Science Fiction Though the Decades

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)?

Friday, August 29, 2014

2004: All You Need is Kill (Sakurazaka, Hiroshi)

From pawn to player; history doesn’t have to repeat (4/5)

Looking at my collection of fiction shelved in the living room (over 560), science fiction obviously takes up the majority of the shelf space (about 85%). My science fiction collection is general yet diverse: I have a mix of the old and the new, works from male and female authors, slim paperbacks and thick hard covers, the popular and obscure. But one facet of my collection which I’m most proud of is the growing amount of translated work:

  • French: Monkey Planet (1963) by Pierre Boulle and Travelling Towards Epsilon (1976) edited by Maxim Jukubowski
  • German: Metamorphosis &Other Stories (1971) by Franz Kafka
  • Polish: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), The Cyberiad (1965), and The Star Diaries (1971)
  • Russian: Moscow 2042 (1987) by Vladimir Voinovich and Metro 2033 (2007) by Dmitry Glukhovsky
  • Japanese: The Best JapaneseScience Fiction Stories (1997) edited by John L. Apostolou & Martin H. Greenberg and Battle Royale (1999) by Koushun Takami
  • Swedish: The End of Man (var. The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer) (1966) by Olof Johannesson
  • Chinese: Frederik Pohl’s collection Pohlstars (1984) includes a novelette called “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle” which was re-translated from his original “The Wizards of Pung’s Corner” (1958)


On occasion, I scour the internet looking for translations of good novels or stories. When researching for Japanese authors, I always come across the same few:

  • Kobo Abe’s The Ark Sakura (1988)
  • Shinichi Hoshi’s The Spiteful Planet and Other Stories (1978)
  • Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks (1973)
  • Taku Mayumura’s Administrator (1974)
  • Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The African Bomb and Other Stories (1986)
  • Masaki Yamada’s Aphrodite (2004)


In March, I came across another modern Japanese author named Hiroshi Sakurazaka and his novel All You Need is Kill (2004). I downloaded a copy (and bought the paperback just yesterday) and eagerly awaited the opportunity to read it… little did I know that it would become a stupid Hollywood movie with a tool for an actor. That didn’t dampen my spirits, however.

Book’s own synopsis:
When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his 158th iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally—the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?”

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On the island of Kotoiushi, Keiji Kiriya is a foot soldier stuffed into a Jacket, and sent to fight a perplexing enemy—the Mimics—who he can barely fathom let alone defeat. In the opening seconds of the battle, his friend Yonabaru catches an enemy javelin through the torso, killing him; Keiji survives through most the horror of mangled corpses and the terror of the fighting, only to be fatally wounded. On the brink of death, a figment of military lore manifests itself in front of his eyes: the red battledress of the Full Metal Bitch, complete with two-meter axe and thirty for the death of all Mimics. The pain of his scorched impalement reminds him he’s not yet dead, and the surreal coming of the Full Metal Bitch makes his head swim. Reality, as if testing him, becomes even more surreal when the red-donned heroine says to him, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to know … Is it true the green tea they serve in Japan at the end of your meal comes free?” (11). The American’s name is Rita Vrataski. She, and the Mimic who comes to kill him, are his last memories before dying… and waking up.

Déjà vu strikes Keiji hard: the novel he awakes to, the conversation he has with Yonabaru, the ensuing events which lead up to a difficult morning of Physical Training, where he sees Rita and the other American soldiers. His memory of meeting her on the battlefield reinforces his courage—he stares down the legendary slaughterer of Mimics. The gull of the prone solider intrigues Rita, so she sets herself down next to him to engage in the same form of punishment: the iso push-up.  This being Keiji’s first iteration, his fate is sealed as he enters the battlefield and dies yet again. And again. And again.

The timeloops initially have a negative effect on Keiji: he suicides, he AWOL’s, he kills. He keeps the experience a secret, but those around him only see a drastic change in his behavior from what they consider only to be one day ago; Yonabura tries to apply logic to Keiji’s attitude: “The day after yesterday’s today. The day after today is tomorrow. If it didn’t work like that, we’d never get to Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Then we be fucked. Or not” (36). Regardless, Keiji maintains a sour disposition and adopts the “fuck it” attitude: “It’s a fucked-up world, with fucked-up rules. So fuck it” (54).

So why do they both training us at all?

All that shit they drum into you in training in the bare minimum … Most unlucky bastards forget all that when the shit starts flying and they go down pretty quick. But if you’re lucky, you might live through it and maybe even learn something. Take your first taste of battle and make a lesson out of it, you might just have something you call a soldier. (62)

Eventually, Keiji realizes that, with the memory of each iteration, lessons can learned, information can be garnered and the cycle might possibly be broken without him dying at the end each time: “Just because I had all the time in the world didn’t mean I had time to waste” (79), so “If I could train to jump every hurdle this little track-meet of death threw at me, maybe someday I’d wake up in a world with a tomorrow” (58). Keiji begins to utilize his time to become an unkillable figure like the Full Metal Bitch, acquiring skill and information which he applies on the battlefield, where he inevitably dies each time, only he lives minutes and hours longer than before. With each extra minute of life, he learns more about his enemy; Keiji reflects, “You can’t learn from your mistakes when they kill you” (91).

Rather than make time his enemy, the intrepid foot soldier takes the world on his shoulders by accepting his daily inevitable death at the hands of the Mimics. The multitude of Mimics rise from the ocean where they had bred, each a dense barrel-sized sack of sand whose “single swipe of one of its limbs can send a man flying in a thousand little pieces. Their javelins, projectiles fired from vents in their bodies, have the power of 40mm shells” (8). The mere sight of them doesn’t inspire natural fear nor do they roar with a bellow to fear their prey; “they simply hunt with the relentlessness of machines” (9).

When they first appeared on land, the alien xenoformers were not weapons of war. They were sluggish … But like cockroaches that develop resistance to pesticides, the alien creatures evolved. The crèche machines that created them concluded that in order to fulfill their objective of xenoforming the planet, they would have to remove the obstacles in their way …. Mankind had a name for the enemy that had brought the world to the brink of ruin. (116)

They ate earth and shat out poison, leaving behind a lifeless wasteland. The alien intelligence that had created them had mastered space travel and learned to send information through time. Now they were taking our world and turning it into a facsimile of their own, every last tree, flower, insect, animal, and human be damned. (178-179)

Acquiring a two-meter axe like Rita, Keiji heads to each recurring battle with more insight, more skill, and more of a will to murder the mass of Mimics; “I bore the burden of endless battle like the killing machine I’d become—a machine with blood and nerves in place of oil and wires” (93). The outcome of each battle is as uniform as the nature of war: “there were three kinds of battle to begin with: fucked up, seriously fucked up, and fucked up beyond all recognition” (92). Keiji found his looped life to be in the last category… until he realizes that Rita, too, has experienced a time loop; she has secrets on how to break the cycle.

Training together, feeding off of each other’s honed knack for defeating the Mimics with slashes of the battleaxe, Keiji and Rita come closer to breaking his cycle of life and death. Yet on the eve of the 160th loop’s daybreak, the cycle is broken and rather than heading to death on the island of Kotoiushi, the Mimics have brought the reign of death to the military base itself.

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I just want to say that I really hate the title of the novel—both the Japanese and English editions have the same title. The Hollywood version’s title is no better, the title and actor of which I won’t even allow on my review.

Many readers of All You Need is Kill have found the book to be difficult to follow, which is exactly why it comes with a handy plot sequence diagram (see left) to assist the reader in understanding the flow of events. The diagram will become your best friend when reading the novel, much like a soldier’s rifle is their best friend—without the rifle, the solider is useless; without the diagram, the reader is helpless. The length of the novel—around 57,00 words—makes the looping and time shuffling more comprehensible.

As the diagram illustrates, the sequence of the story is non-chronological: the novel starts with Chapter 1 Part 1 (toward the end of the plot sequence), which is the battlefield loop, then jumps back in time to the barracks loop in Chapter 1 Part 2 (toward the beginning the sequence). Prior to reading each part to every chapter, it’s reassuring to consult the diagram. It’s quite easy to become accustomed to, actually.

Contrary to popular errant opinion, the novel is not only action, action, action and kill, kill, kill; humor is hidden is dialogue and insight is offered in Keiji’s reflections. I took highlighted a number of quotes in my e-book (and I later bought the paperback) and found myself laughing aloud during a few passages.

The time loop Keiji experiences is, of course, the draw of the novel… a moderate challenge to the reader that enhances the sense of enjoyment. Perhaps is a gimmick, but the greatest satisfaction drawn from the novel is Keiji’s diligence in garnering as much experience as he can rather than letting the loop get the best of him. Initially, he succumbs to the pang of expectation and suicides. Slowly, he realizes the advantage of the loop; with each loop comes an experience to learn, an education which he can take with him onto the next loop: he starts to train with the best, he finds breaches in security which allows him access to the American base, he learns personal details to get himself access.

Aside from Keiji’s inspiring vigilance, Rita Vrataski infuses the story with heavier notes of characterization: from Pittsfield, Illinois and the daughter of a hog farmer, her father is a coffee connoisseur in a world where the supplies are quickly dwindling due to the Mimics’ attacks. The local grocer always has a cache of exotic whole beans and Rita learns of the pleasure from the coffee’s taste, fragrance, the total experience. When her town is infiltrated by the scout Mimics, most of the town is destroyed and her family is killed; thus, her motivation to enlist and seek revenge. During her duty in recapturing the peninsula of Florida, she finds herself in a loop and ultimately finds the solution to break the cycle.

It’s not a deeply characterized novel nor does it plunge the depths of emotion (though the last few parts of Chapter 4 hit a good few notes of attachment, betrayal, and perseverance). The reader either comes for the action—and there’s plenty of that—or they come for the gimmick of the time loop; either way, the novel is an alluring snare of a soldier’s rise from cannon fodder to devil incarnate, from using training wheels to becoming Evel Knievel, and—most importantly—from pawn of fate to player of self-determination.

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Sakurazaka’s only other novel is Slum Online (2005) about some quest in some video game. The premise doesn’t entice me at all. So, while Sakurazaka’s bibliography may be abbreviated in terms of English novels, there is still a shallow sea of Japanese literature available in English; notably, from the publishers Haikasoru and Kurodahan. Seems like, with the limited selection, I’ll be picking up the pieces one by one for a long while… unless All You Need is Kill inspires a generation of writers to produce more Japanese science fiction. If not, I’ll continue with reading American and British SF and dabbling in the translated scene.