Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, January 24, 2016

1956: The Human Angle (Tenn, William)

Some creative and absurd, others poignant and deep (4/5)

Just this month, I read my first William Tenn novel: Of Men and Monsters (1968). Though this latter book is more than ten years later than his short work in this reviewed collection, it still shows his knack for creativity, zaniness, and depth, three words of which would also describe Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley.

Two stories seemed familiar, but it took me a while to realize that I had them before: I had read “Project Hush” before in Asimov’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) and “Party of the Two Parts” in Santesson’s Gentle Invaders (1969). The latter of which is bizarrely unique story of alien oddities and galactic law. This one steals the show out of the entire collection. In close second is “The Servant Problem”. This story isn’t one of blunt humor, but a cultural introspection of the familiar theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—it’s poignant yet absurd.

Project Hush (1954, shortstory) – 4/5
The printed budget for the Army’s project—codenamed Project Hush—is also listed as miscellaneous and grows every year. Their grand plan: fly to the moon in total secrecy in order to establish a base. With phase one of the project complete, the scientists and top-brass unpack their crates and erect a dome, only to get word that there’s another dome on the moon. When the scout investigates, communication goes silent. Speculation stirs until the scout returns, silent about his absence. 7 pages

The Discovery of Morniel Mathaway (1955, shortstory) – 4/5
Monochromatic smudged upon monochromatic smudges—this is what Morniel Mathaway considers to the revolutionary modern art comparable to Picasso and Roualt. Popular opinion—read: everyone—thinks it’s utter garbage, yet Morniel still speaks at length about his art, his vision, and his greatness. His ego is overloaded when a time-traveler arrives to visit him, the most famous artist of all time. When the time-traveler sees Morniel’s artwork, he’s greatly disappointed and disgusted. When he shows Morniel his paintings from the future, Morniel sees opportunity. 17 pages

Wednesday’s Child (1956, shortstory) – 3/5
Fabian Balik is a micromanaging office manager concerned about the efficiency of his company’s secretary pool. One secretary by the name of Wednesday Gresham has regular absences on a week- and month-long basis every year. In order to satisfy his curiosity more than anything, Fabian invites Wednesday to lunch, where he probes with questions. In turn, she concedes and her answers are incredible: she gets her appendix removed and her teeth all fall out… every year. Curiosity turns to fascination and love as Fabian digs for the truth behind his beautiful bride. 22 pages

The Servant Problem (1955, novelette) – 5/5
More than 99% of the world’s people are reverently loyal to Garomma, who they consider to be the Slavey of Civilization, the Servant of all, and the World’s Drudge. Though they worship his supposed servitude, in reality they are all his brainwashed subjects, of whom 99% isn’t enough for complete control. Behind the megalithic ego of Garomma is his own servant—Moddo—who has his own plans to control Garomma and hence the world. Filled with stress, Moddo visits Loob the healer to allay his pain, but Loob also has plans to control Moddo, who controls Garomma, who controls the world. 32 pages

Party of the Two Parts (1954, novelette) – 5/5
Earth is under the watchful eye of the Galactic Patrol as it’s a budding civilization (Stage 15) nearly ready to join the galactic community; however, the Patrol’s existence onn Earth is a secret. Meanwhile, Gtet is at Stage 19—a primary interstellar citizen. Their worlds’ clash when L’payr, a habitual criminal with 2,343 felonies, escapes to Earth because of his most recent crime: peddling smut to the amoebae youth of his planet. On Earth, he must find fuel for his ship while not breaking any galactic laws. His crafty legal mind finds Mr. Osborne Blatch. 24 pages

The Flat-eyed Monster (1955, novelette) – 3/5
While in a pleasant evening slumber on the university campus on which he works, a comparative literature assistant professor is teleported from his comfortable bed to an alien examination table. The multi-tentacled, suitcase-sized, bulb-eyed beings ignore his spoken pleas of communication all the while Clyde Manship—the humble professor—receives their telepathic conversations and idle thoughts. Once he escapes a paper bag, he enters the alien city, where they have been put on alert about his deadly high-frequency death rays from his eyes. 35 pages

The Human Angle (1948, shortstory) – 3/5
Out in the sticks, a reporter drives through the pouring rain to find the right people to interview for the town’s big news, which is laughable to him: vampires have attacked and killed three children. The farmers are monosyllabic, so he seeks out the right kind of average Joe or Jane. In the rain, he comes across one such regular lass who’s a bit plump to be a mountain redneck, but the reporter can already envision his characterization of the sodden girl. As his cars nears her home, he cranes his neck forward. 6 pages

A Man of Family (1956, shortstory) – 3/5

With Stewart Raley’s promotion to Ganymede Department Chief over a year ago, he and his wife decided to have a fourth child in their New Hampshire home because he was entitled to it with his 9,000 territs per year salary. Unfortunately, he’s been made superfluous due to a takeover and now he finds himself demoted and under the yearly salary that allows him to have his fourth child. Without hope for entering that salary bracket again, the couple considers which child to make an orphan. 16 pages

Friday, January 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of December 2015

#77: Marîd Audran 2: A Fire in the Sun (1989) – George Alec Effinger (4/5)

Much like the first book in the trilogy, this book takes places exclusively in the detailed world of the Middle Eastern/North African city that holds the tarnished gem known as the Budayeen. Marîd has inherited/assumed more responsibilities from a local godfather names Friedlander Bey; some of these tasks are burdensome and irk Marîd’s nostalgia for his past life, while others allow him to move and operate without hindrance. Behind the wealth of Friedlander Bey, something that spreads beyond the confines of the Budayeen becomes known to Marîd: international affairs. This lies heavily on his mind while a whole host of troubles plague Marîd and the city, which involve family, corruption, deceit, and the all-too-familiar stench of murder. A Fire in the Sun complicates the series through an effective means and appetizers the palate of the reader for the remaining novel.

#78: Marîd Audran 3: An Exile Kiss (1991) – George Alec Effinger (3/5)

This third book in the trilogy isn’t actually the end. Sadly, Effinger died before the series could continue, so The Exile Kiss has an open ending that leaves the reader somewhat unsatisfied. This satisfaction stems from the deviation of plot: where the first two novels took place in the fantastically detailed city, half of The Exile Kiss takes place in the desert—a quite abrupt departure from the norm. The follow-thru is interesting in itself, but weakly links with the remaining half as the plot makes a return to the city where business seems to continue as normal. Effinger capitalizes on the first half’s long segue by infusing the latter half with savagery and malintent. Regardless of the desert segue, the novel would act as a great springboard for another one or two novels… Word of Night was going to be the fourth. If the trilogy doesn’t whet your appetite for 23rd-century cranial wetware and ubiquitous sex changes, Budayeen Nights (2008) has a nine-story collection of cyberpunk.

#79: Gormenghast 1: Titus Groan (1946) – Mervyn Peake (4/5)

She’s a hefty novel filled with imagination and detail that doesn’t open itself very easily to interpretation. It’s bizarre most of the time as it’s filled with digressions of imaginative fancy, characters that never break their idiosyncratic molds, and a castle that refuses to remained chained in the mind as a comprehendible entity. After seventy-six generations of Earls of Gormenghast, the seventy-seventh is born to a despondent king, a hermetic queen and her hoard of cats, a rebellious and spoiled princess who hates everyone, and the king’s two very dull-witted sisters… along with a slew of servants that support the rituals and routine tasks of the castle. Placing himself in the center of yet-to-be-developed friction, Steerpike sees opportunities everywhere to advance himself through manipulation and sheer cunning. Once a mere kitchen assistant, he soon snakes his way to the higher tiers of servants, royalty, and even making himself aware to the king. His actions aren’t only selfish as they become more destructive—physically, mentally, and dynastically. All in all, an amazing flight of imagination with overtones of regret for history repeating itself: the Law is blind power, it is truth, it is Destiny, and it has been forged through generations of regal ritual.

#80: No Doors, No Windows (1975) – Harlan Ellison (3/5)

I’ve read five of Ellison’s SF work only really liked one, honestly—“Life Hutch”), so this collection is my first exposure to him as a writer at large. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy the other collection on my shelf much more—Paingod (1965). What starts as a collection of suspense, borderline terror, and dread soon tapers off into repeated tales of sexism: women who are emotionally unstable, women portrayed as victims or sex objects (or both, in some cases)—in the end, women are just convenient vehicles to convey the manliness of the male characters. I don’t often rant over this kind of thing, but it is prevalent throughout the collection. There are 173 pages of stories in this collection in addition to an indulgent and often straying 32-page introduction. Ten of these pages are scattered with comments about the involved stories, but like the remaining 22 pages in the introduction, the words course through the relevant and the irrelevant like a slalom skier between gates. Way too much digression to read through, so I had to skim and skip much of it… comments that also ring true for many of the introductions for the stories in Dangerous Visions. Among the best: “Status Quo at Troyden’s” and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”. (full review)

#81: Hellflower (1953) – George O. Smith (1/5)

George O. Smith is notable for his Venus Equilateral collection in which a team of engineers create outlandishly technological uses for vacuum tubes—a brief synopsis that shows it’s early age from 1947. Regardless of its age, the book was zany and fun, if plausibility could be dampened as they shoot about the solar system and beam themselves about. This same aged fun cannot be attributed to Hellflower, however. A down-in-the-dirt man whose space pilot license had been revoked gets a second chance as an undercover agent for Solar Anti-Narcotic Department. As he assumes the shady role, our hero—Farradyne—attracts madmen and maidens with equal measure. The hellflower is an woman-specific addictive drug that acts like an aphrodisiac, but its origins are a mystery. Soon, Farradyne nears its source, but also comes close to finding another secret: Who caused the deaths that caused his license to be revoked. All in all, it’s cheesy, ham-fisted at times, and hard to swallow with so many abrupt revelations and abilities… just read the last line and you’ll understand: “Arm in arm they went out into the bright sunshine” (160).