Science Fiction Though the Decades

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Lazy Book Reviews of July 2016

#50: Red Star Tales (2015) – Yvonne Howell (editor) (3.5/5)
This is the fourth Soviet/Russian short story collection I’ve read this year. The publisher, Russian Life Books, was kind enough to provide me with a copy after I mentioned by reviewing of Soviet SF. The other collections—Soviet ScienceFiction (1961), the aptly titled More Soviet Science Fiction (1962), and The Ultimate Threshold (1970)—all the stories were almost exclusively from the 1958 to 1970 (with the exception of Belyaev’s “Hoity-toity” [1930]). In Red Star Tales, fortunately, the spectrum is much, much wider—a hundred years in fact: 1892 to 1992, a period that spans, according to the rear cover, “the path-breaking Revolutionary period, through the difficult Stalinist era and into the post-war heyday of science fiction, to the first post-Soviet stories”. Just as the stories run the spectrum on age, they also span the width on topics (some heavily social, other very mechanical) and quality (some so dully written, others penetrating). The only unifying trait of the stories is their origin: Russian.

The most intriguing stories are the two unfinished pieces by Valery Bryusov: “Rebellion of the Machines” (1908) and “Mutiny of the Machines” (1915). Though very narrative in structure, they offer tantalizing glimpses at a future world obsessed with technology and a world where that technology begins to turn on them. The other story that caught my eye was Belyeav’s “Professor Dowell’s Head” (1926), which offers some mind-candy on social class and ability. Meanwhile, Kazantsev’s “Explosion” (1946) portrays much of what you’d expect from his other Tunguska-themed stories, Tsiolkovsky’s “On the Moon” (1893) is an unartistic jaunt on the moon, and Dolgushin’s “Rays of Life” (1939) is an excerpt from an unpalatable cross-genre novel of romance, spies, and science fiction. [full review coming]

#51: Sunburst (1964) – Phyllis Gotlieb (1.5/5)
New author, unknown novel… well, it was just $2 in 2014. I’m not one to shy away from anything in the form of a paperback novel for my genres of choice. Picking up this novel in 2016, I was immediately bitch-slapped by the terrible tagline: “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway reactor explosion” — dear god, why did I ever choose this novel?

Years after a reactor had melted down and spewed radioactivity in its vicinity (why the town wasn’t entirely evacuated—dunno), its residents continue to eke out a living while barricaded from the rest of America. Within its confines, a generation is brewing, whose genetics have mutated to give them the unnatural abilities of teleportation, pyro-generation, telekinesis, and telepathy. These budding teenagers, upon realizing their abilities amid their angst, wreak havoc on the town, only to be captured and cordoned off in a nearly impenetrable force field. Shandy Johnson—a thirteen-year-old girl—is just entering her abilities as she approaches her eventual menarche. Unlike the others, she is only able to deflect on telepathy, making her the only known Impervious. Soon, the governors of the fenced city take her in and enlist her to help with an ever-approaching disaster: the long-kept delinquents may escape. Sure enough, they do escape and Shandy finds herself at the middle of the action.

Though only 13, she certainly has a vocabulary of a university post-graduate, drinks coffee like an office worker, and understands human nature like a yogi. Perhaps she superhuman, but she’s impossible to relate to with her mismatched attributes. In compound with the trying and protracted intricacies of the plot, the tedious dialogue frustrates the reader. There’s little saving grace here aside from the interesting mix of characters.

#52: Inherit the Stars (1977) – James P. Hogan (3.5/5)
I chose this book to be a one-day read. Another new author for me, but the novel is fairly well known for being scientifically captivating—heavy on science and hypothesizing. When I read of this accolade, I immediately dreaded the thought of tackling a “hard SF” book in one day on my day off. The initial pages, as promised, were enticing and the following few chapters really drew me in; however, soon, the orations and far-out postulations begin and my interest in the deliver waned in parallel with my care for the protagonist who had no background, personality, or development aside from being smart, creative, and didactic… all too didactic along with another didactic character. Great ideas for a plot, but all too rushed, all too didactic, and all too catering to—what seems to be—the author’s own pet theories rather than his organic and artistic relationship with the story.

50,000 years ago, a human died on the moon and modern day humans—now around the year 2027—haven’t a clue where he came from. Speculation is rife as they study the corpse’s body, documents, and technology; the body is distinctly human, yet the language stumps linguists and the circuits mystifies engineers. Amid the competing theories, Vic Hunt is at the center of progressive thinking as he casts aside the popular assumptions of a lead professor. Soon, Vic is brought to the forefront of the theorizing: Who is the moon man? Where is he from? What circumstances took him there? These questions baffle the world, the world’s scientists, and create a fissure of agreement among experts. A huge variety of experiments are correlated with various measurements to produce wild theories that tend to stick with the facts given, which involve an alien species, their speculative and far home-planet, the decay of said planet, and the rift that created the war that brought the moon man to the our moon. Others disbelief is the face of fact highlights their adherence to assumptions, and with this Vic Hunt takes the progressive fight to Jupiter’s moon Ganymede.

#53: Mindbridge (1976) – Joe Haldeman (4.5/5)
I’ve read five Haldeman novels and one of his collections. According to my database, I was rather the fan of Haldeman in 2007-2008, when I ranked four novels five-star: The Forever War (1974), All My Sins Remembered (1977), Forever Peace (1997), and.Old Twentieth (2005). I had never realized that prior to picking up Mindbridge, but was pleasantly surprised what I ended up loving this novel, too!

Communication is an umbrella term for the means of transmission between people, and it’s this very topic that is probed in Mindbridge. Communication can be narration or dialogue, but it further extends to works of fiction, academic literature, music, memoranda, schedules, personal letters, screenplays, interviews, timetables, reports… all of which are used one way or another in Mindbridge.

Jacque is on his first mission across light-years of space in order to survey an unexplored planet. This instantaneous travel via energized crystal deposits him and his team on the muddy land if the yet-to-named rock, which actually supports an atmosphere, liquid water, and some forms of life. This rarity is compounded by their discovery of blob-like lifeform that allows them to connect telepathy while touching it. Earth is amazed at the discovery and requests more of the thus-named mindbridges. But out in the depths of space, another discovery is made: an odd gravity signature, a wonderfully beautiful planet, its hypnotizingly beautiful humanoids, and the same humanoids barbarous nature of killing the visited team with no remorse. Having learned from experience, another expedition is sent to defy the aliens’ attacks, in which several are brought back to earth, with grisly results. Jacque is soon to be in the middle of the perilous grounds of communication between the aliens and the humans, thanks to the mindbridge that he helped discover.

#54: The End of Man? (1966/1968) – Olof Johannesson (3.5/5)
Olof Johannesson was the penname of the Swedish man named Hannes Alfvén, who is still known today for his work in electrical engineering and plasma physics (he even has a phenomenon named after him: the Alfvén wave). His hard science background provides the foundation for this novel (alternate titles: The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer), which lacks dialogue in favor of historical conjecturing from a future perspective. Don’t confuse good theorizing about technology with stale delivery, because the author takes occasional witty shots at bureaucrats, the English language, and human society.

Forever has mankind wanted to lift its burdens from daily life. Long ago, the physical toil of farming was left to horses and buffalo; a little further on and the internal combustion engine did away with the horse. While the horse was entirely unnecessary in modern society, the horse never entirely disappeared. With its physical labor carried out by brute machines, why couldn’t mankind also cast off the burdensome yoke of thought?

When the crisis arises where computers are disabled, society returns to its barbaric roots and chaos ensues. Slowly, through the ashes of modern society, mankind again rises without a lesson learned and also resurrects the computers had that once failed it entirely. While mankind hadn’t learnt their lessons, computers take a different approach and ensure that they will never fail again, thereby severing the last tenuous cord with mankind. Now, it can program itself, maintain itself, reproduce itself, and govern itself—The End of Man? [full review]

#55: Fort Privilege (1985) – Kit Reed (2/5)
Her name isn’t new to me as I’ve seen it cross the screen dozens of times in conjunction with the recent trend of reading female science fiction writers. Surprising to myself, this is actually the first Kit Reed story or novel that I’ve ever read. As she’s better known for her short stories in the 1960s and 1970s, choosing a 1980s novel wasn’t the best option, alas…

Bart lost his lover in a tragic accident, unfortunately he doesn’t remember the circumstances that lead to it nor does he know why he has lost his ability to read. Regardless of his deprived recent history, Bart is still motivated by his deeper heritage in the form of a social party at his rich extended family’s home/castle/enclave in the middle of New York. The stone behemoth seems to be the only inhabited structure in the entire city, which has been deserted, derelict, and left in a dreaded state of decay (oops, on an alliterative roll, again). Teeming in Central Park’s haven, protesters/looters/anarchists seem to bubble at the castle’s very edge in anticipation of something bigger.

Bart senses this trouble even before entering the bastion of urban aristocracy. Once scheming his way inside, he confirms that the mansion has been converted into a shuttered, armored, well-manned, and well-armed fort. The high-minded and high-manner family members and guests don’t seem phased by the troubling brew outside the mansion’s walls, even the head of the family: Abel Parkhurst. A slew of characters impress their presence on the party, each of whom Bart keeps tabs on. When a harpoon is shot through the shutters, the tension slowly begins to escalate as arms are cached, secondary weapons are prepared, explosives are made, and tactical plans outlined.

I feel that whatever message or underlining morale was woven into the story was lost between the between (1) the complex array and changing statuses of characters and (2) the more glaring lesson that, rich or poor, people will fight tooth and nail in the dirtiest of ways to eke out their living, be it high- or low-living. There’s nothing satisfying in the meat of the book, nor is there anything satisfying about the conclusion.

#56: Waters of Death (1967) – Irving A. Greenfield (1.5/5)
I’ve been dreading this moment. Compound Joachim’s scathingly hilarious review with SFE’s brief bio of the author and my loathing is complete. Disregarding Joachim’s review, Greenfield’s novel sounds and reads a lot like Silverberg’s The World Within (1971) but instead of towering urban blocks of humanity with sex, Waters of Death is about deep marine plots of farming with sex…and sharks. Honestly, the words “cannibalistic orgies” was about my only shred of motivation to open this rather slim novel.

Dr. Robert Wilde is a conservative man in liberal times; not everyone treats their partner like a real wife, but Robert is at the end of his wits as he’s refused sex, respect, and dignity from his wife. Her one bloom of pleasure only comes when he finally hits her. She wanted to leave to become a government-sanctions prostitute, anyway. His son can take a punch, too—good kid though, just a shame that’ll go away to a government shelter.

After a brief sexual frenzy with a very willing girl, Robert is sent on assignment to the Caribbean to get down to the bottom of things in regards to the sea farmers, who are one of a few clans that harvest the world’s oceanic food source. He’s down to earth, so he’s eager for the challenge, but behind the scenes there’s an evil plotter who hopes to… cue dramatic music… take over the world! Robert also fights some sharks and scores a cute 20-something-year-old chick who’s quick on the rebound from her father’s death. That Dr. Wilde is one class act.

To put it briefly, the novel has to two-pronged attack: wow the reader with cool, futuristic oceanic farming methods and gratuitous breast groping. If you’re looking for anything more than that—well, if you want 10 pages fighting with sharks, this would do you well… or rather dry, obvious, and didactic dialogue, for that matter (pages 12, 33, and 40)… or advice on how to treat a woman (page 47)—then there are hundreds of better novels to choose from.

Best quotes: “[H]e would eventually become the total master of the world” (23), “‘You’re hurting me,’ she said in a tremulous whisper …. “‘I’d like that [to speak with you again]’, she said” (47), and “Then he died” (147).

#57: Idle Pleasures (1983) – George Alec Effinger (3/5)
Of course I’ve read Effinger’s Budayeen trilogy—the first two books, twice—but wasn’t terribly bowled over by the delivery of an otherwise enticing premise. The same can’t be said for Idle Pleasures as not even the premise sounded interesting, yet I still gave it a shot.

Prior to reading, my first thoughts of a science fiction collection about sports took two routes: (1) earthly sports taken to the extreme or (2) playing earthly sports with aliens. Surely, both of these types of stories are included in the collection, yet are actually the better of the eight-story bunch; respectively, “Breakaway” has enough hard science fiction to carry the weight of the sportsmanship theme while “From Downtown at the Buzzer” actually made me laugh aloud at its absurdity.

Certainly this isn’t the best snapshot of Effinger’s short work, which might be better captured in Mixed Feelings (1974), Irrational Numbers (1976), or Dirty Tricks (1978), none of which I own.

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