Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, August 31, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of August 2015

#47: The Stars are Too High (1959) – Agnew H. Bahnson, Jr. (1/5)
This author only ever wrote one book, which is a good thing judging by the quality of this single piece of writing. It’s painfully dull, littered with unspirited motivations, rigidly assigned sex roles, and a stupid love story. The thick of it is: A post-war German scientist creates a functional gravity drive under the employ of John Sloan, a wealthy man in the aircraft business. John’s right-hand man is Jack Baker, his nephew, who he has raised as a son from a young age. The three decide to use their machine for peace, rather than war, so they concoct a scheme where they would seem like aliens delivering a message. They rope in Dr. Henry Alvin, high-level military brass, from the Pentagon to be their eyes and ears from within the government. Bent of delivering world peace on a full-time basis, Jack isn’t allowed to become involved with his lover interest, Sandy Carlson, in Cleveland. Jack must decide between love for mankind and love for Sandy… if they all don’t get caught first.

#48: Best Science Fiction of the Year 5 (1976) – Lester del Rey (4/5)
I’m a skeptical believer when it comes to award-winning novels, all-time favorite novels, and so-called best-of collections. I very rarely agree with any objective praise lavished on a story because, for me, the subjective appeal is much more important to me that any trophy. If a story hits a nerve in me to some degree, it appeals to me, which is why del Rey’s best-of collection here ranks among one of my favorites. Some are quirky and fun, making you smile; some are reflective and humanistic, making you think; the others are fine yet are pale in comparison as they don’t offer a smile or a thought. Among the best are Phyllis Eisenstein’s probing of the alien and human condition in the “Tree of Life” (1975) and Hayford Peirce’s utterly unique and detailed “High Yield Bondage” (1975)—the former to make you think, the latter to make you smile. (full review)

#49: The Quy Effect (1967) – Arthur Sellings (1/5)
Yet another case of new author/unknown book. This a gamble I’m willing to take, but it’s a result like this that I always fear. I had bought another book by the same author at a different time, so the name was familiar to me, but the contents of both were still a mystery. The pulpy synopsis of “Its implications were so revolutionary as to render all past scientific concepts obsolete” had me intrigued in juxtaposition with its publication date; surely, no inferior pulp such as this would have been produced by 1967! Lo and behold this dull and drawn out, hokey and amateurish, juvenile and brain-dead pulp for those of the same ilk (?). The geriatric yet mildly inventive Adolphe Quy creates a compound that blows the roof off of the company he worked for. With the accident, the company abruptly fires him and threatens him with lawsuits, yet the knavish old man always has tricks up his sleeve. Seeking sponsorship for his organic compound that deflects gravity, Quy stoops low to save the only thing that he has to live for—the one material that exhibits the Quy Effect… albeit on his own quid, another’s few thousand quid, or under the guise of a laboratory assistant. His own son despises him; his grandson admires him—both perspectives warped by the metamorphic façade of Adolphe Quy.

#50: A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965) – John Christopher (5/5)
It’s unfortunate that I own the 1978 Sphere edition of A Wrinkle in the Skin, the cover of which screams at the reader like a cheap disaster novel. The 1970s were an era of the disaster film, among the generically titled: Earthquake (1974) and Tidal Wave (1975). There were also novels—i.e. Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977)—but most were pinned on depicting the disaster and not the people. Pawing A Wrinkle in the Skin off as a cheap “global disaster” novel is cheap gimmick to sell books—shame on Sphere for digging low. Christopher’s novel is far above the dregs of other disaster films or novels because it captures the spectrum of coping mechanisms in the face of disaster, the malleability of the mind under extreme conditions, and the bleakness/hopelessness of the scene. A series of global earthquakes eventually reaches England and the Channel Islands, one of which is inhabited by temperate tomato farmer Matthew. After saving a boy from the rubble of his family’s home, the two set out across the denuded seabed to find Matthew’s daughter, barring anarchy, despotism, hermits, and the up-thrusting of the earth beneath their feet.

#51: The Tides of Time (1983) – John Brunner (3/5)
I’ve read twenty-nine pieces of Brunner’s work, from popular novels to one-offs, from extra long novels to his one-page poetry, and from his serious work to his humorous work—I’ve covered the Brunner spectrum. Sometimes it’s great (The World Swappers) and sometimes it sucks (“No Other God But Me”). I had read that The Tides of Time was one of Brunner’s more experimental works, so having read so much of his work, I was eager to tackle it. Most of the novel is a series of connected vignettes revolving around the two man characters: Gene and Stacy. The start of the novel doesn’t make clear why the duo is reclusive; they rid their automated boat of tracking devices and set upon a Mediterranean island beach, where they sleep. After each period of sleep, they awake in a previous era, which keep regressing as far as the Crusades and the rule of the Roman Empire. The recurring themes and highlighted relics in each story are tantalizing… but Brunner blows is all with the grandiose pseudo-scientific conclusion where the protagonist—Gene—spouts his theory to scientists who linger upon his every word like the gospel. It could have been so good if it had been open-ended.

#52: Intermind (1967) – Arthur Sellings (3/5)
I only had two of Sellings novels on my shelves last month, yet this month I drew both in near succession (it’s impossible for me to choose which book to read next, so I have to randomize the decision-making—don’t ask). Sellings’ novel The Quy Effect (1967) was a gag-inducing read. Reading the synopsis for Intermind, it sounded like a much more sophisticated novel—strange considering that both novels were published in the same year. The novel is framed as science fiction—it almost opens with scientific non-sense: a transfer of cerebrospinal fluid gives the recipient the vague recollection of the donor. The meat of the novel, however, is a calm spy mystery situated in Turkey (pun unintended). It reads like a semi-autobiographical tour of the sights and sounds of Istanbul, but it matches well with the mystery—why had the previous agent been there and where will it all lead? Ryder is the spy and his main weakness is alcohol, which actually benefits his recollection from the cerebrospinal fluid of the dead spy (eww, right?). In the end, as mentioned above, it returns to scientific non-sense that doesn’t tie in well at all with the rest of the novel; it even loses focus on the memories of the dead spy—that just tapers off, like the rest of the novel.

#53: ICO: Castle in the Mist (2008/2011) – Miyuki Miyabe (2/5)
I don’t read fantasy. There are very few exceptions, like when the crossover with science fiction is subtle. I’m not at all into swords and sorcery, dragons and demons, elves and arrows, or kingdoms and castles—my tolerance for any of that is really low. With Ico, I made an exception for two reasons: 1) I loved the PlayStation game of the same title back in 2001 and 2) it’s a Japanese translation—quirky combination. Ico isn’t a Tolkien fantasy so dragons, elves, and dwarves are absent, but there still remain magic, swords, spells, a castle and its queen, and a warrior from a far away land. A boy born with horns is sent to a castle as a sacrifice, a generational offering that appeases whatever holds a spell over the land. An outcast from his village, he is taken to the castle where he’s placed in a sarcophagus, but it immediately breaks because of the Mark he wears that wards off evil. In the castle, he finds a desultory girl, whom he decides to rescue from her cage and the prison as her castle. The castle is old, the castle is haunted, and the boy—Ico—is caught between forces her doesn’t yet understand; he only knows his destiny. (full review)

#54: The Unreal People (1973) – Martin Siegel (3/5)
I read this book just three years ago and, just before picking it up again for a reading project, I could barely remember the plot… and it didn’t help that I also was also confusing it with Guy Snyder’s Testament XXI (1973). With a faulty memory, I plunged ahead looking for that gratification that I had had before (I gave it four stars in 2012). Though there’s a decent thematic echoing toward the conclusion, I never found that spark again. The underground city has been in a state of decay for generation after the war, the plague, and the voluntary submersion to the depths of the earth. The population stagnating, the genetic pool regressing, the food quality deteriorating, and the general state of living plummeting, recent talk has been made to move the entire population to the surface. Rumor is that the First Guide won’t welcome that option, so a senior Nark Skwad member—Conrad—has the know-how and know-who to cull off an assassination and coup, but only if he can wean himself off his loyalty drug addiction. Meanwhile, different facets of the subterranean community gleam in the grim of their everyday lives. (original review)

#55: A Maze of Stars (1991) – John Brunner (4/5)
Prior to traveling, the last thing to always be packed is the books I’m going to read on the trip… near panic-mode. Do I read something new that I may not like? Or do I read something old yet relevant? Or do I pick up one of my favorite authors? I chose Brunner’s A Maze of Stars for my Tokyo flight and trip because he’s an author I like and I thought the story matched well with my trip. The Ship had seeded the local arm of the galaxy, with its 600-some inhabitable or semi-inhabitable planets, about 500 years ago. The spores drifting in space help humans, who have been colonizing the planets, evolve faster in order to adapt to the local situation. After its massive bulk had dropped off all the colonists, it was programmed to return to each world and assess their progress, yet not to intervene. The Ship, however, finds a loophole where it was pick up passengers who are surely to die, which gives Ship some much needed companionship and understanding of the states of what it means to be human, regardless of culture.

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