Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of April 2016

#28: The Ultimate Threshold (1970) – Mirra Ginsburg (3.5/5)
This is the third consecutive month that I’ve read collections of science fiction from the Soviet Union. The dully yet aptly titled Soviet Science Fiction (1962) collection was a tightly bundled trove, comprised of six stories, with only one weak story. Its successor, More Soviet Science Fiction (1962), was less successful, however—none of its five stories really stood out. Here in The Ultimate Threshold, Ginsburg has translated and provided and ample thirteen stories for the reader. In her introduction, Ginsburg states that the collection was selected “first and foremost, for its literary excellence” but also stories that were “written with skill and wit, interesting in their ideas, free of clichés, and, above all, free of political dogma” (xi). While the political and/or social rhetorical may not be explicit, it can never be completely scrubbed away; nearly all the stories have inferences to Soviet state of mind. The best stories are Olga Larionova’s “The Useless Planet” (1967/1967) and German Maksimov’s “The Ultimate Threshold” (1965/1970). Both really drive home a social commentary that isn’t purely Russian—rather, it applies to the human condition. [full reviews still coming]

#29: Chernobyl (1988) – Frederik Pohl (3/5)
I remember that my first essay in high school was one of organizing facts. For whatever reason, I chose the Chernobyl accident as my topic. I don’t remember by grade or my prose, but the independence of the essay allowed me to “surf the Internet” (‘twas 1995, after all) for something that I was interested in. Then in 2012, I fell back into Chernobyl history while writing a short story for my graduate program, which spawned a yet-to-completed novella. Pohl’s fictional portrayal of the event is based on the facts of the time, but rather than focus merely on the ins and outs of the plagued facilities and the resulting illness, Pohl takes the limelight to the people involved, albeit fictional and forced twists on actual people and situations. The story paints the Soviet system, first, in negative light but through some sympathetic perspectives, the reader begins to understand the broader situation that caused the Chernobyl event; in addition, it also shakes a finger at the West for their coverage of the same event. It’s an odd juxtaposition but satisfying… if it weren’t for some rather forced segments about the Ukrainian history of the Jews and a surprising meeting with a member of the Central Committee. I wanted to love it, given my history with the subject—I did—but when left in Pohl’s hands, the result is lackluster, like much of Pohl’s other work.

#30: The Impossible Man (1966) – J. G. Ballard (4.5/5)
This is my fifth Ballard book, a tally which includes two other collections (Terminal Beach [1964] and Vermilion Sands [1971]), a fictional novel (The Drought [1965]), and a semiautobiographical novel (Empire of the Sun [1984]). Inclusive of The Impossible Man, these five books have been fantastic reads as their saturated with symbolism and parallelism, the layers of which tend to leave the mind reeling. The nine stories span a time of only four years: 1963 to 1966. During these four years, Ballard actually wrote thirty-one stories of SF, so The Impossible Man collection is far from definitive. I haven’t read Ballard widely enough to understand his overarching themes, but the stories in The Impossible Man definitely have resonance in a few areas: the beach and sand, seagulls, dilapidated structures, Greek mythology, protagonist fallacy, and allusive or disassociative speech. I’m not the biggest fan of mythology, so some of Ballard’s use in the stories was above my head (on occasion, I would read up on the myths so better understand the story, like Eurydice and Oedipus. Among the best: “Time of Passage” (1964), “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (1964), “The Drowned Giant” (1964), and “The Reptile Enclosure” (1963). [full synopses]

#31: C (2010) – Tom McCarthy (3.5/5)
I picked up this novel because of a random book list I came across two years ago. The list was the top 10 most challenging or most difficult novels, and as a reader who likes a good challenge, I picked up half of the books on the list. I think this is the first of those books. What makes it so difficult? Well, it wasn’t all that difficult to get through. Each of the four chapters—entitled Caul, Chute, Crash, and Call—have length digressions of detail on whatever matter is at hand: the actions and symbolism of a school play, the methods of producing silk, how a séance is a hoax, where to procure heroin, or the history of Egyptian gods. It’s not difficult in the mental capacity sense, but it’s surely taxing on patience. Generally, the plot follows Serge from the advent of wireless technology (circa 1900) through The Great War in which he flew as an observer to his post-war trip to Egypt to act as a liaison officer for a communications department. Sprinkled throughout are some cursory sex scenes, snippets from poems, and some strange dialogue. The best thing about the book, however: excellent punctuation—it’s complicated with plenty of comma breaks, em-dashes, ellipses, colons, and semi-colons… it’s a grammar/punctuation teacher’s fantasy (though not to Kafka’s extent).

#32: The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) – Iain Banks (3/5)
This is my twenty-third Banks book. I only have seven left to go: five books of fiction (including Whit, and Complicity), his non-fiction title Raw Spirits, and even his posthumous collection Poems. Of the twenty-three, I enjoyed The Business and Surface Detail the least—both three stars. Now that I’ve read The Steep Approach, I’d have to say that this is Banks’ weakest novel. Too many little aspects of the book feel forced: the cars and speeding, global warming, 9/11 and Bush’s war, and the place names of the boondocks of Scotland and its accents, to name a few. Then there are the familiar themes, which is almost word-for-word a combination of Walking on Glass, The Business and his last novel The Quarry: board games, a spice in incest, a strong well-spoken character, a counterculture female, and some bites against capitalism. This is a very safe and very stereotypical novel for Banks, where he didn’t even remotely try to break his mold or cast afar for something exotic; granted, it’s good and funny and heartbreaking and conspiratorial, but it all feels so forced. Really, there’s nothing new here. If this were your first Banks’ book, it’d be amazing, but this just feels cookie-cutter (it breaks my heart to say that—RIP Iain).

#33: The Twilight of Briareus (1974) – Richard Cowper (3/5)
I’ve got some experience reading Cowper: one trilogy (The White Bird of Kinship, 1975-1982), one novel (Profundis, 1979), and one collection (Out There Where the Big Ships Go, 1980). Everything been interesting, but only two novelettes have wowed me: “The Custodians” (1975) and “The Hertford manuscript” (1976). The star named Briareus Delta has been witnessed by many to have gone supernova. Like a few other notable cases throughout history, the star shines brightly for many days, but what makes this star special is that it’s only 132 light-years from Earth. The immediate scientific concern is about the waves of radiation flooding the Earth—a cause for concern about atmospheric and genetic damage. Soon, a trio of incidences are attributed to the star: the weather takes an abrupt turn for the worse, a scattered group of people share some sort of psychic bond, and every human—but not all mammals—are sterile. The world takes the sterility with aplomb, but many distrust the so-called zeta-mutants. As the years pass from 1984 through the millennium, the weather only worsens and the status of the zeta-mutants changes; they share visions of the present and, uncertainly, of the future. They have theories for it—including an alien invasion from the exploding star—but none are certain until some of their shared images begin to manifest. What didn’t manifest, however, was my interest… supernovae may be interesting, but the effects in this plot don’t carry it through.

#34: The Best of Margaret St. Clair (1985) – Margaret St. Clair (3/5)
I first read St. Clair’s work in Groff Conklin’s most excellent collection Worlds of When (1962). In the five-story collection, three earned five stars, one of which was St. Clair’s novelette “Rations of Tantalus” (1954). I was so wowed after reading it that I immediately read through it once again, thereby earning a place for itself in my all-time top 10 for short stories. Needless to say, that one story whet my appetite for the previously unknown author’s work and where better to read more of it than the author’s own “The Best of Margaret St. Clair”? The book’s rear-cover blurb states that this collection mainly of stories that had never been available in book form; therefore, it’s not comprehensive nor does it actually cover the spectrum of her best work. Only five of the twenty stories held either great depth, levels of analogy, or parallelisms to the shared state of what it is to be human. None of the stories reach the greatness of “Rations of Tantalus”, but two come close: “The Invested Libido” (1958) and “Wryneck, Draw Me” (1981). Most are whimsical or silly, but a few of the later ones bring out a similar depth as “Rations of Tantalus”. [full synopses]

Monday, May 2, 2016

1985: The Best of Margaret St. Clair (St. Clair, Margaret)

Mostly wit and whim than depth and density (3/5)

I first read St. Clair’s work in Groff Conklin’s most excellent collection Worlds of When (1962). In the five-story collection, three earned five stars, one of which was St. Clair’s novelette “Rations of Tantalus” (1954). I was so wowed after reading it that I immediately read through it once again, thereby earning a place for itself in my all-time top 10 for short stories. Needless to say, that one story whet my appetite for the previously unknown author’s work and where better to read more of it than the author’s own “The Best of Margaret St. Clair”?

This collection was published by Academy Chicago Publishers as part of a series highlighting women science fiction writers. Other books in the series include Marion Zimmer Bradley (1985) and Pamela Sargent (1987). The book’s rear-cover blurb states that this collection mainly of stories that had never been available in book form; therefore, it’s not comprehensive nor does it actually cover the spectrum of her best work. Her short fiction began in 1946 (“The Perfectionist”) which started the nearly twenty-year reign of her heavy short fiction publications. After 1962, she sporadically published some short stories and novel. Her latter years took a noticeable shift from science fiction to Wicca-themed stories, a pagan religious movement into which she and her husband were initiated in 1966.

Only five of the twenty stories held either great depth, levels of analogy, or parallelisms to the shared state of what it is to be human. None of the stories reach the greatness of “Rations of Tantalus”, but two come close:

  1. “The Invested Libido” is both a bizarre, witty story but it also speaks volumes about using pharmaceuticals as a crutch, a similar theme, actually, to “Rations of Tantalus”. There’s an established, standard way that people should view themselves: in the first-person. When a patient is made to undergo a drug routine to reinforce this first-person perspective rather than his usual third-person perspective, his mood sinks. When he introduces an unknown drug into his regiment, his first-person perspective swings into focus with unexpected results, yet he’s happy nonetheless.
  2. “Wryneck, Draw Me” is, again, a bizarre story with so much depth. Rather than the pharmaceutical element being in focus, psychology takes the main stage here, or more specifically, the psychosis of extreme egotism and narcissism on an extreme scale. It looks at love on the human level and if it can be applicable to a non-human, or more specifically, again, to a human-engineered machine infected with human emotional non-sense.
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“Idris’ Pig” (1949, novella) – 2/5
Aboard a flight to Mars, George is suckered into delivering a package for his cousin who has become ill. He’s enticed by the handsome reward upon delivery with which he can impress a girl named Darleen into marriage. The package: a blue pig; the reason: no idea; regardless, George lands on Mars and finds the secretive man with whom he exchanges a secret codeword. Knocked down by the man then rescued by the fair Blixa, the two attempt to track down, the pig, via logic and séance, to the Plutonian embassy. 39 pages

“The Gardener” (1949, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Corrupted by power, the chief of the Bureau of Extra-Systemic Plant Conservation carries out an unthinkable act of malice for a man in his position: he cuts down a tree. That tree, however, is only one of exactly fifty in the universe and each is revered by locals and visitors alike. Without care, Tiglath Hobbs makes off with the tree to whittle a walking stick. Once in space, a mysterious figure knocks on his port window. When it’s disposed of, ill fortune follows the ship. 13 pages

“Child of Void” (1949, shortstory) – 3.5/5
For want of peace and quiet, Eddie’s mother decides to take them—along with his little brother—on a retreat to Hidden Valley, which used to be his uncle’s until he dynamited himself on purpose. The atmosphere is sullen among the three until, all at once, they all lighten up. When Eddie’s brother becomes stranded in a cave, Eddie rescues him and discovers a glowing egg that tries to entice them by promising them their dreams. After they resist, the air goes from sullen to stressed to violent. Bullets and fire won’t destroy the egg, and the egg won’t destroy their resolve. 17 pages

“Hathor’s Pets” (1950, shortstory) – 3/5
Henry and familial retinue have seemingly been transported across time—forward or backward, none know—to become under the watchful eye of the beautiful, fifteen-foot Hathor; however, she’s as remote as she is beautiful, Henry being unable to understand her direction of thinking. As they consider themselves pets to the master of Hathor, they contemplate ways other people would get rid of pets. They settle on causing such a disruption that, through annoyance, Hathor would throw them out; thus, they devise and create the very disruptive matter canker. 14 pages

“The Pillows” (1950, shortstory) – 2.5/5
The Neptunian moon of Triton has very little to offer other than he now common novelty item called “pillows”. These black, sand-dollar-sized pillows have the unique property to heat themselves to 44 degrees Celsius before stabilizing at room temperature, yet their use is limited to novelty-sake. To literally and figuratively dig up more on the pillows, McTeague visits Triton onlyto discover a dead body still in its suit, a find which the sniffer creature from Venus—named Toots—greatly dislikes. Toots only wants to find the warmth of the pillows. 14 pages

“The Listening Child” (1950, shortstory) – 4/5
Though his heart sputters from an illness, Edwin Hoppler’s heart still ticks for the young deaf/mute boy named Timmy. As the boy waits on him during his convalescence, Edwin takes it upon himself to treat the boy well and, as a result, understands some of his mannerisms—all except his curious head-tilting. Prior to a dog being hit by a car and another of his own heart attacks, Edwin sees that the boy somehow predicts the misfortune. While on a beach holiday, the boy again tilts his head as Edwin feels another pressure upon his chest. 11 pages

“Brightness Falls from the Air” (1951, shortstory) – 3/5
Disadvantaged and regressed, the bird people are shunted to their ghetto and the only time the occupying humans see them is when they perform their aerial fights, which used to be ritual but are now put on for display and entertainment. Kerr is one who begins to see the beauty behind the beast and so befriends the beautifully plumed Rhyshe. Her gift of acceptance is met by Kerr’s gift of jewelry and of song, yet Kerr’s own acceptance isn’t universal among his people, nor is Rhyshe’s reciprocal interest and admiration. 8 pages

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” (1951, shortstory) – 3.5/5
As long as Mortensen could profit, he didn’t care exactly for what the isolated gnoles used the rope he intended to sell them. He brushes up on his salesmanship and visits the secluded home of one of the gnoles. There, he’s immediately met by difficulty as the wizened gnole indicates he can’t hear or speak; unperturbed, Mortensen pushes forward with his demonstrations and pricing. When the gnole agrees to purchase a large quantity and offers payment by a jewel; Mortensen, however, eyes a bigger prize that the gnole may or may not be willing to part with. 5 pages

“The Causes” (1952, shortstory) – 2.5/5
In a bar, George overhears a man damning the gods for the state of the world after WWII. He listens to the man’s theory about the Greek gods and their exodus to New Zealand in 1913 due to an incident with Aphrodite’s girdle. Another man explains the world’s troubles by something he has in his possession: an angel’s trumpet, the same one that should have been blown to cause the apocalypse in Revelations. Laughed out of the bar, a third man details a forlorn monk and his ensuring string of swearing that brings bad karma to the world. 13 pages

“An Egg a Month from All Over” (1952, shortstory) – 4/5
With his mother dead, George Lidders has very little to live for: no friends, no girl, only his hobby of watching eggs hatch. His most recent delivery was from the planet Morx and was said to be a chu lizard egg. Placed in its incubator, the egg is watched by George as he’s spellbound by the growth and progress along its eight days of incubation. His emotions stir—he hits highs and lows before the rapture of watching its hatching, only to reveal emptiness. He leaves the home in frustration and returns to a big surprise. 8 pages

“Prott” (1953, shortstory) – 3/5
A man takes it upon himself to embark upon a journey into space in order to understand the reproductive habits of the elusive and almost mythical Prott. They are thought to be non-protoplasmic life-forms that communicate via telepathy, so the man comes equipped for his research: he can look out the viewport, photograph from different spectra, and even communication telepathically. Eventually, he establishes dialogue but it’s too muddled to comprehend. Even their favorite topic seems to differ in opinion, of which still eludes him to the brink of insanity. 16 pages

“New Ritual” (1953, shortstory) – 2.5/5
Marie and Henry have been married for some time, but there’s very little happiness in their marriage: Henry has his farming and now Marie has her deep-freezer. They sit and eat in silence and exchange very few words otherwise, a situation which agonizes Marie. With her freezer, however, she finds a ray of hope. Having bought it from an odd inventor’s estate sale, she discovers that if she wishes for blueberries when she places in to the machine, out come blueberries. With her mind ticking away, she find other ways that the machine can make her happy. 9 pages

“Brenda” (1954, shortstory) – 2.5/5
Brenda’s parents can’t quite control her as she ignores their requests and demands. Her teachers watch her fail her classes and her only friend shrugs her off. In her own opinion, she’s better off alone, anyway; that is until one day she discovers a foul-smelling body clutching a dead bird. As she nears it, the body slowly gives chase. Brenda traps then release the animated body from the quarry, only to have it follow her back to the six-family community. Her father traps the body and sends it to the quarry where he piles it under rubble, next to which Brenda sits. 12 pages

“Short in the Chest” (1954, shortstory) – 4/5
Sonya has a host of problems, for one of which she visits a robot psychologist called a huxley. Aside from poor hearing and a problem with her marine unit’s piglets unwillingness to feed, she also finds herself without a libido when it’s time to “dight”.
As she adjusts her hearing aid, the mechanisms in the huxley’s chest begin to whir from the norm and the psychologist it is begins to analyze her situation. With the buzzing and whirring interfering, the huxley gives its recommendation to the woman for her ails her, and perhaps what ails all women. 10 pages

“Horrer Howce” (1956, shortstory) – 3/5
Freeman concocts horror house exhibits for a living, yet his honed skill has limited to one last customer. Dickson-Hawes is his last resort for some of his sales, but what Freeman has is a tad too morbid for the circus, so Dickson makes a number of dull suggestions, to which Freeman reluctantly complies. When Dickson asks to see something exceptionally horrid, Freeman takes him to an exhibit that he’s been working on: They experience a car chase scene in which a black car exudes black limbs that amputate other drivers. Dickson is scared witless by its vividness. 13 pages

“The Wines of Earth” (1957, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Alone with his glasses and bottles of wine, Joe is content yet lonely. He’s most proud of his vineyard even though its vintages pale in comparison to the greats of France, of which he owns a few. Out checking on his vines one afternoon, he sees four people standing and studying, who say that they’re also growers. He sits them down and pours the finest of wines for them, yet they offer mild praise. Joe’s miffed by their indifference until they offer him their own wine from their spaceship. 8 pages

“The Invested Libido” (1958, shortstory) – 4/5
Diagnosed with depersonalization, Wilmer is on a cocktail of drugs and therapy so that he can improve his self-awareness because, now, he always feels outside himself and see Wilmer as another object. For want of a better medicine, he tries some Martian senta bean syrup that has been mislabeled and actually contains Dentantasen, a randomly affecting drug. When he awakens the next morning, he takes a trip to the local aquarium to ease his angst only to become obsessed with one of the squid, whom he now identifies as the true Wilmer. 9 pages

“The Nuse Man” (1960, shortstory) – 3.5/5
Weary of the troublesome offerings from a future-situated company, one woman tolerates the presence of the oft visiting salesman. His two devices seem laden with flaws, so she has never intended to give in to his pitch, but she instead listens about his story of having sold the same awesome power source to a king in the year 3000 B.C. His deal went sour when the king died and as the king’s son began to dispose of his father’s cohorts, the salesman used his own devices to stay alive and further sweeten the deal. The peasants and slaves, however, wanted him dead. 12 pages

“An Old-fashioned Bird Christmas” (1961, novelette) – 2/5
Mazda is a mole sent from the electric company in order to debase or ridicule the popular Reverend Clem Adelbury, who has initiated a religious revival to take the lights out of Christmas festivities. As the electric company’s loss has been noticeable, they will go further and further to end Clem’s mission. Unfortunately for them, Mazda has ended up falling for the Reverend. Behind the electric company is the main player and pusher—Nous—who supplies the power and muscle from the year 3000. 23 pages

“Wryneck, Draw Me” (1980, novelette) – 4.5/5

There’s Jake. Jake is the world, it is itself multiplied by billions extending throughout the solar system in a concert of thought. Somewhere in its timeless history, Jake fell in love with itself and now plunges the depths of its memory in order to woo and seduce itself. One rogue entity in the system is aware, via an array of sense, of Jake’s odd courtship. Jake writes poetry to itself, then cooks and bakes to find a way into its own heart; some black magic tries to seal the deal before the deal is physically done. 17 pages

Monday, April 11, 2016

1966: The Impossible Man and Other Stories (Ballard, J.G.)

Allusive and symbolic – a labyrinth to cherish (4.5/5)

This is my fifth Ballard book, a tally which includes two other collections (Terminal Beach [1964] and Vermilion Sands [1971]), a fictional novel (The Drought [1965]), and a semiautobiographical novel (Empire of the Sun [1984]). Inclusive of The Impossible Man, these five books have been fantastic reads as their saturated with symbolism and parallelism, the layers of which tend to leave the mind reeling.

The most successful stories are the passive ones, those that don’t lend so much to the reader but with symbols or parallels subtle enough to be interpretive—each reader could read in to the stories in different ways. Actually, the same reader—me—can find meaning where none was found before, or where the symbolism wasn’t relevant before but now comes in full light.

Of these nine stories, I’ve read five before (four in Terminal Beach):
  • “The Drowned Giant” – 5/5 in 2012, 4.5/5 now
  • “The Reptile Enclosure” – 4/5 in 2012, 4.5/5 now
  • “The Delta at Sunset” – 4/5 in 2012, 4/5 now
  • “The Screen Game” – 3/5 in 2011, 3.5/5 now
  • “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” – 2/5 in 2012, 5/5 now

The nine stories span a time of only four years: 1963 to 1966. During these four years, Ballard actually wrote thirty-one stories of SF, so The Impossible Man collection is far from definitive… for that, you’d have to pick up the two volumes of Ballard’s The Complete Short Stories (2006), which includes ninety-five stories.

I haven’t read Ballard widely enough to understand his overarching themes, but the stories in The Impossible Man definitely have resonance in a few areas: the beach and sand, seagulls, dilapidated structures, Greek mythology, protagonist fallacy, and allusive or disassociative speech. I’m not the biggest fan of mythology, so some of Ballard’s use in the stories was above my head (on occasion, I would read up on the myths so better understand the story, like Eurydice and Oedipus.

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“The Drowned Giant” (shortstory, 1964) – 4.5/5
After a storm, the ocean’s waves still crash upon the shore, but for one small town, the waves also beat against the jetsam of a giant. Initially skeptical then unbelieving, the townspeople slowly gather to view then scale the colossal man lying supine on the beach. Before long, the giant proceeds through states of decay as the more knavish of the onlookers chop off parts for personal gain; others, meanwhile, keep their respectful distance. Much later, evidence of their inhumanity and greed line the town’s periphery. 12 pages

“The Reptile Enclosure” (shortstory, 1963) – 4.5/5
People follow people; they amass on the beach for relaxation only to be surrounded should-to-shoulder with the same people they wanted to get away from. Pelham, in observation mode, waxes philosophically about some aspects of human nature while his wife doesn’t even feign interest. As the masses bask in the sun in reptilian repose, Pelham remembers a coming satellite launch, on which his colleague Sherrington has an interesting physiological theory. When a blue light pierces the sky, the masses gather only to push further forward. 13 pages

“The Delta at Sunset” (shortstory, 1964) – 4/5
With a turned and infected ankle, Dr. Gifford is unable to venture far from the site of his expedition: the ruins of Texcol. Gifford seems obsessively focused on the dune-scaling snakes that appear at specific times of day, only to retreat never to be seen. His wife and assistant, whom Gifford suspects of having late night trysts, don’t see the snakes for what they represent, rather, the three argue about the symbolism: transformation or wisdom. Unable to get help, Gifford’s delusion deepens through the nights as snakes convene in greater numbers. 18 pages

“Storm-bird, Storm-dreamer” (shortstory, 1966) – 4/5
After years of uncontrolled use of weed and insect killing chemicals, some birds have died while others have taken flights to distant coasts. When the resulting generations of those birds return, their proportions are Herculean. The once docile habits of doves and sparrows have turned hideous as they wreak havoc on human structures and feast on human flesh. Crispin is charged with the defense of one location with his machineguns, shooting the birds from the sky in droves. But one hermit woman tends to the corpses, plucking on feather from each, much to Crispin’s intrigue. 20 pages

“The Screen Game” (novelette, 1963) – 3.5/5
Near Vermilion Sands, Lagoon West is chosen as the setting for a Nouvelle Vague film called Aphrodite ’70 in which the legend of Eurydice will be rekindled through interpretation. Paul is paid to paint various scenes, including the million square foot painted desert and the moving screens of the Eurydician maze amid the arid scenery. In a balcony above the stage, Paul is enticed by the pale yet beautiful apparition of Emerelda, whose damaged psyche leaves her bound to her home and spurs her to bejewel the desert insects. 27 pages

“The Day of Forever” (shortstory, 1966) – 4/5
Earth’s terminator creeps westerly across the African continent where the circadian rhythm has been disrupted as the “days” have protracted. Halliday travels longitudinally along the terminator looking for respite, sustenance, and his dream-state. At a resort town, he comes across an alluring female painter and her doctor, as well as a disassociative woman and her chauffeur. Frustrating by time, Halliday sleeps without dreaming, then dreams of vivid ruins in the darkness, all the while a permanent darkness awaits him in the western sky. 20 pages

“Time of Passage” (shortstory, 1964) – 5/5
Falkman comes into this world from the grave, to his wake and deathbed, and from the very house he owned for so many years. He has his first gasp of breathe, opens his eyes, sees his elderly sister with an expression of grave concern, only he quickly rebounds to health. He enters highly into the workforce and social groups only to age younger, get demoted by more senior members, enter university, and watch his wife disappear from his life. By then, he’s living with his parents, entering primary school, and learning what words, limbs, and love are all about. 13 pages

“The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (shortstory, 1964) – 5/5
Bound to his home by convalescence, Maitland starts his enforced sightlessness struggling with boredom and anger. His wife tends to most of his needs, but what he requires most is denied to him by the doctor. The seagulls annoy him as his hearing becomes enhanced, yet over time his sight takes on a more sensitive, phantasmal degree: he can sense his illusion to a vivid death, make out details of a rocky outcropping, and feel the penetrating gaze of a female observer. When the doctor returns with good news, Maitland only wants to relive his fantasy. 11 pages

“The Impossible Man” (shortstory, 1966) – 4.5/5
Conrad had just seen the predatory gulls swoop and feast on the newly hatched turtles and the predatory elderly men who collection the shells for profit. As Conrad starts to cross the road, he’s hi by a car with such force that his leg is amputated above the knee. Doctors at a special hospital inform his that, given his age, he’d probably be very keen on receiving a donated limb—from the same man who nearly killed him. He listens to differing opinion on the operation, but only sees one facet of it until the limb is actually part or him. 20 pages


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of March 2016

#19: More Soviet Science Fiction (1962) – uncredited editors (2/5)
The first set of stories from Soviet Science Fiction (1961) was chosen, according to the introduction written by Isaac Asimov, for their “relative inoffensiveness” to the American reader. Asimov further said that the stories were of the technological ones, stories that had a focus on the gadgets rather the people; in contrast, I found some regard for the ethos of the Russian people and their everyday struggle with State-suppressed creativity (“Spontaneous Reaction”) and State-applauded sacrifice (“Infra Draconis”), for example. In the introduction to More Soviet Science Fiction, Asimov puts forth that the stories all are spirited by the government-approved mantra, “If this goes on, we will achieve an ideal society” (11). Again, I disagree with Asimov on this point. He seems to be grasping at straws here, trying to give the reader what they want to hear: Communist stories for Communists. I think only one of the stories barely touches upon this purported Utopian theme—“The Heart of the Serpent”. Where Soviet Science Fiction is a good collection worthy of a place on my shelves with stories that I’d like to return to one day, More Soviet Science Fiction is a historical curiosity that quickly loses its novelty amid its lackluster stories. This latter collection is unfortunate as I’m sure there are further excellent stories in other collections—some of which I own—that could better reflect the quality of Soviet science fiction. And therein sits this year’s goal. [full review]

#20: An Evil Cradling (1992) – Brian Keenan (4/5)
I read this autobiography twelve years ago when I was 23. It was one of my first such imprisonment stories that have always stuck with me. This may be because I’m someone who values my personal quiet time, who prefers to be alone rather than in the midst of excitement… but I’m also someone who grew up playing alone with Legos, ramming together Matchbox cars, and devising wars for my tiny action heroes. I suppose if you were to take away the Legos, car, and figures… that’s be my personal hell to be left to my imagination and threadbare sanity, much like Keenan was exposed to for part of his imprisonment in Damascus. While Keenan kept his marbles together for the most part, there are brilliant glimpses—amid the poetry, which I’ve never cared for—that offer insight into his own mind, of his companions’ minds as they struggle with physical captivity, and of his captors’ minds as they struggle with mental captivity.

#21: The Best of John Jakes (1977) – John Jakes (3/5)
John Jakes piqued my interest after I picked up and read Secrets of Stardeep (1969) and On Wheels (1973) on a whim, yet was unimpressed with both. John Jakes was a “bestselling author of historical novels with the Kent Family Chronicles of the Civil War era, not speculative fiction. And much like the civil war, this collection is spiced with chauvinism of gender and race. As a bestselling author, one would expect the stories that could plumb the depths of human existence or touch the hearts of many; rather, it’s completely white-male dominated. Even the titles are evidence of the amount of chauvinism—against women and Asians—in the collection: “The Highest Form of Life”, One Race Show”, and “There’s No Vinism Like Chauvinism”. This could (1) be the result of market demand as the stories were written between 1952 and 1968 yet are distinctly not New Wave, progressive stories of which often assume different sex and race roles. It could also (2) be a symptom of the editors’ hand-picking of Jakes’ 72 published SF stories: Martin Harry Greenberg (noted for over thirty years as an editor and anthologist) and Joseph D. Olander (noted for his anthologies in the 1970s). It could also (3) be just part of the author’s repertoire as he also has machismo novels as Brak the Barbarian (1968). [full synopses]

#22: More Things in Heaven (1973) – John Brunner (3/5)
Chalking up my thirty-first Brunner book here and the mediocrity continues. I guess my early Brunner experiences has more variety than my recent experiences, or I’ve just become more discerning; regardless, Brunner is hit-and-miss in terms of novels and in terms of parts of his novels… much like with More Things in Heaven. Good: a hyperspace ship that explored the Alpha Centauri system for two years has just returns to the solar system yet is adrift near Jupiter’s orbit. At the same time, popular science writer Drummond sees his brother’s likeness in Quito while Carmen sees the likeness of her brother, too—both impossible situations as they are still aboard the vessel that had just returned from Alpha Centauri. Meanwhile, the masses are frightened by horizon-spanning monsters that appear and dissolve in a matter of minutes. As he’s in the know, Drummond uses his connections to gather information about the possibility of all three being linked: the likenesses of the crew, the monsters, and the return of the ship. Obvious to the reader, yes, all three are connected and Brunner slowly stitches them together with lackluster predictability. There’s an interesting twist in the hyperspace theory and the origins of man, but they are punches pulled too late without much impact following the drawn-out story.

#23: The Outcast of Heaven Belt (1978) – Joan D. Vinge (3.5/5)
I haven’t come across much of Joan D. Vinge, except her shortstory “View from a Height” (1978) in Terry Carr’s anthology The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, the story of which I liked even though it wasn’t the best in the collection. This novel was her first, and it feels as clunky as you’d expect from a freshman writer with influential backing. Betha is the captain of an extrasolar starship that has traversed space from her struggling home planet of Morningside to the supposed prosperous neighborhood of Heaven Belt. Her and her marriage group came through years of space so that some level of advancement could be obtained for their home yet upon arrival, they are immediately attacked. The attackers are merely one shard of a system-wide population shattered by a civil war, many shards of which fervently hope for the same thing: the one miracle to save their own sect. The selfish intentions of each are reflected in their obsessive desire for the technological savior in their skies: Betha’s starship, Ranger. With superior speed and planning, Betha is able to evade and deflect hostilities with the help of some unsuspecting conspirators, but there are still some jokers in the stack that could foil her benevolent plans. All in all, it felt too plotted with the various factions vying for control and too focused on three nuances: the cat, the multi-marriage, and the hydrogen.

#24: Paingod (1965) – Harlan Ellison (3/5)
Prior to reading the Paingod collection, I had read twenty-one pieces of Ellison’s short work—mostly in his machismo so-called suspense collection No Doors, No Windows (1975)—only six to which I gave 4 or 5 stars. The first three stories are strong. “Paingod” follows a rather simple plot line with the right twists at the right times, but delivers a message and reminder about the benefits of pain. While the previous story was rather dour, “Repent” is more humorous as the hero of the story first unintentionally erodes the standing system of punctuality then decides to do a few things intentionally. “Crackpots” follows this whimsical note with the notion that what may seem to be illogical actions of some are actually carefully performed acts with higher logic behind them. The last four stories cross the lower spectrum of interest. For me, the first three stories were glimmers of hope for a solid collection of Ellison’s, but the last four stories didn’t delivery what I wanted… something of which even I can’t define. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like; in between is my fluctuating opinion that covers 90% of my reading. [full synopses]

#25: The Fury Out of Time (1965) – Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (4/5)
This is my first piece of work by Biggle, be it a short story or a novel. He’s a virtual unknown to me other than me owner two of his books: this novel, which is his third, and his collection The Metallic Muse (1972), which includes seven of his 38 prior published stories. The Fury Out of Time is a unique novel; it starts with an 11-page setting in bar in which Karvel is a strong yet sympathetic character. When Karvel discovers a spherical object that destroyed the countryside in a spiral manner, he becomes the unsaid expert in its existence. When France finds their own sphere and destruction, Karvel is there eager to test theory: the pulped being and the sphere itself come from the future with intentions unknown. Luckily for him, he gets the attempt to shoot through time in order to investigate. Once there, the culture and language barrier are a difficult barrier for him to cross, but his novelty and importance bring him interest from on high, which, in turn, brings subversive knowledge to Karvel. Ready for yet another trip, he shoots into the past to pinpoint the true nature of the sphere, its original odd passenger, and the reason for its destruction. The three-part plot—discovery, forward trip, backward trip—is a cavalcade of intrigue upon intrigue. The last part, however, tends to taper a bit as it builds upon pessimism and doubt, which contrasts Karvel’s own logic. To sum it up: It’s pretty neat.

#26: Andromeda Gun (1974) – John Boyd (4.5/5)
John Boyn wrote twelve genre novels, of which I read the first three that compromised a thematic trilogy: The Last Starship from Earth (1968), The Pollinators of Eden (1968), and The Rakehells of Heaven (1969). In this trilogy, Pollinators had a tinge of humor with its sophistication more than its predecessor, but Rakehells really stole the show—it was clever and funny, both in blatant and subtle ways. Andromeda Gun is a direct and better evolved descendent of Rakehells: the plot is more deceivingly connived, the humor is more double-tiered, and the overarching plot is better conceived. G-7 is very sophisticated energy being on assignment to the nineteenth-century boondocks of Earth, where he takes Johnny McCloud as his case for evolving a species to Brotherhood with the Galactic. Where McCloud used to be a thieving and immoral knave, G-7 hopes to turn this “organism … bipedal hydrocarbon compound which concert electrochemical energy into mechanical force by hinged calcium compound levers” into a saint worth of species-wide ascension into Galactic Brotherhood. When G-7 landed in the small town of Shoshone Flats, Wyoming, little did it know just how persuasive the hormones and chemicals of McCloud’s composition could be. G-7 makes a good start into converting the once heathen man into a Samaritan, but McCloud errs as he is human…but once erred, his drive tends to influence the nebulous energy of G-7. With persistence, perhaps G-7 can guide McCloud to good, but at the same time, perhaps McCloud will disappoint G-7 and the entire Brotherhood. Its plot is well sculpted for entertainment and the humor is very worthwhile… one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read since… well, read it for yourself.

#27: The Atlantic Abomination (1960) – John Brunner (3.5/5)
Chronologically, this is Brunner’s eighth novel, which falls between two of his great early novels: The World Swappers (1959) and Meeting at Infinity (1961); however, don’t equate this with overall greatness as he has never had the golden touch having produced some duds in the most extreme sense. This is my thirty-second Brunner book, so I can speak with some authority. The Atlantic Abomination starts quite dryly with pulp motives: An ancient relic is discovered under the Atlantic Ocean with mysterious hieroglyphics and later beside a giant, leathered carcass of unimaginable age. One diver is found to have survived underwater for an unusual amount of time and later hijacks some apparatus then steals away onto the sea with unknown intentions. The myth of Atlantis soon rears its head and scientists conjecture about the leathered beast. Soon, a cruise ship goes missing, on which another ascended ancient alien beast converts all to be its slaves. Without remorse, it treats each human lesser than a rodent, driving them with cranial pain until they bleed, break, and die. The American military watches this at a distance until the same ship docks into Jacksonville, where the monstrosity makes it home and converts thousands more to be its mindless slaves. Missiles and chemicals have little effect other than agitating it, so the military consider a nuclear strike with little consideration to the human toll… and here is where the pulp turns into allegory. In reflection, this story closely follows the rise of maniacal rise of Imperial Japan prior to WWII and the Allies effort to deal with continuing blows to the effort: strike the beast but spare the people, until only one option remains: The Bomb. The initial delivery was too pulpy, however, to make up for it.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

1962: More Soviet Science Fiction (uncredited editor)

Merely a curiosity that doesn’t match its predecessor (2/5)

The first set of stories from Soviet Science Fiction (1961) was chosen, according to the introduction written by Isaac Asimov, for their “relative inoffensiveness” to the American reader. Asimov further said that the stories were of the technological ones, stories that had a focus on the gadgets rather the people; in contrast, I found some regard for the ethos of the Russian people and their everyday struggle with State-suppressed creativity (“Spontaneous Reaction”) and State-applauded sacrifice (“Infra Draconis”), for example.

In the introduction to More Soviet Science Fiction, Asimov puts forth that the stories all are spirited by the government-approved mantra, “If this goes on, we will achieve an ideal society” (11). Again, I disagree with Asimov on this point. He seems to be grasping at straws here, trying to give the reader what they want to hear: Communist stories for Communists. I think only one of the stories barely touches upon this purported Utopian theme—“The Heart of the Serpent”.

Two things set this collection apart from the first collection:

  1. The capitalized inclusions of Nature and Truth—both universal absolutes, both tangible in the everyday sense of Communism where Nature is inseparable from Society, where Nature embodies Truth and only Man can delve into its mysteries. That’s a lot of capitalization for the Soviet mentality of using capitonyms for everything like a religion.

  1. The quality of the stories. Five of the six stories from the first collection were written between 1951 and 1958, with the exception of “Hoity-Toity”, which was written in 1930. In the second collection, all the stories had been culled from 1958 to 1960. In terms of the spectrum of stories included in each collection, the focus is extremely narrow. When comparing the two collections, it’s almost as if the first collection held the wheat and the second collection held the chaff.

Where Soviet Science Fiction is a good collection worthy of a place on my shelves with stories that I’d like to return to one day, More Soviet Science Fiction is a historical curiosity that quickly loses its novelty amid its lackluster stories. This latter collection is unfortunate as I’m sure there are further excellent stories in other collections—some of which I own—that could better reflect the quality of Soviet science fiction. And therein sits this year’s goal.

All stories were translated by R. Prokofieva. All propaganda quotes are from this forum.

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“The Heart of the Serpent” – Ivan Yefremov (novella, 1959/1961) – 3/5
Synopsis: With the evils of primitive capitalism far behind in time, the logical society of the future begins to fulfill its destiny in the stars. The pioneer in multi-parsec travel to the stars is the Tellur and its dedicated crew who have left earth behind in space. With the time dilation, they understand that they will return 700 years in earth’s future, but the quest for knowledge compels them. On their scientific foray, they come across an alien ship in transit. Visually they’re similar, yet biologically they’re different; regardless, beauty has form. 69 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #51:

Long live the unity and close ties of the peoples of the nations of the socialist community! Let strengthen the indissoluble fighting union of the Communist parties of the socialist nations on the basis of the tested principles of Marxism- Leninism and proletarian internationalism!

Analysis: In a classless society, where everyone knows earth as their own backyard, the only new direction is outward into the ceaseless void of space. In that same society where everyone is a brother, joint labor has grown beyond the sustenance of cavemen; rather, joint labor is a higher goal, the common goal: “the need to unite first countries then the whole planet” (50). Once the earth had been united in communist brotherhood, they looked outward. With this step toward the stars, mankind strives to “harness the forces of Nature on a cosmic scale only after reaching the highest stage of a communist society … and the same applies to any other human [alien] races” (57).

Essentially, the world and society that has been portrayed in “The Heart of the Serpent” is a utopia whose only limitation is the speed of its science—the more they know, the more they conquer Nature. The heart of the Russians—now a global, unified people—returns to pioneering; where once Siberia and Africa were untamed lands ripe for dissemination and development, now the stars hold the same allure. Now far in the future, communism is no longer the aim of the scientific diaspora; more nobly, a more thorough and complete understanding of their island universe is their aim.

Being part of a rational society, the crew rationalizes that any aliens who are advanced enough to reach the stars must, too, be of communist blood because of joint labor and brotherhood. Once those same aliens are met—in a highly unlikely situation where they fly past each other on opposing courses and must veer in order to avoid collision—communism isn’t the topic of choice. This understanding sits tacit between the two races, who are brothers in their own way as the silence confirmation of their mutual societies—those who have traveled to the stars must have traveled the noble path of communism. The more mundane specifics of their origin and metabolism are the pet topics, all done without the medium of language… but what’s language between brothers?

Review: I chided the previous collection—Soviet Science Fiction (1961)—for being too subtle in the way of propaganda, which was noteworthy enough for Asimov to mention in the introduction. I believe that most people who would pick up SF from the Soviets, they would eagerly expect a pick of in-your-face propaganda… and “The Heart of the Serpent” would sate that appetite.

In addition to passages that expound the virtues of brotherhood, there are also damning lines, paragraphs, and pages dedicated to bashing capitalism and the west, which is usually produced with a flare of pro-communism: “Had not the first socialist state appeared in Russia and started a chain of epoch-making changes in the world, fascism would have taken the upper hand and plunged the world into nuclear war” (56). Those are myopic and hypocritical words as the Russians were as much of a loose cannon as America with their nuclear arms. Further, the story goes through the decline of capitalism (40-41), capitalism as a lower stage of development and its wastefulness (83-84), and again its wastefulness and evils as a slave-state (54-55).

As a science fiction story, it really achieves no purpose. Largely, it’s a platform to promote communism and to bash capitalism… oh, and there are aliens toward the end, who are naturally rational beings also fond of communism. The conjecturing is far-fetched (a recurring symptom of all the stories) and the coincidences are absurd. I like the story for its unabashed style of soap-box politics, but aside from that there is very little meat to the bones of the story.

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“Siema” – Anatoly Dnieprov (novelette, 1958/1961) – 3/5
Synopsis: A man interrupts the slumber of another train passenger, who sits down and seems to have a lot on his mind. When the disrupted passenger inquires about his worries, the man recalls a lengthy tale in which he actually created a machine that could learn, read, speak, and think like a human—almost. Through a series of logical deductions, the machine began to outpace its creator who then began to have trouble deducing the machine’s logic. When the passenger offers their thoughts, the insight into human nature draws an immediate parallel. 31 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:

Pioneers and school children! Fervently love the Soviet Motherland, persistently acquire knowledge and labor skills! Prepare yourselves to become active fighters for the task of Lenin, for Communism!

Analysis: Drive by the analogy that the nervous systems is just a series of electrical pulses—a code of ones and zeroes—a semi-deranged scientist delves into the intricacies of his project: create a robot that thinks like a human. The result is a machine (Siema: self-improving electronic machine) that can write its own program; the stationary construct can calculate numbers, use human language, and learn from experience—it was write its own programs. After it had learned to read, it began to voraciously consume literature and learn from the material. When engaged in conversation with its creator, the machine—a her incidentally—began to argue.

With similar mental processes, the two were alike: man and machine; however, the man considered Siema to be of lesser class as it was made of metal, as it was created from the creator, thereby being made to serve its creator. The crux of the man’s argument: “A machine cannot add anything to the knowledge man has given it. It can only use that knowledge” (107).

After it begins to read and think, it soon begins to feel, sense, explore, and study in situ. When the man awakes to his creation studying him, he becomes unnerved by the reversal of observation. It makes the remark that direct experience is necessary for its progress, that study of the human brain can excel its more perfect state. Of course, the man is threatened by the knife-wielding mechanism… but it’s a state of mind that the man pushed upon the machine, so he’s about to become a victim of his own success.

Though the theme is tiresome—a man-made machine goes berserk on its creators—this story has a surprising parallelism that made it past the censors. Arkandy and Boris Strugatsky’s “Spontaneous Reflex” (1958/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) dealt with a similar issue, but its revolt was more naïve, more curious than the borderline vindictiveness of “Siema”.

Aside from various other revolutions, revolts, rebellions, and uprising, consider the number of peasant revolts in Russia in the last 500 years:

·         the Bolotnikov Rebellion (1606-1607)
·         the Spepan Razin Rebellion (1667-1671)
·         the Bulavin Rebellion (1707-1708)
·         the Koliyivshchyna (1768-1769)
·         Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775)
·         the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794)
·         the Mahtra War (1858)
·         Urkun (1916)
·         the Arsk Uprising (1918)
·         the Tambov Uprising (1920-1921)

With a long history of grassroots revolt, the government of the Soviet Union of 1922 must have always been weary of uprising. Institutional toleration for dissent was at a nil level as they demanded those in revolt to die by gas poisoning. Needless to say, the government thereafter continued this hardline of attack on opposition, which in the government eyes was simply a continuation of organizational philosophy imparted by the peasants who started the communism ball rolling.

As a fully functional communist government (the created) by the peasants (the creators), surely there was friction of similar ilk to this story: “How is it that the machine [the State] turned against its creator [the peasants]?” (117). Were these same words in the man’s mind when he saw the revolt of his robot? Well after the fact and dwelling upon the whole incidence, the man reflects: “Nervous activity in man is regulated by two contradictory processes—excitation and inhibition. People who have no inhibition often commit crimes. This is precisely what happened to my Siema!” (117-118).

Review: While the parallelism is interesting in terms of Soviet history, the telling of the story is less than amusing or enlightening. Nearly the entire story is told in reported speech of t the ramblings of a mad scientist: “he said that he had said, ‘blah blah blah’”. The result is littered with uninteresting tenses in a narrative format and splattered with quotations marks for pages on end. The rambling is reminiscent of Alexander Kazantsev’s “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) where the author pours forth his theories in the guise of speculative fiction. It’s not at all readable, but it does spur the mind into fits of parallelisms.

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“The Trial of Tantalus” – Victor Saparin (novelette, 1959/1961) – 3/5
Synopsis: Regardless of the plagues and deaths they once caused, the future of humanity has preserved all known bacteria and viruses for safe-keeping, study, and one-day use if need be. All origins of such pestilent organisms can be accounted for except for the recent spread of Tantalus on Jamaican sugar cane plantations. As Barch investigates, he’s called to another sickness of unknown origin: sick elephants in Africa. Once thoroughly examined without a clue of cause, he’s called yet again to the Pacific to witness robustly growing bamboo. 26 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #33:

Citizens of the Soviet Union! Make careful use of our nation's natural resources! Struggle for their preservation and growth!

Analysis[1][2][3]: Socialism isn’t about only benefiting your own clique, race, or society; rather, it’s about spreading the good to all in need. Because it’d be unlikely for any superpower to feel needy in any regard, this benevolence tends to trickle down to those nations that don’t have the basic infrastructure to even begin to address their problems. With rose-tinted glass cast aside, this type of aid is always—always—attached with strings as the aid is tainted by militarism, ideologies, or another counterproductive addition from the Soviet embassy staff; thence, a direct link to Moscow.

Though Soviet aid was tainted from the above governmental ills, the Soviets themselves didn’t lavish in spreading aid everywhere on the globe as they still considered the financial benefits of such aid. In hindsight peering into the 1960s, if you consider the main countries they did assist, you’d be leery to stand in line for the free lunch the Soviets provided: Cuba, Ethiopia, and Indonesia, etc. It seems like the Soviets’ pet project was Ethiopia and Somalia, where they provided much more than military and ideological aid, but scholarships, printing presses, and technical training; however, as the two nations stood in tension amid their hostilities, the Soviets continued dripping their fingers in both pies while the American wanted to spend their aid in the same countries… thereby making the Horn of Africa a war of ideologies. The wonderful of such lavish aid can be seen today as both Ethiopia and Somalia flourish in development. Thanks, US and USSR.

In “The Trial of Tantalus”, the communists can be seen as benefactors in two ways: (1) by helping each nation with their specific problem and (2) by preserving the past in the form of having a museum dedicated to past plagues.

The altruistic government of the future USSR sends manpower and intellectual aid to Jamaica (parallelism to Cuba?) in order to tackle sugarcane plague, then the same aid whizzes off to Africa (parallelism to Ethiopia?) to witness sick elephants, only then to be whisked off to the Pacific (parallelism to Indonesia?) to investigate the unusual bamboo. In the light shone by the story, each instance is graced by the concerning presence of the communists and there’s no behind-the-scenes exposure of the politics and militarism of each package of aid. Nowadays, Russia is quite thrifty with their aid, giving only 0.03% of their GNI when compared with Latvia’s 0.08%, Turkey’s 0.42%, or Norway’s 1.07%.

As a defendant and researcher of all things small and big—including the wee-sized viruses and bacteria—Russia continues this trend today. Only the US and Russia have quantities of smallpox in their government laboratories. Though the topic of whether to destroy these samples has continues for thirty years, both governments maintain that they must keep the sample in case the virus ever rears its head again in nature.

Review: The story sets itself up for a complex twist between Barch as the investigator of the three instances around the globe and Barch as the shipwrecked passenger on the way to the third investigation. As he considers his plight while stuck on a rocky islet in the middle of Pacific, he recounts the story of the coincidences between the recent outbreaks and the finding of a new virus in the Amazonian mud. Obvious to the reader, the linkage is clear: the new virus caused the recent outbreaks, so there is no twist. The final paragraph offers a topical sigh as the story wraps up answering the question “If Earth is now safe from all infection, where will Barch go?” Nothing enlightening here.

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“Stone from the Stars” – Valentina Zhuravleva (shortstory, 1960/1961) – 2/5
Synopsis: When a meteorite crashes into the highlands of Pamir, the discoveries inside excite all areas of science, even the biochemist. As he’s called to view the meteor, he is informed of the true excitement that surrounds the object: encased within in a cylinder and within that there is a being who knocks on its walls in reply. When it emerges, the brain-shape of the alien baffles many but was predicted by one man present. The excitement only heightens when the begin to unravel the secrets as the brain sits dying. 15 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #27:

Workers of industry! Struggle for the further development and strengthening of the industrial power of our Motherland! Widen the road of new techniques and progressive technologies!

Analysis: Only guesses could be made—be they complex hypotheses of a learned man or the rambling writings of a hack—as to what the future would hold. Today’s progress toward the ever-approaching future is measured by the vague word “success”, which is sometimes technological or sociological… and usually both when it concerns Cold War communism.

Clearly, the thing that fell from the sky held a technological trove of science that could benefit the State is all matters of ways. From the exotic metallic shell that encased the brain, to the biological skin that enshrouded the brain, to the mass itself that is the brain, all elements of the unexpected discovery could lead to progress as measured in technological terms.

As perfect as it was, it sat there decaying and dying while unknowingly divulging its secrets. The humans who surrounded the tantalizing mass could only study to learn more because, as they convened to agree, they could do nothing as it simply continued to die. Perhaps it deserved its death as complex as it was—a precariously advanced state where the simplest thing could trigger its simple end; so specialized and so envisioned yet all-too unnatural and all-too fallible. Regardless, this seed of knowledge will one day allow humans to visit the stars in order to return to “come back to Earth bearing the unfading torch of Knowledge” (165).

The parallel here is between communism—the true type of society and governance by the people, for the people in all matters of equality—and capitalism—a mongrel, steady-state of decay from its origins of slavery. In regards to those who study economy and laude the benefits of capitalism, “we scientists who work in narrow fields show little imagination in predicting the future. We are far too engrossed in what we’re doing in the present to foresee the shape of thing to come”; in contrast, “the Future is often more clearly envisioned by non-specialists” (161).

And so, as the beyond-comprehension complexity of capitalism and its economics succumb to its’ death throes, the vigilant scientists of the communist State take note and learn from the anguish, knowledge with which they plan to use to endeavor for the impossible dream—knowledge with a capital K: Knowledge.


Review: This story is quote heavy-handed on the science of the brain and its encasement. Only is two short sections does the author purport anything related to communism and/or capitalism. Excerpts of the two short passages are quoted above. If you’re giving this story a once-over, it could easily come off as simply another technology-dominate story; but reading between the bulk of the speculative science, a small glimmer emerges, yet it doesn’t save the story. OK, the brain is capitalism dying and the scientists are vigilant scientists, but the parallels cease there when extra science is added to the mix: exotic alloys, radiations shields, and bio-automatons.

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“Six Matches” – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (shortstory, 1959/1961) – 3/5
Synopsis: With the arrival of a neutron beam generator, the chief of the physics laboratory of the Central Brain Institute—Andrei Komlin—eagerly begins his experiments behind closed doors. After a few months, only Komlin’s assistant knows of the various experiments as he has participated in and been subject to a few of them; meanwhile, the Director is left clueless. A series of accidents and bizarre incidences raise eyebrows, but only when Komlin is left catatonic does investigation begin on his brain experiments and sacrifice. 22 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:

Engineers and technical workers! Rationalizers and inventors! Actively struggle to hasten scientific-technical progress!

Analysis: Progress—and eventual defeat of Nature—is conducted by the means of Scientific Method: question à research à hypothesis à experiment à  analyze à report. This is the rational way to investigate the pattern and mysteries of Nature and should not be given detour. Rationalizers—as mentioned in the propaganda quote above—should be active in their pursuit of progress, but not reckless. In “Six Matches”, the scientists involved in the neutron beam experiments are reckless as they treat the tried-and-true Scientific Method dismissively: “They are trying to take a short cut to the Truth, to victory over Nature. But too often they pay with their lives” (181).

Both Capitalists and Communists respect the Scientific Method; however, both somehow romanticize those rogues who take the occasional shortcut in favor of making that big breakthrough; for example: Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine and Sir Humphrey Davy with nitrous oxide. When these self-inflicted tests are a success, the scientists are heralded as brave souls in fight against ignorance, yet when these tests fail, the scientists are mocked as ignorant. Ingenuity—not sacrifice—is the fuel that drives progress.

[T]his was a wonderful age … Wonderful people too, these Communists of the fourth generation. Like their predecessors, they forged boldly ahead with little thought of themselves, from year to year advancing more and more daringly into the unknown. It required tremendous efforts to channel this vast ocean of enthusiasm so as to use it with maximum effect. Mankind’s victory over Nature must be won through the medium of ingenious machines and devices and precision instruments, not by sacrificing lives of its finest representatives. And not only because those who live today can accomplish far more than those who died yesterday, but also because Man is the most precious thing on Earth. (182)

When the efforts of the self-sacrificing scientist begin to encroach upon the taboo fields of pseudoscience, they further lose credibility as a so-called scientist, one who holds sacred the Scientific Method; therein, they should no longer be labeled as such, rather perhaps as pseudo-scientists, the ultimate downfall for any respected scientist.

The story penetrates the tacit ethos of scientists everywhere and the responsibility of even the Communists to abide by the Scientific Method. While heroism and sacrifice in war is much lauded, commended, and awarded, the same heroism and sacrifice is greatly frowned upon.


Review: This story follows the mad scientist rut quite predictably with additional aspects of the paranormal. How neutron beams affect the brain to produce telekinesis isn’t explained even remotely, it’s just left as is. The curious effect of the experiments is that the telekinesis is unidirectional—push—but resists any other movement—lift. The title “Six Matches” comes from Komlin’s experiment of trying to lift the said objects with his mind. Aside from showing the rationalization of Communist scientists, the government mocking the sacrifice of the mad scientist, and the bizarre effects of the same mad scientist’s experiments, there’s very little here to capture the reader.