Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, February 29, 2016

1989: Children of the Wind (Wilhelm, Kate)

Themeless, directionless collection of novellas (3/5)

My experience with Wilhelm is limited to three novels and two novellas, all of which I have given a 3- or 4-star rating; for example, her novel The Killer Thing (1967) was quite good while “The Plastic Abyss” (1971) left something to be desired for. Neither have I been impressed nor disappointed. In her collection Children of the Wind, the stories don’t impress me yet again, but further, I’m disappointed in two of the five.

I wasn’t under the assumption that all five stories would be science fiction; I’m quite open to reading non-genre fiction and a bit of non-Tolkien/non-paranormal fantasy. Of the five stories in this collection, two are paranormal fantasy, two are fiction, and one is science fiction. Perhaps because of my distaste for fantasy, those two stories were the weakest, in my opinion. I couldn’t immerse myself in the story, couldn’t draw any parallelisms, couldn’t sense any direction or point. In contrast to these two dullards—one of which actually received a Nebula award for Best Novella (“The Girl Who Fell into the Sky”)—the one science fiction story (“A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls “) and the first story (“Children of the Wind “) are pretty good, but not great.

“Children of the Wind” (1989, novella) – 4/5
Precocious at home and at school, the twin six-year-old boys of June and Robert are becoming an increasing headache. They invent their own secret language and indulge in fantasies yet they learn very quickly in areas like math and reading. When family is invited to housesit over the summer, June and Robert see it as beneficial to their jobs and for the boys. At the sprawling estate, an older boy named Lorne treats the twins with indignity; thus, the twins silently plot. 64 pages

“The Gorgon Field” (1985, novella) – 2/5
Constance and Charlie are invited by an old acquaintance to stay at her father’s hidden valley mansion tucked away amid the Colorado mountains; the catch: get a feel for her aging father’s sanity and his odd relationship with a man named Ramon. The fantastic scenery spellbinds both of them amid the estate’s plush service and furnishings. The towering stone gorgons especially captivate Constance who feels drawn to their power of beauty, but also another more mystical power. 58 pages

“A Brother to Dragons, a Companion of Owls” (1974, novelette) – 4/5
The earth is scorched and the city sits nearly dying as it’s handful of aging inhabitants cling to a so-called life by surviving on freeze-dried food and their respective hobbies. All are aged over 70 save for Boy, whose long-ago childhood trauma left his speechless. One day when Boy scavenges, he spies a lone band of children. Viewing from afar, the elderly city dwellers are shocked but become concerned then vengeful when people start to disappear. Only Llewellyn seems to see the future in them. 39 pages

“The Blue Ladies” (1983, novella) – 3/5
Daniel Borg is a reclusive millionaire in the small town of Potterstown, where life is slow and simple for its residents, including Cissy and Lee. The married couple moved to the small town so that Lee could live in relative peace after his wartime injury and recovery. To make ends meet, Cizzy takes odd jobs about town. The latest offer is the oddest yet most lucrative so far: pose for Mr. Borg. Though the money is good, she’s demeaned by his verbal abuse as he sits in his wheelchair, bound by anger, passion, and frailness. 41 pages

“The Girl Who Fell into the Sky” (1986, novelette) – 2/5

David MacLaren is a collector with a patchy history of war and revenge. John is on the receiving end of his father’s stories and now on the receiving end of his father’s hobby. As his father’s heart is frail, John travels hundreds of miles to an old mountain commune. When he arrives, he meets the unassuming figure of Lorna Shields, a member of the benefactor family for the estate sale. As the player piano plays in the middle of the night, the supernatural awakens. 49 pages

1961: Soviet Science Fiction (uncredited editor)

Scratching the surface of conjecture and propaganda (4/5)

The Iron Curtain once held back more than culture and economy, but at the same time, the shroud became an intriguing mystery to some. The USSR was an unfathomable territory and within its expansive borders it contained an infinity of nuances, nooks and crannies, and its own literature. Around 2000, I was compelled to read Soviet-era travel fiction to experience this mystification of the USA’s old enemy, a sub-genre that I continue to read today. I’m only now getting around to reading Soviet SF. After my Japanese SF project last year, I decided to take the dive in to Soviet SF… so this is the first in a series.

Isaac Asimov’s introduction sort of sets the reader up for disappointment: “the particular stories in this book were selected in part for their relative inoffensiveness [in regards to propaganda and anti-Americanisms]”. If you’re looking for brightly colored propaganda, communist rhetoric, or the steeled Soviet pride, you’re looking in the wrong place. Furthermore, you may think that all stories would have a heavy sociological slant, but you’d have to dig a little to get to that kind of message. I’ve tried to portray each story in terms of propaganda, but actually they read just like any other collection from the 1950s.

All stories were translated by Violet L. Dutt. All quotes of propaganda are from this forum.


“Hoity-Toity” – Alexander Beliaev (1930/1961, novelette) – 2/5
Synopsis: In Berlin, the circus’s main attraction is an elephant with the ability to count, read, and message. When it refuses to do manual labor, its handler strikes it leg, sending it off in a fit to the countryside. Named Hoity-Toity, it eats, bathes, and tramples where it likes until the police begin to shoot. Soon, a telegram informs the circus that a scientist is coming to handle the situation as he created it in the first place. Then the story unfolds of a brain transplant, an adventure through Africa, and fear of the white man. 68 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:
Engineers and technical workers! Rationalizers and inventors! Actively struggle to hasten scientific-technical progress!

Analysis: While the main protagonist of “Hoity-Toity” is indeed the elephant with a man’s mind, Hoity-Toity is actually the result of brilliant Soviet scientific rationalization by the mind of Professor Wagner in Moscow. Wagner’s inventions baffle his own assistants—including the transparent, hollow, man-sized rubber ball—but his most amazing achievement to-date is the keeping and growing of a live brain—that of a man named Ring, who was young German scientist who died in Abyssinia. Wagner’s unparalleled rationalization skills allow him to benefit the young German by transferring his brain to that of an elephant, which is the only animal large enough to house his artificially grown brain.

Regardless of the unprecedented feat in modern science, Ring is ungrateful as he casually spends his life in a circus making money for its ringleader; and regardless of his size, Ring is irresponsible in his range of possibilities as she shuns manual labor for which he is clearly built. Once on his stubborn rampage, Ring is only calmed down by the assurance that he will meet Wagner, who may be the only person who truly understands his existence as an elephant. Hoity-Toity/Ring agrees to come back to the circus after a two-week vacation in the Alps, with the professor and his assistant along. Here, the professor is not only a great logic-minded scientist, but he is also a compassionate soft-hearted human.

Review: In his introduction to the collection, Isaac Asimov outlines three stages of American science fiction:
Stage One (1926-1938): adventure dominant
Stage Two (1938-1950): technology dominant
Stage Three (1950-?): sociology dominant

Being a Soviet science fiction story, you’d immediately assume that the premise for the story to have either an obvious sociological banner for communism or a clever underlying message… so, stage three. While the story starts out with hints of allegory about the responsibility of all Soviet labors—big and small, high and low—the story quickly turns into one of adventure and science, thereon losing all of its social currents in the beginning. This is a weak start to an otherwise hearty collection.


“Spontaneous Reflex” – Arkandy & Boris Strugatsky (1958/1961, novelette) – 4/5
Synopsis: With numerous sensors, Urm is able to sense the world to a more thorough degree than any human; however, like a human, he too can become bored. Unsatisfied with its underground concrete cube as its sole known location, it opens the door, satisfied with its squeak. In the halls, in approaches danger without fear, destroys without conscious, and frightens without shame. As it reaches the surface, its Master attempts to bargain with it and, in the end, to find a way to disable it. A victim of its own success, mere bulldozers are able to pin it. 23 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #60:

Fraternal greeting to the courageous fighters for people's freedom, democracy and socialism who are suffering in prisons and fascist walls! Communists and workers of all nations! More actively involve yourselves in the struggle to halt terror and repression! Freedom for the prisoners of imperialism and reaction!

Analysis: High technology, especially of military value, is often a closely guarded secret as it’s usually of sensitive nature. The robot named Urm—an acronym for Universal Robot Machine—is a superior robot to such a degree that it can learn and develop while left on its own; in essence, the robot was given free-thought. Indeed, this would be a dangerous thing if given free movement through the land, but even Soviet citizens didn’t have free movement, instead, Urm is confined to a subterranean prison devoid of sensation.

If Urm had not been given free-thought, it would have been content to stare at its bleakly grey environment; however, with primary urges to experience the world and adapt, it tests the door, the halls, the walls, and even under the open sky. Not made of flesh and bone, its curiosity is backed by metal and mechanizations, propelling it through walls and radiation without harm. Its two weaknesses are its most human-like: (1) As it has had very little experience in human communication, its salutations come off as horrifically abrupt; (2) Its locomotion is an adaptable one for all terrains—two legs and two arms.

Having been suppressed for so long, it fails to find allegiance among the men at the base; also having been given the fallacy of man’s locomotion, it fails to escape… only o be defeated by a much simpler technology and one that doesn’t rely on human fallacy: the treads and scoop of bulldozers. As it wallows in frustration, the only rational thing for its creator (its Master) is to simply switch it off.

Review: This is a familiar trope of a robot gone berserk, complete with undeveloped human emotions while following a foundational, pre-programmed prerogative. What it makes up for in originality is its allegory of the danger of free-thought, inherited human flaw, development in seclusion, and reliability of tried-and-true methods. It’s a well-fitted glove for a Soviet story compounded by the repeated haunting salutation of the robot: “здравствуйте как поживаете?” or “Zdravstvuite, kak pozhivaete?” or “Good day, how do you do?” Even taken at its most literal level, the action story would be a good, short romp yet with a lackluster ending if you weren’t aware of its allegory.


“A Visitor from Outer Space” – Alexander Kazantsev (1951/1961, shortstory) – 3/5
Synopsis: The ship Georgy Sedov stops in the arctic to pick up three unusual passengers who are on an expedition. The crew are curious to learn that the nature of the expedition is an astronomical one, yet it doesn’t concern the stars; rather, they are there to verify life of Mars. Yevgeny Alexeich Krymov, the lead astronomer, then outlines his theory of life on Mars with its causeways of life and how it relates to the Tunguska event of 1908 and his involvement in its scientific study. His series of facts entice and persuade the crew. 18 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #50:

Fraternal greeting to the peoples of the socialist nations! Let develop and strengthen the peaceful system of socialism--the deciding force of the anti-imperialist struggle, the bulwark of peace, democracy, and social progress!

Analysis: Conjecture upon conjecture, the so-called astronomer posits life on Mars with the bare minimum of fact compounded with the unshakable mindset of a zealot; as a result, the tainted inferences begin to stack into a scaffolding of the brittle twigs.

The impoverished Martian landscape naturally produces a socialist people who fly to Earth in order to seek its bounty of resources, yet understands the native people’s own needs for the same resources. Here, the presumed invaders are only benevolent victims of their natural environment wanting to understand and take what they need—no more, no surplus, no capital. In reality, Russia once unofficially founded a colony in Africa. Within a month, that colony was disbanded… and is it any wonder that it happens to be in the ever so displaced location of Djibouti, Somalia? Because we all know how well colonization affected its native peoples as there are so many shining examples of benevolence among them.

Also their sloppy landing—the result being the Tunguska explosion of 1908—comes only one decade before the October Revolution of 1917… which may or may not be a coincidence.

Review: As the analysis implies, the story really isn’t one that emits the character and culture of the Russian people; rather, it’s a cheaply woven fictional narrative infused with the author’s own exaggerated speculation on Mars and the Tunguska event.  That said, at least it’s an entertaining string of speculation; it’s not enough to convince the reader to subscribe to Kazantsev’s/ Krymov’s ideas, but it’s enough to beguile the ship’s crew. There are, however, still people who want to believe in the fantastic, minute possibilities on the steep sides of Occum’s Razor: naturally, an exploding UFO caused the Tunguska event—a conspiracy theory that’s been alive for 65 years.


“The Martian” – Alexander Kazantsev (1958/1961, shortstory) – 4/5
Synopsis: Entertained by the detailed account of the Tunguska event, the same crew of the Georgy Sedov are eager to hear another story, be it far-fetched or not. A pilot recounts his tale of meeting a peculiar man—long-limbed, large-eyed, short, and bald—in his office coming to speak with him about his willingness to become a member of a manned Mars expedition. Most Soviet applicants take pride in their personal sacrifice to science and the State, but the odd little man says he just wants to return home. 13 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #31:

Young men and women! Persistently educate yourselves in communist convictions! Learn to live, work, and struggle as Leninists, as communists!

Analysis: This is somewhat of a continuation of Kazantsev’s previous story—“A Visitor from Outer Space”—where Martians crash land on Mars having originated from a Socialist civilization and seeking resources. The beginning of the story features the same gullible-slash-eager crew for storytelling; this time, however, the story is told through a pilot and his encounter with an unusual man.

In essence, the Martian who comes to visit Earth and the Soviet Union—albeit a departure from its original mission as the Martian did crash land—is eager to return to his people. His eagerness stems from his one major finding: What had taken thousands of generations of lineage and struggle for the Martians to develop their form of communism, the Soviets have reached the same advanced level in only one-hundred years. Inspired by the feat and spirit of the Soviet people, the Martian wishes to return to Mars in order to spread his enthusiasm of brotherhood.

Progress is commonly seen in terms of technology—the creation and use of it. To proponents of communism, progress is seen in the light of a political ideology championing equality—the creation and practice of it. Most Soviets were proud of both aspects: the creation of communism and the practice of communism. They considered it to be the end-game in all societies where all must be shared for social progress. The Martians reach that same point after hundreds of thousands of years, making it their own end-game of an equal society. The sheer triumph of the Soviet people to push forward with this mindset inspires the Martian.

Review: This story is, by far, the most gung-ho about communism—its creation and practice. To view it in a more favorable light of advanced progress, Kazantsev compares the USSR’s development of communism in decades with the Martians’ development of the same in millennia. It’s very heavily built upon a Soviet-centric view of their pride, minus the flag-waving, anthem-singing, and America-bashing. If there were piece of Soviet science fiction that trumps the propaganda of this story, it’d surprise me.


“Infra Draconis” – Georgy Gurevich (1958/1961, novelette) – 4/5
Synopsis: With ideas in his head and stars in his eyes, Rady Blokhin yearns to meet the famed space navigator Grandpa Charushin, who’s been the first man to Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, etc. Rady’s radical idea: There may be black-bodied stars—called infras—that are so small that they don’t radiate light yet they have enough warmth to heat its surface internally. Charushin takes to the idea and soon one is found seven light-days away, a thirteen year flight. They both join the six-man mission and discover not only one, but two infras. 19 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #11:

Long live the indissoluble union of the working class, kolkhoz peasantry, and national intelligentsia! Strengthen the social-political and ideological unity of Soviet society!

Analysis: Charushin isn’t only the universally admired hero of the state, but he’s only a caring and concerned individual. His triumphs in space have never detracted him from the core of his existence—before being a hero, he was simply a man, and forever a simple man he will be. Now, however, he is a man of the people, so he must help those who lack his influence and power.

His down-to-earth approach wins admirers in the scientific community as well as among the people at large. Charushin even entertains the scientific whims of an eager, young man named Rady. The young man’s convictions, though continually against the opinions of the other professionals, wins the mind and heart of Charushin. When Rady’s nearly preposterous theory is proven correct, Charushin takes yet another leap for being such a well-admired hero of the state: he enlists for the mission.

Charushin’s dedication towards serving his people and his nation doesn’t cease even when he’s seven light-days from his mother country. When an unexpected discovery throws the mission into a tailspin, Charushin naturally, as the hero of the state, takes it upon himself to rectify the problem. The solution is an immensely personal one, yet he doesn’t think of himself—he only thinks about the success for his crew, his people, and his country.

Though Charushin is never mentioned of having received any distinction from the Soviet Union, his unprecedented statue as a hero must certainly qualify him for the nation’s highest distinction: Hero of the Soviet Union. Up until its disuse in December 1991, the award was given to 12,775 Heroes, many of them egotistical politicians and war veterans from WWII, but all Soviet cosmonauts also received the award. Naturally, as the highest distinction from the state, all recipients of the award should be held in the highest regard in terms of respect and morals. Charushin fits this profile by being selfless in the face of danger and by giving his life—in more than one regard—to the advancement of the state.

Review: Modern-day hero worship is a watered down affair where praise is given to those who do very little for such respect—actors, singers, soldiers, etc. For the most banal of reasons, many loft these so-called heroes with endless praise for, usually, one simple, unifaceted fact: they sing a hit song, they are admired; they star in comic book movies, they are admired; they enlist, they are admired. I’ve seen them all fall from shame, unworthy of the initial title of “hero” which was so carelessly lofted upon them. The word “hero” greatly loses its meaning when it’s vaunted toward every person who raises a finger.

Charushin, however, is worthy of the term… probably much more so than the other 12,775 so-called Heroes of the Soviet Union. His professional and humanistic acts are worthy of praise; he leads a productive life that benefits everyone; and he isn’t above sacrifice or ego. I doubt Charushin would fall from shame by his shameless acts of drug indulgence, misogyny, or highhandedness.

Compound this worthy worship of the hero with an interesting scientific angle and the story is propelled by its own steam. It’s intriguing, respectable, and worthy of my own praise for being the best story in the collection.


“Professor Bern’s Awakening” – Vladimir Savchenko (1956/1961, shortstory) – 4/5
Synopsis: The world is bent on suicide by more powerful and efficient ways, so Professor Bern has a plan to opt out of this eventual downfall: lower his body temperature in the absence of moisture and lay supine for one-hundred-eighty centuries below forty-five feet of desert floor. With only his assistant knowing his secret, the professor settles in for the long sleep in the void of the Gobi desert. He awakens stiffly, looks at the time, and bores to the surface; there, he sees a tree, a bird, and a humanoid with a club running at him. 17 pages

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #70:

Peoples of the world! Decisively speak out against the production of the neutron bomb! The design and production of new types of weapons of mass destruction must be halted!

Analysis: Regardless on which side of the Iron Curtain you looked, each was amassing earth-shattering weapons: multi-warhead-tipped ICBMs with hydrogen bombs and neutron bombs. The so-called “arms race” was nothing more than a pissing match with quantity of bombs, tonnage of bombs, and more novel ways to kill in mass.

In 1956, when this story was originally written, the US production of weapons was in full swing (2,422 in 1955) while the USSR production line was still infantile (200 in 1955). But, certainly, on the horizon for both nations, a news arms race had already begun, wafting fears of mutually assured destruction… a destruction of life, culture, and nations not only on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but all over the world. Insanity.

As a professor, Bern is a learned man who can see the course of history before his eyes by reviewing the facts and inserting the variables. Scared by the escalations in political rhetoric and production of arms, Bern makes the educated decision to opt out of this decade, this century, this millennium altogether, and this eon all together. Even though the third world war will be fought with atomics and the earth devastated, Professor Bern believes that the earth can replenish its vitality over time… or 18,000 years to be exact.

Professor Berns finds a kernel of truth in the following quote, a paraphrase of which opens the story: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. But Bern is just a man at his core, someone who is just as scared of life as everyone else and searches for something to cling to; some men cling to the bottle, others to religion or hate (or both), but Bern clings to the wise words of a fellow learned man.

Review: There are two parts of this story that are carefully constructed yet both require the reader to withhold believability: the delivery and the punchline. Bern thinks—knows through experiments—that he can hold a body in low-temperature limbo for at least six months so, naturally, this process can be protracted 36,000-fold. When he awakes with only grogginess, the reader must maintain the first line of credibility—that of the delivery. The last full page is an added level of incredulousness, yet it’s also kind of cool. When taken in terms of propaganda for the State, the ending has a few subtle reminders that the Party will survive.

Monday, February 8, 2016

1985: The Monadic Universe (Zebrowski, George)

Very slow to peak in quality, but maintains thereafter (3/5)

Joachim Boaz gives the best kind of gifts: secondhand SF books; unfortunately, as per his sense of humor, he likes to include atrociously bad titles such as Irving A. Greenfield’s Waters of Death (1967). Rightfully, I look these gift-horses in the mouth… some are good, some are bad. With Zebrowski’s The Monadic Universe, it started off as the latter—bad, bad, bad, as he even stated himself, here.

Unlike Joachim’s own 1977 edition, my 1985 edition has two additional stories, both of which add much needed quality to the sluggish start of the collection: “Wayside World” (1977) and “The Word Sweep” (1979). The first eight stories—yes, all eight—feel like good ideas wasted with poor execution, especially the three chronological stories with Praeger; these felt like non-stories, snippets of something that never gather enough momentum of its own to push it toward relevance, thereby leaving it fledgling like a lame duckling far behind its majestic mother. When compared to the last six stories—yes, all six—the first eight are contrastingly poor. But, ah, the latter six stories are all worthwhile, almost worthwhile enough to slog through the first eight… but don’t do that.

“First Love, First Fear” (1972, shortstory) – 2/5
His world limited to a beach, its shallow waters, and the slope of ground inland, a boy doesn’t have much company aside from his father and Jak. At thirteen years of age and having never seen a live woman, his experiences are as limited as his environment on the planet of Lea. Swimming to a shallow rock, an alien girl—the first he’s ever seen—touches him and plays a seductive game of tag in the sea. Soon, a bellow from the beach sends her off. Tim follows to learn a lesson of the planet on which he lives. 10 pages

“Starcrossed” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Robbed of his humanity since before his birth, a boy’s mind was plucked from its prenatal state in order to become a Modified Organic Brain capable of a near-light speed survey mission to Antares. Prior to its slip into twelve years of transit through the other-space, the Brain enters a sleep where dreams of mission fulfillment span its inner void. Awakening with disorientation, the Brain feels and hears the presence of a female who seeks his companionship as his probe comes close to the hot radiating star. 7 pages

“Assassins of Air” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Turning earth’s trash into a moderate treasure, Praeger and his gang strip fossil-fuel burning cars down one by one for the benefit of their pockets and the earth. Humble yet illegal, Praeger knows that something better can be had with his life, so he pays to sneak in lessons from the automated education machine. When his gang learns of his lofty plans, their brotherhood turns to confrontation as they harass him at home and as he attempts to leave the city. 9 pages

Parks of Rest and Culture” (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Praeger’s job in the city is the only thing that keeps him going in life. The park isn’t what it used to be now that it’s devoid of life, his wife isn’t the person he married because she has left him, and even the city seems to have turned ever uglier. There’s only one lofty ambition that remains the sole light at the end of his bleak tunnel: leave earth in favor of work in orbit or the moon. When he’s summoned for just that job, he easily leaves behind everything that’s failed him 12 pages

“The Water Sculptor” (1970, shortstory) – 2/5
Perched in orbit watching clouds tumult over the Pacific, Praeger feels content now that he’s left earth behind, except for his occasional vacation back. After his failed relationship with Betty, Praeger takes to a more mature relationship with orbital artsist and self-made idol of success—Julian. As an artist, he forms ice in abstract patterns to be left to decay by the grit and glare from the solar system. After an interview, Julian speaks with Praeger and hints at his dissatisfaction with everything. 8 pages

“Rope of Glass” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Dying in a world where dying is illegal, Sam Brickner ekes out a living with mimic-leukemia for which he needs medicine. When euthanasia is the treatment for terminal illness and old age, Sam is a rebel struggling with the side-effects in order to live a few more years. Unknown to him, his wife has been seeing a man—Harry Andrews—for his medicine; the relationship hasn’t been a professional one, and now Sam must face something more than just losing his life. 13 pages

“Heathen God” (1973, shortstory) – 3/5
Unbeknownst to most of humankind, there actually was a real live creator of heaven and earth, yet that creator only made the solar system and humankind. That singular creator happens to still be alive and is a member of an alien race of whom humans only know of the creator himself: a white-haired gnome. Forsakenly, he’s imprisoned on a planet of gardens where soon two men secretly come to interview him for a purpose greater than mere curiosity yet beyond blasphemy. 11 pages

“Interpose” (1971, shortstory) – 3/5
Future humans with he ability to travel through time are bent on pillaging history as they cut Jesus down from the cross and transport him back to the future. Jesus understands their plan in his omnipotent ways and escapes through time to 1915. After twenty years living in a modern city, he’s disgusted by the twisting of his teachings. Surviving on the street with his hand clutching a bottle of whisky, his wise teachings are ignored on a daily basis and, near his death, on this very occasion. 8 pages

“The History Machine” (1972, shortstory) – 5/5
Very few people on the good earth can own and use a history machine—historians are one of them. As every event leaves a record of itself on the atomic level, humankind has created a device that can record and replay these moments be they personal and recent or significant and distant. One historian tapes his personal life, even taping himself viewing historical events, which leads him to philosophize about the impossibility of witnessing history objectively and without the onus of the past. 7 pages

“The Cliometricon” (1975, shortstory) – 4/5
General Eisenhower stands on the cliffs of Dover where history branches into his near-infinity of possible realities: he envisions Germany’s nuclear bomb over England, he is shot by an emerging U-boat and swims to shore, or he decides the Allies should invade all of Europe. This view of the branching of possible realities is made possible by the Cliometricon, which one historian uses to view major events of the past, but also illegally viewing events of his own life—the current now or the alternative selves in alternative worlds. 8 pages

“Stance of Splendor” (1973, shortstory) – 4/5
The subjective, intangible self is a kernel of static memories, passing thoughts, and blossoming ambition; it’s also a locus for self-deception, psychosis, and the multi-faceted ego. One man, given immortality of sorts, experiences an expansion of awareness through the earth, its solar system and its sun, through near-space, the edges of the galaxy and its core. As he passes through and becomes part of space, time is the one factor that defeats him, casting him away from everything he once knew. 6 pages

“Wayside World” (1977, novelette) – 4/5
Anneka’s elderly 30-year-old parents lie dying, a burden to her three male companions: alpha male brothers Foler and Thessan along with the suppressed yet learned Ishbok. After the death of her parents, Ishbok takes a gamble and stands up to the brothers but doesn’t win support from the beautiful Anneka. From the base of a city’s tower in which they reside, he flees higher and higher to the roof to be left alone under the glare of the sun named Cleopatra and uncountable stars that bring a wind a change. 29 pages

“The Monadic Universe” (1972, novelette) – 4/5
Three ships are forcefully sent away from earth toward the planet- and star-rich core of the galaxy. On their eighty-year flight, the ships are confined to the enigmatic void of hyperspace, with which humanity has only just begun to experiment… and also why the ships were sent with such haste. One nameless ship harbors the wakened minds of three men while hundreds more lie asleep. On the simulated screen of the stars that reflect their passage in real-space, their sanity is tested as the blank void of hyperspace begins to take form. 27 pages

“The Word Sweep” (1979, shortstory) – 4/5
Words used to only gather in minds and one paper, but spoken words begin to manifest in the air and gather on the ground: whispers, secrets, conversations, speeches, obscenities, sleep-talk, and radio-talk. Cities begin to flood under the daily torrent of people’s collective utterances, the various shapes and forms of their words needing to be shipped to landfills or the incinerator. Felix enforces the rations of spoken words in a five-block square of the city; Bruno is his friend who has an idea about the plague and the piling of all the words. 12 pages

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of January 2016

#1: Metro 2033 (2007/2009) – Dmitry Glukhovsky (3/5)

While browsing the shelves at the bookstore, I was surprised to see a translated Russian science fiction novel from the last decade. Having been interested in reading more of translated Russian science fiction, I bought the novel and started to read it a few months later. Only two people asked what I was reading: “Is that the same book as the game?” Only then did I do a search online and see that the entire book had previously been serialized (which would explain its blocky feel) in Russian online, had a cult following, and became a game. It has a good sci-fi/horror/post-apocalyptic plot to it, ideal for a game. It has been a decade or two since the war that made life on the surface impossible. The few thousand who have survived live in the Moscow Metro (elsewhere, there must be survivors in similar situation) yet there’s also a form of life above: flying monsters, black figures, and mutants. Young Artyom has only known life in the station of VDNHk, but events lead him to be assigned to an important task: navigate the sometimes deadly tunnels and stations in order to deliver a message. Through his navigation, he experiences the many facets of life underground, the many facets of subjective truth, and secrets about the Metro, its people, and himself. (full review)

#2: Pillars of Salt (1979) – Barbara Paul (4/5)

Barbara Paul is an author of five SF novels and about a dozen SF short pieces. With an academic history in English and theatre history, one would expect some of these themes to run through her early works. Certainly, history plays the commanding role in Pillars of Salt because it’s a time-travel novel, with glimpses of life from a wide range of historical figures: e.g. Van Gogh, Ivan the Terrible, Thakombau, Queen Elizabeth. Most of historical settings are fun settings, but the 5-page setting in the North African arena during WWII is indulgent and a waste of time and paper. Everyday people in the year 2059 are able to travel into the minds of people from history, even young students who learn directly about fragments of history. The professionals, however, spend a lot of their time investigating wide swaths of history and eventually settle onto one person; for. Angie, that person is Queen Elizabeth. She experiences much of her life, but one day chooses to visit her sickness from smallpox, when she unexpectedly witnesses her death… and Angie’s own animation of her body. If the Queen had died, how did she reign for forty more years? The academic circle investigates the phenomenon, which indicates that it actually affects the present and speculates what the future has in store.

#3: The Dreaming Earth (1963) – John Brunner (3/5)

I’ve read more Brunner than I can count… just kidding, this is the thirtieth piece of Brunner’s work that I’ve read, including novels, collections, and his hodgepodge The Book of John Brunner (1976). I’ve said in previous Brunner reviews that each of his books is different, that there were many facets to his artistry. Now having read thirty of his books, some ubiquitous themes are becoming a poor, most of them found in The Dreaming Earth: over population, drug use of the disenchanted, hypnotism, whodunit disappearances, and videophones. This novel doesn’t have espionage—another common Brunner inclusion—but it does include a conspiratorial global organization. The drug here—happy dreams—shows up in many places around the globe and some of its users are disappearing. The narcotic agency of the UN think that they’ve just up and gone, but some hare-brained thinkers hypothesize that they’ve transcended. Greville becomes victim to the mildly hallucinating drug due to his scheming wife, but he soon recovers and pushes himself to uncover the drug’s mysteries: How is it distributed? Where do the addicts disappear to? Where does the drug even come from? Just when he’s in the thick of it does the reader realize that so much of it is predictable and the punch near the end is weak.

#4: The Raw Shark Texts (2007) – Steven Hall (4/5)

If you’ve read any Murakami, you will be able to tell that this book is heavily influenced from his writing. Instead of a sultry affair with a buxom woman, there’s an awkward affair with a skinny blonde; and instead of fine whiskey, there is a shark… something like that. Three similarities stand: mysterious underground passages, a cat as sidekick, and magical realism. Eric Sanderson awakens to the world with no memory, yet his former self leaves a note telling him what to do. His psychologist offers no real help, so Eric turns to a dangerous form of information: almost daily notes delivered by his former self which allude to an unfathomable menace. When he has his first brush of danger from the menace, Eric reads all the letters and goes down the metaphorical rabbit of searching for his past—what happened to his former self—and his future self—keeping his memory in tact. This leads him to a distant farmland, a crumbling concrete passage, and a crawlspace lined with texts. It’s a bizarre affair from start to finish, but worthwhile to read about someone without hope or history to find salvation in the unknown.

#5: Of Men and Monsters (1968) – William Tenn (4/5)

I love part of the summary on the back of the novel: “a clear-eyed tribute to the audacity, shrewdness, stupidity, courage and ultimate ineradicability of the human pest”. Any novel that paints an unfavorable picture of humanity as stupid, I tend to love. In addition to Joachim’s own review, this novel—my first of Tenn’s—looked like a juicy morsel. Cockroaches are pests in human abode, but even they live in an even larger abode of the invading monsters, who have taken over earth. The towering monsters that terrorize the comparatively pint-sized humans treat them as pests, so the small bands of humans cower away and whittle away their inferior lives within the walls. Given their isolation, they think the world is as large as they can see, but there are walls beyond the walls, and thoughts beyond their thoughts. Unable to view the bigger perspective, petty issues cloud their collective minds. One group resists this impetuous incivility, for which the naïve protagonist—Eric—is destined.

#6: Doomsday Wing (1963) – George H. Smith (1/5)

It’s always a teacher’s advice to keep reading to improve your reading skills; likewise, keep writing to improve your writing skills. Unfortunately, I guess writing erotica doesn’t hone one’s skills; case in point: George H. Smith (not to be confused with George O. Smith of Venus Equilateral fame). Colonel Chris Tolliver is part of Wing D, an innocuous missile base with some curious participants. When Chris learns that that the “D” stands for “Doomsday”, he gets a case of the nerves. These nerves wreck havoc on his failing marriage to a wife he admits he married for her face; even before, there was that time in Japan with that 21-year-old. Anyway, his colleagues all have dead ex-wives and second wives, so it sounds pretty easy for him to move on with his life if his old cow kicks the bucket. When the US gets attacked by a lone Soviet missile base—commanded by the eccentric General Nikolai Ilich Aristov—the US retaliates with limited strikes. On both sides, the deaths are appalling as bases are laid to waste and bombers are shot from the sky. But in 124 pages, the fulcrum between pre-war and post-war is too hasty and cobbled-together, which only becomes hastier toward the conclusion when it’s just bad, plain bad. This book has about as much give-a-fuck as an erotic dime novel: Sorority Sluts (1962), The Virtuous Harlots (1963), Country Club Lesbian (1963), or Orgy Buyer (1965).

#7: Lords of the Psychon (1963) – Daniel F. Galouye (2/5)

I have had three Galouye novels (out of his total of five) and I’m saving his most renowned for last: Simulacron-3 (1964). I read The Infinite Man (1973) last year and was unimpressed enough to give it a three out of five. If taking into account Lords of Psychon, I would thus far say that he’s a middling author. However, I am intrigued by his wealth of short stories, which number about seventy. Back to Lords of Psychon… enigmatic man-sized sphere appeared on earth in 1977, destroying all electrical items and sending mankind into seizures for weeks. Now in the 1990s, bands of people are scattered about the land. One last outpost of former American military wheels a nuke into the neighboring opalescent tower where uncommunicative spheres come and go, the blast is a mere pop and the tower stands still. When Captain Maddox discovers a woman who keeps a young sphere in a barn, the two contemplate its usefulness as an experiment, which helps them tap into its mysteries. The spheres occasionally hunt people down and hurl bolts at them, but now Maddox has discovered that some of these powers can be harnessed by people, too. But throughout the novel, boredom grips the reader in such spasms that only a few pages can be read in one sitting.

#8: The Human Angle (1956) – William Tenn (4/5)

Just this month, I read my first William Tenn novel: Of Men and Monsters (1968). Though this latter book is more than ten years later than his short work in this reviewed collection, it still shows his knack for creativity, zaniness, and depth, three words of which would also describe Fritz Leiber and Robert Sheckley. Of the eight stories, two seemed familiar, but it took me a while to realize that I had them before: I had read “Project Hush” before in Asimov’s 50 Short Science Fiction Tales (1963) and “Party of the Two Parts” in Santesson’s Gentle Invaders (1969). The latter of which is bizarrely unique story of alien oddities and galactic law. This one steals the show out of the entire collection. In close second is “The Servant Problem”. This story isn’t one of blunt humor, but a cultural introspection of the familiar theme of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”—it’s poignant yet absurd. (full synopses)

#9: Synthajoy (1968) – D.G. Compton (5/5)

After reading Farewell, Earth's Bliss (1966) and The Steel Crocodile (1970), I knew Compton was an author whom I would have to pay attention to; both books were solid and enticing in on way or another. Synthajoy falls between them both and smothers them both with its percolating personal history, layers of psychology (always fascinating to me), and teetering success of a new technology. Thea Cadence neé Springfield fell deeply in love with the doctor she was working with—a brilliant psychologist named Edward Cadence. She was so in love with him, in fact, that she was blind his to faults, perhaps because of his radiant passion for developing Sensitape. He was able to record emotions and experiences onto tape and later feed it back into another person’s mind. The creation of a Sexitape—legally taken between Mr. and Mrs. X—caused nearly instant fame, but the clinical and recreational use of the tape—its true indication of success—had yet to break through. Now, Thea is alive and in the same institution she helped build with her late husband, who has died in an unmentioned incident, which is also why Thea is receiving treatment with Sensitape. Her story evolves slowly through a clouded mind on sedatives, yet even her own story takes a few u-turns, testimony which is verified with stenographic conversations. This one is deep and tumultuous, a real delight for the observant and analytical mind.

#10: Unearthly Neighbors (1960) – Chad Oliver (1/5)

I remember enjoying Chad Oliver’s story “Transfusion” (1959) in Groff Conklin’s Worlds of When (1962). It was something a little different, a little fun, so I decided to pick up anything else by the same author—the result: Unearthly Neighbors. I had been excited for a while at the thought of picking it up.  The first few pages and chapters were OK: a mission to Sirius Nine as discovered a humanoid species and since Monte Stewart is one of the leading anthropologists, the UN decides to send him and let him pick his team, who all seem to take their wives on the three-year mission to an uncharted planet. Once on the planet and meeting the locals, somehow the book becomes dull. One man lives in an unnaturally hollowed out tree and commands a wolf-like animal, leading the reader to a basic assumption, the same assumption is takes the characters another hundred pages to figure out. As an official mission to an alien people, they seriously botch up first contact. In addition, their guesswork on their language abruptly turns to fluency, the humans being able to use alien verb tenses (heavily using formal present perfect); allegories that seem to bridge cultures; subject, object, and even reflexive pronouns; first conditional clauses; and difficult vocabulary such as tide and current, and trial and verdict. Unearthly Neighbors gets a point for grim unforeseen violence in the middle and some philosophical conjecturing toward the end, but it tapers poorly and the result of the novel is a flaccid and forgettable.