Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, January 23, 2015

1963: The Sentinel Stars (Charbonneau, Louis)

Standard dystopian novel with predictable path of contrast (3/5)

Oddly, I was inspired to read Louis Charbonneau by Joachim’s damning review of the novel Down to Earth (1967)—he had me at “nefarious schemes”. Charbonneau has a handful of SF novels spanning twenty years, from 1958 (No Place on Earth) to 1976 (Embryo, a novelization). Against Joachim’s warning, I picked up Down to Earth as well as the highlighted novel here—The Sentinel Stars.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Rigid! Locked! Enslaved! that was our Earth in 2200. East the West had merged at last, so there were no more wars, no more political differences.

Citizens everywhere could concentrate on working off their TAX DEBTS! If you were capable and industrious, you might be able to make freeman status for the last few years of your life.

No one questioned. No one spoke out. No one rebelled until one bright morning Citizen TRH-247 decided not to go to work—and worse than that, became desirous of a girl below his own classification!

Thus he made himself an outcast with the whole world against him and mere survival dependent on his wits, his daring, his strength.”


Dystopian fiction may be popular nowadays, but there are classics in this sub-genre that have stood the test of time. Prior to the much-heralded Brave New World (1932), 1984 (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), there was the Russian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin named We (1921/1924). Huxley has said that wrote his novel long before Zamyatin, but his honestly isn’t as ironclad as his novel’s popularity. Similarly, Charbonneau’s novel The Sentinel Stars draws very heavily from Zamyatin’s novel. Consider:

  • The protagonist is named by a series of letters and numbers

We: D-503
The Sentinel Stars: THR-247
  • The only form a government is from a large, singular, and impersonal entity

We: the One State
The Sentinel Stars: the Organization
  • The home is essentially a large prison, surrounded by walls and protected from nature

We: the Green Wall
The Sentinel Stars: City No. 9
  • Man ignores his chosen mate, falls for another woman

We: D-503 was meant for O-90 but falls for I-330
The Sentinel Stars: THR-247 was meant for RED-498 but falls for ABC-331

The Organization is a nebulous entity which governs all the lives within the city, yet only governs that which is in the city; its power is absolute yet unseen and its boundary is the city’s walls. It chooses your vocation, assigns you a number to your name, selects your mate, and, most importantly, it calculates the number of years you gave left to pay off your born debt. It glorifies the importance of work.

Work was the foundation of the Organization—the work day, the work hour, the work minute. This was the basic commodity, the medium of exchange, the measure of social status. Work to pay off your tax debt. Work to climb the rungs on the ladder that led to freedom. (6)

Those of us who work are shackled to the clock … The day, the hour, the minute measure our distance from freedom. To be free is to be liberated from the need to recognize time (44).

Whether through wanderlust, longing or ennui, THR-247 was knowingly breaking the law of the Organization by choosing to not go to work one day. Without reason other than instant attraction, he latches on to the idea of love with the passing beauty of ABC-331, whom he invites to the museum for something special. Being an architect by trade, he knows the foundation of the museum and it tunnels which lead to a forbidden pleasure—the outside. Together, they break in law in experiencing a sense of freedom—the sun, the horizon, open space. With this willful trespass on the Organization’s laws, they endanger the long-term goal or “pure recreation” (16) when all their debts are paid off.

Though freedom looms on the distant horizon of autumn years, THR-247 feels compelled to stir the inner workings of the Organization with his stubbornness or rebellion. Without the nagging beckon of his work, he experiences a sense of freedom he hasn’t experience in a long time; he would call it “childhood” but he refers to it as the “pre-work” period of his adolescence: “If it had seemed then a time of freedom, that illusion prevailed only because the concept of freedom was not understood” (26).

The first third is an unexceptional start which mirrors previous dystopian novels to a predictable degree. If the reader is looking for a generic, middle-of-the-road, no -frills dystopian novel, then look no further than the first third of The Sentinel Stars. Eventually, he loses track of his newly found love ABC-331 and gets interrogated by an Organization investigator… but to his surprise, he’s allowed one 24-hour period to experience a camp where those who have paid off their debts go to retire—a Freeman camp.

Though THR-247 has the expectation of a utopia in the Freeman camps far from the walls of his city, the reader knows better than the naïve character (unless you too are as naïve and sheltered as he). Of course, the Freeman camp won’t all be about free love and mind, won’t be inhabited by sybaritic lotus eaters, nor be open to an outsider unfamiliar with their ways. Coming from total organization and total bondage, THR-247 expects the Freeman camp to be its opposite—total autonomy and total willful right to do as he pleases. Instead, he found anarchy, a social return to inhibition, soulless heathens, and exploitation. He’s not even sure he’ll survive the twenty-hour period he has been allowed to stay because something, other than his quashed expectations, seems to be afoot.

There are a few good twists on THR-247 experience at the Freeman camp. His sheltered sense of freedom isn’t the same freedom by which the Freemen live; but with the great gift of freedom comes great responsibility and accountability. THR-247’s prison of a home in the city leaves him unprepared for the savagery of the Freeman, the savagery of lawlessness, the savagery of freedom. He’s eager to return home, but some of those with the so-called precious “freedom” at the Freeman camp would also love to return to the structured way of life within the city.

It’s a middling book which starts with a generic dystopian atmosphere and follows a predictable path of contrast and quashed expectations.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2011: The Breath of God (Small, Jeffrey)

Modern pulp through and through (2/5)

I can’t define what “popular fiction” is, but I tend to steer away from it. Is it similar to “pop music”, meant for the broadest spectrum of people for mass consumption? Is it similar to “pop art”, whimsical pieces to catch the eye and entertain? Does popularity equate to quality? Are the hordes of people reading the same book happy? To mince a quote from one of my favorite “popular fiction” titles, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1996): Do people read to popular fiction because they are miserable? Or are they miserable because they read popular fiction?

In regards to modern popular authors, I haven’t read Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, but I have read Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October [1984]), Stephen King(The Running Man [1982]), and Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain [1969])… all oldies. More modern popular fiction… I’ll have to consult my database (beep beep boop): Yan Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997), and Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996). That’s about as modern as I get for popular fiction.

Now, we come to Jeffrey Small’s Breath of God (2011). How did this end up on my to-read shelf? I thank one of my M.Ed. professors for sending me two boxes laden with secondhand goodies from his father’s library sale. He knew I liked fiction and he knew I used to study Buddhism (as a hobby and during my B.A.), but, while his heart was in the right place, this novel was flatter than a saltine cracker on my tongue’s palate (dimensionally, texturally, and taste-wise).

Rear cover synopsis:
A murder at the Taj Mahal. A kidnapping in a sacred city. A desperate chase through a cliffside monastery. All in the pursuit of a legend that could link the world’s great religious faiths.

In 1887, a Russian journalist made an explosive discovery in a remote Himalayan monastery only to be condemned and silenced for the heresy he proposed. His discovery vanished shortly thereafter.

Now, graduate student Grant Matthews journeys to the Himalayas in search of this ancient mystery. But Matthews couldn’t have anticipated the conspiracy of zealots who would go to any lengths to prevent him from bringing this secret public. Soon he is in a race to expose a truth that will change the world’s understanding of religion. A truth that his university colleagues believe is mere myth. A truth that will change his life forever—if he survives.”


Though I went through nine years of Catholic school, I immediately left the church after leaving the school; thus came four years of a-religious tendencies. In university, I was brought back into the fold of religion through my personal interest in world religions, both in courses and in my free time, mainly Buddhism. I had many interests in Buddhism and devoured many texts and devoted lots of time to its practice. Even back then (circa 2000), even though I was a highfalutin grad student, I saw and accepted the similarities between the world religions (through Theravada Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and beyond). So, when a writer pens a novel like Breath of God based on those similarities, it holds an intrigue for me.

On that account—the cross-pollination of ideas in world religions—, the novel does an OK job of capturing its essence for the average reader (it is popular fiction, after all). Small pulls together a lot of facts together with some speculation into a taffy-like plot that stretches its effect to the nth degree. The outcome is interesting, the worldly implications are intriguing, and the secret history of Jesus is also a gem… but when taken together with the pulpiness of its delivery, the novel reads like and has the predictability of a paint-by-numbers picture.

For the sake of convenience and sturdy construction, many parts of the novel are made of wood: the evangelical reverend (Brady) is greedy and preachy, the religious studies graduate student (Grant) is open-minded and persistent, the religious extremist (Huntley) is amoral and internally conflicted, and the lone female role (Minaski) is supportive, of course. Those are the roles, but all characters must also have a flaw: Brady’s ignorance, Grant’s naivety, Huntley’s over-confidence, and Minaski’s… well, she’s just a supportive female so she doesn’t count. The only other female in the book—Professor Martha Simpson—gets blown to smithereens by a bomb, so she’s not worth mentioning either.

Playing their parts to stereotypes, the American evangelical camp is avaricious, scheming, and hell-bent on dogma while the Bhutanese Buddhist camp is simple, serene, and pragmatic. In the American corner, there remains the loose cannon of Huntley, not directly under the employ of Brady, but definitely a wildcard if exposed; in the Bhutanese corner, the wildcard is the abbot of the temple who doesn’t want the texts exposed to the world. Exposure, for both sides of the world and of the story, is a shame worse than the truth.

In the end, this isn’t promoted as “a novel of religious inquiry”, “a novel of spiritual enlightenment”, or “a novel of male dominance in religion and religious studies”… but it’s promoted as “a novel of suspense”. Like the characters and the plot, the suspense is also as predictable as a child’s match-the-shape-with-the-hole game—where it feel like the plot needs an injection of suspense, in the next page it springs. And you know, in those really bad Hollywood action movies, where the villain seems like he dies, only he has one last gasp of energy to revenge himself and attacks—not once, but twice—and the viewer just screams at the screen, “Just kill the bastard!”… well, it’s the same in this book.

Then there’s the end, which is all inclusive and wholly satisfying to those who demand a dreamy marriage, a wonderful promotion, and a all-encompassing personal history rehash. It’s everything that a typical epilogue should be and—while I understand that it should provide closure—it’s all too laid out, neat, fanciful, ideal, etc. It simply reeks of being a popular fiction epilogue, a pulpy ending to a pulpy book. After all the terribly predictable suspense, the conclusion is a terribly written piece of gristle at the end of a chewy string of pulp.

Monday, January 12, 2015

1973: Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (Reynolds, Mack)

Reads like a didactic socialist textbook from the future in dialogue format (3/5)

I have limited experience (self-imposed) to the works of Mack Reynolds. I first read the author’s novel Lagrange Five (1979) in 2009 but was put off by the heavy-handed socialist agenda. In 2010, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) but, similar to Lagrange Five, I was put off by the in-your-face socialism in the last 10% of the novel. Now, this is peculiar because—when I cared enough to actually vote—I used to vote on the Socialist ballots for the presidential election (I won’t discuss politics here). I enjoy the far-reaching ideas of socialism but authors with mindsets on the progressive socialist agenda tend to heap too much on a novel to make it attractive. Rather than sounding didactic, most socialist agenda novels simply read like a manifesto.

But Mack Reynolds isn’t without accolade. His shortstory “The Martians and the Coys” (1951) in Hans Stefan Santesson’s anthology GentleInvaders (1969) is enjoyable romp unadorned with political or social dressings. Another shortstory, “Farmer” (1961) in Groff Conklin’s collection Worldsof When (1962), was less enjoyable due to its pulpy spy and sabotage, but, nevertheless, it too was missing the element of a manifesto. Seems to be that sometime in the late 1960s, socialism crept into Reynolds’ writing and planted roots in every idea he was to ever come up with. BUT… I don’t cast him from my shelves just because of his repetitive message; I have Towers of Utopia (1975) and this novel with the intriguing title of Looking Backward, from the Year 2000 (1973).

So, how did America change from the time of writing (1973) to the time of the story (2003)?

Dentistry, transportation, government, marriage, hygiene, city zoning, medical science, agriculture, recreation, perishables, news media, education, vocations, entertainment, gender, shaving, information access, space exploration, language… dear Lord can I stop now? Each chapter highlights a few of the topics just listed. The novel reads like a textbook of the future translated into dialogue. You could probably make headings and sub-headings of topics similar to a thesis, for ease of access to the information. It reads dully, unfolds dully, and ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The premise of the story is that a multi-million dollar business mogul (Julian West) is counting the days until his inevitable death, or so his doctor tells him. His heart is beating its last few beats and will expire within months, killing him along with it. In a time when organ transplants only extend a life for a matter of days, Julian looks to the longer term for the solution in form of hibernation. Only a fringe science at the time, Julian puts his life into the doctor’s hands and plans to wake up in no more than ten years when science will be able to give him a new heart and a new chance at life. He liquidates all of his assets, says good-bye to his love, buys priceless works of art and stores them in a secluded cave for hope of making a return of his investment, and goes into hibernations… when he awakes nearly thirty years later.

He awakes in an unfamiliar room, in a tall building, in a “university city” named after him, and to an unfamiliar man. Little does he know, much of the world that he had left in the 1970s is still around after the year 2000. His initial future shock is dampened by the kind efforts of his host family, the husband of which has been tending to him since Julian’s prior doctor’s removal from service. The husband, the wife, and even the single-child daughter are all well-versed in the differences between the 1970s and 2000s; they have knowledge of statistics, turning points in history, policy that shifted trends, and intimacy with the barbaric ways of thirty years prior.

With the cornucopia of changes present in the world in which he is becoming slowly familiarized with, Julian attempts to label what he sees: “What would you call the present socio-economic system—communism?” (167). The good doctor carefully parries this labeling thrust with a didactic rebuttal:

There are elements of socialism … There are elements of collectivism and of syndicalism and perhaps technocracy. It might even be said that there are elements of anarchism … Elements too, of meritocracy. (168)

And while his host family as quick to note that their modern world is far from utopia, Julian is often awestruck by the perfection of their world, how every little qualm and irk has shifted to a wondrous curiosity and reverence. From Julian’s perspective, all wrinkles have been ironed out of the fabric of the American life, but Edith, the doctor’s daughter wisely maintains: “Utopia is the perfect society. There is no such thing. When one set of man's problems have been solved, two more take their place. Society evolves but it never reaches perfection” (111). Regardless, all of his meals are cooked to perfection, he is in top health for his age, his access to information is unlimited, he has a fresh set of clothes every day, and there are always questions and explanations to every question he can posit. Occasionally, the family defers that their modern world is actually much different than his own from decades ago:

The real basics of human existence were still the same. A baby was born to man and woman and went through childhood and adolescence in a family group, preparatory to taking his place in society as an adult. He lived in a community, received his education, found his niche in life, formed new family relationships and had children, and then eventually faced death. (220)

However, he can’t wrap his head around the way society has lost its obsession with money. He’s determined to value everything economically such as the value of wages, the price of an object of desire, and even the value of works of art. He continually returns to the subject, tedious forays into the archaic mode of yesterday in the eyes of the family. Still, Julian has in his mind that he can still become rich and powerful in a time where there are no rich and powerful people.

But why is the family hesitant to let him out of the apartment by himself? Why do they worry about who he’s seen or where he’s been? Why do they check both lengths of the hallway before leading him to their private elevator? What are they hiding? The reason is a shift in one of the topics mentioned but it had gone unspoken because they didn’t think Julian could handle the truth or the reality of his new life. Regardless of his recent awakening into a world he understands on a superficial level, he still feels compelled to be old-fashioned and to do things his way. This symptom of clutching at his past will only harm his transition to the present.

Julian West isn’t a very interesting character and the world in his future isn’t very interesting either; yet, there’s a sequel titled Equality: In the Year 2000 (1977), which I don’t think I’ll ever get around to reading.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

1951: Beyond Infinity (Carr, Robert Spencer)

Scientist as hero; predictability as the villain (2/5)

Imagine my delight when, in the secondhand bookstore (though they are both compound words, I use the collocation so often I might as well compound it again to “secondhandbookstore”), my eyes fell upon a holy trinity of sorts: (1) an unfamiliar author, (2) a short story collection, and (3) a book from the 1950s. I call it a holy trinity because I love finding new authors, I love reading short story collections (less so for anthologies), and I love finding gems from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Robert Spencer Carr’s (1909-1994) reputation as an author—having written stories between the years 1925 and 1952—is overshadowed by his later indulgence with UFO conspiracy. His legacy as an author is limited to two minor publications. The first novel, a non-genre mind you, was The Rampant Age (1928) which became a movie two years later, according to Wiki and IMDB. His second and late minor note as an author is his novelette “Easter Eggs”, which is included in this collection. Between 1949 and 1954, the story was printed seven times after its initial publication in The Saturday Evening Post (September 24, 1949). Sixty years after its last publication… it’s a tad better than the first two stories, but the first three stories feel terribly dated; however, “Mutation” is one story that has a timeless element.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Robert Spencer Carr is a storyteller of wit and imagination. These stories of his—ingeniously plotted, sparkling with life, written with a sure hand—are triumphant examples of science-fiction at its best.

This is a book to satisfy the most exacting s-f fan—and to delight the reader for whom science-fiction is still a strange and mysterious realm.”


Beyond Infinity (1951, novella) – 2/5
Synopsis: The aging astronomer, Dr. Burgess Wood, has a successful scientific career—including his recent developments in quadratures—but one thing has been absent from his life: love. To find his long-lost love, he sends his alluring niece to Don Brooks, a private investigator. He and Holly Mosley, the niece, track the unrequited love’s address to Dr. Wood’s professional rival’s desert estate, where they see the elusive Martha Madison and her husband Martin. A bizarre plan to planets unfolds in which the Madison’s will leave and return to Earth, a spectacle for which the press will attend.

The story starts off well enough with a handful of mysteries and subtle nuances, but soon becomes dampened by the cheesy developing relationship of Don Brooks and Holly Mosley, which continues until the very end (with predictable results common of pulp from the 20s or 30s):

“Did you hear what I heard? A far-off musical sound.”
“Celestial wedding bells?” (84)

Throw in some scientists, some techno-babble, and some glorification of the sciences (again, an annoying symptom of the age of pulp) and you’ve got yourself a rather amateurish attempt as writing science fiction.

The method which with the Madison’s leave and return to Earth is nonsensical. They leave at an appointed time to much spectacle, travel faster than the speed of light upon a rocket, and return later—after much deceleration—much younger and happy to have relived their childhood. Seemingly having experienced their lives repeatedly, they have become wise to point of speaking in riddles and remarking that “We found love that it literally the life eternal” (78).

Ah, the imperfect marriage of love and science.


Morning Star (1947, novelette) – 2/5 – Brian Dale is an ex-Navy pilot now in charge of the security detail for one of America’s most secret projects in the deserts of New Mexico: man’s first spaceship fueled by nuclear rocket. The four distinguished scientists heading the project meet under one roof to work out the manned trip to Mars while awaiting the arrival of one invited, but soon to be deported, Russian scientist named Dr. Eva Morgenstern, whose unexpected beauty and agenda wows them all.

Much like “Beyond Infinity”, this story has a sappy falling-in-love romance between Brian and Eva. Certainly, her aura is highly influential with all the men around her—the typical American WASP super-scientist type, you know—but they are all elderly (as super-scientists should be). Eva, with her alien femininity, massages the minds of the four, strongly influencing them to shift their space destination from Mars to Venus because she has a personal interest in the matter. Meanwhile, Brian is more susceptible to her charm; her beautiful aura plays the strings of his heart and wild images of her protection and their marriage dance in his mind.

Two aspects of this story strike me as ridiculous: (1) the inclusion of a brilliant Russian scientist in an American top-secret project and (2) Eva’s insistence and the scientists’ agreement that a flight to Mars can be easily switched to that of Venus. No one even knows what the Russian scientist looks like and Brian tries desperately to hold off on including her in the meeting, yet she still slides into the room, leaving the security guards breathless and misty-minded. Her inclusion in the meeting is a driven wedge in the plot, in which she is integral… so she feels misplaced. Then there’s such a ruckus about the manned trip to Mars and the specific weight of the vessel for its trajectory that two considerations aren’t taken into account: Venus would require much less fuel because the journey is sunward and it’s nearly ten million miles closer to Earth. The scientists seem to glance over these as if the details were for what color should the shower curtain be. Anyway, the entire story rests on a lingual twist: Morgen (morning) stern (star).


Those Men from Mars (1949, novella) – 3/5 – Outside the sacred lawns and grounds of the White House and the Kremlin, pink ellipsoids from Mars have been descending. Cold War paranoia urges them to send intense barrages of artillery at the eggs, but the eggs are impervious because of their deflector shields. As each falls to Earth, its’ intentions are stated: air, water, earth, and sunshine. As each of these are bountiful, the US and USSR are eager to promise that while saying they also have an essential fifth element: freedom. The Martians, as peace for millennia, are now arguing.

Everyone has their role here: the pretty girl is the secretary who is briefly kidnapped by the alien; the handsome White House correspondent who is protective of the secretary and anxious to jump into the scene; the general is the hot-headed man who blames everything on the Russians and demands things to be blown up; the president is the cool-headed, analytical one who approaches the egg with offers of peace rather than a pistol held up to its face. They play their roles perfectly and predictably.

In contrast, the alien inside the egg plays a unique and unpredictable role. After his initial askance of the four elements listed in the synopsis, the alien hams it up to the reporters and wows everyone with its tricks; it plays the part of the jester in an uncertain time. Likewise, a world away in the Kremlin, the reader is assuming that the same charade is unfolding there, too, with similar results. But behind the jest lie the predicament which sent the Martians to Earth—their need for physiological support. Though “freedom” isn’t part of their hierarchy of needs, it sounds tempting but the two Martians—communicating together—can’t agree if the US or USSR have the truer idea of “freedom”, something which they didn’t even want in the first place.

Compare this to the post-colonial world where both the US and USSR were jockeying for political influence over—what were once called—Third World nations. They simply wanted similar physiological support (clean water, food, soil, and air) but instead were given the ideological offering first: shake and agree with the hand of the politician before accepting the hand-me-down of aid. It was an ugly affair with the countries and an ever uglier affair with the peaceful Martians, whom fight to the death in order to champion the true harbinger of “freedom”.


Mutation (1951, shortstory) – 4/5 – On a Thursday evening, fatal ballistic missiles streaked to and from the skies of America, but Reverend Jones and his family are isolated in the mountains and are fortunate to survive the global disaster. Their son’s mannerisms and language regress to near-barbarianism and the forest’s fauna exhibit strange multi-million-old patterns of selection, from fish to deer. With his wife expecting their second son, she feels this one is different from Cane; Mary and Adam expect something miraculous.

Saved by mere luck or by the hand of God, the reverend and his family are saved by the nearly worldwide destruction. Somehow, they have also escaped the effects of fallout, but the wildlife of the forest they have found shelter in shows signs of mutation. Worries impact their consciousness as the reverend’s wife is expected to give birth. They worry: mutation or miracle? If their environment is any indicator, the baby will be an abomination. Regardless of the parched state of the earth, the regressed state of their son Cane, and the prognosis of their coming baby, their spirits remain high but his spiritual foundations weaken. Even upon reflection, the reverend is yet to be certain whether the catastrophe was even part of his great God’s plans. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

2007: Ancestor (Sigler, Scott)

Pulpy and awkward adaptation from a Podcast (2/5)

Have you ever read a novelization? I’ve read a few (the Alien trilogy being quite good [1] [2] [3]) but two in mind felt quite wooden, awkward on the page: Gipe’s mildly interesting Back to the Future (1985) and Telep’s disastrous Red Planet (2000). Of course, a novelization is a novel written from the screenplay of a movie, but sometimes that doesn’t translate very well and it leaves the novelization, as said, wooden and awkward, unfit for the story to be experienced as a novel.

Finding new SF is a difficult process. I have my entourage of favorite modern authors (e.g., Hamilton, Banks, Reynolds, Bear, Brin, Brown, Robinson, Egan) but I’ve nearly read all their bibliographies. I tend to read novels from the 1970s but sometimes I want something fresh, so I take a chance on a newer novel from the secondhand bookstore. I spotted Ancestor and it sounded like the perfect fusion of SF and horror—a difficult sub-genre to do well. Unknown to me—because I haven’t been in the technological loop for 12 or more years—Scott Sigler is well known for producing the first serial novel via Podcast from 2005-2006 and one year later it was printed as a novel. And like a novelization, the story, again, felt wooden and awkward, poorly adapted from one medium to another (Podcast to novel).

Rear cover synopsis:
“On a remote island in the Canadian Arctic, a group of geneticists has dialed back the evolutionary clock to re-create humankind’s common ancestor. The method? Illegal. The result? A computer-engineered living creature, an animal whose organs can be implanted in any person, with no chance of transplant rejection.

The breakthrough could save millions of lives—and make billions for the company backing this desperate gambit.

There’s just one problem: these ancestors are not the docile herd animals their creators envisioned. Instead, their work has given birth to something big, something evil… something very, very hungry.”


I should pay attention to covers more closely. I would have jerked knees, elbows, jaw and toes if I had read more finely that Sigler is compared to both Michael Crichton and Stephen King. He’s also compared to Richard Matheson (of I am Legend [1954]) and Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club [1996]) but I have no experience with those authors. However, Crichton and King are two mainstream writes who I do have experience with and, generally, their writing feels as mediocre as their popularity—where does their popularity stem from, I am clueless.

Rather than feeling like the modern pulp fiction of Crichton or King, Ancestor feels like a James Rollins novel, books of whom I thankfully haven’t read since 2007 when I realized, after three novels, that he was a shit writer (Deep Fathom [2001] is one of the top ten worst books I’ve ever read). After three novels, the writing was so systematic that it felt soulless and then it got worse by being ridiculous.

So, in essence, Ancestor has the bad qualities of a novelization and systematic pulp. There everything you would expect from a pulpy thriller novel: (1) a corporation willing to do anything to get what they want; (2) a scientific experience that goes awry; (3) remote locations that isolate the plot and characters; (4) a healthy dose of helicopters, planes, guns, and explosions; (5) military bigwigs aching to topple the project; and (6) a romance overshadowed by tension. But don’t forget that this is also a so-called science fiction novel, so it must adhere to the clichés of the genre: (1) pedantic scientific lingo, (2) brief orations about the same lingo, (3) obtuse deductions that are always perfect, and (4) features the most gifted—but ultimately flawed—mind.

The entire cast of characters are a bit flat; though some history is provided for each, it feels dull and forced, thereby lending no motivation to their actions… that is, aside from the pivotal character of Liu Jian Da. She’s the one character who makes or breaks the transgenetic project and who also saves them or kills them all. She’s a genius and in the top of her field (see SF cliché #4) but has hallucinations stemming from her work of mixing genes and body parts. Her own motivations, as she later finds out, are beside herself; she understands what she has done but not why she has done it. She watched the horror unfold, knowing only unto herself that this was a big, big mistake.

That big, big mistake was supposed to be a herd of tame herbivores that would grow human organs for transplant. That what she thought she had coded into the genes of the ova, but she later finds out that she coded for something entirely different for reasons she’s unclear of. Either way, the multiplying cells in the cows’ wombs are growing at a ridiculously accelerated rate—something she did code for—but not to the size that they are becoming. Rather than hooved ungulates passively chewing grass, the little monsters within are sharply clawed, have jaw of menacing power, and exhibit a carnivorous appetite while in utero (originally all the sets were developing as twins, but one of them devoured the other). It’s a predictable (based on the synopsis) ruse but aside from the orations of the lingo, this is thick of the novel, this is what you’re paying for. Unfortunately, there very little else to carry it.


In the end, the publisher is pushing this to be a mainstream thriller, so they print enticing quotes from authors everyone knows in order to entice the easy-to-please mainstream reader. Maybe there’s a small resemblance to a “the more of the story is…” but the thriller aspect of the novel distracts from the possible message of scientific ethics. It’s not altogether terrible, nor is it terribly exciting or interesting to read; it teeters on the brink of mediocrity and slides into the chasm of pulp.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

1971: Gray Matters (Hjortsberg, William)

Intentionally whimsical, but errant and purposeless (3/5)

I, like many other browsers of the science fiction stacks at the wonderfully smelling secondhand bookstores, have never heard of William Hjortsberg. Those same people probably also love taking a chance at pulling down a book by an obscure author from the 1970s. The cover may had been intriguing enough, but it was the synopsis that hooked me.

As it turns out, Hjortsberg is a name of little lasting permanence in the world of SF. Aside from Gray Matters, he only had two other novels in the span of a decade: Alp (1969), which seems to be a humorous story of sorts, and Falling Angel (1978), a detective novel infused with witchcraft, voodoo, and horror and was made into the movie Angel Heart (1987) with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet. Around the same period, Hjortsberg also published five shorter works between 1973 and 1985 which are SF-themed, none of which I’ve ever come across.

Rear cover synopsis:
“It is the twenty-fifth century. People have been reduced to Cerebromorphs—disembodied brains stored in tanks and wired to computers, passing from layer to layer, awaiting liberation at the top level as enlightened beings rehoused in new perfect bodies. But there is one brain that engineers a spectacular escape—with bizarre and tragic repercussions for its fellow Cerebromorphs.”


Denton Kalbfleischer (nicknamed Skeet) was only twelve when the plane he was in crashed into East Cicero, in which he was the only survivor—barely. Near death with broken bones and ruptured organs, with no family to sign off on his behalf, and without any choice in any regard, Skeet’s brain was removed and placed in limbo yet alive. The science of the era was unable to communicate with the floating hunk of gray matter, so it remained in a class container gathering dust as a curiosity. Nearly thirty years later, technology progressed to the point where communication could be held; Skeet’s first words: “What time is breakfast?” (18). Later, he was also the first mind to be linked to the System and stored away.

Obu Itubi was a Nigerian sculptor from a couple of centuries after Skeet. Much later and stored as a digital mind, Obu spends his time researching bee dancing patterns and other insect movements for the sake of art, but this dalliances aren’t appreciated by the Auditors, the slightly-more enlightened minds which govern the time and activities of the lower-caste minds. Though he may not be the most conversant in the matters of the Zen koan, he is a crafty man with a will… and there happens to be a way. His rebellious idea of escape from the System is absurd since he’s only an immobile brain, but the maintenance robots are open to human command and susceptible to errant orders. Ensconced in a metallic hopper, Obu makes his escape while wreaking havoc upon the facility which houses all the System’s brains… and the untold award of reaching enlightenment—perfect human bodies for use upon the virgin earth.

Meanwhile, Vera Mitlovic is a Czech actress of certain reputation on the silver screen and on the satin sheets; as she loses herself in narcissistic nostalgia, an Auditor chides her for not taking her daily meditative exercises for the last three days and cuts her off from the hypnotic mirror of her past.  Even though she was beyond geriatric when she had her cerebrectomy, she still experiences loneliness and relives her experiences with past lovers, past husbands, past abuse, and past murder. Her loneliness and experience (ahem) make her suitable for a memory-merge with the young, naïve Skeet. As he has been unable to reach transcendence through normal means even after completing numerous doctoral degrees and as his true ambition is to be a cowboy, the Auditing Committee decide that he must experience his first sexual encounter in order to mature and, hopefully, attain a new level of awareness. Once together on a virtual island, their mutual eagerness soon earns Skeet “another merit badge, one not awarded by the Boy Scouts” (52).

As Obu makes his escape from Center Control, he leaves explosions blossoming behind him. The surges of power that result from the concussions strike through the circuits of the System and causes damage to many pieces of hardware and, notably, one piece of wetware—Skeet’s brain, which becomes a cinder at the bottom of his brain’s tank. This leaves Vera alone on her virtual island, yearning for the eager young kisses of her inexperienced lover. After some time, her direct Auditor—ex-pilot Phillip Quarrels (and ex-lover, actually)—decides to memory-merge with her at timed intervals in order to assess the progress of young Skeet. When he learns that Skeet has disappeared from the memory-merge, his attention turns to the cherubic delights of the reverse-aging Vera. As she relives her nubile lust, her mind also returns her to her past tragedies with men. Here, Phillip is a willing participant but an unwilling victim.

On the surface of the earth, Obu has taken his metallic hopper into the forested unknown. His hopper, meant for the level surfaces of the underground Center Control, is unable to nimbly navigate the rocky terrain and he ends up tipping over, rendering the robot incapacitated and with limited power to sustain him. Luckily, a band of transcended humans discovers the overturned robot and extract Obu’s brain. Patient, saintly, and enlightened yet simple and practical, the scantily clad humans take Obu’s brain back to the Center, where they witness the carnage of the structural damage and the fleshy debris of the bodies that had been meant for the ready minds of the Cerebromorphs. Picking through the mangled bodies, the small band of humans choose one for Obu’s transferences, which the Center reluctantly allows him even though he’s not one of the transcended. Out on the surface of the earth, Obu first relishes his freedom but then resorts to his un-enlightened corporal vices of drink and lust.

As Vera and Phillip tackle their existential lives in virtual reality through Vera’s passion and verbal circumlocution, Obu and his newly found fellow un-enlightened partner tackle their own corporal existential lives.


At the age of 28, Hjortsberg, through careful consideration, pinpointed his desired writing technique: in his own words, he would make “the whole thing up from day to day without a clue what would happen next. I wanted only to surprise myself”. Writing along these lines on whim, he says it took him a year to write Gray Matters… that amounts to half a page per day on a whim for the 160-page novel. It certainly reads like it was written by the seat of his pants. The beginning is objective and technical, sparse with dialogue—all a sandy foundation for a whimsical novel about every character having a hot spot in their britches for some coital action (of one sort or another).

At first, the whimsical dalliances of the author are good (a fairly non-descript adjective but it feels right to use here). I can be fun at times: the zany idea of a mind hijacking a mechanical servitor, blindly winding through the corridors of the underground Center, placing bombs behind it and leaving a path in its wake, then coming out into the sunshine only to tip over helplessly. But the whimsical misdirections and humorous misgivings are eclipses by the looming intention of thrusting as much sex as possible, from as many characters as possible, into as much of the plot even though it makes very little sense in the end—again, here comes the whim.

It’s not just sex though. It’s too descriptive and, shall I say, deviant to be a whim. Perhaps most of the plot was whim—certainly—but this attention to detail to the superfluous sex scenes distract from the core message intention direction body of the so-called plot. Many, dare I say all, of the scenes raise an eyebrow or two… perhaps this is why Playboy printed a condensed version of the story and award the author with a Playboy Editorial Award for Best New Fiction Contributor.

(1) Eyebrow arch level 2/5: Just a quarter of the way through, we meet our first passing thought of Vera’s past-time sex life, where she recollects one past lover, “who lashed her naked breasts with his gift offering of long-stemmed roses” (39).

(2) Eyebrow arch level 4/5: In the very next paragraph, he remembers “her second husband’s playful habit of sharing her with his Great Dane” (39).

(3) Eyebrow arch level 1/5: A little later, along on the virtual beach with the sun and wind caressing her hair, “She runs her hand down across her tummy and the fuzz of maiden floss, cupping her sex, which hungers like the mouth of a raging vacuum cleaner” (46).

(4) Eyebrow arch level 5/5: Phillip dreamily thinks of the exploits he has shared with the nymph Vera, specifically,

Vera’s trick of inserting a knotted silk scarf into his rectum (first lubricating the way with her ingenious tongue) and reaching behind as she rides him like a piston-powered jockey to remove it, one knot at a time, at the onset of his climax. (126)

That last one was the butt of in-the-know office jokes for a good day or two—classically bad!


But it’s not all bad, I mean, the beginning is enticing and Obu’s revival into human form is interesting, but the errant directions of the author’s whim is purposeless. If this is a measure of Hjortsberg’s other work, then there’s little to look forward to expect bizarre plot whims and bizarre sexual whims. Methinks I’ll pass on the rest of his bibliography.