Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, September 28, 2012

1991: Summer of Night (Simmons, Dan)

Extrinsic threat eclipses intrinsic fear (3/5)

I'm not a horror aficionado but I do dabble in the genre occasionally having read other novels, outside of Dan Simmons, such as Stephen King's The Shining (1977), Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), Clive Barker's Damnation Game (1985), and Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory (1984). Of the four, American Psycho and The Wasp Factory are my favorite because of their very real human element and the focus of human pain set against malevolent human thought... the keyword word here is, again, "HUMAN." I've said it before and, for the audience at hand, I'll say it again: Humans are scary. Supernaturalism is not.

I read Dan Simmons's The Terror (2007) two years ago and immersed myself in the human misery of the stranded crew. The supernatural element didn't fray the crew's narrative, but it DID add a predatory thread of lurking, looming death aside from the silent yet corrosive decay of botulism. The same essence Simmons instilled in Terror doesn't manifest itself nearly as well in this earlier work, Summer of Night.

Rear cover synopsis:
"It's the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. But amid the sun-drenched cornfields and the sly flirtations of the local young girls, that loyalty will be pitilessly tested. From the silent depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, and invisible evil is emerging. And now Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a fraternal war of blood--against an arcane abomination who stalks the hours after dark..."


I can relate to much of the material written in Summer of Night, not because I'm the same age as the reminiscing author but because I'm also from a small Illinoisan town near Peoria (about 50 miles away as the crow flies): the towering corn fields act as fortified city walls, each derelict building were imbued with adolescent folklore, and the hermetic citizens were given fictional histories. The atmosphere of small-town Illinois was perfect; Simmons expertly minded his P's and Q's of nostalgia, adolescence, and summer break:
Few events in a human being's life--at least a male human being's life--are as free, as exuberant, as infinitely expansive and filled with potential as the first day of summer when one is an eleven-year-old boy (19-20).
Like stated in the introductory paragraph, the supernatural theme of Summer of Night didn't have me sitting on the edge of my seat. The brainy character Duane researched the origin of the horrors taking place in Elm Haven, but because of an mortal misfortune on his part, the research nearly comes to a dead end and the true historical horrors of the Stele of Revealing (later becoming the the school's bell) aren't probed. Exactly why this horror is being inflicted upon Elm Haven is flaky and the manifestations of the bell's malevolence is silly at times.

Beyond the obvious horror of the bell's manifestations through Van Syke and the menacing burrowers, the real threat should have been the intrinsic fear of the boys' battle against the bell's fiendish agenda of their destruction. The extrinsic fear of the bodily ghouls and the once irrational fear of the mysterious Rendering Truck downplay the more human-oriented intrinsic fear of implementing action/inaction or expressing nominal/substantive concerns.

The supposedly genuine fear of the band of boys didn't materialize. Their reactions to the threats were adult-like: rational, detailed, and organized. The spontaneity of adolescent fight-or-flight was staunched by the their collective evolution to cold assessors of specific threats with tactile precision. Where once their imaginations of fantasy and flare dominated their lives, now the supernatural has materialized before them and their imagination is killed by its threat, spurring them into calculated strategists. This childhood-adulthood metamorphosis of rationality is too abrupt, which is surprising given the book's bloated 600-page length.


Dan Simmons injected a glorious amount of nostalgia in Summer of Night but the extrinsic supernatural threat overshadowed the intrinsic fear of the boys' stymied summer freedom amid the pervasive threats of physical and ethereal threat while fortifying themselves through camaraderie... lots of words to express the same the same thought: Humans are scary. Supernaturalism is not.

2007: The Terror (Simmons, Dan)

Emotionally tolling; sagacious humanity (5/5)
From September 21, 2010

Outside of my preferred genre of science fiction, I occasionally delve into the odder fares of fiction (China Mieville, Hakuri Murakami, Iain Banks, and some classics). After reading Simmons' Hyperion saga, I was entrenched in his style, prose and humanity. Nevertheless, he doesn't disappoint in these regards. Even after 955 pages, I was still entranced.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The men aboard the HMS Terror--part of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition--are entering a second summer in the Arctic Circle without a thaw, stranded in a nightmarish landscape of ice and desolation. Endlessly cold, the struggle to survive with poisonous rations and a dwindling coal supply. But their real enemy is even more terrifying. There is something out there in the frigid darkness: an unseen predator stalking their ship, a monstrous terror clawing to get in."


Simmons' introduces a hearty number of characters with very human qualities; no one is gifted with any extraordinary skills but all are based in reality. There are those flaws (Crozier's social naivety and his fondness of the grog), those with charity (Goodsir's fair journal keeping and patient bedside manner), those with wickedness (Hickey's cynical hierarchy attitude and evasiveness) and those with innocence (Lady Silent's salubrious behavior and mysterious background). Multiply this cast by three and you have yourself one of the most diverse and human casts even laid upon the pages of a novel.

Placing this cast in the realm of a godforsaken landscape like the northern arctic produces an emotionally tolling plot which brings the reader's heart close to that of the collective soul of the ship. It was emotionally difficult to read the harrowing tale of men trapped on ice facing a likely future of starvation and hypothermia. With the foreknowledge of fate the Franklin Expedition, I honestly had a hard time trying to relate to the sailor's positive attitude while stranded on-board the ships even after two years. Their fate must have more sealed then they realized as the arctic winters are rarely as forgiving as the arctic summers. Once the men begin the arduous trek (sometimes only one mile per day) to the river mouth, it's obvious that the men are marching to their tragic death from botulism, murder, scurvy and hypothermia. Even though Crozier (here his naivety becomes clear) has a vision of reaching Great Slave Lake, the odds are staked very much against him.

The mystery revolving around the silent Inuit girl (Lady Silent) and the monster stalking the sailors (Tuunbaq) is fairly obvious and in the end not so mysterious. The ending itself attempts to provide a folklore path for the existence but ultimately feels like a whole new story, disassociate from the bulk of the novel. The uniqueness of the fulfilling and interesting conclusion is the inclusion of the old sea captains naivety.

While reading, I felt the novel deserved a strong four stars as I was able to read about 100+ pages per day and fell enveloped in the plot. But when I finished and started to review the novel, only then did I realize just how human Simmons made the part-fictitious cast and their three-year arctic saga. When I told others of the book I was reading, I found it hard to verbalize just how difficult it is to convey the plight the men dealt with and how the outcome is ultimately already written. This sheer difficulty in emotional conveyance is unique and merits Simmons's The Terror worthy of the full five stars.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

1989: Cyteen- The Betrayal (Cherryh, C.J.)

The prominence of punctuation, dialogue and presumptuous greatness (1/5)

I was leery of picking up Cyteen for two reasons: (1) The author was unknown to me and diving into the 680-page book of unknown prose was daunting; (2) The book is often heralded at one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time. The latter reason is usually a signifier for my immediate dislike of any “popular” science fiction, for example: Herbert’s Dune, Asimov’s Foundation, Niven’s Ringworld, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Tepper’s Grass, and Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep. I’d like to welcome Cyteen to that elite group of books which, for some reason beyond my internal notions, have been popular with sci-fi fans for decades. Could it be: (1) the sense of wonder, (2) the majestic prose, (3) the revelatory scientific concepts, or (4) the magnificent world-building? Nay, Cyteen strikes nil in all four categories. Cyteen was once published as three separate novels, but I could only get past the first: The Rebirth. My stomach revolts at the thought of reading the remaining two books.

Rear cover synopsis for full-length Cyteen novel:
“Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, this is bestseller C.J. Cherryh’s masterpiece: a multilayered epic of interstellar cabals and dark human passions; genius, blackmail, and sacrifice; murder, resurrection, and the betrayal of innocence—and loyalty stronger that death…

The classic novel of C.J. Cherryh’s Merchanter Universe: a profound exploration of genetics, environment, nurture, society—and the secrets of human intelligence.

The saga of two young friends trapped in an endless nightmare of suspicion and surveillance, or cyber-programmed servants and a ruling class with century-long loves—and the enigmatic woman who dominates them all…”


There’s a fair bit backslapping going on with that synopsis with words like “winner,” “epic,” “classic,” "profound," and “saga” among them. If a book NEEDS these kinds of words for its synopsis, my alarm bells begin to ring. The loftier or more poignant the language seems, the lesser the content is able to actually deliver… IMHO. I read through Cyteen enough to come to the end of the unmarked yet definite conclusion to the once published Cyteen: The Betrayal (Book One) and decided enough was enough. Whatever marked its presumptuous “greatness” was so absolutely absent from the pages that the remaining two books (The Rebirth and The Vindication) held no interest for me. Tedious, thorough, and tiresome; I would have rather have fingered through my Gregg’s Reference Manual than attempt to slog through the convoluted introduction to Cyteen.

Let’s revisit the four threads above which are commonly part of any great science fiction novel and apply these generalities to see what exactly Cyteen when wrong:

(1) The Sense of Wonder: Considering that the novel starts off with the politicking and jockeying for position, the reader is left to revel in the loathsome bureaucracy. Cherryh places importance on names and titles, totally ignoring the reader’s desire to become immersed in the tactile atmosphere or tangible aura of the setting. The background history is scant and the past’s impact on the present is dull. The reader is lulled into an uninspired state and left out to dry. (You could get all literary on me and say her style is "very tight limited third person"--Five words which describe "boring" quite well.)

(2) The Majestic Prose: Much like the synopsis above, the pages are filled with tedious punctuation: simply too many commas, semi-colons, and dashes. It almost reads like the tedious prose from two centuries back. Many sentences begin with “and” or “but” with the conversation being hacked to bits with this trialling punctuation and sentence fragments. The dialogue is so heavy that the author tends to, once again, forget about the reader trying to become immersed in the reader—no sense of atmosphere, no silence amid the sentences, nothing to ground the characters to their environment. Words, words, and more words which convey little more than politicking and jockeying.

(3) The Revelatory Scientific Concepts: Eugenics is nothing new (early 20th century thought) and cloning is nothing out of the sci-fi ordinary (middle 20th century thought). The theme of selecting favorable genetic traits for job assignment had been done before. Producing a more efficient soldier or a more intelligent scientist from the manipulation of mind control tapes isn’t a very new idea either (author James White had doing that since the 1960’s). Artificial wombs, orbital labs, genetic seed ships—all have been penned before. I couldn’t pin down anything really unique besides the combination of factors.

(4) The Magnificent World-building: Like the “Sense of Wonder” above, much of the atmosphere and aura in Cyteen is missing. There’s very little “world” to build upon when the basic construction of the novel is founded on lengthy dialogue and jockeying for political gain. The same can be said for its “Character-building,” which much science fiction ignores. No one character has a solid background, no one is worthy of empathy, and no one really jumps at to the reader as someone who is a go-getter protagonist. Surely there’s a plain divide between the rather generically labeled “good” and “bad,” but neither side warrants either label.


The agony of plodding through the abundant honed-blades of dialogue, treading lightly upon the jagged remains of a scantily dressed background, and tip-toeing through the abandoned walls of old scientific enquiry was reason enough not to push myself into the second part of the Cyteen trilogy: The Rebirth. Whatever premise, plot, promise, or pugnacious pursuit Cyteen held between its front and rear covers will forever remain unfathomable to me because of its lack of reader engagement: wonder, prose, concept, and worlds—the synopsis promises everything yet delivers nothing but tiresome words penetrated with tedious punctuation. Again, Gregg’s Reference Manual is more engaging than this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

1984: Star Healer (White, James)

Quantity and quality of ideas over cohesiveness (3/5)

I’m no stranger to the works of James White. Star Healer is the thirteenth White book that I’ve picked up and the sixth of the Sector General series, a series of which I have been reading in a very random order (books #2, #3, #5, #10, and #11 having already been read). This sixth installment to the series reflects White’s knack for building exotic species of aliens and his attention to detail in regards to the bureaucracy of the Sector Twelve General Hospital station. Of the six books that I’ve read in the series, this ranks in the middle partly because of his inventive and detail... but it’s inventive and detailed to a fault, too meticulous for a light read.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Sector Twelve General Hospital had a staff of thousands divided among the sixty or so intelligent species. Every day it treated alien illnesses of baffling complexity.

Of all the hospital’s very capable staff, Senior Physician Conway, the human doctor in charge of the Ambulance Ship Rhabwar, was thought by many to be the most promising.

So when he was replaced—without notice—by the birdlike alien Prilicla, Dr. Conway was surprised, to say the least. But that was noting compared to his shock when we was offered a promotion to a challenging new position. It was his for the taking. If he had the nerve…”


DBDG Human/Senior Physician Conway is escorting a group of advanced training candidates around the Station when he seems to miscount the number of each of the alien species present. He quickly assumes the presence of a TOBS alien, one Doctor Danalta, an amoebic xenomorph with limited empathic abilities which can adapt its physiology to match in likeness any reasonably-sized alien.

During a lunch with the students and the TOBS Doctor Danalta, Conway is approached by the GLNO Cinrusskin empath named Prilicla who informs him of a recent promotion which she can’t go into detail about. The curious Conway visits Chief Psychologist Major O’Mara. The Major informs Conway that his position as medical charge of the ambulance ship Rhabwar has been granted to Prilicla. Considering Conway to be in a rut, the Major suggests Conway take “a period of mental reappraisal” (25) on the recently discovered planet of Goglesk, after which he may be considered for the envious position of Diagnostician.

On the planet of Goglesk, the physiologically classified “warm-blooded oxygen-breathers” (37) of FOKT are fascinating yet stubborn when allowing examination of their individuality. The Gogleskan taboo of physical touching or even physical proximity defies the efforts of researchers to more closely understand the natives’ culture or physical composition. The local Healer Khone discusses their culture with Conway, but the conversation is cut short when a collapsed building urges their medical attention. One victim is pinned beneath the rubble and can only be saved when Conway shrugs off the taboo and drags the alien free from the pinning. The same being emits a piercing shriek where upon all the Gogleskans coalesce to form an impenetrable mound of venomous spikes.

The empathic abilities of the Gogleskans become apparent when Conway allows himself to be examined by Healer Khone. An unfortunate coincidence frightens the alien into its natural defensive mode and releases its venomous lances and communicative tendrils, which lie upon Conway’s forehead. The insight into the alien’s mode of communication allows Conway to be imbued with the entirety of the Gogleskan history and transfer’s Conway’s memories into Healer Khone. Nearly dead, Conway is saved by his old ambulance ship and transferred to Sector General for observation.

Feeling fit, Conway assumes the role of acting Diagnostician and subsumes the Educator Tapes for the Hudlar, Melf, and Kelgian species. Given a heavy patient-load, Conway is in charge of a recent disaster where massive Hudlar workers have been exposed to vacuum and crushed when their mining orbital explosively decompressed. His oversight soon gives way to his participation in the delicate operation and offers him insight into the problem of geriatric Hudlar deaths.

At the same time, a Protector is brought aboard the station. The species is extremely violent and cannot stop the perpetual aggression lest it dies. The non-sentient adult harbors in its womb a sentient empathic child who, when birthed, also becomes a raging perpetual animal. It’s Conway’s task to ensure the safe birth of the Unborn child so that the species can one day start from a noble sentient beginning.


The 217 pages of the novel are distinctly divided into four parts though the chapter numbering doesn’t reflect this: Conway’s introduction to the xenomorphic Danalta, Conway’s time spent on the planet Goglesk, Conway’s involvement with the Hudlar decompression victims, and Conway’s assistance with the Protector/Unborn dilemma. It certainly feels like a stitch-up novel because of all the separate threads White has tried to pull together into once cohesive plot. White doesn’t clearly establish the relevance of Danalta because the alien only crops up in the following plot once or twice, each time only peripherally, not involving its talent of amoebic morphing not its ability of empathy.

The limited empathic ability which Healer Khone accidentally bestows upon Conway is beneficial to Conway because of its disposition for physical isolation, which Conway implements which confounded by the barrage of opinion and reaction from the Educator Tapes. This is a clever device in the plot, but then the Gogleskan is largely forgotten. Half of the novel is devoted to the detailed operations (but logistically and medically) of the Hudlar and Protector/Unborn.

Each section in itself is interesting and could easily spur a full-length novel on its own, but the mishmash of the four threads into one loose glop of a plot is sloppy; there’s no harmony, no synergy, no cadence. But White almost makes up for this blunder with two eccentric flares, common of White’s other Sector General novels: (1) cheeky love scenes between Conway and Murchison and (2) detailed bureaucratic procedures.

The cheeky love scenes typically involve puns referring to their readiness for arousal or coy suggestions inferring their physical proximity. For such a clean-worded novel, the sexual suggestiveness always raises an eyebrow. When Conway subsumes the Educator Tapes, even the alien emotions come through their thoughts, sometimes being aroused by the presence of a particularly alluring six-legged Hudlar nurse. It’s cheeky and playful, a welcome addition to a usually dry and innocent plot. Then there’s the detailed bureaucratic procedures which, by the simple wording of it, seems it would bore anyone to bits but it’s actually very interesting to see the amount of thought and detail White had given the inner-workings of the massive hospital: how patients are processed, how triage is organized, how the cafeteria seating is situated, and how passage can be done through non-terrestrial levels. If you’ve read any Sector General novels before, none of this will be unfamiliar to you but revisiting White’s vision is always refreshing when taken in small doses.


To reiterate, there’s too much paint on this canvas, paint enough for three or four canvases rather than the concentration here in Star Healer. Ideas are good things, but not when the quantity and quality of the ideas clash with the relevance of the same ideas. Star Healer was poorly mapped out but may (just may) be more contextual between book #4 (Ambulance Ship [1979]) and book #7 (Code Blue—Emergency [1987]) where book #5 is the self-titled Sector General collection composed of four non-sequential stories. I’ll keep my eye out for the remaining seven books and hope to one day read them sequentially and detail the plot flow and species of the entire series.

1966: The Watch Below (White, James)

Reflective plots, parallel plights (4/5)
From November 16, 2009

James White famously penned the xeno-medical Sector General series but is lesser known for his... well, his lesser works which pretty much includes all of his non-Sector General novels. Of the ten non-series books, The Watch Below remains White's most memorable novel by leaps and bounds. While The Dream Millennium (1974) may have been an altogether better novel, The Watch Below remains deeply seated in my mind regardless of its occasional flaw.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Somehow they had to find a way... Doc Radford, the Exec, Wallis, and the First Officer Dickson, together with two badly injured and hysterical nurses. They were stuck. In the pitch dark, bleak cold of a hull equipped with oxygen tanks and stored food. And nothing else. Under several fathoms of water. Somehow they had to find a way to stay sane long enough to make a new home. And billions of miles out in space there were aliens- water breathers whose own world was gone forever in gusts of titanic heat. They too had to find a way- a way to survive for generations, long enough to find a new home... Aliens and human alike had the same problem. This is how they met."


Five humans are struck by torpedoes in 1938 and their ship is partially submerged. They must eke out a living with very limited resources including generators, oxygen tanks, beans, and canned food. Even surviving for one year on these materials would have been beyond belief but White pens the story through numerous generations, which falls into the realm of "oh come on!" By grudgingly putting believability aside, the story can read pretty well. In parallel to multi-generational submarine universe is the more believable alien exodus. These hydro-origin beings are on a course to a star many years away so they must put themselves into a cryo-sleep to wait out the trip. One flaw: it doesn't seem to work right in space and successive periods of sleep render the awoken less and less intelligent. Solution: an impromptu generation ship to guide the fleet to the star.

Reading the paralleling stories is gripping, something which cannot be said for White's Lifeboat (1972) novel which features human passengers fleeing from a destroyed space liner. Putting believability aside and reading about the similar plights between the alien planet-escaping exodus and the human struggle to survive though dim in prospect.

It was all a great read until, as the synopsis suggest, "This is how they met." It was pretty much downhill in the last 15% of the book when earth's military becomes involved and distracts from the continuity of the parallel generational stories. The concept of the analogous stories is the key feature (again, putting aside the unbelievability feeling). White is also tongue-in-cheek about the characters attitude towards the possibility of having to stay in the sunken ship for generations and the pair-bonding they will have to do (a common trait found in his Sector General novels). Unlike many authors of the same era, White skirts the issue with conversation-studded "umms" and "ers" and "wells" in place of actually describing the physical acts, keeping the story innocent enough for juvenile readers.


Chilling at times, heartaching at other times, yet altogether a harrowing tale of hopeless existence in the underwater murky depths versus the alien hopelessness of reaching their destination intact, physically and mentally. It's a shame the last 15% of the book didn't bring the two parallel plots closer together. Regardless of the poor conclusion, The Watch Below is one of James White's best novels!

Friday, September 14, 2012

1977: Midnight at the Well of Souls (Chalker, Jack L.)

Straddles and nearly overcomes the cusp of SF and fantasy (3/5)

Jack L. Chalker has written nearly as many series (11) as he has stand-alone novels (12). A Jungle of Stars (Nov 1976) was his freshman novel but was quickly followed by his sophomore novel and most well known work, Midnight at the Well of Souls (Jul 1977). More than a year later, Chalker would write the sequel, Exiles at the Well of Souls (Sep 1978) along with another in 1978, two more in 1980, and two much later novels in 1999 and 2000.

I first read Chalker in 2008 with his Rings of the Master quadrilogy (1986-1988). Basically, Midnight at the Well of Souls follows the same formula as the Rings of the Master series—group of characters find themselves on a quest for an artifact and undergo physical transformations along the way. It’s a generic summary but it fits both—this book and the latter series—to a “T.”

Rear cover synopsis:
“Who was Nathan Brazil… and what was he doing on the Well World?

Entered by a thousand unsuspected gateway—built by a race lost in the clouds of time—the planet its dwellers called the Well World turned being of every kind into something else. There spacefarer Nathan Brazil found himself companioned by a batman, an amorous female centaur and a mermaid—all once as human as he.

Yet Nathan Brazil’s metamorphosis was more terrifying than any of those… and his memory was coming back, bringing with it the secret of the Well World.

For at the heart of the bizarre planet lay the goal of every being that had ever lived—and Nathan Brazil and his comrades were… lucky?... enough to find it!”


The planet of Dalgonia was otherwise barren and desolate, if it weren’t for the enigmatic ruins of the alien race—the Markovians—dead for a million years without a trace of artifact beside their crust-thick planet-wide computer of unknown capacity. The hexagonal mystery of the city’s layout is pondered upon by researcher Skander, but its his mathematician Varnett who discovers the breakthrough in understanding the computer’s nature. Skander’s greed for power drives him to murder the other crew and chase after Varnett, who both soon find themselves at the foot of a giant portal to another dimension.

Nathan Brazil and his freighter passengers are on a long haul trip when an emergency beacon beckons them to the planet of Dalgonia. The diverse passengers, ranging from the cloned Confederacy diplomatic envoy to the forced-addict farmer, descend to the planet to investigate the murder of the scientific crew. Their search takes them to the same area as the hidden portal where they are also transferred to same dimension.

Received by a 6-armed muscular snake isn’t the warmest greeting, but when that same creature knows Nathan by name, the lot of them settle down to absorb the confounding truth of where they have found themselves—the Zone is a reception level for people (aliens or humans) who stumble upon the Markovians’ hidden portals. The reception level gives access to the greater mystery—a planet plated with 1,560 hexagons, where each hexagonal tract of land is dedicated to a different species of alien. Once through the access portal, each of them will be transformed into a phenotype which corresponds to their respective attitudes and behaviors.

The four passengers are transformed into a mermaid researcher, a centaur wallflower, a photosynthetic creature who also researches, and an insectile servant while Nathan, himself, remains human, whose species had recently undergone extinction in their hexagonal habitat. Nathan seeks out the other passengers and slowly discovers that he knows more about the odd planet than he first thought—something is familiar, something which may explain his immortality.

One collection of passengers, now planet-fallen and physically diverse, is rounded up my Nathan and aim to approach the equator which is host to a towering divide between the hemispheres and may be part of the mystery involved in the ubiquitous casual mention of Well of Souls across every language. Another entourage is gathered by the menacing insectile servant, whose goal is to also reach the equator for the purpose of power. Each pilgrimage is composed of diverse phenotypes and their respective trek to the equator takes them through terrain which is equally as diverse as their physical composition. Nathan, having been given human body, thought himself lucky… until he was transformed into an antelope, a circumstance which proved have its benefits and its drawbacks.


The start of the novel was exciting with a strong start in the fiction universe portrayed by Chalker. Of minor interest was the human universe of Confederate genetic engineering, its complacent members of society, and the erroneous supposition that even the leaders are aligned to their genetic vocational disposition. The brief coverage of the archeological excavation of the alien culture was pivotal in introducing the reader to the mysteries which lie deeper inside Midnight at the Well of Souls, but soon the focus is taken off the aliens and spotted onto the diversity within the portal.

Even the transition to the exotic hexagonal-plated planet was momentous, but eventually the randomness of metamorphoses and diversity become more about quantity than quality. Too many ideas can be a bad thing, especially when the science fiction element begins to accrue a Tolkien fantasy element with centaurs, Faeries, magic spells, and instant transformations. Chalker does a weak job of convincing the reader of the science basis behind such magic, but then again Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” comes to mind. This is hard to digest when the border region between fantasy and science fiction is so slim, yet it’s completely up to the author to bridge the gap between technology and magic. Unfortunately, it feels like Chalker’s love of fantasy got the best of him.

Chalker tries to build a romance story out of Nathan’s natural superiority and Wu Julee’s forced inferiority. I understand Julee’s desire to be drawn to the man of power, but Nathan’s sympathetic attachment to Julee adopts more perversity than it does love. If Julee is such a victim of lust and power, why would Nathan want to project the same attributes of lust and power on his idea of a victim-cum-lover? The situation becomes increasing odd when the Julee’s centaur manifestation coincides with Nathan’s ascent to his antelope state… their mutual quadapedal bodily configuration quickly invites another rather convenient state of arousal—an altogether rather bizarre sex scene.

As stated above, the Chalker’s inclusion of Faeries and magic is a very quick turn off for someone who dislikes Tolkien fantasy, like myself. Right then, the book hovered around the 2.5-star mark as I waited for a decent attempt at explaining the lame inclusion. Coming to the conclusion, enough evidence was given to partly convince me of the technological prowess of the hexagonal-plated planet but I thought that simply excluding the fantasy-like elements would have proved to be a stronger mention.

The ultimate plot conclusion is too grand, too exploitive to feel satisfactory, almost as if the single sweep of the conclusions finality can provide all the answers to life, the universe, and everything. As for the personal conclusions for each character, the wishes granted seem fitting yet reflect some sexism on Chalker’s part. Where the women were once forcibly docile, their “magic” freedom comes at the cost of shrugging off their former burdens for the convenience of their newly found metamorphosis… it’s cheap to see their docility change simply because their bodily form had changed.


So, Midnight at the Well of Souls was rather well done but failed to really entice me to read any of the sequels. I mean, this novel was pretty well nip and tuck at the conclusion that I’d hate to see any of it complicated or deteriorated or buffed to a shine with any sequel. I don’t think the Well of Souls series was actually meant to be a series like the obvious Rings of the Master initiation in the first book, Lords of the Middle Dark (1986). Just taking a look at the covers of the proceeding novels in the series is enough to turn me off to them. I may be turned off of Chalker for a while unless something honestly strikes me as something non-formulaic to the characters-on-a-quest paint-by-numbers plot.

1958: The Languages of Pao (Vance, Jack)

Language bestows logic; with logic comes ethos (4/5)
From February 21, 2011

The art of language is often idiosyncratically pursued when one person finds themselves driven towards learning the mindset of a foreign logic, the lexicon of a distant land or the mode of thought of a "backwards" culture. Writing a science fiction novel revolving around the art of language seems like a recipe for disaster, where science and art meet, collide and fragmentize into a heap of rubble. Amazingly, Jack Vance pens a wondrous work where the two meet harmoniously. This isn't too far off beat from Vance's novelette "Dodkin's Job" (1959) where the resulting jarring synthesis of human relations, administration, and bureaucracy is as suitable as it is entertaining.

First page synopsis:
"On the remote, bleak planet of Breakness, far from his own people, Beran, heir to the Panarch's throne on Pao, was brainwashed.

Palafox, omnipotent Dominie of Breakness Institute, was the half-mad egoist responsible for the kidnapping and implantation of Breakness's totally alien thought-patterns into the mind of Beran.

Palafox planned far ahead. Beran's future was to be shaped to serve the Dominie's ends: total universal conquest.

But Beran, with the vestiges of Paonese, had his own ideas."

Against my hope for a better SF novel, The Languages of Pao starts off with an aristocratic and loquacious bang: the dignified king is disheartened by the purportedly unscrupulous transactions of the merchants, whom have been dealing bilaterally with the militaristic-prone neighbor which the king himself finds disconcerting. Admittedly, I like the wordiness of the noble speaking and I found myself quite enjoying the position of the ruthless dictator and, later, the benevolent overseer. Vance is really keyed into the reader who wants to see an easy overlord, rather than merely glorifying a king and bestowing upon him great, unparalleled powers or unchallenged rule (a lá Southeastern Asian monarchy or numerous science fictional kings of lore).

Being a bilingual person (nearly fluent in spoken and written Thai), I found the task of writing about an alien tongue to be most precarious. However, Vance found a way to keep it interesting through the mode of good-hearted child heir-to-the-throne versus conniving wizard of a, literally, overcast planet. Cheesy as it may be, assuredly, it works. It is epic to follow the progression of the awkward relationship of to-be-king Beran and wizard-extraordinaire Palafox from didactic simplicity to heroic brotherhood to enemy at the gates. With age comes reason, but with too much age comes senility.

Not only has the story a gripping hold, but the intricate life lessons of a learned man are brought upon the pages via insightful dialogue:
Page 96 offers an intuitive view into education saying, "Education is not achieved through the heart - it is a systemization of the mental processes [...] But I am something other than a mental process. I'm a man. I must reckon with the whole of myself."

Page 114 offers a delectable tidbit about trust: "A commitment is good only so long as it is advantageous [...] This is not always true. A person who fails one commitment is not often entrusted with a second [...] Trust? What is that? The interdependence of the hive; a mutual parasitism of the weak and incomplete."

This is brilliant stuff to some from a seemingly pulp novel full of everything but pulp. This novel deserves some serious respect. Poul Anderson dabbles in the realms of language in his SF novels (e.g. Brain Wave [1954], Planet of No Return [1956]) but fails to put it in the forefront like Vance has nobly done so here. However, the one area Vance fails in is climatic build-up. The climax is hasty, looked over. Hence, the ultimate conclusion is unsatisfactory. If only an additional twenty pages were added to The Language of Pao, the unfolding of the climax and conclusion would have been so much better... five-star better. If there's a better SF novel about languages and translations, I haven't found it yet.

Friday, September 7, 2012

1979: Hitchhiker's 1: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Adams, Douglas)

Book 1: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (4/5)

Earthman Arthur Dent and his spaz alien friend “from somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse” (12) Ford Prefect are each chugging three pints of bitter in an English pub prior to Earth’s destruction. Able to hitchhike aboard passing interstellar crafts, Ford, a writer for “the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor (6)—The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—saves his friend Arthur from its destruction and into the clutches of a Vogon Constructor Fleet, or rather, into the clutches of the insidiously inane personalities of the Vogon aliens. Whether a gift or a curse, Arthur is soon able to understand Vogon speech (and particularly awful poetry, including the wrenched poem beginning with “O freddled gruntbuggly…” [60]) due to “probably the oddest thing in the Universe” (55)—the Babel Fish. Considering the Vogon’s ill-temperament towards hitchhikers, the unlikely duo are soon jettisoned into the expansive vacuum of space, which “…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is” (70).

With the probability of 2276,709 to 1 against being rescued by a passing craft, the two are normalized within the confines of the stolen starship, The Heart of Gold, which had been stolen by the Zaphod Beeblebox, the President of the Galaxy. The ship with the Infinite Improbability Drive is crewed by the widely eccentric president, his Section ZZ 9 Plural Z Alpha-native tag-along Trillian (Tricia McMillan), and the paranoid android himself, Marvin. Unbeknownst to even himself, Zaphod is out to find Magrathea, the industry specialist of “custom-made luxury planet building” (102).

Their initial welcoming consisting of guided missiles, the ship turns on its Improbability Drive and is randomly shifted to the surface of the same planet a whale had recently descended upon in an amazing free-fall of self-discovery and splattered blubber, the occurrence their landing on the same planet 8,267,128 to 1 against. The seemingly abandoned surface and derelict innards of the planet factory’s office give rise, after an unfortunate bout of gassing, to the wondrous facilities of the factory in full swing. Just who are benefactors of the colossal project, what are their objectives, and how in good name of fjord engineer Slartibartfast will the quartet escape to The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?


The tumultuous cavalcade of silliness is typically unrelenting; something which can’t be said for the remaining four books, in my memory serves me correctly. Arthur should be described as a protagonist if he wasn’t also the whipping boy for the more free-willed, free-wheeling Zaphod and Ford. Arthur plays the silent role, more in the novel for comic relief at the expense of the monkey-like humans and their pathetic planet than for his sheer diligence, social prowess or keen insight. It’s Arthur’s role as lost boy amid the galaxy with a couple of crazies that’s the most entertaining bit in the premise. Sadly, like mentioned above, Arthur seems to be left out or seems to have taken a passive, backseat role. Some resulting sections of “coincidences” are simply too random to be funny and borders more on absurd than witty. This absurdity over wittiness is more prevalent in the sequel: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

1980: Hitchhiker's 2: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Adams, Douglas)

Book 2: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (3/5)

Having fled from Magrathea and the clutches of avaricious mice, Arthur, Trillian, Ford, and Zaphod are bound for quick bite to eat when they are intercepted by a Vogon ship. Under the vicarious commands of Gag Halfrunt, the Vogon Captain’s “private brain-care specialist,” the ship attempts to seize the Heart of Gold, whose shields hold out long, though the computer system is taxed by Arthur’s effort to synthesize authentic tea and milk. For protection, Zaphod calls forth the spirit of his great-grandfather who sends the Heart of Gold into an “unknown distance through the dimensions of time and space” (23).

Zaphod is zapped to the surface the Ursa Minor home of the publishing company’s building which produces The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For some intrinsic reason he can’t pin down, Zaphod needs to seek a meeting with Mr. Zarniwoop, who is “in his office, but he’s on an intergalactic cruise” (30). After the flighty use of an elevator operating under the “curious principle of ‘defocused temporal perception’” (37), Zaphod is serendipitously met by Roosta, a hitchhiker with good intentions to save Zaphod amid the barrage from the Forgstar Fighters. Eventually threatened with placement in the Total Perspective Vortex and defeating it with his maniacal ego, Zarniwoop is found and within his own pocket, the Heart of Gold is found in the lint bed and enlarged to reveal Trillian, Ford, and Arthur, the Monkeyman.

After a unique experience at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Marvin the valet hijacks the all-black stuntship of Hotblack Desiato from Disaster Area, “a plutonium rock band… generally held to be not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all” (90). Being a automatic stuntship rather than a piloted craft, the ship is on course for a solar intersection—a sundive into the sun of Kakrafoon. With a teleport on the fritz being the only way off, they dive in.

Arthur and Ford find themselves aboard a colony ship full of frozen occupational rejects headed for planet-fall at any moment. The two traverse the Eden-like planet for months and returns to the colonial encampment where the occupational rejects are having their “five-hundred and seventy-third meeting of the colonization committee of Fintlewoodleix” (182). Aghast at their bureaucracy, the dynamic duo try to teach the “cavemen” to play Scrabble. Meanwhile, Trillian, Zaphod, and Zarniwoop attempt to make contact with “the man who rules the Universe,” (160) who is as conversationally cryptic and evasive as his cat is fond of songs and fish.


Exploring the errant uses of the Infinite Improbability Drive and teleportation, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe slips from being witty to being absurd. The chaos resulting from the insurmountable coincidences becomes duller by the moment. There are fewer scenes of laughter than The Hitchhiker’s Guide and even fewer scenes which explores the insane galactic journey of Arthur Dent, whose backseat role in this cavalcade is more pronounced than the previous book. Zaphod, however, is thoroughly penned into this sequel but only adds simple comic value to a plot which doesn’t seem to move anywhere.

1982: Hitchhiker's 3: Life, the Universe and Everything (Adams, Douglas)

Book 3: Life, the Universe and Everything (2/5)

Living apart from Ford, Arthur ekes out a living in a cave with his bathrobe and rabbit-skin bag. Randomly insulted by Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged and later running into Ford Prefect, Arthur and his hitchhiking friend hop upon a sofa which materializes from the eddies in the space-time continuum which dumps them onto the Lord’s cricket pitch two days prior to Earth’s destruction. Ford employs his knowledge to the Somebody Else’s Problem field to gather that Slatibartfast has hidden his craft, the Starship Bistromath, in plain view. Once together, the three witness Krikkit robots descendto murder the people on the ground and fly off with a wooden wicket of the Ashes.

The Starship Bistro harnesses “all the ship’s computation… done on a waiter’s bill pad” (41) which is just at erratic at the Infinite Improbability Drive. Meanwhile, Marvin pivots around himself in the mud on the mattress-inhabited planet Squornshellous Zeta. Having his leg stolen for the use as a Key in the Wikkit Gate by a hoard of robots, the thieving robots further collect random bits of seeming rubbish so that they can unlock their planet of Krikkit in statis, something which Slartibartfast, Ford, and Arthur are trying to hinder.

The Krikkit race, as xenophobic and wantonly destructive (but also “whimsical… ordinary people… charming, delightful, intelligent” [73]) as they come, had been sealed off from the rest of the universe when they had discovered that their normally blank, dull, drab, dreary, matte sky actually held other lifeforms, which they deducted from a crashed spacecraft and the construction of their own craft within one year. Having spewed death across near space, their isolation was eventually their punishment… except for that one craft and its horde of robots.

Inexplicably, Arthur is materialized to a spacious cave which houses a 50-fooot statue of his self and one angry, angry ugly alien who posits that Arthur had killed his reincarnated being many, many times over; once a fly, Arthur killed him; once a rabbit, Arthur killed him; once a newt, Arthur killed him… and so on. Even more inexplicably, he soon found himself with the ability to fly and finds atop a mountain “a small navy-blue holdall that he knew for a fact he had lost in a baggage-retrieval system at Athens airport some ten years in his personal time-scale” (102). Oh, one hell of a party also shows up, a party which had been going on for four generations before being crashed by Slartibartfast, Arthur, and his boozer friend Ford.


I wonder if this story made any sense to anyone. It felt like one disconnected scene, mildly amusing at maximum, after another disconnected scene. Stringing together random silly subplots doesn’t make the greater plot more cohesive. From witty (Hitchhiker’s Guide) to absurd (The Restaurant) and now at random—I suppose the “everything” in the title of the book applies to the “everything” which poured forth from the mind of Douglas Adams. Trillian, seemingly forgotten for two whole books, makes a late yet awkward appearance to simmer things down. I kept rhetorically asking myself, “What, what, what did I miss?”

1984: Hitchhiker's 4: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (Adams, Douglas)

Book 4: So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (2/5)

Landlubber Arthur Dent quits his time in space after eight subjective years rabblerousing about the universe in time and space. Back in his country, back in his town, back in his house, and back in his bed—dusty it may be but damn it good to be home, but why exactly he is now the proud owned of a fishbowl which reads “So Long, and Thanks—“ he has no idea. While hitchhiking on the motorway with a duty-free bag from Alpha Centauri, Arthur is picked up by a man in a Saab whose sister, a complete whack job the man conveys to Arthur, is crumbled up in the backseat. The girl, Fenchurch, who Arthur immediately falls in love with due to some mystic quality about her, is “merely barking mad” (26) but she maintains that she witnessed the Earth get blown up.

Meanwhile, a lorry driver names Rob McKenna, later to be dubbed the Rain God or a “Supernormal Incremental Precipitation Inducer” (141) with “Spontaneous Para-Causal Meteorological Phenomenon” (140) to make it rain where he goes, be it in Darlington, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Germany, Denmark or Yugoslavia. With 231 different words to describe the type of rain he’s experienced, he know a thing or two about the wet stuff that falls from the sky.

Also meanwhile, Ford is knocking about the galaxy rigging a speaker system that repeats the time in England on a spaceship which houses a frozen alien. He intends for the alien to eventually wake up and to know exactly what it is, even if that time happens to be in England and light-years away. Regardless, Ford realizes that his fifteen years spent on Earth weren’t wasted at all when The Guide updates his old two word entry of “Mostly harmless” to an entire library’s worth of information on the planet Earth, its cities, its bars, and its beaches.

Arthur and Fenchurch eventually hit it off quite well and discover each other’s uniqueness in defying gravity. Where Fenchurch could simply levitate, Arthur had the power of flight since his time on Krikkit, which he teaches to Fenchurch. However, the town senses something odd fluttering about the sky and it suddenly becomes news… but the eight-year absence of dolphins from aquariums and the seas has since become non-news, though Fenchurch and Arthur are dying to understand their connection to the man in California who says he has the answer to their disappearance.

Oh, a giant robot destroys billions of pounds worth of downtown London property, Marvin makes a desultory appearance, and Ford, Arthur, Fenchurch, and the Paranoid Android all visit “Quentulus Quazgar Mountains. Sevorbeupstry. Planet of Preliumtarn. Sun Zarss. Galactic Sector QQ7 Active 7 Gamma” (142) to gaze at God’s Final Message.


The non-sequential return to a parallel Earth is a little jarring and much too terrestrial to be considered part of the “trilogy.” It’s not as hare-brained as the previous three novels and maintains a more traditional plot flow while disregarding the wildly eccentric oddities sprinkled throughout (i.e. the Rain God is disembodied from the general plot and Ford’s mucking about is senseless in context). Zaphod? Trillian? Pshaw!

1992: Hitchhiker's 5: Mostly Harmless (Adams, Douglas)

Book 5: Mostly Harmless (4/5)

The universe is going to pits because of everyone’s chrono-ill-logical travel dalliances. One version of a parallel Earth has Tricia McMillan who never traveled with Zaphod and has become a “mathematician and astrophysicist by training and a television presenter by experience” (191). Her television personality has attracted the attention of a Grebulon ship stranded on the 10th planet of Rupurt, however the aliens aboard have forgotten their names and their mission and simply wish to watch terrestrial television all day. Their interest in astrology is counterintuitive to Tricia’s bank of knowledge, but she’s unwilling to let another chance at space travel slip by her. When she eventually returns to Earth, her first big story is the landing of a spacecraft and its female occupant.

After having lost his love Fenchurch in a “perfectly normal hyperspace hop” (56), Arthur seeks out a home which is most Earth-like for him to retire on. After a most disappointing stay on the colony planet of NowWhat, which “had not been been a success and the sort of people who actually wanted to live on NowWhat were not the sort of people you would want to spend time with” (54). Arthur quickly decides to leave but crash lands on a planet where his unique skill of sandwich crafting is appreciated. Another parallel form of Tricia, Trillian, who HAD traveled with Zaphod, has become a galactic reporter throughout time and space, finds Arthur stranded on the planet and offers him a genetic gift whose “outbreaks of bitter recrimination would give way without warning to abject self-pity and then long bouts of sullen despair which were punctuated with sudden acts of mindless violence against inanimate object” (126-27).

Ford Prefect has infiltrated the headquarters of the Guide and finds it under new management whose idea is to “sell one Guide billions and billions of times” rather than “sell billions and billions of Guides” (49). The new editor-in-chief Vann Harl assigns Ford to the lowly rank of writing restaurant reviews for the Guide, but Ford attacks the man and steals his Ident-i-Eese card for access to the headquarters’ high-security areas. For even easier access to the organization’s credit banks, Ford enlists the employment of “a security robot the size of a small melon” (41) which he short-circuits “to be happy whatever happened” (44) and bequeaths the name Colin. His now ever-jubilant companion assists him in accessing secure areas and ever saves his life. While at the headquarters, Ford also discovers an odd ebony-colored bird-like tome which is called the Guide Mk II. Ford is not happy with this and now he's "worrying about the fabric of space/time and the causal integrity of the multi-dimensional probability matrix and the potential collapse of all wave forms in the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash and all that sort of stuff" (200).


Douglas Adams actually ties this one up to a better degree than the last three books of chaotic randomness and it’s even more humorous than the original Hitchhiker’s novel. The silliness isn’t just silliness for silliness sake, but all the silly bits in this novel do come together in the end, something which can’t be said for the same three previous books. Colin the security robot is better than Marvin the paranoid android, the slaphappy Heart of Gold computer, or the job satisfaction circuits of the same ship’s doors; Colin is gurgling, bubbling, and titillating itself with pleasure in all things. The end to the book and the series is rather abrupt and takes a few moments to reflect on; and yes, the naysayers are correct when they say the ending is dark, but I don’t want to read Book 6: And Another Thing… (2009).