Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, March 30, 2012

1977: Cloudcry (Van Scyoc, Sydney J.)

Fantasy land of prolific adverbial rubbish (0/5)

A brief philosophy on "What is Science Fiction?":

This book is clearly labeled on the spine as science fiction. However, there are many shades of gray between the nebulous "speculative fiction" realms of "sci-fi" and "fantasy." Every book lands on its own position between the two--rarely is a speculative fiction book without favor for one side of the genre spectrum or the other. I see the spectrum to be linear, allowing an author to make a sci-fi book more like fantasy by adding or withdrawing certain elements. The same goes for fantasy books which can be geared up to read more like science fiction. This latter process is a tetchy endeavor as some science fiction fans like myself abhor the genre of fantasy. James Alan Gardner's Trapped and Fritz Leiber's Gather Darkness ride this fine line and both come away as solid science fiction because the use of magic is outlined under the umbrella of future science. The same cannot be said for Cloudcry. The title alone is more reminiscent of a fantasy novel, as are Van Scyoc's other novel titles: Darkchild, Starmother, Featherstroke, and Bluesong.

You be the judge while reading the rear cover synopsis:
"Where Immortality is More Than a Dream
From the dawn of time the Light Dancers sailed the cloudplains of Selmarri, until they discovered immortality--and traded their wings for eternity in a crystal universe the size of a transistor! Aeons later, when the bloodblossom plague threatens to reduce humankind's lifespan to nine Earthyears, the "empty planet" Selmarri is chosen as quarantine for the galaxy: and the exile Verrons and the Light Dancer Aleida respeak the sun-leaping cloudcry in their pursuit of life's most ancient dream..."

One more additional frame of genre reference is the following paragraph. Again, you be the judge... fantasy of science fiction?:
She was so near, the refined crystal in hand, the secret of its implantation already recorded somewhere in the issues of her brain. But she could not retrieve that information without appropriate stimulation, and stimulation lay below, in the hall of the master flute--beneath the solid stone floor. (207)
In my opinion, the entire novel has been generously tweaked in order to alter it from a rather mundane fantasy novel into a terrible excuse for a science fiction novel... not because the "science is bad" but because so many elements could simply be switched, turned on or turned off, to render it as a fantasy novel:
(1) The inclusion of CRYSTAL in almost any novel is warning enough for me to stay clear of the book because of their mystical affiliation; hence the fantasy connection. Why not just call it a crystal ball?
(2) As for FLUTES? The science behind the flute is weakly outlined, but if it were to be excluded then the fluted would have mystical qualities!
(3) The avian alien Tiehl doesn't have to be described as such, perhaps describing it as an "Icarus" or a netherworld sentient Rho would be enough to have a fantasy feel to it.
(4) Instead of having beam pistols, why not just call them magic wands which cast heat and pain to the victim? Instead of spaceships, why not just call them dirigibles or zeppelins? Instead of the alien plague bloodblossom, why not just call it the Demon's Disease of Dastardly Death?
(5) Really, I could go on.

Aside from the fantasy elements which irk me something fierce, Van Scyoc's writing style sent me into a state of extreme frustration and anger--it drove me up a very tall and perilous wall, which I was tempted to jump from after I wanted to tear the book apart and make personal compost of it. She is heavily repetitive, using the same phrases over and over again: "nodded abstractedly" and "ruffed his plumage" and "her hair crackling" being among the most annoying. Her extremely liberal use of "-ly" adverbs had me clinching my teeth and squeezing my eyelids shut in sheer agony. Her open-handed cramming of "-ly" adverbs into each nook and cranny was amazing... amazingly bad. Her top seven most repetitive -"ly" adverbs: quickly, slowly, certainly, swiftly, briefly, apparently, and emphatically. To give you an idea of how often she uses adverbs, I roughly counted the number in a random 10-page section and I include here some of the doozies:
Pages 154 = 7 times (uneasily paced)
Pages 155 = 8 times (uneasily paced [again])
Pages 156 = 15 times (apparently flew AND apparently located)
Pages 157 = 9 times (gingerly buckled)
Pages 158 = 5 times (expertly tossed)
Pages 159 = 11 times (desperately labored AND desperately broke)
Pages 160 = 6 times (preternaturally alert)
Pages 161 = 10 times (thoughtfully said)
Pages 162 = 13 times (swiftly barreled)
Pages 163 = 5 times (dispassionately noted)

More contextually, here's an "-ly" adverb-laden excerpt:
Cautiously they edged past the first dome and around the first of the second rank. Verrons tapped the translucent panel lightly. It was a plaston material, virtually untouched by deterioration. He pressed his forehead to the paneling. Within the dome shadowy forms were stranded in silent immobility. (168)
Take ALL this into consideration when you come across flowery after flowery passages of gobbledlygook English. Some authors can get away with writing beautiful prose in the middle of each page (John Updike, for one). But an author like Van Scyoc to absolutely plaster the pages with semi-intelligible attempts at the pollination of prose reeks not of cherry blossoms, but of desperation: "His jiggling eyeballs anchored desperately upon Verrons' reassuring solidity." (121) and "[...] her body arched in fervent proprietorship." (122) Also, her sequential use of big words becomes quite annoying: "But the very unlikeliness of the phenomenon demanded the flexibility of a solitary investigation." (49) and "His body tightened in recognition of appropriate entombment." (101)

Like most of Cloudcry, the above passages are examples of the petty and garrulous descriptions of every item and action; the discursive use of all things adverbial; and the inability of the author to be textually taciturn (K.I.S.S. should be written on her wall as a note to herself). I was gagging for the plot to move forward as it was heavily weighted with textual rubbish. I was so relieved after finishing this book that I screamed at the cringe-worthy cover and chucked the book across the room... only the second book to have such an honor.

Sydney J. Van Scyoc... never again shall we cross paths.

*** Fourteen "-ly" adverbs were intentionally abused in making this review ***

1950: Gather, Darkness! (Leiber, Fritz)

Science, Magic and Religion without the Fantasy (4/5)
From November 15, 2009

I was skeptical of a "science fiction" book which read on the cover, "An epic struggle between science and magic" with an illustration of an old lady, a cat and a monkey. If it wasn't for my prior research into the book, I never would have even touched the book.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Brother Jarles was afraid. Everyone was afraid. The power base of the false religion was crumbling as its scientific miracles proved to be fakes. Now mankind was in the depths of a new dark age, but the priests could offer no hope. Angels and devils warred in the skies, and the witches were stirring up new and terrible marvels. So Brother Jarles turned to the Dark Man, with a last faint hope in his renegade heart. There was no haven for him in this future world locked in turmoil between decadent science and what seemed to be resurgent superstition. Jarles was essentially a simple man, but there were no simple answers. Even the Great God of the temple was no longer safe. Then the great warships began to land from Heaven."

I'm allergic to fantasy, so I have a most difficult time swallowing magic, witches and spells. One book which repressed my gag reflex was Trapped by James Alan Gardner. In his novel, the characters exhibit their magic in the form of manipulating nanites which are specific to each owns brain chemistry... or whatever. Anyway, it was readable. Now when I pick up a classic like Gather Darkness, which includes elements of magic AND religion, I was suspicious. Fritz weaves a decent tale though without causing me to spew.

In the era the novel takes place, a Hierarchy has been long established which uses masqueraded high-technology to mimic miracles of God and powers granted to the priests. The commoners are draconian yokels left in the dark about the secret affairs of the church. Yet, there is a secret resistance invoking Witchcraft (so says the Church, but it is in fact technology which the Church doesn't have). The story follows the resistance of the Witches and heretics, the escalating war between the two, and friction which spills over into the populous city.

Considering the three later-combined short stories were penned in 1943, a number of remarkable technologies make their appearance. One could say that Fritz was, perhaps, visionary in his technological apparatuses and memes. His ideas were also original, something which is hard to sift through when going over pulp 40s and 50s science fiction. Even now, the novel stands as a one-of-a-kind science fiction novel which only touches base with very few other novels combing scientific magic and religion.

This quirkiness and ingenuity of Leiber's science/pseudo-science extends to Leiber's short stories, too. The Best of Fritz Leiber (1974) is a collection of twenty-two short stories and it a must for any fan of unique science fiction. It'll be worth your effort to track down anything Leiber has written, but my whole-hearted recommendation is to pick up both Gather, Darkness! and The Best of Fritz Leiber.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

1971: Abyss (Wilhelm, Kate)

In the abyss of dichotomy lies a reality (3/5)

Having read Wilhelm's flagship post-apocalyptic novel about cloning, Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang (1976), her three-part story was captivating but a special something was missing--her writing didn't set her apart from other writers. Her much lesser known work, Let the Fire Fall (1969) combined religious fanaticism with an alien contact novel, but once again her writing style was no where to be seen and unfortunately her plot line wasn't very lively. Besides her work in science fiction, Wilhelm also used to write a good deal of mystery. In Abyss, both lines of her fiction writing are merged into two separate novellas where the mundane circumstances transmogrify into the creepy realm of testing your own reality while at the lip of the metaphorical abyss.


The Plastic Abyss (1971) - 3/5 - Perry Davenport is the president of a plastics company who is eager to secure government funds for the research into a nearly all- absorbing material, rending it impossibly dark and suitable as a platform for image projection or energy generation. The director of research, Gary Hazlett, is against any government collaboration in the invention because he fears the government monopolization and militarization of their discovery. Meanwhile, Gary's wife Dorothy is experiencing conflicting memories of time and place. Her continuing dichotomous memory spurs her into confused fits of what reality: is there more than one reality or is everything she projects a non-reality compared to her corporeality? When the research group and the couple come together to pan out what experiences can be corroborated, the slow collective realization is as unsettling as it is illusionary. 71 pages

Dorothy's fractal experiences are difficult to follow at first, where her version of reality differs from the corroborated experiences recounted by her husband or neighbor. In each circumstance Dorothy has a presence, but which presence is her own is not known from that of her proposed doppelgänger. Her flighty behavior is seen as a female neurosis in the eyes of the predominantly male cast--she's skittish, uncertain, overly emotional, and needy. The stereotypical female-in-need is compounded by the stereotypical male-problem-fixer, where I would typically feign interest in such a superficially characterized cast, this character symbiosis is as interesting as the juxtaposition of knowledge-based scientists and surreal-experiences of Dorothy. Something works very well here, but the displacement of Dorothy and her perceived reality is hard to pin down into words... the story might have been handled by Brian Aldiss or John Brunner.


Stranger in the House (1968) - 4/5 - Robert and Mandy have made the move from the city to the country, where they have bought a huge house for a very affordable price. A series of odd events involving physical sickness, fainting spells, and spasms of agony have Robert unperturbed. Mandy and her 29-year old daughter share unsettling experiences of being mentally invaded and inherently distrust the house. Below the basement of the seemingly haunted house lies an alien being, the Groth. On a mission to monitor the scientific developments of humankind since 1896, the male Groth has become withdrawn, distressed, and depressed after the untimely death of his mate. Unacclimated to earth's atmosphere, the Groth finds it difficult to return to its ship located in upstate New York. All his needs taken care in his subterranean lair, the Groth doesn't need to venture out often but he also needs to complete another one of his missions on earth--to make contact. However, his telepathic powers and state of distress prove to be too powerful for productive reception in the human mind. 64 pages

The male-female struggle for whose idea of reality is more well-founded is just as prevalent as it is in the previous novella. Robert is a bullheaded realist with both feet planted to the earth while his wife Mandy suggests supernatural sources for the odd events in the house; between the two lie an abyss of the realization of the event in their lives. I guess you can take the metaphor as far as you like: the abyss between human and alien existence, the abyss between the continuation of life vs. the pull of self-death, the abyss between avoiding the truth and confronting the truth. The focus on the plight of the alien is the highlight of the story. The Groth is steeped in lonely misery as he can't conveniently move about, can't retrieve his spacecraft, can't effectively communicate, and can't complete his mission.


I criticized Wilhelm for not having her own voice in her writing, but in this two novella collection, Wilhelm does do one thing quite well: offering unique insight into the human experience. It's not with every author that tidbits of pertinent insight gets slipped into the story. Wilhelm has a knack for this, she includes some facets of insight which I thought only I have experienced.
Her mother ... her father ... All of them pretending so hard, all of them so phony, always playing roles, being so nice and polite, and all the time just waiting for her to be out of the way so they could let down the masks, be themselves. She tried to imagine that her mother was like apart from her ... and she couldn't. Another person, a stranger to her. (13)
We never see what we think we do. It's a matter of training. We see lines, and we join them. We see partial figures, and we complete them. We see randomness and we make it orderly. Our minds refuse chaos, so we train our eyes and our brain to create order. (64)
Her perception and human insights unique to this collection now has me more interested in her stories. I may steer away from her novels and venture towards her short story collection. There's still hope for her yet!

1969: Let the Fire Fall (Wilhelm, Kate)

Xenophobic fanatics - all too real (3/5)
From September 14, 2011

Kate Wilhelm's Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang was the first novel I've read by the author. While considered science fiction, it didn't use the science as a a focus or as a crutch, but more as a tool for the plot. The same could be said for Let the Fire Fall. The inclusion of an alien in the plot isn't for the sake of using it for science fiction, but merely for the use of a tool in the plot, as a way to incite a drastic change in society.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The alien starship landed in a cornfield. Its crew died rapidly, leaving only one survivor - a baby, conceived on an unknown world, carried in its mothers womb across space and delivered even as the mother died on a hostile Earth. But the alien woman had given birth to more than a child. With her last act she bequeathed to the Earth that hated her and her kind decades of turmoil and strife that would come close to tearing the whole planet apart..."

After the spaceship lands and the crew begin to die, one particularly immoral young man, Obie, decides to base a religion on the hatred of the strangers. This same young man is the illegitimate father of a child to be born the same day in the same house as the alien baby (the mother jettisons away from the virulent craft to the doctor's house, where he tends to both mothers' needs). With society's fear of the plagued aliens rampant, Obie finds a toehold for his ersatz faith and declares himself a prophet of God.

The chapter passages tend to shift time periods and character POV in abutting paragraphs, making it jarring to follow coherently. And as Obie's religion spreads across the country over two decades, the span of time becomes important as to the development of the human child and the development of the Star Child, of whom Obie seeks to proselytize his farcical faith for him. The span of characters is manageable but the initial chapters are a tad confusing with the inclusion of nearly all the key players.

The plot was fairly predictable and many of the twists of plot were a tad absurd (the Star Child's private submarine and private helicopter). Wilhelm even effectively kills off a major character (the obstetrician of the same-day babies) by putting him into cryo-sleep and metaphorically dusts off her hands for that snag in the plot. Those two instances are just samples of some of the things Wilhelm tosses into the mix in order to create an artificial change in the plot. It doesn't flow naturally.

Besides the irksome plot flow and paragraph flow, the premise is interesting at least and the books remains fairly readable though I wouldn't want to reread it. The fanatical xenophobic change in society when the aliens arrive is probably all too real. When the same xenophobes begin to turn against the human non-believers... again, it feels all too real. So, Wilhelm gets points for what I feel could be an accurate portrayal of first alien contact on earth. Definitely read Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, but skip Let the Fire Fall.

Monday, March 26, 2012

1983: Midas World (Pohl, Frederik)

Consumption of abundance spawns misery (4/5)

Reviewing my library, I've become aware that while I dislike much of Pohl's work in novels, it's his work in the short story form which has won me over. The short story The Man Who Ate the World has been featured in over ten publications, but only now have I come around to (1) realizing what Pohl was grasping at and (2) actually liking it. Plushly surrounded with similar stories of the consumption of abundance, The Man Who Ate the World sits on a sturdier platform than the collection with the same title.

With the advent of fusion power, humanity puts all the power to work! Everything is put into mass production so that everyone has everything. Where the proletariats struggle to consume their consumption quota, the lumpenproletariats suffer much worse as they live in huge houses with everything imaginable and live their days endlessly consuming. The privileged live in blissfully sparse one-room studios and savor the sensations of hunger and penury. But when the weight of the world presses down on society's shoulders, revolution takes on a form which no one saw coming. Rendering themselves useless, humans take to orbit to escape the robots who produce for the sake of their own consumption. Pohl's universe of run-away consumerism spawned by plentiful energy only becomes sillier and sillier through the pages.

The Fire-Bringer (1983) - 4/5 - Amalfi Amadeus invents fusion power, the world rejoices, the materialism of the world's people blooms, and Amalfi doesn't get any of the glory. Even with statues and mentions in history textbooks, Amalfi wallows in his profitless fame. 4 pages

The Midas Plague (1954) - 5/5 - Morey Fry is a Class Three consumer with his wife Cherry. Their rate of consumption is lagging, as the National Rations Board has told them, and extra rations must be consumed during the next month. When Morey visits a shady bar after his blissful one day of work per week, he discovers fellow consumers who have a hatred for the robots who produce for the sole reason so that the humans can consume. After a drunken night out, Morey learns that he unintentionally solved his own problem of his consumption quota. 77 pages

The Servant of the People (1982) - 3/5 - Fiorello O'Hare is running for his 23rd term as Congressman. His competition this year is a vote-casting robot named Mayor Thom, who has suffrage thanks to O'Hare's legislature. But the shifty campaigning of Mayor Thom catches the eye of O'Hare's wife when visiting robots at a factory, where robots build robots. 26 pages

The Man Who Ate the World (1956) - 4/5 - The poorest of the poor, Anderson Trumie grows up in a world bombarded by perpetual mass consumption. For want of nothing but his sister's teddy bear, Anderson is punished by having yet another lavish birthday party. Twenty years later when humans don't need to mass consume, Anderson continues his habitual consumption as he commandeers an island, his own Robot Central, and a small chunk of the world's resources. It's up to psychist Roger Garrick and statistician Kathryn Pender to make Anderson realize this tyrannical wars are petty. 44 pages

The Farmer on the Dole (1982) - 5/5 - Zeb Josephson is a robotic soybean farmer. When the government allows the farm to go bust, Zeb is shipped to Des Plaines for reprogramming. Losing his farmer accent in favor of a properly punctual literature critic with an expansive vocabulary, Zeb is programmed to become a mugger in Chicago, under the tutelage of fellow robot Timothy. After being busted for robbing a human rather than another robot, Zeb meets robo-hooker Lori who introduces him to a group of wanna-be revolutionaries. 42 pages

The Lord of the Skies (1983) - 3/5 - Orbital resident Michael Pellica-Perkins spends his luxurious days casually browsing the alphabetical list of nearby females and delinquently hunting Von Neumann machines returning earthside with some intersolar ore. Michael's landlubber brother Rodney isn't as much as a voluptuary as Michael and disdains humanity's use of earth as one big power generator for the people in orbit. Michael soon learns that his 21st sequential wife is in on Rodney's plans for saving earth. 78 pages

The New Neighbors (1983) - 4/5 - Homiform Ralph and his organic dog Cissie are befriended by the only human tenants in their Chicago apartment block--Mr. and Mrs. Albright. His fellow homiform residents witness his rubbing shoulders with the humans and air their grievances about the couple's petty complaints. As an archaeologist/historian, Ralph finds inspiration for the solution in a secret notebook of Amaldi Amadeus. 36 pages

1984: Pohlstars (Pohl, Frederik)

Some stars shine, others struggle to ignite (4/5)
From January 29, 2011

Pohl has 25 collections of his short stories, novelettes, and novellas published. From all the ones I've read, they're all been excellent. With stories reaching back as far as 1940 and as modern as 2010, Pohl has a huge wealth of select stories to put into each published collection. I would love to say that this selection process is hand-picked and careful, but some of the duds offered up are painful (see The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle).

The Sweet, Sad Queen of Grazing Isles (1984) - 5/5 - The roaming behemoth ships of advantageous hydrothermal explorers of the initial investor and his financial conspirator reap the rewards of innovative marine technology but the death of the owner brings Jason (the ex-banker, shareholder and legal guardian of the captain's only daughter) into unfamiliar personal and mortal territory. 75 pages

The High Test (1983) - 3/5 - Galactic driving instructor writes a series of holiday letters back to his mother in Chicago depicting his daily routine with human and alien learners, some with and some without an agenda. 15 pages

Spending a Day at the Lottery Fair (1983) - 3/5 - The fair has come to town and the Baxter family pay to enter to be included in the job lottery and other lotteries for the day but it's the visiting Scot and the Japanese/Scot who just don't understand the American way of appreciating both life AND death. 12 pages

Second Coming (1983) - 2/5 - Starts like a bad joke: so, a spaceship finds Jesus on an alien planet and brings Him back to earth but after watching TV and speaking nothing but Aramaic, Jesus doesn't like what He sees and can't be bribed with having His own channel to preach on. 4 pages

Enjoy, Enjoy (1974) - 4/5 - Hired to live his life to the fullest in terms of `fun' and "excitement," Cowpersmith take on the challenge through extreme activities and depressions in the trough, but if the money is there for his pleasure and pain, he doesn't care who the end buyer is. 18 pages

Growing Up in Edge City (1975) - 4/5 - A boy finds himself outside the walls of a sheltered city but also finds that he is victimized because of it, yet the victim always finds a prey for his own shortcomings. 14 pages

We Purchased People (1974) - 4/5 - Because of Wayne's paranoid disposition and criminal history, he is enslaved as an alien/human surrogate liaison where he does the financial bidding of the trans-light alien signals but occasionally finds himself with free time when he likes to peruse the flesh trade and lust after a fellow alien mind slave. 14 pages

Rem the Rememberer (1977) - 3/5 - A boy ponders the future but current ecological disaster on earth all the while being educated by how bad it COULD have been if his ancestors hadn't implemented their wise eco-friendly ways. 7 pages

The Mother Trip (1975) - 2/5 - After an enlightening `encounter group' where Pohl was `having his sensitivities elevated and his inhibitions soaked away', a multi-partner experience is re-lived through the eyes of alien intelligences who have come to earth to view the passive and aggrieve ways of human nature. 18 pages

A Day in the Life of Able Charlie (1976) - 4/5 - Seemingly Average Joe product tester is put under then pressure of mechanically reviewing numerous product ideas and ultimately composing the perfect solution while the next product testis moments away and leagues away from `his' normal experience. 7 pages

The Way it Was (1977) - 4/5 - A man is paid handsomely to live the high life of exciting travels, adrenaline inducing thrills and the lavish consumption of luxury all the while having it be paid for by a secret organization who sells the experience to an unknown buyer who seeks not only the acme high of human experience, but also the sullen lows of depression. 15 pages

The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle (1958/1984) - 0/5 - A mere novelty to Pohl, this re-translated version of the Chinese-translation of The Wizards of Pung's Corner is littered of Romanized Chinese words and over 80 footnotes relating to the translations. Ignore this "wax tadpole" and read the original version (5/5!) in The Man Who Ate the World. 45 pages

Sunday, March 25, 2012

1979: Polaris (Perkins, Sheldon)

Dialogue! Characters! Plot! ALL GENERIC (2/5)

The Belmont Tower edition of Sheldon Perkins' Polaris novel is the only publication of the novel. It's also the only novel written by Perkins. Generically titled Polaris, the name of the starship within the novel, the entire book reads as dryly as this introduction paragraph. If Polaris is taken as a sample of the author's writing style, Perkins made a wise choice in finding a different line of work. Though a 208-page novel, the book reads like a choppy collection of seven sequential short stories. So instead of writing a review for a novel, I'll write one which is more geared to a collection.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Captain Alexander Traynor of the United Space Republic only got the tough assignments. And his current task was the roughest of his entire career. He had to overhaul the ailing starship Polaris. The Polaris, once the pride of the U.S.R., was only now in sorry condition. Her weaponry was sadly in need of repair, and her staff divided by internal strife. But these problems were eclipsed by an even greater danger--a danger that came from outer space and threatened not only Traynor and the Polaris, but the entire United Space Republic!"

Chapter I - 3/5 - Alexander Traynor has recently been promoted to captain of a war-stricken vessel near the star Alpha Barnard. The fleet cruiser Polaris and her crew of 250 are under the orders of the outsourced "Earther" captain with stronger "Outworlder" affiliation. When scanning staff records with the ship's doctor, they outline the possible troublemakers and their political affiliations--Earther or Outworlder. 14 pages

Chapter II - 2/5 - Captain Traynor assigns 220cm Ganymedan Lieutenant Harold Nater as his personal security guard. Tension among the crew rises when executive officer Carl Nelson and his fellow Earther extremists conspire to oust the gentle captain through subversive means. 36 pages

Chapter III - 3/5 - After engaging six enemy battlewagons, the captain becomes aware of false rumors being spread about his trust of the Vendran people, native to a planet with 2.65 earth standard gravity. To address this, the captain puts himself in the boxing ring to prove one thing... and another. 23 pages

Chapter IV - 2/5 - The Polaris is called to the rescue of the disabled ship USR Moscow. With mounting tension between Captain Traynor and the extremist Earthers, the captain has difficulty coping with the casualties suffered during the rescue of the crew within the hull of Moscow. 46 pages

Chapter V - 3/5 - The captain and his crew visit the day of declaration of independence of the planet Larandra. The Vice-premier Dravin Pasteur has a short bur fiery on-record dispute with the captain, but his anti-Interplanetary Council agenda won't allow the obvious feud to hamper his barbaric plans. 36 pages

Chapter VI - 3/5 - Twelve orbital stations in the Barnard system have been destroyed and the Polaris has been assigned to assist in recovery. Only when the Polaris approaches does the crew realize that the enemy is fleeing from the scene towards their unknown home system. Banking on the importance of this impromptu mission, the captain follows the enemy fleet at a distance as the Earther party concocts a grand scheme for mutiny. 37 pages

Chapter VII - 2/5 - The outcome of the mutiny and the stealth approach towards the enemy's home star is announced by Captain Traynor. Who is promoted, who is detained, and which party alliance comes out on top? 12 pages

The Interplanetary Council heads the decisions of the United Space Republic which is composed of planetary bodies orbiting extra-solar suns and the planets and moons in Earth's solar system. The Council has promoted and appointed Traynor to the captaincy of the temporarily disabled ship Polaris. Being an outsider and an Earther with Outworlder sympathies, the predominantly Earther staff aboard the Polaris seek to oust the newly appointed captain from his position. Where prior ship climate was simmering with hierarchical disobedience between Earthers and Outworlders, Traynor's new regiment supports the enfranchisement of the suppressed Outworlders and the return to strict respect for one's superiors.

The annoyingly likable and ne'er-do-wrong Captain Traynor assumes the captaincy but the Earthers have a serious problem with this. Executive officer Carl Nelson rallies his Earther cohorts and endlessly conspires to oust Traynor from his post, utilizing both informal ways and formal paths. Traynor easily sees past these slight-of-hand verbal discrepancies and confronts the affected staff with tact and intelligence. This high emotional intelligence wins the respect of the non-Earther crew.

From the sparse data I could gather from online, Polaris was written as a novel rather than a collection of short stories. However, the entire story was terribly choppy and disconnected and read more like a poorly glued together stitch-up rather than a holistically composed novel. The two chapters where the crew (1) speed off to rescue the crew of Moscow, (2) attend the celebration at Larandra are only included to weakly heighten the already established feud between the crude crew. The conspiracy is repetitious and the allegiance to the captain is predictable, given his charming ways and polite disposition.

There is very little attention given to the detail of the starship Polaris. There's no ambiance, no flare, no dramatic or artistic impressions... most of the novel is saturated, deep-fried, and smothering in cheap dialogue: one line commands and -flopping informal and formal approaches. Not only is it dry and predictable, but it also gather little momentum; the speaking carries on with little mass to drive it forward.

The cast themselves are as generic as the title and dialogue. The staff retain superficially diverse surnames such as McMasters, Trovonski, DeGaulle, Goldman, N'goto, and Antonozzi. The predictably stereotype are in place for the simply for the sake for diversity rather than characterization. Even the women are stereotypical: blushing, ditsy, romantic, abiding, meek, weak, and troublesome. They're always either crying, eagerly submitting to a superior, or flirting with th captain. Only Traynor and Nelson have any personality to put forth and ever than is slim to none.

There is very little actually redeemable to this book other than the fact that I did NOT throw it down... and that is what separates this two-star "novel" from a lowly one-star floor-licking, rug-surfing, tile-tickling mere "book." I don't know what a reader would emotionally or mentally retain from reading Polaris, but perhaps if you're an impressionable juvenile, your eagerness for generic detail and droning dialogue will wow you. To reiterate the first paragraph, Sheldon Perkins never wrote another novel... and for that, thank you Mr. Perkins.

1979: The Web Between the Worlds (Sheffield, Charles)

Lots of science with very little else (3/5)
From December 28, 2010

Combining a pedestrian plot with an endless stream of science, Sheffield leaves lots of open room for character development but obviously prefers to keep it simple... and by "simple" I mean throwing in phrases like Maclaurin and Jacobi ellipsoids, heuristic elements to optimized algorithms, nonlinear elasticity and thermal diffusion. If you have any inkling to what Sheffield is talking about, perhaps you might enjoy the instruction manual more than me but it read just like that as there was little emotion, personal development or greater "greatness."

"Rob Merlyn was the best engineer who had ever lived. That was why Darius Regulo, "The King of Space," had to have Rob for the most spectacular construction project in the history of the human race--even though Rob was a potentially fatal threat to Darius's power... Thus begins a breakthrough novel, written by the President of the American Astronautical Society, about an idea whose time has come: a shimmering bridge between earth and space, a veritable beanstalk that mankind will climb to the stars!"

Beginning with the unbelievable contraption of the Spider (which is made to expel 200km of silicon cable two meters wide in one day), some of the future science borders on ridiculous for the 2070. There's also a genetically modified Mole which consumes and mines coal, which is then further modified to work in vacuum and mine other materials. With personal earth-to-orbit craft a commercial norm and the transfer of asteroids from outer-Mars orbit a lucrative business, Sheffield's vision of the future is very optimistic but also very tedious to read.

It's all fine and dandy to base a novel around the construction of a space elevator, or a Beanstalk as it's called in the book, but the plot keeps returning to the conversation between the engineer Merlin (misspelled Merlyn on the rear cover!) and this financer Regulo about the nitty-gritty specifics about the Beanstalk. The novel is merely a steady unfolding of the schematics for the elevator between the two characters, perhaps a fantasy which Sheffield felt he just had to put forth in a novel.

Even with all the geeky science and unfathomable scenes of what all the contraptions must look like, there is a good amount of awe involved. The what-if factor for the space elevator was the biggest draw to the novel, in my opinion. It held my wonder and awe for a good amount of the length, but was getting annoyingly distracted by frivolous attempts by Sheffield to add sympathy and evil. It all fell very flat, very quickly. The evil was superficial and the sympathy was an exaggerated effort. It MIGHT have been a better novel is WAS just an instruction manual for the space elevator.

Regardless, I look forward to picking up another Sheffield novel to see if he has any other big ideas so fully worked out as in The Web.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

1964: To Conquer Chaos (Brunner, John)

Light and swift, yet hearty and fulfilling (4/5)

You could say I'm a bit of a Brunner fan... this is my 17th Brunner book and I have thirteen more on my to-read shelf. If you have any more than this, then we should talk. To say the least, when I open a Brunner novel I only expect the best. Period. His diversity is what keeps me coming back--he's the king of the stand-alone novel in my opinion. Out of his whole collection, he only wrote three series (can't that that for nearly modern sci-fi authors) but even those are loosely woven together, so perhaps "theme" would be a better word than "series." I own the original 1964 Ace cover (mint condition, thank you very much) which trumps the 1981 DAW cover with a damn dragon on the front.

Rear cover synopsis:
"On the face of the Earth only the Barrenland remained an impenetrable mystery--a blasted radioactive area the size of a small state where no man dared to venture. But Jervis Yanderman was one of the more courageous souls of that future day when men at last were starting to reconstruct the vanishing civilization of the dim past. Jervis knew that the secret of the Barrenland had to be solved. For things from out of this world still emerged from it to terrorize neighboring lands and strange weird visions haunted those who even approached it."

The Grand Duke Paul of Esberg has received rumors of a strange barren land one fortnight's march away. When his northern scout, Ampier, returns to Esberg maimed after a brief with a creature near the Barrenland, the Duke becomes interested in what lays beyond the border of that barren land. Infected with a curious green mold, Ampier accompanies the Duke's troops to investigate what lies at the edge of this Barrenland.

Militarily led by Jervis Yanderman and spiritually led by Granny Jassy, whose visions of the Barrenland intrigue the Duke, the 1,000-man army treks to the town of Lagwich, which borders the Barrenland and is prone to attack by the things which escape. Conrad is the resident chandler boy who also has visions of the mysteries which lie beyond the border. Frustrated by verbal jousts and ignored pleas, Conrad seethes with hatred for his peers and seeks a life with Jervis's army.

Nestamay Maxall is being tutored by her grandfather in the art of defense. Her lineage is dedicated to the protection of the Station, where occasional monsters "hatch" and escape the dome. However, the 400-year long inbreeding of the Station's staff has left her with only one ideal mate, who she can barely talk to let alone romanticize with. When a polypedal monster is reeking havoc under the dome, the Station personnel don't understand by the alarm wasn't triggered, but Nestamay understands why.

To Conquer Chaos is very cleanly written. At the same time, the novel is linear but mysterious; rustic yet futuristic; passive yet horrific. If you ask me, a classic science fiction novel isn't that unless is has monsters in it! Brunner makes the monsters interesting by making them all different and, in the end, providing a reason for it. As the characters battle the beasties and Jervis expounds upon the likely source of the critter-chaos, the reader is sucked into the three thread narrative. How are the Jervis and Conrad threads tied to the Nestamay thread, if at all?

The light characterization of each character goes hand-in-hand with the 192-page length of this earlier Brunner novel. Because the plot is so swift and the tale so intriguing, the light characterization accomplishes a lot when Jervis, Conrad, and Nestamay are in the height of action or concocting a Plan B withdraw from their established life. It's a whirlwind of not only action, but also of sympathetic emotion. I'm not quite sure if Brunner has ever penned such lightly sculpted yet such interesting pawns in his marvelous plots.

Common to an early Brunner novel (and an early Poul Anderson novel, as well) is his written style. Dry as it may be, it imbues a sense of antiquity. Where Poul Anderson in Three Worlds to Conquer (1964) used words like behoven, erstwhile, belike, nigh and thundersmitten, John Brunner has uses words like hitherto, afresh, amiss, impugn, and addlepated. If any other author were to try using such words, the attempt would feel awkward. But the 1960s use of this Olde English by Anderson and Brunner is most welcome.

The one flaw which haunts To Conquer Chaos is Brunner's trope of the six sense--extra-sensory perception or remote viewing. This hypnotic state is found is other Brunner novels such as The Whole Man (1964) and Bedlam Planet (1968). While the latter two examples of extra-sensory perception in Brunner's novels were somewhat persuasive, his use of this trope of fairly dull in To Conquer Chaos. I can see the necessity for it in the plot, but the answer to its existence fails, not because the ending is bad because of the disconnectedness to Conrad's and Granny's remote viewing.

A very satisfactory novel by Brunner, yet again; even the last page conclusion produced a nodding, smiling satisfactory ending. If you can stomach the ESP trope and monster invasion better than I can, then perhaps you'll enjoy this novel even more than I did! This mint condition Brunner novel has a rightful place atop my fourteen-high stacked Brunner pile.

1964: The Whole Man (Brunner, John)

Very un-Brunner-like: psychology & telepathy (3/5)
From July 13, 2011

It's odd that I've read twelve other Brunner novels and yet I can't compare The Whole Man with any of them. The Whole Man is part of Brunner's bibliography but better resembles aspects of other science fiction writers. The writing style, too, feels very un-Brunner-like. I can't pin the assumption on any one part, but the prose feels more akin to an Aldiss novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Howson's mind could get legions to do his bidding--but not one doctor to release him from his hell that made him A Whole Man. Gerlad Howson wanted nothing more than to be like other men--to move without pain, to live without ridicule--even after he discovered hsi remarkab;e telepathic powers. But the quirk of genetic fate that had warped his body and gifted his mind had also rendered him impervious to medical science. And if, as others before him, he gave in to the dazzingly rich but deadly fantasies that allowed him to escape his torment, it would mean death or madness for anyone who tried to save him--and a human loss as great as any the world had ever known!"

Telepathy is the main theme and I can't name another Brunner book which includes this. I'm not a fan of science fiction books with telepathy or telekinesis or any of those other pseudo-sciences. Most of these plots have a poor basis, much like The Whole Man. The source of telepathy is an organ in the brain called the Funck which is composed of only one hundred cells. Gerald, our super-telepath, has an organ twenty percent larger than this (one hundred and twenty cells?). It's also not described how a telepath earns their mental powers. All it says is that it happens after twenty years of age--batta-bing, batta-boom.

Gerald comes the employment of the UN because of his skills. With this, he is trained as a curative psychologist, or a telepathist who is able to cure patient's psychoses with the deft touch of the long arm of the mind. Being the big shot he is, Gerald only takes the most severe cases, including the cases involving other telepathists. A certain psychosis which telepathists are prone to is something called catapathic grouping in which a telepath lives out a detailed mental fantasy by assimilating other minds.

If you can swallow the plot line involving a telepathic cripple with hemophilia based in Ulan Bator, then scenes of using telepathic skill and natural wit to release the hold of the catapathic grouping is a good show. One excellent scene is Gerald's involvement of a catapathic group fantasy which takes place in ancient China. The picture Brunner paints if rich and deep, but unfortunately this only takes place over the course of twelve pages... which felt climatic even though there were still sixty unclimatic pages remaining. This is where the book begins to drag.

After the climatic ancient Chinese fantasy battle of magic, dragons and tigers Gerald returns to his hometown to hang out with some friends for forty pages. Seriously un-cli-ma-tic. In the end there's an out-of-place inclusion of some multi-sensory art form. The ending did not capture any previous red-flag in the plot, any nuances which may have been picked up on, or any intensity in previous climaxes. Flat, just flat.

If you pick up DelRay edition of The Whole Man with the flowery cover art, stop after page 130 and consider he book to have a rather abrupt ending rather than reading the remaining fifty pages of tapering filler without the whiz-bang. Read it for its take on telepathy and psychology AND because it's a Brunner novel, but stay clear if its merely a causal read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

1970: The Simultaneous Man (Blum, Ralph)

Psychopharmacology and Russian Studies (3/5)

Ralph Blum has only this one sci-fi novel under his belt, but he's also published the non-genre novels The Foreigner (1961) and Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks (1972). Since 1982 he's written some non-fiction titles about Rune magic and UFOs. Raised under the shadow of parental Hollywood fame, subjected to early LSD testing, and speaking fluent Russian, Blum obviously brings to the table a lot of experience, albeit more randomness than anything concrete.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The agency specializes in surgical alterations. Government bureaucrats set about making one man's brain the receptacle for the memory of another. "Bear"--the input. "Black Bear"--the receiver. A research scientist and a convicted murdered become two men with one SHARED mind."

Andrew Horne is the Assistant Director of Research West Wing research laboratory at West Wing, where Project Beta has been running for over a decade. Horne has had his "beta" memory expressed through professional Hollywood cinematography so that it may be played back at a higher speed to a subject whose memory of self had been wiped clean. Subject 233/4 is a convicted murderer and has volunteered to be the vehicle for Horne's memory. When the wind wipe and beta memory transference are complete, Subject 233/4 will essentially become Horne.

Where past experiments have shown a rapid deterioration in the subject's physical condition, the team at West Wing hope that with Subject 233/4 the procedure has been refined. But the mental condition of Horne is thin, at best, when his conditional responses about his Korean War experience surface again and again. While in captivity, Horne was interrogated and tortured by his captors but also had the ear of a foreign man of persuasion, named Chon. Because of this Chon, Horne has been able to alter his memories of his Korean experience to make them more manageable.

When Subject 233/4 rises from his "coffin" of Horne's months worth of experience input, Horne is at the same time arrested and confined to a more luxurious cell--the entire estate of Compass Farm, just outside of Philadelphia. Horne experiences acute telepathic sensations that is "bets-self" has emitted but the flow of telepathy is limited to that narrow range of emotion and that line of communication. After nearly a year of house arrest, news comes from West Wing that Subject 233/4 has escaped... and defected to the Soviet Union. The American government allows Horne to fly to Leningrad so that he may make contact with his "beta-self."

Pulling Blum's biography from three different scant sources, it seems to be fairly complete and nearly everything is laid to bare here in The Simultaneous Man. He's noted to have studied at Harvard and includes that in this novel along with the Harvard rowing team (which I'm fairly certain he was part of). Other autobiographical elements Blum has inserted into this novel include Russian history (which he studied), Russian language (he's bilingual to an annoying extent), Hollywood names (of his parents persuasion), and his scientific forte of psychopharmacology. The novel didn't have a polymath feel to it, as Blum's range of knowledge is as scattered as it is in detail. It all comes off rather pretentiously, as if Blum includes these elements merely to show them off.

Besides the shade of pretentiousness overshadowing most of the novel, the plot unravels pretty well. Subject 233/4 (aka Black Bear) only awakens half-way through the novel, where the first half of the novel is dotted with segments of "input" from Horne to Black Bear. This input characterizes Horne at the same time as it does characterize his yet-to-emerge "beta-self." At times the medical language is off-putting and the reliance of the universal benefit of artificial pharmaceuticals (reflecting the mid-century belief the happiness can be found in a pill) is overdone. But the most repetitively annoying trait found in The Simultaneous man is Blum's long-winded insertion of random Russian words, Russian history or Russian geography onto each page:
Horne stood, suitcase in hand, in front of the Astoria Hotel, watching until the ZIM's red taillights faded from view. St. Isaak's Square matched his memory of old photograph albums: the equestrian statue of Tsar Nicholas, the park, a building of dull reddish stone that had once housed the Imperial German Embassy; and up toward the Neva, visible through the snow, the pillars and golden dome of St. Isaak's Cathedral. (134)
If Blum has a knack for anything literary, it would have to be his talent for setting the scene... at times. Sometimes he's monotonous when describing an office:
The door was open and he went inside. Through the one large window, afternoon sunlight entered to illuminate the dust. The window screen was torn. The room was unchanged: scarred Army-issue desk, two chairs, metal bookcase, security file with combination locks and drawers. There had never been a carpet. (61)
Other times it reads like an Updike nostalgia for life on the farm:
When he reached the stone wall he swung around and slipped the tractor into neutral. Crows drifted out from over the woods letting the wind lift them across the new furrows and the barn, to hover like cinders from a dead fire above his house. (108)
But mainly Blum is one of straight forward descriptions, not really putting any emotion into the scene or any flare into the personalities. The reader will mainly be engaged in trying to figure out what the whole novel is about... macroscopiclly and microscopically. Was the memory transference 100% successful and is Subject 233/4 now Andrew Horne in all but the flesh? What are Black Bear's objectives in defecting to Russia and why hasn't Horne been able to predict his behavior? But the main question the reader will have is... What will Horne find in Russia? THAT'S the one hook which will keep the reader on until the last five pages.

1970: The Fall of the Towers (Delany, Samuel R.)

Semi-coherent, character fueled, radioactive thrill (4/5)
From March 11, 2011

I've only read two Delany novels prior to picking up the Fall of the Towers trilogy: The Einstein Intersection (2/5 for its incoherent quest) and Dhalgren (3/5 for its impressive length and inventiveness). The synopsis for The Fall of the Towers sounded like it may be an interesting story/test/pursuit so I decided to gamble on this for my third, and maybe last, Delany novel. Beyond the first book's near-incoherent ending, the rest of the trilogy is an intricately woven future Earth, the plot full of rich characters and the backdrop exposing an interesting history. It may well be the most un-Delany-like novel yet, which is perhaps why I liked it so much, but is was an articulate, inventive, and flexible read altogether.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The Empire of Toromon was the last hope and refuge of mankind. Sealed off the the charred radioactive wastlelands by the radiation barrier, the Empire survived to face new adversaries deadlier even than the Great Fire. The Lord of the Flames, a force of evil devoid of physical substance. The berserk computer which guided the Empire's military complex. And an alien intelligence which crossed the abyss of space in search of new worlds to conquer."


The Fall of the Towers 1: Out of the Dead City (1966) - 3/5 - An unknown planet is host to a radiation barrier. On one side are the humans which have a historical reminder of the terrible war and the other rests a glimmering yet dead city. The feudal kingdom is home to a weakened king and a promising heir to the throne. When the prince is kidnapped by a menagerie of colorful characters, the kind announces war on the unknown enemy beyond the radiation barrier. One man has been gifted a crystallized body structure to be withstand the barrier's radiation but also enables him to become transparent in certain light. It's with his gift and abilities that lead the colorful assembly to forge through the barrier in hopes of disarming the coming war.

Typical of a Delaney novel, from the onset the initial pattern of events is difficult to fathom--characters are disjointed and events are timelessly situated. But once the grooves begin to merge, an excitement unseen in other Delaney novels brings unsurpassed witticism and a powerful plot flow. A ravenous surge of power is witnessed. The falling of the pieces was epically plotted, great stuff. This is wondrous stuff but it soon lost me towards the ending pages when, like typical Delaney, the plot takes on ethereal essence with very little synchronization of the plot just laid out pages prior to the ambiguity.


The Fall of the Towers 2: The Towers of Toron (1964) - 4/5 - Where as Out of the Dead City accumulated the characters and plot into a semi-coherent flow (utterly disregarding the ending) and bestowed its density into its pages, The Towers of Toron ushers in a sort of comfort with the way things have been laid out in the previous book. The characters are recognizable even after three months and the plot is familiar, the vibe is easy is see. The plot's cadence isn't bewildering or enigmatic as with most other Delany novels. The Towers of Toron is as simple as a Delany novel must get, a derelict trilogy from his earlier days prior to his success with Dhalgren and The Einstein Intersection.

Though I was loathing the start of this book after the semi-disappointing previous novel, I was quickly encompassed in the plot yet still held a reserved doubt as to the rational of the fantasy/sci-fi mix. The ever present Lord of the Flame is on the loose with the its greater-good nemeses close on the heel, unveiling its subterfuge of war and suffering. The convergence of personal story lines is a fine addition, combing the many walks of life which The Fall of the Towers world provides: the military beyond the barrier, the traveling circus, the palace grounds and the forest dwelling. The plot's unfolding is coherent and interesting, only briefly meandering into a surreal realm which Delany is so fond of penning.


The Fall of the Towers 3: City of a Thousand Suns (1965) - 4/5 - From the onset of this third book in this trilogy, its obvious that Delany is taking a different literary route than the previous two books. Book one was more artistic, bordering on avant garde in some areas. Book two was more adventurous, expanding the horizons of possibility for the trilogy. And finally, Book three is a mix of humor and philosophy. City of a Thousand Suns is much more fun the previous two books with a surprising cavalcade of half-forgotten characters crossing paths and Delany's imperial insight into the expanding world of old Earth. Combine this with a heavily philosophical last five or ten percent, the contrast is both impressive and captivating.

Having actually liked Book two, I was eager to start Book three and was met by the familiar scene of the alien entities in The City conversing about three humans on Earth impressed upon by the powerful tri-entity, what is needed from the said humans and how the Lord of the Flames may act to disrupt their plans. The Lord of the Flames takes a backseat in this novel, allowing the story to focus heavily upon character interaction (a real highlight) and the quest to gain access to the psychotic computer (the same computer which fabricated the war in Book two). With the city of Toron under fire from remote controlled armaments, a quest is began which will take the reader from the Devil's Pot, over the sea, into the newly established city of which the title takes its name from and into the realm of the computer. Pretty good stuff!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

1973: The Unreal People (Siegel, Martin)

Amidst social decay blossoms revolt (4/5)

Lancer Books had a brief experimental tryst with Martin Siegel in 1969 with Agent of Entropy and in 1973 with The Unreal People. Both books were only published once and left to ebb in the waters of science fiction obscurity. This book was published posthumously after the author's death in 1972. As short as his run at science fiction was, he left an esoteric yet indelible impression on the sub-genre of underground settings, much akin to Guy Snyder's Testament XXI, which, oddly enough, was also publish in 1973 and Louis Trimble's The City Machine (1972), where the oppressed citizens of another hierarchical status and tower strata seek for change by moving OUT of their closed-system society.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Memories of Earth... the world had once been free. Men walked openly in the sunlight, gazed at the starry night, dreamed of conquests greater than that of just staying alive. But freedom had died a long time ago, so many hundreds of years in the past that no one really remembered any longer what freedom really meant. Earth was still there, a few hundred feet over their heads, while men crawled through the ancient tunnels like animals, kept in subjugation by drugs, slaves to the most corrupt government ever conceived--but none dared go there. The surface was dead, poisoned, taboo--until the children of Earth's last generation forced their way out of humankind's grave!"

Less than a dozen floors below the once great city of New York lies the derelict remains of earth's humankind, the filthy enclave a result of an unknown earth-wide cataclysm. In a strata of subterranean and social hierarchy, the First Guides are the privileged class, while on the opposite end of the social spectrum are those living in the Rat Hole. Regardless of wealth or status, it's obvious to everyone that conditions in the complex are deteriorating: the air is more stale, the water is putrid, the food rations are dwindling, and the infant death rate is depressingly high. At the center of the city's existence is the Machine:
Down at the lowest level, far south of the main ganglia of the city, where even the rats seldom went, was Machine, which automatically kept the city clean and sucked some food from the water. Nobody took care of it. The mechanisms were sealed and automatic. Nobody even knew how it worked. (127)
The hellish conditions of the city imbibe their own form of escapism through the government-sanctioned church called the Psychedelic Pswastika:
...offically known as the Cathedral of St. Sominex, PEP (Psychedelic Eclectic Presbyterian)... The religious functions included marriage and death rites; marriage and death counselling; psychoanalytic therapy; other forms of therapy including Reichian, Learyan, Mailerian, Encounter and Botulistic; the Holy Hookers; the drug machines but not the liquor business; the nightclub show, and the pawnshop. (16)
While the First Guides hold a lion's share of the profits from the Psychedelic Pswastika, the shares are lesser for those working further under the tyrant hand of the First Guides. Conrad is second in command of the Narko Skwad and earns a mere pittance from the profits. His disenfranchisement in communal affairs and the loss of his newborn baby have brought him to the wilted edge of the bough of sanity. He decides to kick the habit of the mandatory "loyalty drug" and incur its unpleasant side effects, to partake in treasonous affairs, and to co-plot the murder of the First Guides.

The mention of "Sominex" is a page one introduction to the drug use in the book. Diphenhydramine is only the mildest of drugs used to induce relaxation, inhibition, suggestiveness, and rapture. The protagonist Conrad is often accompanied by his water pipe, while students at the Vincent Price Community College ingest, inhale, or intravenously take their professor-prescribed drugs in order to facilitate their learning (two of the majors offered are Twentieth Century Horror and I-Hate-To-Cookology). The drug use of prevalent but it doesn't override the plot's flow into a psychotropic eddy of imagery and thought association. Only during "Part Two: Conrad's Dream" does the reader get a 24-page surreal view from the use of the "nerve machine" which causes him to detemporalize his memories and forecasts.

The rest of the book dabbles in minor characters tied in with Conrad's life, all of which somehow connect with his plan to assassinate the First Guides and run off to the "out side," where nature has overtaken the city and rumors of illness and radiation keep the people cowering underground. The way Siegel keeps the focus on the grimy tunnel city is unique, as most other authors tend to stray away from their fantastic plot settings in order to chase plot twists and obvious tropes. Siegel keeps is real and he keeps it interesting... and he even drops of huge "uncertainty bomb" is "Part Two."

But Siegel is also inconsistent in his prose. Most of the novel is written without any sort of flare besides the above mentioned focus on the underground city. His characterization of the city's culture is as great as is his personification of Conrad with his hair-trigger finger, dispassionate service, and world-weariness. But his prose fails him sometimes because of his attempt to cross-over the sensation that not everything is kosher in Dodge City... some passages are so herky-jerky that the reading is teeth-clenching-ly bad: "He felt cold. His bowels were in working order but they didn't feel good." (67) and "Coy flashes and twitchings of maniac electricity made the muscles of his thighs and arms move like robot things." (93)

But then Siegel reels the reader back into the poetic fold with:
Suns burst in his head. Sometimes they were the hot suns of deserts--huge blasting balls of heat--sometimes the red eyes of sunset of dying planets; sometimes the blinding but wonderful suns of spring mornings; sometimes even the cool calm peace of the moon. (94)
The old man was praying. A mumbling sound, wordless, came from his lips. After a while the cadence merged into one band of sound--like a whispering under the pounding of surf on the ocean. The old man heard the ocean returning to him as if his prayer reechoed back through invisible seashells pressed to his ears. (131)
So, through the syrupy passages of descriptive bliss and gritty travels through one-word sentences and three-word dialogue, Siegel pens a pretty good novel about the inhabitants of a closed-system city wishing to venture out. Methinks I'll give Agent of Entropy a shot, if I can find it. With only two obscure novels penned by this author, it should be hard to come by.

1959: Level 7 (Roshwald, Mordecai)

Hermetic solitude 4400 feet deep is true freedom (5/5)
From May 28, 2009

Splashed across the cover of Level 7 reads, "A horrifying, prophetic document of the future - the diary of a man living 4000 feet underground in a society hell-bent on atomic self-destruction" which does the book no justice at all. Perhaps the rear cover puts the novel into a better light as it reads, "He is safe from nuclear war... safe from sunshine, blue skies, and love. His perpetual assignment is the Bomb - to stand guard ready to push the button that will turn the world into a charred ember of smoking death..." Now, while the back cover sums up the story better, it still doesn't do the book much justice.

It's not exactly poetically sculpted nor is it poorly written, rather, it's a day-to-day journal of a not-so-common man in his not-so-common job and his contemplations on earth's situation, his reflections on his subterranean society and his experiences being a push-button operator. Officer X-127, as he's know to his colleagues, friends and eventual wife paints a detailed picture of what Level 7 is, how it operates and what purpose it ultimately serves. Being 4400 feet underground in a hermetically sealed bunker and being twelve buttons away from the end of the world might make you a bit philosophical, psychotic or just plain numb. We witness the scope of these mental reflections in both X-127 himself and in the others around him.

It's a depressing read, that's true. It'll make you sympathize with all five-hundred of the Level 7 cave-dwellers, the other million or so making up the remaining six levels and even the poor populous stranded on the surface. Level 6 at 3,000 feet deep houses 2,000 military defense personnel and is just as self-sufficient at Level 7, but more prone to contamination, old age and insanity. Level 5 at 1,500 feet deep will house 20,000 elite members of society for about 200 years. Level 4 at 1,000 feet deep will hold 100,000 important people for 100 years. Level 3 is 500 feet deep and will hold 200,000 important individuals for only 25 years. The last two Levels are 100 feet and 60 feet deep and are both designed to hold one million people each but are much more susceptible to all things dangerous in a limited or total nuclear war.

There's so much detail, it's almost juicy if it weren't dryly written. For the sheer sake of exploring Roshwald's leveled world, this is a sci-fi gem.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

2006: Odyssey (McDevitt, Jack)

Overdrawn at the Idea Bank since Day One (2/5)

The fifth book in the Academy series is just as bad as the previous four. I initially liked The Engines of God when I read it four years ago, but I bet if I were to pick it up now, I'd find exactly the same faults as I did with the rest of the series: painful word repetition, inane details throughout, padding the pages for word count, and high-handed proselytizing ala Christopher Hutchins. Tack onto this an abrupt knee-jerk reaction to start the novel with a useless sub-plot and, wah-lah, you have yourself a typical McDevitt novel.

Following the incident of stranded space craft, the trustworthiness of Academy's fleet is questioned by Priscilla. The craft should have been lost round Betelgeuse IV but was actually found to be within our own solar system, an engine failure which could have resulted in the death of crew members. The aging fleet is put on hold at the same time when reports of mysterious black orbs, called Moonriders, have been flying past stations of humanity across the stars. Silently investigative in nature, there have been no threats or warnings given by the orbs.

A numerous political moves, Priscilla and director Michael Asquith decide to provide one more mission to track and witness the Moonriders, to prove whether they are projections of idle minds or alien entities policing human activity. Considered to be a routine drop-and-go mission, PR director Eric Samuels decides to take a risk in his humdrum life and tag along with the sultry Greek pilot Valya Kouros, the wide-eyed teen-aged daughter of Senator Taylor, and the loud-mouthed firebrand Gregory MacAllister of Deepsix infamy.

When a giant asteroid is found to be directly aimed at an orbiting construction of a hotel owned by Orion Tours, the finger-pointing at the Moonriders becomes priority and calls for space armament are rampant through world congress. The benevolent actions of Orion Tour's selfless duty of diverting another asteroid and their awkward stance in the middle of its hotel destruction has them under the eye of the ever-vigilant MacAllister.

Somewhere in all of this is Priscilla, who, like in Omega, takes a backseat role in the plot. She's stuck behind her administrative desk directing ships to distant ports, calling in favors from orbital friends, and ordering coffee and jelly-smeared bagels. She and the Academy as a whole should have come out spotless after the rescue of the Goompahs under the attack of the Omega cloud in Omega. But just a few years later and the interest in the space program is waning; funds are being diverted from space exploration to earth conservation. If the Goompahs were so hugely popular (there's even merchandising of Moonriders like the Goompahs in Omega), then why has the interest waned to much?

I mentioned above one irksome quality of McDevitt's novels: word repetition. I've been mentioning in my other McDevitt reviews of his bizarre fascination for describing the height of every character in the novel. In Omega along, I counted the adjective "tall" exactly seventeen times when describing stature. All the other adjectives don't even come close. EXACTLY the same here in Odyssey. "Short" and "little" are both used once, "big" is written twice, "average" is used three times, "small" is used five times... and "tall" is written SIXTEEN times (pages 15, 30, 33, 39, 43, 56, 89, 116, 143, 258, 291, 314, 331, 388, 391, and 392). What the hell is Jack's affinity for describing everyone as "tall"? What's worse than that? How about using "of course" about 90 times... aggravating! Where's the editor?

Other annoyances are his overuse of naming fictional book titles that the characters are reading, specifying every food and drink order, and quoting Gregory MacAllister ad nauseam (McDevitt writing himself in the book?). I hated MacAllister in Deepsix and was thankful when that loathsome character took a far, far backseat in Chindi and Omega. Unfortunately, MacAllister makes a grand reappearance in Odyssey, where his (McDevitt's?) firebrand thoughts are not only heading each chapter, but he also orchestrates an unrelated sub-plot revolving around one man, Henry Beemer, who hit Reverend Pullman over the head with book. Beemer insists that the fire-smoldering hell preached by Pullman has made him neurotic and attempts to frame organized religion as hate-loving idiots.

With one book in the series left on my shelf, Cauldron, I've set the goal to complete the series because my father gave them all to me. I hope either Priscilla bites the dust or the entire Milky Way galaxy is wiped of the human race. One of these two conclusions will energize me enough to give it av3-star rating even with the foreseen annoyances McDevitt has laden like landmines. And the like th previous Academy books, this one is flying off my shelf and going to the second-hand bookstore, where I exchange it for something decent.

2006: Galactic North (Reynolds, Alastair)

Good overview of Revelation Space history (4/5)
From April 19, 2009

A pretty good collection of short stories and novellas taking place in Revelation Space, which includes Chasm City, Yellowstone, the Glitter Band (and Rust Belt), the Melding Plague, the Inhibitors (only mentioned), and all the factions of humans in the future history. Altogether it's a satisfying inclusion to the Revelation Space series. However, I think his stories in Zima Blue were of better quality overall. The eight stories include:

Great Wall of Mars - 4/5: Taking place in Revelation Space when humankind was still inside its' own solar system. The Conjoiners have a Mars base and who are at differences with the Demarchists. Explore the budding relationship between the two human sects and even the relationship between the to-be-famous Conjoiner Galiana and Demarchist Nevil Clavain. Its antiquity is an interest. 51 pages

Glacial - 3/5: In the immediate post-Great Wall of Mars time, Galiana and Clavain descend upon a mysterious frigid planet which already has an American scientific base. The question as to how they got there and why they got there is not satisfyingly answered. But how the one survivor lived while the rest of the crew died proved to be mediocre. 51 pages

A Spy in Europa - 5/5: After the moon of Europa is colonized with underwater cities, word of a Demarchist hyperdiamond shard sparks a back-stabbing spy mission which may put power into the hands of the Gilgamesh Isis. Extreme surgery, rumors of shark/human hybrids and bloodshed follows. 23 pages

Weather - 5/5: In the Yellowstone colonization era, an Ultra reefersleeper craft is pursued by a pirate ship which is left ruined. In the wreck, the Ultra crew plunder the pirate ship and discover a out-of-place Conjoiner woman, who is despised by the Ultra captain. Can the solo Conjoiner survive, appease relations and even serve the ship? 57 page

Dilation Sleeper - 4/5: Takes place during the post-Melding Plague era. A reefersleeper in deep space is woken early to perform surgery on fellow sleeper with the Melding Plague. Reconstruct on his former wife on Yellowstone guides him through his awaking. 16 pages

Grafenwalder's Bestiary - 4/5: A Xenozoological collector in Rust Belt above Yellowstone competes for fame with a new unknown collector after both receiving a rare specimen from Sky's Edge. Each successive oddity must be outdone to draw prestige. 48 pages

Nightingale - 4/5: Three veterans from Sky's Edge's Southland Militia and Northern Coalition are gathered to capture a Colonel Jax, rumored via the Ultras to be hidden away in a wartime hospital ghost ship. With his capture they hope to crucify him, but even finding him in the floating derelict seems hopeless. It's a tad predictable, but maintains nice theme of space horror. 73 pages

Galactic North- 3/5: A multi-millennial plot where a reefersleeper ramliner is boarded by pirates who steal 200 sleepers. The ramliner captain seeks here long revenge and retrieval of the sleepers across the galactic north plane. I reread the story but I still don't know what a greenfly is and how it did what it did. 41 pages

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

1999: Teranesia (Egan, Greg)

Archipelagic fauna uniformly mutate (4/5)

As far as I know, Greg Egan isn't one of those authors who slough off a novel ever year, shrugs, and says Take it or leave it. On the flip-side, Greg Egan is a rare author who writes for himself (throw Gene Wilde in to the bag, too). I imagine that he pours over science literature, something ignites his curiosity and creativity, then he sits down and creates a science fiction world for himself... and it just happens to sell moderately well. Like Gene Wolfe's cryptic/mythological/religious and convoluted-yet interesting stories, I doubt anyone understands everything the Egan has penned into his hard science novels. But the reader isn't in place "to understand" then novel, rather the reader puts themselves at the mercy of Egan's writing in order to experience the sheer depth of possibility.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Prabir Suresh and his younger sister, Madhusree, live in a remote paradise called Teranesia, where their biologist parents are studying an unexplained genetic mutation among the island's butterflies. Then civil war erupts across Indonesia, shattering their idyllic world and their lives. Twenty years later, Prabir is still plagued by feelings of guilt and an overwhelming responsibility for his sister, now a biologist herself. Against his advice, Madhusree is returning to Teranesia to solve the mystery of the butterflies and study strange new plant and animal species that have been emerging throughout the region--species separated from their known cousins by dramatic mutations that seem far too efficient to have arisen by chance. Afraid for her safety, Prabir joins forces with independent scientist Martha Grant to find her. But what he will discover on Teranesia is far more dangerous and wondrous than he can ever fear--or imagine..."

As a precocious pre-teen on Indonesian island, Prabir is fascinated by the science surrounding him, but it's also the bane of his life as his parents dedicate much of their time to unraveling the mystery of the mutated butterflies which inhabit their island, Teranesia. Virtually raising his sister by himself, Prabir is protective of her even while on the island. When a tragedy forces them to evacuate the island, the two travel by sea under the gloomy awning of a civil war. Eventually, they emigrate to Toronto to live with their aunt.

Eighteen years later and now an undergraduate, Prabir's sister has the opportunity to travel to the same archipelago to study the oddly evolving wildlife with some post-doctoral students. Prabir continues to shelter Madhusree from the ugly truth of the island tragedy and urges her not to leave. After she departs on her biological study, Prabir's conscious gets the best of him and books a ticket to travel to the same archipelago, unbeknown to Madhusree. His tracking of the scientists is hastened by an solo scientist who is also in the area to study the uniform mutations of the local species.

As they island hop, the duo discover the exact same mutations in the exact same species of bird. The ubiquitous mutations also affect the ant colonies, the reptiles, and even the flora where orchids carnivorously devour their captured prey and the shrubs grow barbs when no herbivorous species are near. With all the data gathered being shared for free online, some fantastic discoveries are being made... some even more fantastic hypotheses are trickled out, which, if true, will shatter the foundations of genetics an evolution.

Unlike the Egan I know, the author dons the hat of the humorist in Teranesia, something I don't remember seeing in his other books I've read: Quarantine, Diaspora or Permutation City. While the relationship between Prabir and his sister is trying at times, the other two relationships Prabir experiences (with his parter Felix in Toronto and his fellow scientist Marge) offer him a release to his pent up frustration with having to emotionally protect younger sister for years. Or perhaps Egan was just having some fun:
"Prabir bought a syrupy fruit concoction whose contents defied translation; the bartender assured him it was nonalcoholic, but that seemed to be based on the dubious assumption that the whole thing wouldn't spontaneously ferment before his eyes, like an overripe mango. Prabir took one sip and changed his mind; the sugar concentration was high enough to kill any microorganisms by sheer osmosis." (148)
In contrast to this is Egan's typical unfathomable techno-spiels, where his review of science literature leaves his access to specialized vocabulary only vaguely familiar to the reader. He doesn't continue his techno-tirades through pages and pages, but only a paragraph or two to tweak the interest of the reader's scientific nipple:
"One of the many approximations made by the modelers involved the quantum state of the protein, which was described mathematically in terms of eigenstates for the bonds between atoms: quantum states that possessed definite values for such things as the position of the bond and its vibrational energy." (286-287)
It's not as off-putting as it may sound, because Egan always has an ulterior motive behind his inclusion on the moderate level of nonsense. Eventually he'll focus on the crux of the major scientific wonder, extreme and hypothetical as it may be, and you'll be reeling aghast at the possibilities Egan can draw up. Teranesia maintains this Egan-specific quality but it happens at such a late point in the book that much of the reality-application of the discovery is left untested. But like Quarantine, Diaspora, and Permutation City, the book rates highly (all 4- or 5-star rating).

1997: Diaspora (Egan, Greg)

Accelerating the genre w/ indecipherable hard science (4/5)
From October 31, 2010

Diaspora reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a solid novel like Egan's Permutation City or Quarantine. Much like Charles Stross's Accelerando (which was admittedly published in 2005 compared to Egan's earlier 1997), there is an acceleration in technology towards the mythical technological singularity, each short story driving the science further and further.

Rear cover synopsis:
"It is the thirtieth century. The "world" has evolved into a vast network of probes, satellites, and servers knitting the solar system into one scrape from the outer planets to the sun. Humanity, too, has reconfigured itself. Most people have chosen immortality, joining the posises to become conscious software. Others have opted for disposable, renewable robotic bodies that remain in contact with the physical world. A few holdouts stubbornly remain fleshers struggling to shape an antiquated existence in the muck and jungle of Earth. And then there is the Orphan, a genderless digital being grown from a mind seed. When an unforeseen disaster ravages the fleshers, it awakens the polises to the possibility of their own extinction from bizarre astrophysical processes that seemingly violate fundamental laws of nature. It is up to the Orphan and a group of refugees to find the knowledge that will save them all--a search that will lead them on a quantum adventure to a higher dimension beyond the macrocosmos..."

As mentioned above, my experience with Egan's novels are drawn at Permutation City and Quarantine. Each of these novels was rich in science and had my head spinning like a cyclotron of wonder. The science was deep but it wasn't over my head like I needed to skip entire paragraphs to get past the meat. However, in Diaspora it's exactly the opposite. There's like room was awe to blossom as the meat of the science was so dense I found myself just skimming paragraphs and sometimes entire pages.

Don't get me wrong, the direction Egan takes is impressive, it's big; the ideas go unchallenged as far as I'm concerned in the realm of science fiction. The characters refiguring the long established physics upon witnessing an impossible event is so deeply engrained in the cast's psyche that it's even possible the Egan, himself, dares to challenge modern theories on theoretical physics. It's big... but it's not an easy read nor is it, at times, a particularly enjoyable journey.

I don't read Egan for his straightforward writing style, but he surprised me a few times with some clever, insightful prose to contrast his rambling science bits. Best example was on page 208 in the first paragraph of a new story: "...the occasion seemed to demand the complete ritual of verisimilitude, the ornate curlicued longhand of imitation physical cause and effect." Actually, that entire chapter is composed of a mere two paragraphs but easily stands out from the rest of the book as if touched by Midas himself. I've never seen any author describe the sky as isotropic.

As much as I would like to give a synopsis of each short story, the amount of work it would entail would be equally as arduous as some of the passages about six-dimensional physics and spatial awareness. Each of the nine stories was a solid 4-of-5 star rating while the final story sort of lost steam and fell behind with 3 stars.