Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of August 2016

#58: The Hive 1: Half Past Human (1971) – T. J. Bass (4/5)
T.J. Bass (penname of Thomas Joseph Bassler, MD) is something of an enigma. He only wrote two novels—both of The Hive—which were met with intrigue, yet he never published another novel, leaving the start of his Hive series unfinished—fruit ripe for the picking; thus, he has left a minor yet indelible legacy on science fiction. The Hive is a wonderfully witty and unmistakably unique series that has little parallelism to any other novel written before or written since—it’s wholly original.

In a few thousand years, humans will have been genetically tampered with so that they could adapt to crowding; this adaptation, however, also deprived the Hive citizens of “immunoglobulin A, calcium and collagen, neurohumoral axis, [and] melanoctye” (8), rendering them soft and frail… they also live a full lifespan of twenty years and have a deeply set default to obey. Being barely four-foot tall, these feeble citizens—named Nebishes—are packed in underground spirals all across the globe, totally more than three trillion Nebishes. Their food source: planet-wide agriculture in which machines plant, pollinate, and pick the food to feed the ever dwindling supply of calories to the Nebishes. At the helm of this massive so-called society is C.O. or Computer One, who steers the course of the same society, governs all decisions, and has very little toleration for the tangents of humans… or toleration for any humans, really, as re-packaged cannibalism is common in order to meet calorie quotas with a particular streak of disregard for well-being.

Continually inventive and written with extensive medical English (i.e. edematous, seborrheic, edentulous, squamous), diagnostic English, and acronyms, the whole package is a bizarre and intriguing kaleidoscope of imagination. Ultimately, however, this strong current of invention is too swift for the inexperienced author as the plot takes on too much just prior to a mildly unsatisfying conclusion… but it was also ripe for its sequel, The Godwhale (1974). [full review]

#59: The Metallic Muse (1972) – Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (3.5/5)
Prior to his death in 2002, Biggle, as a SF writer, had produced about twenty novels, three collections, about forty short stories. Though he’s not a well-known SF author, Biggle had two other facets to his habit of writing: mystery and music; neither of these is explored fully in his seven-story collection, but it’s obvious that some of his personal interests are imposed on the stories, as the back cover comments: “seven fine science fiction stories of what could happen in the world of music and art and television”.

This thematic collection of “art” comes right after my reading of Effinger’s thematic collection of “sport”, neither of which particularly suited me. I guess I prefer a broader range of topics by a single author (such as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Salmonella Men [2006]) or a broader range of authors on a single sub-genre (such as Paul Kane & Stuart O’Regan’s The Mammoth Book of Body Horror [2012]).

Overall, the stories show a good streak of originality in regards to plot, but most—if not all—stories end on rather predictable notes. The first five stories are obvious inclusions to the theme of art, but this theme tapers away along with the flow of the stories: “In His Own Image” is more about religion, idolatry, and worship than any form of art; and “The Botticelli Horror” is named after an artist but is really about alien life-forms eating people on earth. [full synopses]

#60: The Hive 2: The Godwhale (1974) – T. J. Bass (4/5)
Bass’s freshman novel and first in this two-part series of The Hive—Half Past Human—was an extraordinary foray into a wild de-evolution of the human species and the human spirit. It was zany, colorful, technical, and far-fetched but its success was burdened by its ambition of inclusion—he wanted to put so much in that it bulged at the seams. Regardless of its conclusion, there was enough material to work in a tantalizing sequel, which is exactly what Bass did.

The first half of the novel is built superbly well: it’s quirky, warped, interesting and keeps in line with the original novel, Half Past Human: Larry was one of the original bodies to be placed in hibernation until a thorough physical replacement could be found for his amputated legs. When he’s revived alongside the Nebish society, his millennia-long-old habits don’t jibe with the sluggish, conformist chubs that live underground. He wants out, back to the land and seas that he used to know. Meanwhile, a grotesque baby has been ejected from the baby farm and deposited into a chute only to be serendipitously captured by concerned robot. As this hulk grows up in the sewers (the bottom of the bottom) in the Hive, he learns the decrepit and intricate throughways that run through it.

These two rejects play contrast to four other players: (1) a duo of Nebishes who opt for sewer cleaning duty rather than being placed in hibernation; (2) the people that live in the sea under their submerged domes of air and pillage the goods from the Nebish land; (3) ARNOLD who is a genetic experiment to combat the water-people yet who also has a kind of built-in time bomb; and (4) the wandering whale-shaped Rorqual that used to harvest plankton but now searches for mankind.

There are many great characters in The Godwhale and each of them plays a cunning role in Bass’s vision for the novel; however, much like the first novel, he tends to get well ahead of himself in putting in too many ideas to clout the direction of the plot… but not too many details because that’s what makes it rather quirky. Medical terminology plays a healthy part in the writing, just as it did in Half Past Human. For something really strange in SF, Bass’s duology here would be perfect.

#61: The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor (1955/1970/1986) – Gabriel García Márquez (4/5)
Most people know Gabriel García Márquez for his novels One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), but this non-fictional story predates almost everything he’s published as an author because he wrote this story when he was just a journalist in 1955. Later in 1970, it was published as a novel.

On a relatively routine trip back from Mobile, Alabama to Columbia, a Columbian destroyer is thrown about the sea with its stacks of contraband. Eight men are tossed overboard while only two days from their home coast, yet only one survives to tell his tale: Luis Alejandro Velasco. His ten days of solitude are predictably studded with hunger pangs and his efforts to steal food from the wildlife around him, his fight against hallucinations and loneliness, and using his seamen know-how to survive the ordeal along with some clever problem solving with materials at hand. This is fairly standard fare for any shipwreck story (including William Golding’s Pincher Martin [1956]); however, it’s the framing of the story that captures attention.

While Velasco was embattled with many elements on his ten days afloat—sharks, hallucinations, and painful wounds among them—one embattlement stood out more than any other: “[M]ore than thirst, hunger, and despair, what tormented me most was the need to tells someone what had happened to me” (92). While under observation and recuperation, his story was largely ignored by civilians and officials alike, yet he was kept from reporters on the true nature of the shipwreck… and was treated as a hero of the state. This state of heroism only confounded Velasco: “So, in my case, heroism consisted solely of not allowing myself to die of hunger and thirst for ten days” (101). Disenfranchised with his government’s so-called honor, Velasco goes to a newspaper to tell what really happened, without censorship or distortion.

#62: The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) – John Wyndham (3/5)
Six years ago, a time which just feels like only two years ago, I first read Wyndham’s famous novel The Day of the Triffids and was drawn into the dark, relentless reality of the situation faced with the victims of the stalking plants. I was also struck by the imbalance of seriousness and zaniness. This imbalance was also found in his collection The Best of John Wyndham (with stories from 1932 to 1960): some were witty, some were dull, and some were serious. I didn’t really expect the same delivery from The Midwhich Cuckoos.

When everyone and everything living within a two-mile radius of the cathedral in the sleepy town of Midwich—and anyone who enters that has circumference—suddenly fall asleep, the military is certainly concerned about what happened to Midwich and determined to keep everyone silent about the curious goings-on. When the mysterious force is lifted, it’s soon discovered that all fertile women are carrying a child—again, the military is quick to keep it mum… and yet again when those same children exhibit a kind of telepathy.

Rumors of a curse spread through the town, yet no one had ever heard of a curse that produced fertility—only barrenness. Regardless of the children not being their own, the mothers soon take responsibility for them, not so much as a biological imperative, but more as a social obligation, yet even their motivation to care for the children is soon upended when they discover that the children can control their actions.

Theory breaks out that the children are, in fact, an advanced form of humanity who are able to control the weaker non-telepathic humans according to their collective whim (the boys share a boy-consciousness while the girls form their own consciousness). The wiser of the men begin to consider their own form as going the way of the dinosaurs, a fatalism that isn’t shared by all who form protests against the children who have much beyond their nine years of age.

Humans seem to have met their match simply because they were too busy being the dominant life-forms on earth without any competition: “As a securely dominant species you could afford to lose touch with reality, and amuse yourself with abstractions” (199). This serious tone pervades The Midiwich Cuckoos and doesn’t relent even into the grim future that is outlined for those under the children’s control; however, some sympathy is actually garnered for the mysterious children as they didn’t bring about the change themselves—they are just as much victims of circumstance as the villagers.

Many parts of the novel are didactic or full of lengthy monologue. There isn’t a satisfying stretch to the conclusion as some of it is a prolonged, all-revealing dialogue with one of the children. It’s not very subtle in its direction. Though this was Wyndham’s sixth novel (series included), it’s feels amateurish and dated.

#63: Gladiator-at-Law (1955) – Fredrik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth (4.5/5)
The razzle-dazzle of the Phol & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) had me at a bit of a loss toward the end of the novel. I can’t exactly remember why, but I do remember feeling left behind. I knew I was missing something, so I kept it in my library along with Pohl’s excellent sequel—or so I remember—The Merchants’ Way (1984). Joachim must’ve known my confusion over the Merchant matter, so he must’ve decided to force my decision by sending me Gladiator-at-Law.

G.M.L. Homes is the world’s largest company both in terms of the stock market and capital. They are fabulously influential. As the company grew from its noble roots in provided cost-effective housing for everyone, eventually money took hold of the greedy usurpers of the company’s power and left the two heirs of the now-dead founder’s company share—a surmountable 25%. Knowing that the rightful and righteous heirs—the Lavins—control that power, they brainwashed the son so that he’d be unable to remember the stock’s location, leaving him and his sister living in a slum.

Meanwhile, Norvell is hard on his luck as he gets fired from his job planning the well-celebrated Field Day entrainment extravaganza. His cushy life soon degrades to the slums where his grasp on reality loses its focus, his wife’s composure loses its rigidity, and his daughter’s haughtiness loses its innocence. Thankfully, prior to his firing, he had just met a lawyer named Mundin, a connection of which comes well into favor for the both of them.

With some ingenious maneuvering, manipulative suggestions, and legal tactics, Mundin begins to build not only a case against G.M.L Homes, but also a complete overthrow of the world’s largest company. It’s fun and tense, clever and witty. You may never root for the underdog as much as you do for Norvell, Mundin, and the Lavins.

#64: The Silent Multitude (1966) – D.G. Compton (4/5)
This is my fifth Compton novel, all of which, including this one, I’ve really enjoyed, with the exception of Chronocules (1970). He seems to be a largely forgotten figure in science fiction, probably because he never tackled popular themes or abided by the norms of the same themes. The Silent Multitude is a perfect example of this: In apocalyptic English, the author steers away from describing the actual disaster in favor of delivering tidbits of societal effect from the disaster. I can understand why it’s not a popular take, but then again, Compton has never aimed to take that popular route; rather, his endeavor has been to capture humanity in its state, be in on Mars (Farewell, Earth’s Bliss [1966]), against a supercomputer (The Steel Crocodile [1977]), or at the end of its physical reign (this novel). All these theme are familiar, yet Compton turns the popular head on its pivot to show the lesser shown side of the same story—and it’s a captivating journey of many figures, akin to Chaucer:

1. William (Paper) Smith knows his story yet shares little of it. He’s known now as a recluse in the city who collects and stores newspapers, lives in a basement, and who, otherwise, has very little to contribute to society at large; regardless, he’s known throughout. As the story comes to, the characters and the reader come to realize that his plain past is actually an elaborate checkerboard in which is was the pawn.

2. Sally Paget seems to be a simple female photojournalist sent to capture the human side of the city’s crumbling, yet her reactions to its collapse cast a darker side to her nature: Why is she so accommodating? Why does she play the role she does?

3. The Dean of the local church continues at his post even after the city’s evacuation, regardless of the zero-attendance congregation and outside surety that all concrete structures are sure to collapse. As a Man of God, he has the conviction that as the intangible Church has withstood countless centuries, so too must his physical church stand whatever may come.

4. Sim represents the abbreviation of his name—a man who attributes himself the lowest common denominator: primal man. Rape, looting, and murder at the forefront of his primitive mind while amid a larger collection of humanity. Does being primitive hamper or encourage his rise to power?

5. The least withdrawn from his nature yet also closest to its primeval state, the cat named Tug scourges the city for prey. It knows its territory yet hardly casts a doubt on why the humans have disappeared and why the city is crumbling.

#65: The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1956) – Hammond Innes (5/5)
Moby-dick (1851) whet my appetite for sea adventure—the high seas had never seemed so riveting even though its just water, water everywhere. Fresh off the Melville’s novel, I picked up Gabriel García Márquez’s The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor (1955/1970/1986) and Hammand Innes’ The Wreck of the Mary Deare, both of which I read this month. While The Sailor left a lot to be desired for, The Wreck really hit the mark.

John and Mike are out in the Channel when, through the fog, a massive ship comes nearly barreling into this tiny wooden boat that seems to be crewless. Later, they come across the same ship at rest and, being wreckers with dreams of pulling a big one, John volunteers himself to board the ship to gage its seaworthiness. Once on the ship, he sees a man named Patch in a very disheveled state working frantically. Through the rough seas, John is unable to return to his own boat and stays on with Patch. Through the next forty-eight hours, John will learn only half of Patch’s story, in which he is the hapless victim of circumstance, of John is to believe him. It’s all too fantastic to be true.

And it’s only 75% of the story that comes out when Patch is at the official inquiry. John knows more than Patch lets on through his testimony, but Patch’s reservation of certain details intrigues him, yet at the same time he knows that Patch can’t be fully trusted. Other survivors of the wreck oppose Patch’s story and the insurance claims begin to take precedence over Patch’s own fate, but John starts to realize that, when all these things add up, it does indeed look like Patch is the fall guy for something bigger. The only way to be sure—through Patch’s obsession and John’s reluctance—is to return to the Mary Deare out there stranded on a reef far from shelter and safety. The only safety net in this joint endeavor is their trust.

From the beginning to the very end, this novel is filled with suspense through action on the seas and in testimony, manipulation by numerous parties, and second-guessing intentions of everyone. Patch himself really comes to life when with John, who takes on a placid supporting role to Patch’s larger-than-life story, personality, and obsession.

#66: Starjacked! (1987) – William Greenleaf (2.5/5)
I first read Greenleaf on an off-chance having picked up The Tartarus Incident (1983) from, I dunno, some godforsaken secondhand bookshop, probably. The book’s technical and bureaucratic workings were much more intriguing than the cheap thrills of the horror that followed. I also picked up The Pandora Stone (1984), which was a standard linear plot involving an alien artifact, of which various peoples are vying for the prize and its control. It was fun and also a tad technical, but nothing to sink your teeth into nor something exactly worthy of praise. My third Greenleaf novel—Starjacked!—has so many warning signs of a bad novel: (1) an exclamation in the title, (2) the very mention of “space-pirates” on the front  cover, and (3) the mention of “intergalactic outlaws” on the back cover. It seems like Ace didn’t give this title much thought because the book wasn’t written with much thought.

The large station named Copernicus has been hijacked by treasonous members of the UNSA Guard and a band of cohorts, two groups who have hidden plans for their theft. The UNSA doesn’t know where the station is located in space as it had skipped off into the neither realms of space. Only one call for help had been transmitted, but only a fragment of that message was received by the Guard. That same fragment was kept from the powers that be and sold to Leo Blannon, a reporter who is quick to head out to the station and discover what’s going on aboard.

Once captured, Leo is very quick to discover three powers at a cold war with each other: Xavier Cassady (such a bad, bad name for a villain) who holds the power of influence, Victor Troy (all men who have two first names are bad people) who holds the power of force, and Gillie who holds the wildcard in her 9-year-old hands. Leo and his pilot Erek are saved by Gillie and her deaf-mute brother and thus taken to the basement (?) of the station to plot their overthrow of Cassady and Troy. They also learn the history of the two, what their intended destination is, and what both of them hope to accomplish—and their respective goals don’t necessarily mesh. With stealth and wit, the four of them sneak throughout the station looking for advantage.

Add in a whole lot of shooting, copious instances of technical garble, and a shared UNSA background to The Tartarus Incident and The Pandora Stone, and what you’re left with feels like borderline YA novel full of action with a fizz-pop conclusion on the last two pages. “Forgettable” would be the best word to describe this.

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