Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, August 29, 2014

2004: All You Need is Kill (Sakurazaka, Hiroshi)

From pawn to player; history doesn’t have to repeat (4/5)

Looking at my collection of fiction shelved in the living room (over 560), science fiction obviously takes up the majority of the shelf space (about 85%). My science fiction collection is general yet diverse: I have a mix of the old and the new, works from male and female authors, slim paperbacks and thick hard covers, the popular and obscure. But one facet of my collection which I’m most proud of is the growing amount of translated work:

  • French: Monkey Planet (1963) by Pierre Boulle and Travelling Towards Epsilon (1976) edited by Maxim Jukubowski
  • German: Metamorphosis &Other Stories (1971) by Franz Kafka
  • Polish: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (1961), The Cyberiad (1965), and The Star Diaries (1971)
  • Russian: Moscow 2042 (1987) by Vladimir Voinovich and Metro 2033 (2007) by Dmitry Glukhovsky
  • Japanese: The Best JapaneseScience Fiction Stories (1997) edited by John L. Apostolou & Martin H. Greenberg and Battle Royale (1999) by Koushun Takami
  • Swedish: The End of Man (var. The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer) (1966) by Olof Johannesson
  • Chinese: Frederik Pohl’s collection Pohlstars (1984) includes a novelette called “The Wizard-Masters of Peng-Shi Angle” which was re-translated from his original “The Wizards of Pung’s Corner” (1958)

On occasion, I scour the internet looking for translations of good novels or stories. When researching for Japanese authors, I always come across the same few:

  • Kobo Abe’s The Ark Sakura (1988)
  • Shinichi Hoshi’s The Spiteful Planet and Other Stories (1978)
  • Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks (1973)
  • Taku Mayumura’s Administrator (1974)
  • Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The African Bomb and Other Stories (1986)
  • Masaki Yamada’s Aphrodite (2004)

In March, I came across another modern Japanese author named Hiroshi Sakurazaka and his novel All You Need is Kill (2004). I downloaded a copy (and bought the paperback just yesterday) and eagerly awaited the opportunity to read it… little did I know that it would become a stupid Hollywood movie with a tool for an actor. That didn’t dampen my spirits, however.

Book’s own synopsis:
When the alien Mimics invade, Keiji Kiriya is just one of many recruits shoved into a suit of battle armor called a Jacket and sent out to kill. Keiji dies on the battlefield, only to be reborn each morning to fight and die again and again. On his 158th iteration, he gets a message from a mysterious ally—the female soldier known as the Full Metal Bitch. Is she the key to Keiji’s escape or his final death?”


On the island of Kotoiushi, Keiji Kiriya is a foot soldier stuffed into a Jacket, and sent to fight a perplexing enemy—the Mimics—who he can barely fathom let alone defeat. In the opening seconds of the battle, his friend Yonabaru catches an enemy javelin through the torso, killing him; Keiji survives through most the horror of mangled corpses and the terror of the fighting, only to be fatally wounded. On the brink of death, a figment of military lore manifests itself in front of his eyes: the red battledress of the Full Metal Bitch, complete with two-meter axe and thirty for the death of all Mimics. The pain of his scorched impalement reminds him he’s not yet dead, and the surreal coming of the Full Metal Bitch makes his head swim. Reality, as if testing him, becomes even more surreal when the red-donned heroine says to him, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to know … Is it true the green tea they serve in Japan at the end of your meal comes free?” (11). The American’s name is Rita Vrataski. She, and the Mimic who comes to kill him, are his last memories before dying… and waking up.

Déjà vu strikes Keiji hard: the novel he awakes to, the conversation he has with Yonabaru, the ensuing events which lead up to a difficult morning of Physical Training, where he sees Rita and the other American soldiers. His memory of meeting her on the battlefield reinforces his courage—he stares down the legendary slaughterer of Mimics. The gull of the prone solider intrigues Rita, so she sets herself down next to him to engage in the same form of punishment: the iso push-up.  This being Keiji’s first iteration, his fate is sealed as he enters the battlefield and dies yet again. And again. And again.

The timeloops initially have a negative effect on Keiji: he suicides, he AWOL’s, he kills. He keeps the experience a secret, but those around him only see a drastic change in his behavior from what they consider only to be one day ago; Yonabura tries to apply logic to Keiji’s attitude: “The day after yesterday’s today. The day after today is tomorrow. If it didn’t work like that, we’d never get to Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Then we be fucked. Or not” (36). Regardless, Keiji maintains a sour disposition and adopts the “fuck it” attitude: “It’s a fucked-up world, with fucked-up rules. So fuck it” (54).

So why do they both training us at all?

All that shit they drum into you in training in the bare minimum … Most unlucky bastards forget all that when the shit starts flying and they go down pretty quick. But if you’re lucky, you might live through it and maybe even learn something. Take your first taste of battle and make a lesson out of it, you might just have something you call a soldier. (62)

Eventually, Keiji realizes that, with the memory of each iteration, lessons can learned, information can be garnered and the cycle might possibly be broken without him dying at the end each time: “Just because I had all the time in the world didn’t mean I had time to waste” (79), so “If I could train to jump every hurdle this little track-meet of death threw at me, maybe someday I’d wake up in a world with a tomorrow” (58). Keiji begins to utilize his time to become an unkillable figure like the Full Metal Bitch, acquiring skill and information which he applies on the battlefield, where he inevitably dies each time, only he lives minutes and hours longer than before. With each extra minute of life, he learns more about his enemy; Keiji reflects, “You can’t learn from your mistakes when they kill you” (91).

Rather than make time his enemy, the intrepid foot soldier takes the world on his shoulders by accepting his daily inevitable death at the hands of the Mimics. The multitude of Mimics rise from the ocean where they had bred, each a dense barrel-sized sack of sand whose “single swipe of one of its limbs can send a man flying in a thousand little pieces. Their javelins, projectiles fired from vents in their bodies, have the power of 40mm shells” (8). The mere sight of them doesn’t inspire natural fear nor do they roar with a bellow to fear their prey; “they simply hunt with the relentlessness of machines” (9).

When they first appeared on land, the alien xenoformers were not weapons of war. They were sluggish … But like cockroaches that develop resistance to pesticides, the alien creatures evolved. The crèche machines that created them concluded that in order to fulfill their objective of xenoforming the planet, they would have to remove the obstacles in their way …. Mankind had a name for the enemy that had brought the world to the brink of ruin. (116)

They ate earth and shat out poison, leaving behind a lifeless wasteland. The alien intelligence that had created them had mastered space travel and learned to send information through time. Now they were taking our world and turning it into a facsimile of their own, every last tree, flower, insect, animal, and human be damned. (178-179)

Acquiring a two-meter axe like Rita, Keiji heads to each recurring battle with more insight, more skill, and more of a will to murder the mass of Mimics; “I bore the burden of endless battle like the killing machine I’d become—a machine with blood and nerves in place of oil and wires” (93). The outcome of each battle is as uniform as the nature of war: “there were three kinds of battle to begin with: fucked up, seriously fucked up, and fucked up beyond all recognition” (92). Keiji found his looped life to be in the last category… until he realizes that Rita, too, has experienced a time loop; she has secrets on how to break the cycle.

Training together, feeding off of each other’s honed knack for defeating the Mimics with slashes of the battleaxe, Keiji and Rita come closer to breaking his cycle of life and death. Yet on the eve of the 160th loop’s daybreak, the cycle is broken and rather than heading to death on the island of Kotoiushi, the Mimics have brought the reign of death to the military base itself.


I just want to say that I really hate the title of the novel—both the Japanese and English editions have the same title. The Hollywood version’s title is no better, the title and actor of which I won’t even allow on my review.

Many readers of All You Need is Kill have found the book to be difficult to follow, which is exactly why it comes with a handy plot sequence diagram (see left) to assist the reader in understanding the flow of events. The diagram will become your best friend when reading the novel, much like a soldier’s rifle is their best friend—without the rifle, the solider is useless; without the diagram, the reader is helpless. The length of the novel—around 57,00 words—makes the looping and time shuffling more comprehensible.

As the diagram illustrates, the sequence of the story is non-chronological: the novel starts with Chapter 1 Part 1 (toward the end of the plot sequence), which is the battlefield loop, then jumps back in time to the barracks loop in Chapter 1 Part 2 (toward the beginning the sequence). Prior to reading each part to every chapter, it’s reassuring to consult the diagram. It’s quite easy to become accustomed to, actually.

Contrary to popular errant opinion, the novel is not only action, action, action and kill, kill, kill; humor is hidden is dialogue and insight is offered in Keiji’s reflections. I took highlighted a number of quotes in my e-book (and I later bought the paperback) and found myself laughing aloud during a few passages.

The time loop Keiji experiences is, of course, the draw of the novel… a moderate challenge to the reader that enhances the sense of enjoyment. Perhaps is a gimmick, but the greatest satisfaction drawn from the novel is Keiji’s diligence in garnering as much experience as he can rather than letting the loop get the best of him. Initially, he succumbs to the pang of expectation and suicides. Slowly, he realizes the advantage of the loop; with each loop comes an experience to learn, an education which he can take with him onto the next loop: he starts to train with the best, he finds breaches in security which allows him access to the American base, he learns personal details to get himself access.

Aside from Keiji’s inspiring vigilance, Rita Vrataski infuses the story with heavier notes of characterization: from Pittsfield, Illinois and the daughter of a hog farmer, her father is a coffee connoisseur in a world where the supplies are quickly dwindling due to the Mimics’ attacks. The local grocer always has a cache of exotic whole beans and Rita learns of the pleasure from the coffee’s taste, fragrance, the total experience. When her town is infiltrated by the scout Mimics, most of the town is destroyed and her family is killed; thus, her motivation to enlist and seek revenge. During her duty in recapturing the peninsula of Florida, she finds herself in a loop and ultimately finds the solution to break the cycle.

It’s not a deeply characterized novel nor does it plunge the depths of emotion (though the last few parts of Chapter 4 hit a good few notes of attachment, betrayal, and perseverance). The reader either comes for the action—and there’s plenty of that—or they come for the gimmick of the time loop; either way, the novel is an alluring snare of a soldier’s rise from cannon fodder to devil incarnate, from using training wheels to becoming Evel Knievel, and—most importantly—from pawn of fate to player of self-determination.


Sakurazaka’s only other novel is Slum Online (2005) about some quest in some video game. The premise doesn’t entice me at all. So, while Sakurazaka’s bibliography may be abbreviated in terms of English novels, there is still a shallow sea of Japanese literature available in English; notably, from the publishers Haikasoru and Kurodahan. Seems like, with the limited selection, I’ll be picking up the pieces one by one for a long while… unless All You Need is Kill inspires a generation of writers to produce more Japanese science fiction. If not, I’ll continue with reading American and British SF and dabbling in the translated scene.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1968: The Planet of the Blind (Corey, Paul)

Superficial core to an insignificant façade (1/5)

This must have been one of my $1 buys at my annual splurge at Babbitt Books in Normal, Illinois. I’m back home in rural Illinois once a year, so I only have one chance to stock up on cheap, cheap paperback science fiction novels, which I grab by the dozen and cross my fingers that half are palatable… ‘tis not always the case, but hey, I like to gamble when it comes to old science fiction. Some are hidden gems (e.g., Brian Ball’s Singularity Station [1973]) and others are duds (e.g., Edward Llewellyn’s Prelude to Chaos [1983]). I think I liked the Richard Powers cover much, much more than the book’s synopsis, so that was my catalyst for purchasing this novel… and by “insignificant façade”, I don’t mean the cover is weak because, obviously, the Richard Powers cover is pretty awesome (a word I use sparingly).

In the genre of science fiction, Paul Corey only published this single novel as well as three short stories: “Operation Survival” (1962), “If You’re So Smart” (1969) and “Red Carpet Treatment” (1977). Far from prolific in science fiction, Paul Corey is most notable for his Mantz trilogy about farming during the Depression in Midwestern America: Three Miles Square (1939), The Road Returns (1940) and County Seat (1941). In addition, he is also noted for his science-fiction-sounding novel Acres of Antaeus (1946) which is also about small town farmers in the Midwest.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Eyes to see with…
Eyes to flee with…

What would happen to an intelligent, sighted inhabitant of Earth marooned on a planet inhabited by an unsighted people with a technology equal or superior to his? Further, let us suppose that this man heads a world organization that controls the now the expanding field of tests and testing—Mr. Test himself. How would he fare in this PLANET OF THE BLIND? This is the story of Dr. Thur Stone in just such a situation.”


Tests on Earth measure one thing: intelligence. Much like the old IQ tests of yesteryear, these tests focus on a person’s logical intelligence akin to mathematical intelligence. According to Dr. Thur Stone, the quantitative zealot he is, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist or it’s simply not important enough to measure. His daughter Karen scored highly, naturally, but turned her professional focus to social work, a move which irked the good Doctor… until she fell in love with a so-called Creativist.

Commonly called a “testnik” in the testing office, this one Creativist—Talcott Jones—was challenging the well establish testing system. His manifesto attacked the genius group (200+ IQ) accusing them of constricting “Earth mentality to a mere manipulation of past-established facts” and making Earth a “many-levelled cage for test-scored human controlled by brain-pickers for brains of other brain-pickers” (7). Further, he spewed forth more  rhetoric: “We have become a puppet people. Tests determine our entire lives … The creative mind, the original thinker, has been permanently relegated to the mental middle of society” (7-8). Thur’s daughter got Talcott’s case all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to the ceranium mines on Mars.

To relieve himself of the stress induced by the trial and the disappointment in his daughter, Thur plots a solo journey through the near galactic neighborhood. Without provocation or incidence, Thur’s spacerover is put under remote control and is led down to a verdant planet much like Earth. On the planet’s Earth-like surface and breathing the Earth-like atmosphere, Thur is met by a humanoid figure—a Grendan—who speaks broken English; he could have passed for an Earth human if it weren’t for his lack of eyes, a feature shared by everyone else at the university where he is taken. When the doctors at the research laboratory, who speak perfect English, inform him that they wish to perform a few tests on him, Thur is delighted; however, the tests probe senses which Thur doesn’t have and it soon becomes apparent to the doctors that Thur has eyes. Only animals have eyes; thus, Thur is an animal. Naturally, Thur has a problem with this.

His main crime is invasion of privacy. He can “see”—the Grendans have a difficult time understanding this word—their every movement and action; they consider this to be a gross violation of their right to privacy, so he must be grouped with other animals. He wouldn’t violate their privacy if it weren’t for the ubiquitous construction material of transparent plastic, which they use for everything. Rather than relying on sight to navigate and explore their environment, the Grendans are ultra-sensitive to other vibrations aside from those of light. Curious to Thur, though the Grendans can’t see, some of them have faint eyebrows, suggestive that they’re ancestors may actually have had eyes to see with. Struck by his own genius, Thur tests his theory by rigging up a simple device which focuses light on their vestigial sight organ. When Ello dons the device, she marvels at the new sensation.

Doctor Rhoa heads the research laboratory and is convinced of Thur’s animal nature. His daughter, too, deems Thur to be an interesting animal subject because she studies animal behavior… but she gets a little too close to her subject than she was initially allowing herself. She decides to try to keep him “as a pet” but Thur is offended by the nature of the relationship. Though he find Ello is to very lovely and comely—minus the eyes of course—he draws the line at becoming her pet. His two solutions: (1) get a trail and be declared non-animal or (2) return to his ship and marry Ello…

…only animals don’t get trials and Ello won’t leave her father. When he’s finally transferred to an estate which houses only animals, Thur find security more lax and the watch keepers more dull-witted. With his cat-like companion named Cat, Thur makes an escape from the estate and treks across country toward his spacerover. Through the countryside, he sees a maize-analog crop, the Grendans search parties in transparent bubbles, and, in the thick of the forest, a tribe of sighted Grendans. Though gifted with sight, their intelligence is dull—they attack and bind him up for the non-sighted Grendans to find. Lucky for Thur, Ello finds him and Cat. Returning to the complex which first housed him, Ello and Thur are intimately observed by one of the doctors donning the same sight-device. Scandal strikes the laboratory and Ello is put under trial.

Meanwhile, another storm gathers beyond the mountains. The previous storm’s electrical activity knocked out the community’s power generation, during which Thur’s spacerover had the opportunity to broadcast its distress signal, something which had been suppressed ever since his capture. The Grendan’s motivation for his capture was to study the curious Earth subject, but Thur is also observing the Grendans; he sees them prone to simple electrical storms and strangely devoid to heavy metals. Retaining this information for himself, he schemes for his escape from Grendan in order to amend his mistake about testing back on Earth: “My tests on Earth have sent many Terrans into segregation, one man in particular [Talcott], just because they could not test special facilities” (62). As Talcott has so eloquently put it, “[H]ow can your tests get at that intelligence in a man that knows the secrets of a persimmon? You cannot test for that because you do not know the secrets of a persimmon” (59).


Regardless of whether the book had a successful plot, Paul Corey does bring up two important issues in regards to testing: (1) quantifying assessment in all areas and (2) limits of old intelligence tests. Many professional educators scoff at standardized testing; the importance attached to the results affects the subject material taught in the classroom. Rather than teaching the minds of children, children are being taught in preparation for the test. There’s very little room for authentic assessment, or accomplishments which qualitatively (rather than a standard test’s quantitative measurement) “measures” the engagement of the student and/or the understanding of the function of the task rather than just performing the task itself. Which brings us to IQ… the old standard of quantitative measurement was based on so-called rational thinking and mathematical logic. The newest paradigm is multiple intelligences, which include mathematical intelligence as well as seven others; these intelligences are an intrinsic, qualitative assessment rather than the old-school quantitative measurement.

Corey may have danced around the issue a bit and pressed ahead ad nauseam with the Grendans’ persistence of Thur’s animal state. What smarts most if the painful obviousness of his dilemma: the man who wronged so many on Earth based on his faulty intelligence test is himself given a faulty test to measure his intelligence and, predictably, now sees the error of his ways. If that’s not obvious from the book’s own synopsis or from the first few pages, the reader must be a child, which wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the intended target when considering the “cutesy” language used. I really, really hate cutesy mild oaths like “Hot-buttered moonbeams!” (Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords) and, most notably, “Oh, space!” and “Great galloping galaxies!” (both courtesy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation). Corey has two similar eye-rolling mild oaths: “Mother of the milky way” (47, 82, 135 and 139) and “Great galaxy” (54, 67, 80, 91 and 137).

John Carr read this novel and offered his thoughts: “A man can't have his ex-wife, so he clings to his daughter. He can't have his daughter, so he clings to this blind alien girl who thinks he's a great kisser.” Well said, John. This affection for Ello also extends to Ello’s father, Docotr Rhoa: “He just doesn’t want to give up his daughter, a perfect secretary, a devoted child, a quasi-substitute for his unfaithful wife” (137). Thur’s attachment to reconciling with his daughter and eloping with his crush gets repetitive: “The idea of marrying Ello and escaping to Earth, fixed my thoughts on Earth. I got to worrying about Karen—about Karen and Talcott Jones” (130). This stinks of nostalgic science fiction pulp from a bygone era where the conclusion always ends with the protagonist marrying the vixen. Considering this novel was written in 1968—during a revolution of the SF genre, no less—the writing style feels 30-40 years out of date.

The first-person perspective of the novel simply doesn’t work because the protagonist isn’t interesting; he’s maniacal about every women in his life, backpedals on his professional standards, and superficial about his idea of beauty (he actually paints eyes onto Ello’s ocular skin). Considering himself intellectual, his insights aren’t exactly as penetrating as his vision among the blind. Even among the first few pages, the perspective is similar to Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet (1963)… minus the frame story of finding the manusxcript in a bottle.

Both Corey and Boulle—or the translator of Boulle’s novel—injected some rather proper-sounding English into the prose. I quote myself from my review of Monkey Planet to pertain to The Planet of the Blind: “The wording is often as formulaic … which leads to passages that feel dryly scientific or lacking any sort of reflective emotion.” Where Monkey Planet’s protagonist was a journalist Ulysse Mérou, Paul Corey actually was a journalist. Perhaps Ulysse Mérou was corey’s inspiration to pen his own novel about a planet almost similar to Earth, strike one dramatic flaw. John Clute says Corey’s novel is “a variation on the theme of the one-eyed man in the country of the blind (for sf) by H G Wells in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (1904)”. Blindness may be a similarity between the two stories, but the most pertinent similarity (borrowed or ripped off?) is the blind population’s insistence the those with vision are inferior; in Corey’s novel, the sighted are considered animals while in Wells’ story, the sighted are considered insane. So… combine an aspect from Boulle and another from Wells and presto!—a rather unoriginal novel.

Lastly, when an author refers to real world facts in their novel, the facts must be accurate. As a journalist, Paul Corey should know this! One mistake is easy to glance over if it weren’t on the first page. Corey writes, “Several centuries ago a Dr. David Wechler defined intelligence as a person’s ability ‘to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with his environment’” (7). In fact, the quote is by Dr. David Weschler (with an “s”). Lastly, Thuro undergoes a sound test, “When the sounds came, I guessed: 10,000 decibels, 13,000, 15,000, 17,000. I couldn’t even hear the last one” (55). I think 17,000 decibels would rip the Earth apart because it’d be so incredibly loud (louder than the Saturn V rocket at 220 decibels). Here, Corey means “hertz” rather than “decibels”. Silly journalist.


Paul Corey once said, “I would like to be remembered for my fiction which I feel has been a credit to me.” I’m sure he meant that he wanted to be remembered in a positive light for his Mantz trilogy rather than in a negative light for his rather lame novel The Planet of the Blind. As much as Corey included nearly every known idiom for sight and vision, I, too, must include my own sight idiom for my recommendation: cast an eye on the beautiful cover… but turn a blind eye toward its content.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

1978: The Stand (King, Stephen)

Character-fueled descent into 1980's post-apocalyptic America (4/5)

This is only the third King novel I’ve read aside from his collections in Skeleton Crew (1985) and Night Shift (1978). The two novels—The Shining (1977) and The Running Man (1982)—haven’t exactly been beacons of terror excellence. Perhaps this is due to King’s prose or subject matter, but the popularity of his writing has yet to make itself obvious to me. For enlightenment, I finally picked up King’s most popular novel, The Stand. Everyone I’ve spoken with says that this novel, above all his others, stands out as his best and I quote two friends when they call it a “a good read” and “his best book”.

Rear cover synopsis:
“June 16, 1985. That is when the horror began—the evil that started in a laboratory and took over America.

Those who died quickly were the luck y ones. For the scattered survivors, wandering through the country turned into a gigantic graveyard, life has become a nightmare struggle. They escaped death, but now something even more terrifying is waiting to claim them—the most fiendish force ever to see all humanity as slaves and victims. A strange, faceless, clairvoyant figure that is reaching for their very souls…”


At a government facility hidden in the desert, the green numbers on the wall suddenly turn red. A sentry posted outside the facility sees this ominous sign and, due to the failure of a small electronic part is the signaling system, the sentry is able to flee the base with seconds to spare. Within the underground base, men can be found dead where they had stood or even where they had sat eating soup—the sentry, Charles D. Campion, has unwittingly contracted the virus which had killed the base crew and fled into the desert. Later, when he crashes into a gas station island of pumps, his family is found dead and bloated with gangrene and Charles himself is oozing with phlegm, on the cusp of an agonizing death. He is Patient Zero… but the world would never know as the world is about the die.

The open, freely flowing highway and interstate system of American roads were once the arteries of holiday revelers, families of four, traveling salesmen and transient workers; rather than flowing with destinations in mind, the unfortunate individuals in the same system begin to transport the superflu away from the small desert town and into the metropolises of America. As regional and national pathologists study the virus, Atlanta’s CDC takes control of its study and the government initiates protocols to dampen the seriousness of the superflu in the eyes of the public. People begin to die; families begin to suffer and expire together; entire towns and cities begin to be littered with corpses and festering corruption.

Though the superflu—or “Captain Trips” as many people call it—acts a catalyst to worldwide pandemic, its presence soon fades to the background to those who survive. The lucky 99.4% of the population—if “lucky’ is the right word—must face an America without government, daily lives without rule or law, an existence without the modern conveniences of electricity and running water: “with civilization gone, all the chrome and geegaws had been stripped from the engine of human society” (348)… then there are the rotting corpses one must consider. The “constantly shifting A-Prime flu” weaponized by the American military is resistant to vaccine as “every time the body did produce the right antibody, the virus simply shifted” (30). But humans aren’t the only victims: humankind’s companions of dogs and horses die en masse while the innocent deer, cows, and rabbits thrive amid the stalking remnants of the blossoming feral cat population. The randomness of death is a vague mystery to the survivors, but one thing begins to penetrate their collective psyche: “God gives life and He takes it away when He wants” (324).

The sinking belief in a greater God isn’t the only common experience among the human survivors; most have also shared dreams of the saintly yet elderly Mother Abigail in Nebraska and have also shared nightmares of the darkly man in the west, who some know as Randall Flagg. After the Fourth of July weekend, bodies had amassed around the country—and probably around the world—so, the survivors followed their dreams to Nebraska to seek guidance under the woman whose mind is seemingly in contact with God. Skeptical yet desperate, lonely individuals form strengthened groups which form migrating tribes, all of which seek Nebraska and, later, Boulder, Colorado where sanity and civilization lay waiting. Yet, beyond the Rockies, another collection of humanity begins to amass without need for either sanity or civilization; Randall Flagg attracts the miscreants, the morally decayed, the dregs of human society. Rather than being touched by God like Mother Abigail, Flagg embodies evil incarnate. Between Good and Evil, the survivors “are all part of a chess game between God and Satan” (449).

Stuart is practically the first survivor of the superflu. The CDC take him to Atlanta to study his immunity and, when the facility fails, then to rural new Hampshire where eventually that facility fails, too. On his own, Stuart leaves the security of the underground facility when he meets Harold and Frannie. Frannie, pregnant from before the virus’s outbreak, tags along with a boy a few years her junior—Harold. Both young, Frannie scoffs at Harold’s awkwardness while he adores the angelic presence of Frannie. When Frannie takes a liking to Stuart, Harold spirals downward in an obsession of hate and vindictiveness. A quiet intellectual, he puts his thoughts to paper, “an outpouring of hate like pus from a skin abscess” (426). Even when the trio settle into Boulder, Harold coddles his hatred and schemes against the very community which has accepted him.

Nick is a deafmute and transient across America. He is brutalized by a band of hooligans in a small town where the sheriff takes him in. As the superflu spreads even to this small town, his attackers imprisoned by the sheriff slowly fall victim to the death by phlegm while the sheriff, too, slowly succumbs its persistence. Writing as his only method of communication, Nick had got along in the small town but leaves when everyone else he finds is dead. The one person he meets, Tom Cullen, is a simple-minded sprat who is illiterate. Regardless of their communication difficulties, Nick and Tom band together in order to find Abigail, who eventually leads them to Boulder where Nick becomes the honorific head of the Committee in its infancy. Tom, though dull-witted, is not without use.

Larry Underwood, high from his recent success as a songwriter and perhaps still drugged to this gills with cocaine, returns to New York with his tail between his legs and he realizes that his so-called friends only relished his money rather than his company. In a series of events which causes Larry’s reality to come crashing town, Larry soon realizes that he’s not a nice guy. His mother dies of the superflu and, in a city heaped with corpses, Larry decides to leave with Rita, a much older lady plagued by borderline insanity. When she overdoes on pills, Larry is pushed to the brink of losing all self-respect, but two people save him from the pit of self-despair: Lucy and “Joe”. Lucy is a proud virgin and her boyish companion, whom she calls “Joe”, is a savage who grunts and mimes. Larry is initially skeptical about having the feral boy along with them, but he bows reluctantly to Lucy’s insistence. Shames compels him to hide behind his fame yet he drudges up the silt of his self-esteem in order to become a prime mover in Boulder, Colorado. He’s also aware of the looming threat of Randall Flagg.

The demonic man named Randall Flagg stalks the American wild west, a territory which he has taken for his own. Though his plans are vague, his promises are enticing to the miscreants which litter the American landscape after its megadeath… Lloyd Hendrich is one such criminal who is played by Flagg. Locked in a prison and forgotten about, Lloyd is the only prisoner to survive the superflu but starvation is close on his heels. He has eaten the raw meat of a rat and contemplates eating the leg of a fellow prisoner when Flagg approaches the bars of his cell, offering freedom for the cost of utter loyalty. Another man, a few screws short and everyone knows it, is the Trashcan Man. A pyromaniac  who failed rehabilitation, the Trashcan Man savors the newly found freedom he has to savor the sights of flames anywhere he chooses. His first choice is the oil tanks of Gary, Indiana which he ignites in a massive display of pyrotechnics, destruction and heat. Injured by his own stupidity, he relishes his long-held dream. Flagg senses the man’s obsession, welcoming him into the fold of evil.

In Boulder, Nick and the rest of the good-natured survivors are trying to salvage what’s left of Boulder’s infrastructure to make it a move livable place: resume electrical power, dispose of the bodies in a mass grave, and form a system of government based on American democratic ideals. Just when all things are beginning to improve, Mother Abigail—the backbone of faith for the fledgling community—leaves a note and disappears by herself. This deeply worries the growing community now numbered at seven hundred and growing everyday with groups being welcomed every day. In Las Vegas, Flagg and his deputy Lloyd Hendrich have revitalized the downtown area. While some may be replacing bulbs in streetlights like a common citizen, others are at an air force base arming jets with missiles… and the Trashcan Man is at the center of it all—Flagg has entrusted this psychotic man to comb the desert sniffing out caches of hidden of weapons of war.

On the horizon of both communities—in Boulder and in Las Vegas—war is perched high, a friction of ideals set to clash.


My 1980 Signet edition has 817 pages, so its size is proportional to my synopsis. As my mini-synopsis outlines, the novel is rich in plot and characterization. For the most part, this is an engrossing read that is easy to lose yourself in. First, the spread of the superflu, by itself, is an absorbing scenario with wide-reaching consequences on civilization, humanity, and on individuals. Then there’s that itchy sense of good vs. evil lurking behind their dreams—Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg—the showdown of which is still hundreds of pages away but the tension always feels fresh, grating. If the schism and frisson between good and evil aren’t enough to placate the reader, at the very least the characters make the book worthwhile; each is a unique person, not only bent by the change in civilization, but internally at war with themselves by a conflict of their own sense of good and bad, right and wrong, hope and fear, etc. If you don’t like people, there’s always Kojak, one of the last dog’s on earth, who is a memorable and faithful scrap.

The only major fault in the book lies within two-hundred pages between 400 and 600, roughly. During this period, Boulder is in its early stages of developing its own system of government and having meetings to establish its own foundation. The reader is taken, step by step, through each meeting’s minutes, its parliamentary procedures, suggestions for laws and amendments, etc. Rather than a all-encompassing snapshot of the fledgling community’s attempt to restore order, King’s 200-page spread is more like a boring family photo slideshow.

There another less irksome kink in the novel which annoyed me throughout: King’s inclusion of pop culture songs and other pop culture items from the 1980s. As a child of the 1980s—being born in 1980, actually—I thought this would be an endearing quality, yet the books feels terribly dated because of the pop culture references. I mean, on the first page alone the reader is given three snippets of lyrics from Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult and Bob Dylan… followed later by The Sylvers (1), Paul Simon, Chuck Berry (261), America, and The Drifters (621). The music isn’t even particularly good. I’ve read online that King updated the novel in 1990 and included, dear me, an additional 400 pages of material. Pass.

As far as terror and horror are concerned, King pens a good story along these lines. Though people drop like flies by the million, most of the characters who survive seem immune to the horror just as they are immune to the superflu. I, for one, wouldn’t be sticking around all those coughing bodies and decaying corpses; I’d be one to get the hell out of Dodge, and quick. Rather than being affected by the decay of the body, the characters are most perturbed by the decay of society and the “American way of life”, almost like a loss of entitlement to their pursuit of happiness. And they act quite logically, which is the opposite of horror. If they were truly horrified by their predicament, they all would of starved to death or killed themselves (which would have resulted in a much shorter novel, surely); rather, they both mentally and collectively organize themselves to push to toward Nebraska and Colorado. There’s a tinge of terror of what always awaits them, but horror… not so much.


While this is my favorite of King’s work thus far, it’s not a masterpiece of fiction, terror or horror. It is, however, a compelling read into characterization and a tantalizing piece of post-apocalyptic fiction akin to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949). In my shelves, there only remains one last King novel: The Tommyknockers (1987). I’m tempted to buy Thinner (1984) and Under the Dome (2009), but there isn’t much else in King’s bibliography which really draws me.

Friday, August 8, 2014

1962: Next Stop the Stars (Silverberg, Robert)

Hasty pulp without inspiration or skill (1/5)

Dear God. That cover!
My exposure to Robert Silverberg’s work hasn’t been limited, but it has been hugely underwhelming. I’ve read four of his novels—the best of which was Hawksbill Station (3/5)—and four pieces of his short fiction—the best being “Flies” (5/5) from Dangerous Visions.

Joachim has mentioned to me that Silverberg’s pulp “is rather bad”. But desperate to be exposed to something great by Silverberg, I keep dabbling in his work. It’s unfortunate that I found Next Stop the Stars and The Seed of Earth (1962) for cheap, cheap at a library book sale—both early pulp. His recent work doesn’t satisfy anything in me (namely the novel The Alien Years [1998]), his middle-years don’t interest me (like The World Inside [1971], for example) and now I know that his earliest stuff is even worse.

All—count them, all five—have a fault which makes the story eye-rolling, tiresome or banal.

Hasty: With the exception of “Warm Man”, the other four stories feel hastily slapped together, like the scattered pieces of a number of jigsaw puzzles glued together. There isn’t any coherence.

Random Incidents: With the exception of “Blaze of Glory”, the other stories start or feature an unexplained phenomenon. In “Slaves of the Star Giants” and “The Songs of Summer”, each protagonist drops from the ether into mysterious circumstances. “Hopper” and “Warm Man” offer no catalyst for the source of tension: respectively, the out-of-the-blue invention of the time machine and the man’s calming powers (the conclusion and its revelation are unsatisfying).

Testosterone: “Slaves of the Star Giants” oozes testosterone from the numerous fight scenes, the man’s eagerness for war, and him thirst for power. “The Songs of Summer” is similar, where the Chester Dugan wants to rule the people, the women, and the entire world. “Blaze of Glory” features of unreasonable man who uses his bitter words and/or fists before using his brain.


Slaves of the Star Giants (1957, novella) – 2/5 – Lloyd Harkins is mysteriously transported from his earthly engineering job to a familiar forested landscape populated by 50-foot alien giants and 15-foot robots. One giant picks him up and places him in a human community who speak English 2,000 years in Earth’s future after a devastating war. The tribal headsman outcasts him, then Lloyd meets a mutant named the Watcher. Soon, he realizes that he may be a pawn in a greater game. 56 pages

The Songs of Summer (1956, shortstory) – 2/5 – Walking in the summer Singing event, which brings together isolated families from around the area, Kennon entertains thoughts of a young girl’s promise… when he happens upon a man from 1956. Taken to the Singing event, Chester Dugan upsets the bucolic scene with his “civility”. Soon, his civilized ideas are being reluctantly accomplished and he fancies himself future emperor of the 35th century, unless resistance surfaces. 28 pages

Hopper (1956, novelette) – 2/5 – Joseph Quellen is the CrimeSec of the Appalachia, a future east coast expansion of New York with a population of 200 million. His position allows him to have a private room but even this privacy isn’t enough, so he takes an instant “stat” to his secret home in tropical Africa. Meanwhile at work, a case arises: a fellow named Lanoy has invented a time machine and has been sending the unemployed forever back in time for work. 27 pages

Blaze of Glory (1957, shortstory) – 2/5 – History sees Murchison as a brave, self-sacrificing man, but the crew of the transport ship Felicific know better. He had a reputation of being aggressive, stubborn and solitary, yet his technical knowledge was unparalleled. When the eight-man land of Shaula II, Murchison finds himself agitated by one of the meek aliens in his cabin, who he pummels. Returning to Earth, the ship experience a problem—a perfect time to test his resolve. 18 pages

Warm Man (1957, shortstory) – 2/5 – Davis Hallinan arrived unexpectedly and unannounced, according to the tight-knit community of New Brewster. The cordial Mrs. Moncrieff invites him to a social event where he makes the rounds speaking to everyone. Though Davis says nothing about himself, everyone feels completely at ease when talking with him; secret emotions and pent up unease all drift away. The next few days sees Davis pale and weak, as if his body had been poisoned. 15 pages