Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of April 2016

#28: The Ultimate Threshold (1970) – Mirra Ginsburg (3.5/5)
This is the third consecutive month that I’ve read collections of science fiction from the Soviet Union. The dully yet aptly titled Soviet Science Fiction (1962) collection was a tightly bundled trove, comprised of six stories, with only one weak story. Its successor, More Soviet Science Fiction (1962), was less successful, however—none of its five stories really stood out. Here in The Ultimate Threshold, Ginsburg has translated and provided and ample thirteen stories for the reader. In her introduction, Ginsburg states that the collection was selected “first and foremost, for its literary excellence” but also stories that were “written with skill and wit, interesting in their ideas, free of clichés, and, above all, free of political dogma” (xi). While the political and/or social rhetorical may not be explicit, it can never be completely scrubbed away; nearly all the stories have inferences to Soviet state of mind. The best stories are Olga Larionova’s “The Useless Planet” (1967/1967) and German Maksimov’s “The Ultimate Threshold” (1965/1970). Both really drive home a social commentary that isn’t purely Russian—rather, it applies to the human condition. [full reviews]

#29: Chernobyl (1988) – Frederik Pohl (3/5)
I remember that my first essay in high school was one of organizing facts. For whatever reason, I chose the Chernobyl accident as my topic. I don’t remember by grade or my prose, but the independence of the essay allowed me to “surf the Internet” (‘twas 1995, after all) for something that I was interested in. Then in 2012, I fell back into Chernobyl history while writing a short story for my graduate program, which spawned a yet-to-completed novella. Pohl’s fictional portrayal of the event is based on the facts of the time, but rather than focus merely on the ins and outs of the plagued facilities and the resulting illness, Pohl takes the limelight to the people involved, albeit fictional and forced twists on actual people and situations. The story paints the Soviet system, first, in negative light but through some sympathetic perspectives, the reader begins to understand the broader situation that caused the Chernobyl event; in addition, it also shakes a finger at the West for their coverage of the same event. It’s an odd juxtaposition but satisfying… if it weren’t for some rather forced segments about the Ukrainian history of the Jews and a surprising meeting with a member of the Central Committee. I wanted to love it, given my history with the subject—I did—but when left in Pohl’s hands, the result is lackluster, like much of Pohl’s other work.

#30: The Impossible Man (1966) – J. G. Ballard (4.5/5)
This is my fifth Ballard book, a tally which includes two other collections (Terminal Beach [1964] and Vermilion Sands [1971]), a fictional novel (The Drought [1965]), and a semiautobiographical novel (Empire of the Sun [1984]). Inclusive of The Impossible Man, these five books have been fantastic reads as their saturated with symbolism and parallelism, the layers of which tend to leave the mind reeling. The nine stories span a time of only four years: 1963 to 1966. During these four years, Ballard actually wrote thirty-one stories of SF, so The Impossible Man collection is far from definitive. I haven’t read Ballard widely enough to understand his overarching themes, but the stories in The Impossible Man definitely have resonance in a few areas: the beach and sand, seagulls, dilapidated structures, Greek mythology, protagonist fallacy, and allusive or disassociative speech. I’m not the biggest fan of mythology, so some of Ballard’s use in the stories was above my head (on occasion, I would read up on the myths so better understand the story, like Eurydice and Oedipus. Among the best: “Time of Passage” (1964), “The Gioconda of the Twilight Noon” (1964), “The Drowned Giant” (1964), and “The Reptile Enclosure” (1963). [full synopses]

#31: C (2010) – Tom McCarthy (3.5/5)
I picked up this novel because of a random book list I came across two years ago. The list was the top 10 most challenging or most difficult novels, and as a reader who likes a good challenge, I picked up half of the books on the list. I think this is the first of those books. What makes it so difficult? Well, it wasn’t all that difficult to get through. Each of the four chapters—entitled Caul, Chute, Crash, and Call—have length digressions of detail on whatever matter is at hand: the actions and symbolism of a school play, the methods of producing silk, how a séance is a hoax, where to procure heroin, or the history of Egyptian gods. It’s not difficult in the mental capacity sense, but it’s surely taxing on patience. Generally, the plot follows Serge from the advent of wireless technology (circa 1900) through The Great War in which he flew as an observer to his post-war trip to Egypt to act as a liaison officer for a communications department. Sprinkled throughout are some cursory sex scenes, snippets from poems, and some strange dialogue. The best thing about the book, however: excellent punctuation—it’s complicated with plenty of comma breaks, em-dashes, ellipses, colons, and semi-colons… it’s a grammar/punctuation teacher’s fantasy (though not to Kafka’s extent).

#32: The Steep Approach to Garbadale (2007) – Iain Banks (3/5)
This is my twenty-third Banks book. I only have seven left to go: five books of fiction (including Whit, and Complicity), his non-fiction title Raw Spirits, and even his posthumous collection Poems. Of the twenty-three, I enjoyed The Business and Surface Detail the least—both three stars. Now that I’ve read The Steep Approach, I’d have to say that this is Banks’ weakest novel. Too many little aspects of the book feel forced: the cars and speeding, global warming, 9/11 and Bush’s war, and the place names of the boondocks of Scotland and its accents, to name a few. Then there are the familiar themes, which is almost word-for-word a combination of Walking on Glass, The Business and his last novel The Quarry: board games, a spice in incest, a strong well-spoken character, a counterculture female, and some bites against capitalism. This is a very safe and very stereotypical novel for Banks, where he didn’t even remotely try to break his mold or cast afar for something exotic; granted, it’s good and funny and heartbreaking and conspiratorial, but it all feels so forced. Really, there’s nothing new here. If this were your first Banks’ book, it’d be amazing, but this just feels cookie-cutter (it breaks my heart to say that—RIP Iain).

#33: The Twilight of Briareus (1974) – Richard Cowper (3/5)
I’ve got some experience reading Cowper: one trilogy (The White Bird of Kinship, 1975-1982), one novel (Profundis, 1979), and one collection (Out There Where the Big Ships Go, 1980). Everything been interesting, but only two novelettes have wowed me: “The Custodians” (1975) and “The Hertford manuscript” (1976). The star named Briareus Delta has been witnessed by many to have gone supernova. Like a few other notable cases throughout history, the star shines brightly for many days, but what makes this star special is that it’s only 132 light-years from Earth. The immediate scientific concern is about the waves of radiation flooding the Earth—a cause for concern about atmospheric and genetic damage. Soon, a trio of incidences are attributed to the star: the weather takes an abrupt turn for the worse, a scattered group of people share some sort of psychic bond, and every human—but not all mammals—are sterile. The world takes the sterility with aplomb, but many distrust the so-called zeta-mutants. As the years pass from 1984 through the millennium, the weather only worsens and the status of the zeta-mutants changes; they share visions of the present and, uncertainly, of the future. They have theories for it—including an alien invasion from the exploding star—but none are certain until some of their shared images begin to manifest. What didn’t manifest, however, was my interest… supernovae may be interesting, but the effects in this plot don’t carry it through.

#34: The Best of Margaret St. Clair (1985) – Margaret St. Clair (3/5)
I first read St. Clair’s work in Groff Conklin’s most excellent collection Worlds of When (1962). In the five-story collection, three earned five stars, one of which was St. Clair’s novelette “Rations of Tantalus” (1954). I was so wowed after reading it that I immediately read through it once again, thereby earning a place for itself in my all-time top 10 for short stories. Needless to say, that one story whet my appetite for the previously unknown author’s work and where better to read more of it than the author’s own “The Best of Margaret St. Clair”? The book’s rear-cover blurb states that this collection mainly of stories that had never been available in book form; therefore, it’s not comprehensive nor does it actually cover the spectrum of her best work. Only five of the twenty stories held either great depth, levels of analogy, or parallelisms to the shared state of what it is to be human. None of the stories reach the greatness of “Rations of Tantalus”, but two come close: “The Invested Libido” (1958) and “Wryneck, Draw Me” (1981). Most are whimsical or silly, but a few of the later ones bring out a similar depth as “Rations of Tantalus”. [full synopses]

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