Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2003: Omega (McDevitt, Jack)

Monotony and senselessness synergize (2/5)

Do you remember eating your first great Mexican meal at a new restaurant and thinking, "Wow, this is great food!" Do you also remember going back and trying something different but then thinking, "Hey, all the ingredients are the same!" But you get through the meal and return months later to decide upon something else from the menu, when you realize, "Dammit, does this ever change?"

*cue escalating violins, flashing white light*
Bam. Jack McDevitt.
*staccatissimo violin note, red streak on screen*

Omega is the fourth novel in the six-book series following Priscilla Hutchins (known to her friends as Hutch) in her "Academy" career. Starting as a lowly pilot cum archaeologist in Book 1: The Engines of God. A great start to the series which is unfortunately followed by the , eye-rolling, diatribe-infused dud Book 2: Deepsix, where Hutch is still a pilot but finds herself stranded on a doomed planet leading a hopeless group to rescue. The sense of adventure and discovery returned in Book 3: Chindi where Captain Hutch leads her crew on a quest following stealth satellites scattered across space, but the story has an abrupt ending instead of a conclusion. Welcome to Book 4: Omega.

*cue thundering drums, dusk approaches*

Rear cover synopsis:
"For a quarter of a century, humanity has watched as the malignant omega clouds have destroyed every civilization they have come across. Now, it's Earth's turn--but not for another nine hundred years. A cloud has switched direction, heading straight for the previously unexplored planetary system--and its living pre-technological alien society. Suddenly, the need to find a method for the omegas' destruction becomes urgent, as a handful of brave humans, scientists and military alike, try to save an entire world--without revealing their existence..."

*cymbal crash, door creaks open*

Hutch makes a mere guest appearance in Omega. The reader discovers that she has been promoted to Director of Operations and temporarily in place as Acting Director. Herein the reader is bombarded with meeting synopses of endless variety and endless irrelevance. When the discovery of an omega cloud careening toward a newly-found civilization, Hutch acts quickly dispatching a crack team of linguists and scientists to the planet. Hutch largely disappears from this scene, only being referred to in FTL messages. The emphasis is put on the landing team, who gather as much data as possible to send it to the crack team in 9-month transit, whose date of arrival is just short of the date of destruction by the Omega.

The most interesting thread of this novel is the three-person contact team's attempts at understanding a new alien culture, not a dead civilization like in other McDevitt novels. However, the alien culture portrayed is anything but "alien." McDevitt has transposed too many anthropomorphic traits onto the aliens, colloquially known as Goomphas as they resemble the Earth cartoon of the same name. The aliens are erect four-limbed two-sex bipeds with two eyes (in the visible light spectrum), two ears, mammary glands for the females, and similar facial expressions. Their material possessions of metallic coins, wooden furniture, beasts of burden, libraries with scrolls of papers, and the equivalent of tea and beer. There is hardly anything "alien" about the aliens at all, except for their green skin tint, awkward stature, duck-like waddle, and sexual behavior.

*sympathetic woodwinds, country scene*

With one or two alien facets to hypothesize on but only to be disappointed by the in-your-face explanation in the worst epilogue ever, the readers disappointment will settle in and their focus can shift to the mystery surrounding the origin and function of the Omega Clouds. The lead scientist in understanding the omega clouds dies early on in the novel, so only vague guesses by Hutch and her team are put forth. Only at the end does Hutch come back onto the scene to sprinkle fairy dust on the conclusion to make origin the omega clouds somewhat sensible... somewhat. Sadly, it reads like a dull knife stab into the thick carapace of a well-rounded novel--it bounces right off and the stabber stabs himself. Leave the novel with a knife wound and loss of pride.

I've been critical of McDevitt before for his sloppy characterization. In Deepsix, McDevitt maniaclly describes EVERYONE'S height. Why, I haven't the faintest clue. McDevitt does this again in Omega--I keep track. He describes about 5-6 people as being short, one person as being of average height, and seventeen (SEVENTEEN!!!) as being "tall". He doesn't have enough creativity to use a synonym, but only uses "tall" a total of 17 times (pages 36, 52, 57, 60, 78, 91, 101, 118, 120, 159, 163, 289, 326, 343, 352 (twice), and 459). It's these senseless additions that makes me wonder who in the hell proofread this crap.

*symphony of clowns with slide-whistles and noise-makers*

Additional senselessness amid the pages of a McDevitt novel are found quite frequently, though not to the degree of filler as in Chindi. Some additions are just stupid: "Her first afternoon call went to Rheal Fabrics. Rheal specialized in producing a range of plastics, films, and textiles for industry. (They also had a division that operated a chain of ice-cream outlets.)" (52) But the coup de tête of senselessness comes from a seven paragraph reaction (159-160) to a character's viewing of a stereotypical horror movie (ala abandoned mansion, story weather, creaking doors and other strange noises). It are times like this that make me gently place the book down and collect myself.

I don't like McDevitt's novels. They are a utter chore to get through when the reader has to slog through diatribes (like in Deepsix), song lyrics (like in Chindi), and petty nuances (like in Omega). I have Book 5: Odyssey on my bookshelves but I think to myself, "How much more fractional senselessness can one man heap upon a novel to make the greater whole a failure?" With my head shaking, my hand trembling, my eyes screwed shut... I reach for Odyssey.

*cue ominous carnival music and lurking shadows of clowns*

2003: The Line of Polity (Asher, Neal)

Same old Asher routine, getting old but maturing, too (3/5)
From March 29, 2009

This is the fifth Asher novel I've read, after the two Spatterjay novels (The Skinner and The Voyage of Sable Keech), Prador Moon and Gridlinked. When spaced apart, the novels are a fun read as they typically include wry wit and gruesome battles. The Spatterjay novels also added detailed yet horrific planetary creature, a similar system which Asher employs in Line of Polity: wit, battles and fauna. But after reading the previous novels, the entire system is getting a bit repetitive with the endless battle scenes and homicidal native animals. Line of Polity doesn't stray far at all from Asher's signature plot and is actually quite evident towards the final 20% of the book when there are battles after endless battles all adding very little to the plot itself. A simplification would have been much appreciated to cut down on the amount of superfluous scenes. Asher is the type of battle writer who uses "a short-stock grenade-launcher for more intimate work."

The planet of Masada is where a good chunk of the book takes place, a place "you cannot draw a breath... even if its horrifying wildlife would let you." That's from the back cover of the novel... that's it, meaning not much info to go by before you buy the novel in the bookstore. A better, in book, quote about Masada is a place where "choices are limited to two - fight or die - and they are not mutually exclusive."

One more downside of the book is the villain Skellor. His name reminds me of Skeletor from the fames of He-man, Master of the Universe. Therefore, the name Skellor feels cheesy, as if it was ripped off from He-man. His presence in the novel is straight from the get-go and makes appearances all the way until the end, but what's seriously lacking is Skellor's motivation for being the villain rather than being part of the Polity.

The Polity doesn't play as big of a role in Line of Polity as it did in Gridlinked. There isn't a focus on augmentations or runcibles as it typically found in Polity society. The entire novel takes place on two distant planets and outer space. It lends little the structure of the Polity society but makes up for it by adding to the mystery surrounding the Dragon, which ended in Gridlinked. An apt foreshadowing quote would be, "That was Dragon. And my guess is that things are just about to start getting very complicated - and very deadly."

I'm interested to see how Asher will progress with the Cormac series, whether in the direction of wit and gore, a focus on Polity society or a concentration on the Dragon. The third novel in the series should answer this question--Brass Man (not as good, honestly--a good book or two, but not worth the while).

Monday, February 27, 2012

1960: Store of Infinity (Sheckley, Robert)

Without all the polyunsaturated puns (5/5)

This is the third Sheckley book I've had the privilege of picking up. I've read another Sheckley collection in Citizen In Space (1955) and his novel Dimension of Miracles (1968)... I haven't been disappointed yet. Sheckley doesn't take the typical 50s-60s approach of science fiction comedy, that special type of juvenile humor which hones in on terrible puns and cheesy, paper-thin plots. The stories in Store of Infinity are rich with character without all the polyunsaturated puns, zero-calorie tropes, or mono-juvenile-glutamate.


The Prize of Peril (1959) - 4/5 - Jim Raeder has been running for his life for six days. As his seventh day draws to a close with only seven hours left until he is free, Raeder receives minute-by-minute updates on his predicament via his pocket TV.The television show named The Prize of Peril, of which Raeder is the subject, being the most popular show of its kind, the viewers either help his escape or hinder his passage through the city and country. 18 pages

The Humours (1959) - 5/5 - Alistair Crompton lives the stereotypical placid life of a monolithic clerk: "petty, punctilious, cautious, nervous, puritanical, resentful, driven, circumspect and repressed." This is all due to a trisecting of his personality when he was 11 years old. Now aged 34 and able to reintegrate his two missing personalities, Alistairmust travel to Mars to meet the embodiment of a sybaritic, Edgar Loomis. Subsuming Edgar's persona, the two travel to Vensus to track down the locally infamous figure Dan Stock so that Alistair can be a whole man again. 42 pages

Triplication (1959) - 5/5 - [1] The bucolic planet of Oaxe II is visited three times by the criminally infamous Timothy Mont and his lawyer with the charges of burning down an orphanage on three different planets. [2] Edmond Dritche and his wife duplicate themselves 500 times in order to form their own utopia, but the three cases of adultery point to divergent monogamy. [3] Professor Bolton and his robot Akka take a spaceship to Mars, but earth later receives three distress calls from the asteroid-wrecked ship indicating one survivor. 5 pages

The Minimum Man (1958) 4/5 - On an earth that is "crowder, cluttered and confused," the Planetary Exploration & Settlement Board selects extraterrestrial explorers to initially colonize planets by themselves.Once only hiring the most able-bodied men, the Board is now looking for the less-than-average bloke to settle the systems. Enter Anton Perceveral, a hard-working but terribly accident prone 34 year oldman. On the brink of suicide, Anton is serendipitously chosen as the new explorer for the planet Theta. As the Board is ultimately testing for "minimus-survival conditions," Anton's turn of luck is soon anything but that. 30 pages

If the Red Slayer (1958) - 3/5 - An unnamed trench soldier fighting the Reds gets shot in the leg and fatally shot in the chest, resulting in ten hours of death. Upon his revival by the "Brahmin" doctors, the soldier is miffed to realize that this has been the fourth such revival when in fact he wanted to remain dead, as is his right. Regardless, he's sent back into the trench where he's determined to render himself into metaphorical ground beef. 7 pages

The Store of the World (1958) - 5/5 - The temptation of temporary experiencing one's ideal life draws an unnamed man up a gray-rubbled lane where The Shop is located. The steep price of foregoing all of one's assets and the unfortunate drawback of a decade off one's life still draws people in, like this man, who must compare his subjectively dreary reality with the fantasy within his head. 8 pages

The Gun Without a Bang (1958) - 5/5 - Jungle-trekking on an alien planet with canine-like beats stalking hi, Alfred Dixon is field testing the Weapon. The man knows his guns and this Weapon is the hand-held defense unit to end them all, but it's the silence of the Weapon that concerns Alfred most. 9 pages

The Deaths of Ben Baxter (1957) - 4/5 - The World Planning Council of the Federated Districts of Earth choose world lines from parallel earth's which better reflect the ideal earth the council intends. Simply sliding into these world lines is done often enough, but the conundrum of having to personally intervene is finally at hand. The ideal earth must be realized by one of the three solutions to have Ned Brynne NOT kill his business colleague Ben Baxter. 32 pages

1968: Dimension of Miracles (Sheckley, Robert)

Not only silly, but intelligent and thoughtful (4/5)
From March 14, 2011

As can be expected from a silly science fiction book, there aren't laughs from cover to cover. More realistically, the first quarter is pretty good producing a good amount of laughs and head shaking. The half has some giggles but nothing more. At the end, it's an odd smile and an occasional shrug. Needless to say, the steam of hilarity is quickly dissipated in the steep chimney of story telling... but it was still easy enough and stomachable enough to finish off in one morning.

Rear cover synopsis:
"EARTH HUNT. It had to somewhere, Carmody knew that much. It was waiting for him, just as he had left it. But where? He only knew he was in the center of a galaxy in a universe of galaxies. Within them lay endless varieties of the planet Earth. And there was only one way to find his Earth again. He would have to visit each one. And he would have to hurry. Because his search for home had turned into a race with death..."

Like other silly science fiction books (i.e. Norstilia and Arrive at Easterwine - both of which I gagged over), a major crutch the author uses is spontaneity, which sometimes manifests as just ridiculous randomness. Sheckley, however, keeps a close tab on his randomness and the silliness doesn't stray too far into juvenile absurdity. Puns are another unfortunate staple of what some authors consider to be funny novels. Again, Sheckley is self-disciplined only allowing one glaring pun on the words cards and way.

Aside from being a silly novel, it feels like Sheckley put lot of his personal credo in the pages. It's really quite an impressive list, however blatant some of it is: free will/human error, creation/death, conceptions/reality and touches on religious hypocrisy, law of diminishing returns and law of predation. Further, Sheckley has some interesting and thoughtful ideas about the differentiating between sanity and insanity, the boredom an omniscient being would experience and how waste could be a memorial to our needs.

Far from being one of the worst humorous science fiction stories out there (I think the short story E van S by Piers Anthony takes THAT prize), Dimension of Miracles is a thoughtful exposé of an intelligent man's personal philosophy, a comical feature of a witty man's humor and a keen unfolding done by the hand of one man's literary experience. Four stars is a little high for this but I'll round it up from 3.5 stars

Friday, February 24, 2012

1969: Secret of the Sunless World (Capps, Carrol M.)

Complex plot carries its own weight (4/5)

Carrol M. Capps (more well known under the pseodonym C.C. MacApp) wrote only a handful of science fiction and fantasy novels from 1968-1971 but also wrote more than 30 short stories from 1960 until his death in 1971. His novella The Mercurymen won the Nebula award in 1966, but otherwise remains fairly unknown. The most accessible works of Capps would be via Project Gutenberg with this short stories (1) Tulan and (2) And All the Earth a Grave.

Rear cover synopsis:
"SPACE PIRATE - His name was Gondal, most feared of all creatures in the universe. But there was one ravenous ambition he had yet to satisfy. On a distant, sunless planet lay the key to the secret of the humanoids who had strangely vanished after reigning over all space. Gondal intended to discover that secret--and become master of the galaxies. But Gondal needed one man to help him--an Earthling named Vince Cullow. Prisoner on Gondal's Spaceship, Cullow was forced to choose between robot-like submission, and the kind of torture only a twisted mind of Gondal would conceive, as they sped toward the unknown..."

Thrice as long and thrice as accurate, so goes my synopsis: Vince Cullow has been smitten with the first known human case of an alien virus. No humanly elixir can cure his pain and progressive blindness, but the hypertrichosic bipedal Nessen aliens DO know of a cure. The aliens concoct a scheme to deliver Vince to a notorious ophidian space pirate named Gondal, who will take Vince to the sunless world where a cure is available. But the deal is too good to be true.

The Nessen use Vince to get close to Gondal and to another Nessen named Zarpi, who they both suspect of secretly vying for unseen booty hidden away on the sunless world, Shann. As Vince receives his treatment, the arachnid doctor spins the revelation that Gondal played a deviance hand in the operation, where Gondal holds the only medication that will allow Vince to keep his vision for good. Thus, the pirate holds Vince as captive to his plans to unveil the hidden treasure stolen away somewhere on the resort planet.

As Vince spies another Zarpi with the kidnapped Lenjan archaeologist of interest, so begins the levels of deceit Vince will unfold. The operation has granted him perfect vision in both dark and light, which he uses to lead Gondal into a hollowed cave which houses mysterious Lenjan artifacts. Are the scientific remains of the Lenj the real prize, and is it as valuable as their lives when Zarpi and the ursine Chullwei are boring into the mountain for access to the same trove?

It's obviously a completed plot given that it's only 204 pages long. There are more alien species, more planets, and even more interesting tidbits that make the universe that Capps has created to be of such intrigue to warrant a 4-star rating. It's this scope and detail of plot which really secure such a high rating for a single-edition novel (Dell, July 1969). I'd recommend taking notes with this one.

As far as literary flare is concerned, Capps fails to find his knack for insightful passages and sympathetic situations, but one area of focus he excels in is physical descriptions of all the alien species. The four or five bipedal aliens are a tad monotonous, including the near-glabrous human, but the lengthy descriptions of each are an interesting appendix to the plot. Capps's invention of the sunless world, Shann, is interesting, too. Perhaps it's not too realistic but the idea is fantastic.

One major problem with the novel and one minor issue drop the book from a 5-star to a 4-star rating with prompt. Nearly the last third of book is continued after a stop-gap in the plot. The transition is abrupt and detracts from the wonders of the Shann and the battle being waged between the Vred caretakers and the collaboration of Zarpi and the Chullwei. The remaining third of the novel has its enticing parts--some enshrouded plot teasers and some otherworldly charms. The final 5% is a bit of a let down, depending how you view the last 15%. It's certainly no whiz-bang conclusion, but it could have been better crafted if the damnable transition never occurred.

Reading Capps's short fiction would be on my list if it were condensed into a collection, but as it stands now, his 32 works of short fictions are scattered throughout the pages of Fantastic Stores, Amazing Stores, and If. Sadly, none of Capps's other titles exactly beckon the attention of my visual scrutiny... maybe Recall Not Earth... maybe.

1969: The Andromeda Strain (Crichton, Michael)

Armchair sci-fi, cakewalk for serious sci-fi readers (3/5)
From March 29, 2009

I don't tend to read popular fiction (any Crichton, most King, no urban romance, no wizards or goddamn vampires), but The Andromeda Strain is the chronological basis for any sort of biological, viral or bacterial plot gone haywire in today's modern science fiction. Since I focus my reading on sci-fi, I thought it only natural to eventually read the classic, according to some people. I tip my hat in respect, but it's not exactly engaging.

Rear cover synopsis:
"What if there was a virus to lethal, it could kill people as quickly as they took a breath? What if it spared some people from instant death... but drove them hopelessly insane instead? What if the swiftest acting, deadliest virus ever known to humankind could be spread, by no more than a gust of wind, from the remote desert site of its first massacre to he busiest cities in America... and the world? What, if anything, could stop it? There are no villains in this hot zone. Only the microscopic seems of Earth's extinction. It is stealthy, sudden, savage. And we are all susceptible to it..."

I've read Chrichton's Congo before I didn't like it for the reason--the science, while cutting edge at the time, was too far ahead of time to be applicable to the time period. Communication lasers and satellite uplinks in 1979 was just too out of place. Likewise, Andromeda Strain has science which is clearly out of applicable practice for 1969... and as a sci-fi reader, the science integration is an important part to the plot. The science doesn't match the time period so it all has the feeling of being temporally misplaced, disembodied. If Crichton wanted to include all this fancy technology, then he could have just placed the plot in the future... not so hard.

If this was an attempt to solidify himself as a hard sci-fi author back in 1969 then he did made some snafus along the way. Just in 1968 there was 2001: Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke as well as Larry Niven's great collection in Neutron Star--those are high standards! Crichton had a lot of competition in that era and he took a different approach; he didn't define his characters nor did he provide any sort of guess work by the reader. I found the book to be predictable and dry with very little challenge to project the plot's approach to the conclusion or foreshadow any rising circumstances. The 5-day unfolding plot about the extraterrestrial agent felt like a step-by-step instructional manual rather than a disaster diary (of which War Day [1984] takes the cake). The science is full of analogies, which miffs the reader who actually partially understands the science behind the technology. The book reads as if it is for the mass public, who have little grasp of science and are keen to read a popular novel. I'm not one of those people. I'll pass on the next Crichton novel recommended to me and I'll stick to my sci-fi which is obscure in the mass public. My fellow bloggers can appreciate that.

Perhaps it was groundbreaking for its day, but since then the idea has been infinitely refined in many ways, including technologically.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

1976: Man Plus (Pohl, Frederik)

Throw-back from the 70s best kept there (2/5)
From July 29, 2009

I'll begin by giving credit where credit is due. This book was published in 1976 and has the hyphenated word broad-band, where as nowadays, the word isn't hyphenated, as broadband. That there is a sense of vision, as the English language tends to hyphenate words before combining them into a compound word. And that's about where the visionary writing ceases. The rest of the book is a rehash of old ideas and old sub-culture references.

In prior conversation with fellow sci-fi blogger Joachim Boaz, we have both mentioned that Pohl being one of the most over-rated science fiction authors of all time. Of the eleven Pohl novels I've read, six have received a 2-star rating. Man Plus is among Pohl's worst novels along with Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980), Syzygy (1982), and Black Star Rising (1985).

In regards to the Man Plus experiment itself, a few items struck me as poorly thought out. One: why does Man Plus need to have an enema when the Man Plus on Mars will have use for its sphincter due to the atmospheric pressure? Two: in the beginning the `bat wings' were for heat dispersal but later on the wings are used for energy absorption (heatsinks would have been more suitable for heat dispersal and also less of a corny idea). Three: Why did the team building have trouble, of all things, with the throat mike, when they could accomplish such feats as replacing an entire mans body? Four: There was utmost attention (2 pages to be exact) paid to the layman's explanation of how frog's eyes worked when the rest of the story paid no attention to the frog-like function's of Man Plus' eyes.

During the 60s and 70s (and perhaps to a lesser degree the 50s and 80s), there was an increase in the amount of effort to make sci-fi novels sexy. And not "sophisticated sexy" but more like "drop-sex-into-random-paragraphs-for-the-teenaged-readers sexy." Pohl has a tendency to randomly slap sex onto the pages of his novels when the sexiness really isn't called for--as in it leads little credence to the plot or characterization. Sexiness can be done artfully and/or tastefully, but Pohl lacks the grace of including sexual beings into his stories, rather it comes out of bestial lush of a one-track minded alpha male (ah, that rings true with a number of Pohl novels, actually). More to the point, Man Plus mentions "screw" six times, to a more mature degree it mentions the word "sex" five times and beyond these two words, an additional twenty references are made towards copulation, coitus, penetration, matings, etc.

For a book heralding the words, "A novel of unbearable suspense... a desperate political gamble to save earth from destroying itself... the struggle of a man is more than a man to becomes the first Martian," there isn't as much Mars as there could be. Only about the last 15% of the entire novel is dedicated to actually being on Mars. The rest of the novel is filled with the Man Plus research (which is actually fairly interesting, except for the rambling bits like frog vision), the political turmoil around the world (nice broad play here by Pohl but the generic references to Asia is annoying as Asia does, after all, have a third of the world's population) and a predictable set of events stemming from Roger and Dorrie's superficial marriage.

Sadly, there was a, frankly, stupid ending to the novel which brought the entire book down one star. It seems as if the last five pages was a desperate attempt to tie it into a sequel (and look, there IS a sequel!). This reviewer, however, is not conned into reading the sequel after this half-hearted 70s attempt. There is more sophisticated sci-fi in the world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012: In the Mouth of the Whale (McAuley, Paul)

Detail without Prose: In the Yawn of the Whale (2/5)

I know of Paul McAuley through reputation alone; that reputation of bogging down a novel with somnolent details urging the reader to cerebrally drift-off due to a unnecessary complexity spanning the pages from alpha to omega. I knew this but I still picked up In the Mouth of the Whale because I wanted to give Paul one chance with a brand new novel... and nowhere did it say anything about being a sequel! (Certainly a marketing ploy--who wants to buy a sequel when they haven't read the first two books? I'm one of the suckers.)

While there is certainly some background information missing from having not read the first two books, I could pretty much follow the ongoings after the first 25%, which had a very steep learning curve. I could still sense the escalating tension rising from the ingrained mystery (who are the True, the Quick, and the Ghosts?). Perhaps some of the revelations fell flat for me because I wasn't aware of the prior characters or plots, but I did superficially express surprise when Paul was metaphorically hooking what he had baited. If the first two books are of the same quality as In the Mouth of the Whale, then I'm less than eager to procure these novels. I do, however, have Fairyland lining my shelves, which I will reluctantly pursue after finishing this tome.

The book's chapters are divided three-fold, between the three ever-merging plot lines: the story of the Child living in Brazil is being told through the eyes of a seemingly caretaker race, where the Child is learning something which the caretaker seems fit to oversee; the True being named Isak cares for the Library along with his Quick assistant the Horse, where the duo are on a quest to retrieve a sponsor's son and the data which follows him around the system; Ori is a lowly female Quick who pilots drones when her life is turned on its head when she makes contact with the sprites of the Mind deep below the metallic hydrogen surface of the planet Chtuga.

None of the three plot lines is too enticing. Where the story of the Child is shrouded in the mystery of the direction of the Child's change of thought, at the same time the nebulousness of the character is off-putting; she's just the Child and that's all there is to say. Where the story of Isak and the Horse is captivating in the sense that they are trying to rebuild a library of data, the whole "demon" fighting, "hell" entering, "algorithm" spinning, and outer-body-ness is a tad difficult to consume. Where the story of Ori, the least engaging of the three plots, deals with his newly-found yet burdensome gift of having the Mind's sprite sitting behind her vision, the aim of harnessing the power of those with the sprite seems without direction.

I found all three plot lines to hold that quality of progress without direction. The only thing that kept my attention from the 25% - 80% mark was the unraveling of the mystery of the True-Quick-Ghost origin and how their ascendancy motivates their activities towards the vague goals Paul has behind his hidden agenda.

I remarked that the novel is full of unfathomable scenarios, such as "the Whale" in atmospheric suspension in the cloud of the planet Chtuga. Why, what, how... unanswered. The continually quest to hunt for pieces of the Library is great idea. Oh, but why? and for what?... unanswered. There are some (big is too big of a word) moderately large ideas in this novel and they are written about in a painfully loquacious manner but to what end? I was left very well informed but I was also left shrugging without a clue as to the purpose of it all. (Reminds me some top-down managerial staff meetings)

So, word of warning: read The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun before you tackle In the Mouth of the Whale... and be forewarned that Paul's prose is sub-par while his attention to inane detail is vastly superior. I'm the kind of reviewer who likes to add quotes from the novel, quotes which inspire my mind or perfectly summarize the scene. Paul did neither of those: not very sweet, not very short.

2010: Guardians of the Phoenix (Brown, Eric)

Requires some humanistic reflection (5/5)
From October 4, 2011

Ever since stumbling upon Eric Brown's The Fall of Tartarus, I was wowed by his humanistic writing and ability to draw the reader into the characters' lives. It was a very engaging read, as was his other novel that I've read, Engineman. Again, powerful humanistic writing with a liberal dashing of technology and futurism. In Guardians, the reader isn't met with technological wonders, rather the world is besought by advancing desertification, extreme temperatures and a shortage of water, sustenance and habitation.

The year 2011: economic collapse
The year 2060: environmental and social collapse
The year 2120: cannibalism

Young Paul of Paris (one of only two inhabitants to remain from the failed colony) survives on lizard stew and water from an old pump station. When he spies a young woman running through the streets, he is instantly weary of the bandits who follow. Tracking their location, Paul later sees the girl missing and a torso being roasted upon the fire, bellies being stuffed. Paul's suspicions were correct; these are heartless cannibals. When the posse discuss a secret underground cache of goods in Paris, Paul attempts to snatch the plans but is captured. Another colony from Copenhagen descend upon Paris to find and bring justice to the kidnapper Hans, one of the posse. They save Paul from certain death... and there begins our story.

The explorers from Copenhagen are on a trek to the northern Spanish coast to drill for water in the dried-up ocean bed. At the same time, Hans meets up with his former colony in Aubenas, France. With detailed plans of a old space port with bountiful provision in hand, the colony creates a team officially head by the powerful female Samara, but unofficially, Hans plays a strong hand in the dealing with the other males in the group.

The descriptions of the deserted European landmass doesn't tire nor do the descriptions of what life before the collapse was like. The passages are full of post-apocalyptic discovery, old-world rediscovery and, as with other Eric Brown novels, human discovery: the heartless matriarch witness an even more heartless man, changing her outlook... the loss of patriarch family spurns his trust in others and spurs his taste for revenge. Death certainly plays a prominent role in the characterization of the small cast, who are all but a portion of the estimated thousands of humans remaining alive on the face of the planet earth.

Beyond the bleak landscape and dour mood of the withering cast, Eric Brown doesn't disappoint with elegant passages and a vocabulary to keep you smiling: sybaritic and scintilla are two words you don't come across very often in fiction. Granted, some of the dialogue is a bit far-fetched and the scenario for the ending is a long-shot but if you massage the history of the years between 2060 and 2120 enough, some far-fetched things could certainly spring up. It may also be a bit too lusty as times, but it fits in the frame of characterization and plays an important role in the plot twists.

If reflective reading and human challenges are your forte in science fiction, rather than the blunt force trauma of hard science fiction, then Eric Brown is definitely your author to read. But... humanistic science fiction isn't for some.

Friday, February 17, 2012

1974: Earthwreck! (Scortia, Thomas N.)

Cavalcade of physics, death, sex, and innuendos (3/5)

Thomas N. Scortia must have been a man with a lot on his mind. He wrote two solo science fiction novels (this being one of them [1974], the other Artery of Fire [1972]) and four science fiction novels with Frank M. Robinson, who is best known for his generation ship novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991). The duo also penned a fictional disaster novel which some should be familiar with because it was made into a movie: the novel The Glass Inferno (1974) became The Towering Inferno (1974) with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and a forgettable performance by O.J. Simpson. BUT, Thomas N. Scortia is even lesser known for his patent on "Nitronium Perchlorate Propellant Composition" - which we will come to shortly.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Americans watched from space as the earth erupted in flashes of incredible brilliance. Their probes told them all they had to know. The earth was buried under a blanket of radioactivity. No life remained. Except for them--and their Russian counterparts. Together the American and Russian space stations had enough resources to build a colony on the moon. But could they bear life imprisoned in a tiny, man-made pocket of air? There was no alternative. Or was there? A far more perilous course might, just might, ensure the survival of the human race."

As the Italian stallion Quintus Longo is launched from earth with his fantastic pilot Steinbrunner to become a member of the 150-member crew of the American orbital, ten to fifteen low-yield nuclear devices are seen bursting over the Middle East. Colonel Farrington and Comrade Colonel Voroshilov, each commanding their respective orbital, also witness the destruction on earth. The two commanders and most of the crew begin to realize that earth has been sterilized, they are the only remaining humans alive, and that "they have a responsibility to renew the race." (63)

With limited skepticism on either side, the two orbiting stations begin with plans to combine their resources with the hope of establishing a lunar colony. But to renew the human population requires women and the American orbital has only one--Dr. Svoboda, an academic type far from pulchritude. Aboard the Russian orbital, the sex ratio is even, so naturally the Americans observe that the population can not be renewed without the help of the Russians.

Jesus, where do I begin? Though I finished this book in a day and a half, it was a tumultuous journey of human apocalypse, sexual reminiscing, chemical propellant lectures, and homosexual innuendos. It's a zany, crazy, silly, odd, scatterbrained spread of material which offsets the deeper issues of noble attempts at characterization through reminiscers of personal experiences with death and sex. Yes, you have read that correctly.

If it wasn't the addition of the sympathetic characters, this novel would have fallen flat. Remind yourself that Thomas Scortia has a patent on a chemical propellant when you read his droning lectures on the subject:
"The motors were... hybrid propulsion units... combustion instability... thrust vectoring and orbital corrections... polymethylmethccrylate... enthalpy change of the oxidizer-fuel system... heat-yielding thermal processes... mass injection from the fuel..." (133)
Additional droning comes care of a vertical take-off:
"Take off acceleration was only two Gs... nitric oxide thrust vectoring stabilized... thrust of the motors stabilized at a steady twelve and a half million pounds... balanced minimum drag losses... hidden pyrotechnic gas generators pressurized... analine and inhibited red fuming nitric acid were hypergolic." (14-16)
Aside from the lectures, the areas of interest are when some of the more sympathetic characters (Longo among them) start to think of their dying families, lost loves, plague-ridden continents, nights of passion, radiation-sickened wives, and their first consensual coital encounter. The contrast is odd yet invoking, but it's not as black and white as I paint it here with words (except for the line on page 37). Some of the better sexual lines of reminiscing include: "Her figure was lush, with great breasts meant for a platoon of children" (32) and "...he touched her and she touched him in the most delicate way he had felt since his mother died." (37) and behold the pièce de résistance:
"She was a marvelously hairy woman, very much true to her French ancestry. He had persuaded her, in spite of the style, never to shave under her armpits. She had a lush growth there, and its clean perspiration odor had an exciting effect on him." (72)
I mention the book has "homosexual innuendos" simply because I was looking for them (kind of like when watching Top Gun). I know Frank M. Robinson (a co-author in many of Scortia's novels) is a gay science fiction author, but I wasn't sure of the sexual orientation of Thomas Scortia yet I'm assuming they had a bonhomous relationship. However, the innuendos proved to be true when one character shared his emotional experiences in East Germany. The character Longo used to be father of three on earth, but he has a rather wide-opening experience during his love scene with Dr. Svoboda, where they are experiencing love making in zero gravity:
"There was no place to do it but on one of the tables, hanging from the bulkhead with a row of animal cages near at hand. He found it perversely exciting, especially when the hamsters seemed to catch their excitement." (150)

Aside from the silliness I found upon the pages and the sympathy the occasionally oozes from the cast, Thomas Scorria isn't really a very gifted writer at all. Some of his sentences are plain terrible, especially when he's trying to heighten the mood: "Gloom invaded the ship like a tangible thing." (217) I'm also sensitive to repetition, when an author uses a word or phrase over and over again ("atomic" is Asimov's Foundation, being notable). Scortia uses "jury-rigged" exactly eleven times through this novel. Oblivious to most, but used to an annoying degree for me.

Scortia has some good ideas and a partnership with Frank M. Robinson looks promising. He also has a short story collection in Caution! Inflammable! which looks enticing. Scortia is going on my list of books to find next time I rummage through some second-hand book stores...while biting my tongue with reluctance.

1962: Purple-6 (Brinton, Henry)

The secret is loose and a spy is amongst them (3/5)
From May 18, 2011

Rear cover synopsis:
"Russian missiles were hurtling toward the coast of England; British warheads were in flight to the enemy targets. The life of mankind was ticking away second by second..."

That's pretty short and it's also inaccurate. A more fleshed out synopsis would have been something like this: Will Burley hosts a Sunday open house where his friends and acquaintances gather to discuss current events but is interrupted by a phone call, `Duty Officer, Farnden. Purple-7.' Will's eyes' glaze over, he blankly tells his wife he must go and with seven minutes of life remaining he rushes to the underground base before the single missile hits England. Soon it becomes clear that the missile was in fact a Mars launch... but the surprise is that the launch vehicle was installed with a copy of a the supposedly secret anti-missile missile circuiting diagram. Will Burley was one of two men who had access to the diagram.

The first third off this 192-page novel is rich with cold war secretive fervor, clandestine sciences and a rustic English home life. The contrast is as inviting as it is foreboding. What ensues for the next eighty pages is much bickering between the security agent and the scientists, who both eye each other suspiciously yet instinctively know that the other is not a Russian mole. There are many snippy conversations, thrown accusations, mightier-than-thou one-liners and finger pointing. I would have liked to have seen a more calm but in-depth look into their lives, their acquaintances and their habits. Towards the end of the investigation I had three likely conclusions, each of which would have been a good ending if Brinton could have wrangled it.

But, in the end the conclusion wasn't as grand as I had hoped it would have been. When the conclusion is mentally drawn out, so too does the rest of the plot unto its' end. The heartache Burley experiences when his wife leaves him (as he's too involved with his work and she doesn't like the accusations), the strained friendship of Burley and his friend/boss C.H. (the only two suspects) and the urgent need to figure it all out to move onward with the research to save Western civilization: these three matters are the strings of he emotional violin Burley lives with.

The descriptive paragraphs are very well worded and it takes a bit of imagination to immerse yourself in Burley's life and work but all that is abruptly vaporized with preachy dialogue which is too well formed to feel life dialogue; rather it's a symposium for anti-war sentiment and pragmatism. If it weren't for the sharp, too well defined dialogue, the book would have garnered a fair 4-stars but it takes effort to immerse oneself in a world and an equally opposite amount of effort to shake oneself out of it by wordy preachers. Although, I almost feel inclined to grant it one for star for the ultimate conclusion...

Too bad Brinton never wrote anything else. This was his first and only novel.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

1977: High Justice (Pournelle, Jerry)

Strife against big government and big corporate (3/5)

High Justice in my fourth solo Pournelle novel (excluding five Larry & Jerry novels). Most of Pournelle's work, in my opinion, has a military/political scope which really doesn't inspire me to read more of his work, but Pournelle has writes some fiction about government/corporate struggle and advocacy for space development (a must read would be the collection Survival of Freedom co-edited by Jerry Pournelle).

Rear cover synopsis:
"The interplanetary corporations of the future--man's highest creation or blood-sucking monsters? Fed by expanding technology, fueled by the struggle for universal power, they grow and expand, overthrowing the superpowers of Earth and becoming an all-powerful government! Finally, they are the sole inhabitant of their planet--and face a terrifying showdown for all of space itself!"

Besides the bit a grandeur above, Jerry Pournelle's collection entitled High Justice contain seven stories which all involve people's struggle against big corporations and big government. The first few stories carry their own weight, but after the collection-titled High Justice, the flavor of the stories becomes to be monotonous. There's not much progression in the universe Pournelle has plotted out, there doesn't seem to be any strides made where one side will prevail over the other, be it the government, the corporation, or the people. In the end, literally, there IS no ultimate conclusion. The last story concludes itself but leaves the series as a whole flapping in the wind by its own threadbare tatters.

A Matter of Sovereignty (1972) - 4/5 - Assistant to the Chairman of Nuclear General Company, Mr. Adams, is flown to the island of Tonga in order to lend a hand in the retrieval of the plutonium-laden ship hi-jacked by the Fijians. With a profitable interest in collected ice floes, perhaps Mr. Adams can come to an agreement about the wants and needs with the Tongan king. 27 pages

Power to the People (1972) - 3/5 - Mr. Adams is now off to the Namib desert coats where a glacier-fed irrigation and desalination plant have been heavily invested in. However, local power struggles aims to topple the budding industrialism at the cost of profit and the peoples' well-being. 21 pages

Enforcer (1974) - 3/5 - An ice floe has been towed to a mineral/ore rich lode located over a thousand kilometers from the Argentinian coast. Operating for eight years, no international laws have been breached until a coup in Argentina has thoughts of dissolving contracts with the international economies (INTERECS). Naturally, INTERECS has a problem with this and will go to any length, much as Colonel Ortiz did, to find a suitable one-sided compromise. 27 pages

High Justice (1974) - 5/5 - Ex-solicitor General of the United States, Aeneas MacKenzie meets his ex-girlfriend Laurie Jo Hansen, who now has great power at the head of Hansen Enterprises, whose laser space port is sending men and material
into orbit from Baja, Mexico. When a crime is occurs aboard the construction orbiter, no law but a lawman can settle the issue. 40 pages

Extreme Prejudice (1974) - 4/5 - Gideon Starr is on assignment. His destination is the Dansworth underwater laboratory under the Pacific ocean. His mission is to feign interest in underwater mining, electricity production, and dolphin language research all the while keeping close tabs on this personal guide and target, Hank Shields. 32 pages

Consort (1975) - 3/5 - With the help of Senator Hayden, corporate empress Laurie Jo Hansen and Aeneas MacKenzie aim to tangle the president of the United States up in a criminal scandal so that their dreams of escaping earth's tired ways, establishing a moon base, and heading for the deeper regions of our solar system. 22 pages

Tinker (1975) - 2/5 - Captain Kephart, his wife, and their two children make rendezvous with the Jefferson planetoid in order to do some profitable trade. However, the local independent colonists don't much care for the traders' profit margin and force the couple into a oddly well-prepared scheme... when an approaching vessel sends a distress call. 41 pages

1960: The Man Who Ate the World (Pohl, Frederik)

Pohl the unique social critic? Sure! (4/5)
From July 27, 2010 

I've read a load of Pohl and I consider his novels to be... a great disappointment (with the exception of Gateway and Merchant's War). This short story collection along with Pohl's Pohlstars is, however, a great read. Specifically in this collection, Pohl pens some satire poking fun at mass production, consumerism, an industrialization. It's a fun sort of satire along the exact same lines as Space Merchants and Merchant's War.

Collectively, a great collection of short stories (3 of 6 being social criticism), with the exception of The Man Who Ate the World where Pohl takes a jab at the American consumer and the expectation for them to consume, buy, destroy and repeat the cycle (still rings true, huh). The Wizards and The Waging follow along the same lines as Pohl's Space Merchants series where advertising takes the central role and looking at how humans react to the every commercial product pushed into their faces. Pohl makes it fun (hello, Marlene Growshawk!), unique and timely even considering it's 50 years of age. The Snowmen is a short but very bizarre story which manages to slowly unfold the whole scenario and entertain at the same time. The Seven offers a smart set-up on the planet Venus followed by an equally like clever solution to the problem of the protagonist.

The Man Who Ate the World (1956) - 2/5 - Spoiled brat of a child told to consume and consume, only to continue to construct, destroy and consume for twenty years. Construct robots to maintain robots to produce robots that destroy robots, etc. All he needs is teddy's love. 28 pages

The Seven Deadly Virtues (1958) - 4/5 - Wife-stealing Venus newbie is ostracized for his past actions by a powerful man. Newbie looks to a newer newbie for protection and includes him in the plot to destroy the powerful man and at the same time regain his citizenship. 29 pages

The Day the Icicle Works Closed (1960) - 4/5 - Distant planet becomes cut off from trade and some factory workers attempt to kidnap the mayor's son for needed cash... it's either that or rent your body to tourists while you perform hard mental labor. 33 pages

The Snowmen (1959) - 5/5 - Trysting couple are visited by an alien craft. While the woman converses with the naked being, the suited man loots the alien craft looking for metal objects and food. A good, full belly is best during the long, cold winter. 8 pages

The Wizards of Pung's Corner (1958) - 5/5 - Advertiser comes to Pung's Corner hoping to open the post-war secluded town to new products through advertising and diligence, only to be subverted by an old-hand of the same ilk (Tighe), who manages with simplicity. 29 pages

The Waging of the Peace (1959) - 4/5 - Buick salesman inundated with new and old Buicks takes his complaint straight to Tighe in the Capitol, only to be recruited in attacking and stopping production at the National Electro-Mech fortified factory. 28 pages

Thursday, February 9, 2012

1972: The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Wolfe, Gene)

Flips your paradigm's polarity; follow closely (4/5)

I have a love/hate relationship with the works of Gene Wolfe... I'm sure this isn't uncommon among science fiction readers. I love linear and elegant plots, but I'm also fond of florid prose, plot backtracking, and red herrings. Gene Wolfe provides much of this and for that I'm thankful, but some of the passages (much like some of his short stories) are unfathomable, needlessly laden with mythological allegory and context. I've never been a reader of mythology; this one point turns me off to some of his work and parts of this novel. And if you know anything about Gene Wolfe, while his writing is beautiful, he's rarely ever straight to the point (allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions - clever at times, annoying on other occasions).

Written in 1972, Gene Wolfe expanded the novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" into a novel by including the last two novellas. Each novella has its own characters, one straight story with tiers of complexity, another story saturated in impenetrable allegories, and the last story structured around the scaffolding of "found-footage."

(1) The Fifth Head of Cerberus - 5/5 - A nameless narrator reflects on his childhood upon the French colonized planet of Sainte Croix, which shares a solar orbit with its sister-planet Sainte Anne. Reclusively living in his father's mansion/bordello, the narrator/to-be-named Number Five learns from an "unbound simulator" with his brother David. As Number Five ages and meets his love interest, the pair begin to stage plays for public viewing, but soon find themselves short of cash. Reflecting on the borderline torture Number Five is receiving by his father, the two concoct a plan. (71 pages) ----- Such an excellent novella for its portrait of a decaying colony, the rich yet mysterious history regarding the settlers, and the ballet of emotion between the characters. What impressed me most, however, was the way Wolfe challenged my cognitive grasp of the plot, forcing me to reverse the polarity of my viewpoint, by allowing me to sink through layers of chaotic deception and yanking me straight back to the calm surface of awe. Very impressed!

(2) "A Story," by John V. Marsch - 3/5 - John Sandwalker is traveling on foot in search for the high priest, a hermit in the hills of Thunder Always. Befriending the natives of the planet, John Sandwalker is allowed into the communal circles of the Shadow children, hearing their songs and their tales. John's twin brother Eastwind captures John and the Shadow's and throws them into a sand prison where others are indentured, awaiting execution in the river for Eastwind's clan's feast. (57 pages) ----- I wasn't following the logic or allegory of the first half of the novella at all. It felt too much like Delany's The Einstein Intersection, with felt lost in its own plane of existence; nothing felt connected, nothing felt relevant, nothing felt tactile. Only in the last half do hypotheses come to light, suggestions are delicately put forward, and good amount of guesswork leaves the reader their own paradigm of truth behind the planet, its people, and its lost inhabitants.

(3) V.R.T. - 4/5 - An interrogator on Sainte Anne fingers through material collected in regards to the incident involving the earth-born anthropologist, John Marsch. Transcripts of interrogation, excerpts from John's scribomania, journal entries from John's trek on Sainte Croix... all interspersed with interrogator's thoughts about his review. (108 pages) ----- I'm a huge fan of "found-footage" type stories with peripheral yet relevant data, like in John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up or Filbrun's Gemini Rising. The history of the case is detailed and adds a distinct flavor to the end of the novel, which leaves the reader with one of two paradigms regarding WHO Number Five is, who John Marsch is, and what ever happened to those reportedly transmogrifying native inhabitants.

2005: Starwater Strains (Wolfe, Gene)

Less than half of the stories are science fiction (3/5)
From September 5, 2011

I became interested in Wolfe because of the Long Sun series. I liked to series but was disappointed by the lack of science in the books. As a science fiction reader, a books doesn't always need to have technology, laser and spaceships, but the Long Sun needed something to counter its' almost fantasy-like elements. When I saw Wolfe had a short story collection with the cover saying "New Science Fiction Tales," I had to find it.

Disappointingly, only about 10 of the 25 stories here have elements of science fiction, with the majority of them containing things like magic swords, mythical sea creatures, folklore, surreal experiences, and possession. I admit, most of it was lost on me. Call Wolfe "clever" or "subtle" but I think he writes for himself rather than an audience. Sometimes you just have to shrug and take each story at face value because you'll have no clue what Wolfe is trying to get across.

Viewpoint - 4/5 - Woodman becomes reality show contestant in the city which he must survive while spending the $100,000 on his person. With viewers watching his every move from his first-person POV and the government wanting to tax him, elusiveness is difficult without cooperation. 39 pages

Rattler - 4/5 - Two rednecks talk about a truck which manifests the spirit (like Carrie) of an old hunting dog. The canine-possessed truck inspires another man to train his new truck to perform new tricks, with predictable results. 7 pages

In Glory like Their Stars - 4/5 - Gabby materialistic yet primitive humans idolize a visiting humanoid alien but their simplicity and relentlessness drive the benevolent being away. 6 pages

Calamity Warps - 5/5 - If your dog dragged home a four-armed, horned shadow, you'd be a little freaked out, too. When the shadow becomes your very own, things become downright odd. 5 pages

Graylord Man's Last Words - 4/5 - Robotic boy sent to his aunt's Biological house where lays a man on his deathbed. His last words are uttered but the boy is unable to compute the sensation. 6 pages

Shields of Mars - 5/5 - Human and alien childhood friends on Mars are the sole caretakers of an air plant, which is about to become decommissioned. A final plea to headquarters is made and the results enliven their spirit. 11 pages

From the Cradle - 5/5 - A young man working in a book store comes into contact with a mysterious, old, brown book which is seemingly basing stories about his life through its fables. 19 pages

Black Shoes - 3/5 - Prior to an oceanside holiday, a professor didn't believe in mythical sea creatures but during a shoeless stroll through the surf, he enters a surreal and confronts his past errs. 8 pages

Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon? - 4/5 A circus muscleman and his love-interest/manager ponder the mysterious properties of the moon, dodge the Feds and seek out the strange lunar material. 11 pages

Pulp Cover - 5/5 - Mid-level manager at a furniture store falls in love with the boss's daughter, who soon marries a stranger... who is stranger than anyone knows. 10 pages

Of Soil and Climate - 3/5 - Imprisoned psychiatrist experiences a fantasy realm inhabited by metaphorical "night people" where we becomes a prince to aid the king's mental illness. 21 pages

The Dog of Drops - 3/5 - After the Bigkill, an intelligent wolf befriends a man and his family. His story is transcribed in what seems to be a thick Scottish or Welsh accent. 3 pages

Mute - 3/5 - Siblings discover their father's house empty except for the mute TV and the corpse in the basement. Upon leaving the house, they jump the fence to only return to the same exact house. 10 pages

Petting Zoo - 4/5 - The government commandeers a T-Rex after a boy grows it himself and unleashes tyranny upon the forest copse and herds of cattle. Now on a diet of tofu, the didactic machines teach children of the era of the dinosaurs. 6 pages

Castaway - 4/5 - Man stranded on planet for 27 years describes to one crew member of an old female who accompanied him on the planet. He reminisces of shared memories of birds and tress; things which the crewmember knows nothing of. 6 pages

The Fat Magician - 3/5 - An American pens a letter while being stranded in an Austrian city which is home to an almost mythical figure from WWII - a giant of a magician hiding persecuted peoples from the Nazis. 10 pages

Hunter Lake - 3/5 - Mother and daughter search for an elusive lake by questioning a specter-like elderly lady, an even more elusive elderly man and an Injun woman. 11 pages

The Boy Who Hooked the Sun - 3/5 - A short tale explaining why the seasons change. 3 pages

Try and Kill It - 5/5 - Nocking an arrow, the hunter takes aim on a passing doe but demurs. Later, a rush of wildlife bursts forth but still stalls... then takes aim on a grizzly, which can break aluminum arrow shafts. 21 pages

Game in the Pope's Head - 2/5 - A quartet of players are playing a mixed menagerie of games simultaneously. Reality keeps shifting and it is somewhat of an idea of someone's personal hell. 6 pages

Empires of Foliage and Flower - 1/5 - Reminiscent of the Long Sun series but with more of a fantasy slant... couldn't get through even half of it. 26 pages

The Arimaspian Legacy - 3/5 - Astronomer and obsessive book collector discovers secrets in the sun's spots and excitedly tells his childhood friend of the discovery. 5 pages

The Seraph and Its Sepulcher - 4/5 - Missionary to a recently extinct alien race receives a researcher from the Motherworld light-years away. The researcher aims to study the religious records, the ancient sites and anything the Father has. 15 pages

Lord of the Land - 3/5 - Folklorist interviews an old man at a farm, who speaks of a soul-sucking shadow-like being. With the interviewer interning at the ranch, odd occurrences must... occur. 16 pages

Golden City Far - 2/5 - A boy experiences life set on the cusp of reality and fantasy - real, imaginary or psychotic? 45 pages

Friday, February 3, 2012

1972: The Wandering Variables (Trimble, Louis)

Angering grad students and natives when on vacation (3/5)

Louis Trimble has authored nearly a dozen western and mystery books in his early career but turned to science fiction in the late 1960s. He has two Ace doubles with Anthropol and The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy before publishing three books for DAW: The City Machine (1972: Daw #24), this novel (1972: DAW #34), and the The Bodelan Way (1974: DAW #86). I've only read Trimble's The City Machine (4/5 stars) and considered it a thought provoking, socially intuitive novel. He also wrote a quirky time travel short story entitled Probability (1954, which can be found on Project Gutenberg) which ends with " can I be sure what to do if he won't let me read about what I did." Fun stuff.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Dr. Tandy Venner was an irreplaceable asset to the Charter Worlds Union... so when she decided to take a mind-bending vacation with a Euphor team, Jano Kegan was sent along to keep an eye on her. But to qualify for the safari across that mad planet, he too had to submit to the Trekkers' mental conditioning. What was not on the tour program was the unwritten sidetrack their guide had planned for Tandy. What was not on the guide's secret detour was the planet's own out-of-bounds programming. And what was not on any of them was the eccentricity of the two brilliant vacationers breaking all the rules to find out what Euphor was really all about."

Jano works for the Cultural Rehab unit for the Chartered World Union, where it's his duty to contact both regressed human civilizations on colonized planets and technologically advanced human races across the galaxy. Because his survival skills are needed when dealing with backwater primitive human tribes, Jano is selected to protect the important Dr. Tandy from the menacing hands of the arch rival corporation of Argo and its henchmen Mingo and Pars.

Prior to arrival in the holiday planet of Euphor, Tandy and others receive conditioning which allows them to act uninhibitedly yet it also confines them to the narrow tract of land, bordered by two parallel rivers, for an 11 day joyful hike to the rendezvous. Jano soon uses his lessened programming to allow Tandy and himself to escape into the prohibited zone. There, the programming wears off and ill effects start to surface. Jano and Tandy both show they have outdoorsmanship when innovating utensils and gadgets from the flora surrounding them.

When the duo stumble upon an isolated tribe of primitive humans, it soon becomes known that the tribe is actually part of a graduate student's thesis. Pheeno, the graduate student, is unseen but praised as a god by his study tribe. Dismayed by the inclusion of the two "variables" in his thesis's equation, Pheeno still assists them in finding an alternative route to the rendezvous. However, this route takes them through another graduate student's anthropological thesis, where two variables are very much unwelcome.

Trimble wastes no time in diving straight into this hare-brained adventure. We dive into Jano's job description, jump out onto the planet smack-dab in the middle of Tandy' uninhibited behavior, right through into the wilderness of the planet Euphor. No time for tea, no smoke break, do not pass go. The rest of the 154-page novel does little to characterize them, so we're left with two descriptions of each: Tandy is tall and jade-skinned while Jano is short and jade-skinned. No reason is given for the oddly skinned characters (there's even one with blue and pink striped skin). Two duo are dynamic yet combative at times, never really convincing the reader than they grow to care for one another through their 11-day trek.

I mention above that the adventure is hare-brained. I'm not entirely sure if this novel was supposed to be a thought-focused attempt at balderdash or a lackadaisical failure of artistry... it lays in the murky chasm of the two. I'm going to stand my ground after some thought now and say that this was, indeed, a stab at silliness which was shot from the hip. I like the imagery of two escapees/adventurers getting mixed up in the god-like graduate affairs of two university students, once accidentally inserting their own variable nature into the graduate's anthropological equation, and once again on purpose. As a current graduate student myself, my favorite quote by far is, "...they had no way of gauging the reaction of an angered graduate student should they interfere in his experiment." (67)

The Wandering Variables reminds me of another rather unique DAW book, Guy Syder's Testament XXI, which was also a bit silly. I ended up thinking that Testament XXI was simply a one-off idiosyncratic novel... but Wandering Variables strikes me much the same way - perhaps the rest of the Trimble library isn't quite this odd, but by the looks of The Bodelan Way cover, he might just have another odd-ball novel lurking out there.

1973: Testament XXI (Snyder, Guy)

Snyder's one-off: unique is good and bad ways (3/5)
From October 15, 2011

Guy Snyder's Testament XXI: The Book of the Twice Damned (DAW #64) is a total one-off; this author never wrote another novel, novelette or even short story, according to ISFDB. The rear cover also adds, "...a novel quite unlike any you have ever read in modern science fiction." This is true. It's... unique. Hmph.

Rear cover synopsis:
"When Astronaut Williamson returned after the longest flight ever made he found that the great civilization that had launched him was gone... destroyed in a chaos of its own creation. But somewheres in what had once been Michigan the Republic welcomed him back. The Republic that was a kingdom, the Republic that consisted of one underground city ruled by a weakling monarch and a power-hungry priesthood."

Returning from a mission to Bernard's Star, our lone astronaut, James, has left his crewmates in the mothership in a decaying orbit around earth. Crashing his craft, James is accepted into the underground colony of Detroit. With a military background, he is quickly trained to rise to the ranks of defense commander. His novelty has him in close proximity to the ailing king who uses him to spy on his nearly-psychotic prince son, Richard. The relationship between James and Richard matures as the king passes away and Richard assumes responsibility for the livelihood of the colony. At the same time, the powerful Archbishop makes a powerplay against the rising star, James. A secret stash of 2011 bibles contrasts the current 2111 bible, which James says is a crook. Branded for treason, the Archbishop puts him on trail but is saved by the heir apparent. Add to this conundrum the recent deflection of an 80-megaton nuclear bomb and a successful scouting mission to the colony of Chicago, and circumstances begin to align themselves.

Pretty decent synopsis, which is much easier to read than the actual novel. The chapter passages are oddly separated one-line sentences beginning and ending with notational ellipses. Sometimes this spacing fills nearly an entire page. Some of the dialogue, too, is spaced in this fashion, as if the editor is trying to bulk up an otherwise rather thin novel (which could be easily read in 2-3 hours). Four of the seventeen chapters begins with a perspective from an animal living on the surface above the colony: a lizard, a buzzard, a kangaroo rat and a rat. These four passages last for 2-3 pages and add a certain charm to the book. It's unique, but has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot.

Snyder's writing style, besides the repetitive notational ellipses, is bipolar. Most of the time the writing is very straight forward but there are also glimpses of wonderful insight:
"What causes men to become no more than celestial chess players?"
"War's a game, my lord."
"That's a trite, lousy explanation of the phenomenon."
"That's because the phenomenon itself it trite." (93)

And other times he is tirelessly wordy with obscure descriptions: "The fuel was called, noncommercially, Grade #3H. It was, of course, the right kind of fuel for this type of VL-VTO craft, series R12-56." (100)

It's not an easy read because you have to understand the constantly shifting viewpoints from pilots, animals, James and the Archbishop. There is even shifting viewpoints of characters who have an entire chapter dedicated to them but play no role in the plot, such as "this particular man" in Chapter 9 who is described while going to work, doing nothing and finally witnessing the war production line begin, much to his dismay.

Unique, it is- the synopsis was right for a change! It think I'll keep this book on my shelves for sheer novelty. It's a little fun, actually. She's a keeper.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

1964: Greybeard (Aldiss, Brian)

The elderly reluctantly inherit the earth (5/5)

Brian Aldiss seems to have a limited following with the wider science fiction community only recognizing Non-Stop (excellent!), Long Afternoon Of Earth (great!), and Helliconia Spring (haven't read it yet) as his landmark novels. I've read five of his novels and each one has been a 4- or 5-star rating, among them Starswarm, Cryptozoic, and Earthworks. Each one of these books highlights Brian Aldiss's masterful gift for creating a setting which is detailed and absorbing. Greybeard is no different - it opens your eyes and keeps them glued to the pages.

Rear cover synopsis:
"After the Accident, the Dark Ages return to Earth. By the year 2029 A.D. few survivors remain. Those who are left huddle in isolated villages, prisoners of fear, superstition, and old age. The rare man who still wants to shape his own destiny must strike out into the unknown. Greybeard is the story of such a man and his wife - of their perilous journey through a landscape weirdly familiar, eerily changed. And of their quest for something they dare not name..."

Algy Timberlane and his wife Martha met during childhood, in the the early years after the Accident in 1981. Both aged seven years old and both recovering from radiation-related illnesses, they will discover that their lives will be intermeshed through the world war in 2001, through the cholera outbreak in 2018, and through the reclusive years after the sequential disasters in 2029. The Big Accident having wiped out most large mammals and rendering nearly all of humanity sterile, only weasels, reindeer, beavers, otters, and coypu are left to either eat or provide some sort of utility to the remaining humans dotting the English countryside... while "the mammal with the big brain eked out his dotage in small communities." (71) With an average age of seventy and where 50 years of age is considered to be young, the hope for the future is dim: "Mortal flesh now wore only the Gothic shapes of age. Death stood impatiently over the land, waiting to count his last few pilgrims." (39)

Algy Timberlane (aka Greybeard), now aged 54 in the year 2029, started to work for DOUCH(E) during the war in 2001. DOUCH(E) stands for Documentation of Universal Contemporary History (England) and Algy's job is to simply place himself where history is being made and make recordings of history unfolding: "...someone should leave behind a summary of earth's decline, if only for visiting archeologists from other possible worlds." (83) His wife Martha is at his side when they decide to escape their community as it experiences a surge of unrest. Fleeing the hermetic village with the couple is the chaplain, Charley, five years Algy's senior, who provides optimistic countenance to Algy's own spiral of negativity. Also, the trapper and somewhat dim-witted Jeff Pitt is along for the perilous journey, who has been Algy's peripheral sidekick since the days of training with DOUCH when Jeff was ordered to assassinate Algy.

The seven chapters of Greybeard alternate between the escape from the village and downstream journey to the shore in the years 2029-2031 with that of historical background of the (1) year 1982 when the year after the "fatal bombs in space") and we reader witnesses a key event in Algy's life: his chance encounter with the hairless girl next door and the suicide of his father. (2) In the years 2000-2001 Algy receives training with DOUCH and experiences a unfortunate event which solidifies the bond between the Algy and his fiancé. (3) In the year 2018, cholera began to take it toll and escape from the dictatorial urban center was the only choice in order to survive.

Like all the other Aldiss novels I've read, the author pens a richly detailed novel interspersed with cavernous emotion, inspiring allegories, and romantic prose: "Year by year, as the living died, the empty rooms about him would multiply, like the cells of a giant hive that no bees visited, until they filled the world. The time would come when he would be a monster, alone in the rooms, in the tracks of his search, in the labyrinth of his hollow footsteps." (129) The reader will certainly get a feel for the desolation of the bucolic English countryside in contrast to the effervescent hope which bubbles from unknown emotional depths. Aldiss peppers Greybeard with fun little words like "sedgey" and "cavil" and "pundit" with some interesting formal words like "metoposcopy" and "katabatic winds" and "catenary" and then there's always the rare long words you come across once a year like "peregrination" and "tatterdemalion".

Greybeard may not be the best place to start when tackling the Aldiss bibliography, but it's certainly a prized mantelpiece for post-apocalyptic fiction, once which infuses barrenness with hope, self-destruction with mollification, and fatalism with transcendence.

1958: Non-stop (Aldiss, Brian)

Arboreal-overrun corridors with deformed green humans (5/5)
From August 19, 2009

Among my favorite science fiction books are two books published this decade- The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks and The Prefect by Alastair Reynolds. Also in my shortlist are paperback novels from years when even my dad was in his youth, such as Voyage of the Space Beagle by A.E. van Vogt and Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. These have been amongst the most satisfying of novels in my sequence of 250+ sci-fi books in the last three years, when I've started to read the genre. My top seven remains fairly stagnant, but Non-stop found a place for itself in my personal elite selections.

Knowledge that the entire novel takes place in a generation ship isn't made clear until then end, however, it is widely known that Non-stop is in fact one of the few `generation ship' novels. It's obvious from the start that the humans in the Quarters aren't very human at all- they are shrunken, green, time-skewed and deformed. Living in the same world but not in the same region are the mysterious Outsiders, the mythical Giants and the majestic Forwards. Visualize this: cramped corridors run over by exotic arboreal growths paralleled by yet-to-open chambers containing mementos of generations past. That's how the reader is introduced to the world in which these mutated humans live- in squalor, in poverty where they know no difference, in the seemingly wilderness. It's all very fascinating to imagine that feral human mutants running amok in the bowels of an ancient spaceship. If that doesn't interest you, maybe you shouldn't be reading sci-fi?

After the initial introduction to the world they live in, the plot becomes bogged down a bit by internal happenings in the Quarters. Perhaps I was just anxious to delve straight into the rest of the ship to discover what wonders or horrors it held. Much to my satisfaction, the plot proceeded to do just that. Later, I could appreciate the early lull in plot as it helped to characterize the village mutants as individuals and as a whole.

Further along, there is a romantic subplot, which other reviews don't seem to appreciate. However, when taken into the context that the relationship is being carried on by a village mutant and a beauty (as described by the mutant) it's unsettling to the reader as the reader doesn't know the intentions of the beauty. Is she using the mutant for her own purposes or is she honestly in love with him? Aldiss throws that massive wrench into the works as the reader attempts to figure out what is going on- it ain't easy. Through some guesswork, I figured out about half the ending while halfway through the novel. Perhaps it read too predictably or perhaps it was my intuition. Either way, I was still on seats edge awaiting every page, paying strict attention to every nuance and reading into every word in every conversation. Just fantastic!

For more novels regarding generation ships, look for Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City, Frank M. Robinson's Dark Beyond the Stars, and Gene Wolfe's Nightside of the Long Sun. I think I'm forgetting others I've read... shucks.