Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, June 29, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of May 2015

#25: Collision with Chronos (1977) – Barrington J. Bayley – 3/5
In essence, this was a rather forgettable, male-dominant romp through time and space. On future Earth, evidence of reverse chronological time appears in the form of an ancient ruin that doesn't erode with time; rather, the ruin ages in reverse. In fact, a secret base has been investigating their finding of an intact time machine, with which they are able to visit the future... where there be aliens and be not humans. There are a few sociological twists for the future humans (in two times and spaces), which is the most interesting bit, but there's far too much deus ex machina for it's own good. Forgettable book; forgettable author.

#26: Lamb (2002) – Christopher Moore – 4/5
Non-genre... but an entertaining novel, nonetheless. 

#27: Eight Against Utopia (1967) – Douglas R. Mason – 2/5
Another new author and another forgettable unfolding of a so-called plot. This novel is just an indulgence in writing about the inner-workings of a domed city. Every character is emotionally hollow, their motivations impulsive, and their relationships superficial. The end result is an escape plan laden with technological glamour and repeated fight-or-flee scenes... about as dry and starchy as the pages its printed on.

#28: The Disestablishment of Paradise (2013) – Phillip Mann – 4/5
Phillip Mann is an author from New Zealand. I've read two of his older novels—The Eye of the Queen (1982) and Wulfsyarn (1990)--and have been blown away by both. By “blown away” I don't mean from action or twists; rather, I mean by the penetrating insight into the human condition. In Disestablishment, Mann compounds this human perspective with that of a planetary perspective. Humans have been living on Paradise for decades and while their initial foray was successful, something has turned the tables on the efforts of establishing a sustainable colony: crops fail, flora stalk them as prey, and once succulent fruit now poison their bodies. When efforts are made to disestablish the planet, one woman makes a swansong out of her personal and intimate experience with the planet, of which is causing havoc with near-space.

#29: Japan Sinks (1973/1976)– Sakyo Komatsu – 3/5
Mention Japanese novels translated into English and, if they can name one, they'll probably list Japan Sinks. At the height of disaster novels and disaster movies, America imported a favorite Japanese novel to quench their thirst for disaster. This novel has enough geological chaos to sate any disaster palate, but the novel is also heavily geocentric; there are many place names for island, mountains, faults, and villages. It's laden with such geographic proper nouns that it distracts from what should be the primary importance—Toshio Onodera, who is at qualms with his allegiance between his profession and his humanism. The story ends on a humanistic note, but the heap of disaster in the novel distracts from what have been an important piece. (full review)

#30: The Great White Space (1974) – Basil Copper – 4/5
I thought this novel was going to be a horror story about the great depth of outer-space, but it turned out to be a horror story about the great depth of inner-space. Basil Copper is renowned for his Lovecraftian storytelling and this novel epitomizes this skill. There are mysterious hieroglyphics, a deep mission into dark mountains, and a subterranean voyage down into the earth... all in order to confront he Great White Space. Extrinsic monstrosities await the team and intrinsic fears boil over when confronted with the terror in the deep of the earth. I'm not a big Lovecraft fan, but this story had all the right elements to make it a dark and creepy read.

#31: Mandrill (1975) – Richard Gardner – 2/5
Yet another new author for me this month and, with it, an unheard-of novel... the author's only SF novel among his thirty publications. Regardless of experience, the novel comes off as sophomoric. Deforestation has wiped Africa of much of its wildlife and the remaining band of mandrills are enclosed in a laboratory where they can be studied. Though the enclosure presents a natural setting, the alpha male eerily stares into the hidden camera while twitching his face. The scientists are competing for the resource of the mandrills—one wants to decipher its yet-to-be-found language while the other wants to makes drones of them for household use. Among the scientists, the women are the wildcard: one a domineering vixen with spastic swings in allegiance, the other a meek Asian doll carrying the onus that is her mother. Aside from the pre-established sex roles, the rest of the plot is as predictable as the rear cover synopsis makes it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lazy Book Reviews of April 2015

#19: The Collapsium – Wil McCarthy (2000) – 3/5
I read this book back in 2009 and loved it – 5/5. It was idiosyncratically silly and perfectly witty while also being a hard SF novel. It was, according to my memory that seems to have a loose wire, a great and unique novel. I picked it up again hoping to relive the quirkiness ; alas, I relived very, very little of that—so much for nostalgia! Little remained true of my memory: there was a batty, isolated scientist, he was rich and did interesting things in his isolation, and there were silly scenes and witty dialogue... but it was as pervasive as I had remembered. The silly tone quickly took a backseat to a serious, almost somber tone. The theoretical physics was kinda cool but, ultimately, it gets put in the donation pile.

#20: Administrator – Taku Mayumura (1974/2004) – 5/5
A long while ago, perhaps again in 2009, I became interested in Japanese science fiction even though I hadn't read any of it. So I researched the titles of some novels and made a list... and kept that list for five years with coming across a single title—so frustrating! Eventually, I just sent a project proposal to one publisher (Kurodahan) and asked for some titles in return for honest reviews. Having whet my appetite with some short Japanese SF fiction, I plunged into Administrator with gusto. As the title suggests, the crux of the novel (linked short stories actually) hinges on accepting responsibility for ones actions—in this case, it's the responsibility of an entire planet with both its native inhabitants and its colonists. The schism between policy and policing was an insightful glimpse into the mind a salayman, be it far away in space and time. (full review)

#21: The Sheep Look Up – John Brunner (1972) – 4/5
This was also a re-read, a book I had read in 2008... one of my first Brunner novels. It remained etched into my mind, the primary scene(s) in which the choking fumes of the air outside squeezes tears from the man's eyes and sears his throat. The toxicity of everyday life in The Sheep Look Uphave remained locked in my mind as the singular novel where pollution has run its course, leaving humanity gasping in its wake. Even after reading Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, I liked Sheep more for its simplicity, direction, and portrayal (call me old-fashioned). Sheep, for me, was a bit hard to digest. Neither Sheep nor Zanzibar is my favorite novel; that honor resides within... well, I don't think I actually have a favorite Brunner novel. Hmm.

#22: Recall Not Earth – C.C. MacCapp (1970) – 2/5
To me, a new author, a new book; an unknown author, an unknown book. This kind of gamble at the secondhand bookshop—some turn out to be classics, most end up or mediocre, and a few are so forgettable that, two months later—now—you can barely recall (pardon the pun) any detail. Something along these lines: Aliens destroy Earth, a legion of spacemen were off Earth and escaped with their lives, they all now live on remote planets where most men foster forlorn hope that a cache of women are being held somewhere. Think along the lines of we need our women for breedin' purposes... that's it.

#23: The Long Run – Daniel Keys Moran (1989) – 4/5
I had seen this book on Amazon for a while. Since it had always had rave reviews (nearly all 5s with two 4s), I was compelled to track down the novel. The book is actually a sequel (to Emerald Eyes [1988]) but many have said thatThe Long Run provides enough detail to get by, with which I agree. There's a lot of reference to earlier times in the earlier book, but the reader can understand pretty well. Most parts are thought out well and there's a consistent string of peaks and lulls of action, but the repeated action feels like it getting dragged along thereby wearing itself out through gun battles, ship crashes, and computer hacking.

#24: The Book of John Brunner – John Brunner (1976) – 4/5
It's no secret I'm a big fan of John Brunner. Yet, after reviewing this—my 30-something-ish—book of Brunner's, I realized that I don't actually have a favorite novel of his. I really liked Meeting at Infinity (1961), The Long Result(1965), and Total Eclipse (1974), but none of them has stood the test of time as I can vaguely remember each. Brunner's short story collections are pretty tight—Entry to Elsewhen (1972) and From This Day Forward (1972). Is this collection highlighted, Brunner offers a few original short stories, a few very brief translations, and a cornucopia of literary smatterings, including limericks and poems. It's a great snapshot of a literary and intelligent man. (full review)

Monday, June 8, 2015

1974: Rollerball (Harrison, William)

Largely autobiographical fiction with one SF story (3/5)

Novels are widely regarded to be the most accessible pieces fiction and sell in greater number than collections. Some novels are easily adapted to film—'easy' meaning there is suitable enough material that can be translated from page to film. Given a few minutes, you could easily think of at least a dozen movies that have been adapted from novels; given an hour, you'd probably have more than thirty.

Now regard short fiction. How many movies can you conjure up that have been adapted into film? Yea, that's not as easy, but there are numerous examples even in science fiction:

  • The Fly (1958 & 1986) - George Langelaan's “The Fly” (1957)
  • Rollerball (1975 & 2012) – William Harrison's “Roller Ball Murder” (1973)
  • Maximum Overdrive (1986) - Stephen King's “Trucks” (1973)
  • Total Recall (1990 & 2012) - Philip K. Dick's “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966)
  • The Lawnmower Man (1992) - Stephen King's “The Lawnmower Man” (1975)
  • Johnny Mnemonic (1995) - William Gibson's “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981)
  • Bicentennial Man (1999) - Isaac Asimov's “The Bicentennial Man” (1979)
  • A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) - Brian Aldiss's “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969)
  • Minority Report (2002) - Philip K. Dick's “The Minority Report” (1956)
  • Paycheck (2003) - Philip K. Dick's “Paycheck” (1953)

Granted, some of these films weren't worth the celluloid they were printed on (I'm looking at you Maximum Overdrive) but they hold a moderate interest in the science fiction community... in particular, William Harrison's short story “Roller Ball Murder”. This is notable because this was Harrison's only SF story. The rest in this collection, and other collection, is largely semi-autobiographical. If you've picked up this collection hoping for varying themes of science fiction, you've chosen the wrong book.

I understand the writer's perspective in writing what you know, but when the same specific themes crop up in a a few stories (pornographic magazines, an interest in nature books, Chicago, the supernatural, the decline of culture, etc.), it begins to feel too personal, not very relevant to the reader. These stories, aside from “Roller Ball Murder”, range from clever to cynical to crass.

The Warrior (1971, shortstory) – 3/5
After professional stints in Korea, Algiers and other exotic parts of call where the dogs of war are needed, one soldier decides to become a mercenary. Temporarily content with his life on the Spanish coast, he dreams of two scenarios: (1) returning to the war of predator and prey and (2) living with his family on the idyllic coast. However, his shattered soldier mentality creeps through his fantasies, resulting in a fantasy of blood, pain, and public chaos. 10 pages

The Hermit (1968, shortstory) – 3/5
In rural Montana, small things tend to cause big stirs. An elderly, isolated man named Ossinger arrives on the outskirts of town and keeps mostly to himself. A local grocer, Cone, provides him with weekly supplies, but their lack of contact inspires the Cone's imagination. Knowing the hermit is an ex-convict, Cone frames the man's personality and sends him further unrequested gifts: books, a dog, a fresh turkey. Dreamlike, the hermit reflects on his life and the bounty of gifts. 19 pages

Down the Blue Hole (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Homer Bogardus has a big talent and big plans, yet lives in a small town that doesn't need his particular expertise. In Popular Bluffs, however, there's a brisk trade in showing tourists the supernatural. Homer is among the best, being able to conjure a restless dog, summon dead souls through his crystal ball, and his coup de grace—his disappearing act. All he really wants though is to get a girl to love, but even the fulfillment of that wish is lackluster. 12 pages

Eating It (1970, shortstory) – 4/5
Food is fuel, eating is a task—so is the victual life of a young man. Then one day, that same boy's great-aunt exposes him to more than the naughty picture books she enjoys even in her ripe old age—homemade madeleines, French pastries. She teaches him to savor the taste and the texture. With his sensual lesson, the boy looks toward the old wicker chair and a lampshade—as she says, “Everything is tasty.” 8 pages

The Pinball Machines (1967, shortstory) – 3/5
The Great Depression brought men in conflict with, primarily, themselves. Obligations to the family overrode any other duty, even to oneself. This obligation to house, feed, and look after one's own family and even extended family made many men desperate, bringing them in conflict with who they were. But one man, a barber of fine repute, opens his shop for grueling hours yet doesn't alter his working ethos, until a pinball machine enters his shop. Unfamiliar, he ponders its usefulness. 13 pages

Roller Ball Murder (1973, shortstory) – 4/5
The popularity of Roller Ball Murder spans the globe with everyone entertained by the blood, the carnage, he death. The degenerate post-millennial world savors the deaths on screen but the element is somewhat predictable. Jonathon E, a veteran and hero of the so-called game, has lived through years of rule changes, but the season's progressive ruling are steering the game toward slaughter because, after all, the consumers demand it—customers are never wrong. 19 pages

The Blurb King (1971, shortstory) – 4/5
Harry Neal's life has been carried by blurbs alone, blurbs that exaggerate the truth of tell half-truths. Through high school, university, and the start of his career, he realizes the sheer importance of projecting just the right blurb for just the right person. Then, he models his business turning that person into his client. Harry will blurb anyone, anything—aside from writers, who already have a monopoly on sharing blurbs. Even his own life can be blurbed in retrospect. 8 pages

A Cook's Tale (1966, novelette) – 4/5
A chef is just a chef in the eyes of other chefs—colleagues view each other in terms of their own profession for pride, for simplicity. Only two things can transcend this workplace barrier: (1) for the love of a woman or (2) for the love of an art. In one man's case, both apply to his sudden openness to a married woman whose husband is toiling away as a learned man at university. The head chef has a secret desire for classic literature, but succumbs to passion in the form of physical love. 26 pages

The Arsons of Desire (1972, shortstory) – 3/5
As much as he can, Coker bides his time as a Chicago firefighter. He lives at the station and tends to the cleanliness of the same station, yet he has visions of promotion, a dream of which is supported by his acts of heroism while rescuing those trapped in fires. Recently, however, it seems that every call the station gets, Coker is somehow romantically related to the fire's victims. He can't seem to shake the eeriness. 15 pages

The Good Ship Erasmus (1971, shortstory) – 4/5
As cruel as selling cigarettes to a recovering smoker... and that's exactly what one man is doing on a cruise in the Mediterranean. He's smuggled the smokes onto the quitters' cruise and works undercover to paw them off to the most vulnerable victims of withdrawal. Meanwhile, Perry Cheyenne, the passenger host, catches wind of some illicit ciggies, so the smuggler shifts tactics. Eventually, he's taken to see the captain... if he even exists. 15 pages

Under the House (1972, shortstory) – 2/5
Johnny Breck has two things going for him as a professional plumber: (1) he's the cheapest labor in the college town and (2) he enjoys laying his own pipe all over town, especially for the college girls and housewives. He once thought og each act as sort of a “forced entry” but now sees his coital acts as “armed robbery”; regardless, he knows who wants it, where they want it, and knows that he doesn't want to go under the house—no way, no how. 11 pages

Nirvana, Götterdammerung, and the Shot Put (1972, shortstory) – 3/5
Built like a redwood, solid like a rock, yet with a mind as fluid as the rapids between the river's stones, Toby Grogen practices Zen meditation as he tosses his shot put prior to an Olympic event. When left to himself and reflecting within himself, he's able to hurl a record-shattering distance; when observed, he falls short. Once in Germany, his stature and reputation earn him an unprecedented popularity. When faced with competition, Toby takes on a new internal and external route. 12 pages

Weatherman: A Theological Narrative (1973, shortstory) – 3/5

Perched upon his lofty abode of the tower belonging to one of nine Mid-America Storm Towers in the isolated Ozark Mountain, Mr. Pollux is indeed isolated from all people. So isolated, in fact, that he considers himself to be a meteorological god, capable of manifesting even the most exotic of weather events. He submits his observations to central command but ultimately revels in his detachment, power, and death-wish. 7 pages

Sunday, June 7, 2015

1973: Japan Sinks (Komatsu, Sakyo)

Destruction of a country, integrity of a man (3/5)

Sakyo Komatsu is perhaps Japan's most famous translated science fiction, but for all the wrong reasons. Komatsu wrote Japan Sinks for nine years and finally published the novel in 1973, in which he won two awards: the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and Seiun Award. He also has two pieces of short fiction that can be found in English: the grisly and hard-hitting “Savage Mouth” (1968/1978) and the poigantly psychological story “Take Your Choice” (1969/1987).

In popular culture, please recall the films of the 1970s... if you need a reminder of the popular films of the time, here's a short list: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974) and Tidal Wave (1975), to name a few. This was a the golden era of the disaster film, which, in turn, spurred the disaster novel: Scortia and Robinson's The Glass Inferno (1974) and Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer (1977), to just name two. Likewise in Japan, after the novel's publication, a string a similar films were produced.

While disaster films and novels were at the peak of popularity, Japan Sinks was translated by Michael Gallagher and published by Harper & Row. Was Japan Sinks translated and published for its artistic merits or to meet a consumer demand for destruction? Regardless, the novel is of two parts: the external disaster inflicted upon Japan and the internal conflict within the protagonist, Toshio Onodera.

It all begins when construction of the Super Express train line is stalled due to the inaccuracies in measuring the land, almost as if the entire landscape had shifted up and down. Then there's a report of a recently made volcanic island disappearing—simply vanishing into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. On the professional side of things, this scares a number of people who host a number of theories; on the government side of it, the entire scenario of Japan sinking is simply absurd; and as for the public, they don't have any idea of what's to come.

Soon, earthquakes strike major metropolitan areas, volcanoes erupt in spectacular fashion, and the death toll begins to climb through the thousands and tens of thousands. The psyche of the Japanese people had become inured to national disasters, so they collectively remain strong and unaware of greater calamity.

Meanwhile, Toshio Onodera has his own sinking feeling. The theory, tests, results, and observations all point to the certain destruction of Japan and the “death of the dragon” isn't in the distant future:

The dragon was stricken.
A fatal illness was eating at him, destroying his very marrow. Racked with fever,his vast bulk covered in bleeding wounds, he thrashed about, vainly struggling against fate that was tearing at him. The encroaching blue sliding over him was like the shadow of death. (169)

Amid the turmoil, Onodera sits on the cusp of allegiance to his government and allegiance to his people. The Japanese people take the destruction in stride, adjusting to their despair with acceptance followed by renewed vigor for accepting lives challenges. But they don't know the future extent of the damaging being wrought. The government insists that if the Japan's forecasted destruction is revealed to the public, an even greater chaos will ensue.

As he continues his research into how and when Japan will sink into the ocean, Onodera experiences an internal conflict: Should be be faithful to the organization or to the people? He asks, himself, “Have I become a faithful bureaucrat?” (130). But he scuttles this idea immediately because a true bureaucrat would never ask themselves that question. With this realization, Onodera know what he must do.

Overwhelmingly, this is a disaster novel through and through. It's also very geocentric with lots of obscure Japanese place names: volcanoes, islands, villages, mountains, oceanic features, subterranean faults, etc. This doesn't distract from the story, but it does leaden the weight of its progression. When one is unfamiliar with Japanese geography, one island sounds the same as another; one town sounds the same as another.

The book's saving grace is the chasm within Onodera. Just because Japan is exploding and subsiding, this doesn't mean that Onodera must also perish; rather, he sees the cataclysm as a test of his self-worth, his loyalty, and his honesty. Much like Japan is between tectonic plates being driven together by deep, fierce forces, so too is Onodera the center of similar intrinsic forces—to be a loyal salaryman or to be a loyal human. In all too many instances, Japanese men have chosen the former and, in Onodera's eyes, the latter is a choice for the greater good. Japan may sink, but Onodera plans to rise above it... at all costs.