Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, February 8, 2016

1985: The Monadic Universe (Zebrowski, George)

Very slow to peak in quality, but maintains thereafter (3/5)

Joachim Boaz gives the best kind of gifts: secondhand SF books; unfortunately, as per his sense of humor, he likes to include atrociously bad titles such as Irving A. Greenfield’s Waters of Death (1967). Rightfully, I look these gift-horses in the mouth… some are good, some are bad. With Zebrowski’s The Monadic Universe, it started off as the latter—bad, bad, bad, as he even stated himself, here.

Unlike Joachim’s own 1977 edition, my 1985 edition has two additional stories, both of which add much needed quality to the sluggish start of the collection: “Wayside World” (1977) and “The Word Sweep” (1979). The first eight stories—yes, all eight—feel like good ideas wasted with poor execution, especially the three chronological stories with Praeger; these felt like non-stories, snippets of something that never gather enough momentum of its own to push it toward relevance, thereby leaving it fledgling like a lame duckling far behind its majestic mother. When compared to the last six stories—yes, all six—the first eight are contrastingly poor. But, ah, the latter six stories are all worthwhile, almost worthwhile enough to slog through the first eight… but don’t do that.

“First Love, First Fear” (1972, shortstory) – 2/5
His world limited to a beach, its shallow waters, and the slope of ground inland, a boy doesn’t have much company aside from his father and Jak. At thirteen years of age and having never seen a live woman, his experiences are as limited as his environment on the planet of Lea. Swimming to a shallow rock, an alien girl—the first he’s ever seen—touches him and plays a seductive game of tag in the sea. Soon, a bellow from the beach sends her off. Tim follows to learn a lesson of the planet on which he lives. 10 pages

“Starcrossed” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Robbed of his humanity since before his birth, a boy’s mind was plucked from its prenatal state in order to become a Modified Organic Brain capable of a near-light speed survey mission to Antares. Prior to its slip into twelve years of transit through the other-space, the Brain enters a sleep where dreams of mission fulfillment span its inner void. Awakening with disorientation, the Brain feels and hears the presence of a female who seeks his companionship as his probe comes close to the hot radiating star. 7 pages

“Assassins of Air” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Turning earth’s trash into a moderate treasure, Praeger and his gang strip fossil-fuel burning cars down one by one for the benefit of their pockets and the earth. Humble yet illegal, Praeger knows that something better can be had with his life, so he pays to sneak in lessons from the automated education machine. When his gang learns of his lofty plans, their brotherhood turns to confrontation as they harass him at home and as he attempts to leave the city. 9 pages

Parks of Rest and Culture” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Praeger’s job in the city is the only thing that keeps him going in life. The park isn’t what it used to be now that it’s devoid of life, his wife isn’t the person he married because she has left him, and even the city seems to have turned ever uglier. There’s only one lofty ambition that remains the sole light at the end of his bleak tunnel: leave earth in favor of work in orbit or the moon. When he’s summoned for just that job, he easily leaves behind everything that’s failed him 12 pages

“The Water Sculptor” (1970, shortstory) – 2/5
Perched in orbit watching clouds tumult over the Pacific, Praeger feels content now that he’s left earth behind, except for his occasional vacation back. After his failed relationship with Betty, Praeger takes to a more mature relationship with orbital artsist and self-made idol of success—Julian. As an artist, he forms ice in abstract patterns to be left to decay by the grit and glare from the solar system. After an interview, Julian speaks with Praeger and hints at his dissatisfaction with everything. 8 pages

“Rope of Glass” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Dying in a world where dying is illegal, Sam Brickner ekes out a living with mimic-leukemia for which he needs medicine. When euthanasia is the treatment for terminal illness and old age, Sam is a rebel struggling with the side-effects in order to live a few more years. Unknown to him, his wife has been seeing a man—Harry Andrews—for his medicine; the relationship hasn’t been a professional one, and now Sam must face something more than just losing his life. 13 pages

“Heathen God” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Unbeknownst to most of humankind, there actually was a real live creator of heaven and earth, yet that creator only made the solar system and humankind. That singular creator happens to still be alive and is a member of an alien race of whom humans only know of the creator himself: a white-haired gnome. Forsakenly, he’s imprisoned on a planet of gardens where soon two men secretly come to interview him for a purpose greater than mere curiosity yet beyond blasphemy. 11 pages

“Interpose” (1971, shortstory) – 3/5
Future humans with he ability to travel through time are bent on pillaging history as they cut Jesus down from the cross and transport him back to the future. Jesus understands their plan in his omnipotent ways and escapes through time to 1915. After twenty years living in a modern city, he’s disgusted by the twisting of his teachings. Surviving on the street with his hand clutching a bottle of whisky, his wise teachings are ignored on a daily basis and, near his death, on this very occasion. 8 pages

“The History Machine” (1972, shortstory) – 5/5
Very few people on the good earth can own and use a history machine—historians are one of them. As every event leaves a record of itself on the atomic level, humankind has created a device that can record and replay these moments be they personal and recent or significant and distant. One historian tapes his personal life, even taping himself viewing historical events, which leads him to philosophize about the impossibility of witnessing history objectively and without the onus of the past. 7 pages

“The Cliometricon” (1975, shortstory) – 4/5
General Eisenhower stands on the cliffs of Dover where history branches into his near-infinity of possible realities: he envisions Germany’s nuclear bomb over England, he is shot by an emerging U-boat and swims to shore, or he decides the Allies should invade all of Europe. This view of the branching of possible realities is made possible by the Cliometricon, which one historian uses to view major events of the past, but also illegally viewing events of his own life—the current now or the alternative selves in alternative worlds. 8 pages

“Stance of Splendor” (1973, shortstory) – 4/5
The subjective, intangible self is a kernel of static memories, passing thoughts, and blossoming ambition; it’s also a locus for self-deception, psychosis, and the multi-faceted ego. One man, given immortality of sorts, experiences an expansion of awareness through the earth, its solar system and its sun, through near-space, the edges of the galaxy and its core. As he passes through and becomes part of space, time is the one factor that defeats him, casting him away from everything he once knew. 6 pages

“Wayside World” (1977, novelette) – 4/5
Anneka’s elderly 30-year-old parents lie dying, a burden to her three male companions: alpha male brothers Foler and Thessan along with the suppressed yet learned Ishbok. After the death of her parents, Ishbok takes a gamble and stands up to the brothers but doesn’t win support from the beautiful Anneka. From the base of a city’s tower in which they reside, he flees higher and higher to the roof to be left alone under the glare of the sun named Cleopatra and uncountable stars that bring a wind a change. 29 pages

“The Monadic Universe” (1972, novelette) – 4/5
Three ships are forcefully sent away from earth toward the planet- and star-rich core of the galaxy. On their eighty-year flight, the ships are confined to the enigmatic void of hyperspace, with which humanity has only just begun to experiment… and also why the ships were sent with such haste. One nameless ship harbors the wakened minds of three men while hundreds more lie asleep. On the simulated screen of the stars that reflect their passage in real-space, their sanity is tested as the blank void of hyperspace begins to take form. 27 pages

“The Word Sweep” (1979, shortstory) – 4/5
Words used to only gather in minds and one paper, but spoken words begin to manifest in the air and gather on the ground: whispers, secrets, conversations, speeches, obscenities, sleep-talk, and radio-talk. Cities begin to flood under the daily torrent of people’s collective utterances, the various shapes and forms of their words needing to be shipped to landfills or the incinerator. Felix enforces the rations of spoken words in a five-block square of the city; Bruno is his friend who has an idea about the plague and the piling of all the words. 12 pages


Monday, February 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of January 2016

#1: Metro 2033 (2007/2009) – Dmitry Glukhovsky (3/5)

While browsing the shelves at the bookstore, I was surprised to see a translated Russian science fiction novel from the last decade. Having been interested in reading more of translated Russian science fiction, I bought the novel and started to read it a few months later. Only two people asked what I was reading: “Is that the same book as the game?” Only then did I do a search online and see that the entire book had previously been serialized (which would explain its blocky feel) in Russian online, had a cult following, and became a game. It has a good sci-fi/horror/post-apocalyptic plot to it, ideal for a game. It has been a decade or two since the war that made life on the surface impossible. The few thousand who have survived live in the Moscow Metro (elsewhere, there must be survivors in similar situation) yet there’s also a form of life above: flying monsters, black figures, and mutants. Young Artyom has only known life in the station of VDNHk, but events lead him to be assigned to an important task: navigate the sometimes deadly tunnels and stations in order to deliver a message. Through his navigation, he experiences the many facets of life underground, the many facets of subjective truth, and secrets about the Metro, its people, and himself. (full review)

#2: Pillars of Salt (1979) – Barbara Paul (4/5)

Barbara Paul is an author of five SF novels and about a dozen SF short pieces. With an academic history in English and theatre history, one would expect some of these themes to run through her early works. Certainly, history plays the commanding role in Pillars of Salt because it’s a time-travel novel, with glimpses of life from a wide range of historical figures: e.g. Van Gogh, Ivan the Terrible, Thakombau, Queen Elizabeth. Most of historical settings are fun settings, but the 5-page setting in the North African arena during WWII is indulgent and a waste of time and paper. Everyday people in the year 2059 are able to travel into the minds of people from history, even young students who learn directly about fragments of history. The professionals, however, spend a lot of their time investigating wide swaths of history and eventually settle onto one person; for. Angie, that person is Queen Elizabeth. She experiences much of her life, but one day chooses to visit her sickness from smallpox, when she unexpectedly witnesses her death… and Angie’s own animation of her body. If the Queen had died, how did she reign for forty more years? The academic circle investigates the phenomenon, which indicates that it actually affects the present and speculates what the future has in store.

#3: The Dreaming Earth (1963) – John Brunner (3/5)

I’ve read more Brunner than I can count… just kidding, this is the thirtieth piece of Brunner’s work that I’ve read, including novels, collections, and his hodgepodge The Book of John Brunner (1976). I’ve said in previous Brunner reviews that each of his books is different, that there were many facets to his artistry. Now having read thirty of his books, some ubiquitous themes are becoming a poor, most of them found in The Dreaming Earth: over population, drug use of the disenchanted, hypnotism, whodunit disappearances, and videophones. This novel doesn’t have espionage—another common Brunner inclusion—but it does include a conspiratorial global organization. The drug here—happy dreams—shows up in many places around the globe and some of its users are disappearing. The narcotic agency of the UN think that they’ve just up and gone, but some hare-brained thinkers hypothesize that they’ve transcended. Greville becomes victim to the mildly hallucinating drug due to his scheming wife, but he soon recovers and pushes himself to uncover the drug’s mysteries: How is it distributed? Where do the addicts disappear to? Where does the drug even come from? Just when he’s in the thick of it does the reader realize that so much of it is predictable and the punch near the end is weak.

#4: The Raw Shark Texts (2007) – Steven Hall (4/5)

If you’ve read any Murakami, you will be able to tell that this book is heavily influenced from his writing. Instead of a sultry affair with a buxom woman, there’s an awkward affair with a skinny blonde; and instead of fine whiskey, there is a shark… something like that. Three similarities stand: mysterious underground passages, a cat as sidekick, and magical realism. Eric Sanderson awakens to the world with no memory, yet his former self leaves a note telling him what to do. His psychologist offers no real help, so Eric turns to a dangerous form of information: almost daily notes delivered by his former self which allude to an unfathomable menace. When he has his first brush of danger from the menace, Eric reads all the letters and goes down the metaphorical rabbit of searching for his past—what happened to his former self—and his future self—keeping his memory in tact. This leads him to a distant farmland, a crumbling concrete passage, and a crawlspace lined with texts. It’s a bizarre affair from start to finish, but worthwhile to read about someone without hope or history to find salvation in the unknown.

#5: Of Men and Monsters (1968) – William Tenn (4/5)

I love part of the summary on the back of the novel: “a clear-eyed tribute to the audacity, shrewdness, stupidity, courage and ultimate ineradicability of the human pest”. Any novel that paints an unfavorable picture of humanity as stupid, I tend to love. In addition to Joachim’s own review, this novel—my first of Tenn’s—looked like a juicy morsel. Cockroaches are pests in human abode, but even they live in an even larger abode of the invading monsters, who have taken over earth. The towering monsters that terrorize the comparatively pint-sized humans treat them as pests, so the small bands of humans cower away and whittle away their inferior lives within the walls. Given their isolation, they think the world is as large as they can see, but there are walls beyond the walls, and thoughts beyond their thoughts. Unable to view the bigger perspective, petty issues cloud their collective minds. One group resists this impetuous incivility, for which the naïve protagonist—Eric—is destined.

#6: Doomsday Wing (1963) – George H. Smith (1/5)

It’s always a teacher’s advice to keep reading to improve your reading skills; likewise, keep writing to improve your writing skills. Unfortunately, I guess writing erotica doesn’t hone one’s skills; case in point: George H. Smith (not to be confused with George O. Smith of Venus Equilateral fame). Colonel Chris Tolliver is part of Wing D, an innocuous missile base with some curious participants. When Chris learns that that the “D” stands for “Doomsday”, he gets a case of the nerves. These nerves wreck havoc on his failing marriage to a wife he admits he married for her face; even before, there was that time in Japan with that 21-year-old. Anyway, his colleagues all have dead ex-wives and second wives, so it sounds pretty easy for him to move on with his life if his old cow kicks the bucket. When the US gets attacked by a lone Soviet missile base—commanded by the eccentric General Nikolai Ilich Aristov—the US retaliates with limited strikes. On both sides, the deaths are appalling as bases are laid to waste and bombers are shot from the sky. But in 124 pages, the fulcrum between pre-war and post-war is too hasty and cobbled-together, which only becomes hastier toward the conclusion when it’s just bad, plain bad. This book has about as much give-a-fuck as an erotic dime novel: Sorority Sluts (1962), The Virtuous Harlots (1963), Country Club Lesbian (1963), or Orgy Buyer (1965).

#7: Lords of the Psychon (1963) – Daniel F. Galouye (2/5)

I have had three Galouye novels (out of his total of five) and I’m saving his most renowned for last: Simulacron-3 (1964). I read The Infinite Man (1973) last year and was unimpressed enough to give it a three out of five. If taking into account Lords of Psychon, I would thus far say that he’s a middling author. However, I am intrigued by his wealth of short stories, which number about seventy. Back to Lords of Psychon… enigmatic man-sized sphere appeared on earth in 1977, destroying all electrical items and sending mankind into seizures for weeks. Now in the 1990s, bands of people are scattered about the land. One last outpost of former American military wheels a nuke into the neighboring opalescent tower where uncommunicative spheres come and go, the blast is a mere pop and the tower stands still. When Captain Maddox discovers a woman who keeps a young sphere in a barn, the two contemplate its usefulness as an experiment, which helps them tap into its mysteries. The spheres occasionally hunt people down and hurl bolts at them, but now Maddox has discovered that some of these powers can be harnessed by people, too. But throughout the novel, boredom grips the reader in such spasms that only a few pages can be read in one sitting.

#8: The Human Angle (1956) – William Tenn (4/5)

Just this month, I read my first William Tenn novel: Of Men and Monsters (1968). Though this latter book is more than ten years later than his short work in this reviewed collection, it still shows his knack for creativity, zaniness, and depth, three words of which would also describe Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley. Of the eight stories, two seemed familiar, but it took me a while to realize that I had them before: I had read “Project Hush” before in Asimov’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) and “Party of the Two Parts” in Santesson’s Gentle Invaders (1969). The latter of which is bizarrely unique story of alien oddities and galactic law. This one steals the show out of the entire collection. In close second is “The Servant Problem”. This story isn’t one of blunt humor, but a cultural introspection of the familiar theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—it’s poignant yet absurd. (full synopses)

#9: Synthajoy (1968) – D.G. Compton (5/5)

After reading Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966) and The Steel Crocodile (1970), I knew Compton was an author whom I would have to pay attention to; both books were solid and enticing in on way or another. Synthajoy falls between them both and smothers them both with its percolating personal history, layers of psychology (always fascinating to me), and teetering success of a new technology. Thea Cadence neé Springfield fell deeply in love with the doctor she was working with—a brilliant psychologist named Edward Cadence. She was so in love with him, in fact, that she was blind his to faults, perhaps because of his radiant passion for developing Sensitape. He was able to record emotions and experiences onto tape and later feed it back into another person’s mind. The creation of a Sexitape—legally taken between Mr. and Mrs. X—caused nearly instant fame, but the clinical and recreational use of the tape—its true indication of success—had yet to break through. Now, Thea is alive and in the same institution she helped build with her late husband, who has died in an unmentioned incident, which is also why Thea is receiving treatment with Sensitape. Her story evolves slowly through a clouded mind on sedatives, yet even her own story takes a few u-turns, testimony which is verified with stenographic conversations. This one is deep and tumultuous, a real delight for the observant and analytical mind.

#10: Unearthly Neighbors (1960) – Chad Oliver (1/5)

I remember enjoying Chad Oliver’s story “Transfusion” (1959) in Groff Conklin’s Worlds of When (1962). It was something a little different, a little fun, so I decided to pick up anything else by the same author—the result: Unearthly Neighbors. I had been excited for a while at the thought of picking it up.  The first few pages and chapters were OK: a mission to Sirius Nine as discovered a humanoid species and since Monte Stewart is one of the leading anthropologists, the UN decides to send him and let him pick his team, who all seem to take their wives on the three-year mission to an uncharted planet. Once on the planet and meeting the locals, somehow the book becomes dull. One man lives in an unnaturally hollowed out tree and commands a wolf-like animal, leading the reader to a basic assumption, the same assumption is takes the characters another hundred pages to figure out. As an official mission to an alien people, they seriously botch up first contact. In addition, their guesswork on their language abruptly turns to fluency, the humans being able to use alien verb tenses (heavily using formal present perfect); allegories that seem to bridge cultures; subject, object, and even reflexive pronouns; first conditional clauses; and difficult vocabulary such as tide and current, and trial and verdict. Unearthly Neighbors gets a point for grim unforeseen violence in the middle and some philosophical conjecturing toward the end, but it tapers poorly and the result of the novel is a flaccid and forgettable.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

1956: The Human Angle (Tenn, William)

Some creative and absurd, others poignant and deep (4/5)

Just this month, I read my first William Tenn novel: Of Men and Monsters (1968). Though this latter book is more than ten years later than his short work in this reviewed collection, it still shows his knack for creativity, zaniness, and depth, three words of which would also describe Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley.

Two stories seemed familiar, but it took me a while to realize that I had them before: I had read “Project Hush” before in Asimov’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) and “Party of the Two Parts” in Santesson’s Gentle Invaders (1969). The latter of which is bizarrely unique story of alien oddities and galactic law. This one steals the show out of the entire collection. In close second is “The Servant Problem”. This story isn’t one of blunt humor, but a cultural introspection of the familiar theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—it’s poignant yet absurd.

Project Hush (1954, shortstory) – 4/5
The printed budget for the Army’s project—codenamed Project Hush—is also listed as miscellaneous and grows every year. Their grand plan: fly to the moon in total secrecy in order to establish a base. With phase one of the project complete, the scientists and top-brass unpack their crates and erect a dome, only to get word that there’s another dome on the moon. When the scout investigates, communication goes silent. Speculation stirs until the scout returns, silent about his absence. 7 pages

The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway (1955, shortstory) – 4/5
Monochromatic smudged upon monochromatic smudges—this is what Morniel Mathaway considers to the revolutionary modern art comparable to Picasso and Roualt. Popular opinion—read: everyone—thinks it’s utter garbage, yet Morniel still speaks at length about his art, his vision, and his greatness. His ego is overloaded when a time-traveler arrives to visit him, the most famous artist of all time. When the time-traveler sees Morniel’s artwork, he’s greatly disappointed and disgusted. When he shows Morniel his paintings from the future, Morniel sees opportunity. 17 pages

Wednesday’s Child (1956, shortstory) – 3/5
Fabian Balik is a micromanaging office manager concerned about the efficiency of his company’s secretary pool. One secretary by the name of Wednesday Gresham has regular absences on a week- and month-long basis every year. In order to satisfy his curiosity more than anything, Fabian invites Wednesday to lunch, where he probes with questions. In turn, she concedes and her answers are incredible: she gets her appendix removed and her teeth all fall out… every year. Curiosity turns to fascination and love as Fabian digs for the truth behind his beautiful bride. 22 pages

The Servant Problem (1955, novelette) – 5/5
More than 99% of the world’s people are reverently loyal to Garomma, who they consider to be the Slavey of Civilization, the Servant of all, and the World’s Drudge. Though they worship his supposed servitude, in reality they are all his brainwashed subjects, of whom 99% isn’t enough for complete control. Behind the megalithic ego of Garomma is his own servant—Moddo—who has his own plans to control Garomma and hence the world. Filled with stress, Moddo visits Loob the healer to allay his pain, but Loob also has plans to control Moddo, who controls Garomma, who controls the world. 32 pages

Party of the Two Parts (1954, novelette) – 5/5
Earth is under the watchful eye of the Galactic Patrol as it’s a budding civilization (Stage 15) nearly ready to join the galactic community; however, the Patrol’s existence onn Earth is a secret. Meanwhile, Gtet is at Stage 19—a primary interstellar citizen. Their worlds’ clash when L’payr, a habitual criminal with 2,343 felonies, escapes to Earth because of his most recent crime: peddling smut to the amoebae youth of his planet. On Earth, he must find fuel for his ship while not breaking any galactic laws. His crafty legal mind finds Mr. Osborne Blatch. 24 pages

The Flat-eyed Monster (1955, novelette) – 3/5
While in a pleasant evening slumber on the university campus on which he works, a comparative literature assistant professor is teleported from his comfortable bed to an alien examination table. The multi-tentacled, suitcase-sized, bulb-eyed beings ignore his spoken pleas of communication all the while Clyde Manship—the humble professor—receives their telepathic conversations and idle thoughts. Once he escapes a paper bag, he enters the alien city, where they have been put on alert about his deadly high-frequency death rays from his eyes. 35 pages

The Human Angle (1948, shortstory) – 3/5
Out in the sticks, a reporter drives through the pouring rain to find the right people to interview for the town’s big news, which is laughable to him: vampires have attacked and killed three children. The farmers are monosyllabic, so he seeks out the right kind of average Joe or Jane. In the rain, he comes across one such regular lass who’s a bit plump to be a mountain redneck, but the reporter can already envision his characterization of the sodden girl. As his cars nears her home, he cranes his neck forward. 6 pages

A Man of Family (1956, shortstory) – 3/5

With Stewart Raley’s promotion to Ganymede Department Chief over a year ago, he and his wife decided to have a fourth child in their New Hampshire home because he was entitled to it with his 9,000 territs per year salary. Unfortunately, he’s been made superfluous due to a takeover and now he finds himself demoted and under the yearly salary that allows him to have his fourth child. Without hope for entering that salary bracket again, the couple considers which child to make an orphan. 16 pages

Friday, January 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of December 2015

#77: Marîd Audran 2: A Fire in the Sun (1989) – George Alec Effinger (4/5)

Much like the first book in the trilogy, this book takes places exclusively in the detailed world of the Middle Eastern/North African city that holds the tarnished gem known as the Budayeen. Marîd has inherited/assumed more responsibilities from a local godfather names Friedlander Bey; some of these tasks are burdensome and irk Marîd’s nostalgia for his past life, while others allow him to move and operate without hindrance. Behind the wealth of Friedlander Bey, something that spreads beyond the confines of the Budayeen becomes known to Marîd: international affairs. This lies heavily on his mind while a whole host of troubles plague Marîd and the city, which involve family, corruption, deceit, and the all-too-familiar stench of murder. A Fire in the Sun complicates the series through an effective means and appetizers the palate of the reader for the remaining novel.

#78: Marîd Audran 3: An Exile Kiss (1991) – George Alec Effinger (3/5)

This third book in the trilogy isn’t actually the end. Sadly, Effinger died before the series could continue, so The Exile Kiss has an open ending that leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied. This satisfaction stems from the deviation of plot: where the first two novels took place in the fantastically detailed city, half of The Exile Kiss takes place in the desert—a quite abrupt departure from the norm. The follow-thru is interesting in itself, but weakly links with the remaining half as the plot makes a return to the city where business seems to continue as normal. Effinger capitalizes on the first half’s long segue by infusing the latter half with savagery and malintent. Regardless of the desert segue, the novel would act as a great springboard for another one or two novels… Word of Night was going to be the fourth. If the trilogy doesn’t whet your appetite for 23rd-century cranial wetware and ubiquitous sex changes, Budayeen Nights (2008) has a nine-story collection of cyberpunk.

#79: Gormenghast 1: Titus Groan (1946) – Mervyn Peake (4/5)

She’s a hefty novel filled with imagination and detail that doesn’t open itself very easily to interpretation. It’s bizarre most of the time as it’s filled with digressions of imaginative fancy, characters that never break their idiosyncratic molds, and a castle that refuses to remained chained in the mind as a comprehendible entity. After seventy-six generations of Earls of Gormenghast, the seventy-seventh is born to a despondent king, a hermetic queen and her hoard of cats, a rebellious and spoiled princess who hates everyone, and the king’s two very dull-witted sisters… along with a slew of servants that support the rituals and routine tasks of the castle. Placing himself in the center of yet-to-be-developed friction, Steerpike sees opportunities everywhere to advance himself through manipulation and sheer cunning. Once a mere kitchen assistant, he soon snakes his way to the higher tiers of servants, royalty, and even making himself aware to the king. His actions aren’t only selfish as they become more destructive—physically, mentally, and dynastically. All in all, an amazing flight of imagination with overtones of regret for history repeating itself: the Law is blind power, it is truth, it is Destiny, and it has been forged through generations of regal ritual.

#80: No Doors, No Windows (1975) – Harlan Ellison (3/5)

I’ve read five of Ellison’s SF work only really liked one, honestly—“Life Hutch”), so this collection is my first exposure to him as a writer at large. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy the other collection on my shelf much more—Paingod (1965). What starts as a collection of suspense, borderline terror, and dread soon tapers off into repeated tales of sexism: women who are emotionally unstable, women portrayed as victims or sex objects (or both, in some cases)—in the end, women are just convenient vehicles to convey the manliness of the male characters. I don’t often rant over this kind of thing, but it is prevalent throughout the collection. There are 173 pages of stories in this collection in addition to an indulgent and often straying 32-page introduction. Ten of these pages are scattered with comments about the involved stories, but like the remaining 22 pages in the introduction, the words course through the relevant and the irrelevant like a slalom skier between gates. Way too much digression to read through, so I had to skim and skip much of it… comments that also ring true for many of the introductions for the stories in Dangerous Visions. Among the best: “Status Quo at Troyden’s” and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”. (full review)

#81: Hellflower (1953) – George O. Smith (1/5)

George O. Smith is notable for his Venus Equilateral collection in which a team of engineers create outlandishly technological uses for vacuum tubes—a brief synopsis that shows it’s early age from 1947. Regardless of its age, the book was zany and fun, if plausibility could be dampened as they shoot about the solar system and beam themselves about. This same aged fun cannot be attributed to Hellflower, however. A down-in-the-dirt man whose space pilot license had been revoked gets a second chance as an undercover agent for Solar Anti-Narcotic Department. As he assumes the shady role, our hero—Farradyne—attracts madmen and maidens with equal measure. The hellflower is an woman-specific addictive drug that acts like an aphrodisiac, but its origins are a mystery. Soon, Farradyne nears its source, but also comes close to finding another secret: Who caused the deaths that caused his license to be revoked. All in all, it’s cheesy, ham-fisted at times, and hard to swallow with so many abrupt revelations and abilities… just read the last line and you’ll understand: “Arm in arm they went out into the bright sunshine” (160).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

1975: No Doors, No Windows (Ellison, Harlan)

Macho stories of suspense, but mostly machismo (3/5)

There are 173 pages of stories in this collection in addition to an indulgent and often straying 32-page introduction. Ten of these pages are scattered with comments about the involved stories, but like the remaining 22 pages in the introduction, the words course through the relevant and the irrelevant like a slalom skier between gates. Way too much digression to read through, so I had to skim and skip much of it… comments that also ring true for many of the introductions for the stories in Dangerous Visions.

What starts as a collection of suspense, borderline terror, and dread soon tapers off into repeated tales of sexism: women who are emotionally unstable, women portrayed as victims or sex objects (or both, in some cases)—in the end, women are just convenient vehicles to convey the manliness of the male characters. I don’t often rant over this kind of thing, but it is prevalent throughout the collection. Case in point:

A lot of us are reconstructed sexists. We ain’t perfect. Sometimes we call you chicks, and sometimes we call you baby, and there are even some who still slip up once in a while and call a woman a broad.

But we do the best we can.

A lot of us learned the hard way about women, that you aren’t the chattel we thought you were, what we were taught you were through two thousand-plus years of tradition and bad novels by men. But we learned, and we’re still learning. And it isn’t that easy for some of us who were brought up macho.

But we do the best we can, dammit!

And maybe it’s only fitting that some of us, the biggest offenders, get back some of the shit treatment we gave out. And maybe it isn’t.

So get the fuck off our case. Learn which of us are the unreconstructed enemy and which of us are allies. And stop treating us like meat, the way we treated you for so long.

Otherwise, the best you’ll ever get from us is a nasty, pointless, frustrated FUCK YOU, BITCH! (185)

I’ve read only five pieces of Ellison’s SF work--“The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”, “Life Hutch”, "Count the Clock That Tells Time", "On the Downhill Side", and "The Song the Zombie Sang" (w/ Silverberg)--so this collection is my first exposure to him as a writer at large. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy the other collection on my shelf much more—Paingod (1965). There’s always been so much praise thrown at Ellison, so I’m eager to see where all that praise originates… for me, it’s certainly not from No Doors, No Windows.

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The Whimper of Whipped Dogs (1973, shortstory) – 4/5
Beth is a simple notational choreographer from an all-girls’ school in upstate New York, now residing in the big, impersonal of New York City. Having witnessed her first murder, Beth still hasn’t adapted to the urban social environment of rat-eat-rat existence, and her first sexual encounter in the city reaffirms this. Thereafter, the vicious city brings out the animalistic nature of her being. Her helplessness in the urban environment peaks when she confronts a thief, but to whom can she turn? 20 pages

Eddie, You’re My Friend (1975, shortstory) – 4/5
Through a autobiographical monologue, one man confronts his life-long friend named Eddie. Through the thick and the thin of their relationship—mainly thick though with the narrator on the receiving end of the misery, shame, and pain—he still considers Eddie to be a friend. After elementary school fights, high school party no-shows, university plagiarism, and adulthood adultery, the narrator sticks to Eddie, though the reason for the confrontation is that he needs one last sympathetic favor. 5 pages

Status Quo at Troyden’s (1958, shortstory) – 4/5
After eight years of daily routine in his city apartment, Mr. Huggerson is set upon this same routine as he lives out his remaining elderly days in the urban bachelors’ apartment building. The room, however, is paid for by his son who has recently come into some business troubles. When Mr. Huggerson receives his son’s monthly check, the amount isn’t enough to cover his rent and upkeep. With his routine threatened, he confronts the brusque landlord and, in a fit of brief rage, strikes him down, for better or worse. 13 pages

Nedra at f:5.6 (1957, shortstory) – 2/5
Paul Shores has been a professional photographer for decades. He’s shot some of the most famous women in the world, both clothed and unclothed. He also takes daily life pictures of the city, like on one fateful day. On that day, he spies Nedra on a park bench in all her pulchritudinous, sexual glory—a woman like he has never seen before. She quickly agrees to having her photo taken in the park, at his studio, and in the nude. After a lusty session on the bed, he begins to develop the prints that are without the image of Nedra. 9 pages

Opposites Attract (1957, shortstory) – 4/5
Erwin Beltman has a hobby that he likes to develop by himself yet he likes to share the results with other. In his ripe old age, many would turn to gardening or literature, but Erwin has a passion for making pipe bombs and placing them in public areas. The press and police dub him a “mad bomber” but he isn’t mad at all, he insists—he’s just a hobbyist, an enthusiast. His identity remains secret, but one day a lady spies his pipe for what it is and follows him during the proceeding days; Erwin has a plan to rid himself of her. 11 pages

Toe the Line (1957, shortstory) – 3/5
Having been in prison for the third time, Eddie tells the warden upon leaving that his days of lifting cars is over. As he returns to the real world, he gets a job at a place where he knows the trade: a mechanic. His intentions are nefarious though as he also returns to his old retinue of thieves. Eddie, bent on not getting caught and pulling in a decent profit, has just the plan to look legit: use the shop’s tow truck. After learning the ropes, all the lifting goes without a hitch, until a murder is pinned on him. 10 pages

Down in the Dark (1967, shortstory) – 3/5
Kenneth has the idea in his head to hunt in javelina in the desert with the topic of weapons that he discusses at the bar with Griff. Griff quickly agrees to guide the hunt after seeing Kenneth’s wife. Then, after dinner and drinks—when Kenneth passes out—Griff further agrees to two more things: a late-night tryst with Ivy, the wife, and a taking part in the eventual murder of her husband. With thoughts an being the predator far away, Kenneth becomes the human prey in the desert cave. Griff and Ivy both take different aims. 9 pages

Pride in the Profession (1966, shortstory) – 3/5
A good old-fashioned lynching was Matthew Carty’s prime motivation to become a hangman. One just doesn’t become a hangman, however, in Matthew’s eyes; the execution is an art and a science. Through his life, he dabbles in physics, geometry, biology, and woodwork so that he can better understand and better execute the intended prisoner. He earns a reputation in the states where hanging is still a method of execution, which culminates in his assignment to hang Dr. Kolles. Unlike other cases, Matthew is compelled to meet the soon-to-be-dead prisoner. 13 pages

The Children’s Hour (1958, shortstory) – 3/5
Each of the thirty years that followed WWII were fraught with violence, racism, assassinations, tension, and murder; petty escalations broke out in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Even after the establishment of the UN and the International Police, conflict still ruled the world as it sat on the precipice teetering toward apocalypse. When tensions shattered on 3 June, 2975, the UN held an emergency session that was interrupted by strange guests and their strange warning: kids saying that the wars had better end or else they would leave. 7 pages

White Trash Don’t Exist (1956, shortstory) – 3/5
Charles is a bit slow but he has perseverance on his side. His menial job of moping up the diner is punctuated by verbal abuse and threats from the local head honcho—Herm Cressman. Charles’ safety is uncertain when he’s tipped off that Herm intends to entrap Charles into making a move on his mistress, who’s also a waitress at the diner. Charles evades every compromising situation, but finds a lull in resistance at the girl’s home. When Herm finds out Charles finds himself on the run. 13 pages

Thicker Than Blood (1958, shortstory) – 3/5
Roger married Felice for her money but has never seen any of it from her stingy family. As a result, his less-than-competitive linoleum shop is sinking and he finds very little in his life on which to cling. His step-daughter is a tolerated nuisance to the marriage, but Roger has a plan to turn his poor fortune into true fortune: fake a kidnapping, forge a ransom note, stash the girl away, and await the cash to keep him afloat. All looks good for Roger: typewrites, tape, rope, and an old barn. What could go wrong? 10 pages

Two Inches in Tomorrow’s Column (1965, shortstory) – 3/5
Benny is a shallow guy, and like a crab that lives in hole and hunts in the shallow water, he takes easy prey and lives on the water’s edge, metaphorically speaking. He’s been sleeping with a columnist recently so that it’ll pay off by her writing about his infamous boss’s new Hollywood club. That same article came out the following day, so Benny prepared his parting break-up letter for the soon-to-be-stilted columnist. When she confronts him about his shallowness, she’s oh-so-cool… then he grabs on edition of her paper. 7 pages

Promises of Laughter (1969, shortstory) – 2/5
Both Denny Zucker and Holdie Karp have had successful writing careers in the sense that they both acknowledge each other’s talent and appreciate each other’s skill; however, Denny is one who pushes hard for his own work and feels it’s fair to push just as hard to find work for his woman. When his woman doesn’t take kindly to a hand-me-out, she tells a sob story of her rise to fame, after which Denny vents his frustration about being a suppressed chauvinist with right, damn it, rights! 9 pages

Ormond Always Pays His Bills (1957, shortstory) – 2/5
Hervery Ormond—of the well-connected Ormond Construction Company—has had the same dull yet productive secretary for six years. No one really questioned his choice, nor would anyone really question her disappearance after shooting her three times in her office. She had snooped in his office, found and forced open the locked cabinet, then discovered his less-than-honest dealing in concrete for the government. With knowledge of the poor concrete, so she becomes encased in the same concrete and cast aside. 6 pages

The Man on the Juice Wagon (1963, shortstory) – 2/5
Stopping at a circus and witnessing a girl being whipped, Harry Fischer takes action: He rescues the girl, gets in his rig loaded with nitro, and darts off while being chased by henchmen. When he jackknifes the truck in a tunnel to kill his pursuers, the hero and victim frolic in the hay, only later to discover that they are still being chased. The proceeding chase reveals the girl’s motivations, her relationship with her father, Harry’s connection to the same man, Harry’s own motivations, and his unwillingness to help the girl any further. 18 pages

Tired Old Man (1975, shortstory) – 3/5

Billy Landress is an author of moderate success who has just finished a full novel with less than a half the heart. He considers himself a pretty hot author and loathes the invitation to attend a “writers’ club” where dried up writers, so-called writers, and wanna-be writers fill the space between the walls, yet the space is void of talent, in Billy’s eyes. He shuns everyone but is intrigued by an old man who soon probes with deep questions and analysis. The brief conversation strikes him, but Billy’s unable to name or place the man as he has disappeared. 13 pages

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of November 2015

#70: Pastwatch (1996) – Orson Scott Card (3/5)
This book was given to me by one of my graduate professors. I’m hesitant to the extreme to accept a SF book recommendation (from anyone, really), but he was the professor who most inspired me, so I took his recommendation to heart. Unfortunately, admiration for my professor aside, I just didn’t enjoy the premise of Pastwatch. So, in the far-future, scientists have developed a machine capable of peering into the past. Historians use this to peep into the personal lives, weather patterns, and state of nature in the far past. They gather loads of data, but later an improvement is created with improved resolution. When historians return to previous sites (e.g. Columbus’s plight near Portugal), they see more than they could have ever dreamed. When they know that tampering with the past is possible, they set it upon themselves to undo their own history. It’s not a bad story, but the slant is a bit much: (1) the history of the world hinged on Columbus’s discovery and treatment of the New World and (2) Christianity becomes the driving force for all the is good with the New New World.


#71: Down to Earth (1967) – Louis Charbonneau (2/5)
Intriguing by Joachim’s damning review of Down to Earth, I went against Joachim’s advice and picked up two of Chabonneau’s novels. I read The Sentinel Stars earlier this year, but it was a predictable romp through familiar territory. The premise of Down to Earth sounds pretty enticing, but the follow-through is mediocre, just like The Sentinel Stars. In an isolated planetary base where a couple and their two children live, things mysteriously begin to go awry. Soon, they discover that only an outside force must be making the base of funny and the occasional glances of the perpetrator point the finger at the woman’s ex-husband, who is now a deranged stalker. The circumstances of his maniacal behavior are veiled, yet the horror is always realistic to the family. There are a number of wrenches thrown into the plot: the boy’s self-identity, the palliative effects of the base to those away from Earth, and the maniac’s motivations. In the end, however, a predictable series of events occur and culminate in an equally as predictable ending. Dark though it may be at times, the pride of having a nuclear family wins out in this trope on obvious hero versus obvious villain.


#72: Earth’s Other Shadow (1973) – Robert Silverberg (3/5)
After disliking, to some degree, all of the Silverberg novels I’ve read, I errantly decided to stick to his short fiction, which I haven’t received very warmly either –I’ve only enjoyed two stories: “Good News from the Vatican” (1971) and “Flies” (1967), the latter included in this collection. From this collection, four of the nine stories are either amusing (“Ishmael in Love”), poignant (“Flies”), amusing and poignant (“To See the Invisible Man”), or relevant (“The Song the Zombie Sang”). The remaining five stories feel like half-efforts (“How It Was When the Past Went Away”) or whims (“Something Loose is Wild” and “Hidden Talent”). The least striking of the nine stories are “To the Dark Star” that features a pointlessly bickering pair of humans and “The Fangs of the Trees” that compares a fifteen-year-old to being a ripe fruit ready to be picked and even compares her breasts to apples twice… she’s the fruit in the family tree. [full review]


#73: Secret Visitors (1957) – James White (1/5)
This was James White’s first novel and it read like an amateurish attempt at pulp SF. He had been writing short SF for four years, some of which was pretty good (“In Loving Memory” [1956] and “The Conspirators” [1954] among the best). Of course, James White wouldn’t be James White without the medical slant, and this novel also includes that: A human doctor is mixed up in a case of, what seems like, alien espionage. And here is where the dominoes of pulp begin to fall: humanoid aliens, espionage, space ships, the secret to eternal life, a bizarre alien species, a pretty girl, a space battle, and the nail in the coffin—the final paragraph: “He [the doctor] was thinking about Kelly [the cute humanoid], and wondering what the marriage ceremony was like on Harla” (155). It has everything but a damned robot or lasers. This is the worst novel of James White that I’ve read, but then again I haven’t had the opportunity to read Galactic Gourmet (1996).


#74: The Wasp Factory (1984) – Iain Banks (4/5)
Iain Banks is the author I’ve re-read the most: Walking on Glass (1985), Consider Phlebas (1987), The State of the Art (1989), The Algebraist (2004)... and now The Wasp Factory (1984). I’ve read the entirety of his SF collection but I must say I much prefer his non-SF work more. I now own all of this work (even Poems [2015]). The Wasp Factory was Banks’ first novel and much of his later themes can be found throughout: bridges, islands, worship, gender with characters including a mentally unfit man, an emotionally repressed man, and the down-to-earth sidekick. The novel entails a history of disturbing memories of an isolated childhood where very little supervision or guidance was lent, resulting a seventeen-year-boy/man who indulges in his own creation of religion, or how he deals with the world he lives in: fortunetelling with a wasp-killing factory, communion with a dog’s skull, and protectionism with driven stakes topped by decapitated animal heads. Though he had murdered three relatives when he was very young, murder is no longer part of his growth as an adult.


#75: Survival World (1971) – Frank Belknap Long (0/5)
This book must have been written in three days and passed by an editor who had never written their own name. It’s such a blocky, unnecessary mess of garbage that the author’s whims were put onto the page to please a 9-year-old boy with Tourette’s and ADD. From an attempted assassination, to a time machine, a trident-like weapon, a ship blowing up, a time jump to a lush jungle, a snake bite, some fire, a big gun, and some uncivilized people; there’s absolutely no direction, no reason… no reason for the thing that happened to have happened and no reason to pen such a trope-laden piece of garbage. I mean, 10% of the book is about speculating the possible consequences of fucking snakebite, which passes quickly enough and onto the next meaningless sequence of so-called events. Even the writing is bad as the author makes terrible analogies, similes, and heavily overuses the annoying comparative phrase “not unlike”. A primary school yearbook is more interesting that this novel, but so it the back of a tube of toothpaste, the instructions for using a voltage converter, and reading a menu printed in hieroglyphics.


#76: Marîd Audran 1: When Gravity Fails (1987) – George Alec Effinger (4/5)
My first reading of When Gravity Fails was back in 2009. The general plot has always remained with me even though I only gave the book a 3-star rating. Now six years later, I became curious why it had stuck so clearly in my head and why I didn’t push it to a 4-star rating. I hate the feeling that I had missed something. With a 10-day holiday looming, I decided to pick up When Gravity Fails and its sequels—A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991)—in order to immerse myself in the “wry, black and savage” underworld of the Budyaeen. Much like my initial reading, I felt the mind-altering mods and daddies, mood-altering blue triangles and sunshines, and body-altering sex changes a tad overused, so it became repetitive. But the general debauchery of the city gives way to a more savage nature through Audran’s unwilling sacrifice of his own fears. Far-flung espionage, brutal cyberpunk, and the nitty-gritty of urban life are among the reasons to sink yourself into Effinger’s trilogy.

Monday, November 23, 2015

1999/2012: Crystal Silence (Fujisaki, Shingo)

Dense in pages and science with soft impact (3/5)

This is the last book in my trove of from Kurodahan; it’s also the densest of the bounty, which includes the Japanese novels Aphrodite and Administrator, the Japanese collections Speculative Japan 1 and 2, as well as the Serbian themed-collection The Library. The last book of the speculative bunch—Crystal Silence—can also be described as hard science fiction, which is a delineation from much of Japanese science fiction that tends to teem with sub-dermal layers of pulsing culture or warm analogy; on one finger, I can name the one story what deviates from the norm: Koshu Tani’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk” (1984). Crystal Silence feels as straight forward as many western science fictions of similar ilk: heavy on the science content with a number of token stereotypes to round it out.

Crystal Silence seems to be Fujisaki’s first Japanese publications in fiction, be it of short or long work. The novel is also the only translated work written by the author.

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A transnational distrust has been brewing on Mars since its initial colonization, but now that an ancient and biological artifact has been discovered in the ice mines of the north pole, tensions are at an all-time high and distrust is running deep. Saya Askai is a bio-archeologist in Japan, who studies the Jomon period of ancient Japan, yet is recruited to Mars to study the ancient organism. The relation is vague but she accepts while leaving her beau Keren beyond on Earth. Little does she know, Keren is actually a pawn—yet becoming a greater threat like a rook, queen, or knight—in a bigger scheme dictated by Wild West, which is a weapons manufacture with an interest in keeping humans—on Earth and on Mars—in a perpetual state of warfare. When bombs burst and bullets fly, Saya is trapped on Mars at the same time mysterious forces begin to envelop the habitations of each nation. As the forces progress, so too do Keren’s awareness of his powers and Saya’s vulnerability.

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Mars is presented in the typical fashion in which countries have their own colonies (America, India, China, Australia, Japan, to name a few). The first-tier nations—those who actually colonized Mars first—have access to richer resources and tend to passively strangle the second-tier nations—those who came after the rush. Two chokepoints are under strict control: the orbital platform and the ice fields on Mars’ northern pole, where the stage is set in the novel,

Because of these tensions among the tiers, military power is brought in to maintain the peace but also to act as a layer of defense. When these same power-suited soldiers act on the offense at the northern pole, tensions become strained beyond their usual stress, which is only hampered by the mysterious and intangible domes that seem as if they are constricted the space around her colony. People and supplies can be sent through these domes, but what is there cannot leave: drive as they may, they never reach the dome’s periphery.

Soon it’s discovered that the domes have something in common with another post-husk-finding at the pole: the crystal flowers that alter their weight and fragility. Though this seems impossible by the nature of physics, the flowers are mere curiosities at best. It takes everyone a while—which is surprising—to connect the flowers, the domes, and the husks; obviously, something funny—and only one man is laughing—is happening on Mars and no one knows what may result. But that same laughing man is also the one who hopes to gain most from the confusion, friction, and fright.

The initial connection between the alien biological husks and the ancient yet earthly work performed by Saya is so tenuous, so unlikely that it really fails to hold together through the hundreds of pages. Even at the conclusion, I felt that the connection was never solidly made, so it began to flatten out even among the action of the closing scenes. Further, the reason for the husks’ existence where they are and how they’re placed isn’t explained satisfactorily, either.

While the majority of the novel occurs on Mars, the most progressive past of the novel is Keren’s cyberpunk-esque escapades through information systems on Earth, on Mars, and in the Wile West corporation. Through Saya’s eyes, Keren is merely a boy longing after her, but Keren sees the world through very different lenses, lenses that no human could ever quite comprehend. His association with Wild West goes deeper than revenge; it goes further than his yen for Wild West’s destructions, too, as he has put it upon himself to save two of the most important things in his life: Saya and humanity.

So, to conclude, the novel starts off with a shallow and tenuous correlation between an ancient Earth people with the hollow remains of what seems to be alien food, then it swells to become a Mars-based strife between warring nations and incomprehensible alien technology, and in the background looms some cyber warfare between in an individual and a corporate, between planets, and, later, within something even more incomprehensible.


Fujisaki’s Crystal Silence is a welcome addition to the very limited family of hard Japanese science fiction outside of manga or anime; however, what it boasts in speculation outweighs any nuances, metaphors, or analogies about whatever may lie under the dense husk of its hard science fiction. For those who enjoy the romp of action on Mars and cyberspace, this may be for you.