Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of January 2016

#1: Metro 2033 (2007/2009) – Dmitry Glukhovsky (3/5)

While browsing the shelves at the bookstore, I was surprised to see a translated Russian science fiction novel from the last decade. Having been interested in reading more of translated Russian science fiction, I bought the novel and started to read it a few months later. Only two people asked what I was reading: “Is that the same book as the game?” Only then did I do a search online and see that the entire book had previously been serialized (which would explain its blocky feel) in Russian online, had a cult following, and became a game. It has a good sci-fi/horror/post-apocalyptic plot to it, ideal for a game. It has been a decade or two since the war that made life on the surface impossible. The few thousand who have survived live in the Moscow Metro (elsewhere, there must be survivors in similar situation) yet there’s also a form of life above: flying monsters, black figures, and mutants. Young Artyom has only known life in the station of VDNHk, but events lead him to be assigned to an important task: navigate the sometimes deadly tunnels and stations in order to deliver a message. Through his navigation, he experiences the many facets of life underground, the many facets of subjective truth, and secrets about the Metro, its people, and himself. (full review)

#2: Pillars of Salt (1979) – Barbara Paul (4/5)

Barbara Paul is an author of five SF novels and about a dozen SF short pieces. With an academic history in English and theatre history, one would expect some of these themes to run through her early works. Certainly, history plays the commanding role in Pillars of Salt because it’s a time-travel novel, with glimpses of life from a wide range of historical figures: e.g. Van Gogh, Ivan the Terrible, Thakombau, Queen Elizabeth. Most of historical settings are fun settings, but the 5-page setting in the North African arena during WWII is indulgent and a waste of time and paper. Everyday people in the year 2059 are able to travel into the minds of people from history, even young students who learn directly about fragments of history. The professionals, however, spend a lot of their time investigating wide swaths of history and eventually settle onto one person; for. Angie, that person is Queen Elizabeth. She experiences much of her life, but one day chooses to visit her sickness from smallpox, when she unexpectedly witnesses her death… and Angie’s own animation of her body. If the Queen had died, how did she reign for forty more years? The academic circle investigates the phenomenon, which indicates that it actually affects the present and speculates what the future has in store.

#3: The Dreaming Earth (1963) – John Brunner (3/5)

I’ve read more Brunner than I can count… just kidding, this is the thirtieth piece of Brunner’s work that I’ve read, including novels, collections, and his hodgepodge The Book of John Brunner (1976). I’ve said in previous Brunner reviews that each of his books is different, that there were many facets to his artistry. Now having read thirty of his books, some ubiquitous themes are becoming a poor, most of them found in The Dreaming Earth: over population, drug use of the disenchanted, hypnotism, whodunit disappearances, and videophones. This novel doesn’t have espionage—another common Brunner inclusion—but it does include a conspiratorial global organization. The drug here—happy dreams—shows up in many places around the globe and some of its users are disappearing. The narcotic agency of the UN think that they’ve just up and gone, but some hare-brained thinkers hypothesize that they’ve transcended. Greville becomes victim to the mildly hallucinating drug due to his scheming wife, but he soon recovers and pushes himself to uncover the drug’s mysteries: How is it distributed? Where do the addicts disappear to? Where does the drug even come from? Just when he’s in the thick of it does the reader realize that so much of it is predictable and the punch near the end is weak.

#4: The Raw Shark Texts (2007) – Steven Hall (4/5)

If you’ve read any Murakami, you will be able to tell that this book is heavily influenced from his writing. Instead of a sultry affair with a buxom woman, there’s an awkward affair with a skinny blonde; and instead of fine whiskey, there is a shark… something like that. Three similarities stand: mysterious underground passages, a cat as sidekick, and magical realism. Eric Sanderson awakens to the world with no memory, yet his former self leaves a note telling him what to do. His psychologist offers no real help, so Eric turns to a dangerous form of information: almost daily notes delivered by his former self which allude to an unfathomable menace. When he has his first brush of danger from the menace, Eric reads all the letters and goes down the metaphorical rabbit of searching for his past—what happened to his former self—and his future self—keeping his memory in tact. This leads him to a distant farmland, a crumbling concrete passage, and a crawlspace lined with texts. It’s a bizarre affair from start to finish, but worthwhile to read about someone without hope or history to find salvation in the unknown.

#5: Of Men and Monsters (1968) – William Tenn (4/5)

I love part of the summary on the back of the novel: “a clear-eyed tribute to the audacity, shrewdness, stupidity, courage and ultimate ineradicability of the human pest”. Any novel that paints an unfavorable picture of humanity as stupid, I tend to love. In addition to Joachim’s own review, this novel—my first of Tenn’s—looked like a juicy morsel. Cockroaches are pests in human abode, but even they live in an even larger abode of the invading monsters, who have taken over earth. The towering monsters that terrorize the comparatively pint-sized humans treat them as pests, so the small bands of humans cower away and whittle away their inferior lives within the walls. Given their isolation, they think the world is as large as they can see, but there are walls beyond the walls, and thoughts beyond their thoughts. Unable to view the bigger perspective, petty issues cloud their collective minds. One group resists this impetuous incivility, for which the naïve protagonist—Eric—is destined.

#6: Doomsday Wing (1963) – George H. Smith (1/5)

It’s always a teacher’s advice to keep reading to improve your reading skills; likewise, keep writing to improve your writing skills. Unfortunately, I guess writing erotica doesn’t hone one’s skills; case in point: George H. Smith (not to be confused with George O. Smith of Venus Equilateral fame). Colonel Chris Tolliver is part of Wing D, an innocuous missile base with some curious participants. When Chris learns that that the “D” stands for “Doomsday”, he gets a case of the nerves. These nerves wreck havoc on his failing marriage to a wife he admits he married for her face; even before, there was that time in Japan with that 21-year-old. Anyway, his colleagues all have dead ex-wives and second wives, so it sounds pretty easy for him to move on with his life if his old cow kicks the bucket. When the US gets attacked by a lone Soviet missile base—commanded by the eccentric General Nikolai Ilich Aristov—the US retaliates with limited strikes. On both sides, the deaths are appalling as bases are laid to waste and bombers are shot from the sky. But in 124 pages, the fulcrum between pre-war and post-war is too hasty and cobbled-together, which only becomes hastier toward the conclusion when it’s just bad, plain bad. This book has about as much give-a-fuck as an erotic dime novel: Sorority Sluts (1962), The Virtuous Harlots (1963), Country Club Lesbian (1963), or Orgy Buyer (1965).

#7: Lords of the Psychon (1963) – Daniel F. Galouye (2/5)

I have had three Galouye novels (out of his total of five) and I’m saving his most renowned for last: Simulacron-3 (1964). I read The Infinite Man (1973) last year and was unimpressed enough to give it a three out of five. If taking into account Lords of Psychon, I would thus far say that he’s a middling author. However, I am intrigued by his wealth of short stories, which number about seventy. Back to Lords of Psychon… enigmatic man-sized sphere appeared on earth in 1977, destroying all electrical items and sending mankind into seizures for weeks. Now in the 1990s, bands of people are scattered about the land. One last outpost of former American military wheels a nuke into the neighboring opalescent tower where uncommunicative spheres come and go, the blast is a mere pop and the tower stands still. When Captain Maddox discovers a woman who keeps a young sphere in a barn, the two contemplate its usefulness as an experiment, which helps them tap into its mysteries. The spheres occasionally hunt people down and hurl bolts at them, but now Maddox has discovered that some of these powers can be harnessed by people, too. But throughout the novel, boredom grips the reader in such spasms that only a few pages can be read in one sitting.

#8: The Human Angle (1956) – William Tenn (4/5)

Just this month, I read my first William Tenn novel: Of Men and Monsters (1968). Though this latter book is more than ten years later than his short work in this reviewed collection, it still shows his knack for creativity, zaniness, and depth, three words of which would also describe Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley. Of the eight stories, two seemed familiar, but it took me a while to realize that I had them before: I had read “Project Hush” before in Asimov’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) and “Party of the Two Parts” in Santesson’s Gentle Invaders (1969). The latter of which is bizarrely unique story of alien oddities and galactic law. This one steals the show out of the entire collection. In close second is “The Servant Problem”. This story isn’t one of blunt humor, but a cultural introspection of the familiar theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—it’s poignant yet absurd. (full synopses)

#9: Synthajoy (1968) – D.G. Compton (5/5)

After reading Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966) and The Steel Crocodile (1970), I knew Compton was an author whom I would have to pay attention to; both books were solid and enticing in on way or another. Synthajoy falls between them both and smothers them both with its percolating personal history, layers of psychology (always fascinating to me), and teetering success of a new technology. Thea Cadence neé Springfield fell deeply in love with the doctor she was working with—a brilliant psychologist named Edward Cadence. She was so in love with him, in fact, that she was blind his to faults, perhaps because of his radiant passion for developing Sensitape. He was able to record emotions and experiences onto tape and later feed it back into another person’s mind. The creation of a Sexitape—legally taken between Mr. and Mrs. X—caused nearly instant fame, but the clinical and recreational use of the tape—its true indication of success—had yet to break through. Now, Thea is alive and in the same institution she helped build with her late husband, who has died in an unmentioned incident, which is also why Thea is receiving treatment with Sensitape. Her story evolves slowly through a clouded mind on sedatives, yet even her own story takes a few u-turns, testimony which is verified with stenographic conversations. This one is deep and tumultuous, a real delight for the observant and analytical mind.

#10: Unearthly Neighbors (1960) – Chad Oliver (1/5)

I remember enjoying Chad Oliver’s story “Transfusion” (1959) in Groff Conklin’s Worlds of When (1962). It was something a little different, a little fun, so I decided to pick up anything else by the same author—the result: Unearthly Neighbors. I had been excited for a while at the thought of picking it up.  The first few pages and chapters were OK: a mission to Sirius Nine as discovered a humanoid species and since Monte Stewart is one of the leading anthropologists, the UN decides to send him and let him pick his team, who all seem to take their wives on the three-year mission to an uncharted planet. Once on the planet and meeting the locals, somehow the book becomes dull. One man lives in an unnaturally hollowed out tree and commands a wolf-like animal, leading the reader to a basic assumption, the same assumption is takes the characters another hundred pages to figure out. As an official mission to an alien people, they seriously botch up first contact. In addition, their guesswork on their language abruptly turns to fluency, the humans being able to use alien verb tenses (heavily using formal present perfect); allegories that seem to bridge cultures; subject, object, and even reflexive pronouns; first conditional clauses; and difficult vocabulary such as tide and current, and trial and verdict. Unearthly Neighbors gets a point for grim unforeseen violence in the middle and some philosophical conjecturing toward the end, but it tapers poorly and the result of the novel is a flaccid and forgettable.

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