Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of June 2016

#44: Out of My Mind (US) (1967) – John Brunner (3.5/5)
I believe I’m on my thirty-fourth Brunner book. Reading Out of My Mind was spurred by Joachim Boaz’s comment on Brunner short story “Nobody Axed You” (1965). He loved the story and it reminded me how versatile (…or unpredictable) a writer Brunner used to me. He had some obviously brilliant “wheat” but also had the inevitable “chaff” mixed among it all. Out of My Mind, thankfully, doesn’t contain any of the chaff; nor does it, however, show any great ambition or artistry that Brunner later exhibited along the lines of Stand on Zanzibar (1968) or The Sheep Look Up (1972). The stories have an aura of whim exuded by the author—many of them aren’t serious in nature, yet are cleverly based on the kernel of an idea that Brunner ran with. This doesn’t always translate well as it feels just like that: this is my seed of my idea (which may be good or bad, depending on the reader) and this is the roughly textured chaff that surrounds it (sometimes good, sometimes bad, too). “Round Trip” (1959), one of Brunner’s early stories, may be simple at first glance but has a few depths of thought: one of science, one of humanity, one of alternative worlds, one of whim, and another of romance. In between these two sides of the spectrum, Brunner pens some stories that either evoke nods, smiles, or the raise of one or both eyebrows.

#45: The Wild Shore (1984) – Kim Stanley Robinson (4/5)
The 1980s hosted a spat of post-apocalyptic novels: Ridley Walker (1980), War Day (1984), The Postman (1986), Pilgrimage to Hell (1986), The Sea and the Summer (1987), Swan Song (1987), The Last Ship (1988). Tucked among them is Robinson’s The Wild Shore, which is part of his Orange County non-sequential trilogy. This novel—and the trilogy, in fact—doesn’t receive much praise from SF fans as it precedes his much more famous Mars trilogy (1993-1996).

In 2047, decades after the Soviets detonated several thousand neutron bombs in America’s largest cities, cityscapes have been largely turned into centers of scavenging while the suburbs have become the nexus of small bands of struggling survivors. On the smallest scale, each village is independent; on a large scale, America is no longer a union, nor is it free to progress at its own rate; in between these scales, townships find it difficult to band together to either fight off invaders or to recreate another union. San Onofre is content with their isolation and occasional swap meets with the scavengers, but when a scout teams tracks down from San Diego, the resulting news quickly polarizes the town: Should they remain independent or should they join the revolution again the Japanese blockading their shore? Relationships soon spiral out of control as young angst causes frisson among the delicately balanced community. In the background, Tom is the elderly unelected leader who casts his knowledge of the old times upon the canvas of their modern day, regardless of whether they heed his advice; he’s wise and wizened, and sits upon the cusp of death as his village, too, sits upon the cusp of anarchy.

#46: The Gold Coast (1988) – Kim Stanley Robinson (3.5/5)
I read two of the Orange County books in 2007 but had trouble getting a hold of the middle of the three: The Gold Coast. I found a hardback copy of the novel at a local library book sale, so it’s remained on my shelves for a while. When I drew the book to be read, I decided to read the trilogy in chronological order. It provided some decent airport and airline reading.

Youthful angst and the need to be heard—in everyday physical acts and in occasional clandestine acts—bubbles up through the hormones. Much of California and America has given way to rampant capitalism and development: so-called progress in a mild dystopia. Outlets for the naïve angst begin to take on a more destructive note as Jim is drawn to the casual bombing of American’s military industrial machine. He’s conflicted, however, as his own father is a high-level engineer for one such company. As Jim faces a complicated series of alliances to friends, Jim’s father knows one thing: the feasibility and physics of his company’s projects. Detail-oriented, he can peer deeply in to any plausibility of laser systems or guidance packages, but his boss only wants results, contracts, and money; these very things, however, become difficult to procure as the government is at their own game of cat and mouse. Jim’s dad plays the mouse at both the company and government level, but he’s soon to be targeted on a personal level by his own son. Amid the crazy bureaucracy at the professional level and lavish, free-wheeling lifestyle of the youth, there’s the recurring character of Tom to embody the ambiance of his time. Tom sits in the psych ward forgotten by his family for the most part, rambling on with stories that digress.

#47: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013/2014) – Haruki Murakami (4/5)
I like Murakami’s work, but I’m not a frequent reader. I read Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985/1991) in 2009 and later A Wild Sheep Chase (1982/1989) in 2011. Most often in Thailand, his books about 50% more expensive than other novels, so I was delighted to find a beautiful copy of one of his latest novels in a Florida secondhand bookshop for only $3. It’s not too heavy of a read, so I was able to read about 80% of it on a trans-Pacific flight.

In high school, a mere coincidence spawned a lasting friendship: Tsukuru Tazaki and four other volunteers clicked while on assignment and soon became inseparable; however, Tsukuru always felt a little excludes as the four others had colors in their surnames, thereby rendering him, in his own opinion, colorless. When he departed from Nagoya to attend university in Tokyo, Tsukuru still returned to frolic in the friendship that seemed eternal… until the day they banished him from the five-some without any explanation. He accepted this banishment, returned to Tokyo, and came close to suicide as he denied himself all good things. A small realization quickly turns his life around: he exercises, studies, graduates, and gets the job of his dreams—designed railway stations. Relationships still come and go, but the perfection of his once five-some still haunts him and he never received an explanation.

He meets Sara, whom he becomes increasingly attracted to in body and spirit, but it’s her mind that comes between them. In order for their relationship to progress, she suggests that he revisit his old friends in order to understand his banishment. Thus, he learns of lies and regret, but he shares this regret:

One heart is not connected through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony. (322)

This web of lies and regret also impinges upon his relationship with Sara, unknowingly to her. His pain folds upon itself, he sees himself as an island that can never know contact with another landmass. He was once bitten by the openness of his heart, and now he’s bitten again—does he whither again in suicidal thoughts or does he push ahead?

#48: Pacific Edge (1990) – Kim Stanley Robinson (3/5)
This was the first book in which I fell in love with one of the characters, was enchanted when the protagonist won her over… and I was genuinely heartbroken when they broke up. That relationship had always burned in my mind so brightly that I had completely forgotten the rest of the story. When I picked this novel up again, I was ready for the rollercoaster of love, so I could focus on the rest of the novel, which didn’t ring many bells nor win many points.

Kevin’s in his thirties. He’s uninvolved in love but very much involved in his renovation business, the softball league, and has recently become involved in his township’s political arena. While his business may continue its steady productive pace, the other three important aspects of his life are soon to change because of a girl and another boy: Ramona and Alfredo. The two long-time lovers have recently split and Kevin is quick to catch the rebound. He swims in all of her attention, he dances in the shower of shared time, he basks in her every word:

What do you talk about when you’re falling in love? It doesn’t matter. All questions are, Who are you? How do you think? Are you like me? Will you love me? And all answers are, I am this, like this. I am like you. I like you. (134)

At the same time, Alfredo—who is the acting mayor—tries to pass an item through a boring meeting, but Kevin is quick to call him out on its importance. Meanwhile, the softball season starts and Kevin is off to a great start by batting a thousand. His batting streak is his only charm as his other two affairs become entrenched with outside influences: Ramona, the once raven beauty and tinder of his heart, becomes distant with him; Alfredo keeps pushing his agenda while Kevin stands for the fight. All Kevin wants is a steady life for his community, but the future politics of California is deep in the business of water distribution and rights, a quagmire of legality that has him grasping at straws to outsmart his rival in politics and love.

Amid the turbulent life of Kevin, his grandfather Tom is late in his own life but also rides the choppy seas of what life has to offer. Love doesn’t grey like hair as Tom unexpectedly finds his spark in life, with which come options: stay to see out Kevin’s tribulations or set out into the world to see what comes.

#49: Ship of Strangers (1978) – Bob Shaw (2.5/5)
My seventh Shaw… and I have no idea what to make of it. It’s presented in chapters, so it’s a novel; yet there are five distinct stories, so it’s a stitch-up; yet not all of the stories had been individually published. The stories don’t interrelate, nor are they sequential. It’s not a novel, a stitch-up, or a collection…it’s poor editing and publishing, I think.

The Sarafand was made to venture to the untouched planets of the ever-expanding Bubble of human exploration. Aboard are members of Cartographical Service crewmen who see the lucrative short-term job stint amid the perpetual boredom of visiting dead, arid planets for the sake of science. Dave Surgenor, however, is someone who actually made a career of the service and he has stories to tell, which is compiled is this novel/stitch-up/collection: (1) An alien mimics the shape of their six scouts ships and AESOP—the artificial intelligence aboard the mother ship—must figure a way to distinguish among the real scouts; (2) The men’s private nighttime fantasies spill into their own relationships as a trouble maker begins to share the tape around, with emotion, lust, connotation and all. (3) Mike Targett is a bit of a gambler who bases decisions on odds alone, but when he takes a chance to investigate some metallic cylinders on a new planet, he gets much more than he bargained for. (4) Mirages upon another deserted planer spur a full-blown military investigation, but a kidnapping of an alien woman turns into a single-exit escape from a jungle. (5) An error in a beta-space jump causes the ship to become stranded millions of light-years away in a system that seems to be collapsing upon itself, yet the crew to seem to be folded upon themselves under the added pressure of having of a woman aboard and having no way to return home.

These stories have the same whim at George O. Smith’s Venus Equilateral series of stories: There’s a group of men on an isolated post who encounter strange problems in a world of order yet try to outwit the ensuing chaos. As the book is dedicated to A.E. van Vogt, is also rings of the latter’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle novel/collection. But the parallelisms aren’t true enough or significant enough to begin to compare the two.


  1. You've inspired me to finally read Robinson's Three Californias trilogy. Like too may books, it's been sitting on the shelves too long. How do you think they compare to his Mars trilogy?

  2. They're similar as both trilogies feature democratic governance and some detail into their debates. That's a bit tiresome in both trilogies, but less so in Three Californias. Overall, I don't think they're as good as the Mars Trilogy.