Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, May 31, 2012

1968: A Gift From Earth (Niven, Larry)

Psychic crutch weakens protagonist's drive (3/5)

I'm most familiar with Niven's novels from the 1970s and 1980 along with his excellent short story collection in Neutron Star (1968), which contains stories from 1966-1968. One story in this collection, "Grendel," was published just after the release of his second novel, A Gift From Earth. Niven exhibited a skill for short SF work, but managed to produce this seamless novel akin to his first novel, World of Ptavvs (1966). Both novels take place in Niven's Known Space universe and both use forms of telepathy. These two books lay the foundation for the entire Niven bibliography, showcasing his talents at world-building and highlighting his weakness at persuading the reader.

This novel was originally serialized in three parts in early 1968 in the IF magazine. Unlike many of the serialized novels during the same time, A Gift From Earth has an excellent flow without the stopgaps that many other serializations have. There are no clear divisions between the parts, so the novel had a seamless flow throughout.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The world named Mount Lookitthat was never meant for humans--it was shrouded in lethal mists. Life only existed on one plateau, unreachable except from space. But the disastrous decision to colonize the planet could not be reversed. So the settlers survived somehow--under a ruthless dictatorship.
Mount Lookitthat was rebellion-proof.
Then fate dealt the colonists a wild card named Matthew Keller, who had a talent that neither he nor anybody else knew about.
At last the colonists had a glimmer of hope!"

Jesus Pietro Castro heads the Implementation police force of the Hospital, which isn't a center to treat the ill and injured. Rather, it's a morbid mansion of disassembled bodies for the harvesting of body parts... the Body Bank. The "Crew" of the first ships to touch down on the planet of Mount Lookitthat receive these harvesting body parts from the lowly colonists. Ranked as aristocrats/autocrats on their perched plateau of a world, they enjoy all the benefits from their society while the colonists cower under their tyranny. But like the 40-mile cliffs which circumscribe their towering plateau, there is an underground movement planning to topple the 300-year reign, ready to cast freedom down to the masses of the colonists.

Gliding through the interstellar void with ramscoop propulsion, Ramscoop Robot #143 messages the perilous colony of Mount Lookitthat listing its cargo contents, gifts from earth which provide the colonies with advanced technology. The contents are privy to the ruling Crew class, but one resourceful colonist, Polly Tournquist, is able to hide in the trees and snap photos of the gift from earth.

Though limited in membership, the resistance does have decades of meticulous planning behind their inevitable push for freedom under the organ-stealing elite. Matthew Keller isn't part of the resistance but finds himself in the middle of a raucous party thrown by the members, with many innocents scattered among them. The 21-year old virgin is eager to speak with Polly, the cute shortie with the curious earbud, only for her to become wide-eyes in mid conversation and turn away. Angered by the abrupt denial, Matthew turns his attention to the more lithe woman, who seduces him into a dark room. When the raid orchestrated by Jesus Pietro commences, Matthew is one of the few to escape the police cordon.

Matthew is soon embroiled in a manhunt, his fear of the Body Bank drives him to protect his innocence at the cost of appearing guilty. The Implementation can't find any proof of his resistance ties, but keeps the search ongoing. Matthew discovers a curious ability of his own, a sort of cloak of invisibility which renders his invisible when he is frightened. This "psychic invisibility" allows him to penetrate the Hospital, release his comrades-in-arms, and seclude themselves for the next big push in their anti-Crew agenda.

The most impressive part of A Gift From Earth is the setting: a California-sized plateau, the only inhabitable part of the planet, towering 40 miles over the molten surface, an atmosphere layered with noxious gases, the colony perched solely on this one piece of land. I said that Niven does wonders for world-building and it doesn't stop here. Like most of Niven's Known Space universe, the harvesting of body parts from criminals (even petty criminals) is wide-spread and helps keep crime down and life-expectancy high:
A criminal's pirated body can save a dozen lives. There is no valid argument against capital punishment for any given crime; for all such argument seeks to prove that killing a man does society no good. Hence the citizen, who wants to live as long and as healthy as possible, will vote any crime into a capital crime if the organ banks are short of material. (122-123)
The colonists are under the assumption that their forefathers agreed to live under the ruling fist of the Crew when they fist landed on Mount Lookitthat. However, the secret is kept that th agreement was made under duress. Now, the Crew live like masters and the colonists are merely spare bodies waiting to be disassembled for their youthful parts: "... human beings come in two varieties: crew and colonist. [...] The Crew were masters, wise and benevolent, at least in the aggregate. The colonists were ordained to serve." (131)

Nevertheless, most Crew get on with their lives, like Matthew. The resistance is limited but presents a dichotomous picture of the female sex in the movement. There's the lithe Laney who is apt in many Crew-limited skills though a colonists herself, yet she describes herself as a type of comfort girl:
The Sons of Earth [the resistance group] are mostly men. Sometimes they get horribly depressed. Always planning, never actually fighting, never winning when they do, and always wondering if they aren't doing what Implementation wants. They can't even brag except to each other, because not all colonists are on our side. Then, sometimes, I can make them feel like men again. (168-169)
Contrasting his is the industrious shortie, Polly Tournquist, who reconnoiters and isn't afraid to take the metaphorical bull by the horns. To see a small-packed heroine is a great relief compared to the usual sylphlike figures in most SF novels... but then again, I like short women. The rest of the Sons of Earth are forgettable.

Aside from the fantastic world-building, there's two flaws which strip this novel of two stars. I'm a big non-fan of using psychic abilities in science fiction. I find it silly and unfounded unless some technological bridge is there. So firstly, I find the non-science foundation of Matthew's "psychic invisibility" as silly. I waited for some explanation but was left high and dry with the psychic answer. Secondly and last, the entire resistance that Matthew throws up against the Crew and the Implementation is just too easy, it hardly lacks any resistance; there's no greater strife, no burning desire in Matthew can be found to propel his drive. I was left unconvinced.

I love the Known Space universe Niven has established and will most likely return to the pages of The Integral Trees (1984), Protector (1973), and all the stories including Neutron Star and Tales of Known Space (1975). A chronological reading of his Known Universe material should be called for in many years to come after I exhaust my current unread collection. It'll also be interesting to compare his early work with his more recent Building Harlequin's Moon (2005), which is also on my unread shelf.

1968: Stand on Zanzibar (Brunner, John)

Disassemble, consume, and relish (4/5)
From May 12, 2011

My 11th Brunner novel to-date and also one of my favorite Brunner novels because of its unique composition, epic subject matter and plot continuity. If you're like me, I love to dive head first into a novel without researching it, without reading the synopsis. In most cases, I'm wowed by nearly any novel's content simply on the basis that I'm surprised. But perhaps I should have braced myself for what lay in Zanzibar. I took it with me on a trans-Pacific flight, hoping that the sheer thickness of the novel would keep me attentive but the first fifty pages were so scatter-brained that I put it down and only picked it up again ten days later when I took the same flight back home... and still, it seemed scatter-brained. Only about one-third into the novel did I begin to feel comfortable with the composition.

Rear cover synopsis:
"This is a giant of a book, in many senses of the word. It had to be, to give elbow-room for its subject matter. There are seven billion-plus of our species crowding the surface of the twenty-first century Earth in an age of acceleratubes, Moonbase Zero, intelligent computers, mass marketed psycheddelics, politics by assassination, scientists who burn incense to appease volcanoes--hive-living hysteria that is reaching its bursting point all over the world. But a hive seldom knows about its madness until it's too late. Employing a dazzling range of literary techniques, John Brunner has created a future world as real as this morning's paper--moving, sensory, impressionistic, as jagged as the times it portrays. This book is a real mind-stretcher--yet beautifully orchestrated to give a vivid picture of the whole. Read it with care--move in with it--this may be where we're headed..."

Divvied up into four parts, each gives the reader a glimpse into the world Brunner has created:

The meat of the novel lays in "Continuity" where the two plot lines of Norman (headed for Beninia to establish a new economy) and Donald (headed to Yatagang under subterfuge) start as one and eventually split into the two said strands. Beginning as roommates, we're introduced to the lifestyles of their generation, the living conditions, the language, etc. This alone provides a detailed picture of the year 2010 where earth is being over-populated.

The second most important of the quartet is "Tracking with Close-ups" where the reader can catch glimpses of everyday life for a smattering of humans on earth: witness their decadence, see their plights and perils, come to understand the one drop in the ocean of flesh. These slices of life are more like short stories based in the Zanzibar world, each as minor as the next but like a flood, the torrent is composed of many small water droplets.

One less interesting aspect of Zanizbar is the inclusion of "Context" which highlights social troubles via the written works or spoken word of an author in the novel by the name of Mulligan (or sometime snippets of other conversations, songs and such fluff). Sometimes insightful, usually wordy and preachy but the best bits lay in "Hipcrime Vocab" where Brunner shows his mastery of wit and language akin to a modern-day Devil's Dictionary... all interesting, but not essential to the 650-page novel.

Lastly, there comes "The Happening World" where the novel should NOT have started the novel and which, really, added nothing at all to the overall picture. It's like stream-of-consciousness writing with no connectivity, no basis, no logic. No, thank you.

Even if I hate a book, I still read it cover-to-cover. But with Zanzibar, I found myself skipping much of the peripheral "Context" bits and nearly all of the obscure "Happening" sections. These two lines of page additions distracted me from the greater whole of the core plot: that of Donald and Norman in the context of an over-populated world and where one man, especially a changed man, can make a difference and how science, too, can push society one way (to greatness) or the other (off the cliff).

Zanzibar is a definite re-read but next time around I'll have that knowledge brace of knowing which chapters to skip and which chapters to focus on.

Monday, May 28, 2012

1971: The Falling Astronauts (Malzberg, Barry N.)

Stagnant character, stagnant author (3/5)

My exposure to Barry M. Malzberg has been limited. I've only read his novel The Last Transaction, which was a character-fueled trip through the sex-driven private life of a US president. The amount and description of the sex is off-putting, but as least it was pertinent to character's state of mind. This EXACT SAME formula is used in The Falling Astronauts, but rather than the private life of a president, the focus is on the private life of a fallen astronaut. The similarity between the two unlinked book has me thinking that Malzberg just likes to lightly mold a near-future science fiction tale around his core concentration of sex--a sign of a weak author, in my opinion. Not too many novels use the 4-letter C-word, but it feels like Malzberg uses it with relish.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Colonel Richard Martin had been to the Moon and back, but he would never be sent on a mission again.
Martin had suffered a nervous breakdown while he orbited the Moon, and he couldn't be trusted to pilot an expensive space capsule anymore. So no Martin handled public relations for the space program, and after one more Moon launch his connection with the program would be completely ended.
But on one could foresee the strange disaster that would turn the coming space mission into a nightmare that only Martin, is anyone, could end..."

Martin wasn't sent to rove the lunar landscape, but he was given the command of the orbiting module. Alone in the cabin during the communications blackout, Martin is seized by a gripping impulsion to ignite the retro-rockets, leaving his two crewmen stranded on he lunar surface for dead, and sending himself rocketing into deep space or into the sun. The BUTTON beckons his attention, berating his refusal to act as an individual. Mentally breaking down, the rest of the mission is scrapped but the details are never released to the press.

Returning to Earth, Martin is again with his ill-adjusted wife who cannot tolerate the social atmosphere on the space program. Simply labeled as an "astronaut's wife", Susan is childless and anti-social. Her hatred of the atmosphere drives her weak relationship with her husband to the point that he can't even discuss his work problems with her. Shut out of her life, Martin is left to his own mental wreckage as his wife leaves him.

The declining interest in the space program has seen more and more press ignoring the details of each consecutive flight, which may be why Martin was temporarily placed as press liaison. His distant, curt manner is unsettling to the reporters who generally lack interest in any of the happenings at the project. One reporter in particular, Perkins, has a very crass attitude when posing questions, accusing the staff of hiding secrets and harboring information which should be shared with the public. Martin's patience wears thin with Perkin's ill manner, but the rest of congenial press sympathize with Martin's uncomfortable position.

The space agency is gearing up for another lunar flight when martin assumes his press liaison position. Martin would rather avoid all socialization, but the parties revolving around astronaut induction is one he isn't able to miss. The wives make their own awkward scene while Martin makes a few loose connections with the crew of the next flight: commander Allen is a husband but also a curiously friendly fellow, lieutenant colonel Davis is a pompous sociologist, and colonel Busby is a widower who shares the same position as Martin one had--module command.

The main focus of The Falling Astronauts in the internal drive which drove Martin to his temporary insanity and how he deals with the fallout during his desk job at the agency. His disconnection with other people is symptomatic of the acceptance of his personal limitations... and his failure. The sheer amount of training Martin endured had a negative characterization upon him; he sees himself as an individual, but the agency has trained him to be a part of a machine. His attachment to BUTTON in the lunar orbiter is part of his conditioning to be a machine, which should contrast his emotional attachment to the two members on the moon:
The single mechanical button overrides the importance of the two organic souls, his crewmates and fellow astronauts. The crux of the matter:
The ship... takes orbital fire and he feels his own guilt like a rosy glow inflaming his body; as the ship has taken power, so he has become a conductor for culpability and he feels himself burning: burning with darkening fire whose stains, if it were to surface, would mark him eternally. (109)
The sociological aspect is often a focus, be it with group dynamics or general opinion on social interaction: "We make patterns; you always have configurations in human relationships totally apart from the personnel involved... The human factor is paramount." (53) Much of it point to our own patterns reinforcing or destroying the greater social fabric, but the importance of the individual is casually ignored. Martin understands the power one man has and he can project this sometimes demoralizing force onto what Busby may feel when he, too, will be in lunar orbit alone; however, Martin's disconnectedness finds him uncaring.

Amidst all of this social deconstruction and the internal debasement of Martin, the reader is shown glimpses of sexual deviation, shadows of their own reality only hinted at to the reader. Martin's own sexual deviation goes untold, but he mentions scatology four times and imagines this desire on his leaving wife once. A cross-section of the astronauts on the coming mission reveals only Allan's inability to cope with the stress of the program, which is veiled in a private interaction with Martin. The occasional hinting of sexuality is much more favorable than the blunt sex scenes, but combine the two and the reader begins to wonder what is making the author tick. Having read only two Malzberg novels, they share a very similar plot and emit an odd trait which reflects unfavorable upon the author.

The characterization I mention is a heavily condensed form than found in the novel. It often feels like the book is going nowhere; the reader waddles in the murk that is Martin's depression, slogs through the tides of disconnectedness with his personal and professional life, and stand on the precipice of the one-dimensional character of Martin. The stagnation has a purpose but behind the characterization there is very little going on, not even the supporting cast can lend a hand to its pacing.

If there's a Malzberg novel which deviates from his curious fixation, I'll happily pick it up, but Malzberg needs to present a different facet of his creativity which highlights science fiction as a dynamic genre, a realm of possibilities which he drags the reader through with a sexual agenda. Again, it's more of a distraction that anything when the author has so many routes of characterization to the same conclusion, Malzberg takes the easy way out time and again.

1971: Saliva Tree (Aldiss, Brian)

Aldiss at his best- some fiction with the science fiction (4/5)
From April 5, 2011

Having already read Aldiss's short story collections in Last Orders (3/5) and The Book of Brian Aldiss (3/5), I wasn't keen on starting yet another Aldiss collection. I'm a pretty big fan of his novels (six to-date, all above three stars) but his short stories never captured me. The longest story in this collection is also the most famous from Aldiss- "The Saliva Tree." This SF story was pretty good and so was another SF-themed story: "Smith's Burst." Some of the non-SF stories are better than his SF-themed stories. Finding that Aldiss wrote clever fiction and witty horror was a treat ("Lonely Habit" & "Shared Pleasure"). With just one lame duck in this bunch... it's the best collection Aldiss has, thus far.

Saliva Tree (1965, novella) - 4/5 - Nineteenth century bucolic England is visited by meteorites and an innocuous pond-deep vessel which houses two invisible beings. The electrify-owning farmer, his fair maiden daughter and her suitor have differing opinions as the nature of the farm's recent mysteries and the nature of the beasts. 81 pages

Danger: Religion! (1962, novella) - 3/5 - A just history professor is home to a parallel earth where England is recovering from a war when a parallel traveler takes the professor back to his reality- a theocracy embracing slavery yet lacking technological progress save for the invention of parallel travel. 43 pages

The Source (1965, short story) - 1/5 - Traveling from Andromeda to visit the source of humanity, a scientist surveys the people and the land for mankind's great achievement but experiences more of an acid trip than anything. 16 pages

The Lonely Habit (1966, short story) - 5/5 - A greenhorn serial killer relishes the kill and the secret pleasure of identifying with the mementos of the disposed corpse. While initiating the threat of the fourth victim, the killer finds his ilk. 10 pages

A Pleasure Shared (1962, short story) - 4/5 - A rather proper gentleman and part-time murderer has befriended a young widow and has been unfortunately acquainted with another rather beastly tenant. The beast plans to marry the widow but the murder just wants a blanket to wrap his victim in. 14 pages

One Role with Relish (1966, short story) - 3/5 - A seemingly over-enthusiastic man forces a friendship upon another man after a dental visit. Are his motives merely platonic, sexual or perhaps slightly malevolent? 10 pages

Legends of Smith's Burst (1959, novelette) - 4/5 - A word-crafty man find himself sold into slavery on a wretched planet full of mutant beings. He manages to escape or overcome each challenger with wit and with the assistance of his fair maiden, the human daughter of a trounced king. 43 pages

The Day of the Doomed King (1965, short story) - 4/5 - A progressive but starry-eyed king is maimed by an invading force. He and his general venture to warn the next town over but not before seeking good omen with a seer. 16 pages

Paternal Care (1966, short story) - 3/5 - A student spies from a hilltop a woman working in the field and perpetually rushing to her hovel to put the escaping child back indoors. When the student gains a close perspective, he finds out the city's defense isn't as loose as it seemed. 5 pages

The Girl and the Robot with Flowers (1965, short story) - 3/5 - Aldiss bounces an idea off his about a short story he's working on where the main visual image is a robot holding flowers, but Aldiss mulls over it and decides he's not in a robot-flower-war-with-humans kind of mood these years. 8 pages

Friday, May 25, 2012

1921: Voyage to Faremido & Capillaria (Karinthy, Frigyes)

Gulliver's wanderlust finds precarious realms (5/5)

Frigyes Karinthy is an early 20th century Hungarian satirist, playwright, and journalist. His parody and humor were once well-known in the Hungarian literature circles, but his international fame was more subdued. Best known for his autobiographical neurological journey of his experience with a brain tumor, its affects on him, and his anesthetic-less surgery, A Journey Round My Skull was first published in 1939 and later reprinted in 2008.

The twin novels Voyage to Faremido & Capillaria were written in Hungarian in the years 1916 and 1921, respectively. They weren't translated until 1965, when they were published in Hungarian, translated to English (by Paul Tabori), and later published in 1966 (with the Living Book publisher) and 1978 (with New English Library). The two novels are Karinthy's literary extension to Jonathan Swift's four-part Gulliver's Travels (1726). These fifth and sixth journey's of Gulliver's are some of the earliest examples of the continuation of Swiftian literature.

Rear cover synopsis:
"First there is Faremido- a planet peopled by machines who regard organic life as a disease. Gulliver is held to trial as a representative of the most corrupt disease in the universe--the disease of humanity.
Then there is Capillaria- an underwater world where the men are nutritious delicacies and the women rule like gods. Gulliver is mysteriously saved from drowning but his respite is short-lived when his dreaded sex is discovered..."


Voyage to Faremido (1916, 33pgs) - 5/5

Promising to never travel again after his four adventures, Gulliver gives in to his wanderlust and signs on to the navy as a surgeon. The ship he's on is struck by a mine and as the boat sinks, the captain saves him in a hydrofoil, which flies into the air. Regaining consciousness, Gulliver realizes the captain is dead and the hydrofoil is now thousands of feet into the frigid atmosphere... when a metallic craft captures him.

The first being he approaches intones the notes "F D E C" which is the name of the planet he now strides upon--Fa-Re-Mi-Do, or Faremido. During the next eighteen months of his stay, he befriends the race of intelligent machines which gave "the impression of simplicity and of a self-evident inevitability" and were "a masterpiece of economical and perfect technology." (28) Being an educated man, Gulliver wishes to speak of epistemology and technology while envying the god-like beings, but the mechanical aliens have their viewpoints about organic lifeforms such as Gulliver, himself. Organic beings are seen as tumorous, infectious, malodorous, parasitic, pathogenic germs; a transitory phenomenon. For what of a better place in the universe, Gulliver convinces the machines to make him more machine-like, a process which would see him as part-organic, part-machine. To get a glimpse of his post-humanism to come, Gulliver is injected with an inorganic substance (nanites?) that alters his perceptions and sensations to a temporary omniscient level.

There are a number of progressive elements from the era found in this story which reflect the progress man has made and Gulliver's eagerness to pronounce such accomplishments to the robots of Faremido. Psychoanalysis was a science in its early years at the time Karinthy penned the novel and Gulliver mentions concepts revolving around consciousness and ego, something which is seen as a sickness to the purely inorganic robots. The robots, themselves, use a technology which was being pioneered around 1916--the assembly line. Gulliver mentioned the effectiveness of the system and the division of individual labor.

Karinthy sees a post-human world where man can transcend death through evolution into a bodily vessel, surpassing "the corruptibility of the organic body" into one composed of "inorganic, enduring, imperishable elements." (50) Also, a brief philosophy on technology and mankind is given when Gulliver reflects on the state of the art:
In the course of centuries science and art naturally became more perfect. [...] Finally we reached a stage where the machines not only aided men in all their labour and multiplied their strength--but carried out their work far more perfectly than this could have been done by our frail human bodies, [...] they surpassed Man; they became more perfect, and soon we reached the point where, if he wanted to be perfect, Man was forced to imitate the machines and works which has once imitated him. (32)


Capillaria (1921, 66pgs) - 4/5
Promising to never travel again after his five adventures, Gulliver gives in to his wanderlust, again, and signs on to the navy as a surgeon, again. Struck by a U-boat torpedo, the ship sinks and Gulliver is inexplicably rescued from drowning by the shell-shaped gills surrounding his ears. On the seabed Gulliver has no use for his lungs as the artificial gills provide sufficient oxygen for his body. Without using his lungs (?) he is still able to produce speech when he speaks with the pulchritudinous denizens of the deep: the Oiha. The ever-chivalrous gentleman Gulliver, a philosopher and well-read individual, orates to the babylonianesque women about the nature of the role of sexes on terra firma.

Gulliver witness the atrocious act of cannibalism but accepts the cultural oddity because of his wide experience in such counterculture matters while abroad on his travels. The women are lackadaisical gadflys, sucking the "blood" of productivity from male contingent; the smaller, inferior men are incomprehensible to the woolgathering women, whose air-headed language consists "entirely of interjections and ejaculations". (78) Their life goal is the pursuit of pleasure, "in the eternal pursuit of pleasure, the search for and enjoyment of artfully selected physical sensations." (79) His eighteen months under the sea are devoted, not to the physical serving of the scores of women, but to the oration of terra firma human philosophy of the human sexes to the queen. During an excitation in audience with the queen, his true sex is revealed, thence he is banished to the male enclave where his size quickly brings him favor to the industrious men.

I wasn't sure if Karinthy was (1) expressing his own viewpoints on the dichotomous nature of the social function of the two human sexes, or (2) viewing the same functions through the eyes of Swift, a man of the eighteenth century, or (3) peniing the entire novel as written satire... which is actually the widely held belief. Some of the misogyny is hard hitting stuff:
* the female as supporting wife (pages 61 and 94)
* the female preoccupation to physical beauty (pages 88, 95,and 96)
* the female vacuous mind (pages 74, 77, and 88-89)
* female success based on seduction or position (pages 90 and 94)
* aggrandizement of singularly male achievement (pages 101-102)

Page 102 proved to be the most conversational (well, internal monologue debate) with the topic of "The problem of women":
I had endeavoured to prove the inferiority of the female mind, the mental poverty of women by the fact that they were unable to define or describe themselves--so that in order to have a proper idea about them the genius of man was needed because women had no independent conception of their own souls. (102) 
I had admitted to myself [...] that women had a far greater preference for feminine men than men for masculine women--what else was this but a striving towards a uniform, unisexual type of humanity, a longing for 'debasement', 'degeneration', 'feminization'. (102)

Even in Karinthy's fantasy creation of an underworld, the sexes still maintain the same roles as they would on terra firma. Either this clearly shows a lack of imagination, which isn't the case, or a twisting stab at satire in order to awaken the inequality of women in modern society. Karinthy was an anti-war advocate but he wasn't noted for his feminism. One last paraphrase about this feminism from the same controversial page 102: "feminists" are "just degenerate men." You have to keep reminding yourself this is a satire!


The two stories aren't linked in any way besides simply being stated as the "fifth voyage" and "sixth voyage" of Gulliver. The post-human injection Gulliver received from the Faremido robots never materialized in Capillaria and the events which took place on Faremido were never recalled while under the sea.

Lastly, I found it a quaint comfort to read the lines "I found my wife and children in good health" (55) and "I found my wife and family in the best of health" (124) at the conclusion of the respective stories.

1897: The War of the Worlds (Wells, H.G.)

Bucolic English tour in the midst of an alien invasion (5/5)
From May 3, 2009

The War of the Worlds is more than a scary monster book, which some people who don't read science fiction may see it as. In fact, this is part of a broad foundation of the genre of science fiction as well as the father of sci-fi/horror. Though written in 1897, it is indeed filled with grisly descriptions of charred bodies lining in the English streets, dogs turned feral feeding upon their masters and rotting corpses. The people of southeast England find themselves "leaderless, lawless, foodless, like sheep without a shepherd" (268-269) once the Martian invasion begins to asphyxiate bucolic England.

Rear cover synopsis:
"At first they thought it was a falling star...
Then it landed, and THINGS began to emerge: ugly, tentacled monsters that saw men, not as slaves, but as food. In days the country was occupied. Mankind was helpless against the Martians' poison clouds, scalding steam jets, and flaming Heat Ray.
But Earth had a secret weapon--a weapon the earthlings didn't even know existed!"

Though written in 1898, the narrator doesn't give the year of the invasion, though he makes a number references to events, statistics ,and inventions which help the reader pin a year down. The current timeframe is one hundred years after the Lisbon earthquake, London is populated with six million citizens and the countryside is sparsely touched my automobiles yet still has a strong train line. From this data, we can estimate the time to around 1880-1900, which is different from many of today's sci-fi novels which typically take place ten or more years in the future. Wells' novel must have been hauntingly timely when it was penned.

From Woking (just 23 miles southwest of central London) to the Tillingham coast in Essex (50 miles northeast of London), Wells takes the reader, even though as ignorant as we may be of 19th century English country life, through a detailed cartographic wandering across the land. From the initial discovery of the Martian cylinder in the narrator's town, to the horse and bicycle escapements to the adjacent villages all the way to the eventual tours of mayhem and destruction of downtown London. The personalized tour of the 19th century bucolic England is exotic and charming, even in the midst of an alien invasion!

Needless to say, the English used is British English and dated, as well. Wells seemed to favor the word tumultuous and its root word tumult, which I don't come across very often in other novels. Reading this novel had me fetching my dictionary from time to time to reference Wells wide vocabulary. Sometimes his use of words is humorous to the modern reader. One example I giggled to myself for a number of minutes at the thought of Wells' words: "I grew very weary and irritable with the curate's perpetual ejaculations; I tired at the sight of his selfish despair." On a more serious note, the passages of the narration are full of wonderful imagery, imagination and an uncanny ability to convey the sense of despair himself and his fellow countrymen are experiencing before, during and after the invasion.

Not only is this the first `alien invasion novel' but it's also the finest... which hasn't been more poetically written or enriched with detail in over 110 years. Wells' The War of the Worlds has withstood one century already and will continue to awe readers for the next dozens of generations.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1963: The Reefs of Space (Pohl, Frederik & Williamson, Jack)

 Great premise lacking detail and follow-through (3/5)

The collaboration of the science fiction greats of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson rivals other such duos: Pohl & Kornbluth, Niven & Pournelle, Pratchett & Gaiman, gin & tonic, and sloppy & joe. All renowned for being fine examples of collaborative efforts, but from this reviewer's experience, doubling the effort doesn't always doubly yield. Take for example Pohl & Williamson's Farthest Star (1975): starts with a great premise, lacks in follow up of interesting details, then includes scientific anarchisms and dragons. This sort of rings a bell with The Reefs of Space (minus the dragons), a 1964 serialization of three stories printed in late 1963.

Rear cover blurb:
"The team of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson combines two of the top writers in the field of science fiction. In the REEFS OF SPACE, this has produced a tale brimming with the ingenuity, inventiveness and satiric commentary characteristic of the great classic adventure tales of science fiction. To science fiction fans, this is like a joyous coming home, to new readers, the book will be a fresh and exciting discovery."

Though the novel itself isn't divided into three distinct parts, the novel still manifests its "stitch-up" heritage through the plot's choppy flow. The first 90 pages of the 188 page book contain the first distinct setting, which sets the tone for the entire novel: Steven Ryeland awakes after three days of interrogation and detention with very little memory of his past and murky details of the examiner's questions. His affiliation to the physicist Ron Donderevo is unclear but his descent to the rank of Risk is made clear by the explosive ring around his neck. Ryeland is imprisoned and given the orders to develop a "jetless drive" for the Machine, an all-knowing computational tyrant organizing and directing the affairs of thirteen billion people, a process known as "The Plan of Man." This Plan is often whittled down to the phrase, "To each his own job--and his job only." Guarded by the military sporting "radar horns," a proximity deterrent to Ryeland's explosive fuse, Ryeland delves into the mystery of an inertia-less creature which resides in the Reefs of Space beyond the orbit of Pluto and is also detained in the Machine earthly prison. Obviously countering the mathematic certainty of Newton's third law of thermodynamics, Ryeland discovers that the secret to the creatures inertia-less movement to be powered by a crystal node within its nervous system.

The next 50-page story is a drastic jump from the first, where Ryeland has been played the pawn between the unseen power struggle of General Fleemer, overseer of the project, and The Planner, a trustful human who steers the Machine. Accused of treason and sabotage, Ryeland is shipped off to Cuba, one location of the Machine's Body Banks. The Risks residing in the Body Banks are fed sedatives as they are gradually taken apart, piece by piece, for transplantation to an unknown recipient. Ryeland soon possesses a hand-me-down journal penned by D.W.H., which inspires him to escape in a similar manner, if he can live long enough without losing too many body parts to the Bank.

And the remaining 48 pages are yet another drastic jump from the plot: In his eleventh-hour after his failed attempt at escape, Ryeland is rescued and taken aboard a ship powered by the same inertia-less creature he studied all those months ago. The Reefs of Space are seen as a haven from the tyrannical Machine, a region of freedom beyond the sphere of suppression, which is the main reason the Machine wants to "jetless drive." Too far for a propellant systems, the inertia-less drive will allow the machine to conquer the Reefs and conform all who wish to reside there under its nebulous Plan of Man. The Reefs have fauna and flora with "enormous lovely flowers that shone with uncanny colors", "a kind of golden vine that struck back with high-voltage", and "innocent little pods that squirted jets of radioactive isotopes." (51)

The first half of the book, which is primarily the first 90 pages and the first story, is an excellent 4- or 5-star start to a novel. The world-building is rich with the inclusion of the nebulous Plan of Man, the shrouded (benevolent?) Machine, and the system of communication between the humans and the Machine. The binary digital computer requires laborious encoding, taping, and decoding of information, yet the Machine still transmits actions and information through the "teletape" machines, a type of tickertape terminal found in every room in which any person can key in their request. The entire system has the aura of 1984, possibly giving a nod towards "thoughtcrime" ("Nobody can argue with the machine! [73]) and "doublespeak" ("[...] is was plain as the fact that two plus two is four." [179]).

Some additional quirks are of interest, but only adds light spice to an already well-seasoned story. Keeping in mind the population of earth is thirteen billion, it seems Pohl and Williamson kept this in mind even when writing in simple details to the story: "He ate the last dry beef algae sandwich, and the last bitter drops of cold yeast coffee" (180) It's a minor but amusing detail. One recurrent detail but unexplored theme are the "Togetherness" girls in the laboratory/prison where Ryeland is incarcerated. These girls are cheerful, optimistic, and seem to be on the same sedative drugs as the prisoners in the Body Banks. As they name suggests, their optimistic nature is a glue which keeps the engineers stuck to their work and vision. There's no detail regarding the nature of the robotic-like Togetherness girls, but it's just one of the things which are of interest in The Reefs of Space.

As it reads above, the greater setting of The Reefs of Space is grand. However, the transitions between the three parts is too abrupt. Just when the laboratory/prison environment is becoming lurid and lush, Ryeland is jetted off to the Body Bank. Once the Body Bank setting is becoming sinister and depressing, Ryeland is sprung off planet to the Reefs. Once there, the story takes on a sort of cheesy space horror montage. The earthly realm of the Machine with its Plan of Man is what is really captivating about the Reefs of Space, how Ryeland can contribute his discoveries for the benefit of the Machine's nebulous Plan, and how the existence of the Reefs affect the Plan.

In regards to scientific anarchisms, the universe in which The Reefs of Space exists is set in a steady-state universe (ala the Infinite Universe theory, circa 1948), where hydrogen gas is constantly being produced and the stars continually being developed from this gas... this opposes the Big Bang theory which triumphs in 1965 discover of cosmic microwave background radiation. The steady-state is important to some of the questions posed by Ryeland and his "jetless drive" so it's also important to the plot. The suspension of belief is easier than when reading the early works E.E. "Doc" Smith.

If the remaining of the Starchild series (Starchild and Rogue Star) would focus on the earth-based Machine and its Plan, then the series might be worth the read. But, I see that the series doesn't continue with the somewhat likable Ryeland, with his intelligence and vague history. Just as the end of the The Reefs of Space was jerky, the remaining series seems just as illy thrown together.

1985: Black Star Rising (Pohl, Frederik)

A steed of a start... followed by horse apples (2/5)
From April 6, 2010

Written in the time between Pohl's Heechee Rendezvous (1984) and his widely known satirical Merchant's War (1986), one would expect Black Star Rising (1985) to retain some aspects of his former greatness, as in the popular Man Plus (1976) or Gateway (1977). However, Pohl seems to have led himself astray with this one-off novel like he did with another one-off novel in the 1980s: Syzygy (1982). Both flopped.

Rear cover synopsis:
"When a mysterious alien spacecraft approaches the Earth and demands to speak with the President of the United States, then destroys a large Pacific island to demonstrate its strength and its seriousness, you'd expect the President to talk. Problem is, in the late twenty-first century, there is no President--not even a United States. China rules the Americas, and to most people 'US' and 'USSR' are just quaint abbreviations in historical dictionaries. But the aliens prove unreasonable about accepting substitutes. So one Anglo rice-cultivator from the Heavenly Grain Collective farm near Biloxi, Mississippi is forced to begin an adventure that will take him from peasant to President, from Pettyman to Spaceman."
Black Star Rising has a noble start: "It's the late twenty-first century. The USA and USSR have destroyed each other in a catastrophic nuclear exchange, and China now rules the Americans." The reader is introduced to a Caucasian workforce in Alabama who are restricted to the farm in which they work. Castor has discovered a human head in the rice fields and is called to the city to deliver his testimony. He becomes embroiled with the Han-descended Police Inspector, the many-minded Professor, and the affairs dealing with a mysterious object approaching Earth. The start is fairly good and lays a great foundation for a prospectively good novel...

... but inevitably the novel must continue. Behind this dignified steed of a novel's start there only follows a long trail of steaming horse apples. Once the "American Cabinet" arrives on alien soil (named World), the plot quickly loses steam with many pages of doubletalk terminology and a bizarre, out-of-the-blue plot twist with its ridiculous self-contained history. What follows is a sexual romp for a small cast of characters parallel to the politicking of people from Earth and the people of World. There are no bombshells dropped in plot (steady as she goes), there is no character enrichment (like a placid lake of boredom) and even the ending receives a shrug of whatever! One more additional observance includes the annoying overuse of the word "fool" and the gratuitous use of exclamation points in the internal bickering within the Professor.

It's one of those shoulder-shrugging books which the reader wades through, tests the water, comes out the other side reasonably unscathed, and ultimately forgets ever wading through the placid waters in the first place. It's been two years since I read this novel (now May 2012) and I couldn't remember one aspect about it without reading my prior review. It's a forgettable novel because of its mundaneness and aimlessness, not because it's irritating from cover to cover like Man Plus, Syzygy, or Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980). Pohl obviously isn't one of my favorite novel-length authors, but he has a prolific amount of short stories which seem to impress me from time to time, such as in The Man Who Ate the World (1960), Midas World (1983), and Pohlstars (1984). Stick to these shorter works and witness the greatness of Pohl through the decades.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

1973: The People of the Wind (Anderson, Poul)

Laden with misplaced details and reasoning (3/5)

Of the most prolific authors lining my shelves, just behind Greg Bear (21), John Brunner (19), Larry Niven (18), Frederik Pohl (16), and Iain Banks (16) is Poul Anderson. This 15th book of Anderson's is one of my dwindling supply of classic Anderson, whose paperbacks are increasing difficult to find in second-hand bookstores. Like Banks, Bear, and Brunner, Anderson's works are usually a hit, which can't be said for Pohl's works that tend to be misses more often than not. Unfortunately, Anderson doesn't pen one of his best with The People of the Wind. Much like Anderson's bibliography, there are some "hit" elements and some "miss" elements that compose The People of the Wind.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Terra + Ythri + Avalon = Universal War!
THE TERRAN EMPIRE: Behemoth, reaching ever further across the star systems, seeking to suck the entire universe into its gigantic maw. In its favor it must be said that the Empire offers peace and prosperity to its subjects.
THE YTHRIAN DOMAIN: Medium-sized empire with room to grow... except where it borders meet those of the Terran Empire! Peopled by the Ythri, birdlike beings with a culture and intellect that is easily a match for the Terran way of life.
AVALON: Colony planet of the Ythri but inhabited by human and Ythri alike, Avalon is the Domain's secret weapon--or is it? For Avalon has formed a culture all its own, which it will defend against all comers. And Avalon seems quite capable of defying the combined might of the most powerful empires in the universe!"

Chris Holm is well-adjusted to the unique culture of the planet Avalon. With human parents in the upper echelons of the planetary military infrastructure, Chris sits on the social cusp between the human culture and Ythrian culture, a culture he has embraced by befriending the avian aliens and assuming the Ythrian name Arinnain. His Ythrian "sister" Eyath is very close to him and he often regards her as his spiritual partner, but she has become betrothed with a space pilot, soon to put into active duty against the approaching Terran navy.

The Human/Ythrian loose government takes a seemingly pragmatic approach to the navy's war stance. When two Ythrian planets fall to the Terran navy, the last battle and the occasion of "death-pride" is left to the planet of Avalon, whose human contingent has seen the planet through its military preparedness. The aggressive Terran navy seems set on subsuming all three planets for the Terran Empire, with no compassion for cultural sanctity.

When a Terran ship crashes upon Avalon, Chris's possible female human interest, Tabitha, is quick to charm the captain in a nubile fashion. Chris realizes the ultimate gain when applying a guilt trip and hopes for a positive outcome for his clan, his family, his love life, and the bi-cultural planet of Avalon.

Anderson put some very careful detail in making the Ythrian race of bird-like creatures. Their physiology is well detailed along their tacit beliefs and cultural heritage. Most of this is viewed through the eyes of the young protagonist Chris or through dialogue between him and his avian kin. It pays to keep close attention to the cultural details because they spring up throughout the book, highlighting the difficulties the planet faces against the Terran navy and the personal problems Eyath experiences after the human crash land on Avalon.

I wish the same attention was kept when describing the planet of Avalon. The physical characteristics of its orbit, density, atmosphere, moon system, etc. is thrown in during the first 25% of the book. The number-heavy details shown a lot of thought, but the way it lacked integration was off-putting. The same goes for Anderson's laborious insertion of the names of planetary fauna, the name of function of each are all peripheral and adds little but words to the passages involved. The insertions are awkward and generally lack relevance.

I never found the logic behind the Terran attack on the Ythrian Domain to be sensible. It seemed as if they were attacking in order to subsume the Domain simply because they didn't want the Ythrians to expand any further into the Terran Empire. If each race has their own sphere of colonization, the border between the two should be very limited. If this one border is blocking each others colonization plans, there are many other directions to expand: up-galaxy, down galaxy, spinward, anti-spinward, up, down, left, right... however you want to describe the directions of galactic flight. This ONE conflict seems senseless to concentrate the entire Terran naval fleet at that one point against three planets. The planets aren't even part of any greater strategy.

Besides the Ythrian descriptions, the depth of the harmonious human/Ythrian relationship on Avalon is great to delve in to. The relationship on government level all the way down to personal level is full of nuances and subtleness. The Ythrians obviously have their cultural weaknesses, and considering that the planet of Avalon is part of their Domain, the humans accept their minority and fill the leadership niche which is left void by the Ythrian's disinterest in larger organization.

Many of the parts of this novel are noteworthy, but its Anderson's early inability to weave all of this into a dense but savory 176-page novel that ultimately let me down. When Anderson has a larger canvas to work with, like in The Boat of A Million Years (1989), he has the freedom to explore the intimate details of his bursting creativity and the ability to pen a fulfilling novel with as many ideas as he can shake a stick at. The People of the Wind was just to dense to feel like a smooth Anderson novel. Whether there were to many ideas bursting at the seams or just a limited number of pages restricting Anderson's creativity, a rewrite of this book into a fuller 300-page novel would have been epic to witness.

1954: Brain Wave (Anderson, Poul)

Linguistic and scientific advances in IQ advanced humans (4/5)
From May 25, 2009

This was my seventh Anderson book, a book which I had heard much about and was easy to find as there were many editions published. Typically, this is a signifier indicating the quality of the work, but my doubts were banished with the trust I held in Anderson writing a smart, spanning novel. Reading an Anderson novel is rarely a miss (i.e. The Day of Their Return [1974] and Orbit Unlimited [1961]) and usually a success (i.e. Tau Zero [1970] and Three Worlds to Conquer [1964]). This is one of Anderson's earliest long works, but it doesn't have the implied sense of immaturity or silliness. Rather, this is one of Anderson's strongest works for its creativity and follow-through.

Rear cover synopsis:
"'Imagine that an I.Q. of 500 becomes commonplace, a moron has the thinking capacity of yesterday's intellectual, and animals begin to pass the mental levels of humanity. This is the provocative and absorbing thesis upon which Poul Anderson has based his novel; and his plausible exploration of the theme makes for an unusually stimulating book, admirably balanced between the logical world-changes and the intimate human story of some individuals. Few novels have revealed more skill simultaneously in scientific speculation and in fictional warmth and feeling.' - New York Herald Tribune"

A "brain wave" sweeps across the path of earth's galactic orbit and changes the intellect of all life. The brain wave is described as being, "a gyromagnetic action within the atomic nuclei near the center of the galaxy which has inhibited certain electromagnetic and electro-chemical processes." Once earth had passed out of this cone of influence, all the sudden the brains of earth life increased in efficiency as did electrical conductivity in metals. The novel follows the stories of two men: Archie Brock, the farmhand who isn't the sharpest pitchfork in the shed and Peter Corinth, the New York City physicist who is the bee's knees of intellectualism.

Within Archie's story, we find him reluctant to leave the farm after others there had already left to find more mental stimulation elsewhere. Archie then houses other sub-intellectual individuals (including an elephant and chimps) who help around the farm. Archie confronts his newly-found intelligence and leadership skills against the bucolic life in upstate New York.

Peter, on the other hand, stands witness to the monumental intellectual growth (and seething animal instinct) that humanity is experiencing during this blossoming of IQ. He and his peers add their discoveries to the plethora of new technologies and wares which propel humanity into an entirely new era. But can he maintain a relationship with his simpleton housewife amidst these a-changing times?

Poul takes an inventive look at how a more mature, intelligent humanity may hone their language into something more logical and context-rich. Poul tends to explore languages in his novels, but here he takes it to a whole new realm. Along with the linguistic discoveries, Poul takes us for a little side trip to look at space technologies, a brisk walk through weather control, and even a glimpse of alien civilizations--he spans a vast array of scientific curiosities.

One additional note: the cover itself lends to a time of reflection after finishing the novel. Did the cover artist just want a semi-lame cover for the novel? Or did the cover artist (Phil Kirkland) convey a deeper sense he probed within the novel? It's quite different, that's obvious, and garners some attention after completion of the novel.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

2008: The Gabble and Other Stories (Asher, Neal)

Asher finding and filling his niche (4/5)

Compared to Asher's one other collection, The Engineer ReConditioned, this volume has a better focus on the Polity universe. If you're used to any Asher novel, then you'll be happy to know that his short stories contain the exact same elements as his larger works. Unlike Asher's novels, however, is the inclusion of some steamy sex scenes in three of the ten stories. Considering Asher's thousands of pages of novel text without any sex scenes I can remember, the inclusion of sex in the short stories is odd... perhaps the stories were too dry and needed to be lubricated to give them that certain "oomph."

These stories also represent an author finding his niche as a science ficiton writer. Sometimes called "post-cyberpunk" but really just action/horror/noir, the author can see the author settling into the niche which has made him famous... and so deep in the pit that I don't think the author could ever redefine himself. Whereas his previous collection was dating from 1995-2001, this collection mainly includes stories from 2001-2008.


Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck (2005 novelette) - 3/5 - Incestuous siblings on homicide safari: Tameera, Tholan, and his assistant Anders hire a safari guide on the planet Myral. When Tameera snipes a C-grade sentient and later becomes abducted by the hextet of Sheq, the shagging siblings take revenge upon the Sheq, and the assistant and the safari guide who have witnessed the crime. When the gabbleduck appears in the shrouded mist of a valley waterfall, someone is bound to die. 33 pages

Putrefactors (2008 novelette) - 4/5 - Unauthorized android attacks assassin Ansel: The Company's assassin's mission is to kill a villager on a gastronomically uninhabitable planet, but Earth Central is onto his plot. The tables are turned on Ansel when the same company he works for seeks to kill him off, one way or another. 25 pages

Garp and Geronamid (2005 novelette) - 4/5 - Salind snoops simulacrum, snubs safety: A reporter follows a murder victim reification, who later becomes an unwilling assassin for a non-Polity world's mafia queen. The ruthless police rear their ugly head in matters the visiting AI Geronamid considers vulgar. With the mafia's drug-crazed grip and vise-like clutch of fear over the people, a fair and democratic vote towards Polity integration looks unlikely, unless Salind can find a newsworthy story to broadcast back to the Polity. 45 pages

The Sea of Death (2001 short story) - 4/5 - Sub-zero subterranean sarcophagi sleep soundly: Millions of kilometers of tunnel lie below the surface of Orbus, each tunnel loaded end-to-end with frozen sarcophagi. The aliens within have been scanned and studied but only Duren the loosecannon was crazy enough to actually open one. The passing planetoid of Corlis is about to add some unexpected geothermal energy to the usually frigid Orbus. 18 pages

Alien Archaeology (2007 novella) - 5/5 - Rho's rare relic releases rampage: Rho's Atheter memory store is so valuable that pirate Jael steals is and offers to transfer its store into a gabbleduck, a creature which is thought to be a non-sentient de-evolution of the Atheter race. Havoc breaks loose as she attempts to sell the gabbleduck to the Prador, a situation which involves a reclusive rogue AI named Penny Royal, who inhabits the Prador/Polity borderland known as the Graveyard. Rho simply seeks revenge against Jael, but he becomes mixed up in Earth Central's attempt to hinder Jael's plans for the Prador. 76 pages

Acephalous Dreams (2005 novelette) - 4/5 - Murderous Daes dons Geronamid's node: Daes decapitates a man who once hurt him long ago, but he has no doubt that he'll be caught for his actions. The regional AI Geronamid's Golem offers Daes the chance to be given a cephalic implantation of a Csorian node. Should he survive, the charges will be droped. Once quarantined on a remote planet, Daes is quickly subsumed by the node and Geronamid's plans are soon revealed. 26 pages

Snow in the Desert (2002 novelette) - 3/5 - Arid assassins aim at albino: On a desert planet where water is scarce and highly valued, an albino man named Snow has a bounty placed on his testicles. Having fought off assassins before, the level of guile to retrieve his DNA has reached unexpectedly high levels. 41 pages

Choudapt (2008 novelette) - 2/5 - Mycelia medic manhandles malicious mold: Simoz carries a doctor mycelium inside himself. A virus keyed into the genetic augmentation of the population of Wrack has them hostile against outsiders like ECS Simoz. He and his mycelium, named Mike, must produce a retro-virus and find the perpetrators releasing the terror. 24 pages

Adaptogenic (1994 short story) - 4/5 - Antiquarian acquires autogenic at auction: Jason Chel bid for a hammer-whelk shell, a related early Golem series, and a box of miscellaneous items. The Golem is missing its long-term memory, something which fellow bidder Grable is eager to attain. When it's found inside the shell, Chel journeys to the Golem's last known planet of service to learn more of the story, only to be met by Grable, an uncooperative AI, and a planet on the cusp of a world-time. 30 pages

The Gabble (2006 novelette) - 3/5 - Spastic speech spurs corpse search: Jonas is eager to dissect a hooder in situ but gabbleduck researcher Shandelle has the only available ATV. The two decide to investigate a gabbleduck on the way to the forensic dissection. With dracomen, tricones, mud snakes, and heroynes littering the surface of Masasa, the 530km journey is as interesting as their discoveries. 48 pages

Monday, May 14, 2012

1986: The Forever Man (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Frustratingly tedious dialogue moves nowhere (1/5)

I've read time and time again that Dorsai is Dickson's major work and is essentially considered a classic. While I have yet to obtain a copy of Dorsai (1959), after reading two of Dickson's novels I'm in no hurry to pick up a copy even though it's a so-called "classic." More notable would be Dickson's collection entitled In the Bone (1987). He can write some great short work with clever unfolding and wrapping up. The same can't be said for the two novels I've read.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The ancient starship La Chasse Gallerie is found drifting perilously in space. Despite heavy damage from alien Laagi warships, incredibly the ship is still intact and the voice of its pilot, Raoul Penard, comes through loud and clear. But Penard died over one hundred years ago... On earth, frantic investigation reveals that Penard may be dead but his mind is very much alive.. merged with the ship itself. The staggering potential of this evolutionary breakthrough compels the scientists to embark on a technological journey of astonishing discovery..."

Jim Wander is an ace space fighter pilot who loves his ship, AndFriend. When a call from General Mollen comes, Jim is eager to return to flight and fight the Laagi aliens in the space border between the two civilizations. However, the word comes that a 100 year old derelict ship has been found within the Laagi sphere of influence, a border war which has spanned five generations. The ship rings of the voice of its pilot, and the mission is to return with the ship and pilot intact. Aboard with Jim is the psychologist Mary Gallagher.

After recovery of the vehicle, it's soon revealed that the pilot had died decades ago but still lived on as an insane non-corporal form; the pilot had miraculously transfered his mind into the structure of this ship! Because of Jim's proximity to this earth-shattering discovery he is detained in the same building as the laboratory which investigates the mind of the insane disembodied pilot and the ship he resides in. Now the science is in the hands of the military: "the living human essence could exist independently of the normal human biochemical machinery" (47) which "breaks loose from the rest under the strain of what, to the person involved, is an intolerable situation." (59)

Soon, Jim finds himself under such intolerable strain as he's kept away from his pride and joy: his fighter AndFriend. Mary and Mollen have schemed to place Jim's "essence" into his fighter for a secret mission based on information gathered from the rambling pilot of the stricken vessel he helped save. Mary, too, has left her body to ride shotgun on the trip around Laagi space. Together, they are aiming from the region of space closer to the galactic core.

But again, Jim plays the part of the pawn when Mary allows the ship to be captured by Laagi forces. The alien race, culture and physiology unknown to humans, is set to be under examination by the psychologist with methods learned from the "essence" displacement. What they discover on the alien planet is a mystery which serves for long-term study and extensive examination, all of which they must undertaken while being embodied in the captured ship.

This premise sounds excellent with alien cultural anthropology as the main focus of Jim and Mary's Laagi region exploration. Unable to leave the ship, they embed a sliver of the ship into the body of a janitor. This enables Jim to impart some of his essence in the commanding of the low-intelligence alien, whose species acts as servants to the larger Laagi. Jim has a hypnotic lock placed on his capabilities with the ship while Mary pours over the abundance of information being fed through the eyes of the little janitor alien.

In regards to the xeno-anthropology, the Laagi civilization in very interesting. The Laagi aliens are driven to work and only work. There's no sign of art or leisure time with all their waking time being dedicated to work. They even hunker down and takes naps while working. They have a butler species, nicknamed the Squonks, which have a similar sleep and work pattern. When either the Laagi or the Squonks die during their duties they are simply removed and placed with the other trash. The treatment of the Squonk that Jim and Mary employee can be seen as a sort of torture. Given that work satisfaction is what the alien enjoys, they torture by sending the little creature on a quest through the city to find a nonexistent key, thereby robbing the Squonk of any satisfaction from completing his task. The Squonk is simply used as a vessel to witness the customs of the Laagi race. This just adds a whole new level of dislike for Jim and Mary. Jim's frustration builds for months while they overwork the poor butler-cum-snoop. The alien's culture is interesting enough to warrant to novel a high rating... if it weren't for the perpetual back-and-forth dialogue.

The 375-page novel is simply too long to have tiresome ping-ponging dialogue through and through. There's also hypothesizing between Jim and Mary, arguments, moody outbursts, grand assumptions, and casual information diarrhea. If either of the two characters were written to be likable, then Dickson failed miserably because the duo are quarrelsome with Jim being the hotshot pilot know-it-all with always accurate assumptions and a encyclopedic knowledge base; contrastively is the ever questioning female who's submissive to demands, asking for forgiveness, and always on the heels of Jim's assumptions resulting in argument after argument. This ping-pong dialogue stretches for scores of pages even when they finally reach the space beyond the rear of the Laagi frontier. The dialogue becomes steeped in the basics of initial language contact becoming drawn out, tedious, tedious, tedious, tedious, and unmoving.

It felt like Dickson wrote his novel like a shot from the hip, typing words that streamed from his mind to never become edited. There are chunks of pages which are dedicated singlehandedly to interstellar navigation... which is all basically unfathomable. The navigation technique is referred to later in the book but I had very little foundation, even after 8 pages of dialogue about navigation, to understand the importance. It's one of the more shoulder-shrugging aspects of the book besides some awkwardly written passages which, again, read as if shot from hip: "[...] he thought of human dancing, real dancing, and he had to admit to himself that in essence, it was communication in a sense." (314) Some sentences beg to be reread because, as petty as they are, the message within was conveyed in a convoluted manner.

What once sounded as an interesting premise of essence displacement ultimately weighed down the possibilities of the plot. With Jim and Mary stranded within the confines of a metallic hull, only speculative dialogue can occur in tedious chapter after tedious chapter. There's a serious lack of "oomph" which propels the plot to a grand conclusion. Instead of that oomph, the reader is given a plodding plot that tiptoes and ping-pongs until the last page of the book, where a raised eyebrow or pained grimace meets the closing words, "[...] and they walked out together." (375) I will happily part ways with this book. Dorsai may eventually be purchased and read but I hesitate to dive in. I do, however, lustily eye another Dickson collection on my shelves: Mutants (1970).

1965: Mission to Universe (Dickson, Gordon R.)

Poor execution after a warmly ominous start (2/5)
From June 29, 2011

Having never read any Dickson before, I did a bit of research on him and found that he's best described as a romanticized sci-fi writer, which told me one thing: he sticks to sci-fi tradition. Being "romantic" is just about the only adjective given to the man, so my initial hopes were low. I know of his Dorsai series but it seems to be hard to find in these here parts. It's a must-buy for me but after reading Mission to Universe, I'm reluctant to pick up another Dickson novel of any sort: classic, relatively unknown, or short story collection.

Rear cover synopsis:

"General Benjamin Shore was heading for the stars under forged orders - and in defiance of the commands of the President. He was leaving Earth in an untested ship with a crew chosen by necessity and with nothing but faith to guide him. His only hope was to find habitable worlds in the unexplored reaches of space ahead. Thus began Man's first mission to the uncharted universe. Shore had no illusions. Before him lay danger, probable disappointment - even death. But nothing had prepared him for the nightmare he would have to face on the planet of the Gray-Furs... for the menace of the Golden People who had driven all other races from Galactic Center--or for what awaited him if he returned to the world he called home!"

The two chapters (of thirteen) of Mission to Universe are ripe with potential: Benjamin Shore quietly assembles his crew in the dead of the night, awaking their prone bodies to congregate in the shift-ship. With presidential orders in hand denying the launch of the ship to orbit, Benjamin alters the order and tells his crew to prepare to embark to earth orbit, to Andromeda and beyond. The mainly narrative text of the first two chapters has a creepy, ominous aura to it. It's a sinister invitation not traditional in any sense.

Thereafter, from chapters three to thirteen, we witness why Dickson has been described as romantic: the ship's air recycler needs repair so they land on a planet with tragic consequences, they land on another planet with tragic consequences... and yet again, and again. It's almost as if Dickson wrote the novel by stream-of-thought, himself thinking, "OK, now that I've written them into this situation, how will I write them OUT of it?" What follows is a ragtag attempt to snare the reader into the adventure and danger of the shift-ship's journey to Andromeda.

Nothing very clever ever surfaces from Mission to Universe. There are many dead ends in the details, like the stowaway cat which plays no part through the novel and only goes to characterize the female love interest as girly and to draw her closer to Benjamin (I had other grander ideas of why the cat was on the ship). When the ship discovers life on two planets, I could quickly draw conclusions as to the state of their civilizations. Dickson may have written Benjamin as a quick thinker, but he never saw me coming.

(And you can't put yourself into orbit around a planet without having any velocity. The shift-ship only shifts and has no means to physically propel itself. Dumb point, but still.)

All in all, it may have been written for the YA age bracket. When the rear cover synopsis reads "A riveting space adventure," that kind of language gives it away. BUT, like I said about the first two chapters, there is potential in Dickson and I've already bought a short story collection In the Bone and another lengthier novel entitled The Forever Man. I won't whitewash Dickson with criticism yet, but he already has negative marks in my book.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

1959: The World Swappers (Brunner, John)

Phantom dictator wields teleportation and benevolence (4/5)

One of Brunner's earlier novels aside from his Interstellar Empire series, The World Swappers captures Brunner's authorship in a state of budding creativity but still immature in regards to subtleness. This doesn't necessarily mean that his early novels aren't enjoyable (with the exception of The Wanton of Argus [1953]) but the don't have the special Brunner quality which is found in the late 60s and 70s with such classics as Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. With early Ace paperbacks like The World Swappers (1959), the story is condensed into a readable 153 pages and exhibits a hurried yet dense plot.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The galaxy was caught in the crushing vice of a struggle for power. The political titans of the planets of mankind were making their bids for supremacy. The contestants: Counce, a man of strange powers, authority in the spheres of the intellect; and Bassett, a man of money-power, financial and business wizard. As the association of human worlds drew near the teetering edge of internal revolutions, one of these men would be in a position to triumph. The only thing that neither side could foresee was that there were others hovering among the stars, looking for new worlds to conquer!"

Counce is a man of many mysterious resources. The inventor of the transfax three hundred years earlier, the technology is only available to him and his band of intellectual cohorts who are too secretive for any proper title. Able to leap parsecs, infiltrate FTL spaceships, and transport stellar plasma, the teleportation device is also the key to his longevity. If he or one of his cohorts were to be killed, a new yet different body is prepared for them with the data sent from their previous transmission. Counce's influence reaches farther than the earthly domain.

Earth has been cleared of "misfits and malcontents" and the banished persons were shipped off to the thirty-one habitable planets in the surrounding 200 parsecs of space. One planet of such named Ymir was the first to be settled but little did they realize that the planet was entering a glacial period. Stubborn and proud, the people of Ymir endure the three hundred years freeze with reluctant acceptance of aid. One Ymirian, Jaroslav Dubin, acted as ambassador to Earth and resided in the decadent city of Rio; now his earthly pleasures are known to all Ymirians and their ultra-conservative mentality abhor his being. Jaroslav also now acts as a Ymirian secret agent for Counce's transfax fealty.

Counce's group realizes that humans aren't accepting enough to integrate other planetary colonial cultures, so they understand that contact with the Others must be avoided. The alien race, outside of the human sphere of colonization, are discovered to have once visited the human planet Regis and are now headed to the planet Ymir. With the aid of the transfax and a menagerie of magnificent minds, the group intercepts the spacecraft in-flight and transfaxes it to the surface of Regis. Their plans for peaceful contact are interrupted by the violent rebuttal of the Others' weapons. The lone alien survivor, Friend, is fostered by Counce so that a mutual between species understanding can be settled.

Seeing that Ymir is unfit for human habitation yet ideal for an Others colony, Counce uses his age-wizened mind to manipulate Bassett's lust for control of all the colonies so that mankind can avoid contact with the Others and for both races to get what they want. Bassett is cautious of the manipulation but is unable to penetrate Counce's deeper plans for power and peace.

On the surface, it looks like the plot is about the classic case of the good guys duping the bad guys. However, while Counce is indeed a classic "good guy" with cool technology and the brains to match, the seeming nemesis Bassett is more like Counce's unknowing pawn, an easily malleable commodity to benefit Counce's agenda. Even the aliens aren't seen as "bad guys" through the eyes of Counce, but the hostile actions of the Others is seen as a miscommunication. And since the eighteen deaths experienced by Counce's clique were all recoverable due to their transfax data, no deaths were permanent except for the deaths of the aliens themselves. (Could they have been recovered too since they were teleported to the planet by the telefax?)

Counce sets lofty goals onto his organization's shoulders. He has set out to protect humankind from itself--to postpone their confrontation with aliens--because how could they get along with a race not even remotely similar to their own when they shun even the customs of other human planets. Counce acts on behalf of no Earth government or interplanetary government... the buck stops at Counce. He could be seen as a pretentious deductionist or a benevolent phantom dictator, but his treatment of the frozen and famished people of Ymir is a little shocking. Counce basically bullies the stubborn government through refusal of dire aid, where the society eventually give into their misplaced pride and hunger "when a half-eaten child's body was found on the street." (130) That's pretty grim for a 1959 novel. With the downfall of a small planetary society, it is hard to invest sympathy into Counce's self-professed benevolent actions.

The technology of the transfax is the major fulcrum to the plot. If you can believe (1) that one man invented the technology and withheld its existence from the public for three hundred years, (2) that each person who has come across the same mathematics for the transfax becomes subsumed into Counce's organization, and (3) that the transfax can perform amazing feats, then the fulcrum of the entire plot may be a bit more stomachable. It's not major flaw, but the lofty idealization of future technology is often the only fulcrum to earlier novels while serving up ample opportunity to gouge holes in the plot... too many "what-ifs" spring to mind.

For my nineteenth Brunner book, this was a joy to experience some of his earlier non-Interstellar Empire work. With ten more unread Brunner books on my shelves, ranging from 1965 (The Day of the Star Cities) to 1980 (Players At the Game of People), I continue to look forward to experience the wealth of science fiction Brunner penned for nearly four decades!

1980: The Infinitive of Go (Brunner, John)

Modes of Reality & The Ebon Tigress (4/5)
From September 22, 2011 

Brunner has remained one of my favorite authors (this book being fifth for the year and fourteenth for all time) over the years as, through his novels, he presents flexibility for subject matter and uniqueness over those in the same genre of science fiction. He's hit on colonizing planets (Bedlam Planet), future-dystopia of earth (The Sheep Look Up), seeding planets (A Maze of Stars) and a whole slew of other themes. In 1974, Brunner wrote about matter transmission as a mode of people transport in the very short novel Web of Everywhere. Brunner revisits this idea in The Infinitive of Go.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The first practical matter transmitter was a success, or so everyone thought. In spite of paranoid security restrictions. Justin Williams and Cinnamon Wright, co-inventors of the device, counted on it to revolutionize civilization and gain them an honoured place in history. But the first long-distance field test with a human being - a diplomatic courier carrying a vital message - somehow misfired when the courier killed himself on arrival at his destination. To prove his faith in his invention - and to escape charges of sabotage - Justin had himself 'posted' thousands of miles. He came through unchanged. It was the world that was somehow different..."

When things aren't going so smoothly back in the lab because of the courier's explosion, Justin transmits himself to prove that he isn't a saboteur. When he returns to the lab via matter transmission, he finds his car is messy, there's a new restaurant he's never heard of... and some love he's never had before. In addition to this twist and revelation, there's an extra twist when an orbital astronaut transmits himself from space to earth... only he isn't himself anymore. This is when he plot becomes thicker, more pseudo-scientific with jargon thrown around. Take a minute to try and understand the infinities on top of the infinities and you'll find yourself pleased with Brunner's work.

The direction of the plot isn't too difficult to discern (one of two plot directions popped into my head within the first five pages - the first guess was correct!). It's curious why Brunner went back to his 1960s-ish novel format rather than continuing with intriguing social fiction in The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar.

It's not a perfect novel. The 154-page book doesn't paint a worthwhile cast, as most stend to omit. The politicians are political, the military are militant, and the scientists are scientific. The addition of a female scientist is welcome... it's a bonus that she's an African-American scientist, but the way Brunner characterizes her borders on racist. Her name is Cinnamon but Brunner might as well had called her Sugar, Coco or even Chocolate. She's got an attitude, likes to mouth-off, ends sentences with "man" and "honey" and likes to wear tribal-print dresses. A few passages definitely had me raising an eyebrow. One final gripe: Brunner overuses the phrase "of course" through this novel. I'm a stickler for word repetition and Brunner has never failed in this category until now.

It's BRUNNER though, so all is forgiven. I've got eight more Brunner novels lining my shelves so it's only a matter of time before I pick another one up. This is the second 1980s Brunner novel I've read (the other being The Crucible of Time) and the quality just isn't the same as it was in the 1970s.

Friday, May 4, 2012

1982: Kinship of the White Bird 3 - A Tapestry of Time (Cowper, Richard)

Dark Age quest for redemption & Renaissance quest for truth (4/5)

A Tapestry of Time is the third and final book in the Kinship of the White Bird trilogy. The first book, The Road to Corlay opened with a prologue with a romantic overview of how the Kinship was born. The remainder of the novel presented the noble beginnings of the cult and how a telepathic time traveler influenced the lover of the famous piper. The second book, A Dream of Kinship, showcased the history of the cult through the eyes of the son born from the piper and his lover, an auspicious boy with a talent for the lute. Still in the year 3038 A.D., book three follows this boy after he leaves the archipelago of England for a European journey after denouncing his Kinsman ways.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Twenty years have passed since the martyrdom of the Boy-piper at York, twenty years in which his legacy, the movement of Kinship, has challenged the tyranny of the Church Militant in Britain's seven island kingdoms. Now his namesake, Tom, bearing the Boy's own pipes and perhaps himself imbued with the spirit of the White Bird, in wandering Europe in company with the girl, Witchet. But disaster overtakes them and Tom, in a fury of vengeance, breaks his vow of Kinship. A Terrible path lies before him, one that transcends his own world. As he travels it, Tom must come to understand the true nature of the wild White Bird, of The Bride of Time and her Child, and of the Song the Stat Born sang."

There are two parts of this book. The first 114 pages follows Tom and Witchet as they traverse Spain, France, and Italy by themselves and with troupes of traveling actors. Befriended by a family of actors, the duo ply their art of lute-playing and singing, which enchant the crowds and earn the troupe much income. When word comes of highway robbers, they hire security for their caravan, only to lose them in a storm and come unexpectedly upon the robbers, who masquerade as shepherds. Defenseless, the bandits attack the troupe and leave them without transportation. Deciding to head north, the duo detach from the troupe in order to reconnect with friends and family.

The second part of this book is a 142-page journal entry and post-script from the years 3798-3799 A.D., nearly eight hundred years after the founding of the religion of the Kinship. With Europe, and especially England, now flourishing in an industrial era, historical studies of the Kinship can be undertaken with academic intensity. Professor Robert James Cartwright and his history studies colleague Margaret Coley attend mass on New Years eve. Afterwards, the two witness a mystery which they hesitate to calla a "miracle." Studiously, the two separately retell the event on paper and compare notes. They concur that the child that Margaret caught did, indeed, disappear from her very hands. Only when Cartwright begins to see an apparition of a bearded man does he attach significance to the chance miracle. The soon-to-be-betrothed couple seek out an ancient manuscript which they hope will shed light on some historical facts regarding the characters in the White Bird tales.

The first part following Tom and Witch was unlike anything in the first two books, this half cast a dark shadow on the plot with scenes of violence and pestilence; it very much had a Dark Ages feel to it. This contrasts the "second Renaissance" in the last half, where universities have sprung up, where steamships navigate the English isles and telephone service has made a comeback. This is a time when the Catholic church is known, but the nearly universal Kinsmen religion has become more organized, straying from its humble birth as a workingman's personal ethic.

The two halves (3038 and 3799 A.D.) have their respective quests: Tom has a quest to save the soul of his dead lover while attempting to redeem or ignore the souls of two recently departed wrong-doers. The quest takes place in a parallel reality which Tom is sure exists purely within himself. This fantastical realm is occupied by spirits but maintains the same geography wherever Tom is. The second quest is the last half is an academic pursuit of delving into ancient papers while correlating facts, matching dates, interviewing locals, and tracking down a relic. The spiritual fantasy quest is an odd countenance to the European trek and strays from the prior books' humble beginnings. The quest for the truth and relic, however, is exciting from its far-future perspective during the second Renaissance.

You've got to give credit to Richard Cowper for one thing, besides his romantic writing and intelligent plot structure, and that is he is aware of his limitations, as he writes in the author's notes:

"[...] in any sequence of novels a point is arrived at when the author becames [sic] painfully aware that there is a limit to the amount of background information which he can hope to incorporate in each successive book without grievously restricting the flow of his narrative." (9)

The three books of the White Bird of Kinship trilogy are all inclusive and Cowper was wise not to prolong the series, selling out to produce a never ending stream of loosely linked novels in the same universe. You can start with book one knowing that at the end of book three, there is a satisfying conclusion which leaves the reader with a sense of piqued curiosity and awe.

Beyond the Kinship trilogy, look into his humor with Profundis. This is one author I'm eager to research more and more into until I exhaust his entire bibliography... next I have Clone and Out There Where the Big Ships Go.