Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, February 8, 2016

1985: The Monadic Universe (Zebrowski, George)

Very slow to peak in quality, but maintains thereafter (3/5)

Joachim Boaz gives the best kind of gifts: secondhand SF books; unfortunately, as per his sense of humor, he likes to include atrociously bad titles such as Irving A. Greenfield’s Waters of Death (1967). Rightfully, I look these gift-horses in the mouth… some are good, some are bad. With Zebrowski’s The Monadic Universe, it started off as the latter—bad, bad, bad, as he even stated himself, here.

Unlike Joachim’s own 1977 edition, my 1985 edition has two additional stories, both of which add much needed quality to the sluggish start of the collection: “Wayside World” (1977) and “The Word Sweep” (1979). The first eight stories—yes, all eight—feel like good ideas wasted with poor execution, especially the three chronological stories with Praeger; these felt like non-stories, snippets of something that never gather enough momentum of its own to push it toward relevance, thereby leaving it fledgling like a lame duckling far behind its majestic mother. When compared to the last six stories—yes, all six—the first eight are contrastingly poor. But, ah, the latter six stories are all worthwhile, almost worthwhile enough to slog through the first eight… but don’t do that.

“First Love, First Fear” (1972, shortstory) – 2/5
His world limited to a beach, its shallow waters, and the slope of ground inland, a boy doesn’t have much company aside from his father and Jak. At thirteen years of age and having never seen a live woman, his experiences are as limited as his environment on the planet of Lea. Swimming to a shallow rock, an alien girl—the first he’s ever seen—touches him and plays a seductive game of tag in the sea. Soon, a bellow from the beach sends her off. Tim follows to learn a lesson of the planet on which he lives. 10 pages

“Starcrossed” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Robbed of his humanity since before his birth, a boy’s mind was plucked from its prenatal state in order to become a Modified Organic Brain capable of a near-light speed survey mission to Antares. Prior to its slip into twelve years of transit through the other-space, the Brain enters a sleep where dreams of mission fulfillment span its inner void. Awakening with disorientation, the Brain feels and hears the presence of a female who seeks his companionship as his probe comes close to the hot radiating star. 7 pages

“Assassins of Air” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Turning earth’s trash into a moderate treasure, Praeger and his gang strip fossil-fuel burning cars down one by one for the benefit of their pockets and the earth. Humble yet illegal, Praeger knows that something better can be had with his life, so he pays to sneak in lessons from the automated education machine. When his gang learns of his lofty plans, their brotherhood turns to confrontation as they harass him at home and as he attempts to leave the city. 9 pages

Parks of Rest and Culture” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Praeger’s job in the city is the only thing that keeps him going in life. The park isn’t what it used to be now that it’s devoid of life, his wife isn’t the person he married because she has left him, and even the city seems to have turned ever uglier. There’s only one lofty ambition that remains the sole light at the end of his bleak tunnel: leave earth in favor of work in orbit or the moon. When he’s summoned for just that job, he easily leaves behind everything that’s failed him 12 pages

“The Water Sculptor” (1970, shortstory) – 2/5
Perched in orbit watching clouds tumult over the Pacific, Praeger feels content now that he’s left earth behind, except for his occasional vacation back. After his failed relationship with Betty, Praeger takes to a more mature relationship with orbital artsist and self-made idol of success—Julian. As an artist, he forms ice in abstract patterns to be left to decay by the grit and glare from the solar system. After an interview, Julian speaks with Praeger and hints at his dissatisfaction with everything. 8 pages

“Rope of Glass” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Dying in a world where dying is illegal, Sam Brickner ekes out a living with mimic-leukemia for which he needs medicine. When euthanasia is the treatment for terminal illness and old age, Sam is a rebel struggling with the side-effects in order to live a few more years. Unknown to him, his wife has been seeing a man—Harry Andrews—for his medicine; the relationship hasn’t been a professional one, and now Sam must face something more than just losing his life. 13 pages

“Heathen God” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Unbeknownst to most of humankind, there actually was a real live creator of heaven and earth, yet that creator only made the solar system and humankind. That singular creator happens to still be alive and is a member of an alien race of whom humans only know of the creator himself: a white-haired gnome. Forsakenly, he’s imprisoned on a planet of gardens where soon two men secretly come to interview him for a purpose greater than mere curiosity yet beyond blasphemy. 11 pages

“Interpose” (1971, shortstory) – 3/5
Future humans with he ability to travel through time are bent on pillaging history as they cut Jesus down from the cross and transport him back to the future. Jesus understands their plan in his omnipotent ways and escapes through time to 1915. After twenty years living in a modern city, he’s disgusted by the twisting of his teachings. Surviving on the street with his hand clutching a bottle of whisky, his wise teachings are ignored on a daily basis and, near his death, on this very occasion. 8 pages

“The History Machine” (1972, shortstory) – 5/5
Very few people on the good earth can own and use a history machine—historians are one of them. As every event leaves a record of itself on the atomic level, humankind has created a device that can record and replay these moments be they personal and recent or significant and distant. One historian tapes his personal life, even taping himself viewing historical events, which leads him to philosophize about the impossibility of witnessing history objectively and without the onus of the past. 7 pages

“The Cliometricon” (1975, shortstory) – 4/5
General Eisenhower stands on the cliffs of Dover where history branches into his near-infinity of possible realities: he envisions Germany’s nuclear bomb over England, he is shot by an emerging U-boat and swims to shore, or he decides the Allies should invade all of Europe. This view of the branching of possible realities is made possible by the Cliometricon, which one historian uses to view major events of the past, but also illegally viewing events of his own life—the current now or the alternative selves in alternative worlds. 8 pages

“Stance of Splendor” (1973, shortstory) – 4/5
The subjective, intangible self is a kernel of static memories, passing thoughts, and blossoming ambition; it’s also a locus for self-deception, psychosis, and the multi-faceted ego. One man, given immortality of sorts, experiences an expansion of awareness through the earth, its solar system and its sun, through near-space, the edges of the galaxy and its core. As he passes through and becomes part of space, time is the one factor that defeats him, casting him away from everything he once knew. 6 pages

“Wayside World” (1977, novelette) – 4/5
Anneka’s elderly 30-year-old parents lie dying, a burden to her three male companions: alpha male brothers Foler and Thessan along with the suppressed yet learned Ishbok. After the death of her parents, Ishbok takes a gamble and stands up to the brothers but doesn’t win support from the beautiful Anneka. From the base of a city’s tower in which they reside, he flees higher and higher to the roof to be left alone under the glare of the sun named Cleopatra and uncountable stars that bring a wind a change. 29 pages

“The Monadic Universe” (1972, novelette) – 4/5
Three ships are forcefully sent away from earth toward the planet- and star-rich core of the galaxy. On their eighty-year flight, the ships are confined to the enigmatic void of hyperspace, with which humanity has only just begun to experiment… and also why the ships were sent with such haste. One nameless ship harbors the wakened minds of three men while hundreds more lie asleep. On the simulated screen of the stars that reflect their passage in real-space, their sanity is tested as the blank void of hyperspace begins to take form. 27 pages

“The Word Sweep” (1979, shortstory) – 4/5
Words used to only gather in minds and one paper, but spoken words begin to manifest in the air and gather on the ground: whispers, secrets, conversations, speeches, obscenities, sleep-talk, and radio-talk. Cities begin to flood under the daily torrent of people’s collective utterances, the various shapes and forms of their words needing to be shipped to landfills or the incinerator. Felix enforces the rations of spoken words in a five-block square of the city; Bruno is his friend who has an idea about the plague and the piling of all the words. 12 pages

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