Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of May 2016

#35: Simulacron-3 (1964) – Daniel F. Galouye (4/5)
 Everyone, including myself, knows Galouye for this one novel. But prior to reading it, I’ve read two of his other, lesser known novels: Lords of Psychon (1963) and The Infinite Man (1973); neither garnered any praise from me being 2-star and 3-star reads, respectively.

I was definitely eager to start Simulacron-3 as its central plot point was fascinating: Researchers create a total environment simulator in which they inhabit with sentient, digital-equivalent people. Douglas Hall was part of this project and has been promoted to due to his superior’s disappearance, of which Hall was direct witness no and is all the odder because another people linked with the project died under strange circumstances. Hall struggles with so-called pseudoparanoia as he finds his reality faulty—either that or his memory or perceptions. Soon, though, he comes closer to the truth: his reality is a simulation, too.

This much, to the reader, is obvious, but the layer and layer of intrigue and deceit, real and fabricated personas, and the overarching reason for it all is terribly spellbinding at times—it really sucks you in. However, two flaws detract from the could-be greatness: (1) the rather clichéd technology of the autorbar, moving walkways, air cars, and laser guns and (2) the whole “Oh, darling” and “I’ll never leave you” bits. Galouye had a great thing going but tainted it with 1950s pulp content of technology and the wooed woman.

#36: Star Guard (1955) – Andre Norton (1/5)
This my first Norton book, one that has received admirable praise from Amazon reviews—all 4- and 5-star reviews. But damn my gullibility, I should have known not to trust Amazon ratings, even for a book from 1955. I believe nostalgia favors some of these ratings, like with Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia (1975). I understand that Star Guard or Norstrilia could capture your imagination when young, but, in my opinion, the books are just so bad. Where Norstrilia was just a parade of detailed silliness with its irksome floats of poetry and song, Star Guard is simply a school play: swordsmen in space… really? This is a thing? This is certainly the niche genre that I’ve been trying to avoid for so long—I once started Saberhagen’s The Broken Lands (1968) but quit after the second paragraph: “Ekuman’s two wizards, Elslood and Zarf, were adepts as able as any that Satrap had ever encountered west of the Black Mountains”. I should have stopped reading Star Guard at the title of the first chapter: “Swordsman, Third Class”. I was admittedly duped by the Amazon reviews ringing of nostalgia, the pretty cover, and the vague, non-sword-wielding description on the back cover. If this is your thing, keep it; don’t share this dreck with me.

#37: We (1924/1993) – Yevgeny Zamyatin (5/5)
When I first began heavily reading (science fiction mainly, but a bit of fiction, too) from 2007-2010, I rated 22.3% of my books as 5-star reads. In comparison, for the last three years, I’ve only rated 8.6% books at 5 stars. The lesson: with time comes experience; with experience comes discretion. Among those books in 2007 was Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We. I picked it up on a whim at a now-closed secondhand bookstore in Bangkok (Skoob at Penny’s Balcony in Thonglor, if you’re wondering). Like 22% of those books that I read in 2007, I loved it. Fast-forward ten years to 2016: Now that I’m reading translated Soviet/Russian speculative fiction, I thought I should re-read it, but I naturally faced reservations based on my rating from my inexperience in 2007. I cringed a bit while the shadow of my naïve self loomed over me; thankfully, the younger and older of my selves agree for once: this is a masterpiece.

D-503 is a mathematician, as if he ever had the choice; regardless, he becomes his occupation, he becomes his goal, he becomes the ideal of his shared society. He (as if a singular pronoun could be attributed to “him”) is a fixed puzzle piece to a fixed jigsaw puzzle—he fits where he’s needed and that’s all that matters.

#38: Chronocules (1970) – D.G. Compton (3/5)
Of the three Compton novels I’ve already read, Synthajoy is my favorite, closely followed by The Steel Crocodile and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss. When picking up Chronocules, I felt the expectation of sinking myself into a warm blanket. Here, Compton’s aim is noble yet the follow-thru is errant; the frame is right, but the painting is wrong. Oh, what could have been… The introduction sets a curious tone: a technologically unexplainable book appears to the simpleton named Roses Varco. The highlighted words of NAKEDNESS revolt him, but as he’s unable to tear, burn, or hack it to destruction, he simply chucks it into the sea… which is where story begin. A nameless man finds the book and strives to understand its futuristic message, but, by his own un-artistic tastes, he finds that many portions are unreadable or poorly constructed for its unseen, unknown reader. For the benefit of his own readers, he writes a kind of abridgement or transcription of the dynamic, detailed text. As his discretion, he begins the story where it had begun and continues through the events as the narrator sees them—Roses—, as the text implies—author unknown—, and as the transcriber interprets—the nameless man. Given that the narrator is a dullard and a nominated village idiot, every aspect of the story is unreliable.

#39: Atomised (1999/2000) – Michel Houellebecq (3.5/5)
I can’t recall the reason I bought the book. Perhaps it was SF-esque and French? Regardless, I bought the novel along with its reputation; that reputation is, of course, sex and sexuality (let’s be clear that there is a difference here). Speaking of sex, in the literary sense, I’ve read Charles Bukowski and John Updike; in the genre of science fiction, I’ve also read Peter F. Hamilton and Robert Silverberg. Only Silverberg has gotten under my skin, but Atomised should also have annoyed me if I hadn’t been analyzing the book rather than just reading it for pleasure. There’s quite a choice list of words included. Perhaps I approached the novel in a similar manner as the book is framed in its conclusion—objectively. Though the two threads of the story—Bruno, the extrovert sensualist, and Michel, the introvert intellect—occasionally interweave, what’s clear is that Bruno led a life that reflected the times and benefited only his ego; in contrast, Michel led a quiet, secluded life for he ultimate benefit of humanity. From the perspective of Bruno, the sex is copious to the point of distraction if you were reading this book for “pleasure”. It’s all a bit to much just so that you can reach the conclusion to grasp the frame of the book, but even that saving grace doesn’t do much for the overall readability and legitimization of the story.

#40: Tomorrow Lies in Ambush (1973) – Bob Shaw (2.5/5)
I surprise myself by saying that I’ve actually read quite a bit of Shaw, totally 5 novels, two of which I liked (Ground Zero Man [1971] and One Million Tomorrows [1971]). The last time I read Shaw was back in 2013, so it’s been a while since I’ve picked up one of his books, but I’ll quote myself from December, 2013: “His [Shaw’s] ‘best’ novel [Other Days, Other Eyes] I would attempt with hesitation... a collection of his I would be eager to try!” Ah the words from 2013 haunt me. Shaw has had sixty-three short stories published, about 40% of them before the 1973 publication of this collection. When the book’s back cover declares its contents as “of the best”, yet only delivers one story above a 3.5-star rating, you could say I’m a bit disappointed. Shaw’s style of delivery harks back to the Golden Age where juvenile wit trumps philosophy and where a novel gadget overshadows characterization. In addition, similar to Orbitsville, his portrayal of women is quite negative: they’re emotional, submissive, and borderline superfluous. Quite forgettable. [full synopses]

#41: Kingdom Come (2006) – J.G. Ballard (4/5)
Just last month (book #30), I read Ballard’s collection The Impossible Man (1966) and found it very enticing, as with everything else of Ballard’s that I’ve read. Kingdom Come was Ballard’s last novel pushes aside mythology and that ever-so popularly coined term “mystical realism” in favor of something relevant to all: the pandemic of consumerism and all it could entail. Along with mythology, Ballard chucks aside beaches and gems in order to become enveloped in what consumerism could find as its end-game: fascism.

When Richard’s father is errantly gunned down in a suburban mall, he visits the sprawling travesty of product worship only to find that the locals have resorted to hooliganism and nightly anarchy. Richard begins to delve in to background of his long-lost father and that of the increasingly hateful masses that roam the street in the guise of sport fans. Everything is linked back to the Metro-Centre (that synagogue of purchasing power) and an unlikely group of antagonists or possibly protagonists. Regardless of the who and why, Richard definitely sees something queer developing in this suburb. More to appease his professional whims and analytical mind, Richard conjures a plan to raise the fever of consumerism to its most extreme heights.

So many parts of the novel echo back to popular opinion of our consumer society, so the foundation of the novel will sound familiar. After that, there’s a distinct British tone with hooliganism, so if you’re not in tune with that, it may seem a tad too foreign. This hooliganism goes on for a bit too long, too; it feels drawn out, where a more succinct few chapters could have encapsulated the idea better. Regardless, the eventual build-up is impressive and the lengthy conclusion satisfies your cynicism for consumerism.

#42: Worlds of the Wall (1969) – C.C. MacApp (0.5/5)
I’ve always thought that the respective elements of science fiction (SF) and fantasy (F) could swing the opposite way—SF could become F if a unicorn is used instead of a spaceship, or F could become SF if laser cannon is used instead of a wand… stuff like that. When SF and F are mixed, it always brings tears to my eyes from the pain, the agony. The first five pages of Worlds of the Wall are science fiction: Zeke takes his ship through Null on an experimental trip and sees an odd half-planet, to which he descends. There on, for 211 pages, it’s all fantasy with magic and spells. Dear god. This is like adventure fantasy with a protagonist that has to background or characterization to speak of, he’s just caught in the cogs of the fantasy world. As the plot thickens—I use this cliché very lightly here—his band of merry men face higher and higher levels of magic and evil, but not all that evil… more like naughty or knavish, perhaps. There are dwarf-equivalents, dragon-equivalents (one of which happens to be Zeke’s sidekick), and other fantasy-equivalent stuff that never enticed me. This example of sub-genre was painful to read, but it was also just such amateurish writing—eighth grade composition at best.

#43: Welcome, Chaos (1983) – Kate Wilhelm (3.5/5)
I’ve been reading Wilhelm for eight year now, this only being the sixth book that I’ve gotten my hands on. She’s shown her skill by touching on so many different topics and tropes that it’s hard to nail down a pattern to call her own. This is beneficial to her as she’s a shifting chameleon rather than stationary gecko. Portions of Welcome, Chaos echo Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1976) in that society is dealing with a catastrophe—in the former, this catastrophe is pending while in the latter the catastrophe has passed.

This pending social dilemma—the cusp of morality and mortality—hinges on the long-time secret of Saul Werther and his small yet intelligent band of colluders: the serum of immortality. They know no one is ready for it: not governments, not militaries, not anyone. As they bide their time waiting to perfect it, the US government and one lone wolf is trying to track them down, albeit, they don’t know exactly what they’re tracking. Amid the espionage and altruism, Lyle Taney finds herself mixed up with both sides at the start and at the end of the dilemma. When it’s found that Russia shares the secret and has been exploiting its effect for sometime, Saul realizes that the all-too-important cusp draws near: the fate of humanity is held in two hands, each equally as deadly.

Wilhelm covers some decent territory on the philosophy front for immortality, but the spy circuit is too overplayed and it feels like Ocean’s Seven in one thorough part. There’s some stuff about eagle’s too, which I understand the symbolism of, but that too is overplayed.

1 comment:

  1. great website man, please keep updating it. love vintage sf! great reviews