Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, November 29, 2012

1969: The Pollinators of Eden (Boyd, John)

Botany, politics, and sexual tension with the virgin (3/5)

Classical myths are not my forté. So when reading John Boyd’s three novels based on classical myths, I take them at face value—the element of science fiction stripped of its mythical connotations. The first in the series, The Last Starship from Earth (1968), had an intriguing society but too many twists to render it a respectable attempt at a serious novel followed by some strange notions in the conclusion. The Pollinators of Eden maintains this weirdness to a degree.

Rear cover synopsis:
“SUBJECT: Psychiatric case history, Freda Janet Caron
DIAGNOSIS: Humanism with nymphomanic omniphilia

When the United States starship Botany returned from the planet Flora—the Flower Planet—Dr. Freda Caron, a cystologist for the Bureau of Exotic Plants, stood waiting in the space agency’s control tower in the area of touchdown, the San Joaquin Valley. When the officers, scientists, and crew disembarked, however, Freda’s fiancé, Paul Theaston, was not among them. Why had he chosen not to return, almost on the eve of his marriage to Freda? What were the secrets of the Flower Planet? What was its strange hold on Paul? Determined to learn the truth, Freda sets out from Earth to visit Flora—and there, at last, she understands.”


The planet of Flora is home to a cornucopia of plant life with almost no animals or insects. The billions of years old planet orbits a dying star, the planet life hypothesized to understand the situation and copes in its own way. After one science voyage, crewman Paul stays behind on the planet to better understand the pollination of the orchids of a special isolated island. Pollination among the orchids stumps Paul and his best guess is that the planets are ambulatory, a notion which no self-respecting botanist would vouch for.

Paul gives a fellow crewman alien tulip seeds to give to his fiancée, Freda. Intrigued by the mystery of the plant’s pollination method, she planets a row of the seeds on the university’s grounds and is given the assistance of an Italian Stallion grad student, Hal Polino. Soon the giant plants are witnessed shooting their ground penetrating seeds with remarkable accuracy, with Row A giving way to the new generation in Row B and ever onward. The ultrasonic vocalizations of the planets add yet another mystery to the plants—are they intelligent, can they sense more than sun and soil?

Amid the experiments, Freda is whisked away to Washington to assist her boss in establishing a permanent base on Flora, however, the navy has a different idea of making the planet forbidden to scientists and making the planet an asylum for people suffering from psychological space bliss (a mournful longing for the stars characterized by the patient’s skyward-pointing face). Also at the committee meeting is the libidinous and influential professor of Entropy, Hans Clayborg, who introduces Freda to martinis and finds her optimum martini consumption in order to Freda to feel secure about another man touching her. Sly fellow with math skills, seducing the virgin!

Freda ruins the university’s chance to establish a permanent scientific base on Flora, but returns to her garden of alien tulips to continue her research with Hal. They record and test some theories about the planets’ communication, but they take it too far when they subject one row to three blasts of ultrasonic white noise. As Freda is speaking with Hans, he keels over and dies right beside her. The autopsy reveals that he died of a stroke, but Freda has an inkling that the planets had something to do with his death. Now a mother figure to the planets, she continues her research with doubts as to the plants’ safety for herself and for the world.

A number costly accidents involve the university’s facilities and a string a deaths occur around her garden. Freda’s expressive, scientific explanation sends her to the crazy house where she uses her recently found seduction methods on psychologists, who fall to her eroticism and do her favors which are forbidden among other psychiatric patients. Eventually, even her removal from the ward and a placement on the last ship to Flora are granted. She must join her fiancé Paul on the planet Flora!


Had a good chuckle over the synopsis statement of "nymphomanic omniphilia".

Like The Last Starship from Earth, this novel isn’t laden with obvious mythology but must follow some sort of mythological train of thought for the author. Regardless of this irrelevance, The Pollinators of Eden starts off on a wonderful note with sexual tension, botanic mysteries, and scientific jargon. Freda is interesting, the plants are enticing, and the plot has momentum. These three notes then meet the wall of the politicking in Washington, where only the sexual tension is brought and developed. Meanwhile, the plants take an idle backseat along with the rest of the momentum.

The book’s own synopsis is misleading because Freda doesn’t go to Flora until the 20% of the book, which turns the topsy-turvy laboratory-cum-politics-cum-garden-cum-psychiatric ward plot into a surreal yet calm reacquaintance with her fiancé and his findings on the pollination methods of the orchids. Thereby, the reader comes to the most talked about piece of the novel, a twisting clinch and spoiler which I won’t tell, but the plot pretty much leads directly to it, making it pretty obvious yet also not all-telling enough (guiltily).

Besides the plot-stopping politicking, the reader will be struck with the anarchic technology which Boyd has included in this novel, which takes place around the year 2237: carbon paper, slide-rules, and stenographs. Boyd didn’t give much thought to the science behind Pollinators; he probably thought just throwing in a spaceship would make it all futuristic enough. Boyd paid more attention to his puns, allegories, and prose than he did to the science of this science fiction novel.


It wasn’t an entirely bad piece of fiction, but it started off well, got caught up in the bureaucratic gears, tossed into the loony bin, and shipped off to an isolated planet around a dying star. I wouldn’t condemn this book to the same treatment, but I’ll keep it in my collection next to The Last Starship from Earth awaiting the third book in the mythologically-inspired science fiction trilogy: The Rakehells of Heaven (1969).

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

2005: Seeker (McDevitt, Jack)

Mysteries with answers, discoveries with importance (4/5)

I began my science fiction readership in 2007 with the likes of Greg Bear, Larry Niven, and Iain M. Banks. In 2008, still early in my sci-fi reading streak, I picked up Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God (1994) and was enthralled by it. Fast-forward to 2011 and I finally continued with series with Deepsix (2000), Chindi (2002), Omega (2003), Odyssey (2006), and Cauldron (2007)… they all stunk. Either Jack changed for the worst, or my taste had changed for the better. I had also read ATalent for War (1989) and Polaris (2004), but I wasn’t bowled over by either or those either. My patience with McDevitt has been wearing very thin, but if I hadn’t been given these books by my father, I would have chucked them out a long time ago. By some miracle of some sub-deity, I actually liked Seeker.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Thousands of years after an entire colony mysteriously disappears, antiquities dealer Alex Benedict comes into possession of a cup that seems to be from the Seeker, one of the colony’s ships. Investigating the provenance of the cup, Alex and  his assistant, Chase Kolpath, follow a deadly trail to the Seeker—strangely adrift is a system barren of habitable worlds. But their discovery raises more questions than it answers, drawing Alex and Chase into the very heart of danger…”


Missing for 9,000 years, an old colony ship suddenly offers up a chalice. The cup had been given to her by her now ex-boyfriend, from which he had gotten it from his father, a well-known thief. The father had stolen it from a couple who had once been part of Survey. Though Survey officially knows nothing about the connection between the couple and the chalice, Alex and Chase sense they are on to something big because there has never been a document or relic pertaining to the lost colony or its ships.

Through ingenious modes of interviewing and collating information from logs and AIs deep in alien territory, they discover a pattern which explains why the couple had deleted the sensitive information from their log and kept it to themselves. Once the couple had retired from Survey, they took private sojourns to the stars but they ever revealed where or why they were headed. But the crucial data that Alex and Chase have discovered points to a single star system.

Once there, they track down objects which turn out to be the Seeker itself, along with its sister ship and a orbiting dock which had been torn from its parent planet. The one inhabitable planet in the system looks to be too inhospitable because of its elliptic orbit around its sun, causing it to suffer long frigid winters and sharp brutal summers. Being antiquitarians, they raid the Seeker for items which could fetch a fantastic price on the open market, but thanks to the help of Survey, they leave some items for their own discovery. Eventually, they surmise that the system was visited by a passing celestial body which tore the system apart. Their next step is to find that body and the mysteries which tie into it…

…but their lives are in danger. Three attempts had been made on their lives and assets have been destroyed. Someone, somewhere out there is quashing their attempt to understand the fate of the colony, the location of the ships, and the value of its nearly ten millennia colony. The obvious finger points at antique competitors or antiquitarian denouncers, but what manipulative organizations exist that would want them dead for good?


In the Academy series, it seemed like McDevitt was slowly killing his readers with directionless plots and hollowed out mysteries. It was painful, simply painful to have all those mysteries piled high on plate without a fork or spoon to consume it with. McDevitt has said, “Some things are best left to the reader's very able imagination” and I say to that, “Show me the money!” Thankfully, McDevitt had a turn of heart when penning the Alex Benedict series. Though I couldn’t appreciate the endless research methods in A Talent for War, I somewhat enjoyed Polaris if it weren’t for its obviousness. Seeker is where it’s at!

The research methods and the execution is good stuff, taking place on Rimway, Earth, interstellar space, far-out star systems, and even on a planet of the Ashiyyurian civilization. I was impressed with the level of detail he immersed the characters in and the stakes they put down in order to track down this elusive mystery… and the mystery actually gets solved, for once! Unlike Polaris, the revelation of the truth is majestic and, frankly, pretty darn cool. I’m not saying McDevitt is a talented writer, I’m saying that Seeker is a freak novel of McDevitt’s that I happen to like. Alas, it is not without it flaws—the same flaws found in every other McDevitt book—the same flaws which jump from the pages and smack me in the face because I am now so familiar with them.

I picked up in Chindi that McDevitt has the annoying tendency to describe everyone’s height, as it matters, as if he has an inferiority complex about his own height because everyone was generically described as “tall”. When I began Omega, I kept count of how many times he described the heights of the character: he wrote “tall” SEVENTEEN times, in Odyssey we wrote “tall” SIXTEEN times, and in Cauldron only NINE times. I didn’t see this same trend in A Talent for War, but I surely saw in here again in Seeker: SEVENTEEN times (pgs. 20, 23, 31, 34, 57 [twice], 70, 114 [“taller”], 125, 136, 252, 254, 261, 312, 365, and 370 [plus one “taller”]). In comparison, he described height fourteen other times: average (pg. 16), little (pg, 22), tiny (pg. 25), large (pg. 50), short (pgs. 52, 261, and 370), small (pgs. 62, 269, and 305), massive (pg. 96), and big (pg. 135). McDevitt… take note!

My qualms on McDevitt’s use of height aside, my other irritation with McDevitt’s writing is the recurring use of meta-fiction (plays, novels, movies, and VR shows).  Meta-fiction should provide an alternative view of the universe the characters live in, a glimpse into their world’s primary importance, a window into their fantasies and desires… not like McDevitt’s half-baked meta-fiction which he treats like a 3-page escape from the plot to indulge himself in some random idea with ZERO importance on the plot, on the universe or on the plot.

Seeker was highly acclaimed in 2006 having nominated for the Locus Poll Award and John W. Campbell Award and also in 2007 winning the Nebula Award. It’s a good novel and would have been great without its flaws, but there were many good books from the same year 2005: Eric Brown’s The Fall ofTartarus, Joe Haldeman’s Old Twentieth, Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin, and Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Angel Dust Apocalypse—all of which I’ve ranked with 5-of-5 stars and clearly beat McDevitt’s Seeker. I should have my own award for best novel of the year… I complain about the winners so often.


If you don’t have the trained eye in McDevitt’s faults like I do, you may end up loving Seeker. In the last two years, if you’ve read nearly everything he’s produced, you should still enjoy this novel but cringe at McDevitt’s idiosyncrasies. I like it, yes—but I’m not going to continue the series. I’ll finished the series on a high, with only McDevitt’s Infinity Beach and 120 other novels on the shelves. Seeker is a keeper next to The Engines of God.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

1989: The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (Apostolou, J.L. & Greenberg, M.H.)

Bizarre, fantastic, mystical, horrific - great slice of translated literature (4/5)

With 120 books unread on my shelves, I promised myself to not buy any more books from my local secondhand bookstore until I could put a good dent in my to-read collection. When I was exchanging some books for credit, I stupidly looked at the “New Arrivals” shelf and my eyes launched from their sockets when The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories met the glassy film of my cornea. I bought it without grudge to my promise—this was a rarity, a must-have! So in my shelf it went… and then out it came when I couldn’t bridle my eagerness to flip through its pages before year’s end.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Most Americans would describe Japanese science fiction with one word: Godzilla. However, true fans of the genre know that for decades, Japan has been turning out some of the most innovative stories ever published. Unfortunately, those that make it into English are often difficult to find. The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, brings together the most outstanding short stories of this body of literature.”

Some of these stories are difficult to synopsize in eight lines (in my lined notebook I use for short stories). Sometimes I have to cram so much into those eight lines that the crux of the story becomes lost, or sometimes I have to fill in the space with adjectives and lists. I was met with both quandaries when synopsizing these thirteen short stories. Atop of this, some of the material is so allegorical that I can’t decide whether to synopsize the story OR the allegory, or both. Perhaps is common of Japanese science fiction or simply a whim of the editors and consulting editors (Grania Davis and Judith Merril).

There’s some great food for thought in these pages, be it because of the layered allegories, the horrific implications, or thoughtful presentations. The low-rankings of some of the stories are reflective of my inability to penetrate the meaning of the story, perhaps because each are laden with a certain Japanese-ness which will forever escape me.

Note: The years cited are the earliest dates I could find for the original copyright or publication of each story, which is usually earlier than the translation dates.


The Flood: Kobo Abe (1989, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Lane Dunlop
“Humankind if threatened by a new disease—liquefaction" (21)
A philosopher witnesses a construction worker slowly dissolve into an ambulatory puddle of water. Soon, other middle-class workers also begin to form their own puddles and even unite to form large mobile masses within lakes, cups, or clouds. After a few deaths from thimblefuls of water, the fear of water is widespread, so Noah builds his ark, loads his animals, and provokes the rising flood to take his ship and his life. 7 pages

Cardboard Box: Ryo Hanmura (1974, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by David Lewis
“Contemplated in allegory is the fate of ordinary working people" (28)
Boxes in a factory become self-aware when their bottoms are taped shut. At the prospect of being filled, they are overjoyed. Once filled with tangerines and brimming with rapture, the boxes meet a “a box for pencil boxes” in the loading truck who spins a story of abuse and abandonment which all boxes must face. The protagonist box, however, desires to be filled until no space remains, yet witnesses the death of his cuboid comrades. 12 pages

Tansu: Ryo Hanmura (1983, shortstory) – 2/5
Translated by Shimizu Hitomi, Joel Dames, Stephen David, and Grania Davis
”A strange story concerning an old wooden chest" (40)
An elder mother recounts a tale of a fisherman named Ichisuke who was married and had eight children. One day the youngest boy dragged in a “tansu” wooden chest and sat upon it at night. The father was terse with the boy but he persists on sleeping atop the chest. Later, the man’s parents, his wife, and all eight children were sitting perched on a number of “tansu”. Unable to cope, the man sets sail and eventually sails back. 7 pages

Bokko-chan: Shinichi Hoshi (1963, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Noriyoshi Saito
“The story of a B-girl who didn’t have a heart of gold" (47)
An ingenious bartender created a robot complete in female form whose charms could woo his patrons. Though lacking in conversational depth, the men in town grew fonder and fonder of the unknowingly robotic lass behind the bartender’s counter. Given drinks which were then drained and served again, the little charming robotess made him good money, but also broke one young man’s heart to the point of contemplating murder. 5 pages

Hey-y, Come on Ou-t!: Shinichi Hoshi (1971, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Stanleigh Jones
“The discovery of a deep hole has extraordinary impact on life in a small town" (52)
A small village struck by a storm discovers a landslide which swallowed a shrine and replaced it with a deep hole. Word spread and reporters and scientists alike come to the scene to investigate the seemingly bottomless void. The town hands over the rights to one man who opens the pit up to anyone wanting to dispose of anything: nuclear waste, evidence, diaries, garbage, etc. Meanwhile, the cities and towns flourish. 6 pages 

The Road to the Sea: Takashi Ishikawa (1981, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Judith Merril and Tetsu Yano
“A boy searches for the sea he’s never seen" (58)
Having seen the sea in picture-books alone, a boy sets off to see the sea with his own two eyes. On the way, the boy meets an old man at the end of town who locates the sea in the sky alone. Unperturbed by his ill logic, the boy continues on foot over mountains and plains to chase his imagination, filled with whales, sharks, mermaids, octopi, kelp, coral, and pirates. 4 pages

The Empty Field: Morio Kita (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Translated by Kinya Tsuruta and Judith Merril
“A crowd gathers to witness a momentous event" (62)
Atop a vacant hill wait a group of youth ready to receive messages from a UFO. Though only rumored, their expectations on this barren crest are electric, yet an old man, a reporter for a magazine or television, remembers the bounty that the hill once held. Amid the locusts and gnats, the rumors are real yet only the memory of the past echoing forward through time feels real. 12 pages

The Savage Mouth: Sakyo Komatsu (1969, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Judith Merril
“A horrific tale by Japan’s leading SF writer" (74)
Sickened by the absurdity of life, one man prepares to turn his own world inside-out. Stocked with pans, knives, slicers, burners, an over, sauces, vegetables, and relishes, the man sets up the last and most important piece of equipment which he has procuring for three months. Supine on the table with his legs stretched, the machine cuts and cauterizes, slices and dices. Order up. 11 pages

Take Your Choice: Sakyo Komatsu (1967, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Shiro Tamura and Grania Davis
“The ultimate escape: a one-way ticket to the future" (85)
Roaming alleyways in search of a shop which promises one-way time travel, a man hopes that his 2.5 million credit payment will be worth his choice of three possible futures: an ultra-modern technological society through door one’s scene, an ecological Eden for society in door two, and a nuclear holocaust in door three. Knowing the seen future is twenty years away, the man chooses door three, as so many others have chosen. 19 pages

Triceratops: Tensei Kono (1982, shortstory) – 3/5
Translated by David Lewis
“A funny thing happened on the way home—a dinosaur crossed our path" (104)
A father and his son bike in the hills surrounding their home’s subdivision when they witness a shadowy giant cross their path. His wife discredits their exaggeration of the rhino-shaped intruder as no news report had surfaced, yet again the oddity manifests itself in their garden only to disappear through a stone wall. Later, other dinosaurs appear transparent in the daylight to the duo, who also witness a carnivore/herbivore confrontation. 17 pages

Fnifmum: Taku Mayumura (1989, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Katsumi Shindo and Grania Davis
“A surreal love story that spans centuries" (121)
His body spanning a length of time, Fnifmum bores of using his “sensory organ” to see the same sights in the same eras along his temporal growth. For want of company, he looks to his tail, earliest in time, to communicate with Honycominah, but the time of their first meeting is too far back. Instead, he looks forward, ahead in his latest growth, to see two human escapees. 9 pages

Standing Woman: Yasutaka Tsutsui (1974, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by David Lewis
“A future society uses a frightening method to provide urban greenery" (130)
Exceeding a metropolis, a megalopolis faces even greater problems of both crime and green space. A postman and mail clerk complain of their wages only to get their feet planted into the ground to become a manpillar and, one day, a mantree. The same treatment goes to embittered housewives and students who line the streets, while dogpillars anc catpillars occupy gardens to be fed and loved or forgotten and to become a bonepillar. 14 pages

The Legend of the Paper Spaceship: Tetsu Yano (1978, novelette) – 4/5
Translated by Gene Van Troyer and Tokomo Oshiro
“A poignant tale from the dean of Japanese SF writers" (144)
An isolated mountain village in Japan is home to Osen, a woman swathed in rumor and mystery—said to be the remaining heir to a family fortune and sole survivor to a family massacre. The reality is that she’s the town harlot and flies around a paper airplane while naked. When she births a son, her songs may represent corrupted versions of historical lullabies and point as interstellar finger at her true origin. 31 pages

Monday, November 12, 2012

1965: Space Lords (Smith, Cordwainer)

The faults and triumphs of absurdity and poetry in SF (3/5)

Last year in 2011, I picked up the novel Norstrilia (1975) to discover why it was held in high regard among older science fiction readers. After grudgingly completing the novel and surmising that only nostalgia could provoke such admiration for the novel, I gave it a sold two-star rating and suggested to myself that a collection of short stories by Cordwainer Smith may hold some redemption. Here is where I stared down my copy of Space Lords and swore at it not to annoy be as much as Norstrilia did in the prior year: absurdity springing up everywhere, bad poetry and ballads spread throughout, and a plot direction with less bearing than a drunk giraffe.


Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Benjacomin Bozart, the Senior Warden of the Guild of Thieves on the planet Viole Siderea, has been training for two hundred years along with three hundred thousand people to rob the riches from the wealthiest planet of Norstrilia. His tourist disguise gives him access to a calm people, but the secrets divulged are unknowingly laced with subterfuge of their own. All his planning is null is he meets the psychotic minks of Mother Hitton. 24 pages ----- This is when absurdity can be effective, when one absurd plot is supplanted by another even more absurd countermeasure. It’s silly and bit scary, but nevertheless effective.

The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1964, novella) – 1/5 – Descending from the New City to a realm of surreal underpeople and a bodiless computer, the human therapist Elaine is oblivious to her prophetic stature to the Old City denizens of human-form: rats, bears, goats, snakes, and bison. Through doors and meeting a wider cast of eccentric characters both human and underhuman, Elaine finds herself back on Earth entwined in fate and mentality with the once dog underhuman D’joan. 77 pages ----- Absurdity typically has a difficult uphill battle with aimlessness, and here is where aimlessness rears its head and leaves the reader asking for logical progression and direction.

Drunkboat (1963, novelette) – 2/5 – Lord Crudelta, of the Instrumentality, straps Artyr Rambo on a rocket, tells him his love is dead or dying, and leaves him to his own means to get to Earth. A hospital on Earth finds Rambo on their grounds without a ship and without clothes. He mindlessly ignores hospital attire and performs swimming strokes on the room’s floor, while the doctors are baffled. When Lord Crudelta comes to Earth, his dirty actions are apparent. 32 pages ----- The “how” is usually regarded as a null point when the “why” overshadows an absurd plot. But here even the “why” fails to produce on more levels than one.

The Ballard of Lost C’mell (1962, novelette) – 3/5 – Lord Jestocost is inspired like no one else to help the underprivileged underpeople and he has just found his ticket to benevolent emancipation using his telepathy. C’mell utters the name “Ee-telly-kelly” during her father’s funeral and Lord Jestocost summons her to divulge the same name of her people’s secret leader. Once ethereally summoned, the two strategize how to develop the underpeople’s rights under the noses of the Lords. 21 pages ----- It’s at all typical when as absurd story has a good humanistic thread woven into it, but the non-corporeal leader of the underpeople seems too whimsical to be dramatic.

A Planet Named Shayol (1961, novelette) – 4/5 – Mercer has committed a heinous crime against the imperial family and is sent to an orbital hospital to prepare for the tough life on the prison planet of Shayol. The deprivation on the planet is experienced by all who reside there, all their needs taken care of by the skin-piercing dromozoa. Once locally infected, each site grows a human limb or organ, which is lopped off and sent back to the hospital. Death is their only hope. 38 pages ----- Here’s an excellent horror/absurd story where the horror builds dramatically only to be deftly cut short of a decent ending. Best story in the collection!


On the subject of bad poetry and ballads, Cordwainer Smith has this to say in his epilogue:

“One last word about the bits of incidental verse. I am one of the most minor poets of America, but I thoroughly enjoy incorporating it into science fiction. I am not happy about the 1960s and with the terrible divorce which now exists between poetry and people in most of the English-speaking world. Something is wrong. Perhaps the poets. Perhaps the people. Perhaps you. Perhaps me” (206).

He may like to rhyme and perform repetition, but those are about the only poetry skills the man possesses. He says he “used Chinese, Persian, and Japanese verse forms with English words and rhythms” (206) but much of this was probably lost on the reader.  Then again, I guess it depends on why the reader is reading the book. If it’s for nostalgia, then the poetry may be a brilliant addition to the wonderfully absurd stories, but if you’re approaching the short story collection with a perceptive and discerning eye, then the quality of the stories may match the quality of the poetry.

A fantastic cover by Jack Gaughan (Pyramid Books, 1968)!
I’ll skip any more Cordwainer in the future but I will preserve this copy on my shelves for the two haunting tales which sandwich the lesser tales between them.

Friday, November 9, 2012

1966: Flowers for Algernon (Keyes, Daniel)

Why IQ is overrated and Why multiple intelligences theory reigns (4/5)

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon has been reprinted more than twenty times and in numerous languages. The rest of his bibliography of novels has been eclipsed by the umbra of this award-winning work: The Touch (1968) and The Fifth Sally (1980). Aside from his novelette of the same name (1959), even Daniel Keyes’ short work has been lost to science fiction magazines and anthologies in the 1960s and 1970s. Reviewing the last three sentences, it becomes apparent that Flowers for Algernon is Daniel Keyes’ sole lasting contribution to the genre of science fiction. I’m always leery of what other people consider masterpieces, as in Gollancz’s “SF Masterworks” (Flowers for Algernon being #25), but this novel is rightfully a great (meh, pretty darn good) work of science fiction.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental transformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.”


Algernon is a white mouse who has had an experimental done on his brain which involving “competitive inhibition enzymes” (102), which revitalizes brain proteins at a supernormal rate and leaves the mouse with an amazing intelligence for working our mazes. Seeing the benefit of such a procedure, Prof. Nemur and Dr. Strauss at Beekman University enlist a student from Center for Retarded Adults: Charlie Gordon. This simple man, abandoned by his family while still a teenager, works at a bakery doing menial tasks and shouldering demeaning jokes from his co-workers, who he childishly believes are his friends.

Charlie had begun to read and write while at the Center but goes on to start a diary when he is enlisted by Nemur and Beekman. His phonetics and spelling are terrible at first; however, he endures and continues his diary entries. Charlie meets with Algernon and is frustrated by the mouse’s innate ability to navigate mazes because the mouse beats Charlie every time. But once Charlie has his operation with permission from his sister (who thought Charlie dead after all those years), Charlie begins to read more, understand more, write more clearly, remember more, and even beat Algernon at his maze races.

Charlie once admired the students’ intellectual conversation on campus, but as his IQ ramps up through 85 and above 100 Charlie becomes more and more aware of his surroundings; however, his emotional intelligence isn’t on as steep as an incline as his IQ. Charlie is unable to understand moral dilemmas or understand the repercussions of his increasingly effervescent memories of his past where child neglect and child abuse were common. His childish anger at these ill social qualms doesn’t affect his study and he soon finds that all those conversations at the university mere so petty compared to the knowledge he now holds. Off campus at the bakery, his coworkers now distrust his sudden and unexplained burst of intelligence (Charlie was told not to tell them of the experiment). Aside from the doctors, Charlie has no friends except the one being who shares his experimental status—Algernon.

His information absorption still outpaces his social understanding when he confronts those butterflies in his stomach—a woman who tutored him at his old school, who now sits at the front row in his heart, Alice Kinnian. Emotionally approaching her takes time, but the physical and intimate approach proves to be impossible because of Charlie’s 65-IQ once self, who now lurks in the shadows. This internal turmoil within Charlie, between the Charlies, drives a deeper stake between himself and the rest of society who don’t understand him, besides Algernon.

When Charlie is taken to a symposium, his increasingly negative attitude to being treated as a test subject reaches a boiling point when Prof. Nemur takes the stage to speak about Charlie and Algernon. Charlie releases Algernon from the cage and the conference erupts in a collected attempt to capture the mouse, which is secretively snatched by Charlie who then elopes to New York to live a life by himself with the money he’s secured from the experiment’s stipends. Alone, he is able to forge a physical love life with his neighbor but his one friendship remains with Algernon, for whom he builds a large interactive maze for. Still keeping a diary from months ago, Charlie realizes that Algernon’s problem solving skills are being replaced by anger and fear, just as Charlie’s calmness is being replaced by alcoholism.

Eventually Charlie contacts Alice again and he’s convinced to return to the university where he shares his Algernon discoveries with the professor and the doctor. Using his still impressive intelligence, Charlie strives to understand Algernon’s mental collapse and whether he too is prone to the degradation which may smite him.


Charlie is a likable character when he has an IQ of 65; he’s determined, meek, non-judgmental, and accepting. His battle with illiteracy is witnessed by his childish spelling and surface level observations but as his IQ develops, so too does his writing ability and observational skills, yet he slowly becomes less and less likable. He gains a superiority complex and treats others with verbal spars as his disdainful co-workers had done to him. His own IQ absorbs him and socializing with people becomes a sort of sport which he lacks in equipment and skill. Best fortified with alcohol, Charlie turns from an awkward intellect to a scornful belligerent.

There’s little sympathy to impart to Charlie aside from his unfortunate upbringing where his teachers gave up on his slowness and his own mother fought to disown him because of the shame he brought to the family. Charlie eventually gathers the courage to confront his family and finds that his reflective memory doesn’t match the reality. He had been robbed or a prosperous childhood and is again robbed of coming to terms with the past.

Charlie’s intelligence didn’t define him; the reactions from the other characters that really made Charlie who he became. Where the professors and doctors treated him like an experiment, Charlie sees himself as a miracle of science equal in humanity to those below him and those above him. (“Even a feeble minded man wants to be like other men” [139].) Where his co-workers saw him inept, Charlie sees himself as super-capable. Where his teacher saw him as a motivated yet challenged man, Charlie sees himself as a perpetual machine of intelligence. This contrast of what others thought of him versus what he sees in himself is the crux of Charlie’s social division—the schism between expectations and reality—that ill-equips him to face society.

While high-IQ Charlie is able to largely live his own life without low-IQ Charlie’s menace, social awkwardness causes low-IQ Charlie to manifest as fear of rejection. Even when high-IQ Charlie combats this discomfort with alcohol, low-IQ Charlie eventually wins when his presence becomes corporeal, emotional. However, both high-IQ and low-IQ Charlies find comfort in befriending Algernon, something without expectations and without judgment.

So, the growth of intelligence is interesting (like Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave [1954]) and also the reactions to Charlie’s change, but the 216-page novel is numbed by the factors of simplicity, predictability, and lack of engaging the reader—nothing had to mulled over. Just as Charlie’s understanding of society was superficial, so too is the gloss which makes Flowers for Algernon such an easy read. The novel shines pretty well when you’re reading it, but leave it set for a few days and it loses its luminosity.


It’s not quite a masterpiece as Gollancz makes it out to be with their “SF Masterwork” series, but it’s an interesting piece of psychology and study of IQ which makes it unique. It’d be interesting to read this with real science to back it up. This was actually done with the novelette in Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction (1974), a tantalizing conceptualization with twenty-six other stories involving the science of psychology in science fiction context and broken down into seven sections: (1) Psychobiology, (2) The Learning Process, (3) Sensation and Perception, (4) Social Processes, (5) Developmental Processes, (6) Personality, and (7) Abnormal Processes and Therapy. Enticing!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

2002: Radiance (Scholz, Carter)

Atmospheric irrelevancies or richly woven world-building? (4/5)

The name “Carter Scholz” will resonant will very few readers in science fiction who haven’t read this author’s Kafka-esque dalliances in The Amount to Carry (2003). I once read The Amount to Carry but either “couldn’t appreciate the diversity and randomness” or “thought the whole thing stunk.” There actually were a few gems amid the shoulder-shrugging grit, enough to convince me to shelve the book rather than chuck it out. I had also once read his novella “Radiance” in Greg Bear’s anthology New Legends (1995). The uniqueness of Carter’s story urged me purchase the full-length edition of the same story, Radiance (2002). Outside of his earlier novel Palimpsests (1985), this is his only novel yet still has material published in Kafka-inspired anthologies (i.e. Kafkaesque [2011]).

Inside flap synopsis:
“Somewhere in California, in the 1990s, a nuclear weapons lab develops advanced technologies for its post-Cold War mission. Advanced as in not working yet. Mission as in continued funding. A scandal-plagued missile defense program presses forward, dragging physicist Philip Quine deep into the machinations of those who would use the lab for their own gain.

The Soviet Union has collapsed. But new enemies are sought, and new reasons found to continue the work that has legitimized the power of the Lab, its managers, and the politicians who fund them. Quine is thrust into the center of programs born at the intersection of paranoia, greed, and ambition, and torn by incommensurable demands. Deadlines slip and cost overruns mount. He is drawn into a maelstrom of policy meetings, classified documents, petty betrayals, interrupted conversations, missed meanings, unanswered voicemail, stolen data, and pornographic files. Amid all the noise and static of the late twentieth century made manifest in weapons and anti-weapons, human beings have set in motion a malign and inhuman reality, which now is beyond their control."


A superb synopsis… probably one of the most accurate and summarized words for any hard cover novel. For a reviewer who likes to type 1,500-word reviews, I stun myself by saying that I have nothing to add to that. However, the inside flap continues with a summary of themes found in the novel:

“More than a critique of corrupt science and a permanent wartime economy, Radiance is a novel of lost ideals, broken aspirations, and human costs. In this vivid satire, relationships are just a question of who’s using whom. Failure is just another word for opportunity. “Spin” is a property not of atomic particles but of the news cycle. Nature is a blur beyond the windshield, where lives are spent on the road, on the phone, on the make, in fierce competition for financial, political, and intellectual resources. It is a world which language is used to evade, manipulate, and expedite. It is a world where everyone’s story is always open to revision and language is used for justifying everything from defense programs to divorce.”

Again, an excellent, excellent review of what’s inside the book! If you pay close attention to both synopses (for the plot and for the themes) you’ll notice many lists spaced with commas. This is one synoptic theme which is carried over into Scholz’s writing, who tends to omit very little when the commas start to roll (like the four full pages deluge of atomic test names [352-356])… or he even just ignores the comma and throws lists together end-on-end. It takes some getting used to, but this is indicative of more Kafka-esque prose which Scholz injects into his novel.

Scholz also follows in Kafka’s existentialist footsteps (and Barry M. Malzberg, who he dedicated his short collection to). When the synopsis mentions “policy meetings, classified documents, petty betrayals, interrupted conversations, missed meanings, unanswered voicemail, stolen data, and pornographic files,” all of these are written about in length throughout the novel. This first-person narrative is heavy on detail like this and even more so with the stuttered, tens of pages long dialogue. The detail involved borders on stream of consciousness: billboard signs read on the side of the highway, radio segments heard in the car stereo, stacked book titles read on the desk, etc. I think this immersion of detail gives an authentic picture to the life of Philip Quine, who lives in a dichotic world of politics and love, honesty and longevity., but he remains it the quagmire of self-loathing: “…he saw in his life only patterns of failure and emptiness” (9).

Reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Radiance has a stream of consciousness narration along with the inclusion of missile technology a recurring theme. Radiance is listed as being “nonfantastic” but I think the heavy amount of science jargon almost qualifies it as science fiction, but then again the heavy science is yet another one of the stream of consciousness elements imposed on by the narrator. I like the gratuitous amount of information loaded upon the reader; it places the reader in the same seat as the narrator, where both become the observer washed over in the omission of second-hand knowledge or thought. And Scholz even goes the extra mile and includes, what I consider, to be the pinnacle of extreme first person narrative: intermittent descriptions of voiding bladder or bowels:

He rose then, wiped, and flushed, gazing like a haruspex at the spiral arms of the swirl as the auguries were swept away. Red pepper, sausage, pasta. Fragments rose in the ebb unflushed and he flushed again. In the miasma was a faint scent of asparagus (88).

While the long 388-page ride is enjoyable, the trip isn’t without its tedium. The breaks between chapters are sparse, with one section stretching 107 pages (pages 73-179) without a single break except for internal narrative observations between dialogue and observation. The tedium isn’t monotonous, but breaks in the narration are good things. I’m a big fan of chapter breaks. Hell, I’d even say the more chapters the better and I’ll go even further and say that Nick Walker’s 840-chapter novel Blackbox is one of my favorite books of all-time.

One last thing to be said of Scholz and his novel is the addition of many rare words which had me reaching for a dictionary, among them: mendacious, oubliette, horologe, remontant, satrapies, obstreperous, chaparral, adumbration, and nulliparous. But he also sometimes finds himself in a repetitive rut, describing a façade with the adjective “avocado” too often and describing a voice as “orotund” too often, as well. Then there wondrous breaks in the canopy where Scholz shows the reader he can blend his verbose writing style with his keen observational eye:

The morning sky, pallid with haze, conveyed yet enough sun to cast through the high embrasure of his office window a faint rhombus which crept toward the doorway relentless as a horologe (23).


To say that this book is challenging would undermine its intentions. The novel’s design is obviously intended to be as loquacious and meticulous as possible with dialogue formatting intending to give (1) snippets of conversations at a party studded with incomplete sentences, (2) stuttering speech and cut off sentences, (3) and discourses which follow a hidden logic. It’s also a challenge to absorb the inane details of road signs and book titles (including Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [1989]), but it’s also refreshing to see someone attempt such a daring immersion into a character’s world. The icing on the cake of what Radiance is all about is the lack of finality—just as the details are frivolous, so is the direction of the plot. Instead, immerse yourself in the satire of a bureaucratic middleman torn between questing for authentic applied science and securing the monies to fund such science.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

1957: The Black Cloud (Hoyle, Fred)

Cast and Stereotypes mar Insight and Creativity (3/5)

When the front cover of a science fiction book, be it Penguin Books selection or not, states that the book is “science fiction from a scientist,” my first thoughts lurch towards a plot heavily reliant on dry yet thorough science with little, if any, characterization. Books that heralded as being penned by real scientists are often full of scientific detail, as if the entire novel is one large playground for the author’s idiosyncratic dalliances. Some other examples of hard science authors which failed to impress me: Charles Sheffield, Gregory Benford, Ken MacLeod, and Michael McCollum. My hope for The Black Cloud low but the synopsis was intriguing. Of Fred Hoyle’s fifteen adult science fiction novels (many co-authored with Geoffrey Hoyle), this was his first foray into the realm of speculative fiction.

Inside cover synopsis:
“In 1964 a cloud of gas, of which there are a vast number in the Universe, approaches the solar system on a course that is predicted to bring it between the Sun and the Earth, shutting off the Sun’s rays and causing incalculable changes on our planet.

The effect of this impending catastrophe on the scientists and politicians is convincingly described by Fred Hoyle, the leading Cambridge astronomer: so convincingly, in fact, that the reader may feel that these events may actually happen. This is science at its very highest level.”


The Americans spot a black splotch in the deep night sky and ascertain that a cloud is headed towards the solar system. Coincidently, the English spot a disturbance among the orbits of the planets, which they hypothesize to be a mass of an approaching body and alert the American astronomers. Together, they gather their data and confirm the facts that a large body of interstellar gas is approaching their solar system and will likely intersect with their orbit.

Both the American and English astronomy teams are unsure whether or not to alert their respective governments. Eventually, the heads of government are made aware of the possible threat but the high-minded scientists of England play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the thumb-sitting bureaucrats. The Americans establish their own post to observe the cloud while the English construct an elaborate laboratory to study the current and future effects of the cloud’s arrival. Reinforced and stocked with provisions, the scientists in England have the technological advantage and force their government to their own demands.

The effects of the cloud’s arrival are devastating to much of the Earth’s inhabitants from pole to pole. The change in weather patterns, solar energy input, and typical orbital bombardment ravage much of the Earth, but still the vigilant scientists keep track of its anomalous trajectory. The cloud seems to move under its own volition rather than being bound by the constraints of physics, so the scientists invoke their communication prowess and establish contact with the cloud.

Tedious and thorough at first, the English find that the cloud has migrated to their star to feed. Its display of inertial power upsets the American and Russian governments, who in-like respond with their own display of power. However, the English scientists collude with the cloud and events take a turn for the worse. The enigmatic cloud supposes many questions from the scientists and the cloud, in turn, posits questions to the odd planet-based life form known as humans.


If you skim that short four paragraph synopsis, one will notice a certain lack of names. This purposeful exercise of omitting names is indicative of the lack of characterization in the novel. The suite of characters comes in three flavors: the American scientists, the English scientists (inclusive of an Australian and a Russian), and the government. For some texture, Fred throws a few sprinkles on top: a woman secretary and a dull handyman. Penned by a scientist, the reader can expect the scientists to be morally high-handed and intellectually superior while the government toads are bureaucratic and sluggish. The whole “super scientist” ploy resounds with as much cadence as a bell made of pocket lint being struck by a starchy sock.

Exacerbating the lame cast are the lengthy tirades of scientific jargon which include astrophysics (inclusive of some archaic belief in the Steady State theory) and radio communication (inclusive of 12 pages of trial-and-error). The heavy science is distracting to the greater mystery of the cloud itself, but Fred actually pulls a few wonders out of his scientific hat. Perhaps the technology was bit early for 1964, but Hoyle envisions text-to-speech recognition software and light-read paper coding. Not all of the science is as archaic as Hoyle long-term belief in a static universe, and his insight into how science can benefit mankind at the hands of able scientists is reminiscent of George O. Smith’s Venus Equilateral (1946).

Just when the novel is being drug down the pages ridden with uninspiring stereotypes and protracted scientific details, Hoyle pulls an ace out of the hat with a surprising insight into the intelligence of the interstellar cloud. It’s not simply “intelligent” because it is, it has a history, a reason for its being, a psychological and physiological make-up, and has areas of ignorance as much as it does areas of enlightenment; it’s fallible, mortal, and ignorant just like the humans attempting to study it.


The flaws are cast in the shadow of Hoyle’s creativity with the cloud entity and his insight into future technological progress. The Black Cloud may be a reminiscent beacon of science fiction greatness to some, but fifty-five years since its publication has dated it pretty badly. Dually composed of dull stereotypes and idiosyncratic scientific dalliances, the disappoint is offset in the last twenty percent by the wonderment of the cloud’s intelligence and basic anthropomorphic similarities to the scientists who are eager to understand it. This humanistic shot from the blue is a relief when compared to the uninspiring individuals found within the book, but this doesn’t save the book from its inherit weaknesses.