Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of March 2016

#19: More Soviet Science Fiction (1962) – uncredited editors (2/5)
The first set of stories from Soviet Science Fiction (1961) was chosen, according to the introduction written by Isaac Asimov, for their “relative inoffensiveness” to the American reader. Asimov further said that the stories were of the technological ones, stories that had a focus on the gadgets rather the people; in contrast, I found some regard for the ethos of the Russian people and their everyday struggle with State-suppressed creativity (“Spontaneous Reaction”) and State-applauded sacrifice (“Infra Draconis”), for example. In the introduction to More Soviet Science Fiction, Asimov puts forth that the stories all are spirited by the government-approved mantra, “If this goes on, we will achieve an ideal society” (11). Again, I disagree with Asimov on this point. He seems to be grasping at straws here, trying to give the reader what they want to hear: Communist stories for Communists. I think only one of the stories barely touches upon this purported Utopian theme—“The Heart of the Serpent”. Where Soviet Science Fiction is a good collection worthy of a place on my shelves with stories that I’d like to return to one day, More Soviet Science Fiction is a historical curiosity that quickly loses its novelty amid its lackluster stories. This latter collection is unfortunate as I’m sure there are further excellent stories in other collections—some of which I own—that could better reflect the quality of Soviet science fiction. And therein sits this year’s goal. [full review]

#20: An Evil Cradling (1992) – Brian Keenan (4/5)
I read this autobiography twelve years ago when I was 23. It was one of my first such imprisonment stories that have always stuck with me. This may be because I’m someone who values my personal quiet time, who prefers to be alone rather than in the midst of excitement… but I’m also someone who grew up playing alone with Legos, ramming together Matchbox cars, and devising wars for my tiny action heroes. I suppose if you were to take away the Legos, car, and figures… that’s be my personal hell to be left to my imagination and threadbare sanity, much like Keenan was exposed to for part of his imprisonment in Damascus. While Keenan kept his marbles together for the most part, there are brilliant glimpses—amid the poetry, which I’ve never cared for—that offer insight into his own mind, of his companions’ minds as they struggle with physical captivity, and of his captors’ minds as they struggle with mental captivity.

#21: The Best of John Jakes (1977) – John Jakes (3/5)
John Jakes piqued my interest after I picked up and read Secrets of Stardeep (1969) and On Wheels (1973) on a whim, yet was unimpressed with both. John Jakes was a “bestselling author of historical novels with the Kent Family Chronicles of the Civil War era, not speculative fiction. And much like the civil war, this collection is spiced with chauvinism of gender and race. As a bestselling author, one would expect the stories that could plumb the depths of human existence or touch the hearts of many; rather, it’s completely white-male dominated. Even the titles are evidence of the amount of chauvinism—against women and Asians—in the collection: “The Highest Form of Life”, One Race Show”, and “There’s No Vinism Like Chauvinism”. This could (1) be the result of market demand as the stories were written between 1952 and 1968 yet are distinctly not New Wave, progressive stories of which often assume different sex and race roles. It could also (2) be a symptom of the editors’ hand-picking of Jakes’ 72 published SF stories: Martin Harry Greenberg (noted for over thirty years as an editor and anthologist) and Joseph D. Olander (noted for his anthologies in the 1970s). It could also (3) be just part of the author’s repertoire as he also has machismo novels as Brak the Barbarian (1968). [full synopses]

#22: More Things in Heaven (1973) – John Brunner (3/5)
Chalking up my thirty-first Brunner book here and the mediocrity continues. I guess my early Brunner experiences has more variety than my recent experiences, or I’ve just become more discerning; regardless, Brunner is hit-and-miss in terms of novels and in terms of parts of his novels… much like with More Things in Heaven. Good: a hyperspace ship that explored the Alpha Centauri system for two years has just returns to the solar system yet is adrift near Jupiter’s orbit. At the same time, popular science writer Drummond sees his brother’s likeness in Quito while Carmen sees the likeness of her brother, too—both impossible situations as they are still aboard the vessel that had just returned from Alpha Centauri. Meanwhile, the masses are frightened by horizon-spanning monsters that appear and dissolve in a matter of minutes. As he’s in the know, Drummond uses his connections to gather information about the possibility of all three being linked: the likenesses of the crew, the monsters, and the return of the ship. Obvious to the reader, yes, all three are connected and Brunner slowly stitches them together with lackluster predictability. There’s an interesting twist in the hyperspace theory and the origins of man, but they are punches pulled too late without much impact following the drawn-out story.

#23: The Outcast of Heaven Belt (1978) – Joan D. Vinge (3.5/5)
I haven’t come across much of Joan D. Vinge, except her shortstory “View from a Height” (1978) in Terry Carr’s anthology The Best Science Fiction of the Year #8, the story of which I liked even though it wasn’t the best in the collection. This novel was her first, and it feels as clunky as you’d expect from a freshman writer with influential backing. Betha is the captain of an extrasolar starship that has traversed space from her struggling home planet of Morningside to the supposed prosperous neighborhood of Heaven Belt. Her and her marriage group came through years of space so that some level of advancement could be obtained for their home yet upon arrival, they are immediately attacked. The attackers are merely one shard of a system-wide population shattered by a civil war, many shards of which fervently hope for the same thing: the one miracle to save their own sect. The selfish intentions of each are reflected in their obsessive desire for the technological savior in their skies: Betha’s starship, Ranger. With superior speed and planning, Betha is able to evade and deflect hostilities with the help of some unsuspecting conspirators, but there are still some jokers in the stack that could foil her benevolent plans. All in all, it felt too plotted with the various factions vying for control and too focused on three nuances: the cat, the multi-marriage, and the hydrogen.

#24: Paingod (1965) – Harlan Ellison (3/5)
Prior to reading the Paingod collection, I had read twenty-one pieces of Ellison’s short work—mostly in his machismo so-called suspense collection No Doors, No Windows (1975)—only six to which I gave 4 or 5 stars. The first three stories are strong. “Paingod” follows a rather simple plot line with the right twists at the right times, but delivers a message and reminder about the benefits of pain. While the previous story was rather dour, “Repent” is more humorous as the hero of the story first unintentionally erodes the standing system of punctuality then decides to do a few things intentionally. “Crackpots” follows this whimsical note with the notion that what may seem to be illogical actions of some are actually carefully performed acts with higher logic behind them. The last four stories cross the lower spectrum of interest. For me, the first three stories were glimmers of hope for a solid collection of Ellison’s, but the last four stories didn’t delivery what I wanted… something of which even I can’t define. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like; in between is my fluctuating opinion that covers 90% of my reading. [full synopses]

#25: The Fury Out of Time (1965) – Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (4/5)
This is my first piece of work by Biggle, be it a short story or a novel. He’s a virtual unknown to me other than me owner two of his books: this novel, which is his third, and his collection The Metallic Muse (1972), which includes seven of his 38 prior published stories. The Fury Out of Time is a unique novel; it starts with an 11-page setting in bar in which Karvel is a strong yet sympathetic character. When Karvel discovers a spherical object that destroyed the countryside in a spiral manner, he becomes the unsaid expert in its existence. When France finds their own sphere and destruction, Karvel is there eager to test theory: the pulped being and the sphere itself come from the future with intentions unknown. Luckily for him, he gets the attempt to shoot through time in order to investigate. Once there, the culture and language barrier are a difficult barrier for him to cross, but his novelty and importance bring him interest from on high, which, in turn, brings subversive knowledge to Karvel. Ready for yet another trip, he shoots into the past to pinpoint the true nature of the sphere, its original odd passenger, and the reason for its destruction. The three-part plot—discovery, forward trip, backward trip—is a cavalcade of intrigue upon intrigue. The last part, however, tends to taper a bit as it builds upon pessimism and doubt, which contrasts Karvel’s own logic. To sum it up: It’s pretty neat.

#26: Andromeda Gun (1974) – John Boyd (4.5/5)
John Boyn wrote twelve genre novels, of which I read the first three that compromised a thematic trilogy: The Last Starship from Earth (1968), The Pollinators of Eden (1968), and The Rakehells of Heaven (1969). In this trilogy, Pollinators had a tinge of humor with its sophistication more than its predecessor, but Rakehells really stole the show—it was clever and funny, both in blatant and subtle ways. Andromeda Gun is a direct and better evolved descendent of Rakehells: the plot is more deceivingly connived, the humor is more double-tiered, and the overarching plot is better conceived. G-7 is very sophisticated energy being on assignment to the nineteenth-century boondocks of Earth, where he takes Johnny McCloud as his case for evolving a species to Brotherhood with the Galactic. Where McCloud used to be a thieving and immoral knave, G-7 hopes to turn this “organism … bipedal hydrocarbon compound which concert electrochemical energy into mechanical force by hinged calcium compound levers” into a saint worth of species-wide ascension into Galactic Brotherhood. When G-7 landed in the small town of Shoshone Flats, Wyoming, little did it know just how persuasive the hormones and chemicals of McCloud’s composition could be. G-7 makes a good start into converting the once heathen man into a Samaritan, but McCloud errs as he is human…but once erred, his drive tends to influence the nebulous energy of G-7. With persistence, perhaps G-7 can guide McCloud to good, but at the same time, perhaps McCloud will disappoint G-7 and the entire Brotherhood. Its plot is well sculpted for entertainment and the humor is very worthwhile… one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read since… well, read it for yourself.

#27: The Atlantic Abomination (1960) – John Brunner (3.5/5)
Chronologically, this is Brunner’s eighth novel, which falls between two of his great early novels: The World Swappers (1959) and Meeting at Infinity (1961); however, don’t equate this with overall greatness as he has never had the golden touch having produced some duds in the most extreme sense. This is my thirty-second Brunner book, so I can speak with some authority. The Atlantic Abomination starts quite dryly with pulp motives: An ancient relic is discovered under the Atlantic Ocean with mysterious hieroglyphics and later beside a giant, leathered carcass of unimaginable age. One diver is found to have survived underwater for an unusual amount of time and later hijacks some apparatus then steals away onto the sea with unknown intentions. The myth of Atlantis soon rears its head and scientists conjecture about the leathered beast. Soon, a cruise ship goes missing, on which another ascended ancient alien beast converts all to be its slaves. Without remorse, it treats each human lesser than a rodent, driving them with cranial pain until they bleed, break, and die. The American military watches this at a distance until the same ship docks into Jacksonville, where the monstrosity makes it home and converts thousands more to be its mindless slaves. Missiles and chemicals have little effect other than agitating it, so the military consider a nuclear strike with little consideration to the human toll… and here is where the pulp turns into allegory. In reflection, this story closely follows the rise of maniacal rise of Imperial Japan prior to WWII and the Allies effort to deal with continuing blows to the effort: strike the beast but spare the people, until only one option remains: The Bomb. The initial delivery was too pulpy, however, to make up for it.

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