Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, June 29, 2012

1956: Three Novelettes (Lesser, Milton)

Decent grab bag of three free sci-fi tales (3/5)

I was first introduced to Milton Lesser by reading Deadly Sky (1971) by Ivar Jorgensen. I didn't know it at the time, but this was one of Lesser's many, many, many pseudonyms. I found Deadly Sky to be a straight forward novel with little or no punches pulled. It had a fairly good plot, with a fairly decent cast... it was a fair novel in general. At the time, I couldn't find any other work by Jorgensen, but only recently did I come across Lesser's obsession with pseudonyms. Having been known for his plethora of short fiction in the 1950s (157 pieces written, forty-four of which were written in 1956), I sought out some of his free work on Project Gutenberg. I've hotlinked the titles of each story to its respective link in Project Guternberg.

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A World CalledCrimson” (3/5) is a novelette (≈ 14,100 words) published in 1956 in the September edition of Amazing Stories. The author is cited as Darius John Granger, a pseudonym for the prolific 50s shortstory writer Milton Lesser (birth name Stephen Marlow). Comprising fifteen pages of the magazine, this opening story has a juvenile feel to it with two child-cum-adult protagonists who hold reign over a planet they were deserted on. With imagination and wonder bubbling, they quickly make the planet of Crimson all their own… or all that their imagination can conjure up.

The Star of Fire is stuck by an asteroid and disables all of the lifeboats. Robin and Charlie are running through the corridors in a fit of playfulness when they alone are saved from the soon-to-be airless spacecraft. The fully functioning miniature of The Star of Fire launches them into space to automatically seek out a habitable planet. Landing on a green-tinted beach, the childish duo magically summon pirates coming ashore, red Indians to ward the pirates off, and an elevator to ascend the cliff face.

The children name the planet Crimson after Robin’s favorite color, which will later be renamed Aladdin’s Planet by explorers. Crimson lies,

…almost exactly at the heart of the galaxy, where matter is spontaneously created to sweep out in long cosmic trails across the galaxy, is the home not merely of spontaneous creation of matter, but spontaneous formed creation, with any human psyche capable of doing the handiwork of God (Section 9, para. 1).

After twenty years of peaceful existence, the two have dreamt up wonders they have found within the pages of the One Volume Encyclopedic History: “Phoenicians, Greeks, Mayas, Royal Navymen, Submariners, mermaids and Cyclopes” along with “Polynesians, Maoris, Panamanians and Dutchmen” in addition to the eclectic mix of “Indians, farmers, Russians, Congressmen and Ministers” (Section 12, para. 1). They are able to create but they cannot destroy what they have manifested: people, monsters, food, environment, etc.

Only when a ship of explores descend to the planet are their skills first witnessed by outsiders. Captain Purcell sends his obdurate crewman Glaudot to scout the area which they see is inhabited by a plethora of earth-based myths. The Indians kill one crewman with arrows but the arrival of Robin halt their aggressions. When Robin insists the she created the Indians, Glaudot wants her to prove her ability to conjure up a piano. When the piano is manifested before his eyes, Glaudot then asks for a copy of his dead crewman to be made. With this feat easily conjured, the obdurate man eyes grandeur in the galaxy with the unlimited resources offered by Robin: “Infinite wealth from creativity out of nothing—and eternal life by copying our bodies each time we die” (Section 24, para. 20)!

Playing on her naivety, Glaudot elopes to land of the Cyclops with Robin so he can begin to build his empire and plot his taking over the galaxy. However, Captain Purcell intuits the man’s evil plans and sends his crew out to hunt him down. The news of Robin’s capture reaches Charlie who joins forces with the ship’s crew to hunt down Glaudot, rescue Robin, and staunch the avarice which Crimson has inspired.

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A Place in the Sun” (4/5) is a novelette (≈ 7,800 words) published in 1956 in the October edition of Amazing Stories. The author is cited as C.H. Thames, another pseudonym for the Milton Lesser. Comprising twenty-two pages of the magazine, the story starts off with a burst of detail regarding a ship in peril, the attempt to contact the authorities through SOS, the engagement of rescue, and a last minute power play. Sadly, unlike the heat built up in the near-sun spaceship, the plot’s steam loses its heat in the last few paragraphs… not with a bang, but a whimper.

Captain Stapleton is aboard the maiden voyage, along with President and his cabinet of the Galactic Federation, of the starship The Glory of the Galaxy. The ship approaches within twenty million miles of the sun but is unable to divert course, so an SOS is sent through the subspace to the one place that could, just possibly, help the ill-fated ship:
…the one unofficial, extra-legal office at the Hub of the Galaxy. Lacking official function, the office had no technical existence and was not to be found in any Directory of the Hub… Their sole job was to maintain liaison with a man whose very existence was doubted by most of the human inhabitants of the Galaxy but whose importance could not be measured by mere human standards in those early days when the Galactic League was becoming the Galactic Federation.

The name of the man with whom they maintained contact was Johnny Mayhem (para. 19-20).
Johnny Mayhem is a bodiless “elan” capable of inhabiting a dead body in static in order to carry out a risky mission. He’s also able to possess a living body, but it’s never been tried!
[Mayhem]… had been chased from Earth a pariah and a criminal seven years ago, who had been mortally wounded on a wild planet deep within the Sagittarian Swarm, whose life had been saved—after a fashion—by the white magic of that planet. Mayhem, doomed now to possible immortality as a bodiless sentience… doomed to wander eternally because it could not remain in one body for more than a month without body and elan perishing (para. 133).
Johnny is shifted into the living body of Secret Serviceman Larry Grange, once a coward to face the ship’s impending doom but now, against his own volition, attempting to save the ship single-handedly. Johnny plans to counteract the mutinous behavior of the crew, led by veteran space Technician Third Class Ackerman Boone. Where the captain wishes to shift the ship into subspace, exposing everyone to 20 Gs of strain, the mutinous crew aim to disable the subspace control board, board the lifeboats, and escape the fiery fate of solar immolation. 

With the temperature on board wising to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, sweat stream, blisters form, and vision blurs. Johnny’s plan will see his Larry-bodied self approach even greater heat in order to save the men on board and divert the mutinous crew from destroying the ship, its crew, and Johnny… so that he can live another day for another mission.

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My Shipmate—Columbus” (3/5) is a novelette (≈ 8,900 words) published in 1956 in the October edition of Amazing Stories (actually, in the same issue as “A Place in the Sun”). The author is cited as Stephen Wilder, yet another pseudonym for the prolific 50s shortstory writer Milton Lesser. Comprising twenty-five pages of the magazine, the story is a historical one rather than a space-faring one. According to Wikipedia, Milton Lesser used to write fictional autobiographies of Christopher Columbus (I guess everyone needs a hobby). While this isn’t a fictional autobiographical account of Columbus’s journeys, it does paint the man in an unorthodox manner.

Danny Jones challenges historical fact in his history class, with the professor and other students giving him ever so slight banter for his devious historical opinions. He merely wanted to posit that maybe Christopher Columbus wasn’t the spectacular he’s been made out to be. That same day, as he leaves his history class at Whitney University in Virginia, he receives a letter announcing the death of his uncle in St. Augustine, Florida.

Danny wasn’t particularly close to his Uncle Averill, but it seems the iconoclastic uncle has left him a machine, of sorts. The uncle had been known for his “secret machine and strange disappearances,” (Section 4, para. 1) but you’d never suspect that he’d keep it locked within a bank vault in his basement! The lawyer handling the inheritance, Tartalion, gives Danny the key to the basement, in which Danny discovers, “A small case… the interior of the trunk was larger than he had expected. A man could probably curl up in there quite comfortably. But the case—the case looked exactly like it ought to house a tape-recorder” (Section 4, para. 7).
 
Along with the tape recorder and steamer trunk, his uncle has left little nuggets of knowledge for Danny to follow through his life: “They're teaching you too much at school, son. Too many wrong things, too many highfalutin' notions, too much just plain old hogwash” (Section 2, para. 13), “Too much so-called knowledge which isn't knowledge at all, but hearsay” (Section 3, para. 13), and “Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. History is propaganda—from a winner's point of view” (Section 3, para. 14).

But what Danny doesn’t expect is a highfalutin story of a time travel machine within that man-sized steamer trunk. Danny curses himself to become gullible to his uncle’s tales and ensconces himself within the trunk, keeping in mind his uncles only instructions: “…you got to have the proper attitude. You've got to believe in yourself, and not in all the historical fictions they give you” (Section 6, para. 1).

When Danny finds his faith in not having faith, he opens his eyes to find himself in another man’s body… the body of Don Martin Pinzón, commander of the caravel Niña in Columbus’s three-ship exploration fleet to challenge the notion that the world is flat and that “Here be dragons” doesn’t apply to the westerly route across the Atlantic Ocean.

1956: Reach for Tomorrow (Clarke, Arthur C.)

Classic short stories, some gems, some predictability (3/5)
From April 22, 2009

I've read only a handful of Clarke's novels but I've found them to be just OK. While 2001 (1968) was excellent (along with its sequel 2010 [1982]), I didn't much care for Childhood's End (1953) or Islands in the Sky (1952). When it comes to his short stories, Clarke is more predictable in his greatness. The collection The Nine Billion Names of God (4/5) was a great selection of Clarke's talent, but Reach for Tomorrow doesn't quite hurdle over the bar that Nine Billion set later in 1967. I guess you could say I prefer Clarke's later work rather than his vintage stock.


All of the stories below are shortstories, besides "Rescue Party" and "Jupiter Five," which are novelettes.

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Rescue Party (1946) - 5/5: Menagerie of aliens on a solar system exploration ship stumbles upon a sun about to go nova- Earth's sun. They whisk away to Earth to rescue anyone they can, only to realize that no one is there except the intact structures and subway system. Being that the humans have only had radio for 200 years, where could those humans have gone? 29 pages

A Walk in the Dark (1950) - 4/5: A man confronts his imagination during a 4-mile walk in the pitch dark on a galaxy-edged planet, when he remembers a haunting tale of chitinous sounds beyond the arc of a flashlight... too bad he doesn't have a flashlight. 10 pages

The Forgotten Enemy (1953) - 4/5: London has the population of one as glaciers approach England from the north. Regent's Park helicopters evacuated everyone ten years ago. Now Professor Millward struggles to hear news of catch sight of what has happened in the north and whether the nuclear charges have brought the cold to a halt. 7 pages

Technical Error (1950) - 4/5: An advanced power plant engineer gets caught in an accident which results in him being transported through the fourth dimension, having his left-and-right-handed sides switched. Will the company keep him alive for £5,000/day or put him through the `accident' again? 19 pages

The Parasite (1953) - 2/5: An Englishman escapes to an Italian island after being invaded by a second mind, named Omega. His friend converses with him to learn the truth... which is rather predicable. 13 pages

The Fires Within (1949) - 3/5: A scientist secures a letter from another scientist describing a way to look deep into the earth, hoping to see the core but finds traces of something entirely different. 10 pages

The Awakening (1951) - 2/5: A man bored with utopia takes off to round Pluto while being put on ice, planning to return to earth in the far Earth future. Has a utopian or dystopian society emerged? 5 pages

Trouble with the Natives (1951) - 4/5: Two bipedal aliens, part of an even more alien crew, descend to bucolic England to find a suitable ambassador. However, the two aliens have only learnt of English culture from prim-and-proper BBC radio and television broadcasts. Can they convey their message and maintain disguise? 14 pages

The Curse (1953) - 3/5: Narrator in post-nuclear Europe describes the scene in a quaint town where a tombstone lays facing an approaching river. Who is buried there? 3 pages

Time's Arrow (1952) - 3/5: A group of paleontologists uncovering dinosaur tracks are working nearby a mysterious research facility working with Helium II, which has just as much mystery itself. Why is the facility out there near the dinosaur fossils? 16 pages

Jupiter Five (1953) - 3/5: A professor and his small team head to Jupiter Five- a satellite of Jupiter where the professor believes there is an alien relic. Another ship joins their exploration of the object only to result in a betrayal of friendship. The professor's quick thinking comes up with a celestial mechanics solution... a bit beyond me. 33 pages

The Possessed (1952) - 3/5: A Swarm of alien energy-like intelligences falls to Earth after escaping their stars destruction. One part of the Swarm begins to evolve a lizard while the rest sweep across the sea of stars to find a suitable intelligent host. What will become to the lizard's evolution and the rest of the Swarm's quest? 6 pages

Saturday, June 23, 2012

1990: A Pursuit of Miracles (Turner, George)

Similar themes and brilliance as his novels (4/5)

The three novels I've read of George Turner (Down There In Darkness [1999], Brain Child [1991], and The Destiny Makers [1993]) have been very thoughtful reads with much attention paid to the detail of the plot. Only Down There in Darkness really wowed me, but the other two felt just as wholesome. When I procured this Aussie's collection, I was overjoyed to dive into it to see what other ideas the author had envisioned! Sadly, the author struck a single cord throughout the entire collection with themes that resonate with the above three novels: gross overpopulation, telempathy, a greenhouse effect gone haywire, and age extension. Some stories really strike the right note but others miss the catgut strings altogether. This is Turner's only collection which includes eight of his twelve total stories in publication. Besides his Ethical Culture series, I own his entire catalog... which says something of the caliber of this writing--excellent.

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A Pursuit of Miracles (1982, novelette) - 5/5 - The Paraphysics laboratory dabbles with experiments in telepathy but unexpectedly stumble upon a yet-to-be verified case of telempathy. The subject: Tommy, a genetic runt in his litter of "thoroughgoing little power packs" who is classified as a Non-Legal in the Age of Miracles. Populated with forty billion people, pets have become banished to act as laboratory animals, but Tommy shows signs of a gift in emotional communication with the department's animals. As his fondness for one researcher and his hate for another grows, this emotion manifests itself in Caesar, his Great Dane companion. 32 pages

Not in Front of the Children (1987, novelette) - 4/5 - Eight generations, of those privileged enough to afford the anti-aging drugs, live in their own generational squares of the city. The Liberated eighth generation tackle nasty words like "old" and "death", which shocks the other generations, namely the Neo-Victorian seventh generation, like Ellaline's mother Marianne. Seeking guidance on the matter, Ellaline is sent across the Generation Gap to her elderly great-grandmother who knows a thing or two about Ellaline's morbid fixation on aging. In fact, she's a linear descendant of the oldest man alive: Old Jock Higgins. 24 pages

Feedback (1983, novelette) - 3/5 - Doctor Kransic is a distinguished cosmologist and subscribes to the Thinker dogma of a solipsist universe, "a rotten theory because it isn't open to disproof." (72) His hypnotist, Miss Hettie Laroque, has been training him to enter a mental black-tank, an awareness without senses, a purity of thought and formlessness. Telempath Mr. Edwards is to work in unison with Ms. Laroque in order to probe the depths of a solipsist's mind. With cosmic manifestation and a return to the quantum soup of the Big Bang, what Edwards perceives is translated by a distant Foundation computer. 19 pages

Shut the Door When You Go Out (1986, shortstory)- 3/5 - After a three thousand year mission to find an inhabitable planet, one crew return to Earth with an ill-stricken technician placed in isolation. The inhabitants appear to be naked degenerates living amid the wintry forest canopy, so they so the crew send Smith, the ill man, down to seek treatment from the locals. With three millennia having passed, the global society isn't what it used to be with Nexus at the center of the locals' life and all decisions being relegated to the great earthly node. For want of relocation, the crew ask for emigration. 7 pages

On the Nursery Floor (1985, novelette [precursor to the novel Brain Child]) - 5/5 - An investigative journalist, with no intention of publishing his story, tracks down leads linked to a former genetic experiment which created three groups of super intelligent children: Group A are the enigmatic mathematicians, Group B are the aesthetic artists--both of which were released into the public to follow their careers--and there are Group C; insular children with a secret language and a heightened power of observation. Their extreme intelligence and manipulative ways keep them inside the Foundation... until one escapes and absorbs all knowledge of biology in eight weeks. The Director is the final lead. 34 pages

In the Petri Dish Upstairs (1978, novelette) - 2/5 - The eighty thousand strong Orbital community maintains an icy relationship with those Downstairs on Earth. Both sides agree to a non-interference pact regarding their cultural and financial growth, but Upstairs is playing a wild card: they're sending a handsome envoy to the city of Melbourne, a visit odd by itself but the agenda is as mysterious as the man's origins. Débutante Clarie Grant is wooed by the man and the two quickly marry. When in orbit, her role as fulcrum between the Upstairs' and Downstairs' tension surfaces. 34 pages

Generation Gap (1990, shortstory) - 3/5 - An Earthman art historian is taken on a tour of an extraterrestrial art museum. One artist's thirty-frame progressive self-portrait grabs his attention but his opinion and interpretation clash with those of the Guide. The spectacle of the human soul on canvas in female form leads to a similar twenty-six frame progressive self-portrait of an idealized yet incipient male figure. The sight spurs a quotation from the Earthman, a quote which strikes the Guide as misplaced, yet conveys the story to his peers, who also recognize the quote. 5 pages

The Fittest (1985, novelette [precursor to The Sea and Summer])- 4/5 - The family of brothers Francis and Teddy live a comfortable life in the Sweet, where their father is employed and their financial life keeps them from the horrors of the Swill, an impoverished territory succumbing to the advancing sea... until their father loses his job and ends his own life. They and their mother move near the Swill and eke out an existence under the watchful yet lecherous eye of the Protection Racket. As the boys mature, their separate skills are noticed and advances them both beyond the putrid walls of the Swill, yet mother remains behind. 33 pages

1992: Alien Plot (Anthony, Piers)

Pulp content and camp delivery: pure chaff (1/5)
From December 19, 2010

Anthony Piers is a prolific author with titles ranging all the way from A to Z. My interest in his surmountable material was minimal as I'm not impressed with a 35-book series about Xanth nor am I really taken to interest with an author who pens spoof novels with a title like The Magic Fart. Not knowing where to start, I thought one of his story story collections (the other being Anthonology) would give me a healthy indicator as to his writing style. If this tame foray into the world of Piers Anthony was a mistake. I've never read just a mediocre collection of stories, half of which rate at 1-2 stars. I admittedly own Macroscope because it was recommended to me by a reliable sci-fi friend. Let's hope I don't chuck that novel across the room like I did with this collection!

Note: all stories are a "shortstory" or "shortfiction" unless otherwise noted.

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Alien Plot (1992, novelette) - 2/5 - A scientist/soldier, Duff, of future earth is sent to a parallel universe where magic has manifested itself in the way of conjuring spells, talking statues and a dragon who can look into your heart. Will Duff be sucked into the fantasy world like the prior researchers or will he be able to separate his true self from the fantasy self? 42 pages

Nonent (1992) - 3/5 - A dastardly-minded alien composes a short story to earth's editors to make them numb skulled in order that the populous be starved of the printed medium, but you know how editors are. 5 pages

Twenty Years (1992) - 3/5 - A man defeats a stylized dragon and wins a prize from the stylized nymph; a twenty-year reduction in his age through the deletion of any period of his life, thereby subverting the mandatory euthanasia at eighty years of age. 8 pages

December Dates (1985) - 3/5 - A man in his December-years allows himself the occasional splurge of reverting to his youthful May-years. His correspondence with another elderly lady has him interested in seeing her in her true form. 9 pages

Ship of Mustard (1992) - 3/5 - The space station is full of oversexed females around the planet Athena and the luring of a young technician is within one of their grasps if they could just figure out the crossword clue for a mustard plant. 9 pages

Soft Like a Woman (1988, novelette) - 2/5 - Along with a totally implausible story line scattered with inconsistencies, the sole woman on an eight-man mission and she's being discriminated and harassed. When the party lands, she finds she must deal with a predatory spy and complete the mission alone. 32 pages

Imp to Nymph (1987) - 3/5 - A magical police man goes to a magical castle incognito in order to purchase a nymph, as a ruse, and investigate what happened to a man who never came back from the castle. 25 pages

E van S (1992) - 1/5 - A literally cursed TV set strews endless absurdity and terrible puns, which is Anthony's excuse for a sense of humor. Just unbearably terrible. 14 pages

Vignettes (1982) - 3/5 - Three short, short stories each comprised of a mere fifty words: To the Death (battle to the death with a recluse - 4/5), Transmogrification (brownies invade and loot a house - 3/5) and Deadline (2/5 - something about buying a fantasy novel, dunno). 2 pages

Hearts (1970) - 3/5 - On the eve of Christmas, a man walks down the road and selflessly incurs the negative emotions and pains of others. But the spirit and origin of Christmas will see his accumulated pain dissolved. 4 pages

Revise and Invent (1992) - 3/5 - Anthony's exposé of his very short stories in a form which also includes the letters from the editors who rejected each correspondence and each altered story...all an idea which has been printed before (Carter Scholz's story "The Nine Billion Names of God" in his collection The Amount to Carry). 17 pages

Baby (1992) - 3/5 - A snippet of a story intended to be finished by teen-aged competitors: Taking on a rather dull story of adoption, a reporter soon discovers three separately adopted babies which share birth dates and characteristics. 3 pages

Cloister (1991) - 2/5 - Another pun party by Anthony, who pursues the reader ragged and dares them to skip the ridiculous tale of abbots on the isle of York who are preparing to be besieged by kings, queens and broncs to steal their manuscripts to make hats. 7 pages

Love 40 (1992) - 2/5 - Anthony's excuse for science fiction is this tale of insensitive cultural approach and a doodad device which adjustably alters peoples' emotional state and is installed in a tennis ball-thrower by a mechanic. Two people `fall in love,' both of whom have come to investigate the phenomenon at the resort and who both will investigate the creator so that a Japanese company can reproduce it. 12 pages

Kylo (1988) - 2/5 - A man discovers his neighbor is care-taking for a dinosaur while its owner is preoccupied. He takes it for a walk and discovers everyone else knows of its existence. Anthony says he has done research for this sorry but it reads like common knowledge to a 12-year old. 6 pages

Plague of Allos (1986, novelette) - 1/5 - Elves, wolves, telepathy, dinosaurs... fantasy for people who like fantasy, I guess. I'm not one of those people. 26 pages

Think of the Reader (1989, essay) - 1/5 - Anthony's ideas of what the reader wants is viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of what editors want: an easy plot to follow, simple language and themes which are tried and true. He pretty much says, "The readers aren't too bright so give everything to them on a silver plate."



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Like above, this is evident throughout the collection as I predicted the ending to nearly every single story. The level of concentration for the reader is basically set at the 12-14 year level. The science is non-existent for the purported science fiction stories and the fantasy bits (usually un-stomach-able for me) became chokingly unbearable at the extent of its' cheesiness along with the plethora of stupid, stupid, stupid puns. Perhaps this is what Anthony fans LIKE to read but it's definitely not something a serious science fiction fan would ever indulge in. The entire collection screams of pulp, pulp, pulp--mostly cringing follow-through, mostly eye-rolling passages, and conclusions where the reader is left with a mere "humph" as satisfaction.

And why is Anthony so focused on including women and sex in the short stories? It's distracting to the content and delivery. He even mentions a fairly taboo subject of rape three times... and even makes a rape joke. A rape joke, I tell you! Juvenile-minded from beginning to end for a juvenile audience who have the intention of producing pulp fiction on their own. Sorry Anthony has such a chip on his shoulder about editors, but the stuff this guy produces leads me to wonder how any of his stories have passed a single editor. If this is the wheat of Anthony's chaff, I'd hate to see the latter.

Friday, June 22, 2012

1965: The Squares of the City (Brunner, John)

Loaded with intent but lost in the mix (3/5)


Ah, my monumental twentieth Brunner novel! I've been back and forth through his bibliography from the 1950s to the 1990s and through the thick and thin of his science fiction conquest. With his novels and collections gather together, I've barely touched a third of his complete work. As he is my favorite author, this gives me much joy to delve into any new Brunner book. When I drew The Squares of the City from my "to-read" list, I was eager to bite into it. I didn't research the book prior to reading it because, as with most books, I enjoy being surprised by the unfolding of everything within. Little did I know that this book is Brunner's most un-sci-fi-like... it's doesn't even border on sci-fi like The Wrong End of Time or butt up against th ledger of fantasy like Traveller in Black. Though it was a 1966 Hugo nominee for best novel, this is full-frontal fiction with a unique concept:
The persons, places, and events described in The Squares of the City are, of course, entirely imaginary. [...] The game of chess itself it not imaginary at all. It is Steinitz-Tchigorin (Havana) 1892, precisely as recored on the Penguin handbook The Game of Chess by H. Golombek. Every move of the game has a counterpart in the action of the story, with the partial exception that castling is implied and not overt. The individuals who correspond to the "pieces" have powers roughly commensurate with those of the pawns and officers they represent. (316)
Unique it may be, but it makes for a rather dull novel even though the introduction states that "[...] even the reader who knows nothing about the game will be thoroughly fascinated by this story." (7)

Rear cover synopsis:
"THE SQUARES OF THE CITY is a tour-de-force, a disciplined conflict peopled originally by wooden or ivory or jade figurines, now fleshed and clothed and given dramatic life in a battle as old as the classic contest of chess.
Except that these are real people. When heads roll, blood gouts and drenches the remaining players while they watch in horrified fascination--knowing their own turn will come."

Boyd Hakluyt is traffic engineer whose expertise is sought after across the globe. His most recent contract has him flying the fiction Latin American country of Aguazul and more specifically to the capital city of Ciudad de Vados, a city envisioned and built by the man the city is named after--Vados. Being "the most governed city in the world", the need for control is great, as said by the author who inspired the man to build the city:
Conformism is a slow death; anarchy is a rapid one. Between the two lies a control which [...] like a lady's corset is an advertisment, constricts and yet bestows a sense of freedom. We govern our country with a precision that would amaze you. (84-85)
It's not only the political forces which constrain the freedom of the people, but it's also the media which sends messages askew, be it pro-government or anti-government; both sides are part of the same goverment agenda. Subliminal messages are embedded in state-run television to alter the opinions of the views, but only a select few in the know have scrubbers to clean the signal of its propaganda.

Boyd sees himself outside the need to be involved in the workings of the government and their propaganda, but he also becomes unwillingly embroiled in the deeper crevices of pro- and anti-government camps. Simply wanting to do the job that was offered to him, Boyd struggles to find a perfectly suit traffic plan which suits an already perfectly engineered traffic system. However, "the politcal atmosphere [...] was of the hothouse kind. The least incident capable of being made to bear fruit was being nurtured, protected from frost and fed with manure until it blossomed out of all proportion." (131) He couldn't please everyone, but he could darn well try.

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The microcosm of effervescing political turmoil in Ciudad de Vados allows for characters to continually pop up from the trembling surface of the plot. The first first half of he book is laden with too many characters--nearly as many in the plot as there are on a chessboard. Only when they pieces begin to be taken (read: when the players begin to be killed) do things somewhat solidify and the opposition becomes clearer: "It is a matter of combination. Each move must be seen in relation to the whole. And this applies also in real life." (172) It's a taxing read, something I had to pick up and put down after reading only ten pages. The two-star material was simply an vast expanse of character whac-a-mole, each mole just waiting to get slammed back into its arcade machine of a metropolitan.

If the reader didn't know that the entire book was based on a chess match, the revelation wouldn't have been made clear until the very end when the connection with chess is made clear--clear in the conclusion context and in the "author's note". Inventive, clever, and brilliant? I don't know about brilliant but it WAS beat of the Hugo by Frank Herbert's Dune (and Zelazny's ...And Call Me Conrad). It might have been clever and all but the actuality of the process in book form is not at all interesting to read.

Because it's not really a science fiction novel, it's outside of my realm of expertise but two things did have me scratching my head: (a) Brunner mentions "[...] the finest analogue computers in the world couldn't get all the bugs out of a traffic plan" (13) which sounds terribly dated for such a forward-thinking author, and (b) he offers up a paradoxical simile with "an organic vitality akin to that of a giant machine." (15)

So, while the first half is a tedious whac-a-mole job of fitting everyone into their respective camps, the second half offers up some steam-driven action. The conclusion isn't easy to arrive it but once there, it makes sense and offers up a "mmm" or "ahh" or "ooh" or a random velar fricative from the reader (choose your own interjection, depending on whether you like chess or not). A definite read for a Brunner fan or chess fan, but otherwise I'd really leave this one alone. Three-stars it may be but this one is headed for the second-hand bookstore.

1965: The Mindwarpers (Russell, Eric Frank)

Manipulation, subterfuge, and espionage (3/5)
From June 3, 2011

Published in 1965 after most of the author's bibliography had been created, Mindwarpers (alternatively titled With a Strange Device) was created towards the end of his career and this happens to be the first Russell novel I've picked up... and that's unfortunate because it seems as if his prior creations of Wasp (1957) and The Great Explosion (1962) are held in high regard. Mindwarpers, it can be said, has a fairly generic cover picturing a white and red starship of some kind in front of a planet and its moon. Keep that in mind when reading the review.


Rear cover synopsis:
"Richard Bransome worked in the government's most vital scientific laboratory, under the ultimate security. Nothing--living or inanimate--could crack the security barriers that guarded Bransome and his fellow workers. Nothing known to man...
But something was making key scientists give up their lives' careers, sometimes to just drift away, other times to die. Then Bransome began to remember a past he had completely forgotten--a past which he had been a cold-blooded murderer! To discover the truth about himself, he set out on a solitary mission that would lead him against the most incredible enemy ever known to the people of Earth!"


At a highly restricted weapons laboratory in America, the scientists have been acting awfully off recently; they have been killing themselves off, disappearing or living hermetic lives in small-town America. (no spaceships yet) Eventually, one man (Richard Bransome) falls into the same symptoms of disconnectedness and aversion to communication, as if something is on the man's mind. The narrative is told through Bransome and the reader can follow how these symptoms came about. Richard was sipping coffee and overheard truckers talking about a body found under an uprooted tree in Burleston, when suddenly Bransome remembers that HE killed someone and buried them under a tree in the same town! Soon Bransome asks for time off and he begins to track down the truth behind his crime. (no spaceships yet)

He finds himself in the town of Burleston but no one knows of the tree that was fell and the exposing of the body. He also finds he has a tail from the laboratory and that his behavior is very strange considering he's on holiday. (no spaceships yet) Eventually he finds someone like himself and they discuss what it is they are afraid of. They make plans to speak at a later date when the truth behind the mystery is more well known. Bransome returns to his town to stalk the likely culprits of this mystery. (no spaceships yet) All is resolved.

The end... and no spaceships. WTF? How's that for subterfuge!

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I'm told (hats off to Joachim) that Lancer will put a spaceship on any novel and call it science fiction. Mark me as one of the gullible sci-fi consumers who love science fiction with spaceships!

Besides the missing spaceship, the 158 page book was quite an easy read. I finished it in something like seven hours with much time given to a nap, lunch, and some internet activity. The build-up to the counter-espionage is a pretty good read and merits a 4-star effort, which is actually what most of the book is about--that of Bransome seeking the truth. Sometimes, the truth is NOT out there but rather indications of what is more likely the anti-truth. This is the case of Bransome.

If you like a good sci-fi-esque espionage novel (like Brunner's The Wrong End of Time but with better results) then you might want to look this up if you're a completest. I'm tempted to find more of Russell but I have reservations as the ending to Mindwarpers was seriously bad, offering a numskull solution to the whole ordeal and leaving the reader thinking, "Well, duh, of course it was them!"

Read it for the anti-espionage fun but don't pin your hopes on a great conclusion.

Friday, June 15, 2012

2012: Weird Space - The Devil's Nebula (Brown, Eric)

Marginally original; sets stage for sequels (3/5)

Eric Brown has authored more than a dozen novels to-date, of which I've read three; each novel exuding humanism, complicated characters dealing with emotion, turmoil, and death. In the genre of science fiction, no one comes close to writing characters as details as Brown. The only comparison I can think of outside the genre would be John Updike, who can effortlessly infuse humanism within mere pages. Brown's collection in The Fall of Tartarus is his answer to Updike's The Afterlife in this regard. Besides these humanistic feats of SF literature, Brown has also produced some very traditional science fiction fare: Helix and Necropath neither of which have I read. I was unsure whether The Devil's Nebula would be of Brown's humanistic or hard science fiction, but having been impress with everything he's written so far, I pre-ordered The Devil's Nebula with much anticipation.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Ed Carew and his small ragtag crew are smugglers and ne'er-do-wells, thumbing their noses at the Expansion, the vast human hegemony extending across thousands of worlds... until the day they are caught, and offered a choice between working for the Expansion and an ignominious death. They must trespass across the domain of humanity's neighbors, the Vetch--the inscrutable alien race with whom humanity has warred, at terrible cost of life, and only recently arrived at an uneasy peace--and into uncharted space beyond, among the strange worlds of the Devil's Nebula, looking for long-lost settlers.

A new evil threatens not only the Expansion itself, but the Vetch as well. In the long run, the survival of both races may depend on their ability to lay aside their differences and co-operate."

Insubordinate to the Expansion, Captain Edward Carew of the ship Paradoxical Poet and his crew of two, Lania Takiomar and Jedley Neffard, approach the abandoned Vetch planet of Hesperides to retrieve an alien artifact still housed in a city museum. While approaching the museum, they see a Vetch ship being loaded with burnt wreckage from the museum vault. After the ship leaves, they are tracked by one remaining Vetch scout who doesn't act as brutal as they are ugly:
[...] eight feet tall, its legs disproportionately long, and its body compact. But it was its head that marked it as grotesquely alien. Hairless and mottled in pink, it had the wattled appearance of something haemorrhoidal: a more charitable comparison [...] was to an albino hound-dog after a bloody collision with a brick wall. (26)
The alien Vetch spares their lives and hint at their interest in the derelict spacecraft on the planet, something which the three-man crew are now interested in. Finding nothing but the perished remains on an older Vetch scout craft, the three return to space but are apprehended by the Expansion authorities. Rather than face death, the trio are given the opportunity to perform a service for the Expansion that they hate so much: pilot and crew a prototype craft through Vetch space to a distress beacon on planet colonized scores of years ago by a human cult. Beyond the border of the Vetch sphere of influence, the Devil's Nebula is uncharted territory.

The Expansion's goal of spreading "homogeneity across the human diaspora" (125) and some factions, like the Kurishen cult, have fled beyond Vetch space so that "the inexorable expansion of the human race [cannot] catch up with them, to infect their ideals with notions they abhorred." (99) The cult, once based on the planet of Vercors, established their cult around the derelict alien starships which crash landed with no one aboard and without autopilot. One of seven craft to have crash landed in the sphere of the Expansion, the mystery of the origin and function of the craft have remained for one hundred years.

The cult has been living on the planet they call World for over seventy years now. Originally composed of 5,000 colonists, their cult dedicated population now total a mere 1,000 plus scores of heretics living in the forest canopies beyond the village. The villagers live a simple life as patrons to the Weird, a holometabolic or hemimetabolic collective-mind race which enslave the cult for their purposes of gathering intelligence. The alien's stages of Harvester, Sleer, Shuffler, and Flyer all have their function to the Weird hive-mind, but the cult are drugged by the offerings of the Harvester so the don't see the deception perpetrated by the Weird.

When the Expansion ship, captained by Ed and piloted by Lania, land on World, they feel disturbed by the odd happenings in the camp but are unable to pin their unsettled feelings on any one circumstance. While the ship's crew greet the cult's camp, one village girl (Maatja) smart enough not to ingest the drug has escaped to track down her father, who has floated down river to become employed by the Weird, a job which is unclear to everyone. The wavefront of odd happenings will find Ed and Lania deep in the jungles of World on a quest to discover the mysteries of the Weird, save the girl Maatja, and make it off the planet safely.

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Firstly, I hate an instinct that told me this would be a series. No novel would use a colon punctuation mark in its title if it weren't part of a greater series; "Weird Space" being this series and The Devil's Nebula being the first book in the series. There aren't many series that interest me nowadays so this new series of Brown's was a welcome addition. However, the entire book doesn't feel written with Brown's knack for humanistic characterization or his pizazz for setting up an epic background.

Brown has rehashed an idea from Engineman in regards to experiencing hyperspace as a pilot: "...philosophers say that the void is the reality towards which we are all destined [...] Some pilots claim they attain oneness with the void, an abolition of the self." (136) Compares this to the pilot religion of Engineman, the Disciples, where they skim the void and glimpse the afterlife, taste the nirvava. This aspect may not be new to any Eric Brown enthusiast, but his description of the void will not be new to any science fiction reader, a description which resonates with Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series and Jack McDevitt's Academy series:
They made the transition from real space to the realm that underpinned reality, the grey non-space through which ships could travel vast distances, reaching far stars without approaching the speed of light. Through the viewscreen, the sweep of stars that was the Vetch territory disappeared, to be replaced by the swirling pewter monochrome of the void. (121-122)
As a matter of opinion, there's nothing in The Devil's Nebula that really reaches out, grabs the reader by the cojones, and screams originality: Expansion of human space through colonies, a battle with ugly neighboring aliens, a search for a lost colony, and the discovery of another malevolent species. Michael Cobley's recent (2009-2011) Humanity's Fire series (beginning with Seeds of Earth goes through the same motions: a lost colony, an ambassador sent to mediate, and the discovery of forces with ill-intent. Actually, they both have gates which open up to different dimensions. No points for originality here.

But the flow is much smoother than Cobley's three-book series, but not nearly as epic... yet. The two characters of Ed and Lania are set up to become something more engrossing, with a solid characterization being done with the unveiling of respective back stories for the two. There more on the horizon to exploit, like the Vetch. The reader only catches a glimpse of the aliens in the first 10% (35 pages) of the novel. I can see the Vetch playing a much greater role in the future, but in The Devil's Nebula, the stage has been set for them.

Among the seemingly unoriginality of the entire book, Brown does finally do himself justice with juicy morsels of intelligent writing and intriguing ideas: "How can we judge aliens by our own standards? Our own concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, are arbitrary when applied to alien races. We should not judge." (15) With this tidbits of reflection are colorful passages of literate prose often found in other Brown novels, minus the deep characterization and epic setting.

It's a good start to a series which could easily blossom into something grander, but I said the same thing about Michael Cobley's Humanity's Fire series and that didn't end so well. Regardless, I'm a big fan of Eric Brown and I plan to tuck into the sequel whenever it's released.

(Side note: If you've read Helix, you might be glad to know the author plans a sequel called Helix Wars in September 2012! I'll have to delve into Helix before September comes around!) 

1994: Engineman (Brown, Eric)

Inspired by renowned collections of short stories (4/5)
From June 21, 2011

The collection of Engineman (composed of one novel and eight shorter stories) carries with it a tradition of sorts. There is much about facing death and process of dying, like in his collection The Fall of Tartarus. There are points of painful nostalgia like John Updike's Afterlife. There are lines of texture-oriented fixations and Asiatic cast inclusions, like William Gibson's Burning Chrome. And finally, perhaps the largest influence in Engineman, would be J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands, which highlights unique medians of art, the longing for a love lost and the fixation on a single location when writing short stories (Ballard's oasis of Vermilions Sands versus Brown's future slum-ridden Paris).

Pulling together these influences has created a melodramatic collection of an earth in decline while the outer planets grow from the influx of colonists. The one-time great invention of the flux-ship through the nada-continuum expanded man's realm to tens of thousands of light-years. Each ship cruised through the continuum by pilots called enginemen, who drove the craft with their minds when connected with the vast nothingness. It's this flux that they perform which they consider to be a glimpse of the afterlife, or a taste of nirvana. The new religion of the Disciples stems from this discovery and most enginemen are followers and even some of those who have not experienced flux are followers, too.

The fluxing comes to end when Interfaces are invented, allowing planets to link-up with no use of ships. Planet-to-planet connections become to norm and all the enginemen are put out of work and also put out of the high they seek: the flux. It's this flux which drives enginemen mad and willing to experience it again at any cost. It also underpins the fate of one planet, one alien race and one expanse of humanity.

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Engineman (1994, novel) - 3/5 - One-time engineman is connected by a mysterious man who says he can flux again after a ten-year absence to the addiction. The engineman connects his long-lost shipmen in order to fulfill the contract, but they begin to accidentally die one-by-one. His brother at home is time-lapsed due to a mistake while fluxing and may provide the last berth to the clandestinely dangerous mission... but to able to flux will be worth any cost, even death...

...Meanwhile, a slum-living artist is shacking up with an ex-engineman. When her contact with her agent disintegrates and her partner commits a spectacular suicide, she decides to visit her home planet. Upon arrive, it's obvious many things have changed and even though she's accepted onto the planet, it's made clear she's welcome. Being a follower of Disciples like her dead partner, she's ensconced in the revolt against the planet's dictatorship. 428 pages

The Girl Who Died for Art and Lived (1987, short story) - 4/5 - Lone survivor of a nova explosion, the engineman cum artist permanently imprints his tragedy into a holographic crystal sculpture (alá J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands). Upon meeting a likeness of his partner who died in the nova, the engineman reveals his wish for death as she, too, reveals her artistic side and her wish for death, too. 26 pages

The Phoenix Experiment (1991, short story) - 5/5 - Seeking convalescence on the English seaside, Fuller meets a group of recovering Enginemen at a rehabilitation center. There he meets a mysterious gold-veined woman who the others shun. When, fact by fact, he reveals his recent loss and she reveals her tragic past, Fuller becomes emotionally attached to the oddly expressionless lady. 17 pages

Big Trouble Upstairs (1988, short story) - 5/5 - A mega-telepathic woman is called to Disney in orbit to telepathically bring down an assailant bent on sniping the humans but ignoring the robotic characters. The discovery of a telepathically unreadable android raises her suspicions and the finding of an underground laboratory brings about a wickedly funny and dramatic conclusion. 21 pages

Star of Epsilon (1991, short story) - 3/5 - Ninety year-old man relives engineman experiences through his occipital consol for a crowd and on alternate nights a fifteen year-old cerebrally transmits horror and the sense of death to patron of the bar. When the young girl entices the old man into grand heist, the truth will be known and greater truth will be made brilliantly clear. 18 pages

The Time-Lapsed Man (1988, short story) - 3/5 - Experienced engineman awakes from fluxing without his hearing. Later, after reliving his aural past, he calls his ex-partner and also doctor who tells him to come to the hospital. There he learns he has Black's Syndrome and will continue to lose his sense one-by-one, exactly like the man named Black who is suffering wit two days further advance. 23 pages

The Pineal Zen Equation (1987, novelette) - 3/5 - A second-rate telepath is employed to find the body of a man's kidnapped daughter. She also witnesses three conniving men in a bar aiming ill thoughts at an Engineman in the corner, who the telepath finds to be pure of mind and attracted to. She saves him from the men and they begin a naïve relationship before his ill-fated trip to and from the stars. 34 pages

The Art of Acceptance (1989, novelette) - 4/5 - Ex-engineman hires a burn-scarred girl in his detective agency but the level of attraction is nil when one other learn the each others' secret. A 70-year old starlet arrives at the agency looking 20 years old and wants the ex-engineman to do to an expensive job. The girl is curious and investigates the starlet and reveals a bizarre love triangle. 28 pages

Elegy Perpetuum (1991, novelette) - 3/5 - Artists argue over realism versus romanticism and call it a night after one artist hypes his totally unique art work. The next day the piece is tried out and wows one artist and is thence put up for display. Then a tragedy occurs and the realist must confront reality for all its worth while his fellow artists and romantics stand around and observe his behavior. 33 pages

Thursday, June 14, 2012

1969: Secrets of Stardeep (Jakes, John)

Quest for father's honor lacks imagination (2/5)


John is an author of fantasy (1960s and 70s), historical fiction (1950s to 80s), and science fiction novels and short stories (1950s to 70s). Besides the author's historical series about America's bicentennial (The Kent Family Chronicles) and the civil war series North and South, John Jakes isn't very well known outside these historical circles. Focusing on his science fiction, which is often described as "simple yet gripping", his more popular works include The Asylum World (1969), Six-gun Planet (1970), Time Gate (1972), and the only one familiar to me, On Wheels (1973).

Rear cover synopsis:
"THE FASTER-THAN-LIGHT SHIP THAT SIMPLY WASN'T THERE!
FLTS Majestica, with Lightcommander Duncan Edison in charge and 2,000 crewmen aboard, had vanished without a trace only moments after leaving the planet Stardeep. Seven years later, no one had yet been able to discover what happened to Majestica, and to most people it was a long-forgotten tragedy. But not to Rob Edison. Rob knew his father wasn't responsible for the disappearance of the FTLS, and he would go clear across the galaxy to Stardeep to prove it.

But Rob wasn't the only one looking for something on Stardeep. And what started as a private search for the truth became a dangerous encounter with invaders out to steal Stardeep's greatest treasure..."

Rob Edison is simply trying to get through his studies, ace his examinations, and enter higher education for an ultimate position in space. One day, Tal Alroon comes to the same school and stares Rob down. As their fates collide, Rob is reminded of the painful memory of his father's disappearance and probable death aboard the FTL ship Majestica, which never materialized when it entered hyperspace off the planet Stardeep. Tal Aroon's father was on the same ship and suffered the same fate, so Tal projects the accountability for the disaster on Rob.

With excellent grades (in classes like Principles of Hyperdrive III and Survey of Cryogenics 414) and a sympathetic robotic counselor, Rob decides to test his faith in his father against the facts of the matter of the ship's disappearance. Rob books a costly trip to Stardeep during his four-week long holiday in order to peruse the data regarding the ship, its crews, and its fateful journey. Even though a committee had already established that his father was guilty of a Command Decision Error, Rob feels that his involvement in the facts will ease his doubts.

Once on the planet of Stardeep, Rob quickly becomes ensconced with Conservancy Patrol Commander Ling and his daughter Lyndesy. Rob obtains permission to visit the Phylex Monitoring Station in the restricted area of private reserve, home to the planet's indigenous life form which is capable of clearing away ill thoughts when in close proximity to the animal. Barton Lummas, a fellow passenger to the planet of Stardeep, maintains a keen knowledge of these animals and is always seen wherever Rob goes. When Barton and his android shang-hai Rob on the way to his permissible-entry ship, Rob's quest for truth becomes a quest for survival.

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A cursory glance at the novel tells of a rather mundane tale: boy loves father, devotes time to defend his honor, becomes embroiled in something larger, struggles for his life, falls in love through the turmoil, and comes out a man who's faith is renewed in his deceased father. The overall banality of the story is worthy of two stars--the crests and troughs of the plot are mild and predictable. Not even the limited telepathic abilities of the Empt critters garner much interest.

The details of the novel could have pulled the novel up from its two-star level, but like the generic plot, the details, too are fairly mundane and cursorily added. Nutrition in the future is as it is in many other novels: condensed nutrition bars, nutrition drinks, and synthetic eggs. Star transportation is interesting but plays no part in the plot: when the FTLS ship enters hyperspace, it is "demolecularized into a near infinity of micro-particles" (34) where powerful fields keep the ship and passengers in a coherent state through the hyperspace traversing. The first 20% of the novel is about Rob's education, but this too isn't too inventive. The school maintain the tradition didactic teacher-student relationship, where the teacher is replaced with a screen and the counselor is replaced with a robot. The aseptically humanistic environment has only a tinge of emotion when closely involved with the sometimes sympathetic counselor.

The tag of "simple yet gripping" does not apply to this novel. There's no satire, no social significance... but it does have a pretty spaceship on the cover, which is why I picked up this novel. After two Jakes novels, I'm not really interesting in procuring any more of his long work, but The Best of John Jakes (1977) may be more entertaining than this cursory paperback.

1969: The Aliens Among Us (White, James)

Telepathic alien galore, somewhat of a bore (3/5)
From March 3, 2010

Of the seven stories, only three stories is occur in the General Sector universe and only one of those stories revolves around the typical Sector General medical mystery plot... so the Sector General illustration on my edition is a tad misleading. This is my sixth White book and each of the Sector General books in the series have been fun, including the four-story collection in Sector General. Besides this series his other books like Lifeboat and The Watch Below are interesting read, too.

The author takes a liking in using telepathy in all but the last of these short stories, something which I don't like to read about in science fiction as it provides an easy, almost cop-out way to communicate. With the exception of "The Conspirators", the stories in this collection aren't as good as I expected them to be. All in all, the collection is fairly dull with no aim other than publishing this mix of stories.
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Countercharm (1960, novelette) - 3/5 - SECTOR GENERAL: A diabetic alien crustacean is submitted to an experimental surgery by none other than the famous Educator-taped Conway. 21 pages

To Kill or Cure (1957, novelette) - 4/5 - Black ooze ingesting snails are discovered in an UFO wreck and the discoverers struggle to cope with the medical situation on board. 29 pages

Red Alert (1956, novelette) - 3/5 - Artic blooded telepathic being is in charge of a mission to Earth which challenges its' species righteous morals. 29 pages

Tableau (1958, novelette) - 4/5 - SECTOR GENERAL: Teddy bear-like aliens are at war with humans but the initial misunderstanding is due to mutual misconceptions. 26 pages

The Conspirators (1954, novelette) - 5/5 - Mice and other small mammals alike aboard a research ship gain intelligence and conspire to escape the ship at the next planet fall. 26 pages

The Scavengers (1953, novelette) - 3/5 - Technologically impaired fur-lined centipede-like aliens are being scooped up by humans and the stragglers must be saved. 23 pages

Occupation: Warrior (1959, novella)- 2/5 - SECTOR GENERAL: The Galactics allow a fair war on a distant planet between humans and an octopod race though no one really knows the rules of war. 57 pages

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

1989: A Talent for War (McDevitt, Jack)

Stodgy trek through qualitative research methodology (2/5)


A Talent for War is McDevitt's second novel and the first book in the Alex Benedict series. Prior to the publication of this novel, McDevitt penned the short stories "Sunrise" (portions found in Chapter 15) and "Dutchman" (portions found in Chapters 9, 22, 23, and 24). This isn't a stitch-up novel as much as it is a weakly pulled together conglomeration of loose ideas... much like ever other McDevitt novel I've read (this, the eighth book to-date). Where The Engines of God (1994 - Book One for the Academy series) had a great idea to drive the series, A Talent for War is empty of any driving force. Fifteen years after this book was first publication, McDevitt would write the sequel Polaris (2004) but fail to weave any sort of wow-factor into the plot. Just as a few good songs don't make a great album, a good idea or two don't make a novel grand.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Everyone knew the legend of Christopher Sim. Fighter. Leader. An interstellar hero with a rare talent for war, Sim changed mankind's history forever when he forged a ragtag group of misfits into the weapon that broke the neck of the alien Ashiyyur.

But now, Alex Benedict has found a startling bit of information, long buried in an ancient computer file. If it is true, then Christopher Sim was a fraud.

For his own sake, for the sake of history, Alex Benedict must follow the dark track of a legend, into the very heart of the alien galaxy--where he will confront a truth far stranger than any fiction imaginable..."

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The broader synopsis for this novel is ridiculously short. Most novels warrant between three or four paragraphs, A Talent for War is so laden with redundant methods of qualitative research that little if anything is skimmed from the all the data gathered.

Antiquarian Alex Benedict's uncle Gabe Benedict is one of the many to be lost when the Capella never returns from non-linear space. Bequeathed to Alex is Gabe's estate on Rimway and details regarding his most recent historical inquiries: the ultimate fate war legend Christopher Sim and his ship Corsarius. Starting simply with what Gabe provided him, Alex soon delves into deeper scholarly territory in order to pry open the truth which is shrouded in rumor.

That's pretty much it. Like I mentioned above, the book heavily relies on methods of qualitative research to the point of being nauseating: analyzing historical poetry (p. 82-83), literature review (p. 58, 114, 159-163), public speech analysis (p. 991-103), archived personal documentation (p. 163-170, 182-194), video analysis (p. 84-94, 140-149, 157-159), archive retrieval (p. 107-108), audio analysis (p. 153-157), news database archives (p. 176-177), professional consultant (p. 204-205), one-on-one interview (p. 232-233), and historically relevant geographic surveying (p. 198-203).

It soon begins to be as exciting as a graduate research proposal with all the flamboyance of the methodology and research methods sections. While each bit of qualitative research churns up the murky past of the war, Alex doesn't gain much knowledge of the facts, only to be led to one resource or another. The research reveals more detail about the war two hundred years but the details of Christopher Sim's final battles and ship's whereabouts are all nebulous. The beginning of the data hunt is heavy with proper nouns: planets, pilots, ships, factions, commanders, cities, etc. It's too much to take on and leaves the reader shrugging through much of it, awaiting for the novel to come to the meat of the plot.

It's a common creed among author's to write for the reader, but McDevitt has cast this aside and wrote for himself. Not many reader could be familiar with Greek military strategy, mythology, politics, or philosophies, but McDevitt seems to have a keen interest in the subject and pens as much as he can into the story. Allude to it as much as he wants to, the significance is lost to most of the readers.

After the 240 pages stumbling through the wreck of 200 years of post-war history, Alex finally approaches the closest truth he can ascertain. With his pilot Chase Kolpath (later to be included in the rest of the Alex Benedict series) set off for the stars to find out what haunted later expeditions to a startling degree. What they discover is a slant to the well-regarded history and seeming trap for all who attempt a similar quest. The heightened sense of discovery is well received but the ultimate truth is a big let down... like every McDevitt novel.

If the reader doesn't mind following a qualitative paper trail with very little satisfaction as to the material gathered, then perhaps the reader can endure more of the pointless dabbling in historical nuances and prattling of the author's own self-interest. Don't expect a particularly clever unfolding of truth or reconciliation with the truth, don't expect a cliffhanger of an ending, and do do do expect to be unhappy with the conclusion (and how the prologue ties in with the epilogue). I'll read Seeker (Book Three of the Alex Benedict series) because it won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2006. But then again, I dislike many of the popular science fiction chaff out there... the greatest producer of the chaff being McDevitt himself.

1989: A Fire in the Sun (Effinger, George Alec)

Its occasional flaw almost characterizes it in itself (4/5)
From September 26, 2010

Whereas Gravity Fails (Book One of the Marîd Audran trilogy) was a rather generic exposé of gritty life in a gritty Arab city, Fire in the Sun is a detailed depiction of the mafia-esque underworld controlling the streets, the businesses, the law enforcement and, ultimately, the peoples' lives. Effinger has seemingly fine-tuned the broader plot theme to hone in on the natural spectrum which the Budayeen intrinsically offers. There are less bar scenes yet more one-on-one scenes, there is less drug use yet an increase in moddie (modification which control mood, emotion and personality) and daddie (modifications which allow the user peripheral ability) usage, and there is less detailed grit yet there is a finer resolution of the once familiar sleaze in the Budayeen.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Marîd Audran has become everything he once despised. Not so long ago, he was a hustler in the Budayeen--an Arabian ghetto in a Blakanized future Earth. Back then there were times he didn't have the money to buy himself a drink. But her had his independence. And he had his integrity.

Now Marîd lives in the vast homeof Friedlander Bey, "godfather" of the Budayeen, a man whose power stretches across a shattered, crumbling world. During the day Marîd works as a policeman... and as Bey's personal envoy to the plice. His new position has brought him money and power, both of which he would abandon in a moment is only he could return to a life of neither owning nor being owned. But that, unfortunately, is not among his options.

It is also, at the moment, not an issue. For something dark and dangerous is afoot. Someone is purposely sending the entire city into chaos. Helping a mutilator of children to avoid arest. Setting a bloodthirsty killer loose to murder Marîd's partner. Murdering prostitutes and savaging their remains. There are hints that the hand of Abu Adil is involve. And Abu Adil is the one man in the city whose power rivels that of Friedlander Bey."

When Gravity Fails left the reader at a spacious conclusion ripe to be written into a sequel. I had a mix of impressions from Gravity (blatant, unabashed grittiness at the cost of some finer prose versus the uniqueness of the environment) and felt that Effinger had a difficult task ahead of himself to write a decent sequel (as most books are prone to this same failure). But even in the opening pages of Fire, I was struck by the maturity of the writing and the true attempt to weave pivotal character development throughout the already richly woven tapestry from Gravity. Most of Fire is a gradual increase in design entropy; interactions become entwined, the cast becomes embroiled in strife, and naturally Madríd Audran must sift through the complexity of the mafia-esque underworld to reveal to himself the true scope of the delicateness of the interdependency.

But one flaw through the novel is also one found in Gravity: that of randomly dropped-in scenes with nonessential characters, which find themselves quickly out of the limelight and never referred to again in the greater context of the plot. It's almost as if Effinger has a set of supporting cast and also a stash of silly inhabitants which add nothing but comic relief.

Speaking of comic relief, I found myself giggling (umm, maybe grinning widely while silently chuckling to myself) during some scenes when Madríd Audran displays a keen wit where Effinger lets loose his exceptional observational skills. One part had me literally guffaw aloud: "[...] her lips looked like she bought them first and forgot to put them in the refrigerator while she shopped for the rest of her face." (12) Lovely piece of description that is! There are a number of gems like this which had me close my eyes to visualize Effinger's unique talent of textural conveyance.

With a rich cast, detailed social interworking, impressive cityscape, and unique inclusion of the moddies and daddies, Fire in the Sun is like a boxer with a steady stream of jabs, continually keeping you alert to the nuances of change. Only during the occasional changes do you realize that the steadiness isn't as steady as you once thought, but you continue to think to yourself that regardless of the tempo change, you can still regard this piece of sci-fi as one and in itself! Its flaws almost characterize it (almost, almost)! However much I'd love to procure the third book in the trilogy, Exile Kiss, I haven't been able to find a convenient copy to purchase anywhere.

Friday, June 8, 2012

1999: The Business (Banks, Iain)

All a little interesting, but doesn't synergize (3/5)


Though having read sixteen other Banks novels (four of which have been without the "M."), I must say that The Business is the most linear plot thus far, almost bordering on vapid when taken in its general sense like looking at a lifeless body, but its pulse can be found upon close inspection, which reveals a growing characterization of the heroine/femme fatale Kate Telman. The backdrop for Kate's growth isn't only The Business where she is employed, but it's also the entire world with financially impoverished fictional countries whose warm innocence and charm can melt the icy facade of a corporate queen.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Kate Telman is a senior executive officer in The Business, a powerful and massively discreet transglobal organization whose origins predate the Christian Church. Financially transparent, internally democratic, it want to buy its own State to gain a seat at the United Nations.

Kate's job is to keep abreast of current technological developments and her global reach stretches from Silicon Valley to the remote Himalayas. In the course of her journey Kate must peel away layers of emotional insulation and the assumptions of a lifetime. She must learn to control the world at arm's length.

To take control, she has to do The Business."

Kate was raised in western Scotland by an alcoholic and careless mother, which left Kate to find her own street-smarts while mum was away. On one fateful occurrence when she was eight years old, Kate was approached by an older lady. Kate's effortless business skills and cleverness impressed the lady, who organized a meeting with the mother. Thereafter, their lives improved with her mother getting steady jobs and Kate getting an excellent schooling--all for free. Kate was on the fast track to becoming part of The Business.

Now thirty-eight years old but still a vixen with the men, Kate has risen high on the tiers of Business control to Level Three. Her instinct for predicting trends on technology have boosts her influence within The Business and her influence isn't limited to her Level Three tier--she woos men of lesser tiers and wins the admiration of others in Levels Two and One. She finds herself slowly being enveloped in a developing Business scheme involving not only the upper Tiers of The Business, but also the heads of state for various tiny nations.

The father figure of Uncle Freddy (Level Two) cannot mention much of her place in the scheme of things, but it does take into consideration the Business's feigned interest in the island nation of Fenua Ua and the landlocked Himalayan kingdom of Thulanh. Level One Mr. Hazelton has his fingers in many Business pies and Kate will later question the motives of his grand weasel-like motions. But beneath her involvement in procuring a nation for The Business, there's something fishy going on in a chip factory under the influence of The Business. Kate can't pinpoint the odd behavior of the factory staff, but one room within draws her attention.

Her influence with other members of male Business staff in obvious with Mike... an agent who has recently had random teeth knocked out and replaced at a Parisian dentist. The circumstances are bizarre and Kate feels that he's simply a muddling fool, but will later attachment great importance to the missing molars matter. Then there's Stephen... a morally obliged man dedicated to his wife through the sacrament of marriage. Kate finds herself continually attracted to the man even though he denies all of her blatant advances. She'll eventually try to dissect the relationship when she comes into possession of a sex tape that will have a huge impact on Stephen. She treads lightly.

Unexpected external factors force Kate to internalize her own pleas for attention; reassess her place in The Business, the lives of others, and the world; and when and when not to stick to your prerogatives.

------------

When the reader is introduced to Kate, she's a powerful woman in many regards: she controls many Business operations, she is well liked by her peers, and her self-confidence is high as she struts, flirts, seduces, and lays. Her gratefulness for her rise from the slums reflects her appreciation for the job she has. Kate uses her business oriented mind to propel her through the rungs of Business hierarchy and puts little between her and her success but still maintains a loyalty to the people within the organization.

Later, through the plot twists of her personal trials and tribulations, Kate is transformed into a woman of sympathetic human action rather than materialistic gain. With a growing window of insight into others' subjective worldviews and the doors of greater responsibility knocking at her door, Kate finds herself not only at the start of her midlife crisis, but at a crossroads towards either (1) an external personal advancement in doing what is right for The Business or (2) an internal personal advancement in doing what is right for the parties involved. This change in outlook is what characterizes Kate to such a degree that she can make changes in the centuries old Business and in the budding kingdom of Thulanh.

Obviously, the science fiction element to the novel is The Business itself: pre-dating Christ, the commercial interests on the organization spans centuries and has always been financially transparent yet hermetic in allowing membership and advertising its existence. Its profits are shared among the tiers of authority (Level Six to Level One) but the individuals are unable to transfer Business-derived income to their family, thereby amputating descendant plutocracy. The Business's interest are widely varied, ranging from an ultra-exclusive cigar factory in Guantanamo Bay to investment in Hollywood movies to property investment. It's wildly interesting at first as a science fiction concept but it tapers off when the focus s shifted to the characterization of Kate. Not an all together bad switch, but a tad unfortunate.

Being one of the most non-traditional Banks-ian novels, I was expected to be baited, hooked, and reeled in but the plot plods along on a globe-trotting trek from Scotland, Nebraska, the Indian Ocean, and the fictional kingdom of Thulanh (a country similar to Bhutan). Everything is easily understandable: the characters, the locations, the cars owned by Uncle Freddy, the long history of The Business, and the movement each piece plays on the fictional global chessboard. The slowly progressive plot moved all the plot pieces and people pieces in synchronism to form a coherent conclusion but, sadly, it didn't have a drastic effect on this reader. The ultimate truth of the situation fell flat; it just wasn't spectacular enough to invest 392-pages of reading simple structure with implications spanning the entire globe... *poof* *fzzzzt* *pop*

This definitely isn't one of Bank's most delightfully convoluted novels nor one of the most intricately structured. The internal growth of the character of Kate is the apex of the novel with little else supporting the book besides the limited interest of The Business itself. Banks drops names of more fictional nations but the names are only cursory with detail only being focused on the mountainous Thulanh:
[...] places like Dasah, a trucial state on a small island in the Persian gulf, [...] or the Zoroastrian People's Republic of Inner Magadan, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Arctic Ocean, or San Borodin, the only independent Canary island. (51)
Like the fictional nations names, most things are cursory while Banks takes an active pleasure in describing the engines and specifications of famous sportcars and even takes a stab or two at British and American politics--these real life element fold the reader into tepid fictional plot, albeit, also, at a very cursory level. If Banks were to expand this either into a 600-page novel with more of a science fictions slant, it may have peaked at 4 stars, but there's just not much plot-point tinder under the fire to light the logs of greater interest.

2009: Transition (Banks, Iain)

Open to self-interpretation; expose your own reality (4/5)
From August 29, 2010

Most of Iain Banks' science fiction is straight forward story telling (Consider Phlebas, Algebraist, etc.) to the highest caliber while his fiction (The Wasp Factory, Dead Air, etc.) tends to be open to interpretation. Transition has many elements which would classify it as science fiction for most authors' work but for an Iain Banks novel, this is certainly one of his works of fiction--a storyline which is anything but clear, a yarn which slows your subjective time to allow for analysis. The fiction of the science isn't of a typical Banks-ian interstellar romp, hyper-terrestrial habitat or xeno-sociology delving. Transition fixes its sights on the science of the infinitude of parallel worlds, the transversing of these said worlds' realities, and confronting the tugging, nagging, irksome issue of solipsism and its allusion to a unique illusionary reality. So, if I had my say on the issue, I would say the book should be under the name of Iain Banks (like in England) rather than Iain M. Banks (as in America).

Rear cover synopsis:
"There is a world that hangs between triumph and catastrophe, between the dismantling of the Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, frozen in the shadow of suicide terrorism and global financial collapse. Such a world requires a firm hand and a guiding light. But does it need the Concern, an all-powerful organization with a malevolent presiding genius, pervasive influence and numberless invisible operatives in possession of extraordinary powers?

Among those operatives are Temudjin Oh, of mysterious Mongolian origins, an unkillable assassin who journeys among the peaks of Nepal, a version of Victorian London and the dark palaces of Venice under snow; Adrian Cubbish, a restlessly greedy City trader; and a nameless, faceless state-sponsored torturer known only as the Philosopher, who moves between time zones with sinister ease. Then there are those who question the Concern: the bandit queen Mrs. Mulverhill, roaming the worlds recruiting rebels to her side, and Patient 8262, under sedation and feigning madness in a forgotten hospital word, in hiding from a dirty past.

There is a world that needs help; but whether it needs the Concern is a different matter."

Tackling the topic of solipsism is a major feat as the metaphysics behind the philosophy can be dauntingly deep. It's not to be a theme taken lightly in a novel nor can it be thoroughly explored due to its expanse of implications and subjective meaning to the individual. A number of other science fiction authors have attempted to question reality within the pages of their novels and the general outcome has usually been enlightening: Ursula K. LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven (1971), James White's The Dream Millennium (1974), Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990), and Greg Egan's Quarantine (1992). Banks, too, does a stellar job of engaging the mind while swimming in the depths of the plot's tapestry.

This tapestry (I find other words lacking in context, conceptualization) is cross-woven with interlinking stories of the characters, sometimes even merging back with itself, like an Ouroboros. And like the snake eating its own tail, these oddly paralleled lifelines consume themselves is a dazzling display of who's-who, what's-what, and the ultimate question: What does it all mean?

However, I found the gratuitous sex a bit of a turn off. I've never encountered so many sex scenes in a Banks novel before (this being my 14th to date). Some of the passages depict scenes of subordination, a sexual exhibition of a character flaw, sexual deception or just good old fashioned lust. Banks touches all of these aspects of human sexuality... so I give him props for taking the stereotypical "sci-fi sex scene" beyond the loathsome grit and woman objectifying.

In the end, literally, I felt the conclusion to be open to interpretation, as I've stated above. Whose solipsist view is the entire story actually seen through? (I can see two or three arguments) Which realty was in fact the original reality? And is this reality the reality of the last stated reality... and so on. The reality issues are endless, much like infinitude of parallel worlds Banks has chosen to enthusiastically depict in a grandiose manner in this deeply interwoven tapestry.

You can't go wrong with a Banks novel. Ever.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

1968: The Last Starship from Earth (Boyd, John)

Sociological impetus concedes to plot twists (3/5)


This was Boyd's first novel back in 1968 and part of a trilogy, of sorts, based on classic myths. Myths have never been my forté and nearly all of the novels which heavily rely on myth connotation are lost on me (Delany's Einstein Intersection to name one). With novels like these, I try to adjust the plot's pressure from the pillar of mythology to the load bearing pillar of science fiction. Sometimes the load is just too much (i.e. Einstein Intersection) and the house of a novel's plot comes crashing down with me shoulder-shrugging in a carefree yet disappointed manner. Thankfully, The Last Starship of Earth wasn't overladen with obvious mythology to topple the novel... Boyd's inexperience was enough to do that.

Rear cover synopsis:
"In the futuristic society that serves as the setting for this elegantly chilling novel, the State decides whole one will choose as one's mate. In any case, professional boundaries cannot be crossed, and thus the young mathematician Haldane IV cannot fall in love with or marry the girl of his choice, the poet Helix. But as the young couple studies ever more closely the long-hidden poems of Fairweather I, whose work years before had completely altered the whole nature of society and who is universally acknowledged to greatest mathematician since Einstein, they realize the verses hold important messages for them--and for the world. What, for example, does this couplet mean?
      That he who loses wins the race,...
      That parallel lines must meet in space.
Even as they ponder, they know that the price, if they are caught, is exile to the planet of Hell."

Welcome to the prefecture of California, part of the Union of North America, itself part of the World State. The triune State is governed by the Three Weird Sisters, "an agglomeration of sociology, psychology, and priests." (52) Where the sociologists and psychologists are concerned about the legality of the State, the Church's main concern is its morality; the psychologists take the broad view and monitor the police activity while sociologists are the administrators and tackle the judiciary side of the law. The population of the earth is divided between the proletariats as "insensate brutes" (136) and professionals as "sheep" (136) to the powers of State.

The professionals seem to be classified by their colleges where prefix "A" stands are ART, prefix "M" stands for MATHEMATICS, and prefix "C" stands for CRIMINOLOGY. Other professions are experienced but the classification seems to be a simple dystopian tag to adhere to the two victims of its own society: Haldane IV (M-5, 138270, 2/10/46) falls in love with the idea of and the ideals of Helix, A-7, 148261. 13/15/47) (I believe the latter numbers refer to their birthdays in regards to the rather confusing 13-month Hebrew Calendar). Each professional classification is mated within its own college, the mate chosen for their genetic synergy in order to produce a greater knowledge-based professional class to drive forward the specific needs of the State, where the proletariats act as general means laborers.

On one fateful day, Haldane was meant to go to the science museum but ended up crossing paths with Helix at the art gallery. The mathematician is intrigued by a facet of the legend of the greatest mathematician to even live that he never knew about--the man also wrote poetry. Helix quotes some poetry by the legend and Haldane never looks back twice. The two clandestinely meet to exchange notes of the subject to ascertain what Fairweather was pointing at with his dichotomous poetry. Haldane's roommate's loaning of his parent's apartment is perfectly suited for these trysts and for his weekly visitations to his father's house.

Fairweather was noteworthy for his contributions to light-speed travel, which allowed ships to traverse space and colonize stars. However, the State was against such an expansion and the trips were limited to the planet Hell, a planet shrouded in propaganda as being desolate, frozen, and four million light-years away in the Cygnus system. One more contribution Fairweather made to society was his invention of the electronic pope, a supercomputer which has the last word on any sentencing done by the State's courts.

The non-physical relationship between Haldane and Helix borders on amorous but their social conditioning is so strong that only a special circumstance (i.e. plot twist) can force the two to a more physical situation. The relationship develops and ends with yet another hasty special circumstance (i.e. predictable plot twist). Thereafter, Haldane spends his time in jail with his lawyer being prepped for his trial against the World State, which calls for subversion against professional all three of the "Weird Sister" fields: sociology, psychology, and The Church. The trial ends with Haldane unsuspectingly given the worst sentence possible.

Witnessing the budding relationship of Haldane and Helix amid the social restrictions imposed by the State was a small spectacle in itself. The technocracy of genetic pairing is familiar territory for science fiction readers yet the entrapment is a fairly old hook (i.e. Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We). Up until the point of the back-to-back plot twists, the book was on a 4.5 mean average, with swathes of sociological implications and heady passages of love yet to be fulfilled. Call me a hopeless romantic, but the combination of the two was an opiate for me.

Then... duhn duhn duhn, the suspenseful soundtrack of an ill attempt at a natural plot twist, which Boyd half-way failed at. I had faith in this unknown author at pulling off the dual plot twists as I had already invested my faith in the first half of the novel. My trust remained strong even through the THIRD plot twists, when I met the scenario with much skepticism and narrowed eyes of disbelief. But when Boyd played his time travel card, I immediately knew that Boyd made the most critical error any author could perpetrate: don't write a story you don't have an ending for. I would usually use "deus ex machina" to describe the sudden event, but this came flying straight out of his rusty bullet hole.

Like the mention of the Hebrew Calendar above and the unmentioned time travel stint with Jesus and the Wandering Jew (oops), there's a more latent judeo-christian underpinning beneath the novel. One lingering questions which a social theologian may want to tackle after reading this novel is, How has the Church affected the course of the sciences of sociology and psychology? It's my final opinion that the years of mention (1850-1966) are of an alternative history. Some historical names of mention (A. Lincoln's "Johannesburg Address" isn't Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address") are altered and point to the alternative history origin.

While most of the historical and mythological portions were lost on me (neither a historian or mythologist, but acquiring the temporary persona of a mathematician), the sociological implications affecting the amorous couple are a highlight... but after the plot twists the wait for the conclusion is all downhill if you subtract the details concerning the government and its history. I already own the second book of the trilogy, The Pollinators of Eden, and glance at it hesitantly. As for book three, The Rakehells of Heaven... I release of ominous sigh of near future acquaintance.