Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2003: Asura Girl (Maijo, Otaro)

Teenage drama morphs into the surreal and the horrific (3/5)

Having read science fiction heavily for seven years and having run the gamut of all the genre has had to offer, I’ve finally decided to concentrate on one particular focus: translated science fiction. This focus has been slowly developing for the last two years while reading Stanislaw Lem, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and some Japanese short fiction. Then, after I read Sakurazaka’s now popular All You Need is Kill (2004), I decided to become proactive in procuring more translated science fiction, specifically Japanese science fiction. Thus, I put the word out and received positive feedback from a couple of publishers: Haikasoru (of the USA) and Kurodahan (of Japan).

Eager to delve into the fiction which has been out of my reach for so long, I opted to start with something modern, something glossy (as glossy as a PDF can be) and new… so new, in fact, that it’s not even available yet (November 18, 2014)—thanks to Haikasoru for providing me with a pre-release of Asura Girl, as translated by Stephen Snyder. Regardless of receiving the book for free, it has been agreed that the review be honest rather than favored by bias.

Asura Girl was originally published in Japan in 2003 under the title Ashura Garu. The author, Otaro Maijo, won the Yukio Mishima award in 2003 for this novel. He has had only one other story translated into English—“Drill Hole in My Brain” (2003)—and this was included in the collection Faust Vol. 1 (2003), which highlights “fiction and manga from the cutting edge of Japanese pop culture”.

Book’s own synopsis:
Seventeen-year-old Aiko lives a life of casual sex and casual violence, though at heart she remains a schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on her old classmate Yoji Kaneko. Life is about to get harder for Aiko, as a recent fling, Sano, has been kidnapped, and the serial killer Guru-Guri Majin (Round-and-Round Devil) has begun slaughtering children. The youth are rioting in the streets, egged on by the underground Internet bulletin board known as Ten-no Koe, the Voice from Heaven. Expecting that Yoji will come and save her from the madness, Aiko posts a demand for her own murder on Ten-no-Koe, but will she be left waiting... or worse?”

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Kendo and tennis may be Aiko’s passions, but her girlish admiration is saved for Yoji; however, Yoji’s attention isn’t paid to her good looks or her cute matching set of bra and panties, a situation which frustrates Aiko’s libidinous attempts. There are been other boys, for sure—including that creep Sano and his attempted facial—but those are merely transient phases while Yoji is the foundation of her being. In the background of her own character lies the idle sub-persona of Kerstein, an invention of her mind—“a Swedish exchange student who has come to American for high school” (16). Kerstein is Aiko’s better half but Aiko sometimes loses herself in the sub-persona’s dreamt-up personal history.

Mildly ashamed of her nocturnal fling with the famous Sano—now infamous to her mind—Aiko arrives at school with a self-defense planned, but she isn’t prepared to be cornered by a group of peers and slapped in the face by Maki. Though Maki may be beautiful and powerful, Aiko springs into violent action and beats the pulp out of the alpha female, shocking the onlookers. After blood has been spilled, only then does Aiko learn of their interrogation of her: Sano has been kidnapped and his little toe sent to this parents’ house. Suddenly, Yoji arrives and takes her away from the scene, so much like the hero she wants him to be… but she also wants him to the same reckless boy she used to know, willing to try anything once and damn the consequences. Sadly, this rebel attitude doesn’t extend to his sex life, much to Aiko’s dismay.

With a distinct online presence yet nebulously existing in her reality, the Voice of Heaven (VoH) is a loose organization of upper teenagers who are bent on catching the infamous killer named the Round-and-Round Devil, whom they believe to be a middle school child. The Devil had kidnapped and mutilated the triplets of a local couple but had never been caught, so with the mindlessly synergetic postings on the VoH’s web board, the mindless teenagers set out to maim, if not kill, all middle-schoolers so as to send a message to the killer: we’re after you.

Aiko entertains her own theories about Sano’s kidnapping—mainly that he has faked his own kidnapping and cut off his own toe for want of the ransom, but VoH or the Devil might also have something to do with it; the realities of his kidnapping at endless. However, Yoji spots a few flaws in her theory and, being the rugged guy he is, sets off to find Sano. At the same time, Aiko’s brother also leaves her at home in order to mount a counter-attack to the brutal tactics of the members of the VoH, leaving Aiko at home alone and worried about her safety as the VoH’s campaign begins to manifest itself in the city: fires burn, children are ran over, blood is spilled, and the din of violence grows closer to her home. Yet, the violence that does meet her at her own doorstep isn’t the violence she was expecting.

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The above four paragraphs only outline the initial 102 pages of the 224 page novel, which isn’t quite a majority of the novel but it is the most linear and relatable… yet also the least inventive and penetrating.
With a copious amount of swearing, sexuality, and minor drama, the book immediately smacks of being geared towards teenagers. I felt out of my reading comfort zone (a broad expanse including literature, sci-fi, the bizarre, and travelogues… but definitely not teenage novels). When the minor drama shifted into the dramatic horror of the city, I began to invest myself more so into the novel.

The novel is divided into three parts: (1) Armageddon, (2) The Gate, and (3) Jump-Start My Heart. The linear yet—at times eye-rolling-ly—dramatic episode of the novel entirely takes place in Part One. This plot involving Aiko and VoH is revived again in Part Three after an extensive interlude in Part Two.

Part Two—entitled The Gate—is more like a passageway or a tunnel which the reader must traverse rather than simply step through, to which there are two equal sections: (1) surrealism in “The Cliff” and (2) horror in “The Forest”.

(1) The surrealism in “The Cliff” is a slippery slope which only becomes steeper and steeper as the reader pushes on; it starts somewhat realistically but soon becomes detached, bizarre, ironic, impossible, and altogether nonsensical. The tentative bridge which links it to Part One is gossamer-thin and relies on Aiko’s unreliable memory about previous incidences. Compound her fractured memory with surrealistic imagery and the result, itself, is fractured and blurred. The 32 pages of detachment have curious veins of either telepathy into Aiko’s dream-state or unconscious inclusion into the lucid circumstances of her escape and rescue.

(2) Another 32-page foray follows the odd, detached surrealism; the scenes of horror have an even more tenuous connection with Armageddon but, if taken by itself, provides an excellent read. Going beyond Aiko’s tenuous grasp of reality and her connections to fragments of her imagination in “The Cliff”, the horror in “The Forest” slides even deeper into her intricately warped mind. Here, Aiko’s alter ego Kerstein is the protagonist. Amputated limbs speed off through the forest towards tree of children’s limbs that stands erect amid the lush vertical growth. Not only is an unnervingly eerie, but it also has symbolism more apparent than “The Cliff” and introduces the book’s third and final part, Jump-Start My Heart.

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There’s no one facet of Asura Girl which would draw the mainstream SF crowd, unless you’re a teenaged reader with a palette for the bizarre. The initial so-called dystopia of the book is mildly drawing, the surrealism of the semi-conscious Aiko is bizarre, the horror of Aiko’s sub-persona is definitely creepy, and the return to normality in the conclusion has cursors of intrigue which point back toward some previous revelations.

Posted simultaneously at SF Potpourri and Tongues of Speculation

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1979: Ambulance Ship (White, James)

Dulled by repetition and all-out revelations (2/5)

I guess “xenological medical science fiction” used to sound pretty enticing. James White is a notable science fiction author exactly for this reason, having penned the Sector General series. In 2008, I read my first Sector General book—Final Diagnosis (1997)—and loved the entertainment of it; however, subsequent forays into Sector General have become repetitive where White rehashes many main points and plots the book like a paint-by-number picture. The three parts of Ambulance Ship epitomize this disease as they all suffer from these same symptoms: rehash and monotony.

Rear cover synopsis:
“There was a lot of talk about the vital importance of his new assignment, but it still seemed like a demotion to Senior Physician Conway. After twelve years of outstanding service—and the most incredible experience imaginable—Conway couldn’t quite appreciate the “honor” of becoming an ambulance attendant at this stage of his life.

True, the insectile empathy, Dr. Prilicla, would be with him—and so would the eminently desirable Nurse Murchison—but it was definitely a comedown for a Senior Physician of his status to be conscripted as part of a first-aid team for disabled spacefarers.

Then the first call came—and Conway faced the problem of treating a spaceship crew’s mysterious ailment… without wiping out every patient and doctor in Sector General!”

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Initially, Conway is miffed at being designated to the newly establish ambulance ship. His superior, Chief Psychologist O’Mara, insists that he is the man for the important job as it’s able to handle environments and medications for a large range of species. Far from being a ambulance of the pettiest manner, the new ship—donned the Rhabwar—has been fitted to handle the most difficult of all emergency cases: to rescue crews of stricken ships. Conveniently, due to come quirk in physics, all intersolar ships—be they human, of known alien origin or unknown alien origin—operate their distress beacons on the same frequency. These frequencies are monitored and, when discovered, Sector General sends out the Rhabwar to investigate the emergency, be it near or far.

The first story (“Contagion”, a novelette, 2/5 by itself) follows Conway, Captain Fletcher and a host of regulars and irregulars who dart off to recover the crew of a human ship that had collided with another derelict of substantial mass. On the way, the Rhabwar intercepts the distress transmission from the Tenelphi and Conway is certain that the speaker is a medic because of his terminology. Going to the scene, they find most the human are incapacitated and, desperate to find conscious survivors, they begin to scan the wreckage of the derelict generation ship. Deep inside the main portion, Conway finds the missing medic while every human back on Rhabwar begins to experience the similar symptoms of headache. If no alien virus can be transmitted to other species of alien, why is it that all the humans are getting sick?

The second story (“Quarantine”, a novella, also 2/5 by itself) sees Conway and Rhabwar’s crew face the debris of an organic ship which had met a curious fate. The unknown species briefly poses a problem of classification and treatment but Conway and his expertise clear the matter up rather abruptly. They take the tiny survivor—perhaps a juvenile, but they’re unsure—back to Sector General while a Contact unit is dispatched to make themselves known to the new species. But while in the surgery ward, the alien awakens and makes most of the Senior Physicians surrounding the being drop unconscious. Conway, however, is one of the unaffected and is in charge of figuring out the source of the distress, which has caused a “Contamination One” warning throughout the entire hospital. Sealed off from the rest of the ship, Conway must understand the problem before he begins to find its solution.

The third and last story (“Recovery”, a novelette, moderately better at 3/5 by itself) contains the mystery of a ship which houses two unrelated alien races. The unusual situation spurs a number of theories, but all theories are useless unless actually applied; while two survivors have been found, physically getting to them proves to be difficult as a bizarre system of defense blocks their way. When accessed and understood, the history of the vastly different small and large race of alien couldn’t be more unusual or sympathetic.

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As mentioned in the introduction, White has the annoying habit of rehashing generalities into each and every story. If you’ve a couple of Sector General stories, you’ve seen everything there is to see regarding the series. White repeats the (1) that no alien virus can cross species; (2) that subsuming tapes can alter the mentality of the physician; (3) that the designation of species depends on a variety of factors; and (4) that the station itself plays host to a very large variety of species, of which he must always mention the most exotic. It feels like these passages have been copied and pasted directly from other stories, so if you’re a comprehensive reader of White (like I nearly am), it feels like all of this material is padding for the new reader, which dulls any reward for the established reader.

As for the paint-by-numbers plot, each story (here and in other Sector General stories) has a familiar flow: (1) all is normal in Sector General, (2) an unforeseen emergency arises, (3) Conway is on the case with the empathetic Prilicla, (4) Conway runs the gauntlet of possibilities, (5) the obvious conclusion is reached, and (6) Conway relaxes by flirting with Nurse Murchison. Word for word, you could apply that too all the stories.

Aside from these normal gripes, White is also prone to one huge annoyance of mine: the last-minute all-inclusive revelation that describes all the nuances of the problems faced in the previous pages, leaving very little to the imagination. “Quarantine” and “Recovery” have this same glaring flaw, but the last story manages to be moderately better in its inherent oddity than the prior.

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Unfortunately, the reader is not able to procure “Recovery” by itself without having to purchase the entire collection of Ambulance Ship. I guess if you were to buy the three-story collection, you might as well read all three stories, which may hone your tastes for the last story… otherwise, the other two are a waste of time. Like White’s Galactic Gourmet (1996), this collection is only for White completists or first-time readers of White.

Monday, September 15, 2014

1961: Aliens for Neighbours (Simak, Clifford D.)

Humans perplexed by the whims of aliens (3/5)

Clifford Simak’s first collection of short stories was published in 1956—Strangers of the Universe. Perhaps time has not been gentle to the stories (all between 1950 and 1953), or perhaps it’s my taste in material, but most of the stories felt hurried and whimsical. I’ve also read a later collection—The Civilisation Game (1997)—which has stories ranging from 1939 (“Hermit of Mars”) to 1969 (“Buckets of Diamonds”). Rewinding back a few years, Simak’s second collection was published in 1960 as The Worlds of Clifford Simak (Simon & Schuster, US), which contained twelve stories. A year later in 1961, three stories were omitted from the volume in order to publish Aliens for Neighbors (Faber and Faber, UK), which has stories spanning the short period between 1954 and 1957…

…and like both Strangers of the Universe and The Civilisation Game, this collection, too, feels whimsical and hasty, two very common symptoms for short stories of Simak, I reckon. However, Simak does have his gems: “The Answers” (1953), “The Big Front Yard” (1958) and, in this collection, the unforgettable “Dusty Zebra” (1954).

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Dusty Zebra (1954, novelette) – 4/5 – First, Joe’s stamps go missing from his desk, the his inkwell and fountain pen. Certain the pen was gone thanks to his trading-savvy son, Joe unlikely finds his pen replaced with a pen-like object which extends telescopically, yet something pulls from the unseen. Worried by the apparatus, Joe revisits the desk to discover a small white dot—he places a crayon on it, it disappears to be replaced by a glassed contraption. Intrigued by the extra-worldly gift, a business idea springs to his mind. 30 pages

Honourable Opponent (1956, shortstory) – 4/5 – Humans have met alien races across their sphere of space and have always engaged in peaceful commercial interests, until the day they met the roly-poly-like Fivers. Battles ensued where the humans blew up a number of Fiver ships while their own ships simply disappeared—a technology the humans have been trying to uncover. On a worthless planet, a human captain awaits the general of the Fiver race, who are juvenile and enigmatic to a ludicrous degree. How could they screw up a prisoner exchange? 16 pages

Carbon Copy (1957, novelette) – 3/5 – Homer Jackson is a suburban realtor. He’s honest, professional and content with his business, until the queer character of Mr. Oscar Steen approaches him with a deal that’s hard to refuse: lease out each of the fifty houses of a walled off property for a mere $5,000, all of which he gets to keep—some in cash, some deposited in the community’s bank. The homes sell quickly, but though sold, homer can’t find any of them occupied. 48 pages

Idiot’s Crusade (1954, shortstory) – 3/5 – Meek often treated with scorn, Jim is the village idiot in a town where minor evil is around every corner: tax dodging, adultery, common swindling, gambling, illegal distilling and general misdeeds. When Jim is out with his dog Bounce, he unwittingly becomes host to an alien intelligence, thereby granting him incredible powers of sights and telepathy. Initially using it as a tool for revenge, Jim learns to use it for good, against the alien’s wishes. 17 pages

Operation Stinky (1957, novelette) – 2/5 – Out in a thick of lilac around his shack where his dogs are causing a stir, old man Asa discovers a friendly “skunk”, a surfeit or which has been living peacefully under his house for some time. He takes the skunk to the bar, gets the skunk kicked out, and gets himself drunk. He climbs into Old Betsy, his truck, in which the peculiar skunk sits, when the truck takes off under its own will… it also evades police, threatens a dog, and flies through the air. 35 pages

Jackpot (1956, novelette) – 3/5 – Exploring and looting abandoned systems across the sphere of human space, a captain and his motley crew discover an enormous cylindrical building yet to be plundered. Within the ground floor maze of the column are numerous black, labeled cylinders with unknown functions. Further in the maze rest machines that have a seat and an umbrella, which turn out able to play the cylinders in a didactic-type fashion. The captain seems money in the find, but the housed alien considers else. 44 pages

Death Scene (1957, shortstory) – 2/5 – The government had erected cross-country radar installations  and, in a time of desperation, flipped the switch on all them simultaneously. The result, announced by the President to the world, was the country—all of its citizens—could now peer twenty-four hours into the future. An elderly couple affected by the change consider checking in with their soon-to-arrive children, but deem the gesture superfluous. Seconds tick by of time predicted. 7 pages

Green Thumb (1954, novelette) – 3/5 – Joe’s the country agent and is used to getting strange calls from farmers, but the one about the 30-foot hole and mountain of curious sand is beyond even his experience. Back at home, the neighborhood dogs yap at something, which Joe discovers to be an exotic plant, only later to witness the same plant mobile. The unlikely pair begin to recognize each other’s needs through a non-verbal, emotional understanding that Joe can use to nurse earth greenery. 23 pages

Neighbour (1954, novelette) – 3/5 – Calvin, Bert and Jingo tend their sprawling farms in Coon Valley. When a new family takes over the old Lewis farm, speculation runs among them and the other townies. Curiosity is piqued when it’s discovered that their fields are pest-free and well-watered, unlike the farm of the farming trio. Also, Reginald Heath, the new farmer, has a curious tractor and an equally as curious car. Ten years later, during which peace reigns, an unwelcome reporter comes to inquire about the valley’s peculiarities. 26 pages

Friday, September 12, 2014

1970: The City Dwellers (Platt, Charles)

Decay of society parallels decay of the city (4/5)

In 2010, I read my first Charles Platt novel: The City Dwellers (1970). It was a fair novel composed of four parts, all of which read like separate stories in a regressively chronological future history. It was moderately interesting, so I kept it in my library. My second Platt novel was in 2012 with Garbage World (1967), which was Platt’s first novel but still as flawed as The City Dwellers—nothing really to entice the mind of the reader other than the unusual plot setting.

I haven’t gotten around to another Platt novel since then, but one recent review by Tarbandu of Platt’s novel The Twilight of the City (1977) piqued my interest. The reviewer panned the novel after only reading 83 pages. When checking ISFDB, I saw that The Twilight Years is actually a variant title of The City Dwellers. I didn’t remember the book being that bad, so I bumped it to the front of my to-read queue to give it some justice—only if it deserved justice.

Rear cover synopsis:
In the 21st century, when urbanization is reaching its limits, the population suddenly slumps…

The city is killing man—strangling and crushing humanity as effectively as the jungle destroyed the civilizations of the past.

The characters—zombies, slum-dwellers, a pop star and an architect—move like tiny insects through the vast empty street and concrete landscape of the city.

The Loners decide to opt out of civilization…

The Civics dare not venture beyond the city limits…

which will survive?”

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My one qualm with this otherwise introspective novel is Platt’s role of women. As the citizens of the city commit to maintaining their archaic urban lifestyle yet their lives decay around them, it’s almost as if the role of women, too, begin to decay into submissiveness. The women tend to take submissive or pleading roles in each of the following encounters. Platt’s prerogative or a symptom of the city’s decay?

A few notable examples: 
  • “[S]he pressed herself hard against him, wanting him to make love to her” (23)
  • “She tried to stifle her cry when he entered her” (38)
  • “When he entered her she shut her eyes and gave way to his strength” (58)
  • “[S]he gave herself, pulling up her knees and shutting her eyes” (62)
  • “[S]he took out her dentures and started kissing down his body, arousing him till he was ready to take her” (71)
  • “[S]he pressed herself to him … she responds passively, enduring him with resigned acceptance” (147)
  • “She frowns. ‘Please let me stay here with you …. Please?’” (150)

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Part 1:
Jaded by the age of nineteen, Greg, a pop music superstar popular with the sub-teen female demographic, has been spoiled by Owen, his manager, with his pick of promiscuous sub-teens and burnt out on the Total Experience concerts. The mindlessness of his hysteric fans reflects the dull-minded chaos of the radio (9-10) and the incessant chatter of the mind (30) when stressed. Owen sets up Greg with a 25-year-old healer of man, but his lack of mature experience causes him more stress than fun.

The central theme to this part of the novel is Greg’s overexposure to the extremes of fame in parallel to city dweller’s overexposure to the extremes of the inhumanity of the city. Greg’s slightly older companion, the “healer of man” named Cathy, is better adjusted to the randomness of life as she’s been in contact with heart-broken men more than twice her age.

Though she’s only six-years senior to Greg, their experiences in life and in music contrast greatly; perhaps this is a plot by Owen in order to Greg to become more mature. Considering that Greg’s life is all about his pop music, Cathy has very little to connect with as she has a totally different pop music experience:

I grew up with pop music when there were groups, it was simple, maybe a few lights, the music was life instead of taped, it wasn’t staged. Loud, but not overwhelming. There wasn’t the personality cult, the calculated hysteria. (16)

In contrast to his amoral and extravagant lifestyle on the stage, Greg lives a meager lifestyle in the slums of the city, which doctors have been warning everyone of being “unhealthy for mind and body” but what was most important for Greg was the “now and here in the centre, setting tastes and interacting with everyone else … He was them they were him” (19).

The constant exposure to activity enervates Greg’s senses, making him susceptible to the errant experiences, pushing him—and all citizens of the city—closer toward insanity. While the stress attacks psychologically first, the latent generational effects are physiological. In Greg’s day and age, population is peaking and the prior generation are observing the drastic change: “We get so used to it, the overcrowding, population still rising, people pressing close all the time … people don’t see how it produces pressures—eat, buy, consume, hurry, the whole consumer business” (28).

Just as the tides of pressure eventually inundate and destroy the impressionable mind of Greg in a fit of mindlessness (30) akin to the mindless jabber of the radio (9-10), so too do the mental barriers of resistance begin to crumble for the city dwellers. Added pressures to shift down through states of amorality for the loaded promise of relief from the strain where emotion can sweep over them forgetting “everything, living it, being it, drowning in it” (58). In order to feel more human, the city dwellers combat the insensitivity of the city by indulging in the polar opposite of their stern uniformity—goodbye turgid logic, hello raw emotion.

Part 2: Julius and Hilary left the city for want of a more rustic and peaceful existence in the countryside. Julius had burnt out on his cityscape paintings and has found bucolic comfort in the toil that a farm provides: crops, animals, and maintenance. After two months of isolation and strife with his wife, his old friend from the city, Clement, and his old retinue descend on the farm for two reasons: to relive life recklessly like the old days and to pass a warning of the country’s pending dire state.

Switching to extremes like the city dwellers in “Part 1”, Julius and Hilary flee the city in favor of the country, where the face just as many obstacles as they had in the city, just in different form. Having fled the depopulation and economic crisis (65) of the city, the city’s absurdities, trivialities and dichotomies are replaced by the brute force of man versus nature (life on the farm) and the subtle nature of man versus man (marital conflict).

However, history does not disappear from their lives; old personal grudges between the pair silently begin to wedge them apart. To further drive that wedge between them, the unexpected visit of their old artistic friends from the city descends upon the farm. The absurdity is obvious in their outfits—“Polaroid pants. Distorting suits. X-ray shirts and swirl-painted ties (69)—yet the news the bring carries much more significance: the birth rate has been dropping for a long while and no one knows when the crunch will come; tens of thousands of industries depend on each other and the drop in births is affecting their growth; deflation sets in and nervousness settles in (79-80).

In contrast to their fears, the city dwellers bring a mobile party with them, intent on living it up with Julius like they had in the past. The monotony of the farm breaks, shatters as Julius indulges in reliving the past: sex, drugs, and revelry; however, his care for the farm still remains, as evidence by his outrage over his so-called friends’ destruction of his property and their mistreatment of his pregnant cow.

Julius’s wife is outraged by all the antics and confronts him about the choice they must face: live in disparity in the country or rejoin the fold in the city. The factors begin to add up: “I’m not interested in the money … I can’t go back to the old rituals. Life out here isn’t perfect, but maybe no perfect solution exists” (79). Yet, the pressure of conformity remains and the magnetic draw of uniformity compels them to face that very choice of (1) living frugally alone in conflictual tension or (2) living in conflict of choice amid the tension of the hordes.

Part 3:
To conserve resources, people have been amassed in the cities in order to preserve their way of life regardless of the abysmal birthrate and the lack of female babies. Outside the city, Loners live among the structural decay of humanity’s golden years, much like Reid, Vincent and Amanda. The trio find an injured Civic and, against Vincent’s advice, they take him from the location where other Civics hunt him down. Though they’re leery of the outsider, the man offers his excuse: to live like a Loner.

Life in the civic centres hasn’t improved, regardless of their attempts to enforce normality like they once knew. When the 3-to-1 sex ratio unbalances their idea of monogamy (95), the Civics get desperate. Their beloved city and its city ways have turned on its inhabitants;  though man built the cities, “the cities destroyed man; they fed his intellect for a while, but ruined him biologically, psychologically … decaying as the buildings decay” (104-105). Though already inherently defeated, the Civics continue to grasp at the straws of their disappearing life.

Outside the civic centre, Loners dot the decaying landscape of the city’s superfluous suburbs, “cold and empty and lifeless; but sometimes it was beautiful” (88). Ubiquitously monotone pillars of concrete hide the earth’s horizon, utilitarian apartment blocks eclipsing the sight of both figurative and literal greener pastures. The apartments, “sealed container of slow time, empty and bare as monastic cells” (89), are the so-called home to the nomadic Loners. While the Civics hopelessly stick to their decomposing lifestyle without facing the facts, the Loners have adopted a fatalism in tune with their depressing environment as a “one-generation people” who “learn to live with the city instead of trying to fight circumstances” (104):

Life is as it is, perfect or imperfect, and if you’d stop fighting it and accept it as it is, you wouldn’t worry any more about making it better. There just isn’t any point. We’re as the end of the road. (106)

When the tripartite loose marriage of Reid, Vincent and Amanda discover an injured man—a Civic at that—Reid and Amanda appeal to their humanistic senses to help the man who is admittedly running from authorities because of a simple letter sent to the governor… now he’s guilty of subversion. The man on the run, Johnson tags along with the Loners from rooftop to rooftop to monorail lengths while avoiding the sights of the band of Civics after him.

Johnson says he escaped the civic centre for fear of arrest and for want of living like a Loner amid the rubble, but Vincent has his doubts about the man’s true motivation; he repeatedly asks Johnson what information he’s hiding. Vincent’s fatalistic uncaring attitude toward Johnson’s life sets the Civic on edge though Amanda welcomes him with literal open legs and Reid with figurative open arms. This good cop/bad cop attitude of the Loners is better than Johnson’s city experience where all fight a losing fight.

Part 4:
Though the city is only populated by a few hundred, madness still grips the minds of many. Marauding droves of petrol fume spewing cars race around the roads in chaos, uncaring if they die, destroy or maim. Manning and Neal, grandsons of the cynical Wickens, are at differing opinions about the old coot and his own opinion about the future of the city. When one marauder finds a lone female, Manning unwittingly ignites both the next citywide riot and the cynicism of the naysayers.

The tie that once bound city dwellers together—the knot of common sense—has long worn away, leaving a gnarl of anarchy in its place. Proximity and conformity may have broken the city dwellers (Civics) generations ago, but now the state of the city's decay almost reinforces their decay of rationalism and humanity. Such is the state of the once proud city that it now resembles the dereliction of its suburbs where the Loners had roamed, proud of their individuality. The city—in it, the Civics—and the suburbs—in it, the Loners—now look in similar states of irreparable deterioration.

The distinction between civic centre and lone zone is blurred now; as the buildings decay, so they come to look alike. The people, too, cannot be divided into separate groups with separate philosophies. Philosophy has died with the interest in the future; men live only from day to day, in small communities from which they seldom stray. (131)

Civilization has digressed to the point of roving bands of heathens, albeit heathens with petrol cars and an innate thirst for recklessness with said cars. The broad threat of a declining birthrate has been eclipsed by the specific threat to one's own life; the worry over economic collapse has been overshadowed by finding one's next meal. Having tried to keep their Civic way of life preserved, it has actually become stagnant and the rioting way of the reckless threaten to destroy what remains of the stagnation.

Wickens is a symptom of his era where things had started to turn belly up long ago; he sees no future in the city, no future for man. His two grandsons have conflicting views on the old man: Manning feels sympathy for the hateful ideas and aims to foster him into a sense of love for the world’s death throes; Neal, however, is a victim of the elderly man’s spite and his recluse lifestyle hides his intentions toward the aging man.

Sheldon is a member of the wild band, whose recent foray outside the city has secured a lone female. When Manning sees Sheldon leading her in tow toward a secluded spot, he tails them and peeps at their progressive sexual activity. The girl spots the voyeur and screams, sending him running for safety from the rage of Sheldon. This small spark of irregularity in the simple Civic’s life can has disastrous consequences as the heathen hordes of men had laid riot to the city a number of times, each time terrorizing the frail structures of both the people and the city, which are inseparable from one another… until the city’s apocalypse nears.

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Obviously, though The City Dwellers (1970) and The Twilight of the City (1977) are variant titles according to ISFDB, the review of this novel contrasts greatly with Tarbandu’s own brief synopsis:

The narrative revolves around the actions of three young people: Bobby Black, the superstar singer and showman of the emerging genre of ‘Suicide Rock’. Bobby’s songwriting partner is the taciturn, calculating Michael. And then there is Lisa, who came to the City with a headfull of dreams and stars in her eyes, only to find that dreams die fast on the hard and unforgiving streets of the ghetto.


I have yet to read The Twilight of the City and I’m frankly frightened to attempt it due to Tardandu’s forewarnings, but don’t let the connotation keep you from reading The City Dwellers. It’s a worthwhile read and, perhaps, one of Platt’s best novels… not that I’ve read more than two.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

1969: Double, Double (Brunner, John)

D-grade novel on par with B-grade movie (2/5)

I usually start my Brunner posts with a brag, and so I shall continue this trend: This is the twenty-seventh Brunner book which I have read. Double, Double (1969) was published between two of Brunner’s most famous novels, a sandwich of greatness one could day: Stand on Zanzibar (1967) and The Sheep Look Up (1972). Between the energy-loaded content of those two novels, one would expect to find the substance of Brunner’s bibliography, right? (Insert onomatopoeic word for a buzzer)

While Timescoop (1969) is a fun historical romp and The Jagged Orbit (1969) is among Brunner’s best, something else crept into his otherwise great bibliography: shit. This shit includes the pointless novel The Wrong End of Time (1971) and the novel highlighted in this review—Double, Double.

Rear cover synopsis:
Inkosi—the magnificent Ridgeback

Bruno and Hermetic Tradition—a pop-rock-mod group consisting in part of Bruno Twentyman, Cressida Beggarstaff, Gideon Hard, Liz, Nancy, Glenn and others

Dr. Tom Reedwall, who works for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries

Miss Felicia Beeding, a pathetically daffy old drunk, a living in a burned out house above a chalk cliff

Joseph Leigh-Warden, a rundown journalist, mostly sour, sometimes vicious

Sergeant Branksome and Rodge Sellers of the local constabulary

Radio Jolly Roger - a piratical broadcasting station whose personnel sometimes fished

And many more.

What peculiar invisibility tied these disparate types together—threatening to make them all the same? They themselves didn't know –and perhaps never would.”

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Have you ever seen The Horror of Party Beach (1964)? Is has been cited as one of the fifty worst films of all time. Well, Double, Double is a clone of that movie… and I welcome it into my list of 100 worst novels I’ve ever read (all two-stars or below). As fellow SF blogger Joachim Boaz has said, “Only recommended for Brunner completists/collectors….  And even they will be disappointed” –never were there truer words, my friend.

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On the north coast of Kent lies the sleepy town of Brindown. The most recent news abuzz in town is the crashed plane and its missing pilot lost at sea. Constable Sellers and Sergeant Branksome staff the police station, where the maximum amount of activity for the week is placing the batty old sot, Ms. Beeding, into a cell to recover from her drunkedness. Regardless of the inactivity, Joseph Leigh-Warden occasionally snoops around the station trying to sniff out a lead in order to send a report back to the London newspapers. Meanwhile, Ms. Beeding lives a recluse life out near the chalk cliffs in a partially burnt out shack. Just a stone’s throw away sits the Organic Acids’ depot and docks, a local source of complaint due to the odor and innate toxicity of its chemicals. Further out to sea and resting above the waves of the North Sea rests the pirate radio station of Jolly Roger. The interlopers to this sedentary life are the members of the pop band Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.

 Having spotted the chalky cliffs from the sea, the band is eager to find the location because of it would be the perfect place to host a “freak out”; thus, they scour the countryside trying all access roads to find that perfect beach. One errant road leads them to Tom and Netta Reedwall—along with their ridgeback dog Inkosi—who both work for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries measuring ambient water temperature, raising oysters, and setting a pen for a future experiment with dolphins. The friendly trio direct the band to the road which can access the idyllic cliff overlooking the isolated beach, where they meet the tatterdemalion-clothed woman Ms. Beedy. As she’s not the owner of the land, she can’t grant them permission to host their “freak out”, but she can pilfer a few beers from them.

 Later that evening, what looked to be an injured dog swimming ashore was actually a man. As they help him from the water, the man’s sodden clothing gives him an unusually heavy weight, though the most particular feature of the man is one half of his face which is “puffy with incipient decomposition, his hideous pallid flesh looked more like sponge … the cheek was eaten away to reveal the whiteness of bone and teeth” (37). They immediately run away in terror as the man-figure also runs away into the surrounding forest.  They notify the police station, where the snooping journalist Leigh-Warden catches wind of the news and pens a quick summary to London. Though the police dismiss the band’s tall tale of horror, the London newspapers print the band’s involvement in the scene, causing a smattering of shame coupled with unwanted publicity.

On the platform of the Jolly Roger pirate radio station, one man’s pastime is casting a line into the waters; though he’s never caught anything, at least it passes the time away. But on an otherwise unremarkable day, he snag something big. He calls for his colleagues to get his movie camera as he pulls in what looks to be a giant squid… but squid don’t metamorphose before your eyes and they certainly don’t have tails. Amid this bizarre news comes word from Ms. Beedy’s house: a small fire has destroyed part of her house, signs of struggle are evident within, and the old lady is missing. The sergeant insists that he saw her in town but a conflicting report from the sanitarium says that she is catatonic and aggressive yet safe.

At the chemical depot, security reports that an old woman has been seen wandering around the dangerous chemicals. One man even tried to apprehend the intruder, but his hand was instantly dissolved when it came into contact with it. When they give chase in protective garb with guns and acid spray, the figure scurries up a ladder and dives into a tank of crude phenol. When they drain the tank to retrieve the body, the only corpse they find is that of what initially looks to be a halibut. The most curious part of the fish is its tail fin, which is a mammalian tail fluke. They take the abomination to the Tom Reedwall at the Fishery outpost where he dissects the pseudo-fish and discovers that its innards are a mix of species-specific organs—it seems to be in a suspended state of metamorphosis.

Meanwhile, Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition play on.

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Having Brunner’s own name on this name is a shame to his credibility and the words “science fiction” on the cover are a shame to the genre. There is very little science involved in Double, Double, which is just a cheap paperback thriller; a shameless, hokey and bloated plot covering 222 pages; a thoughtless piece of slasher-film-equivalent idiocy; a contractual obligation and a quick buck for Brunner.

Taken as a stand-alone story, it’s sheer drivel; it can’t even be twisted into a metaphor or allegory because there’s just nothing substantial to grasp in the novel. I think the worst thing about the novel is Brunner’s sad token attempt to pontificate the familiar message of world pollution from The Sheep Look Up (1972) and use it as an excuse for a so-called plot twist or a catalyst for the plot’s disaster: “In the past couple of decades we’ve put more mutation-inducing substances into the sea that you’d normally expect in several centuries—fallout from H-bombs, canned waste from nuclear power station…” (158).

There is some saving grace which keeps the novel away from a 1-star rating. Firstly, while the characters and situation are all dull, I admit that the mystery of the creature is a tad interesting: From where did it come? What are its intentions? How does it feed and breed? Brunner doesn’t squander every opportunity to make the plot more interesting, but it is a dull, bumbling, pointless read. Secondly, it’s readable: I wasn’t bored witless or driven into a rage (kudos to any book that does that).

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Ditto on Joachim’s words: “Only recommended for Brunner completists/collectors….  And even they will be disappointed.” Pass.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

1969: Macroscope (Anthony, Piers)

Astrology, drivel and whims ruin a promising novel (2/5)

Taking a moment to consider it, there are five ways I purchase novels: (1) on a whim, like when books are only $1 and I have an entire suitcase to fill; (2) for romantic nostalgia, like when I read a book’s synopsis and it makes me long for the days when Is first started to read the genre; (3) due to solid research, like when I track down a specific novel for a specific reason; (4) recommended to me by other bloggers; and (5) with much trepidation, like I book need to read from an author I don’t like.

Macroscope is a case of the latter two ways. I knew, of course, the name Piers Anthony but I hadn’t ever read any of this work before, so I bought one of his collections to see how I liked his writing (a damned good indicator in my opinion); I bought Alien Plot (1992) and hated nearly everything, nothing ranked above 3/5 stars. From this alone, I put Piers Anthony on my to-avoid list.

Tom Rogers, a trusted connoisseur of science fiction over at the Amazon science fiction forum, has recommended Macroscope twice [1] [2], so I thought I’d trust his instinct and pick the novel up. And there is shat sat on my shelf for four years being unread. As my pile of long-ago-bought books dwindled, Macroscope came nearer and nearer to the top of my to-read stack. Then the day hit: I opened Macroscope and willed myself to finish it.

Rear cover synopsis:
EXISTENCE IS FULL OF A NUMBER OF THINGS… many of them wondrous indeed—and those are the things of this soaring novel.

First among them is the Macroscope—a doorway that leads to all time and all space, and confronts the four who dare enter with challenges mankind has never dreamed of.

Among the things the travelers find is a place so unthinkably distant in space and time that it may in fact be at the other end of the continuum—within us—a place where ancient symbols come to life and battle with the souls of men.

And perhaps most wondrous of all in the crowded, adventurous universe of this novel, a boy become a man; a spirited girl achieves womanhood; a man’s deepest beliefs are vindicated; and a woman finds a purpose in being…”

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In the very distant but visible background of humanity’s existence, the celestial events of our solar system’s planets continue on their journeys around the sun ignorant of anything to do with the humans on Earth. In the foreground, an alternative history stemming from United States’ Civil War sees blacks and other so-called minorities (aside from White Anglo-saxon Protestant) persecuted well into the far future. In this alterative universe, the 1980s is acceptably rife with racism. “Overpopulation, pollution or environment, savagery” (46) are all pushing the species to extinction, now in its subjective death throes of “hunger, frustration, crime (43).

Though the world is a segregated place, one group of forward-thinking scientists endeavored to mix the genes of all the races under a crèche in order to produce superiorly intelligent children. These 332 children actually became rather unexceptional, with a spirited few surpassing everyone’s expectations. The crèche’s singularly most gifted child seemingly died in an accident and years later, the group disbanded and each sought their separate paths in life. Ivo Archer is one such man who has styled himself on the poetry and music of the 19th century Confederate Georigian named Sidney Lanier, whose poem Individuality is often quoted by Ivo: “What the cloud doeth, the Lord knoweth; the cloud knoweth not” (479).

Concerning a project, Ivo is beckoned by his crèche-friend Brad who mans a station one million miles from Earth. The station is funded by many nations of Earth who use the macroscope, housed within, to gather data about activities on their planet and events across the solar system and through the galaxy. The macroscope is able to peer, with 1:1 scale, anywhere across the Galaxy but the macrons are only able to travel at light speed, so whatever viewed through the ‘scope is actually decades, centuries or millennia old. A few civilizations have been found, but all of these aliens also had macroscope technology and have been seen to be decaying into extinction, much like humanity.

This macroscope works under weakly understood principles: “[T]he macroscope is a monstrous chunk of unique crystal that responds to an aspect of radiation unrelated to any man has been able to study before” (31). Not only can the macroscope remote view places scattered throughout the galaxy, but it can also accept signals from thousands of different macroscopes once owned by other alien civilizations and which contain “science, philosophy, economics, art—anything that can be put into the universal symbology. Everything anybody knows—it’s all there for the taking. An educational library” (150).

The only barrier keeping Brad and his team from understanding the information is the Destroyer, a signal within the transmission which has obliterated three of the station’s finest minds, turning them into drooling vegetables. Brad has called upon Ivo for his help or, more specifically, for Schön’s help whom only Ivo can contact. Ivo is visibly reluctant to contact Schön for anyone or for anything, a small mystery which stumps Brad’s crewmates: the alluring polyglot Afra, the savvy engineer with a penchant for astrology Groton, and his ordinary unconfident wife Beatryx.

When a nosy American senator arrives at the station demanding to know what good had become of their investment in the macroscope, Brad unfolds his plan of allowing the senator, along with himself, another and Ivo himself, in viewing the macroscope’s stream of information. Midway through the Destroyer’s sequence, Ivo tears his mind away from the poison of its symbolic information while leaving the three others dead or incapacitated. Brad is the lucky one—he had been reduced to the mentality of a vegetable, leaving his partner Arfa in a state of grief. An emergency soon arises when they realize that the senator’s death will be investigated and the macroscope likely confiscated. Ivo is unknowingly deemed to lead the small team of five—including himself and the vegetative Brad—to a more secure location in order to probe the deeper mysteries of the macroscope.

As they disengage the macroscope from the station, the team of five finds little notes inexplicably left by Schön, hinting at his intention and their destination. With Ivo somehow able to circumvent the Destroyer, he is thereby also able to extract data from the torrent available. As his team leaves the station with the macroscope in tow, they know they would be unable to outpace an automatic rocket headed for them, so Ivo delves into the trove of data and finds a solution which would allow them to sustain ten gees for an extended period while on their way to Neptune: convert themselves to a liquid. After their liquefaction and coalescence, they arrive at Neptune in order to establish a far-flung colony where they can (1) live, (2) thrive scientifically, and (3) explore the nature of the Destroyer and why it inhibits civilizations from learning its secrets.

Somewhere along the 480-page journey, astrology is important. No, not astronomy, but astrology.

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Aside from the poor, juvenile and off-handed quality of stories in Alien Plot, two other things turned me off about Piers Anthony: (1) his use of terrible puns and (2) his egotistical rants as a stymied author.

(1) Thankfully, Macroscope isn’t as laden with puns as Anthony’s shortstory “E Van S” (1992), which were too numerous and too awful to even begin to stomach—truly terrible. But after that stomach-turning display of so-called humor, my eye was honed sharp to nick the protruding follicle of any hair-raising pun. Reflecting his juvenile stories, Anthony has two recurring puns throughout Macroscope: (a) one about butts and toilets, (b) one about sex, and (c) an awkward combination of the two:

(a) He stopped off at the latrine—and realized suddenly that every toilet faced the same direction. The arrangement was such that when a person sat, he had to face the ‘forward’ orientation of the torus …. ’When you take your inevitable bow, your stern is sternward,’ he said aloud, finally appreciating Brad’s pun—a pun inflicted upon the nomenclature of the entire station. (100)

(b) “My ship docks elsewhere,” he said … “I love another woman, and have no inclination to embrace any but her. I mean no offence to you.” …. “Your wife?” she asked alertly …. “It is hard to see what she offers, then, that I do not. You have a very handsome ship, and I have a very comfortable port.” (296)

(c) Compared to modern liners, a thousand feet from stem to stern (he smiled a little wistfully, remembering Brad’s pun) … though this one did not appear to have much of a stem … or even the three-hundred-foot sailing ships …. No. This toy dared not stray far from its port. (266)

(2) In Alien Plot, Anthony’s parting words to the reader, in “Think of the Reader” (1989), is one big pat on his own back, a jolly good job-well-done to himself, in which he endlessly complains about editors. Additioanlly, through every introduction to the stories in Alien Plot, Anthony draws his ax in ire toward the editors who originally rejected his stories and even when they accept his stories, he finds a reason grind his ax and denounce their profession; five examples, thus:

(a) “He [an author of an anthology] accepted both [“Nonent” and “E Van S”], which shows that he'll never become an editor in real life, because though it is obvious that he didn't read them, he doesn't know that it is an editor's job to reject, not accept” (33, digital).

(b) “Once an editor learns that a story has been rejected elsewhere, his limited mind locks into the reject mode, and the game is over.” (46, digital).

(c) “I, as a writer, have of course never had a bad notion, only ignorant editors” (70, digital).

(d) “For years I tried to market humor, but editors told me that humor required a special touch, which unfortunately I lacked. I think editing requires a special touch, which unfortunately most editors lack” (86, digital).

(e) “I started out as a natural story writer, and shifted to novels because the fickleness of story editors prevented me from earning a living in stories” (95, digital).

Now… come back to Macroscope, published twenty years prior to “Think of the Reader”, and Anthony still has this quip to offer, as if he’s had an ax to grind for a very, very long time:

Lanier [Anthony’s pseudo-alter ego projected through Ivo] was crushed by this [rejected] response [to his poetry]. He believed in his work, yet the unambitious efforts of others achieved readier acceptance …. Not only in poetry … The entire society is governed by mediocrity. We never learn …. Several other prominent magazines rejected “Corn”[the said poem which had been rejected] …. Were they absolutely blind? (351)

Underneath my steady abhorrence for reading Piers Anthony’s work, when reading Macroscope, the dial on my irritation meter begins to stir annoyingly at first, then it starts to wag haphazardly, then moves to and fro erratically, then twitches spastically, and in the end the meter simply convulses epileptically. Anthony wanders through way too much indulgence for the novel’s own good.

Granted, Macrosope is largely based on astrology, especially toward the end, but the entire pseudo-science is written in an oratorical manner, claiming that “astrology is a highly confirmatory science” which applies “the scientific method” (97) and also claiming that astrology is a “doctrine of Microcosm and Macrocosm” (131). Compound this with nonsense between astrology and astronomy (134-135) and a grand orgy of gibberish about astrological signs (225-233), if the reader has no interest whatsoever in astrology, the reader should perhaps stay clear of this overlong pseudo-science foray into astrology.

Astrology isn’t the only foray into indulgence Anthony takes; there are an additional few which really grated me: an abrupt and absurdly biased trail about an accidental death (234-238), an early excursion into astrological significance with a Mediterranean story/analogy (268-310), a linear chronological evolution of animals on Earth (329-331), a prolonged written history of the birth of the solar system (333-338), a human commands an alien fleet (371-382), a dichotomous utopia split by segregated (384-401), an insectoid alien space navy (403-425)… and then a torrent of ten mini-storylines revolving around astrological symbolism (436-480).

I don't think any of the symbolism added to the story as I have very little interest in astrology and how symbolism in the cosmos supposedly relates to our personalities and fate. I've always disliked pseduo-science or fringe science in my science fiction—this also extends to hypnotism, which Anthony also uses as a plot twist, which I will now spoil for you here when Ivo says to Afra, “I'm going to implant in you a hypnotic block against divulgence” (469). The only aspect which draws me to the novel, which is very little compelled to all that repels me, is the source of the information streaming through the macroscope and the source and reason for the Destroyer. For the latter, there is at least a satisfactory tang of galactic history sprinkled between some of the erratic drivel (roughly 371-425). However, the taste doesn't linger long when more and more drivel gets shoveled onto the pages.

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Now that I've read Anthony's most acclaimed science fiction and I've found it unsatisfactory for so many reasons, I can finally put to rest any doubt that Piers Anthony has any writing skill which may intrigue me. Granted, he has a large following for one reason or another, but the skills lack of skills I've seen makes me a borderline anti-fan. Dare I even try to read Chthon (1967)?