Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1968: The Planet of the Blind (Corey, Paul)

Superficial core to an insignificant façade (1/5)

This must have been one of my $1 buys at my annual splurge at Babbitt Books in Normal, Illinois. I’m back home in rural Illinois once a year, so I only have one chance to stock up on cheap, cheap paperback science fiction novels, which I grab by the dozen and cross my fingers that half are palatable… ‘tis not always the case, but hey, I like to gamble when it comes to old science fiction. Some are hidden gems (e.g., Brian Ball’s Singularity Station [1973]) and others are duds (e.g., Edward Llewellyn’s Prelude to Chaos [1983]). I think I liked the Richard Powers cover much, much more than the book’s synopsis, so that was my catalyst for purchasing this novel… and by “insignificant façade”, I don’t mean the cover is weak because, obviously, the Richard Powers cover is pretty awesome (a word I use sparingly).

In the genre of science fiction, Paul Corey only published this single novel as well as three short stories: “Operation Survival” (1962), “If You’re So Smart” (1969) and “Red Carpet Treatment” (1977). Far from prolific in science fiction, Paul Corey is most notable for his Mantz trilogy about farming during the Depression in Midwestern America: Three Miles Square (1939), The Road Returns (1940) and County Seat (1941). In addition, he is also noted for his science-fiction-sounding novel Acres of Antaeus (1946) which is also about small town farmers in the Midwest.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Eyes to see with…
Eyes to flee with…

What would happen to an intelligent, sighted inhabitant of Earth marooned on a planet inhabited by an unsighted people with a technology equal or superior to his? Further, let us suppose that this man heads a world organization that controls the now the expanding field of tests and testing—Mr. Test himself. How would he fare in this PLANET OF THE BLIND? This is the story of Dr. Thur Stone in just such a situation.”

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Tests on Earth measure one thing: intelligence. Much like the old IQ tests of yesteryear, these tests focus on a person’s logical intelligence akin to mathematical intelligence. According to Dr. Thur Stone, the quantitative zealot he is, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist or it’s simply not important enough to measure. His daughter Karen scored highly, naturally, but turned her professional focus to social work, a move which irked the good Doctor… until she fell in love with a so-called Creativist.

Commonly called a “testnik” in the testing office, this one Creativist—Talcott Jones—was challenging the well establish testing system. His manifesto attacked the genius group (200+ IQ) accusing them of constricting “Earth mentality to a mere manipulation of past-established facts” and making Earth a “many-levelled cage for test-scored human controlled by brain-pickers for brains of other brain-pickers” (7). Further, he spewed forth more  rhetoric: “We have become a puppet people. Tests determine our entire lives … The creative mind, the original thinker, has been permanently relegated to the mental middle of society” (7-8). Thur’s daughter got Talcott’s case all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to the ceranium mines on Mars.

To relieve himself of the stress induced by the trial and the disappointment in his daughter, Thur plots a solo journey through the near galactic neighborhood. Without provocation or incidence, Thur’s spacerover is put under remote control and is led down to a verdant planet much like Earth. On the planet’s Earth-like surface and breathing the Earth-like atmosphere, Thur is met by a humanoid figure—a Grendan—who speaks broken English; he could have passed for an Earth human if it weren’t for his lack of eyes, a feature shared by everyone else at the university where he is taken. When the doctors at the research laboratory, who speak perfect English, inform him that they wish to perform a few tests on him, Thur is delighted; however, the tests probe senses which Thur doesn’t have and it soon becomes apparent to the doctors that Thur has eyes. Only animals have eyes; thus, Thur is an animal. Naturally, Thur has a problem with this.

His main crime is invasion of privacy. He can “see”—the Grendans have a difficult time understanding this word—their every movement and action; they consider this to be a gross violation of their right to privacy, so he must be grouped with other animals. He wouldn’t violate their privacy if it weren’t for the ubiquitous construction material of transparent plastic, which they use for everything. Rather than relying on sight to navigate and explore their environment, the Grendans are ultra-sensitive to other vibrations aside from those of light. Curious to Thur, though the Grendans can’t see, some of them have faint eyebrows, suggestive that they’re ancestors may actually have had eyes to see with. Struck by his own genius, Thur tests his theory by rigging up a simple device which focuses light on their vestigial sight organ. When Ello dons the device, she marvels at the new sensation.

Doctor Rhoa heads the research laboratory and is convinced of Thur’s animal nature. His daughter, too, deems Thur to be an interesting animal subject because she studies animal behavior… but she gets a little too close to her subject than she was initially allowing herself. She decides to try to keep him “as a pet” but Thur is offended by the nature of the relationship. Though he find Ello is to very lovely and comely—minus the eyes of course—he draws the line at becoming her pet. His two solutions: (1) get a trail and be declared non-animal or (2) return to his ship and marry Ello…

…only animals don’t get trials and Ello won’t leave her father. When he’s finally transferred to an estate which houses only animals, Thur find security more lax and the watch keepers more dull-witted. With his cat-like companion named Cat, Thur makes an escape from the estate and treks across country toward his spacerover. Through the countryside, he sees a maize-analog crop, the Grendans search parties in transparent bubbles, and, in the thick of the forest, a tribe of sighted Grendans. Though gifted with sight, their intelligence is dull—they attack and bind him up for the non-sighted Grendans to find. Lucky for Thur, Ello finds him and Cat. Returning to the complex which first housed him, Ello and Thur are intimately observed by one of the doctors donning the same sight-device. Scandal strikes the laboratory and Ello is put under trial.

Meanwhile, another storm gathers beyond the mountains. The previous storm’s electrical activity knocked out the community’s power generation, during which Thur’s spacerover had the opportunity to broadcast its distress signal, something which had been suppressed ever since his capture. The Grendan’s motivation for his capture was to study the curious Earth subject, but Thur is also observing the Grendans; he sees them prone to simple electrical storms and strangely devoid to heavy metals. Retaining this information for himself, he schemes for his escape from Grendan in order to amend his mistake about testing back on Earth: “My tests on Earth have sent many Terrans into segregation, one man in particular [Talcott], just because they could not test special facilities” (62). As Talcott has so eloquently put it, “[H]ow can your tests get at that intelligence in a man that knows the secrets of a persimmon? You cannot test for that because you do not know the secrets of a persimmon” (59).

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Regardless of whether the book had a successful plot, Paul Corey does bring up two important issues in regards to testing: (1) quantifying assessment in all areas and (2) limits of old intelligence tests. Many professional educators scoff at standardized testing; the importance attached to the results affects the subject material taught in the classroom. Rather than teaching the minds of children, children are being taught in preparation for the test. There’s very little room for authentic assessment, or accomplishments which qualitatively (rather than a standard test’s quantitative measurement) “measures” the engagement of the student and/or the understanding of the function of the task rather than just performing the task itself. Which brings us to IQ… the old standard of quantitative measurement was based on so-called rational thinking and mathematical logic. The newest paradigm is multiple intelligences, which include mathematical intelligence as well as seven others; these intelligences are an intrinsic, qualitative assessment rather than the old-school quantitative measurement.

Corey may have danced around the issue a bit and pressed ahead ad nauseam with the Grendans’ persistence of Thur’s animal state. What smarts most if the painful obviousness of his dilemma: the man who wronged so many on Earth based on his faulty intelligence test is himself given a faulty test to measure his intelligence and, predictably, now sees the error of his ways. If that’s not obvious from the book’s own synopsis or from the first few pages, the reader must be a child, which wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the intended target when considering the “cutesy” language used. I really, really hate cutesy mild oaths like “Hot-buttered moonbeams!” (Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords) and, most notably, “Oh, space!” and “Great galloping galaxies!” (both courtesy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation). Corey has two similar eye-rolling mild oaths: “Mother of the milky way” (47, 82, 135 and 139) and “Great galaxy” (54, 67, 80, 91 and 137).

John Carr read this novel and offered his thoughts: “A man can't have his ex-wife, so he clings to his daughter. He can't have his daughter, so he clings to this blind alien girl who thinks he's a great kisser.” Well said, John. This affection for Ello also extends to Ello’s father, Docotr Rhoa: “He just doesn’t want to give up his daughter, a perfect secretary, a devoted child, a quasi-substitute for his unfaithful wife” (137). Thur’s attachment to reconciling with his daughter and eloping with his crush gets repetitive: “The idea of marrying Ello and escaping to Earth, fixed my thoughts on Earth. I got to worrying about Karen—about Karen and Talcott Jones” (130). This stinks of nostalgic science fiction pulp from a bygone era where the conclusion always ends with the protagonist marrying the vixen. Considering this novel was written in 1968—during a revolution of the SF genre, no less—the writing style feels 30-40 years out of date.

The first-person perspective of the novel simply doesn’t work because the protagonist isn’t interesting; he’s maniacal about every women in his life, backpedals on his professional standards, and superficial about his idea of beauty (he actually paints eyes onto Ello’s ocular skin). Considering himself intellectual, his insights aren’t exactly as penetrating as his vision among the blind. Even among the first few pages, the perspective is similar to Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet (1963)… minus the frame story of finding the manusxcript in a bottle.

Both Corey and Boulle—or the translator of Boulle’s novel—injected some rather proper-sounding English into the prose. I quote myself from my review of Monkey Planet to pertain to The Planet of the Blind: “The wording is often as formulaic … which leads to passages that feel dryly scientific or lacking any sort of reflective emotion.” Where Monkey Planet’s protagonist was a journalist Ulysse Mérou, Paul Corey actually was a journalist. Perhaps Ulysse Mérou was corey’s inspiration to pen his own novel about a planet almost similar to Earth, strike one dramatic flaw. John Clute says Corey’s novel is “a variation on the theme of the one-eyed man in the country of the blind (for sf) by H G Wells in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (1904)”. Blindness may be a similarity between the two stories, but the most pertinent similarity (borrowed or ripped off?) is the blind population’s insistence the those with vision are inferior; in Corey’s novel, the sighted are considered animals while in Wells’ story, the sighted are considered insane. So… combine an aspect from Boulle and another from Wells and presto!—a rather unoriginal novel.

Lastly, when an author refers to real world facts in their novel, the facts must be accurate. As a journalist, Paul Corey should know this! One mistake is easy to glance over if it weren’t on the first page. Corey writes, “Several centuries ago a Dr. David Wechler defined intelligence as a person’s ability ‘to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with his environment’” (7). In fact, the quote is by Dr. David Weschler (with an “s”). Lastly, Thuro undergoes a sound test, “When the sounds came, I guessed: 10,000 decibels, 13,000, 15,000, 17,000. I couldn’t even hear the last one” (55). I think 17,000 decibels would rip the Earth apart because it’d be so incredibly loud (louder than the Saturn V rocket at 220 decibels). Here, Corey means “hertz” rather than “decibels”. Silly journalist.

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Paul Corey once said, “I would like to be remembered for my fiction which I feel has been a credit to me.” I’m sure he meant that he wanted to be remembered in a positive light for his Mantz trilogy rather than in a negative light for his rather lame novel The Planet of the Blind. As much as Corey included nearly every known idiom for sight and vision, I, too, must include my own sight idiom for my recommendation: cast an eye on the beautiful cover… but turn a blind eye toward its content.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

1978: The Stand (King, Stephen)

Character-fueled descent into 1980's post-apocalyptic America (4/5)

This is only the third King novel I’ve read aside from his collections in Skeleton Crew (1985) and Night Shift (1978). The two novels—The Shining (1977) and The Running Man (1982)—haven’t exactly been beacons of terror excellence. Perhaps this is due to King’s prose or subject matter, but the popularity of his writing has yet to make itself obvious to me. For enlightenment, I finally picked up King’s most popular novel, The Stand. Everyone I’ve spoken with says that this novel, above all his others, stands out as his best and I quote two friends when they call it a “a good read” and “his best book”.

Rear cover synopsis:
“June 16, 1985. That is when the horror began—the evil that started in a laboratory and took over America.

Those who died quickly were the luck y ones. For the scattered survivors, wandering through the country turned into a gigantic graveyard, life has become a nightmare struggle. They escaped death, but now something even more terrifying is waiting to claim them—the most fiendish force ever to see all humanity as slaves and victims. A strange, faceless, clairvoyant figure that is reaching for their very souls…”

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At a government facility hidden in the desert, the green numbers on the wall suddenly turn red. A sentry posted outside the facility sees this ominous sign and, due to the failure of a small electronic part is the signaling system, the sentry is able to flee the base with seconds to spare. Within the underground base, men can be found dead where they had stood or even where they had sat eating soup—the sentry, Charles D. Campion, has unwittingly contracted the virus which had killed the base crew and fled into the desert. Later, when he crashes into a gas station island of pumps, his family is found dead and bloated with gangrene and Charles himself is oozing with phlegm, on the cusp of an agonizing death. He is Patient Zero… but the world would never know as the world is about the die.

The open, freely flowing highway and interstate system of American roads were once the arteries of holiday revelers, families of four, traveling salesmen and transient workers; rather than flowing with destinations in mind, the unfortunate individuals in the same system begin to transport the superflu away from the small desert town and into the metropolises of America. As regional and national pathologists study the virus, Atlanta’s CDC takes control of its study and the government initiates protocols to dampen the seriousness of the superflu in the eyes of the public. People begin to die; families begin to suffer and expire together; entire towns and cities begin to be littered with corpses and festering corruption.

Though the superflu—or “Captain Trips” as many people call it—acts a catalyst to worldwide pandemic, its presence soon fades to the background to those who survive. The lucky 99.4% of the population—if “lucky’ is the right word—must face an America without government, daily lives without rule or law, an existence without the modern conveniences of electricity and running water: “with civilization gone, all the chrome and geegaws had been stripped from the engine of human society” (348)… then there are the rotting corpses one must consider. The “constantly shifting A-Prime flu” weaponized by the American military is resistant to vaccine as “every time the body did produce the right antibody, the virus simply shifted” (30). But humans aren’t the only victims: humankind’s companions of dogs and horses die en masse while the innocent deer, cows, and rabbits thrive amid the stalking remnants of the blossoming feral cat population. The randomness of death is a vague mystery to the survivors, but one thing begins to penetrate their collective psyche: “God gives life and He takes it away when He wants” (324).

The sinking belief in a greater God isn’t the only common experience among the human survivors; most have also shared dreams of the saintly yet elderly Mother Abigail in Nebraska and have also shared nightmares of the darkly man in the west, who some know as Randall Flagg. After the Fourth of July weekend, bodies had amassed around the country—and probably around the world—so, the survivors followed their dreams to Nebraska to seek guidance under the woman whose mind is seemingly in contact with God. Skeptical yet desperate, lonely individuals form strengthened groups which form migrating tribes, all of which seek Nebraska and, later, Boulder, Colorado where sanity and civilization lay waiting. Yet, beyond the Rockies, another collection of humanity begins to amass without need for either sanity or civilization; Randall Flagg attracts the miscreants, the morally decayed, the dregs of human society. Rather than being touched by God like Mother Abigail, Flagg embodies evil incarnate. Between Good and Evil, the survivors “are all part of a chess game between God and Satan” (449).

Stuart is practically the first survivor of the superflu. The CDC take him to Atlanta to study his immunity and, when the facility fails, then to rural new Hampshire where eventually that facility fails, too. On his own, Stuart leaves the security of the underground facility when he meets Harold and Frannie. Frannie, pregnant from before the virus’s outbreak, tags along with a boy a few years her junior—Harold. Both young, Frannie scoffs at Harold’s awkwardness while he adores the angelic presence of Frannie. When Frannie takes a liking to Stuart, Harold spirals downward in an obsession of hate and vindictiveness. A quiet intellectual, he puts his thoughts to paper, “an outpouring of hate like pus from a skin abscess” (426). Even when the trio settle into Boulder, Harold coddles his hatred and schemes against the very community which has accepted him.

Nick is a deafmute and transient across America. He is brutalized by a band of hooligans in a small town where the sheriff takes him in. As the superflu spreads even to this small town, his attackers imprisoned by the sheriff slowly fall victim to the death by phlegm while the sheriff, too, slowly succumbs its persistence. Writing as his only method of communication, Nick had got along in the small town but leaves when everyone else he finds is dead. The one person he meets, Tom Cullen, is a simple-minded sprat who is illiterate. Regardless of their communication difficulties, Nick and Tom band together in order to find Abigail, who eventually leads them to Boulder where Nick becomes the honorific head of the Committee in its infancy. Tom, though dull-witted, is not without use.

Larry Underwood, high from his recent success as a songwriter and perhaps still drugged to this gills with cocaine, returns to New York with his tail between his legs and he realizes that his so-called friends only relished his money rather than his company. In a series of events which causes Larry’s reality to come crashing town, Larry soon realizes that he’s not a nice guy. His mother dies of the superflu and, in a city heaped with corpses, Larry decides to leave with Rita, a much older lady plagued by borderline insanity. When she overdoes on pills, Larry is pushed to the brink of losing all self-respect, but two people save him from the pit of self-despair: Lucy and “Joe”. Lucy is a proud virgin and her boyish companion, whom she calls “Joe”, is a savage who grunts and mimes. Larry is initially skeptical about having the feral boy along with them, but he bows reluctantly to Lucy’s insistence. Shames compels him to hide behind his fame yet he drudges up the silt of his self-esteem in order to become a prime mover in Boulder, Colorado. He’s also aware of the looming threat of Randall Flagg.

The demonic man named Randall Flagg stalks the American wild west, a territory which he has taken for his own. Though his plans are vague, his promises are enticing to the miscreants which litter the American landscape after its megadeath… Lloyd Hendrich is one such criminal who is played by Flagg. Locked in a prison and forgotten about, Lloyd is the only prisoner to survive the superflu but starvation is close on his heels. He has eaten the raw meat of a rat and contemplates eating the leg of a fellow prisoner when Flagg approaches the bars of his cell, offering freedom for the cost of utter loyalty. Another man, a few screws short and everyone knows it, is the Trashcan Man. A pyromaniac  who failed rehabilitation, the Trashcan Man savors the newly found freedom he has to savor the sights of flames anywhere he chooses. His first choice is the oil tanks of Gary, Indiana which he ignites in a massive display of pyrotechnics, destruction and heat. Injured by his own stupidity, he relishes his long-held dream. Flagg senses the man’s obsession, welcoming him into the fold of evil.

In Boulder, Nick and the rest of the good-natured survivors are trying to salvage what’s left of Boulder’s infrastructure to make it a move livable place: resume electrical power, dispose of the bodies in a mass grave, and form a system of government based on American democratic ideals. Just when all things are beginning to improve, Mother Abigail—the backbone of faith for the fledgling community—leaves a note and disappears by herself. This deeply worries the growing community now numbered at seven hundred and growing everyday with groups being welcomed every day. In Las Vegas, Flagg and his deputy Lloyd Hendrich have revitalized the downtown area. While some may be replacing bulbs in streetlights like a common citizen, others are at an air force base arming jets with missiles… and the Trashcan Man is at the center of it all—Flagg has entrusted this psychotic man to comb the desert sniffing out caches of hidden of weapons of war.

On the horizon of both communities—in Boulder and in Las Vegas—war is perched high, a friction of ideals set to clash.

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My 1980 Signet edition has 817 pages, so its size is proportional to my synopsis. As my mini-synopsis outlines, the novel is rich in plot and characterization. For the most part, this is an engrossing read that is easy to lose yourself in. First, the spread of the superflu, by itself, is an absorbing scenario with wide-reaching consequences on civilization, humanity, and on individuals. Then there’s that itchy sense of good vs. evil lurking behind their dreams—Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg—the showdown of which is still hundreds of pages away but the tension always feels fresh, grating. If the schism and frisson between good and evil aren’t enough to placate the reader, at the very least the characters make the book worthwhile; each is a unique person, not only bent by the change in civilization, but internally at war with themselves by a conflict of their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, hope and fear, etc. If you don’t like people, there’s always Kojak, one of the last dog’s on earth, who is a memorable and faithful scrap.

The only major fault in the book lies within two-hundred pages between 400 and 600, roughly. During this period, Boulder is in its early stages of developing its own system of government and having meetings to establish its own foundation. The reader is taken, step by step, through each meeting’s minutes, its parliamentary procedures, suggestions for laws and amendments, etc. Rather than a all-encompassing snapshot of the fledgling community’s attempt to restore order, King’s 200-page spread is more like a boring family photo slideshow.

There another less irksome kink in the novel which annoyed me throughout: King’s inclusion of pop culture songs and other pop culture items from the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s—being born in 1980, actually—I thought this would be an endearing quality, yet the books feels terribly dated because of the pop culture references. I mean, on the first page alone the reader is given three snippets of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult and Bob Dylan… followed later by The Sylvers (1), Paul Simon, Chuck Berry (261), America, and The Drifters (621). The music isn’t even particularly good. I’ve read online that King updated the novel in 1990 and included, dear me, an additional 400 pages of material. Pass.

As far as terror and horror are concerned, King pens a good story along these lines. Though people drop like flies by the million, most of the characters who survive seem immune to the horror just as they are immune to the superflu. I, for one, wouldn’t be sticking around all those coughing bodies and decaying corpses; I’d be one to get the hell out of Dodge, and quick. Rather than being affected by the decay of the body, the characters are most perturbed by the decay of society and the “American way of life”, almost like a loss of entitlement to their pursuit of happiness. And they act quite logically, which is the opposite of horror. If they were truly horrified by their predicament, they all would of starved to death or killed themselves (which would have resulted in a much shorter novel, surely); rather, they both mentally and collectively organize themselves to push to toward Nebraska and Colorado. There’s a tinge of terror of what always awaits them, but horror… not so much.

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While this is my favorite of King’s work thus far, it’s not a masterpiece of fiction, terror or horror. It is, however, a compelling read into characterization and a tantalizing piece of post-apocalyptic fiction akin to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). In my shelves, there only remains one last King novel: The Tommyknockers (1987). I’m tempted to buy Thinner (1984) and Under the Dome (2009), but there isn’t much else in King’s bibliography which really draws me.

Friday, August 8, 2014

1962: Next Stop the Stars (Silverberg, Robert)

Hasty pulp without inspiration or skill (1/5)

Dear God. That cover!
My exposure to Robert Silverberg’s work hasn’t been limited, but it has been hugely underwhelming. I’ve read four of his novels—the best of which was Hawksbill Station (3/5)—and four pieces of his short fiction—the best being “Flies” (5/5) from Dangerous Visions.

Joachim has mentioned to me that Silverberg’s pulp “is rather bad”. But desperate to be exposed to something great by Silverberg, I keep dabbling in his work. It’s unfortunate that I found Next Stop the Stars and The Seed of Earth (1962) for cheap, cheap at a library book sale—both early pulp. His recent work doesn’t satisfy anything in me (namely the novel The Alien Years [1998]), his middle-years don’t interest me (like The World Inside [1971], for example) and now I know that his earliest stuff is even worse.

All—count them, all five—have a fault which makes the story eye-rolling, tiresome or banal.

Hasty: With the exception of “Warm Man”, the other four stories feel hastily slapped together, like the scattered pieces of a number of jigsaw puzzles glued together. There isn’t any coherence.

Random Incidents: With the exception of “Blaze of Glory”, the other stories start or feature an unexplained phenomenon. In “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “The Songs of Summer”, each protagonist drops from the ether into mysterious circumstances. “Hopper” and “Warm Man” offer no catalyst for the source of tension: respectively, the out-of-the-blue invention of the time machine and the man’s calming powers (the conclusion and its revelation are unsatisfying).

Testosterone: “Slaves of the Star Giants” oozes testosterone from the numerous fight scenes, the man’s eagerness for war, and him thirst for power. “The Songs of Summer” is similar, where the Chester Dugan wants to rule the people, the women, and the entire world. “Blaze of Glory” features of unreasonable man who uses his bitter words and/or fists before using his brain.

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Slaves of the Star Giants (1957, novella) – 2/5 – Lloyd Harkins is mysteriously transported from his earthly engineering job to a familiar forested landscape populated by 50-foot alien giants and 15-foot robots. One giant picks him up and places him in a human community who speak English 2,000 years in Earth’s future after a devastating war. The tribal headsman outcasts him, then Lloyd meets a mutant named the Watcher. Soon, he realizes that he may be a pawn in a greater game. 56 pages

The Songs of Summer (1956, shortstory) – 2/5 – Walking in the summer Singing event, which brings together isolated families from around the area, Kennon entertains thoughts of a young girl’s promise… when he happens upon a man from 1956. Taken to the Singing event, Chester Dugan upsets the bucolic scene with his “civility”. Soon, his civilized ideas are being reluctantly accomplished and he fancies himself future emperor of the 35th century, unless resistance surfaces. 28 pages

Hopper (1956, novelette) – 2/5 – Joseph Quellen is the CrimeSec of the Appalachia, a future east coast expansion of New York with a population of 200 million. His position allows him to have a private room but even this privacy isn’t enough, so he takes an instant “stat” to his secret home in tropical Africa. Meanwhile at work, a case arises: a fellow named Lanoy has invented a time machine and has been sending the unemployed forever back in time for work. 27 pages

Blaze of Glory (1957, shortstory) – 2/5 – History sees Murchison as a brave, self-sacrificing man, but the crew of the transport ship Felicific know better. He had a reputation of being aggressive, stubborn and solitary, yet his technical knowledge was unparalleled. When the eight-man land of Shaula II, Murchison finds himself agitated by one of the meek aliens in his cabin, who he pummels. Returning to Earth, the ship experience a problem—a perfect time to test his resolve. 18 pages

Warm Man (1957, shortstory) – 2/5 – Davis Hallinan arrived unexpectedly and unannounced, according to the tight-knit community of New Brewster. The cordial Mrs. Moncrieff invites him to a social event where he makes the rounds speaking to everyone. Though Davis says nothing about himself, everyone feels completely at ease when talking with him; secret emotions and pent up unease all drift away. The next few days sees Davis pale and weak, as if his body had been poisoned. 15 pages


Monday, July 21, 2014

1992: Alien 3 (Foster, Alan Dean)

Repetitive themes bolstered by plot pace (4/5)

The Alien trilogy—by the end of 1993—ends with the appropriate but rather generically titled Alien 3. Though now technically a quadrilogy with Alien: Resurrection, I've always viewed the fourth installment as an afterthought, sort of a cheap addition to otherwise semi-tidy trilogy. (Side note: the novelization of Alien: Resurrection was written by a different writer—the late A.C. Crispin.) It was also subject to much interference even after the final shot was taken. Foster himself wouldn’t even touch the novelization because of the amount of flak he caught from trying to pen the proper version of Alien 3.

So, casting off Alien: Resurrection and returning to the main trilogy, I have the same one-of-these-is-not-like-the-others feeling: Alien 3 feels forced, like the screenwriters had an idea off the shelf and they had to sledgehammer the duology into fitting the mold of their idea. What could be such a fantastic idea: aliens run amok in an abandoned refinery where prisoners reside (yea, yea, Ripley will fit in there somehow). Now, while the idea is half-assed and the movie is a half-hearted attempt, the actual production of the novel came off alright... just alright. Foster has said that his hand was forced in its production so that it comes out just as the movie did, without any dramatic changes (not exactly true).

I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).

Movie tagline:
“This time it's hiding in the most terrifying place of all.”

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Hicks, Ripley and Newt, secure in their sleep pods, fling through space after meeting untold horrors on Achernon; Bishop sits idle, deactivated, having been torn to pieces by the alien queen who stowed away to reach the Sulaco. But not all is silent aboard the Sulaco: At least two facehuggers creep in its systems, one a curious predator intent on attacking Newt in her sleep pod. With its immense strength, it tries to pry open the glass-topped pod, only to shatter its rim and impale itself, thus causing it to spray acid blood. The acid immediately eats through the room’s floor while building up a lethal amounts of explosive gas and electrical fires. The Sulaco realizes the emergency and evacuates the four sleep pods from the ship, which explodes soon after the four pods are well away.

On the harsh but survivable surface of the planet Fury 361 (or Fury 161 in the film and in the novelization’s dialogue), a once functional refinery cum prison is home to “two jailers, twenty-five prisoners” (484). The company has sent the worst of the worst of their prisoners to this backwater planet so that they can maintain the refinery equipment. For their simple work, the Company sends them token supply runs for want of one day opening the refinery for full production in case the planets metals can once again be exploited. Meanwhile, one of the prisoners—Clemens—, yet also its head medic (once being a doctor but his crimes had had him demoted), is out on a coastal stroll when a meteoric event catches his attention. The descending trail of fire plunges into the sea near him, where he sees the ejected sleep pods of four individuals; alone on the beach, he saves Ripley first.

The twenty-five prisoners are all “double Y chromos—former career criminals, thieves, rapists, murders, arsonists … scum” (503). The all-male population of the prison is intrinsically controlled by their self-formed religion, “some sort of millenarian apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist brew” (521) which helps them maintain discipline amid their isolation. Dillon is the authority figure among the prisoners and also acts as the chaplain of their religion, in which he leads prayer that relates to the coming of times and the escape from worldly drudgery. Though they are complacent and conforming to their humble, planet-bound existence at the refinery, theirs is a fragile environment in which even a single female presence can shake their faith, upsetting the equilibrium of placidness and angst. Welcome to Hell, Ripley.

Expectedly, her presence is unwelcome. She bonds with the medic named Clemens who urges her to remain in the infirmary, away from the prison population. Andrews, the jailer supervisor, is adamant about the separation of sex, but Ripley’s stubbornness proves inimical to his direction as she mingles with the edgy prisoners. Her title of lieutenant instills the men with a smidgen of respect and fear, but soon their hormones gain the upper hand when they try to take advantage of her solitary visit to the refinery’s dump in order to retrieve the discombobulated remains of Bishop. Dillon, the authoritative yet straight-laced leader of the prisoners, saves her from a more disrespectable fate among the attempted rapists.

Ripley’s trip to the trash heap was impelled by Clemens’ description of her arrival and the deaths of both Hicks and Newt. Her curiosity is piqued by two threads of her situation: (1) First, as Ripley connects Bishop to the escape pods flight recorder, she learns of the fate of the Sulaco and the Company’s constant awareness of all events which took place on the ship; (2) Lastly, the Company’s non-committal behavior toward the prison’s communication with them—“message received” (479 and 605)—and their oddly dissociative message “PERMISSION DENIED TO TERMINATE XENOMORPH. AVOID CONTACT UNTIL RESCUE TEAM ARRIVES” (606).

The presence of the xenomorph at the prison/refinery comes as little surprise to Ripley. A series of unfortunate deaths in the prison/refinery led up to her surmising that an alien is alive in the vents, that its stalking them, that it wants only two things: their deaths and its survival; after all, “that’s what it’s designed to do: kill and multiply” (620). Having experienced the horror of battling the aliens twice before, Ripley has almost become immune to fright; rather, she is tormented by “her inability to forget” (568).

With the assistance of the prisoners, Ripley is able to plan a chase and bait scenario where they capture and isolate the alien. While it may safely remain behind nearly impenetrable doors, the mind of man is an untethered ball of whim, especially for those with minds struck with horror, such as Golic, who becomes obsessed with the vision of the Beast and seeks spiritual communication with its apocalyptic aura. Though he had always been considered the most peculiar among the atypical prisons, his presence had always been tolerated at best; now, with delusion visions of the apocalypse, his innocent whims of spirit endanger everyone. He sees himself as immune to the Beast’s rage, much like Ripley soon sees herself as privileged in commune with the alien, but for a very different reason; she scans herself in the autodoc and discovers a long-term affliction which has only began to display its twin symptoms of internal pain and external invulnerability.

As they fight the alien and flee from its stealth attacks, the prisoners’ hope rests on the arrival of the Company, only hours away.

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There are four common threads which tie the trilogy together, three threads of which are forgone expectations: (1) Ripley, (2) the xenomorphs, (3) terror, and (4) grungy locations. I understand that isolated and grubby locations heighten the sense of unease, but it does become a tad repetitive: dingy space tug from Alien and an unkempt space colony from Aliens. The third part of the trilogy offers a twofer: neglected prison/refinery. At this point in the Alien series, one begins to wonder if the screenwriters have any imagination left, if anyone cares to break the mold, if anyone has any vision for the series. The movie Alien 3 earns a paltry 3/5 in my book for this lack of imagination and drudgery.

While the plot of this sequel, and its accompanying novelization, feel forced in contrast to Alien and Aliens, Foster overcomes this slipshod story with gusto for plot pacing. The atmosphere is always tense, be it when a prisoner is decapitated or when Ripley queries Clemens about her arrival. There’s an electric sense of foreboding, an eerie static which permeates the novelization—something more than the movie did. Foster has some obvious skill in this regard, to somehow make a novelization more tense than the movie. This, in turn, results in a more impressive 4/5.

One tactic Foster utilizes is the use of investigation by the characters; they know something isn’t right in their banal prison/refinery, but after Ripley shows up, things become a bit peculiar: a large insectoid is discovered (an unusually large facehugger), a slimy cowl is discarded in an air duct (from the queen’s molting?), and a hollow, oblong black skull is found (again, from molting?). Much like in Aliens, the plot takes the reader through the species building of the xenomorphs—quite similar to character building.

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Thankfully, this is a trilogy. At this point, the rehash of Ripley, xenomorphs, terror and grimy locations has reached the end of its steam. Alien: Resurrection is a movie time has forgotten (except for that exceptionally creepy alien/human hybrid). There have been many other novels published in the same Alien Universe, most recently is the Out of the Shadows series by Tim Lebbon, which somehow—in a curious why-was-this-needed way—fills a gap between Alien and Aliens. If Alien 3 is considered cursory to the series, Out of the Shadows (2014) can be considered extraneous, superfluous, unwanted and unneeded.


My thoughts on Prometheus (2012)? S-w-e-e-t.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

1986: Aliens (Foster, Alan Dean)

Aliens run amok, terror reigns the weak (4/5)

The Alien series blends science fiction wonder with the terror of being stalked—lions, tigers and bears are for children. The xenomorph in the series epitomizes our most basic fears: it’s dark, unctuous, and scaly. On top of this, the xenomorph can’t be reasoned with, can’t be stared in the eye, and can’t be intimidated.

The movie’ sequel—Aliens—,and its novelization, develop the xenomorph a lot more… thereby making it even scarier: how it breeds, where it prefers to nest, how the hive is structured… all but the purpose of the xenomorph. If you thought the unknown was terrible… think again.

I read the Omnibus edition (Warner, 1993), so the page numbers may differ from the cover featured (Titan Books, 2014).
 
Movie tagline:
This time it's war.”

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Ripley and Jones drift blindly while in cryo-sleep. After fifty-seven years away from the horror of the Nostromos, her sleeping figure is still haunted by the loss of her crewmates and the impossible terror which stalked them. She’s rescued by a passing ship and taken back to Earth orbit—Gateway Station—where she meets Carter Burke, a representative of the Corporation. Predictably, he’s most concerned about the loss of the Nostromos and its cargo, something which Ripley has an understandably difficult time accepting. After a short convalescence, she appears at an inquest where she tells her story, of which they are very skeptical of. Ripley, of course, becomes emotional and curses their intention. In the end, they simply revoke her pilot license due to mental instability.

Meanwhile, on Achernon, a colonists is dispatched by the Company is investigate a previously “unexplored” region on the planet. There, the family discovers a giant alien ship. While mom and dad are out scavenging the relic, Newt and her brother make due in the transport… until her mom bursts through the door and her father slung to the floor with an abomination latched on to his face.

Ripley continues to live her life with the knowledge that her only daughter had died some years ago at an advanced age. She is working as a dock operator and maintaining a quiet life at home with her cat Jones, when an unwelcome visitor comes to her door with an even more unwelcome offer: join a platoon of space marines for a search and rescue mission on the godforsaken, bootstrap colony of Achernon, on the same dustball she and her tug found the alien. She would act as a consultant because of her knowledge of the aliens, but the Company is straightforward about their task: investigate the colonists and go in shooting if any aliens are found. Very reluctantly, with the promise of receiving her pilot’s license back, she leave her cat with the troop aboard the Sulaco.

Along with the twelve marines, Bishop is a “synthetic” whose primary role on the mission is the executive officer. Because he’s an android, Ripley is initially defensive because of her experience with Ash on the Nostromos, whose actions killed the entire crew save herself. The commanding officer, Gorman, seems to be an unskilled lackey who somehow became in control of this dangerous yet important mission. Hicks is one of the other marines whose calm demeanor and general niceness endears him to Ripley. Though she may be unknowingly walking into a hive full of aliens, at least she has someone to watch her back… one with a pulse rifle and a shotgun (the best kind of friend!).

With the marines on the ground and in the colony, two things quickly become apparent: (1) no one is left alive and (2) there was a major holdout and battle around the infirmary. The mayhem of the colony offers a surprise of one survivor, a solitary girl who had been living in the air ducts, of which she knows so well. Ripley treats her like a long-departed child of her own while the marines search for the colonists, who seem to be amassed to the atmosphere exchange tower where the fusion reactor continually cleans the atmosphere for terraforming.

When a small exploratory unit descend to Level-C of the tower, they encounter bizarre organic additions to the facility. They are perplexed how or why the colonists would construct such additions, until they realize that the colonists probably aren’t responsible—they see gutted remains and bodies pinned to the walls, where one utters, “Please—kill me” (333). Behind them, a alien stirs. The marines torch the pained bodies and engage the aliens. Being so close to the reactor, they are commanded to resort to flamethrowers, but the knavish smartgun operators clip in and spray the level with gunfire, resulting in the death of a few aliens and piercing some vital systems.

Ripley demands their retreat, but the inexperienced and reticent commander Gorman refuses, to which Ripley asserts her strong character and leads the retreat for the marines. While racing from the scene, aliens attack the armored transport, tearing off alloyed reinforcement like stickers from a child’s coloring book. Gorman is incapacitated by the tail-sting of an alien while Ripley makes showy exit by running over an alien, its acidic blood splattering the pavement and pocking the wheels.

Back in the main complex, Bishop studies the dead facehuggers while two of the monstrosities remain in stasis in the infirmary. As Ripley and marines retreat to the main colony, they begin to evacuate the compound but the atmospheric craft is attacked and destroyed by an alien, making them withdraw into the complex again in order to mount defenses in expectation of an alien offense. They establish autoguns at the main subterranean thoroughfare, a blockade which kills hoards of the marauding ebon hunters.

After a particularly selfish and cowardly act by the now revived Gorman, Bishop and Ripley conceive of a plan for their rescue: for Bishop to guide the last atmospheric craft from the Sulaco down to the surface, where it can pick them up and take them to the safety of orbit. There only remain two limits: (1) Ripley must rescue Newt from the aliens’ nest and (2) the reactor is about to go critical. Choice: slow death by playing host to an alien chestbuster OR quick death by nuclear meltdown?

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Even before I begin my watered-down synopsis, I digress: terror or horror? The word “terror” is derived from a Latin word which means “to frighten”; the word “horror” is also derived from a Latin word, but its meaning is “to tremble”.

Some common words used in association with definitions of “terror” include intense fear, panic, and dread. Common associations with “horror”, rather, include abhorrence, shocking, and fearful. So, to revert to an SAT tactic:

If terror is to fear; then horror is to shock.
If fear is to reaction; then shock is to inaction.
If reaction is to survival; then inaction is to death.

From this diminished separation of the two words—terror and horror—we can analyze the actions, reactions, and emotions of the characters in a story to see if (a) they are simply scared and plan action against its source or (b) they witness grotesque abominations resulting in non-logical action toward its source. Do the characters in Alien and Aliens react logically or illogically? Do Alien and Aliens induce terror or horror? Is the series a work of terror or a work of horror?

Considering the protagonist Ripley and her persistent rate of survival through the series, she seems to act logically while being able to coordinate both offensive and defensive tactics and she’s able to analyze her enemy. Thus, Ripley fights terror through the series; she stalks, attacks, retreats, recuperates, attacks again, and escapes. These are not symptoms of shock, so it is not a work of horror (the same cannot be said for parts of Alien 3, however).

You can only blame Ripley for putting herself into the terror she experiences yet controls. While circumstances in Alien may have been beyond her initial control (what with the hidden agenda of the Company and Ash’s tampering), but Ripley was either desperate, naïve or depressed for her to accept a mission to the same planet where the crew of Nostromo first found the facehuggers.

What did she honestly expect from the stingy, conniving Company?
(A) trophy for her consultation
(B) reassuring words for her good attitude
(C) generous bonus for her assistance
(D) free Jam of the Month membership
(E) knife in the back

Both the Company (care of Burke) and the Space Marines (care of Gorman) are unable to assess the danger they are in and are unable to assess the inhuman enemy; only Ripley has a basic understanding of the aliens’ motivations, methods of attack, and tenaciousness. When the Marines get destroyed and demoralized, Ripley takes charge; when the Company is overwhelmed and dumbfounded, Ripley leads the way. Amid the carnage, the now daughter-less Ripley seeks emotional shelter in the form of Newt, the motherless orphan. She has more forms of hope than either the synthetic yet trustworthy Bishop or the gallant yet wounded Hicks.

The one aspect of Aliens which is most appreciated—by me and others, I presume—is the development of the alien as a species rather than just a solitary killing machine. The reader begins to understand its lifecycle, basic social structure, limits, strengths, weaknesses, and even composition.

This is a novelization, so comparisons must be drawn between the book and the movie. Perhaps it’s my faulty memory, but I don’t remember the movie having such a large portion given to Ripley’s deep-space retrieval, recuperation, judgment, and life back on Earth. The novelization dedicates three chapters—or forty-five pages—to this. It’s a nice change and a nice, gradual complacency before the reign of terror begins.

There was only one scene in the novelization which ruffled my figurative feathers. One of the most iconic scenes from the movie was Ripley’s heroic donning of the Caterpillar P-5000 Powered Work Loader and shouting at the queen alien, “Get away from her, you bitch!” Thus ensues a pretty cool fight scene. However, in the novelization, Foster has decided to write a mickey mouse version of the classic one-liner: “Get away from her, you!” (457). This is strange because Valquez drops the F-bomb once and “damn” is used three times. Why the deletion of “bitch”?

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Now two-thirds the way through the Alien trilogy, I can see a pattern emerge: (1) if the book's scene match my memory of the same scenes, then I'm a satisfied reader; if there's something extra, it's of minor interest, (3) if something like a memorable quote is changed, I protest. BUT, that's expected of novelizations. Aside from the Alien trilogy, I have only ever read the Back to the Future (1985) by George Gipe. While the movie was excellent, the novelization was quite forgettable... not the same with the Alien trilogy. Full steam ahead!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

1985: Whispers V (Schiff, Stuart David)


Personal histories pulse with creeping inertia (4/5)

The Whispers anthology series was recommended to me some time back as being one of the best horror anthologies. I had known that some of the horror in Whispers V was infused with fantasy, but my fingers were cross that the horror would outshine any bit errant fantasy (because, as you know, I have a low toleration for fantasy).

Psychological and body horror impress me much more than supernatural, demonic haunting horror. Save for one or two stories, none of them reek of the stereotypical horror that keeps me from reading some of the “favorite” books in the genre. So, my hats goes off to the editor, Stuart David Schiff, for providing what he calls in his preface as “something a little bit different”—the “out-of-common story, the beyond-the pale work, the unusual twist”. Indeed, Mr. Schiff; good show!

The star in this anthology is easy to pick out. My favorite story is also the shortest: Wade Kenny’s 3-page shortstory “A Country Home” (1985). It’s brevity is key to its punch and, boy, what a punch! My jaw slackened and I whispered a few expletives… it was that good. I had never heard of Wade Kenny before, which is no surprise because I only know three of the authors: Connie Willis, F. Paul Wilson, and Jerry Sohl. Sadly, Wade Kenny only wrote one additional short story, “A Telephone Booth” (1982), for another one of Schiff’s anthologies: Death (1982). That’s going on my to-buy list!

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Willis, Connie: Substitution Trick (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Houdini had mystified and fooled many with his attempts at escapism, but his wizened mind grew skeptical because of his entertaining deceit. Prior to his mother’s death, they shared moments unknowable to others; these memories Houdini has been unable to experience through mediums—thus his calling them fakes. After Houdini’s own death, he meets his mother who comforts him in the seasickness of the afterlife and helps him to contact his wife Bess through a medium. 9 pages

Drake, David: Dreams in Amber (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
A bead of amber drapes the neck of Saturnus, sending mental images and thoughts to the man so that he can fulfill a task for its occupant. Saturnus finds the Respectable Allectus, Chief of Imperial Accounts, for the mission of infiltrating the castle, gain entry to the strongroom, and confront the force there and its implications for not only the Roman Empire, but also the world. 13 pages

Cave, Hugh H.: Footprints in Perdu (1985, shortstory) – 5/5
An American nurse and doctor couple in Haiti catch wind of a girl in the hills who’s ostracized by the village for being a werewolf. The local lore makes no impression on them, so they continue to the squalid village of Perdu. Meat, and food in general, is difficult to come by so the locals smoke a weed that suppresses their appetite. The couple meet an influential man who is gracious enough to feed them meat and give directions to find the baby-eating werewolf. 11 pages

Wilson, Paul F.: The Last “One Mo’ Once Golden Oldies Revival” (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Philip Goodloe has kicked the bucket. He used to rock, used to produce hit after hit, used to collaborate with Lenny Winter for his fame and fortune. Philip, birth name of Flip, can only blame himself for his downfall: young women and smack. When Lenny hears of Flip’s death, the radio begins to play a string of hits which he had helped support when he was an opportunistic DJ. Soon, the coincidences are too much. 14 pages

Kenny, Wade: A Country Home (1985, shortstory) – 5/5
With bucolic bliss comes responsibility; the toil of continual daily chores and the need to do one’s own dirty, yet necessary, work. The Casselman family—a husband and wife with their baby daughter Katie—live in such simplicity. Doug’s duty was to drown the kittens while his wife was out. He dug the hole, retrieved the sack his wife had seemingly filled, then drowned and buried its contents. His wife returns, looking for Katie. 3 pages

Nolan, William F.: Of Time and Kathy Benedict (1984, novelette) – 3/5
For the 80th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, research specialist Kathy has the assignment of researching automobiles from 1902, specifically the “999” racing machine of lore. Relaxing out in a lake alone, a freak storm and wave capsize her boat. When she awakens, she realizes that it’s the year 1902 and the her hero is one of the men responsible for the famous “999”. Love blossoms, the car races, and a lake date looms. 22 pages

Etchison, Dennis: Deadspace (1985, novelette) – 3/5
The Holmly Hotel is Beverly Hills is like a closed universe where the same people perform the same actions, only Wintner is a stalker among the sheep. Wintner, a producer, aims to meet an actor named Joe Gillis so that he can cast him in a lead role, but Gillis never picks up the phone. As a hidden pool, Wintner has passing conversations with a sunbathing beauty and the hulking figure of a woman in a tent. News breaks his reverie; his universe shrinks. 22 pages

Sohl, Jerry: Cabin Number Six (1985, shortstory) – 2/5
A clairvoyant elderly lady and her son Henry own a rundown motel just off the new interstate. As she predicts, a couple arrive at the motel with a booking from Dr. Woodford, a marriage counselor. The exuberant rate of $50 for the room and $5 for ice makes George, the husband, sour with frustration while his troubled wife Joan antagonizes his foul mood. From outside, a sinister duo peer through the window; from within, the demons attack and claw the couple. 12 pages

Tem, Steve Rasnic: Father’s Day (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
Will didn’t have the most ideal childhood. His father was—still is—an alcoholic and starved Will of affection while his mother stood by her man. How with his own son, Will hasn’t visited his parents for seven years and his own wife insists they visit the lonely couple. Will realizes his authoritative relationship with his son is too tense, but the victimized child in himself is also the vindictive predator. 10 pages

Ryan, Alan: The East Beaverton Monster (1985, shortstory) – 4/5
The quiet town of East Beaverton is a sleepy town where the men work 9 to 5 in the city and where the housewives are bored alone at home… unless the exotic telephone repairman visits. When Dr. Lavalette opens a new women’s weight clinic in town, Beatrice and Candace are ager to shift their village gossip to the unexpected. They get wondrous results from the weight treatment but ignore the follow-up warning as they continue to watch their weight. 16 pages

Tinker, Libby: The Horse (1985, shortstory) – 3/5
Life is breathed into a newborn foal while its mother passes away amid its bloody birth. Struggling to stand on its own four legs, a woman comes to act as a wet nurse to the young colt, offering it sweetened fingers to suck on. Though born fingered and clawed, the woman applies her maternal instinct however, on its fourth day alive, the dreaded dusk approaches. 6 pages

Farber, Sharon N.: Return of the Dust Vampires (1985, shortstory) – 3/5
Dr. Insomnia  treat a B-grade film star of yesteryear—Rich Dutcher. Though he’s not proud of the work he had done, he memories are still alive in the doctor, one of his fans from the “Time Seekers” series. With Rich dying of metastasizing cancer, Dr. Insomnia tries to treat his mind with positive resonance so that he can fight the death with will. As the same time, the doctor, herself, comes down with illness. 12 pages

Morrell, David: For These and All My Sins (1984, shortstory) – 4/5
Driving eastward home through Nebraska, a man becomes stranded outside a small town just off the interstate. There to find a mechanic, he witnesses the grotesque ugliness of all the town’s people. Having to resort to asking for a beer and chips at the town’s only diner, the closed diner’s waitress takes him home, where she feeds him in the dark the best meal of his life. She also tells him of the town’s ugly history and of his ugly meal. 13 pages

Wagner, Karl Edward: Beyond Any Measure (1982, novella) – 3/5
Though much of Lisette’s family’s history is placed in London, she was born in America to her American parents. Now studying art in London, since her arrival, she has been experiencing a recurring dream involving a mirror, an antique watch, and blood. Her roommate suggests Dr. Magners, a fringe-science psychotherapist interested in hypnotizing her for free. After each session, memories of her past life effervesce and her own life is changed in undetectable ways. 45 pages

Friday, July 11, 2014

1970: The Steel Crocodile (Compton, D.G.)



Allegiances of faith, which for the greater good? (4/5)

I was first exposed to D.G. Compton thanks to Joachim’s posts regarding the author’s work, namely Synthajoy (1968). Since I was unable to procure that novel in a timely manner, I managed by first gathering a few novels of which I get first get a taste for his prose. While Farewell Earth’s Bliss (1966) may not be his flagship novel, it was a satisfying introduction to his work and whetted my appetite for more of his work. The next time I ordered second-hand books from online (thank you Powells), I managed to pick up one more Compton novel—the same one featured here.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Bohn, the omnipotent computer whose flashing circuits and messianic pronouncements dictate what tomorrow will—or will not—be.

But Matthew Oliver is flesh and blood and full of questions—not nearly as certain as the machine he’s appointed to serve.

And the right hand of science seldom knows what the left hand is doing…”

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Through the popular yet nebulous underground organization calling itself the Civil Liberties Committee (the CLC), Matthew is hired by his contact, named Gryphon, to penetrate the Colindale Institute where mysterious work is being done on a large computational device; however, Matthew only knows that his social statistics expertise is need, which is an odd requirement for a computing job. When Gryphon is found murdered, Matthew feels compelled to complete his task for the CLC, but his religious wife isn’t as progressive as his professional consciousness.

Soon, through the passive-aggressive director Professor Billon, Matthew learns the truth of the massive complex machine: it dictates mankind’s future. Rather than being godly omniscient, a team of programmers tediously gather all quantitative data in papers—ranging from peer-reviewed submissions to undergraduate work—in order for the great machine to extrapolate qualitative data: “[O]nce you have an associative capability you can use it in non-quantitative fields. Anything may be expressed in terms of anything …. pride, love, hate, work incentives, conscience, aesthetics and so on” (113).

His assistant relates the broad power the machine has over human progress: “Did you know we put the stopper on climate control as too controversial … without the weather, what’d there be left to complain about? Except the Government, of course … Maybe that’s why they left us the weather” (165).


Physically separated from the outside world, the Colindale Institute is an obviously secret affair; more so, even the security arrangement is a secretive detail: phones are tapped, movements are followed, and houses are rigged with microphones. Matthew’s wife, Abigail, is well aware of the security amid their new home as she was the first to personally discover the microphones, so conversations of doubt about the entire project must be dampened for fear of reprisal.

Matthew’s faith toward his sociology field and his job at Colindale take precedence over his sensitivity toward the intelligence of his wife, a firmly resolute Catholic woman. His temper flares at her thoughtless indifference to the unheralded project, but his professional pride convinces himself that what man has created must be right—the facts of life must dictate what life will become. In contrast to her devotion of her faith, she feels that she must disobey her husband—though she’ll continue to feed him after work and make dutiful love with him—she sights her sights on exposing the truth behind the project. She’s able to shake her tail and contact her brother, the black sheep of the family who has enlisted himself in a variety of causes and who has recently asked for a considerable amount of money so that he can go to Africa for yet another cause; he is, however, still in town.

Both Abigail and Matthew are surprised to learn that his predecessor was murdered, the reason of which for his quick employment. Abigail wants him to forego his position but Matthew maintains that everything is fine: his secretary is supportive—though a little too liberal and flirtatious—, his programmer colleague is knowledgeable and capable, and his colleagues are professional and goal-related. One link to his predecessor remains: the missing contents of a secret project between the late professor and the director, Billon. For the sake of both professional and personal curiosity, Matthew confronts the director for an explanation.

While some of his colleagues may be content to perform the secretive task because it’s simply an “intellectual exercise and a harmless way of keeping” the director’s curiosity piqued (175), at the same time some delve deeper into the nature of the machine’s task:

While it might be possible to deduce grass from the needs of a horse, to work the other way is utter nonsense. The ability to deduce a horse from the properties of grass is quite beyond us. (176)

While waiting for the initial results of the run program, Matthew stands at a conflict of consciousness; thought he’s committed to his work, he feels the ultimate goal of the project to be too distant, too far-fetched, too quantitative. While he and a few of his colleagues play poker, he observes:

He enjoyed cards for their own sake: their precise shape and texture, the excitement of each new hand, the skills of dealing and shuffling, he enjoyed it all. So that, within limits, he had objection to losing. (171)

Though he’s a quantitative, number-crunching analyst and fearful of the results of the ultimate project, he still convinces himself of his high-held pride in enjoying a simple game for its simplicity without realizing that every move in poker in a game of statistics—his precise area of expertise. Even the most knowledged of professional can be self-delusional; even the experts gamble with outcome.

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Let me be honest: I hate, hate, hate the book’s own synopsis; it’s exaggerated, errant and misleading. The reader would suspect the book to be about the giant, god-like computer but, then the reader may be disappointed by, the lack of focus on the computer itself. Sure, there are scenes of jargon from the scientists in-the-know, but largely the plot revolves around Matthew and Abigail’s dealing with the truth of the machine; it’s a story of faith, a story of conviction and action on that conviction.

The initial dynamic of the relationship between the married couple of Matthew of Abigail is infusing to the plot; idiosyncratic yet acceptable tensions arise and set the course of Compton’s plot, yet the roles they accept slowly become stereotyped, almost one-dimensional: Matthew the scientists accepts his fate as a scientist while the receptive Abigail accepts her role as the church patron and blind follower. I suppose, one of the premises of the plot is that they are both blind followers of their faith—one of religion and one of science—but the outcome feels too one-dimensional.

Therein lays the fault: the one-dimensional frisson between husband and wife over the singularly controversial topic: the direction of mankind. Abigail’s uneducated role as housewife and uneducated role as conspirator plays tune to the weak, intellectually inferior in much of popular science-fiction literature (granted, not all); the male role as the logical scientist versus the emotional role as the housewife… could it get any more stereotypical?

Coming to the stereotypes of their roles, one particular exchange of theirs which stood out as unreasonable, non-natural…. who speaks like this? Sometimes the dialogue is just too eloquent for its own good: As the unreal Abigail speaks, “Who knows what we mightn’t whisper to each other in our personal post-coital stupor” (131). Really?

Aside from occasional detached robot-like conversations like this, there is a predictable plot thread which I found well conceived yet poorly executed; the entire conspiracy against the machine was predictable from the onset, meaning of course Abigail’s brother didn’t have any intention on going to Africa and of course he was planning to sabotage the project somehow. While the method of sabotage was indeed a mystery to me, the actual execution—with people and devices—was fairly pedestrian.

I can’t figure why it was written in that manner, but it still provided a good tension between the conflicting “what is right” of Matthew and Abigail and what others think—whose sense of “what is right” is justified by a terrorist act?

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An excellent first third was ever-so slightly diminished by a tense yet unreal lackluster third, ending with the tarnished head of poor execution. Thankfully, while the predictability was its only flaw, the result stands on its own—a solid novel with a few flaws, like many other novels. He has proven to be a good writer and I look forward to much of his work which line my shelves: The Silent Multitude (1966), Synthajoy (1968), and Chronocules (1970).