Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Enoch Wallace fought in the American Civil War. In the 1960’s he is still alive, living reclusively in a mysterious house in Wisconsin, still looking like he is in his thirties. Eventually this attracts attention. After several initial changes in perspective, we settle into Enoch’s point of view; a humble man trying to manage a secret space depot for aliens while worrying about a potential nuclear war. Think of it as a bucolic “Men In Black with the tone of a quiet picnic.
Enoch Wallace is an instantly likable character, an intelligent country man who keeps mostly to himself but is friendly to all and generally means well. Hearing about Enoch’s minor adventures (which generally come to him, because they almost all occur in or around his house) is consistently pleasant. Through Enoch’s way station, Simak conveys his unadulterated humanism and his belief that humankind understands only the tiniest of all fractions of the universe and so should be humble and treat things in their proper proportions. Without preaching, Simak gets across the heart of his simple story in a well-mannered and steadily-paced classical story.
Though occasionally refreshing in its old-fashion Midwestern style, Simak’s novel is a little too simple and easy when it comes to big issues such as: How should we achieve world peace? Does all life have a soul? Are violence and death necessary to civilization? What defines a “good” person? Etc. Reducing these questions to easy answers deprives the reader of deeper engagement and robs the topics of their fascinating nuances. Ultimately one feels that Simak achieves his humanist paradise by wishful thinking, a problem exasperated by his use of several last-act coincidences culminating in a total dues ex machina. This “victory,” too easily bought, feels cheap.
That laid-back prose fits the story with its lack of pretension or artistic self-consciousness, but feels flat viewed today, 40 years later. The optimistic tale where the protagonist is an isolationist throwback to a century earlier and the antagonists are all far away and vague (only forming into a character to be challenged at the last minute) seems fearful of confronting the genuine reality of a fast-changing, highly-turbulent and diverse society.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
In an alternate history where the South wins the Civil War (here called “The War of Southern Independence”), a young farmer’s son named Hodge sets out to seek his fortune in New York. He finds the city, in the 1930’s, to be alive with the wonders of steam cars, pneumatic mail and household telegraphs.
Writing in 1953, Moore does an astounding job visualizing an alternative history (a genre he virtually invented) of surprising detail and wit. His world is fully believable for the purposes of the story and yet so littered with wicked ironies that there is plenty of room for keenly-observed social commentary and occasionally humor. Hodge is the perfect sci-fi protagonist for such a story, a man who is “always a spectator” and never a real participant. He is a likable character even as his flaws become more and more readily viewable. The supporting cast has some Dickensonian characters, but never outright single-trait clichés. Moore takes a fairly progressive attitude on race and gender and subverts his own somewhat sexist protagonist on more than one occasion.
Though an excellent book in terms of its world-creation and over-arching story, one seemingly important subplot (a military-conspiracy angle which build quite a bit of momentum) is left curiously forgotten and unresolved.
Monday, January 29, 2007
Similar to the movie “Waterworld” in premise, “The Drowned World” opens in a future where the temperature has risen so high that the icecaps have melted, sinking most of the major cities and forcing the surviving humans to live in the now-temperate arctic bands. Kerans is a scientist conducting studies in a flooded, abandoned London on changes in the flora and fauna. Insidiously affected by the isolation and environmental dislocation into conditions similar to the Mesozoic era, Kerans begins to drift into a curiously regressive psychological state.
J. G. Ballard manages to write an apathetic protagonist in an admirably interesting way. The author is equally talented at plumbing the depths of the human psyche as he is in exploring the “Heart of Darkness” style brooding jungle that pervades the future-lagoons of London. The atmosphere and imagery is dark and intense despite Keran’s tendency to view it with boredom and detachment, a combination which sets a very unique and effective mood.
Half way through the book, Ballard semi-awkwardly introduces a very traditional over-the-top villain, an element fully unnecessary given the power of everything that precedes it. Perhaps because this was Ballard’s first novel, he felt compelled to draw clearer good/evil lines and to move towards a more tradition “strange new world” type adventure. While he does it fairly well, it hardly advances the book thematically and backs off of the psychological nature that distinguished the book from its contemporaries.
Sunday, January 28, 2007
It's tough to summarize this book without giving away too much; I think that even the two-sentence Amazon.com summary reveals too much information. A modern reader, familiar with many of the sci-fi conventions which would have been new when this book was written, will quickly unravel what Heinlein probably fancied to be an elaborate plot twist if given more than just the basic details. I doubt that you will be surprised by any of the turns the plot takes, so I suggest that you keep yourself in suspense as much as possible so that when the twist occurs, it will be a bit more unexpected and therefore more enjoyable.
Here is my plot synopsis, scant on information though it is:
Dan Davis, an engineer who invents housekeeping robots, is suckered by his business partners and loses control of the company he founded. They force him to enter suspended animation for 30 years, and when he wakes up, he wants his revenge.
Yep, that's all I'm going to tell you. If you want more, you'll have to read it.
As I noted above, this is an old (or, if you prefer, "classic") sci-fi adventure novel. It features a rugged male protagonist, outmoded views on gender roles, plenty of smoking, boundless optimism about the imminent triumph of technology over pretty much everything, and an idealization of the "engineer" as a super-genius proficient in any and all things related to the field of "engineering" that could only have come out of the 1950s.
None of those characteristics are really disadvantages, however, because this novel doesn't try to offer astounding philosophical insights or remarkably prescient versions of the future. Instead, it is simply a rollicking good adventure combined with a love story involving a 12-year-old. It has a straightforward revenge plot that is nicely turned on its side when Heinlein provides the protagonist with a powerful new tool with which to exact his vengeance. Again, I don't claim that you will be shocked or amazed by any of the turns the plot takes, but the way Heinlein stitches the whole novel together is a delight.
In an alternate universe, Adolf Hitler never becomes chancellor of Germany and instead, writes popular science fiction, winning the 1953 Hugo award for his “Lord of the Swastika.” This work, Hitler’s final before dying, is reproduced in full with an afterwards to the second edition by a fictional professor. “Lord of the Swastika” is a science-fantasy adventure in which Feric Jagger rises to become a world leader and sets out to purify the world of the mutants spawned by an ancient nuclear war.
Spinrad wisely chooses not to make fun of Hitler or popular fiction in a petulant manner, but instead crafts a work which is at times rousing and compelling, while at the same time frequently reprehensible and underscored by subtext that is troubling both psychologically and ideologically. Such a juggling act is nothing short of brilliant, and it succeeds in being a major work of social criticism (aimed as much at male-marketed popular fiction as a whole than just science-fiction). The achievement is all the more impressive because of the believability that it really could gain a cult following. The scary part is that many of its elements such as hyper-masculinity, gratuitous violence, gross-out shock tactics and the absence of a female voice of any type, have been frighteningly predictive of modern trends. The detached academic analysis at the end of the book is the perfect conclusion, with several touches of well-placed dark humor.
There is a certain amount of paradox in reading a book where enjoying it makes you feel guilty and complicit and not enjoying it is, well… not much fun. Spinrad has too perfect of a shield to hide behind since anything bad about the book is “intentional,” but that being said, the repetition and formulaic-ness of the story gets to be a little much to trek through at times.
“The Glamour” is a highly literate, post-modern take on a popular sci-fi subgenre (which won’t be spoiled here), although nearly the first third of the book is done with no overt violations of present day reality. The story follows a cameraman who is recovering his memories after a car accident with the help of a woman who claims to have been his lover. Nothing remains the way we first perceive it and each of the book’s chapters provides further insight into the truth. The reader’s ability to trust memory, identity and even the stories authorship is gradually eroded.
Priest combines masterly story-telling with a wickedly inspired formal structure to create a novel that is both engaging and thoughtful. The perfectly paced story balances elements of normality and classical fiction prose with frequent twists and shifts that completely change the reader’s perspective on everything that has come before. Priest manages to revitalize a subgenre that has been stagnating for decades and creates what I think is easily the finest entry.
Confusing ending tends to work decently as a thought experiment and a thematic finale but seems unsatisfying on the level of the characters and narrative.
Although Moorcock’s most popular sci-fi novel, “The Final Programme” comes off as steadfastly average and nearly instantly forgettable. With 1/3 heist thriller, 1/3 cross-country adventure and 1/3 doomsday chronicle all the groundwork potential seems to be there for a stirring, gripping vision of a near future but nothing really comes together like it should. Definitely a skip for all but Moorcock fans.
Interesting story framework with hints of buried insight. Early example of a bisexual protagonist.
Each of the three sections in the book fails to capture the interest they should. Handfuls of tangents to the main plot are tentatively mentioned but none of the best ideas are explored or brought to life. Subplots involving a technological maze security system, a vast secret abandoned underground Nazi bunker, a psychologically troubling incestual romance, an underground network of criminals and revolutionaries with a world-changing agenda, a censored copy of an astronaut’s final log and many other intriguing lines dead-end or get abandoned by the author with little explanation. Instead, the majority of the pages are expended on standard plodding chapters of well-worn sci-fi territory and a dated “ultimate party” final act. The ending, which is clearly meant to seem shocking and progressive, also feels dated and plagued by a total sense of underdevelopment and randomness.
Dr Hawk is one of the world’s smartest minds, and he’s dedicated his life towards exploring a bizarre lunar structure that is millions of years old. Using a teleporter (actually a long range atomic duplicator), he can allow terrestrials to enter the structure, but no one survives for more than five minutes. For the time the victims exist inside the phenomenon they share their consciousness with their originals on Earth, but the originals are driven insane by experiencing the death of their copies. Only one man, uber-dare-devil Barker may possess the drive and bravery to undergo the mapping of the mysterious enigma.
Budrys doesn’t waste time getting to the big questions about life, death and identity and his book shines brightest when crashing the readers against the monumental scope of his ideas, emotions, locations and mysteries. This book is sure to make you think on some weighty issues and to feel the impact of the character’s quandaries.
Hawk and Barker are both intentionally larger than life, and they make good stand-ins for the extreme limits of mankind’s abilities and drives (although they don’t always materialize as fully fleshed nuanced characters). Budrys gives us occasional anecdotes from the character’s past that are, at first, somewhat off-putting due to their tangential nature, but provide some needed depth and character complexity.
Burdrys’ pacing is blindingly fast, and we hardly have time to digest the magnitude of what we’ve read before something new and important takes place. The rush continues even through the climax and the deliciously intense coda.
Minor characters are left noticeably on the wayside, especially Hawk’s girlfriend who is left without a single speck of characterization or detail although we are asked to share an emotional connection with her. Barker’s girlfriend is every 50’s/60’s sexist sci-fi cliché but at least her character provides some interesting comments on humankind. Even the main characters never let us inside their heads and the readers must content themselves with gaining insights from their actions and well-written, highly-observant speeches.
The climax is actually one of the weakest moments, feeling somewhat more drug-inspired than profound, but this is one book that isn’t short on profundity.
A Jesuit biologist in charge of evaluating the potential of a planet inhabited by tall reptilian aliens finds that the planet’s fate may be a moral question more so than a scientific one. The book is divided into two main sections, a shorter part in the beginning detailing the last few days of four scientists on the new planet and the second part focusing on Earth in the succeeding months.
Blish starts his novel with a fairly heavy dose of hard science (backed by an appendix at well) which seems fairly impressive for the 1950’s and only occasionally dated. The future earth Blish depicts is well-insinuated, hinging on his conception of a “shelter war” which amounts to a defense-based next step to the Cold War. Additionally the blend of science and religion in the protagonist is deeply interesting, leading the man to make some surprising decisions on questions where the right answer is left ultimately (and smartly) ambiguous. Plenty of food for thought is cooked up by Blish and he wisely lets the reader come to their own conclusions in fascinating ending.
Blish never really manages to delve into the psychology of the protagonist deeply enough and thus he misses the opportunity to explore the central core of his own themes. Just when the reader would most like to get into the Jesuit’s head, Blish pulls back and shifts into a more vague macroscopic tone that focuses on larger world events and a far less interesting fish-out-of-water story. One can’t help but think that a more literary author would have given key attention to the characterization and internal perspective of what is certainly a compelling sketch of man and his science-vs-religion dilemma.
Another noticeable problem is the way that the hard-science dries up about 80 pages in, switching to a more mundane and vague style that does little to inform or entertain. Questionable, too, is the central premise that a mere four scientists who don’t even get along and immediately divide up would be sent to single-handedly determine the fate of an entire planet and the intelligent life-forms on it. No ambassadors, diplomats, linguists, military advisors, psychologists, survivalists, exploration teams, surveyor teams, construction crews or support staff are sent…
Ben Reich wakes up each day after terrifying dreams of “The Man with No Face” and is finally driven by them to kill his business rival and arch nemesis. However, it isn’t quite so easy in a world policed by Espers, telepaths who can sense murderous intention before the crime and guilt afterwards. The book presents the story from both sides: Reich’s planning, implementation and consequences and the police’s investigation, lead by 1st class Esper Powell.
Bester’s key strength is the way he brims with ideas and keeps a steady stream of interesting concepts rolling out, providing plenty to moll over throughout the book. The pacing is fairly taut with only occasional lags and since the book is short it reads lightning fast. The gripping pace is shown off best in the film’s best chapter (8), a two-layer battle of wits as the police are thwarted by Reich’s enormous organization at every turn. The chapter operates like cross-cutting montage in film and was likely inspired by Fritz Lang’s “M”.
Much like mid-level Philip K Dick, Bester goes for quantity of ideas and not thorough development. Not enough care has gone into answering the reader’s inevitable questions about Espers and society with them and in general no really solid believable image of the novel’s universe ever forms. Having failed to flesh out the details of telepathy and mind-reading early in the novel, Bester continues to introduce new elements only as it suits the plot and one constantly feels like he is cheating the reader and introducing inconsistencies.
These problems are symptomatic of poor plotting on a wider scope and this is really my major complaint. Inconsistencies and plot holes litter every other page (a particularly obvious one is the fact that we are told repeatedly that no success premeditated murder has occurred in over 70 years but later in the book, when murders are taking place surprisingly frequently we learn that there is an organization of professional assassins…).
After a strong first act, the book heads steadily downhill, culmination in a long, pretentious final act with several predictable revelations. Especially hampering the final 80 pages or so is a mounting level of Freudian psychobabble with dates the book as 1950’s (as does the sub-standard dialogue) even as it delivers a pair of twists that, while probably original and clever at the time this book was written in 1952, happen to be the two of the most cliché twists known to modern readers/film-goers.
“The Blind Assassin” is a lengthy fictional biography primarily concerned with tracing the life of Iris Chase, an upper-class Canadian woman, and her sister Laura Chase. The book interweaves three interrelated stories: Iris Chase’s final days in 1999, her life from birth until the end of WWII, and a novel-within-a-novel entitled “The Blind Assassin.” This embedded novel is about a controversial romance and itself contains a story-within-a-story which is a science-fiction tale also titled “The Blind Assassin.” The book opens with the line “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Shortly after Laura dies, her novel, “The Blind Assassin” is discovered and published to great acclaim. The bulk of the book concerns the biographical details of the Iris Chase in the past and present with a gradual sense of mystery and anticipation building as the full story behind the Chase family and the opening car accident are revealed.
Atwood is a master of characterization and above all else, this is what really shines throughout the book. Iris Chase is rendered brilliantly, a fully three-dimensional, realistic character whose life appears equally tangible and marked by personality at the age of 18 as it does at the age of 80. Perhaps what is most impressive is the sense that Iris is hardly exceptional, her life has been eventful but not earth-shattering and she rarely controls her own destiny. Atwood captures the means by which a person can slip into the easy routine, always doing what they think is best and yet gradually becoming more passive and unhappy. Similarly, Laura Chase makes the perfect enigma for jaded 20th century readers, a naïve and yet somehow admirable figure quite out-of-place in the era she lives in.
Also notable is Atwood’s writing style, which tends to make some of the slower, overly long passage more palatable. Her frequent vivid use of metaphors and similes gives narration a highly literate and cunning edge with a heavy, healthy dose of cynicism.
As for the story, I found it to be realistic, fairly engaging, occasionally profound and brilliantly concluded. However the plot is really only the sugar on the cake and isn’t the reason this book should be read. Even if the reader has guessed all of the plot twists far in advance (as most readers likely will) Atwood still delivers her revelations with intensity and eloquence.
Despite advertising the science-fiction element of the book as comprising 1/3 of the story, it really amounts to less than 1/12 and it is easily the least satisfying aspect of the book. One is tempted to accuse Atwood of possessing disdain for classical science fiction but it is more likely that it is actually her characters which treat it dismissively. The novel-within-a-novel is ultimately too weak to stand on its own legs (one finds it hard to believe it was met with cult success) and it is merely relegated to its relevance with regard to the primary plot.
The other minor problem I have with the book is its fairly hefty length. Atwood seems to struggle with whether or not she is making a classical modernist novel or an experimental post-modernist novel and so lets elements of both bloat up beyond what is necessary. Despite an ever growing sense of anticipation within the last third of the book, the first two thirds are simply too lackadaisical and often dull, with plenty of well-written prose but nothing new occurring or changing.
Reviews are written by three authors (and fans of the genre) and so there may be repeats and internal inconsistancies, but with any luck this will only provide a broader spectrum of ideas and opinions. The reviews may take many formats, but will usually be accompanied by a letter grade.
Spoilers will be minimized (plots discriptions will usually be limited to the premise) but read at your own risk.
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