The second book in the Planet of Adventure series manages to be both better and worse than its predecessor. On the one hand, several of the charactersThe second book in the Planet of Adventure series manages to be both better and worse than its predecessor. On the one hand, several of the characters are fleshed-out, we get first-hand looks at a number of interesting cultures, and the plot to steal a spaceship is a pretty neat one. On the other hand, the plot of the book is largely non-existent, and whereas City of the Chasch played-out as a very exciting, brisky-paced beginning, Servants of the Wankh is mostly just saggy middle. There's also a bit of concession towards the sort of generic fantasy elements that I'd like to consider Jack Vance somewhat above (when the plot starts to resemble something ripped from The Tough Pick Guide to Fantasy by Dianne Wynne-Jones, I start to rankle a little - no matter how enjoyable the book is).
It's still a very quick and enjoyable read, mind; I think I'm just bitter because a character I liked got killed-off early in the book for no real reason other than to put a wrinkle in the protagonist's plans for escape from Tschai.
I do not own a copy of The Dirdir, so I guess I'll either have to make a trip to the bookshop or read the first volume of Lyonesse instead....more
I've been eager to read The Dragon Masters for a long, long time. Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading coffee table books about sI've been eager to read The Dragon Masters for a long, long time. Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time reading coffee table books about science-fiction, and something about the description "Men and reptiles wage war on one another using warriors genetically-engineered from the captured enemy" stuck with me for years after I'd read the two-sentence blurb underneath the cover photo. In my mind, I built-up a fairly comprehensive idea of what such a book would be like - a thought-provoking exploration of the contradictions inherent in being revolted at the debasement of ones own species for the purpose of warfare even as one set-about transforming sentient creatures into mindless combat drones. It seemed like a cool idea to me at time time, and a logical thematic thrust given the story's Cold War vintage. It was also completely and utterly wrong.
Instead, The Dragon Masters is yet another irritating example of something seemingly endemic to science-fiction stories of a certain vintage - it takes an absolutely brilliant central conceit and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. Yes, this is a story in which men and reptiles genetically-engineer each other into hideous mutants bred for combat, but this thematically rich material is little more than a background detail used to justify having the humans ride around on dragons and fight one another. In a book where people could be spending their time warring with a race of space-faring reptiles we instead get a land dispute between one arrogant human prick and another arrogant human, this one slightly less prickish. Yes, Jack Vance has treated us to yet another story about how people need to put aside their differences and stop being bloodthirsty jerks so that they can band together against a common threat. I suppose Vance has chosen this as the thematic thrust of his novel - he compares man's violent nature to that of the reptiloid Basics, who are literally incapable of conceiving of anything being otherwise than destiny declares it - but in the end he doesn't develop this idea beyond a half-baked notion. He tries a similar tact by creating a universe in which whole species are reduced to mindless killing machines, but it doesn't ever really come across as anything more than a colorful backdrop, even though Vance obviously meant it to be the central thrust of his novel. It pains me to say it, but a book like Shade's Children does the exact same thing far more effectively.
Putting aside reservations I have about the book, I should say that I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. It's slight, having only the ghost of a plot, but it's readable and the central premise is certainly cool enough to carry such a short book (although my copy is a stand-alone one, this is actually just a novella). I wish the battle scenes had been handled with a little more detail, instead of bland passages describing how one of the types of dragon ran in one direction and attacked another type of dragon, but we can't have everything, and in any case I'm going to give Vance the benefit of the doubt and assume that he's trying to play the "suggestion over explicitness" card. Things pick-up at the end, when the human conflict is eclipsed by an invasion of the reptiles, but we're unfortunately never given any sort of access to the thoughts of the alien creatures. For that matter, the relationship between the humans and their dragon slaves is pretty poorly fleshed-out too, despite the fact that there's a wealth of material there worth exploiting.
In the end, this is a good book and an obviously influential one. At the same time, however, it never feels like anything more than a brief sketch for a much richer work that Vance never got around to writing....more
While I've read a lot of Dick's short stories, this is only the second novel of his which I've finished (I started A Scanner Darkly and then got distrWhile I've read a lot of Dick's short stories, this is only the second novel of his which I've finished (I started A Scanner Darkly and then got distracted, and I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep for a book club). As a consequence, the first thing that strikes me about this book is how sane and not at all ridiculous it is. Dick puts a lot of effort into building-up a very believable universe for his characters, and the plot never really veers off into camp and absurdity as it has a tendency to in his other stuff (not that there's anything wrong with camp and absurdity, mind). The trick is that, in classic Modernist style, he describes everything from the perspective of his characters - with the consequence that the very believable world he creates is allowed to start-out sane and then deteriorate into transparent lunacy as his characters do likewise. Maybe exploring the insanity of existence through the literal insanity of ones characters isn't the most novel of techniques, but that doesn't change the fact that this is a brilliantly constructed and extremely effective novel.
To cap it all off, this is a great mediation on subjectivity, morality and the meaning of existence. All in all, it's just a really great book.
I'm slightly confused as to the rapturous response which this novel has received in some quarters. It's quite a good book, mind, and something of a paI'm slightly confused as to the rapturous response which this novel has received in some quarters. It's quite a good book, mind, and something of a page-turner (I read the whole thing in one sitting) - but at the same time it doesn't really seem to be breaking much new ground in the world of post-apocalyptic fiction. Is it even possible to do so, given the vast number of stories which have been written on the subject in the time since Russia dropped its own bomb? The usual themes are trotted-out - man's inhumanity to man, the pointlessness of existence in a world where the living envy the dead, moral hypocrisy and so forth - and they're all dealt with pretty well. It's just, you know, they've been dealt with before. And usually without the confused religious angle. In addition to this, the novel seems greatly padded - in fact, one could get more or less the complete experience by skipping forward and starting from about seventy pages from the end s they could by starting from the beginning. There is some beautiful writing, and some wonderful scenes, in this book, but in the end it's very repetitious and might have been more effective as a novella or even a short story.
Then again, maybe I'm missing the point - my impression of McCarthy (from reading All The Pretty Horses and watching No Country For Old Men) is that he's a literary author who likes to write deathly serious versions of deeply cliched stories. If so, fare enough - just bring a little more to the table when you do it.
Which isn't to say there weren't things I liked. For a start, there's a neat twist in how McCarthy sets-up his post-apocalyptic world. He never makes much of a deal about what exactly caused his apocalypse. The strongest indication is from all the ash, which suggests some sort of nuclear winter, but a nuclear holocaust is not exactly the most relevant of bugbears at this juncture - in the end, it all plays-out more as some sort of Biblical reckoning. In addition to this, there's McCarthy's prose style. I've never really thought it was anything spectacular, but at the same time it's hard to argue that it's both kind of unique and extremely readable.
In the end, I really did enjoy this, but I found it a little slight. It seems to be constantly building towards something, only to never arrive, padding-out its "literary" quotient with lots of vague dream sequences which hint at deep significance but mostly seem kind of forced. It would have been better if McCarthy had stuck to being spare and desolate throughout, since he's shown himself here to have an extraordinary talent for it - creating a bizarre monochrome wasteland that feels like the literary doppleganger of a Peter Booth painting. I only wish McCarthy had been as successful in creating characters for which I can care and feel. The son is alright, but he never has to be fully developed since we see him constantly through the eyes of his father. The protagonist, however, is just this guy. He seems interesting enough, but there's no real development or anything to hang a deep emotional response on. Thankfully this is compensated for by the constant thread of tension being generated by the fact that the protagonists are constantly under threat of death.
So, pretty good! Just not a masterpiece. It has some amazing imagery, and I'm looking forward to the adaptation as it could make a truly brilliant film....more
Few great critics are great writers. It's true that their ideas may topple dynasties with their brilliance, but that's only provided you can make headFew great critics are great writers. It's true that their ideas may topple dynasties with their brilliance, but that's only provided you can make head or tail of them after wading through three hundred pages of dry, tangled prose. And then there is the inevitable padding - ideas like brightly-coloured bits of cloth hanging from the thorns of brambles, as though the author had torn their way through the shrubs at great speed in terror that their readers might catch them and, holding them at knife point, demand from them a simple explanation. I think a large part of this might come from the fact that many critics, when they sit themselves down to expound, may not actually have much idea of what it is they're going to say. It's a similar set of circumstances to that which the novelist finds himself in, confronted by dozens of blank pages and with nothing to fill them but a vague notion, or a half-glimpsed image of a man in a silly hat playing cards with a dragon. It all goes back to the idea of the essay, I suppose - an idea which sits with deceptive frankness in the very name of the thing.
Ursula K. Le Guin, however, actually seems to know what she wants to say - and would that all critics were as clear as she in saying it. As she herself puts it, she is a novelist and not a theorist, and as such she has some very definite opinions of what it is that sf/f (can't forget the second "f"!) should and should not be. In this collection of essays, she makes a wonderfully eloquent argument not just that spec fic isn't automatically trash, and not just that it should be treated with the same respect as mainstream literature, but that it is, can and should aspire to achieve the highest levels of art. It's an exciting argument to hear made, even if it's probably not quite as radical as it once might have seemed. But then, if it isn't all that radical then why are so few authors aspiring to it? Then again, how does one even gauge such a thing?
Le Guin, who cites her principle influences as Tolstoy and Dickens (oh, and Dunsany), is coming from a background of psychological realism, and as a consequence she cites as the key task of any novel the ability to effectively create a whole and comprehensible human being. Quite rightly, she criticises most science fiction for the absence of real human beings. Now, I might criticise her for her placing of a primacy on human experience, but she makes two very compelling arguments for this. Firstly, she rejects conventionally realistic fiction as a construct. She does this in the essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons", summing things up with the wonderful (and depressingly true) statement that "fake realism is the escapist literature of our times". By doing this, she proceeds (making considerable use of Jung) to provide an argument that the conventional fantasy world, with its monotone characters, is possible of function in the whole as a sort of grand allegory of the human mind. The curious thing here is that she never once makes any mention of the trend away from strict realism in Modernist and Post-Modern fiction, but then I suppose that she would consider that fantasy as well and simply grow frustrated at the hypocrisy which sees one thing labelled as another depending upon how "literary" it is (in fact, this is probably the main reason why SF seldom reaches such heights - if it gets too good, they call it something else and then give it the Pulitzer).
Now, as I've said, none of this is really revolutionary at this point, but much of the joy in Le Guin's writing comes from the writing itself. Much of the book just breezes by, as Le Guin shares thoughts on everything from postgenderism (though she never calls it that), to "women in SF), to the need for an individual style and the impossibility of teaching anyone how to write (although, having said this, her book has given me quite a few ideas). There are insights into the evolution of the genre, frank criticisms of its limitations, and scarcely a word is wasted where it could instead be put to use making an excellent point. There's also the genuine joy of a companion piece by a popular author which actually stacks-up as a piece of academic criticism - Le Guin really, really, really knows her stuff.
In the end I'm not really the kind of guy to go around calling anything indispensable, but this really is indispensable. It confirmed my suspicions in some respects, challenged me greatly in others (I debate some of her more mystical conclusions) and even managed to make me change my mind about one or two things. This is a great, great book for anyone interested in the history and mechanics of the genre, and of the process of writing itself....more
OK so there's a guy, and he's maybe psychic, and a bunch of unscrupulous psychiatrists-cum-crimelords are keeping him drugged to convince him that he'OK so there's a guy, and he's maybe psychic, and a bunch of unscrupulous psychiatrists-cum-crimelords are keeping him drugged to convince him that he's a) Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, and b) capable of killing people at a point of his finger? All that and a sexually-explicit puppet show within the first dozen pages? I have no idea what's going on....more
Oh boy, if I had read this when I was fifteen it would have been my favourite book in the world.
I actually saw the film of this first, which may haveOh boy, if I had read this when I was fifteen it would have been my favourite book in the world.
I actually saw the film of this first, which may have hurt my appreciation of the novella. The film, you see, follows King's book almost to the letter, but at the same time it fleshes-out a lot of the minor characters, cuts-out King's incessant pop-culture name-dropping and ill-advised sub-plots (the relationship betwen Amanda and David is pointless and ill-conceived, and really should have been shelved unless King intended to flesh this out into a full-length novel), and provides a portrait of the villain, Mrs Carmody, which is simultaneously more over-the-top and mustache-twirling and more believable than that presented in the book.
I'm not just bashing this work for not being as good as its adaptation, however. In fact, the two complement each other quite nicely. King's story is very much a pulpy yarn, clearly written with little thought other than to take this really cool idea he'd hit upon and just get the story out. The film, conversely, is a somewhat heavy-handed political allegory that occasional forgets it's a horror film (often, but not always, to its detriment).
Putting all this aside, The Mist is a really cool idea. It's a mist! Full of monsters! That's covered-over the entire world! That's a great premise. My only real quibble is that King decided to have all of his characters trapped in a super market for another re-reun of Night of the Living Dead. He was obviously trying to conjure a sense of brooding, apocalyptic hopelessness, but the rushed style he adopts kind of undoes him, here, and the book often reads more like either a bloated short story or the skeleton of what could have been an excellent novel. If he'd fleshed things out a bit, and had the characters take-off across country trying to survive, then that would have been marvellous. I do get the sense that he just sort of ended it where he did, because he couldn't think of anything else to write.
Anyway, this was a very enjoyable story. The characters are reasonably fleshed-out, the writing is decent, the ideas are wonderful, and there are some excellent set-pieces. I'm just a little bitter, because as good as this is, with a little more effort it could have been a genuine classic. The idea is simply too good for anyone to be allowed to half-ass it, even if it's also good enough to mean that people can simply coast on it if they want.
I definitely recommend it, anyway. Just don't see the movie first, because it might spoil things for you....more
Stronger than The Dying Earth, but weaker than the Cugel novels. Rhialto the Marvelous is a fascinating character - one of Vance's many takes on the MStronger than The Dying Earth, but weaker than the Cugel novels. Rhialto the Marvelous is a fascinating character - one of Vance's many takes on the Maal Dweb-like Clark Ashton Smith class of sorcerers, and seemingly the only spell-caster in all of Amery with more than half a brain in his head. Given that the various run-ins with magicians were often some of the best parts of the Cugel books, it was a great deal of fun to be presented with an entire novel from the perspective of one of those officious, capricious pricks.
While I liked many things about this book, I found myself enjoying the dialogue most of all. Vance has a wonderful way with irony, subtle and not-so-subtle, and every single exchange between the magicians is a masterpiece of sarcasm, braggadocio and cowardly pussy-footing. I have always had a weakness for the deadpan comedy of manners, and I'm glad to see my fondness shared by a writer of such ability. Unfortunately, at the same time these exchanges between the magicians do become somewhat repetitious - the novel is divided into three sections, each following roughly the same structure, and after three hundred pages of barbed tongues and bickering over IOUN stones I started to get a little bit weary of it. And that's why I'm giving it three stars (well, that and the fact that if I were to give every book I liked four stars, and every book that I loved five stars, I would very soon run out of places to put the occasional masterpiece - although I would have a great deal more shelf-room for the storage of my disappointments).
Well, the Tales of the Dying Earth were an absolute joy to read. I can only pray that I have not yet crested the pinnacle of Vance....more
An extremely enjoyable read - albeit, one crammed full of really weird homoerotic and incestuous subtexts. This is one of those books which doesn't reAn extremely enjoyable read - albeit, one crammed full of really weird homoerotic and incestuous subtexts. This is one of those books which doesn't really hold-up under scrutiny, but which is just so darned fun to read that it doesn't really matter anyway. I'm not even sure why I liked it - there are no real characters; the plot is extremely sketchy and makes no real sense (oh God, the final twist); the universe which Card creates is intriguing at base but rather poorly fleshed-out... I don't know, I watched Stargate the other night and had a similar reaction.
Anyway, I read it in one sitting, so it must have done something right....more
A fierce initial rush that ebbs to dullness. The book is quite good, but once I got past the neatness of the premise, I found it lacked a little in teA fierce initial rush that ebbs to dullness. The book is quite good, but once I got past the neatness of the premise, I found it lacked a little in tension towards the end. After all, the opening of the books lets you in on the climax, and there aren't really any surprises to be had, so after a while it all begins to wear a little thin. Dare I say, this book is perhaps not perverted enough?
But the prose is wonderful, with all sorts of bizarre and lurid things described with extreme precision; Vaughan is a fascinating character; and the strange ideas regarding the intersection of sexuality and technology, and the accompanying desensitisation, are quite interesting. All in all, this is a very good book, though not a great one. I will definitely keep an eye out for more Ballard....more
There's a great deal to admire in this book. Across three hundred pages and four billion years, Stapledon serves-up everything from doomed utopias andThere's a great deal to admire in this book. Across three hundred pages and four billion years, Stapledon serves-up everything from doomed utopias and world-spanning eugenics programmes, to autocratic super-brains, Martian invasions, terraforming, time-travelling telepaths, super-minds, degraded sub-men, conscious stars and more philosophy than you can shake a stick at. The central question of the book seems to be how humanity can remain sane, and achieve something close to perfection, in an indifferent universe where death lurks around every corner. Is perfection possible to begin with? If not, is there a philosophy we can adopt which will somehow render the seemingly inescapable cycle of rise and fall, doomed to end with the death of the stars and seemingly devoid of redemptive qualities, palatable to all concerned?
The conclusion seems to be that there comes a time when you have to face facts - that, while the universe is a thing of beauty, it's a terrible beauty, and no matter how far we "progress", we'll never be much more than a bunch of precocious infants groping in the dark. Three superior races arise in course of this book, and each is undone by some folly or other - usually a natural accident on a cosmic scale, handled poorly by people not quite mature enough to deal with the ming-boggling ramifications of the situation, and a little too wedded to the old ways (no matter how admirable those ways might seem) to think outside the box.
There are some silly bits, and some of the speculation in the first few chapters might seem a bit quaint, but all in all this is a damned good book.