science fiction

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

The Caves of Steel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

 

Survivor

Survivor 1977 ACE

Survivor by Laurence M. Janifer (1933 – 2002) was first published in 1977. It is the first novel in the six-book Gerald Knave series.  It is the first item I’ve read by Janifer, I think, though he did write under a variety of pen-names throughout his career. Survivor is a short work – just 172 pages in the ACE edition that I read.

The novel takes place on the planet Cub IV, which is a human colonized planet. Humans have been there for twenty years and the planet has been nicknamed the World With No Problems. Some novels have worlds that are perfect because of the extreme-resort spa style of the planet.  That is not the style of “perfect” on Cub IV; there is not a marked amount of hedonism and/or wide-open mentality. This colonization just does not have any troubles – as if this new colonization “did it right.”

Survivor is a spare novel told in the first-person by the main character, Gerald Knave. The novel is not about endless world-building, character development, background information, or tedious descriptions. It is very much a punchy pseudo-pulpy late-70s novel. So, it will not stand up to pointed questions about its plot or setting. I miss these sorts of novels a little bit. What sort? Hard to explain; but the ones that feel – to me – like they are just speedy entertaining blasts in various science fiction settings. I do not always feel like committing to the burden of reading ridiculously detailed and expansive universes with more characters than I can keep track of.  Survivor requires nothing from the reader and is vaguely entertaining.

The native species on the planet are dubbed the Vesci by Gerald Knave. They start “taking over” the human populace telepathically.  So the first two humans to be controlled by the Vesci are Johnny James and Laia Kodorko; two citizens of Cub IV that have become the “patient zero” of the Vesci infiltration.  Some things:  since the Vesci are attacking the humans telepathically, they are all also one unit. Both Laia and Johnny and all others taken over by the Vesci speak the same – they use the pronoun “we” and they say things like: “we are here” and “we are all the same.”  Here is where the reader needs to make the choice to not ask the messy questions.  Ontologically the story just face-planted into the Problem of the One and the Many.  So, unless you want to have a read-along with Avicenna or someone, just put it aside and have fun.

The fight between the humans and the Vesci gets funneled into the manipulation of the telephone network. I get it, because communication is one of those things that is key in war, apocalypse, and disaster. Janifer just really focuses on the telecoms here. But the story is, more or less, the same as all the contemporary zombie stories/shows pop culture has been circulating. Telepathy aliens taking over humans versus contagions taking over humans – not a big plot difference, except I dislike the gore that comes along with the zombie stories.

Janifer, and therefore Knave, is a little less “politically correct” than people born post-2000. But I remember when everyone thought more like Janifer/Knave. Its likely a few things in here will make people roll their eyes, which is fine. Now, the big reveal at the end of the novel, which makes the resolution possible and gives us the happy ending, is not very satisfying. It really is smirk-worthy. I will not spoil it here, but it is a weak element to the story.

Here is a good quick read for someone who just needs to read something light and basic that does not require much from the reader. General 1970s science fiction lightweight. And maybe meeting Gerald Knave is a good idea for true science fiction addicts.

2 stars

Brother Assassin

Brother AssassinBrother Assassin by Fred Saberhagen (1930 – 2007) is the second book in his Berserker series, which began with the 1967 collection Berserker.  This book is a sort of “fix-up” novel of three shorter works that were published in issues of the magazine If in 1967.  I gave the first book in the series four stars and I think I will be doing the same thing with this one. I own two copies of Brother Assassin; the 1969 Ballantine Books edition with Richard Powers cover art is very nice, but I read my other copy:  the 1978 ACE edition with art by Michael Whelan. Truthfully, this first ACE edition has a bunch of typos in it, but the font was easier for me to look at than in the Ballantine.

As one reads this book, it is very easy to notice that it is not from contemporary writers. The book feels vintage. It also feels a bit campy and pulpy, which it is, of course. Nevertheless, I do not think readers should be speedily dismissive of it just because it does not have the same feel to it as more recently published science fiction.  Brother Assassin is written somewhat simply – this is not the prose we would expect from China Mieville.  The characters are not pounded out in exasperating, excruciating detail. In fact, many may seem superficial or obvious. Yes, and, of course, the female character of the book is emotional and a bit immature (dare I say witless?)

Brother Assassin firstThis novel is broken into three sections. Each section is one of the shorter works previously published in If.  The whole novel describes the Berserker attack (infiltration of the past) on the already war-weary planet Sirgol. Each section of the novel focuses on  a particular insertion of Berserker forces into the timeline. How about that as a strategy – if you cannot defeat your enemy in the current time, defeat him by going to the past and destroying crucial elements of the historical timeline.  Certainly, this is not perfect science – it is not meant to be. It is written well enough, though, that the reader can pretend that it is possible and really invest in the well-being of the characters.

Continuity among all this timeline movement is held by the main character, Derron, who twice is sent back in time to deal with the Berserker “assassins.” Derron Odegard is an unhappy, but dutiful time operative. One would have to return to the original stories and then see what (if any?) differences were made or interludes added regarding Derron – but I think in its final form, this fix-up can be read as a redemptive storyline.

It’s not really ideal to think of this as a strict time-travel novel. It’s almost more ontological than it has any right to be. And there’s a delicious amount of heartstring-plucking ethics thrown in each section to make the novel more than just an action sequence.

The last section of the book is going to have different levels of depth and meaning for various readers.  Those of us GenX and back who were raised in the Church are probably going to have a different feel here than those Z-Gen types who have never been inside a church. So, reader perspective will change the feel. Nevertheless, the story is still interesting…. a re-imagining of the business with Galileo Galilei and heliocentrism. Saberhagen does an interesting job here of making all the participants in the debate seem real. St. Francis of Assisi is the other character that is juxtaposed between the heliocentric drama and the struggles of Derron and his timeline. Let me admit, while many parents read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, I was read the Little Flowers of St. Francis.  Like I mentioned: a reader’s background will change the level to which this story resonates with him.

Overall this is not high-tech hard science fiction. The work is flawed here and there.  I just plain and simple liked Saberhagen’s work with the main character Derron. I liked his work with the character Matt. I liked his styling of a Renaissance drama in the last section. So, based on feel – as opposed to anything else – I give this four stars. Its not great literature, but it was a good thing for me to read.

4 stars

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross was published in 2004. It is the first in the Laundry Series of novels. I think I acquired my copy (Ace 2009) of the novel in 2016. This is the first Stross novel I’ve read although the stacks have a few of his other works.

Stross seems to have a following of die-hard fans much like Neil Gaiman has.  I can see why; Stross’ work is rather original and it is clear that Stross is an intelligent person. I had high hopes for this novel, and I felt odd after reading it because so many readers have given this one such high marks – did I miss something? Thinking about this for awhile, it seems readers are reviewing the book they think that they read – or wanted to read, and maybe not actually the book that they really read. It happens more than one wants to realize….. My review is utterly honest, so if anyone disagrees with me, they can at least be satisfied I am not being disingenuous.

I read a lot of reviews saying this book is funny/comedic. Readers really seem to warm to the obnoxiousness of the bureaucratic silliness. Being bluntly honest: I don’t see it. There is some snark, which maybe is a little smirk-level amusing. There are some eye-rolling scenes wherein the “paper-clip-counters” are shuffling paperwork. But there’s nothing hysterical or laugh aloud here; a little sarcasm isn’t going to make me laugh my head off. Another novel that I read that has this issue is Midnight Riot / Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. (See my review.)

Stross is an ideas man – he’s very smart and he has some interesting concepts. As far as a writer? Well, honestly, this isn’t an example of great writing. The worst of it is dialogue; most of the characters seem written very stilted. They are archetypes, at best, not characters. In other words, they act/sound just like you think they should. Stilted writing. And wow, Dominique “Mo” is written awfully. Every dialogue or conversation is cringe-worthy. Its like…. if you took all the ill-conceived and incorrect stereotypes about autism and then made them even uglier. If the other characters are stilted, Mo is like a bad stereotyped autist developed by a computer that is beleaguered with viruses. Ugh.

The book rambles around and takes some time to find its feet. Seriously, the first third is perhaps introducing us to characters, but the storyline just sputters and spins. Now, once the story gets moving, it does turn into an action-thriller sort of business. Techno-fantasy-alternate history plot.

Stross has some great ideas that were fun to explore. I liked a lot of the concepts in the story. But they are not all written smoothly and seamlessly. A spy agency (the Laundry) that is full of techno-mages is super cool. But, for what its worth, I found the entire Nazi/Reich stuff to be off-putting. Its…. just too much… It made the novel feel a lot heavier and darker than it should have been. Its hard to laugh when Nazis are summoning demons.

At times I was wondering if the real flaw of the novel is that there is just too much stuff stuffed in it. Nazis, Old Ones, computer-jargon, physics, the Laundry, Middle Eastern terrorists, museums, summoning spirits, PDA-style tools, bureaucratic satire, references to a whole pile of what used to be consider geek/nerd material, etc. I do not doubt Stross knows about these things, but jammed on top of one another, all of it is cumbersome and tedious.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas, I liked the action scenes – I liked the Robert Howard homage, the Wolfenstein castle imagery, the pseudo-science mixed with real physics/math. I appreciated Stross mentioning Martin Heidegger (he doesn’t really feature in novels much, but I often feel like he would be awesome in science fiction stuff). But I did not find this very amusing and as a whole it seems like the author was trying too hard. It seems forced everywhere. Now, I have book two, so I think I will give Stross and The Laundry another shot.

2 stars

Equations of Life

"Equations of Life" - Simon Morden; ORBIT

“Equations of Life” – Simon Morden; ORBIT

Equations of Life by Simon Morden was first published in 2011.  It is the first of a short series of novels called the Metrozone series featuring the main character, Samuil Petrovich.  This novel won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award.  According to the Award’s website:  “The Philip K. Dick Award is presented annually with the support of the Philip K. Dick Trust for distinguished science fiction published in paperback original form in the United States. The award is sponsored by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society…”

This novel belongs to that gloriously alluring subgenre of science fiction sometimes referred to as “cyberpunk.”  I put that in quotes because I am certain that many fans of science fiction have all sorts of opinions about the definition of that subgenre. But speaking to the general, and maybe somewhat superficial, reader of science fiction, cyberpunk has some identified members that everyone always mentions. Neuromancer – William Gibson (1984) is usually the first novel people discuss. But there’s others that one might like to know about such as Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992), The Shockwave Rider – John Brunner (1975), and Islands in the Net – Bruce Sterling (1988).  I reviewed Neuromancer on this blog, but also The Electric Church – by Jeff Somers (2007), which is another entry into cyberpunk.

Allegedly, according to the almighty Internet, the term itself was first used in context by Bruce Bethke in 1980. Sterling wrote that cyberpunk includes a “combination of lowlife and high tech” and I think this is very much the best broad-strokes definition. The genre tends to feature urban settings – sometimes in decay. The atmosphere has machinery, neon lights, gritty streets, and cyber-cafes/computer-ware. Usually, while the tech seems very futuristic, it often is cobbled together by loners, anti-establishment people, and/or hackers. See glimpses of the scenery in movies like:  Hackers, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ghost in the Shell, and Johnny Mnemonic.

So, one of the things that Morden gets absolutely correct is the setting. It feels exactly how it should for this novel. It does a lot of work for the novel. The setting is  post-apocalyptic; in this case meaning some meta-scale event (likely a war) has reshaped the planet’s countries politically and geographically.  Morden does really well in this book by keeping the details of the event vague and only alluded to. This works so well and is such a good idea that I feel he deserves extra praise for not getting too deep into the backstory. On a smaller scale, the main character, Petrovich, exists in the Metrozone. What is this? Its a rearranged, divided, torn-up resemblance to what may have been London; places like Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Piccadilly are referenced.

The book begins building the setting by appealing to all the reader’s senses. Petrovich describes the light, the smells, the noises.

“…all he could hear was the all-pervading hum of machines:  those that made power, those that used it, pushing, pulling, winding, spinning, sucking, blowing, filtering, pumping, heating and cooling.” page 1

This is a deeply urban setting where the sounds you hear are machinery. And throughout the rest of chapter one and into the start of the second, it feels gritty, over-populated, and cityscaped. In chapter two is the event that is the catalyst for the whole novel.

Petrovich is a young Russian guy. He is very intelligent within mathematics (and likely computer programming and some physics).  Petrovich isn’t his real name – and frankly, even by the end of the book, we do not know a lot of the “paperwork” things about him. The reader gets the impression that he is a mix of refugee and survivor.  We do, however, know more about his personality, character, reasoning, and strengths and weaknesses.  As I read, Petrovich first seemed overdone, his Russian-ness, his attitudes, his basic fiction-character archetype seemed too blatant. However, the character grew on me, and no matter what, I was rooting for him.  What I liked about Morden’s writing of Petrovich is that several times, Petrovich’s decisions are very honest and realistic decisions – and not, as found sometimes in fiction books – plot devices, plot machining, or character misrepresentations.

While Petrovich is the main character, there is another character that readers will likely really enjoy. The entertaining and awesome nun, Sister Madeleine.  I definitely want to know more about this whole situation. Nuns that are bodyguards? Or genetically-enhanced with Vatican-issued/approved firearms? Yes. Great. I’m all-in on this neat concept.  I do have a smallish complaint about how a particular aspect of this character goes, though.  Writing flaw? I am not sure.  But I absolutely loved the parts wherein Maddy is driving the manual transmission vehicle.

The supporting characters, Pif, Grigori, Wong are all successes. I do not have any issue with them. At one point, Wong is surprising and deepens the cyberpunk/espionage element of the novel. I love how Pif is utterly disinterested and distant to the outrageous incidents that occur around her. It isn’t that she is ignorant and that is what makes her character so fascinating as well. She may be, also, one of the most honest characters (particularly regarding Petrovich) in the novel.

Morden shuffles the possibilities for villains and enemies really well. In cyberpunk, everyone and everything can be an enemy. The reader is, for the most part, never on solid ground deciding who the bad guys are. This is a good idea, but not easy to execute and I think the author did a good job with it.

All of the above are why I gave this novel four stars. However, there are some major issues. Often enough the sentence structure – or sentence placement itself – seems really off. Not just awkward, but as if totally incorrectly located. Its absolutely jarring when it occurs. It takes getting used to and I just kept reading, but there are bone-shaking sentences that don’t “work” with the prose. Luckily, they are not frequent enough to spoil much at all.

Another issue is that for the majority of the novel, literally nothing much seems to be happening except Petrovich going here and there in town and meeting with various people. Its a way, obviously, to introduce characters and motives. But honestly, it also feels redundant and after awhile, I did ask myself:  is the plot actually going anywhere here?

I own books two and three of this series. I definitely want to read them. I think readers of cyberpunk will enjoy the novel because it is a solid entry into this subgenre. It is not a perfect novel, but it is highly entertaining and many elements (setting, characters, villainy) are well-done.

4 stars

The Demolished Man

the demolished manIts Vintage Science Fiction Month 2019! I see a lot more participation this year from readers and I am happy about it. I, so far, have only read one novel. I actually cannot guarantee that this is the first time I have read the novel. Its hard to know with some of the more famous older ones. Anyway, I read The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1913 – 1987).  The novel was originally published in periodicals in 1952. One of its biggest claims to fame is that it won the first Hugo Award. Now, in the last decade or so, I have read a lot of dissent regarding the Hugo Awards. I have read a few. Some seemed quite deserving of a prized award, others not so much. Having read several novels from the 1950s, I think that this novel is a reasonable and worthy selection for the award. I can see vintage-sf-badgehow it was selected.

I read the 1996 hardcover edition by Vintage. I also own the 1970 Signet paperback. Looking at the various covers this novel has seen through the years, I gotta say there is not yet one that really appeals to me.

So the story takes place in the future, but a future that is not marvelously different from our current world.  The biggest element is that there are espers – peepers; telepaths who are known to exist and are employed in a variety of jobs in the governmental and corporate worlds.  In fact, there is some effort to produce these espers – for example, a peeper has to marry a peeper. There are grooming places where potential peepers are farmed.

This telepathic society is probably what Bester is most known for. It helped that Babylon 5 (TV series, 1993 – 1998) showcase a Psi Corps in which Walter Koenig (Cp. the character Chekhov in Star Trek) plays a Psi Corps commander named “Bester”.  In any case, while Alfred Bester did not write a large number of novels, this is the one people seem at ease in recalling.

The storyline is interesting – until its not.  It’s good when it’s a page-turning game of cat-and-mouse between two slick characters. Detective versus murderer. But when it moves into the very pseudo-psychological-trippin’ territory, I got bored and uninterested and, frankly, a little lost.  And the motive for the killing….well, it was there all along, but I was hoping it wasn’t true because it’s rather lame and unsatisfactory, anyway.  Because FREUD.  I am thoroughly sick of Freud. But I do wonder a little bit how nifty and edgy authors thought of themselves when they decided to use Freudian concepts in their works.  Now it seems ridiculously overdone and tedious and, sometimes, ridiculous.  However, its 2019 – I am sure when it was first done it was fresh and novel or a little bit edgy.

The thing is, authors tend to cherry-pick their Freud when it suits their stories. Which is fine, but if they get too in-depth with it all, like in this story, it gets blurry and muddy.  It harms their stories – turning them from unique and interesting into sketchy inexact mush. Novelists might like to borrow from Freud, but few of them actually are Freudian, I guess.

Anyway, what is good:  I really think the first half of the novel is good stuff. Its fast-paced, there are guns, men-of-action, and cool cats who smooth talk like noir kings.  I like the way the game pits the wealthy Reich versus the telepaths. Can money beat “omniscience”? Can telepaths always play by the rules even when it might seem the end justifies any means? Can one man outwit the masses?  Can a crime that has allegedly been extinct be committed and gotten away with?  These are super fun questions the first half of the book brings us.

The canvassing the scene of the crime is one of my favorite sections in the book. I like the way the telepath detective works with and upon the witnesses/suspects and his fellow investigators. Its well-written and fun.

The bad is when the game of chase changes into a weird Freudian exploration. See, when Freud comes in, it gets bad. So, there are some quite rough parts here where it is really heavy-handed in the psychology arena. And at this point, so much Freudian stuff makes the novel seem really dated and not well-kept.

Also there is hideous love-interest business. Its really awful. I mean, I tried to look at it as optimistically and kindly as I could – I mean, if you speak in Klingon, stand on your head, close one eye, and spin tops – then you may be able to see the small ounce of romanticism in this scenario.  However, nowadays and without all that effort, it just comes across as majorly uncomfortable and very weird. In defense of it all – this whole love-arc is couched [sic!] [I had to…sorry!] in a hugely Freudian architecture. So, maybe its not as bad from that perspective.

There’s some good fun science fiction in here. Concepts and methods writers needed to have and build on. But I don’t see a big need for us to return to it. Recommended for the strong readers of vintage science fiction. Readers who dig psychological focus may find something here to enjoy.

3 stars

Under the Green Star

NDRTHGRNSC1972

“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

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