Vincent Di Fate

Beyond This Horizon

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

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

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

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

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
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The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

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The Blue World

The Blue World - Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World – Jack Vance; cover art: Vincent Di Fate; Del Rey

The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966.  I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best.  Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award.  It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.

This was an average-rated read for me.  It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet.  I have definitely seen Vance do better.  Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached.  Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel.  In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion.  Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.

Blue world is a waterworld.  Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.”  The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts.  One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore.  So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea.  Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea.  Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants.  It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.

Also living on this planet are kragens.  Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories.  Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.

True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book.  I really like the idea of the setting:  a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum.  One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications.  Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats.  There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor.  Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.”  Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments.  He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters.  And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.

This is a straightforward storyline.  The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society.  He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts.  Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats.  Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away.  Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy.  Finally, there are instances of tyranny.  However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel.  The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative.  More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.

The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too.  For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story.  One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”

I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.

3 stars

The Big Time

The Big TimeI finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half.  I just sped through this book!  Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review:  this is not a book everyone can appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane.  You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades.  Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc.  However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!

The Big Time was first published in 1958.  I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore.  Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him.  He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman.  He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?).   The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write.  And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.

There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston.  Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book.  If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!

I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly.  Everything – every word – seems completely random.  It seem to start in media res, but who can tell?  And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath!  It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes.  Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels.  Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique.  But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.”  If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.

The characters number twelve.  Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book.  Greta is the main character and narrator.  She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me.  By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.

The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads:  This is war:  The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine.  The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time.  The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future.  The Change Winds are blowing.  Welcome to the Big Time.  And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare?  Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . .  But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”

As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war).  When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use?  What side do we wish we were on?  All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers.  So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!).  I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.

Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”).  And I started to care about the characters and the storyline.  Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.

Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently.  I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me.  It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6

Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness.  For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos.  She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress.  So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.

Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along.  Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character.  Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book:  a black glove from Chapter Two.  So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.

The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides.  Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side.  And each side has its own motives to consider.  There is tension and fighting and surprises.  Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery.  The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery.  The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta.  She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.

“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully.  They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb.  They had to write my private hell into the script.  – pg. 142, Chapter 14

The resolution is interesting and fun.  It also seems to work out alright for each character.  The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes.  I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about.  But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.

This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them.  And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war?  With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane.  This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity.  It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies.  If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book.  I loved this because I was both amused and impressed.  Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!

5 stars