share here that Vance knows his stuff, too. He does not fudge and fluff the details of this novel. He actually has Dame Isabel select specific operas and her company debate the best selection for their audience, etc.  And Vance is not just rattling off the titles of operas – he actually has put valid reasoning into the pieces mentioned or performed. Indeed, every time, I considered the proposed options and debated with myself about the pieces. Vance was intelligent and thank God for that! Needless to say, the reader familiar with operas is going to get more out of these details than the reader who cannot name a Wagnerian piece.

So,why did I give this novel such a low rating?  Execution.  There are a number of aggravating “side threads” that instead of enhancing the overall plot, actually compete with it.  For example, Gondar’s motives, or anything involving the girl Roswyn. Further, while Vance had opportunity to really make for some colorful and outlandish silliness (as would be expected in a farce) whenever the Tour meets a new culture, he drops the ball. The actual scenes are a bit stagnant and dull. This really sucks because these are the moments for the humor and the morality and the absurdity and the creativity to flourish. Finally, the novel ends without much resolution, with the plot having become somewhat stalled and repetitive, and the characters really just flatlining. Dame Isabel is as ignorant as when the tour began. The last chapter is stupidly focused on the very minor romantic subplot.

Overall, I can only give this two stars. I truly appreciate Vance’s intelligence and effort, but in order to make this work, it needed to be far more vibrant and creative.  It stalls out and gets boring in places. I wish it were better executed, because the idea is awesome.

2 stars

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Twists in Time

Twists in Time - Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time – Murray Leinster; Avon 1960

Twists in Time is a collection of short stories and novelettes by Murray Leinster that was first published in 1960. The cover reads “Six Startling Stories of Twists in Time,” but there are most definitely seven pieces in the book. It seems six of the stories were previously published in periodicals etc., but it is the first publication for the first story in the collection, Rogue Star.

Overall, these stories are generally unique and interesting stories. I have issues with stories that tackle time travel/concepts of time.  The thing is, there is hardly anything more interesting or exciting in science fiction, I suppose, than playing with concepts of time.  It is, indeed, one of the larger categories for story plotlines. Another is “first contact” stuff.  However, while playing with time is vastly interesting, it generally results in a big letdown for the reader.  Superficially, stories that twist time are exciting and seem to have endless possibilities. They are definitely filled with potential for fun and mayhem. But then you think about the science or metaphysics of the matter…. and all the fun gets smashed into little nibbets of “used-to-be-fun, but-not-anymore.”

Time is tough. It is unforgiving. And the allure of potential and smash-ups pulls authors in.  But the science/history/logic spits them right back out.  It is really challenging to find very good “time” stories.  Leinster’s work here is definitely unique. I think he has some very different storylines and he works to make the stories something other than carbon copy pulp.  Nevertheless, nearly every story tanks solely due to the time problem. Not that Leinster does not give it the best effort he can, it just is too demanding a topic.

  • Rogue Star – 3 stars
  • Dear Charles – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Dead City – 2 stars – (1946)
  • Sam, This is You – 2 stars – (1955)
  • The Other Now – 4 stars – (1951)
  • The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator -3 stars – (1935)
  • The End – 3 stars – (1946)

Rogue Star is the first story, taking its name from an entity of “contraterrene matter with negatrons instead of positrons in the nuclei of its atoms, and antielectrons in the orbits where electrons ought to be. Consequently, its gravity was reversed with respect to Earth and Sol and all the normal bodies in the galaxy.”  On Earth, Cytheria is a old freighter spaceship that launches without its crew. In fact, only three persons are aboard at takeoff. Rex Hall and Marge Daly are basically minor crewmen that were not destined to launch with the ship. They were running final checks and such before the launch. They find themselves in space, captured by the seemingly mad Thomas Brent who explains much of the “science” in the story.

Marge complains: “I was so sure we’d run into self-contradictions —“  To which Brent replies:

“You thought of time-travel as like a ground-car on a highway, going north.  You thought you’d have to stop and back up to go south, and something similar to travel in time.  But a ground-car heading north, my dear, can make a U-turn and head south, though the police may protest.  We made a U-turn with the help of the Rogue Star and presently the galaxy will turn us U-fashion again, we will rejoin the traffic, only a great many cars or days behind what was formerly to our rear.”

Well, needless to say, Brent estimates they will be as far as ten-year back. That ends up being a ridiculously low estimate.  Anyway, this is the kind of time-travel work that Leinster plays with.  Now, I forgive him his 1950s physics, of course, and certainly, I am no physicist.  So look past what science doesn’t “work.”  Still, I like that Leinster at least acknowledges the fact that time-travel is screwy and difficult (Cp. Marge’s fear of “self-contradictions”).  But this is one of the better stories in the collection. Several of the others are definitely not worked out even to this level and the “contradictions” are not even nodded at.

Dear Charles is one such story where the time-traveling is a little bit confused.  The story is a little chunk of metafictional layers. The structure is the most novel part of the story, in my opinion.  A story written in the form of a letter is found in the 34th Century in an antique rare book at the University Library. It is addressed to a Charles Fabius Granver.  One of Charles’ friends finds this “story/letter” and brings it to Charles’ attention. Of course, Charles dismisses it as a prank or coincidence. But then the events of the story come true, so to speak.  In places, it was a little too non-linear for my liking and that detracted from the story. It is definitely a unique way to consider time-travel, but I am not sure it was polished to a really good mirror-shine.

The Other Now is the story I rated highest in the collection.  It is not so much time-travel, per se, as it is parallel overlapping realities. (I say with a blasé tone, as if that was a bland sentence.)  Jimmy Patterson is a rather normal fellow who is the survivor of a vehicular accident which killed his wife, Jane.  Leinster starts this story with the sentence:  “This story is self-evident nonsense,”  which is cool because it means that the author preempts the incredulous elements of all of these stories. Jimmy starts having eerie and out-of-sync experiences. Naturally, he doubts them (and himself) and takes his problems to his friend, a lawyer named Haynes.  The best part of Patterson’s character is that he is not immediately excitable and grasping at straws. He is dubious, sullen, and honest.  I have never seen the movie The Lake House (2006; K. Reeves & S. Bullock), but I suspect this is a much better, cooler idea than whatever that movie was about.  I liked this story because it has that subtle creepiness to it – along with a dose of melancholy and a pinch of satisfaction. This is the story to read and retain from this collection.

I wanted to give The Fourth-Dimensional Demonstrator four stars, but it just doesn’t deserve them. There are heaps of charmingly absurd elements in this story, though.  Indeed, as I was reading it, I felt like this is the sort of thing that would happen in my world. The whole thing is ridiculous and silly; probably not one the serious, grumpy reader should bother with. But Arthur, the kangaroo, is outrageous! He steals the show. No. The butler, Thomas, does. NO! The main character, Pete Davidson, is clearly the winner with his deadpan reaction to everything! Well, let’s just say the science is mauled in this one, but the entertainment is high.

3 stars

Question and Answer

Question and AnswerQuestion and Answer is the 1978 ACE title of a story written by Poul Anderson in 1954 in Astounding Science Fiction.  The serialized story was then published in entirety as:  Planet of No Return (1956). My 1978 edition has Michael Whelan’s cover art on it.  No part of the text was changed since its serialization.

Originally, the narrative tells us, a professional scientist was approached to “design a planet” which was Earth-like.  Three writers were then provided this setting and asked to write about it. Sort of an early “shared universe” attempt.  The three writers were allegedly Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, and James Blish.  There is only speculation regarding the so-called “professional scientist.”  Anyway, this short history is given as the introduction in this edition.  Poul Anderson makes a further comment about how planet-building is fun.

The careless publishers also made an error on the back-of-the-book’s write-up. They put the wrong spaceship (De Gama instead of the Hudson).  This isn’t a big thing, but it irked me.

The story itself does not seem too far removed from the present day.  The civilizations of Sol (our galaxy) are overpopulated and are looking for another Earth to colonize.  Apparently, colonies have already struck out onto Luna (the moon), Venus, and Mars. There has been a lot of war in the last two centuries, political/religious agendas have divided the people of Sol.

The first character we meet in the novel is actually not the main character. Kemal Gummus-lugil is in the process of a radiation meltdown situation aboard a spaceship.  We meet the main character, John Lorenzen, next.  Immediately, I took a dislike to him.  He is mopey and weak. Frankly, other characters in the novel often call him weak. Naturally, he has to overcome his fatal personality flaw by the end of the novel and has to be the “determined/strong” character.  It is obvious and a little annoying.

The next character we meet is Edward Avery. He is a psychomed and he plays the role of therapist/human resources on the ship.  He is subordinate to Captain Hamilton, but also seems to be always on his own agenda. There are several other characters that are mentioned by name, Thornton and Fernandez.  But also Friedrich von Osten.  The thing is, the reader is led to believe (via storyline and Avery’s presence) that humanity and psychology plays some role in this novel. So, the seemingly diverse (ethnicity, backgrounds, political/religious affiliations) might be relevant to the story. And they are – except Anderson writes all of von Osten’s dialogue phonetically. It gets really aggravating to read; especially because von Osten is also portrayed as combative and aggressive. He is the only character that Anderson tries to demonstrate lingo-ethnicity.

Some residual (post WW2) distancing/transference regarding Germans/Germany, eh Poul?

Avery tells us:

The human mind is a weird and tortuous thing.  It’s perfectly possible to believe in a dozen mutually contradictory things at once.  Few people ever really learn how to think at all; those who do, think only with the surface of their minds.  The rest is still conditioned reflex and rationalization of a thousand subconscious fears and hates and longings.  We’re finally getting a science of man – a real science; we’re finally learning how a child must be brought up if he is to be truly sane. But it’ll take a long time before the results show on any large scale.  There is so much insanity left over from all our history, so much built into the very structure of human society. – pg. 13, Chapter 2

Well, this paragraph, early in the novel, should give readers a pretty fat clue as to how this whole sucker is going to turn out in the end.  Frankly, I am only giving this novel two stars because Poul Anderson is not a writer I like because of what he does in novels like this.

They had a professional scientist play make-believe and create a planet. They had celebrity writers (Asimov, Blish) lined up to write in a shared universe about said planet.  And Anderson had so much potential, because, well, he is not an idiot and he does write with sufficient skill. But somehow, just like whatever else I read by Anderson, he sucks all of the fun totally out of the story.

Stories can be written with moralizing, with ruminating on humankind, with criticisms about politics and religion – that do not sacrifice every single fun part of a story. I have said this before, if Anderson wants to write non-fiction (e.g. memoirs, journals, aphorisms, etc.) he should have done that. But man, he kills a story like no one else.

Like a gigantic kosmic fun-sucker. SSSSSSSLLLLUUURRRRP.

So, a diverse group of humans (and their crazy personalities) with a lot at stake, travel to Troas to find a “new Earth.” There is so much science to be done. And on top of this, the grand mystery of why the first expedition (the De Gama) did not return should be investigated and resolved. Tension! Adventure! Excitement! Hard empirical science!  So much potential.

Instead, a slow-moving story with obvious plotlines. An annoying main character who is utterly predictable.  Opinions and pseudo-lectures on what is good for Man, what Man ought to do, who has the right path selected for Man, and what Man deserves. It renders the plot pointless, ignores all of the cool potential available, and makes a slog of a novel.

It is not a bad novel, per se. It just has no fun in it whatsoever – which is made worse by the fact that it is super-obvious that there should be fun contained within.

2 stars

Pilgrimage to Earth

Pilgrimage to EarthPilgrimage to Earth is a collection of short stories written in the 1950s by Robert Sheckley.  The collection of fifteen stories was first published in October of 1957.  This is the second Sheckley collection I have read; I can comfortably recommend both collections to readers.

The back of the book has a blurb by New York Herald Tribune stating: “No one in recent years has vaulted so promptly into the first rank.”   I keep imagining Sheckley vaulting promptly… with no lagging or sluggishness.  For a bit of trivia, the book is dedicated to Harry Altschuler.  Altschuler (1913 – 1990) was Sheckley’s literary agent. In fact, he was a fairly significant player in publishing during the 40s, 50s, 60s.

Pilgrimage to Earth • 4 stars
All the Things You Are • 4 stars
Trap • 3 stars
The Body • 3 stars
Early Model • 3 stars
Disposal Service • 3 stars
Human Man’s Burden • 4 stars
Fear in the Night • 4 stars
Bad Medicine • 2 stars
Protection • 2 stars
Earth, Air, Fire and Water • 2 stars
Deadhead • 2 star
The Academy • 2 stars
Milk Run • 4 stars
The Lifeboat Mutiny • 3 stars

Well, I started this collection in June, but only finished it now, in November. I made it halfway through and then my cat drooled on the front cover – an entire house for him to destroy and he purposely seeks out something valuable like a book. I was disheartened, though I cleaned the cover (and it did not suffer much damage, really), so I read other things. Finally, I decided I’d better finish this collection.

I mention this rather stupid story to sort of explain why I do not remember all of my thoughts that I had in June regarding this collection.  Luckily, I’m trained well-enough to write down one or two words as I go along for each story, but that does not mean a thorough review of the works.

One of the things that I remember from Citizen in Space and also is apparent in this collection is Sheckley’s wry sense of humor.  There are keen senses of humor, off-color senses of humor, dry/deadpan senses of humor – but rarely do I really find someone with a truly wry sense of humor.  Just like the dictionary says, his stories contain clever and often ironic tidbits.  For the most part, this keeps the stories fresh and interesting.  After having read two of his collections, I am slightly, very slightly, less impressed with this wryness. I mean, maybe he’s overusing it a bit? Well, even if he is, it surely is not any amount that would dissuade me from reading his work.

Sheckley combines that wry sense of humor with his studies of humans. I think he was only about twenty-nine years old when this collection was published.  But throughout, it contains a feeling that he is poking fun at humanity just a little. He seems to have some degree of  the “understanding people” skill that was so massively developed in great authors like H. L. Mencken and G. K. Chesterton. The combination of this skill with his wry wit makes his short stories readable – and then, re-readable.

The stories Pilgrimage to Earth, Disposal Service, and Human Man’s Burden are very much worthwhile; containing the wry little twist to make them amusing and a little surprising.  They also seem to demonstrate humans at their core.  Pilgrimage to Earth and Disposal Service are actually somewhat disturbing stories if you really consider the heart of the story [pun intended].  The former involves Alfred Simon returning to Earth whereat anything he wants can be bought – including love. But is it really love, like the poets of old would name it?  Disposal Service centers on the 17-year marriage of the Ferguson’s and a unique service that the couple uses. Both stories hinge upon the freedoms and scientific advancements of mankind, but show that mankind is still governed and tossed about by emotions and whim.

That is probably a theme for the majority of the stories in this collection. I recognize that theme in Deadhead and Earth, Air, Fire, Water – both stories that I did not consider to be more than average works.  Nevertheless, there is that theme that no matter how “advanced” mankind seems, he is still the animal, from Earth, that can be whimsical, irrational, over-confident, and foolish.  Maybe the lesson, if there is one, that Sheckley wants to show us is that the key characteristic of humans is that they are both scientific and silly.

Based on my ratings for the individual stories, I clearly like the first half of the book more than the second. I think the stories that I rated below 3 stars all seem to suffer from the same problem:  just a little too much is left unsaid, unsolved, and/or unexplained.  This lack makes the stories seem a bit underdeveloped and not fully written.  Bad Medicine is one example, The Academy is the other. The story has potential, but just doesn’t completely work.

Finally, the last two stories in the collection are part of a “series.” By this I mean, a common element is found in these stories and then in other stories (not part of this collection) by Sheckley.  Here we meet the proprietors of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service.  Basically, some fellows trying to make some money in a universe of highly competitive businesses, corporations, and smugglers.  This “series” is definitely interesting and I really got a kick out of Milk Run.  Both of these AAA Ace stories are fun adventures for all those readers who want some amusing space pulp fiction.

3 stars

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