Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of February 2016

#11: Soviet Science Fiction (1962) – uncredited editor (4/5)

The Iron Curtain once held back more than culture and economy, but at the same time, the shroud became an intriguing mystery to some. The USSR was an unfathomable territory and within its expansive borders it contained an infinity of nuances, nooks and crannies, and its own literature. Around 2000, I was compelled to read Soviet-era travel fiction to experience this mystification of the USA’s old enemy, a sub-genre that I continue to read today. I’m only now getting around to reading Soviet SF. After my Japanese SF project last year, I decided to take the dive in to Soviet SF… so this is the first in a series. Isaac Asimov’s introduction sort of sets the reader up for disappointment: “the particular stories in this book were selected in part for their relative inoffensiveness [in regards to propaganda and anti-Americanisms]”. The collection starts with the dull “Hoity-Toity” (1930/1961) but follows with five better stories, all but one a 4-star read. You may think that all stories would have a heavy sociological slant, but you’d have to dig a little to get to that kind of message. I’ve tried to portray each story in terms of propaganda, but actually they read just like any other collection from the 1950s. (full review)

#12: The Day of the Shield (1973) – Antony Alban (2/5)

This author only wrote two SF novels: the one featured here and Catharsis Central (1968). The latter novel was published twice and The Day of the Shield was only published once. I can’t find anything else the author ever did, so it seems like he’s lost in the sands of time. It’s no wonder though that The Day of the Shield never saw the light of day again—everything about the novel is a forced idea that fails to find a grip on the weak scaffolding of the plot. With Russia and China nuked to oblivion, the eurofed and America were left untouched because of their powered domes which shielded them from attack. America devolved into neofeudalism where the Owners of states prolong their lives with “body servants, who are mere indentured slaves for body parts for five years. Fisk is indentured to a vixen who is the daughter of the proclaimed president of the entire land. The Owner himself requests his presence, sending him into a modern complex labyrinth of death by disobedience. Soon, he’s embroiled in an underground movement with unknown motives. Actually, as the cover states, that motive is to bring down the dome, which the reader doesn’t find out until the last seven pages of the 191-page novel. Everything is forced and blocky, but at least it’s a mind-numbing read.

#13: The Monadic Universe (1985) – George Zebrowski (3/5)

‘Twas a gift from Joachim Boaz, a collection of which he himself berated. I had much trepidation opening this one! 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. (full synopses)

#14: The Probability Man (1972) – Brian N. Ball (2/5)

I’ve only read Ball’s Singularity Station (1973), which was an impulse buy long ago. Innocuous as it was sitting on my shelf and without any notable reviews online, I picked up only to be surprised by how fun it was. Now, “fun” isn’t a term I use very often to describe plots or stories, but Singularity Station had all the bells and whistles for a stereotypical science fiction novel, yet done to an expert degree. Since then—2011—I’ve been anxious to see what else he had written, and when I pulled The Probability Man from my shelves, I was almost salivating; sadly, that “expert degree” that I mentioned before is sorely lacking here. It tries so hard to be a fun novel and it tries to be clever by pulling strings together in the end, yet it’s just so tedious for a 175-page novel. Spingarn knows that he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s exactly doing, yet he lives through an eighteenth-century siege when he realizes that it’s just a Plot in a Frame. After he calls a Time-Out, he begins to learn more about the man who he used to be; memories come trickling back, names begin to establish importance, and once common knowledge morphs into newly learned facts. The reader is dragged through his bizarre experience in these historical Plots in the far future, where he muddles through his past to save the future of humankind, or something. There are plot twists, metaphorical rabbits in the hand and slights of hand, but in the end it all seems to pressured to be outlandish rather than outstanding.

#15: Canal Dreams (1989) – Iain Banks (4/5)

Of Banks’s 30 published books, I’ve now read 22 of them. I still need to read six pieces of his fiction in addition to Raw Spirit (2003) and Poems (2015), all of which I own. He’s the one author I’ve re-read the most often. Needless to say, I very very much look forward to picking up one of his books that I’ve never read… or one that I have read, for that matter. Regardless of being fiction, poetry, short stories, or science fiction, I open his books reverently. Canal Dreams started off in unfamiliar waters: a renowned female Japanese cellist is stranded aboard a freighter in the Panama Canal due to a regional war, the ship of which becomes besieged by seeming guerillas with a hidden agenda. No castles, no Scotland, no bridges? Hmm, it was off-key but I settled in to it with heightened expectation… but what followed felt like an airport novel on the brink of being a thriller yet with rich character development. I hasten to say that my interest began to pique with the book’s own peak of action. In retrospect, the placid waters of the developing plot and the disassociative dreams played right into the arms of the downward spiral of inner torture of Hisako Onoda. Symbolism and parallelisms are subtle yet bloom in full with the resulting actions, the consequences. Clever—damn clever.

#16: Beggars in Spain (1993) – Nancy Kress (4/5)

Prior to Beggars in Spain, I had only come across two of Kress’s short works: “Inertia” (1990) in Wastelands (2008) and “Evolution” (1995) in Year’s Best SF (1996). I really liked the former, but not so much the latter; regardless, I knew Kress was one author of who I had to read more… so Beggars in Spain became my purchase. If you haven’t read the original novella like me, here the breakdown: Gene modification has come so far that children can now be engineered to not sleep. The result of the permanent sleeplessness is accelerated learning, productivity, and overall drive. Because the genetic alteration is prohibitively expensive, only a few thousand have the trait, yet they become vilified when it’s discovered that they share one additional characteristic: agelessness from cell repair. Soon, America is divided by law and society as to what exactly “all men are created equal” means. Leisha is one of the first Sleepless and takes a humanistic approach to the social problem; Jennifer, rather, takes the insular approach and begins to barricade the Sleepless while exploiting their talents through the economy. Years later, after Leisha and her sheltered-by-fear Sleepless cohorts have established an orbital colony, they produce their own modified version of genetic perfection—also sleepless yet whose minds whirl with complexity. Leisha tends to the society that had once forsaken them while Jennifer plots otherwise; in between, the American government must take a side. Occasionally a bit preacher on the philosophical front and a bit too Americentric, the novel recovers by drawing various parallels to history and subtly alluding to a few others.

#17: Catharsis Central (1969) – Antony Alban (2/5)

Sorry for me. I picked up two books by Antony Alban on a whim at a secondhand bookstore. It turns out that same two books were the only two books that the author had ever written. I had already read Day of the Shield (1973) this month and found it a chore at times, so I mildly whimpered when I pulled Catharsis Central from my to-be-read pile. Catharsis doesn’t feel as forced at Shield, but it still hurts to read it. For sake of brevity, I’ll try to synopsize this novel in one sentence. For hundreds of years, the citizens of the Settlements have snoozed peacefully and lived compliantly because of Catharsis Central, which monitors their moods and keeps everyone calm; regardless of the wide-spread peace, someone is beginning to kill off those who work for Catharsis, the murder whose agenda cannot be anything other than total revolution, but by what other means? Consider the number of generic tropes: domes cities, autochefs, disposal chutes, travelators, janitor robots, televisor consoles, algae tanks, and a central computer. There is very little that is original in this novel… but one thing does stand out: the laugh-out-loud, guffaw-worthy sex scenes. Allow me to quote: “Carlsen [the protagonist] was very good in bed; all of his women had said so” (18), “the full breasts swaying like perfect fruit from the taut lines of her neck and shoulders …. Eva urged him on with rapid plungings of her hips” (115-116), and “her eyes locked with Carlsen’s, sending a surge of love across the room like a high-voltage current” (127). I literally guffawed aloud on public transportation. Avoid Alban, unless for laughs.

#18: Children of the Wind (1989) – Kate Wilhelm (3/5)

My experience with Wilhelm is limited to three novels and two novellas, all of which I have given a 3- or 4-star rating; for example, her novel The Killer Thing (1967) was quite good while “The Plastic Abyss” (1971) left something to be desired for. Neither have I been impressed nor disappointed. In her collection Children of the Wind, the stories don’t impress me yet again, but further, I’m disappointed in two of the five. I wasn’t under the assumption that all five stories would be science fiction; I’m quite open to reading non-genre fiction and a bit of non-Tolkien/non-paranormal fantasy. Of the five stories in this collection, two are paranormal fantasy, two are fiction, and one is science fiction. Perhaps because of my distaste for fantasy, those two stories were the weakest, in my opinion. I couldn’t immerse myself in the story, couldn’t draw any parallelisms, couldn’t sense any direction or point. In contrast to these two dullards—one of which actually received a Nebula award for Best Novella (“The Girl Who Fell into the Sky”)—the one science fiction story (“A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls “) and the first story (“Children of the Wind “) are pretty good, but not great. (full synopses)

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