December 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysteri...moreDecember 26th, 1913, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce disappeared into the Mexican desert, never to be seen again, and so it was that, in appropriately mysterious manner, one of the premiere American horror authors passed on into the undying realm of night. Bierce was the preeminent innovator of supernatural stories between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft, and to be quite honest, I prefer his approach to either of theirs.
While those authors tended toward dour, indulgent, overwrought prose, Bierce preferred a lighter touch, built upon precise, carefully-constructed prose and driven by a deeply morbid wit, somewhere between Nietzsche and Alexander Pope. What may be most interesting about his tales is that, despite their simplicity, they often require quite a bit of thought from the reader: when you reach the end, you know something terrible unnatural has occurred, but piecing together precisely what happened requires a moment of reflection, where the discrete details of the story come together to imply something much more grandly dark than the apparently simple story would seem to contain.
To me, the sheer mirthlessness of Poe and Lovecraft denies their stories a certain depth--they are not capturing the whole human experience, but concentrating obsessively on one particular part, as befits the natures of such odd, affected men--men who we imagine to be just as off-putting as the strange, damaged characters in their stories. Bierce's abberation if of a different sort, that of a deep cynic who turns to laugh at the world, at its every aspect, life and death, joy and horror. In missing this from their stories, other horror authors reject a large part of the palette with which horror and madness can be depicted.
Chambers dabbled effectively in this laughing tief, as well, but with more uneven results, as his horror career slowly transformed into a series of bland drawing-room romances. Dunsany, also, has a sense of wit, and of the humor of desperation, but none has so devotedly focused the breadth and depth of their talent on the subject as Bierce.
Some of the stories in this, the last of two such collections Bierce published, are similar, but there are also those inexplicable and masterful standouts which differ in their approach and the effect they achieve from any other horror author. In the end, there is no mistaking Bierce's handiwork, it is in every line: in every careful comma and semicolon, every aphoristic turn, touch of frontier Americana, vivid picture of awful war, and wryly bitter observation.(less)
I didn't realize that I had actually read something by Stephen King. I am quite familiar with a number of his stories from discussion; others from fil...moreI didn't realize that I had actually read something by Stephen King. I am quite familiar with a number of his stories from discussion; others from film adaptations. I know him chiefly as an amazing font of poorly-executed ideas and The Man Who Cannot End A Story.
Apt Pupil does not suffer as greatly as his others, though much of the psychology is quite silly and overwrought. As someone who finds WWII and the Holocaust to be blown out of proportion (especially in comparison to other, ignored genocides) the book's fixation did not resonate with me. However, the exploration of the darker side of man, especially as it relates to obsession with death, did. Another work that acted as an early representation of the 'kid with a gun' who has so captured the most frightened attentions of our society.(less)
Roland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the...moreRoland Barthes talked about 'writerly' and 'readerly' books. I've struggled for a long time, myself, in trying to come up for terms to talk about the differences between deliberate works and those which are too bumbling, too one-sided, or too ill-informed to make the reader think.
While The Yellow Wallpaper brings up interesting points, it does not really deal with them. The text has become part of the canon not for the ability of the author, which is on the more stimulating end of middling, but because it works as a representational piece of a historical movement.
As early feminism, this work is an undeniable influence. It points out one of the most apparent symptoms of the double-standard implied by the term 'weaker sex'. However, Gilman tends to suggest more than she asks, thus tending toward propaganda.
It may be easy to say this in retrospect when the question "is isolating women and preventing them from taking action really healthy?" was less obvious back then. However, I have always been reticent to rate a work more highly merely because it comes from a different age. Austen, the Brontes, Christina Rossetti, and Woolf all stand on their own merits, after all.
This symbolism by which this story operates is simplistic and repetitive. The opinions expressed are one-sided, leaving little room for interpretation. This is really the author's crime, as she has not tried to open the debate so much as close it, and in imagining her opinion to mark the final word on the matter, has doomed her work to become less and less relevant.
This is the perfect sort of story to teach those who are beginning literary critique, because it does not suggest questions to the reader, but answers. Instead of fostering thought, the work becomes a puzzle with a solution to be worked out, not unlike a math problem. This is useful for the reader trying to understand how texts can create meaning, but under more rigorous critique, it is not deep or varied enough to support more complex readings.
Unfortunately, this means it is also the sort of story that will be loved by people who would rather be answered than questioned. It may have provided something new and intriguing when it was first written, but as a narrow work based on a simplistic sociological concept, can no longer make that claim.
The story is also marked by early signs of the Gothic movement, and lying on the crux of that and Feminism, is not liable to be forgotten. The symbolism it uses is a combination of classical representations of sickness and metaphors of imprisonment. Sickness, imprisonment, and madness are the quintessential concepts explored by the Gothic writers, but this work is again quite narrow in its view. While the later movement was interested in this in the sense of existential alienation, this story is interested in those things not as a deeper psychological question, but as the allegorical state of woman.
Horror is partially defined by the insanity and utter loneliness lurking in everyone's heart, and is not quite so scary when the person is actually alone and mad. Though it does come from the imposition of another person's will, which is horrific, the husband has no desire to be cruel or to harm the woman, nor is such even hinted subconsciously. Of course, many modern feminists would cling to the notion that independent of a man's desire to aid, he can do only harm, making this work an excellent support to their politicized chauvinism.
I won't question the historical importance or influence of this work, but it is literarily very simple. A single page of paper accurately dating the writing of Shakespeare's Hamlet would also be historically important, but just because it is related to the threads of literary history does not mean it is fine literature.(less)
Another dystopian outing by Van Vogt, and one which demonstrates moments of depth and subtlety surpassing his other work. Yet, at its heart, it suffer...moreAnother dystopian outing by Van Vogt, and one which demonstrates moments of depth and subtlety surpassing his other work. Yet, at its heart, it suffers from the same ridiculous problems as most of his stories.
What may be most interesting about this book is how it feels like a prototype for the dark, socio-political sci fi of Philip K. Dick and the Cyberpunk authors. The characters try to move through complex, corrupt bureaucratic systems, and often end up beaten and weaker for it as they seek to uncover some obscure conspiracy.
In this regard, the book takes as many cues from noir as it does from dystopian sci fi. And occasionally, this noir sentiment results in moments of wry introspection, or in terse, almost existential conversation. There are some moments of dialogue which begin to uncover the sort of small, vivid pain which was so central to Chekhov's masterful exploration of the human condition.
But there is also much in the book which is overblown and rather silly. As usual, the technology is absurdly powerful, held by a privileged few, and obeys somewhat inexplicable rules. There are the guns which can only be shot in self-defense, the impermeable energy walls, and a side-plot about time travel which grows rather obscure. Yet these strange, almost magical scientific concepts are at least interesting, and begin to foreshadow the hallucinogenic technology of Dick or Vonnegut.
As usual, our 'hero' is a man of many unique talents so powerful that they elevate him above any problem, so that no single plot conflict is able to withstand him for more than a chapter. In fact we have two such characters, as we do in Slan--one the hero and the other working behind the scenes to create the plot, itself.
And in the vein of such characters, they are so morally upright that they resolve never to use these powers for any nefarious purpose, instead making it their goal to better all of mankind--which is lucky, since they could clearly take over the whole government tomorrow, if they so desired.
This irresistible force tends to undermine the story's conflict, but of the Van Vogt stories I have read, it is least problematic here, since at least the hero suffers the robberies, cheating, and kidnapping which any good noir hero must survive. There is a similar kind of personal hardship in Voyage of the Space Beagle (the prototype for 'Star Trek'), but most of that is just the result of the hero deciding not to use his full force, rather than actually ever being helpless.
In the end, his politics are not transformative, since they rely on an all-powerful beneficent organization and self-defense guns, so his dystopic message falls flat. The epilogue provides a rather amusing bit of time-travel paradox, tackling the same idea as Asimov's famous short story 'The Last Question', written a few years later.
Van Vogt certainly had imagination, and several sources of inspiration to draw on, and it's undeniable that here, as elsewhere, his visions have proven very influential on later writers, but he has not aged all that well, himself. His plots and characters tended to be rather simple, particularly the conflicts that drove them, and yet his worlds and ideas were too unusual for him to write anything straightforward. His ideas have lived on, taken up by other authors, but his own flawed approach means that he tends to pale in comparison with his more polished followers.(less)
Like the rest of the early books in the Hainish series, this one has a very familiar tone and plot. We have our isolated, alienated protagonist on his...moreLike the rest of the early books in the Hainish series, this one has a very familiar tone and plot. We have our isolated, alienated protagonist on his quest for one single goal through an unpredictable world which he cannot comprehend, making strangely disconnected romantic liaisons on the way, and constantly lost in thought about how human relationships are supposed to work.
But of all the series, this book uses these recurrent themes in the most interesting and naturalistic ways. The first half of the book, where the post-apocalyptic theme is most prominent, is the stronger portion. LeGuin gives us many brief vignettes of our protagonist's journey across the world, each one different in tone, each one modifying the character's overall experience and giving new insight to his fundamental quest of self-discovery.
Every encounter seems to reveal some aspect of the madness of humanity, but always remembering that in our mad obsessions and unpredictability lie also our wisdom, our unique experiences--something to be learned. It seems telling that LeGuin's standard character psychology of an emotionally stunted paranoid works best in a story about a complete amnesiac lost in a post-apocalyptic world of deadly dangers, but kudos to her for writing to suit her habits; it's a trick more writers should use.
The dystopian aspect comes on rather suddenly and completely changes the tone of the story, almost as if each half were a separate short piece loosely connected, except that the first half does not have a conclusion without the second to cap it. The dystopia of hidden psychics bears a definite resemblance to Slan, though LeGuin's is a more subtle and practised hand.
This latter arc is fairly exciting and interesting, but has less of the unique vision. Its tone of oppressive confusion is also somewhat repetitive, and might have benefited from the character actively switching between options rather than sitting inactively avoiding either one. The character does eventually come to a conclusion, but it would have helped the depth of the conflict if the character had more actively explored the sides rather than sitting and ruminating.
Then again, a lot of LeGuin's conflicts play out internally as struggles within the characters' minds. This is not a bad method, but I think such conflicts play out better when such conflicts are clearly demonstrated by the character's actions and patterns of speech and behavior, bolstered here and there by a thought, rather than descending entirely into the character and leaving the plot behind for the period of digression.
But despite these caveats, I found this the most varied and imaginative of LeGuin's books, with a truly engrossing combination of verisimilitude and hallucinatory imagery from the cusp of madness. I look forward to more LeGuin in the future, especially if this work is an indication of her evolution as a writer, who here seems almost to have found her ideal voice, if sometimes fleetingly.(less)
In my review of Left Hand of Darkness, the first of LeGuin's works that I read, I wondered whether she had the authorial depth to create another unusu...moreIn my review of Left Hand of Darkness, the first of LeGuin's works that I read, I wondered whether she had the authorial depth to create another unusual vision, or whether her books were all of a similar tone. I admit I did not expect them to be quite this similar.
The first four Hainish stories, despite taking place on different worlds with different characters, all share tone, plot, theme, and character types. We have a male protagonist who has an important position in his society, but who is living through a period of upheaval and unsurety which renders his high position less useful.
He wanders through a strange world, lonely and confused, unable to connect with anyone around him. Despite this lack of connection, he still develops an obsessive romance with a woman despite remaining alienated from her. He continues to follow a path towards a single, constant goal for which he must sacrifice his love, his friends, and his sense of self.
Throughout the story, there will be hints and inferences about homosexuality, but despite foreshadowing, any such relationship will melt away shortly before the climax, never to be mentioned again. There will be a tone of fundamental isolation as the protagonist frets and ruminates about his relationships, which will always remain laconic and strained. He will form a relationship with a mentor character who will either die or disappear before he is ready.
It works better in some stories than in others. In the true isolation of a man alone on an alien world in Left Hand of Darkness, it is understandable, if still somewhat overwrought. In The City of Illusions, the story of a man who has lost himself in a world where he can rely on no one, it seems the logical conclusion for a protagonist who is fundamentally paranoid and truly alone.
However, in this book, it is less effective. We also do not have the interesting conceptual story of Rocannon's World, ingeniously blending fantasy with sci fi, so of the series, this book is the most flat. All the books are rather detached and stoic, so without a unique concept to explore, there is not a lot left.
Likewise, the story does not develop a coherent reason for the protagonist to remain so detached and unsure, even within his own society. If LeGuin is depicting a character with some sort of social disorder, she never depicts any of the other characters as finding his mode off-putting, which I certainly did. And beyond that, all the protagonists in the series have the same social problems.
Guilelessness is rarely good for an author, since they end up injecting themselves, their assumptions, desires, philosophies, and worldviews into their character without accounting for how it affects the story. For an author with a dull, stilted personality, this is a death sentence: no matter their intention, they will write a hidebound, dull book, returning always to their own natural level.
For an author with a skewed, unusual way of looking at things, it is somewhat less problematic, since their book and characters will tend to be interesting and unpredictable, but the problem is to keep things fresh while writing what are fundamentally the same characters, themes, and story over and over.
Ironically, this can sometimes be more of a problem for an idiomatic author, since their habitual stories and types will stand out more, not being able to fade into the background as easily as more common and recognizable character types and stories. It is easier to write repetitive stories when those stories already have an accepted place in the culture.
Most authors have a type, a mode which they write in, as evidenced by the 'Byronic hero' or 'Lovecraftian horror', but it is important for an author to challenge themselves, pushing the limits of what they can do, ensuring that each story is, in some way, fundamentally different, and to avoid writing a story which is a watered-down version of something they have already written.
LeGuin is usually good at creating differentiation in her stories; even if she keeps returning to the same character types and themes, at least the settings and subgenre material are different. As an adventure, this book is not bad, and we get some of LeGuin's odd world-building.
In addition, this story provides the background for the conclusion of the next book in the series, City of Illusions, which may be why it is a less in-depth story, itself. Though happily, the next book has some of LeGuin's best writing, so this one is hardly a sign that her talents are on the wane.(less)
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Scientific Prediction
It is easy to point to ce...more"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Scientific Prediction
It is easy to point to certain works and state 'this is sci fi' or 'this is fantasy', but this has more to do with traditions and habits than with strict definitions. Fantastical works ostensibly look the the past, science fiction to the future, but both operate around grand myths, social meanings, and items of inexplicable power. Often, these items act as tangible moral forces, metaphors-made-real.
Each subgenre has pilfered from the other, so we have seen the tales of John Carter of Mars and Star Wars, fantasy stories with sci fi trappings, and also fantasy stories where magic becomes a replacement for technology, operating by a system of rules as thoroughly described as any technophile digression.
But there has always been room for stories which work between these genres, which use the concepts of both in conjunction, producing from the combination of things familiar a story which feels novel. Lovecraft played often with this line, indicating that every superstitious fear had a rational explanation--a system--even if we, as lowly humans, could never really understand it.
And some modern authors have taken this idea more literally, creating worlds which seem in every way to be magical fantasies, but which actually operate on far-advanced technologies. This was the twist of a certain author's famous series, but I found his execution much less interesting than LeGuin's take.
This story is anchored by an impresive prologue which rewrites a recognizable English fairy myth, seamlessly combining it with the corresponding sci fi tropes. Thus each instance of superstition or impossibility becomes something forward-looking and inevitable.
The story takes some cues from Lovecraft, showing how the disparate knowldege of the interacting cultures becomes the myth of one and the politics of the other. The reader is, of course, from a culture that lies somewhere between mythic past and star-spanning future, but still finds mutual sympathy with both despite the great distances involved.
LeGuin's knowledge and use of the tropes of each genre sets her apart as a conscientious, clever writer, and her ability to weave them together into a single story is even more impressive. Unfortunately, as she expands from the prologue to the story itself, she loses some of the drive of the shorter form.
The story is interesting, thoughtful, and continues to display those little gems of insight which tie the myths of magic to the myths of technology, but she does not take advantage of the longer form's strengths. She seems to feel the need for more and deeper character interactions, but never quite manages to demonstrate them.
As in Left Hand of Darkness, I felt a need for more: for her to plunge deeper, to take more risks, and to give us more of the moments she only hinted at. We also get a similar story of an alien lost in a strange world, traveling ever on with a specific but impersonal mission. He makes friends, but always distantly, and in the end, must give them up to achieve his ends. This method would have been more effective if those relationships had been more developed.
Likewise, we get a bit of telepathy here and there, but yet again, it is not important to the story, nor does she use it as an opportunity to explore something difficult. Even as she cleverly turns magic into technology, she fails to do much with the bits of sci fi magic that remain.
I appreciated what she achieved, but she extended the story to a length which exceeded its depth. Everything is laid out so exquisitely in the opening chapter that nothing after quite measures up to it.(less)
The term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi gen...moreThe term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genre. Harlan Ellison famously hated the term 'sci fi', scorning the implication that his stories had anything in common with Flash Gordon or Lost in Space.
In Speculative Fiction, technology is not there to facilitate the plot, or to dazzle readers with fantasy, but to provide the author with an opportunity to explore the human mind in unexpected, innovative ways. The heart of the genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality.
Much of sci fi acts metaphorically: elements in the world act as symbols for things we recognize: the conflict between the human government and alien settlers represents the immigration issue, the planet-destroying laser shows how we feel about nuclear weapons, the super computer controls and organizes people like a cult.
Speculative fiction also acts symbolically, but it is not allegorical--there is not a one-to-one relationship between the symbols of fiction and the reality we know. Instead, the authors use thematic symbols whose meanings can change, drawing us in with an odd familiarity, a presque vu, and then dropping away, leaving us with that most fundamental of human motivations: the need for a closure we cannot seem to find.
It is the evocation of this need to discover--to know--ourselves, and thus, our world, which drives the speculative; and this is what LeGuin gives us: a thoughtful, introspective tale--a tale almost obsessively isolated, narrated from deep within the characters. We always feel their presence, we hear their observations and weigh them, and there is necessarily a constant separation between the reader and the voice on the page, a gap which exists in every story, but which we often forget is there.
The trope of the 'unreliable narrator' is a fraught trap for authors, and I recall in Gene Wolfe's 'New Sun' it became a morass where reader, narrator, and author all intermingled--and the voice was lost. In order for the method to be effective, it must be clear to the reader where the narrator falters, and where he is likely to falter.
It need not be deliberately misleading, and indeed it shouldn't be: characters who feel most confident talking about themselves usually end up giving themselves away guilelessly. I admit that I am uncertain how much of the narrator's philosophizing was LeGuin's, and I won't be until I have read more of her work, but even if the assumptions are hers, she managed to capably keep them separate from her world.
But that is her constant theme, and her story is stark: events are harsh and uncertain, and so the narrative is always driven back into the mind, into rumination, into patterns and cycles which consider the same ideas from many sides without simply repeating the same conflicts over and over.
Yet the work is not remote or brooding--it has action, it has a plot, and it has emotional character interactions. The story always moves, and it shifts, giving the occasional outside view of another character, or some piece of alien myth, which were particularly unusual and well-constructed. It is not a heavy, weary tome, but it is certainly thoughtful, and we do not get lost in the story, because we are actively interested in it, and in its outcomes, because they are made personally important.
The book held some disappointments for me--chiefly, I wished that the contemplations had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, as the myths often were; but the narrator was stolid, in his way. I sometimes became annoyed at how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn't matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.
The pseudo-scientific elements often felt superfluous, especially in such a character-driven story. The implications of technology and telepathy are only as interesting as their impact on society and thought. She would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always abortive, and added little to the story. They did provide a bit of wonder, but LeGuin was too ready to analyze them, to structure them, which made them quotidian without enmeshing them meaningfully into the world she had built.
Also central was the exploration of gender, which was truly alien and speculative, but felt somewhat plodding and small. It feel true to the character, which I appreciate, but I would not have minded him breaking out of his shell, now and then, to hit on something that was a bit beyond him to really comprehend. I cannot say if the shallowness was the character's, or the author's, which means the writing was good enough to avoid transparency.
But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied, a desire for more introspection, a deeper plunge, if only to dredge up unexpected questions. Yet the structure, the character, the world, and the tone were all so carefully, specifically laid that I felt duly impressed. This book is a work, and it is a success, and if it does not reach too high, at least it does not fall to pretension, which is the danger of any redefinition which seeks to uplift entertainment to Art.
But this is only my first LeGuin, and she deserves a second look. If she can deliver another vision, as carefully made as this one, but on a different theme, with a different sort of character, than I will be extremely impressed. If, however, she is only capable of one mode, one character, one theme--like Vonnegut--it is still a style worth experiencing at least once, and probably a handful of times.(less)
So the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult proble...moreSo the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult problems to overcome, and every time they succeed in dealing with one problem, another will crop up. In the writing business, this is what's known as 'a plot'.
But then he takes it one step further: in addition to all the difficulties along the way, he assures us that the characters will never break this pattern, and there will be no 'happy ending'. I think this is a good idea, especially in a children's book, because we, as a culture, don't have enough role models for failure.
We have lots of role models for how to behave when we win, but this isn't really very useful--it's not when we win that we most need guidance and aid. We need more examples of how to maintain, how to persevere, in the face of failure.
At this point, our only role models for what to do when we fail are villains, who tend to get angry, yell, whine, take it out on subordinates, and then develop vengeful plans to make everyone feel as bad as they do. The unfortunate result is that people often begin to act like villains when things don't go well, an effect which can be observed most easily by holding a job where you have a boss.
So I'm all for 'no easy wrap ups' at the end of the story, but unfortunately, Snicket is unable to develop a conclusion without this easy route. It takes a very skilled writer to eschew convention and still write something interesting, and his reasons for avoiding standard practices should not be merely to differentiate himself, but to achieve some alternative goal for his story.
There are authors who have achieved this, even in children's fiction--Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl being the preeminent examples. When Snicket laid out the premise of his books, I began to look for something along the lines of those two authors, who, despite creating stories of children suffering constantly and unfairly, managed to write entertaining, enjoyable stories.
But then those stories were wild and vivid, even when they were dark. Dahl's ability to create grotesque, powerful characters made for dynamic, engrossing stories, while Carroll's quick, fertile mind kept us always guessing, and often laughing, despite Alice's constant frustrations.
Though Snicket is trying for a witty style, he rarely gets there. After the second chapter, all his jokes have already been established, the rest are only minor variations on the same themes. There are no surprising insights to back up his humor, nothing unexpected, just a continuance of the same tone: dry, but not acerbic.
The characters, likewise, show little variance. The vocabulary and speech patterns are all very similar, whether adults, children, villains, or heroes. We are often told of differences in character by the narrator, but these never actually make it into the characters' mouths.
Since the characters are fairly cliche and undifferentiated, Snicket cannot hang the plot on them, like Dahl would. They cannot provide the vibrant impetus for the plot, so Snicket's plot instead becomes a series of convenient (or conveniently inconvenient) events.
The writing itself is not bad, it's mostly just a case of Snicket not being clever or dark enough to buoy his premise. In the end, not much stands out, not the characters, nor the humor.
I applaud his attempt to address difficult and painful issues in his books, and without resorting to basic melodrama, but tragedy is measured by the subject's capacity for pain, so characters must be vivid and deep in order for events to feel truly unfortunate; otherwise, it just becomes the same array of problems common to every plot.(less)
This novella collects two of Heinlein's earliest stories, both from 1941, but unlike other such combinations, the two stories were originally meant to...moreThis novella collects two of Heinlein's earliest stories, both from 1941, but unlike other such combinations, the two stories were originally meant to go together, and form a continuous narrative. As this is a very early attempt from Heinlein, it wouldn't be surprising to find his writing rough and flawed, but it's an unexpectedly solid yarn.
His writing is direct and unobtrusive; something many authors aspire to, but few ever manage. Even at this early stage, his naturalistic prose sets him above van Vogt or other pulp authors.
The story, itself is straightforward; an adventure with some light politics and quite a bit of violence. It is also one of the earliest depictions of a 'generation ship' on a mission to colonize far worlds.
There is also a central philosophical theme, a staple in Heinlein, this time concerning the fact that the crew have grown exceedingly detached from reality, thanks to the long voyage. Numerous generations pass in space and the crew forget their mission, their history on Earth, and the most basic tenets of science. Instead they persist in a murky feudalism, fighting over territory in ship and considering 'Earth', 'The Trip', and the destination (Proxima) to be mystical, supernatural concepts.
Heinlein is able to play a quite amusing satire on religion, tradition, and ignorance here, successfully providing the characters with very realistic and unusual responses to the world based on their own limited understanding. They are not merely modern characters transplanted in place and time, Heinlein works hard to give them a psychology fit to their situation.
Unfortunately, in this brutal, superstitious, uneducated, warlike place, women are fully second-class citizens. Heinlein doesn't harp on this--in fact it rarely comes up--but when it does, it is not entirely pleasant to see. However, it's not an unrealistic portrayal, and it would hardly have made sense to depict a violent, ignorant society as having modern, egalitarian social mores.
Heinlein could have tried to make some stronger female characters living under this repressive structure; or alternately, used this as another opportunity to indulge in satire, but instead, we get a bit of the old sci fi boys' club. However, these occurrences are few and late in the book and hardly detract from the story, as a whole.
This is a well-crafted adventure story with satire, politics, and intriguing, active characters. Certainly not Heinlein's strongest work, but not without its charm.(less)
In Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and in...moreIn Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and influential, if sometimes ill-conceived.
The political tone of the work, focused on dictators, secret police, and shadowy struggles for power mark this as one of the earlier Dystopian works. Slan is a decade before 1984, though Brave New World and It Can't Happen Here are earlier.
Van Vogt's Dystopia is much more fantastical than most of the genre, relying heavily on telepathy and 'Tom Swift' gadgeteering. The use of super-gadgets is so pervasive that there are few situations our protagonist can't get out of with the use of lovingly-described technology.
There are some twists of the plot that are beyond the powers of his machines, but happily, all of these are solved by coincidence. The author has no trouble placing his protagonist in sticky situations, but can't get him out again without contrivance or Clarke Magic. Despite being told of our hero's brilliance and will, he remains passive, drifting where the plot carries him.
The writing itself is alright, but not impressive. Occasionally, Van Vogt tries for a flowery passage, and these do not serve him well. Likewise, his technobabble serves only to justify things that we, as sci fi readers, have already taken for granted. We understand that his use of Atomic Power allows him to make impenetrable steel, we don't need a speech about 'super bonding'.
Van Vogt is lost somewhere between the overt fantasies of pulp sci fi and the more reasonable predictions of harder science, like Heinlein's. When an author tries to justify a fantasy, all it does is cause the reader to question his own disbelief.
This especially evident in Van Vogt's explanation for telepathy, where he drags out that old gernsbackian chestnut about the evolution of the Future Man. Van Vogt demonstrates ably that the chief difference between hard and soft sci fi is whether the author has the least grasp of the science he's attempting to predict.
The use of evolution as 'magic plot fixer' is always laughable, and it's no wonder the layman has no conception of what the Theory of Evolution actually refers to (it has nothing to do with Nietzsche's 'Superman', and neither does eugenics).
His use of telepathy also highlights another of Van Vogt's authorial weaknesses. We often get long description of how characters feel, of how they are reacting, and of what they are thinking, which is usually a sign that the author feels a need to tell us what he is incapable of demonstrating with plot, character, scene, and dialogue.
At first, I thought that it made sense to live in the heads of telepathic characters, and was looking forward to seeing how Van Vogt would use telepathy to give us different insights into the characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, he rarely uses it this way. Indeed, most of the people have 'mind shields' which prevent the protagonists from having any such insights.
What I appreciate about sci fi is the greater scope and variability the author has to explore humanity and possibility. When a sci fi author fails to find all the interesting nooks that his alien world suggests, it is all the more disappointing.
I can also appreciate sci fi as a pure, tightly-plotted adventure, taking science as magic. Unfortunately, Van Vogt is stuck between these extremes, neither as psychologically interesting as Huxley nor as imaginative and unpredictable as Burroughs.
He does a fair enough job holding up both ends at once, but combines not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of both styles. He hits a lot of promising points here, and there is something unique about how he hybridizes ideas, but he never takes advantage the possibilities lying everywhere beneath the surface.(less)
Saberhagen's creation of a vast fleet of self-replicating killer robotic ships has proven very influential over the years, different from the small wa...moreSaberhagen's creation of a vast fleet of self-replicating killer robotic ships has proven very influential over the years, different from the small war machines of Dick's 'Second Variety' or the human-controlled weapons of Van Vogt's 'Space Beagle'. The pure alien menace of the Berserkers makes for potent stories, though some of the sketches in this first volume are rather rough.
I appreciate the way Saberhagen connects these shorter tales by frame story, which works better here than in many similar collections, since the stories often share characters and events. It's also nice to get the many smaller arcs, moods, and ideas of each story, building a picture of the setting much more effectively than the simple exposition indicative of a continuous, repetitive arc. There's something to be said for hitting the high points and moving on.
That being said, it doesn't always work so well. Some of the connecting stories are weaker and, while we are provided many smaller concluding arcs, the longer arc of the collection never really delivers a solid conclusion, though Saberhagen aims for one.
I also often wished he would push more with the ideas and themes of his stories. He was able to push the boundaries here and there, but couldn't match conceptually with the likes of Dick, Ellison, or Bradbury.
He does gain some verisimilitude by his retelling of the Battle of Leponto as a space conflict, but lacking the vivid characterization of other Speculative Fiction writers, he falls a bit flat.(less)
This final fantastical outing by horror great Chambers is amusing, but pale compared to his earlier works. Nestled in-between his once-popular parlor...moreThis final fantastical outing by horror great Chambers is amusing, but pale compared to his earlier works. Nestled in-between his once-popular parlor romances, 'Police!' continues the fantastical stories of Dr. Percy, ever searching the world for zoological discoveries and love, and doomed never to find either. Chambers apes Twain more than Bierce in these comical tales, and while he hits some high points, these stories are, altogether, more amusing than intriguing.(less)