Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick: 21 stories spanning 3 decades Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick theSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick: 21 stories spanning 3 decades Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve been reading a lot of Philip K. Dick the last two years: 10 novels, 7 audiobooks, and now three short story collections. The more I read, the more I’m drawn to his hard-luck life story and strange religious experiences in the 1970s. In particular, his VALIS trilogy was probably the strangest SF exploration of suffering and salvation I’ve ever read. The only books left to read are two biographies and his 944-page Exegesis of personal writings.
I wanted a collection that would capture the whole range of his ideas without spanning multiple volumes and thousands of pages. There are many options, and I settled on Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, 21 stories selected by Jonathan Lethem, one of the two editors of the 8,000 hand-written journal entries winnowed down to The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. Who better to select stories from his entire oeuvre spanning three decades?
The 21 stories contained in this collection are as follows:
“Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), “Roog” (1953), “Paycheck” (1953), “Second Variety” (1953), “Imposter” (1953), “The King of the Elves” (1953), “Adjustment Team” (1954), “Foster, You’re Dead” (1955), “Upon the Dull Earth” (1954), “Autofac” (1955), “The Minority Report” (1956), “The Days of Perky Pat” (1963), “Precious Artifact” (1964), “A Game of Unchance” (1964), “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966), “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967), “The Electric Ant” (1969), “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1974), “The Exit Door Leads In” (1979), “Rautavaara’s Case” (1980), and “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” (1980).
The first 11 stories are from his most prolific period in the early 1950s, and overlap with Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick. In fact, four inspired the feature films Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, and Screamers. I consider this period his Golden Age, showcasing his favorite themes: What is reality, what is human, should we create artificial minds, and will we destroy ourselves in a nuclear holocaust? These stories display a subtle black humor and sense of irony, especially the idea that robots may outlive us after we destroy ourselves. PKD loves to throw in a surprise twist that alters the characters’ perception of reality. These stories were all published in the leading SF magazines of the period, and are very entertaining.
The next six stories are from the 1960s, which coincides with the shift in the format from short stories in the 1950s to novels in the 1960s. PKD’s themes and writing also gained in depth and complexity. For example, “The Days of Perky Pat” is an early draft of his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of his first books that directly explored hallucinatory religious experiences and shifting realities triggered by drug use. Surprisingly, the short story version does not feature any drug use, altered consciousness, or meeting an alien being that may be a lonely god, but instead focuses on the idea of people escaping into fantasy role-playing in the aftermath of a devastating war. “The Electric Ant” also has a lot of similarities with the reality-bending of Palmer Eldritch. “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” forms the basis for the Arnold Schwartzenegger SF action extravaganza Total Recall (1991). It’s a very intricate story that is only 22 pages long and covers just the opening scenes of the film, but the ideas are fully developed.
“Faith of Our Fathers” is a notable story that first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s famous anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), a watershed collection that essentially defined the New Wave Movement and challenged established practitioners to either get with the program or be rendered irrelevant. That collection is amazing for many reasons, not least of which is that many veteran writers did take up the challenge, including Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Fritz Leiber, and Theodore Sturgeon. “Faith of our Fathers” is a story in which the Communists have conquered the world, and features a Communist Vietnam that resembles George Orwell’s 1984. The main character is given a powerful anti-hallucinogen that allows him to see that the TV broadcasts of the Great Leader are actually bizarre views of a powerful and capricious alien being that both loves and hates his creations. It’s a creepy and deliberately provocative story that presages PKD’s later religious musings but predates his strange hallucinatory experiences with the pink laser from VALIS in 1974.
The last four stories date from 1974 to 1980, which were PKD’s strangest and most eccentric period, triggered by his 1974 religious hallucinations that inspired the novels Radio Free Albemuth, VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. I didn’t even know he was writing short stories at this point, but the stories found here show clearly that PKD had completely departed from his pulp SF magazine roots and was now intent on questioning reality with a much darker and more hopeless tone. You won’t find anything uplifting here, as each story has characters trapped in time loops (“A Little Something For Us Tempunauts”), covert government training programs (“The Exit Door Leads In”), dead astronauts resurrected by aliens to test their religious beliefs (“Rautavaara’s Case”), and a man being endlessly cycled through his past memories by a ship’s AI to try to prevent psychosis (“I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”).
Overall, Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick gives an excellent overview of PKD’s evolution as a SF writer, starting with entertaining but darkly humorous pulp stories that gradually evolved into much more challenging and complex works, while still adhering to a short format with sharply-described characters and reality-bending twists. If you are looking for a single volume covering three decades of his work, this a great place to start....more
Minority Report and Other Stories: 4 PKD stories that inspired movies Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Philip K. Dick is the classic case of a brMinority Report and Other Stories: 4 PKD stories that inspired movies Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Philip K. Dick is the classic case of a brilliant but struggling artist who only got full recognition after he passed away. Despite publishing an incredible 44 novels and 121 stories during his lifetime, it was not until the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner was released in 1982 that PKD gained more mainstream attention, and sadly he died before being able to see the final theatrical release.
A number of his short stories were adapted into feature-length films, and this audibook contains “The Minority Report” (1956), which inspired the 2002 Steven Spielberg film Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966), which was the loose basis for the 1990 Paul Verhoeven film Total Recall and a 2012 reboot starring Colin Farrell, “Paycheck” (1953), which John Woo directed in 2003 and starred Ben Affleck, and “Second Variety” (1953), which was adapted in 1995 as Screamers, starring Peter Weller. This audiobook also includes an ultra-short whimsical SF story called “The Eyes Have It” (1953) that has no reason for being here. Instead, it should have included the short story “Adjustment Team” (1954), which was made into the entertaining 2011 film The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. That film had a lot of nice character development, and strong romantic chemistry between the two leads.
The audiobook narrator is Keir Dullea, a name that didn’t ring a bell but turns out to be none other than David Bowman from the iconic Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He does a good job with PDK’s material.
There’s no question in my mind that Minority Report and Total Recall are the most successful films that have been adapted from Philip K. Dick short stories (the other strong films came from his novels: Blade Runner was adapted from his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly was adapted from his novel A Scanner Darkly). But honestly, it’s quite a stretch to say that a 20-30 page short story can really form the basis for a feature film. That’s why marketing teams use the terms “inspired by” and “loosely-based on” to distance the films from their source material. That often stems complaints by the author or fans when filmmakers produce a real stinker, which happens all too often.
So the first thing you’ll notice is that these short stories are dramatically different from their film versions. Of course they are. Normally you have a 200-300 page novel that a writer will adapt for the screen, usually going through dozens of versions throughout the filmmaking process. And frequently the job of a skilled screenwriter is knowing what aspects and characters to cut from the story that still preserves the core narrative of the original, while also allowing room for the visual aspects of film to be emphasized over some of the background details of the story.
But if you are trying to make a 20-page story into a 90-minute film, you need to do the opposite, adding whole new characters or storylines to make a complete story. So it wouldn’t be fair to judge the film adaptations based on the story that provided it inspiration. And that’s why I will look at the short stories in this collection and their film adaptations as separate creations below.
"The Minority Report"(1956) short story — I think this is one of the most intricate and thought-provoking stories that PKD ever wrote. John Anderton, the head of the Precrime unit, is a believer in the criminal justice system, which has reduced crime by almost 100% by using the predictions of three ‘precogs,’ whose visions of possible futures allow the police to apprehend suspects before they commit crimes. It seems to be a perfect system, until one day Anderton receives the ‘precog’ report that he will kill a man named Leo Kaplan that he has never heard of. To prove his innocence, he goes on the run and his assistant Ed Witner takes over and seeks to bring him to justice.
The excitement of the story lies in Anderton hunting down the ‘minority report,’ which is a dissenting report when not all three ‘precogs’ see the same future event. While on the run, Anderton approaches his wife for support, is confronted by Leo Kaplan, learns what motivation he might have for killing Kaplan, realizes that Witner and he are not necessarily enemies, and has time to question whether the ‘precog’ crime prevention is really a ‘just’ system, whether it negates human free will, and whether right and wrong can exist if people are prevented from making their own choices. The story has all the classic PKD themes of paranoia, betrayal, and moral conundrums. The resolution of the story involves three separate ‘minority reports,’ each intricately connected to the other, and Anderton’s decision and its consequences are very different from the Spielberg film version.
Minority Report(2002) film — This Steven Spielberg film is very successful because it takes the ideas of the story and then builds a complete future society around them. The film makes significant changes to the story details, but preserves the core moral questions that PDK raised. The visual details are very striking, with washed-out blacks and whites that give it a unique look. The biggest changes are to Anderton’s wife, the greater involvement of one of the precogs in providing Anderton help in clearing his name, and a completely new subplot involving Witner, Anderton’s boss Lamar Burgess, and a murder from the past that has been carefully covered up.
The resolution of the film version is much more Hollywood than the story, since there is never any question that Anderton is a good person seeking justice who is wrongly accused. Questions about the justification of the precog system are not as prominent, and the moral dilemmas of Anderson’s final decision in the story are missing. But as a thought-provoking and pulse-pounding SF thriller, it’s a pretty impressive achievement.
“We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”(1966) short story — This story is only 22 pages long, and is a far cry from the big-budget, special effects-laden and hyper-violent Schwartzenegger extravaganza from Paul Verhoeven. Basically, the story version covers just the opening third of the film, before Arnold gets to Mars. Douglas Quail is a typical nobody who dreams of going to Mars. He decides to visit Rekal Incorporated, which implants false memories that feel real, and requests one in which he is a secret government agent. But when the Rekal staff begin the procedure, they discover that he already has real memories of being a secret agent on Mars, but they have been erased from his conscious mind. They decide the best recourse is to leave his memories alone and send him on his way. However, his real memories are surfacing and suddenly he is confronted by two police officers intent on killing him for knowing too much.
Unlike in the film, the Rekal staff are not killed in painful and graphic ways, Quail’s wife is not a sexy but treacherous Sharon Stone, and there is no action-packed chase as he tries to escape his enemies. Instead, Quail cuts a deal with his pursuers that he will agree to have his memories erased if they promise to leave him alone. But when he returns to Rekal for the procedure, they discover an even deeper embedded memory that reveals exactly how important Quail is to the safety of Earth. It’s a pretty far-fetched development, but keep in mind this is a 22-page story and PDK never anticipated that it would be expanded into a blockbuster SF action film starring a Austrian former bodybuilder who would later become governor of California. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!
Total Recall (1990) film — What’s left to say about this film? It’s directed by one of my favorite directors, who made one of the best futuristic cop films of all time, 1987’s Robocop, as well as 1997’s satirical take on Robert A. Heinlein’s classic military SF novel Starship Troopers (1959). Total Recall was one of Verhoeven’s greatest moments, pairing Arnold Schwartzenegger at the peak of his acting powers (I can’t believe I just typed that) with a propulsive, action-packed, ultra-violent romp through a future Earth and Mars. Its satirical and black humor were augmented by the complex plot involving real and false memories, so it could be enjoyed on a basic visceral level as well as a more cerebral one. I’d have to say that Total Recall is one of my favorite SF action films, but it is so different from the story that it wouldn’t be fair to compare them.
“Paycheck” (1953) short story — This is another PDK short story about erased memories, a hero on the run trying to unravel the meaning behind a series of mysterious objects, surrounded by people who may be allies or enemies. In that sense, it shares many elements with the above two stories. It’s about an engineer named Jennings who accepts a secret contract with Rethrick Construction, under the condition that he will be given a fat paycheck in two years time, but will have his memories erased of his confidential work. However, when he wakes up, his paycheck is not the big wad of cash he expected, but a bunch of seemingly-useless trinkets.
The story revolves around Jennings using each of the trinkets one by one to get him out of various scrapes, all leading to a showdown with the owner of Rethrick Corporation. I won’t reveal the details of who gave him the trinkets and why, but it does involve many of PKD’s favorite themes. And while the story is well constructed, I thought it was a bit too predictable once the basic conceit was revealed. In addition, the resolution of the story wasn’t particularly impressive. Considering how many stories PDK has written, I’m not really sure why this was deemed film-worthy.
Paycheck (2002) film — This was not a good SF film, unfortunately. More than anything, casting Ben Affleck as a whip-smart engineer who prepares an intricate series of clues based on knowledge of future events is just painful to watch. Affleck’s acting skills are abysmal (I think his directorial skills are infinitely better, based on Gone Baby Gone and Argo). Here his leading-man charisma was non-existent, and his chemistry with Uma Thurman was sometimes embarrassingly off. The other problem was handing this vehicle to John Woo, a HK director best known for super-high body count action flicks starring Chow Yun Fat. He’s made the transition to Hollywood, but only to make kinetic but ham-handed films like Face Off, Hard Target, Broken Arrow, and Mission Impossible II. So basically the film takes the basic plot elements of the story for the first 30 minutes, and then adds 90 minutes of mindless and fairly boring chase scenes and mayhem. Strangely enough, even the action scenes are quite tame when you think about the brutality of The Killer or Hard Boiled. Overall, this was a very forgettable film and shouldn’t really be associated with PKD.
“Second Variety” (1953) short story — This is one of PKD’s best, a surprisingly tense and chilling story about a future nuclear war which has reduced civilization to rubble, but the war continues thanks to “claws,” which are self-replicating robots that attack any human being and slice them to bits with whirring blades. They were made by the US against the Russians, but they have apparently begun to made newer versions of themselves to be more effective killing machines, including humanoid forms. The entire time I listened to this I was reminded of James Cameron’s TERMINATOR films, since the ‘claws’ ruthlessly try to infiltrate the remnants of humanity hidden in bunkers, and wreak havoc when they get in. The story focuses on several characters who are trying to identify the unknown “second variety” of humanoid robots, and we can see all the classic paranoia over who is human and who is robot, which would later be explored in greater depth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.
Screamers (1995) film — I didn’t know this film existed until I read up on “Second Variety,” and it looks like a low-budget, direct-to-video type flick released in 1995. The film stars Peter Weller, but it gets only 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, and having watched the trailer, it looks really, really bad, a typical SF B-movie with grainy cinematography, whirring blades, screaming soldiers, and cheesy music. I just can’t make myself watch this....more
The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories by Philip K Dick Originally posted at Fantasy Literature During his lifetime, PhilipThe Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories by Philip K Dick Originally posted at Fantasy Literature During his lifetime, Philip K Dick published 44 novels, 121 short stories, and 14 short story collections. If you are interested in getting his short stories, you can find many of his earliest stories available in various combinations on Kindle for $0.99 or $1.99 since they are public domain now. For more dedicated fans, you can get the five-volume series The Collected Short Stories of Philip K Dick, which contains over 100 of his short stories (over 2,000 pages) from throughout his career. But what if you want audio versions?
If you search for his short stories on audio, there’s surprisingly little. Considering how cheap some of the e-book collections are, you’d expect much more, but the best overall deal I could find was the $1.99 Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories (narrated by Kevin Killavey), which if you buy on Kindle first, you can then get the Audible version for just $1.99. There is also Minority Report and Other Stories (narrated by Keir Dullea), which contains some of his stories that have become films, including "The Minority Report" (Minority Report), "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (Total Recall), "Paycheck" (Paycheck), and "Second Variety" (Screamers). If you want to hear some of his most well-known stories from the early 1950s, The Collected Works of Philip K. Dick: 11 Science Fiction Stories is a good solution.
All the typical early PKD themes are well represented, humans vs. robots, Cold War tensions between Americans & Russians (or between Terrans and Martians/Centaurans), the recurrent theme of nuclear destruction of civilization, the slippery nature of reality, and the classic ironic twist at the end. Sure, many of the details feel very dated (they’re over 60 years old, after all!), but they remain pretty effective stories. These ideas were frequently also in his early novels in the 1950s, as he frantically churned out a steady flow of stories and novels to pay the bills. But the quality and originality of these stories is quite high. Here are brief descriptions of the 11 stories in this collection:
Beyond Lies the Wub (1952): A crew of spacemen on Mars are loading up on food supplies and purchase a Wub, which turns out to be highly intelligent, peaceful, and likes to discuss literature, but Captain Franco seems intent on killing and eating the Wub, since it looks like a delicious pig. This was PKD’s first published story, and contains a clever twist at the end that you might miss if you’re not paying attention.
Beyond the Door (1954): A man buys a cuckoo clock and takes it home to his wife, who is closer to her male co-worker. This is not really a SF story, and has more to do with troubled marriages and frustrations.
Mr. Spaceship (1953): This was one of better stories, about a spaceship that has an old man’s consciousness embedded in it to be used in a galactic war, but which has ‘a mind of its own’. It’s a surprisingly touching tale of memory and longing. It’s also an early treatment of a spaceship with a human mind built in, and this theme has inspired many variations in the genre, including the AIs of Iain M. Banks’ CULTURE series, as well as Anne Leckie’s IMPERIAL RADCH trilogy.
Piper in the Woods (1953): This is a SF story with a fantasy feel, as a doctor on Earth examines soldiers returned from an asteroid that insist they are plants. The doctor visits the asteroid and discovers that the soldiers are claiming an indigenous people of “Pipers” in the woods are responsible for opening their eyes to being plants. The doctor searches for them in vain, but the story takes a surprising turn when he gets back to Earth. I’m not sure exactly how any asteroid could have an atmosphere, let alone a forest, but this story does have PKD’s playful tricks.
Second Variety (1953): This is another standout story, a surprisingly tense and chilling story about a future nuclear war which has reduced civilization to rubble, but the war continues thanks to “claws”, which are self-replicating robots that essentially attack any human being and slice them to bits with whirring blades. They were made by the US against the Russians, but they have apparently begun to made newer versions of themselves to be more effective killing machines, including humanoid forms. The entire time I listened to this I was reminded of James Cameron’s TERMINATOR films, since they ‘claws’ ruthlessly try to infiltrate the remnants of humanity hidden in bunkers, and wreak havoc when they get in. The story focuses on several characters who are trying to identify the unknown “second variety” of humanoid robots, and we can see all the classic paranoia over who is human and who is robot, which would later be explored in greater depth in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Bladerunner. This was apparently made into a film called Screamers (1995), but the reviews are universally negative so I don’t plan on watching it.
The Crystal Crypt (1954): This is another story about future war, this time between the Earth and Mars. It’s more of an espionage piece, very much a product of the Cold War, as several Earth agents seeks to get off Mars and back to Earth with a very valuable bargaining chip, and attempt to stay ahead of Martian forces that have lie-detecting abilities. The method by which they get this valuable object is so completely far-fetched it borders on ridiculous, so I wasn’t that impressed by this story.
The Defenders (1953): This was an excellent story, again about a nuclear exchange between the US and USSR, which has forced all of humanity deep underground. However, the war is carried out by lethal robots built by both sides that can withstand the radiation above ground. Humanity continues to toil away producing more and more advanced weaponry for the robots to carry on the battle. However, after several years some Americans become suspicious about real conditions outside the bunkers, and get a huge surprise when the sneak outside for a peek. This is a classic PKD tale in which the apparent reality is completely untrue, and questions whether robots created for war will continue to do so forever.
The Eyes Have It (1953): This is brief and humorous story that basically plays on the literal nature of expressions like “give her a hand”, “doesn’t have a brain in his head”, “his stomach was completely empty”, etc. It’s fun but not particularly substantial.
The Gun (1952): This is an effective story about space explorers who find a planet that seems devoid of life, but then their ship is shot down and they crash land. They discover a giant automated gun that seems to be guarding the skies. They manage to destroy it and steal the treasure it protects, but there is a twist at the end I won’t reveal.
The Skull (1952): This one was a bit confusing at first, but involves a prisoner and hunter being given the chance at freedom if he agrees to go back in time and kill a man who began a religious movement that ended warfare. It’s ironic that the future society wants to eliminate this, claiming that war is useful for getting rid of worthless people in society. And while they cannot reveal the identity of the target, they give him his skull to help recognize him. He goes back to 1960 and a very paranoid small-town community that is extremely suspicious of strangers, and are quick to think he is a Communist spy. The story is as much about the Red Scare paranoia as time travel, but it has the inevitable twist that I thought was fairly predictable.
The Variable Man (1953): This is the longest story in the collection, a novella about a future war between the growing Terran empire and the larger but deteriorating Centauran Empire. Terrans wish to expand beyond the Solar System, but the Centaurans are keeping them contained, so a war erupts as both sides develop an endless series of weapons to counter each other in a frantic arms race. The Terrans discover a technology that allows FTL travel, but because of faults it destroys the object when it comes out of FTL speed. They hope to use this as a bomb to destroy the Centauran star, but need technical help to complete the weapon. So who do they turn to? Well, how about an uneducated fix-up man from 1913 accidentally transported in a time bubble? SAY WHAT? Yes, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever, but this man (yes, the Variable Man of the title) has a natural knack for mechanical things, and apparently can intuitively figure out what is wrong with the FTL bomb and fixes it up by mucking around with the circuitry. WTF???? Well, nobody ever said PKD was a future science expert.
Anyway, there is a massive battle between one side allied with the main strategist for the Terran plan, and the Polish scientist who is handling the FTL bomb on the other side, and a good part of the story is occupied with a pretty intense and extended running battle between these forces, with the poor fix-it guy the target of the Terran strategist because the entire strategy rests on the calculation of favorable odds by a super-computer, and the “Variable Man” is screwing up the calculations. So despite his help being the only reason that the Terrans have a chance, one faction is expending bombs, laser beams, and whole squadrons of soldiers trying to kill him. It’s all very absurd but played straight. And in the end there is another surprise revelation about the fix-it guy’s genius. This story felt the most Golden Age pulpy of the collection, and despite being fast-paced it really stretched my credulity many times....more
City: Pastoral SF classic where Rover takes over Originally posted at Fantasy Literature City is a well-loved classic by Clifford D. Simak published baCity: Pastoral SF classic where Rover takes over Originally posted at Fantasy Literature City is a well-loved classic by Clifford D. Simak published back in 1952 and awarded the International Fantasy Award in 1954. It’s actually a collection of linked far-future stories written between 1944 and 1951 about men, mutants, dogs, robots, ants and stranger beings still. It’s told as a series of episodes that trace the evolution of the various species as they reach out to space, but also follows the fates of those groups that remain on Earth.
I would describe Simak’s writing style as “pastoral,” “contemplative,” “philosophical,” and “understated,” and as he was born in rural Wisconsin, there is a recurring theme in his books of rugged Midwestern individuals who take greater pleasure in solitude and the countryside than in crowded cities. As his favorite pastimes were fishing, chess, stamp collecting, and gardening, it’s easy to see how his personality makes its way into his stories. He was designated a SFWA Grand Master and was well regarded in the SF field. However, for readers with more modern sensibilities, his books may seem very quaint and uneventful. Certainly I wouldn’t consider his books “fast-paced” or “intense.” But if your temperament is aligned with his, you might like his work.
In City, we are introduced to the Webster family, who live in the countryside in a future where humanity has developed a decentralized society of independent farms and abandoned city life. As this is the exact opposite of how the world has developed in our world, it’s interesting to speculate how much of this is wish fulfillment for Simak, and how much is based on unbiased extrapolation. I’d hazard that after WWII, based on the explosive growth of suburbs and urban jobs, it’s hard to argue that people would move towards a more agrarian existence, although he does give the threat of nuclear attack as an incentive to live more decentralized lives on farms with their dogs and robots.
The story proceeds to show how robots become increasingly sophisticated and start to develop intelligence, centered on a faithful robot servant named Jenkins (I wonder if he had the butler’s outfit or not). There is also a faithful dog named Towser. There are many hokey scenes of Webster men hunting with their dogs and going after squirrels and rabbits and so on, and these really bored me, but they might appeal to readers yearning for simple country life. The early parts of the book really lacked any kind of narrative energy, as very little happens, and I found it hard to care much about the main characters.
From there the stories move out into space, as mankind seeks to colonize Jupiter, an inhospitable gaseous environment. To survive there, they must take the drastic step of transforming their bodies to a more suitable form, which opens up telepathic communication between man and dogs (who also went through the process). The new bodies and lifestyle are more appealing than human life back on Earth, and these creatures choose to remain on Jupiter. Later on, other humans decide to migrate to Jupiter as well, leaving on a small scattering of humans back on Earth. I found this story fairly hard to follow, even though the ideas were interesting.
Later stories jump 10,000 years further into the future, when dog civilization has taken over the Earth, assisted by robots. Dogs have developed a pacifist society where all animals are respected and not eaten anymore. Dogs are less interested in the mechanical and intellectual pursuits of humans, but instead pursue more intuitive directions. Meanwhile, there are small enclaves of Websters (a synonym for humans) still surviving, but they live a lonely existence bereft of initiative, and many decide to go into hibernation in the hopes of seeing a better future for humans. At the same time, some new beings called “cobblies” appear, and apparently they can travel between worlds. The robot Jenkins (who is remarkably still around, still faithfully doing his best butler impression) finds a way to emulate this ability to enter other worlds, and decides that humans would be better off somewhere away from dog civilization. My interest at this point was flagging pretty badly, so I really had a tough time keeping up with the story’s details.
In the finals parts of City, Simak returns his focus to Earth, which has now been taken over by an Ant City, a process first began by a mutant telepath in one of the earlier stories who has meddled in human affairs but has little sympathy for normal men. Throughout the stories the mutants co-exist with other beings only grudgingly. The ever-helpful Jenkins seeks a solution for the ants by consulting with the last Websters, but they merely suggest poisoning the ants to destroy them. As the dogs are a pacifist race, they opt instead to leave the Earth to the ant civilization. It took the entire book for me to figure out why it is called City, which I feel was a poor choice of title since it doesn’t really describe the storyline at all. If anything, the book could have been entitled “Country Living,” or “When Rover Takes Over,” or “A Man and His Dog and Robot Servant.”
I’ve wanted to read Simak’s books for a long time, particularly City and Way Station, the latter having won the 1964 Hugo Award. I can certainly see the care he put into his writing, and City abounds with interesting SF ideas, but I found them extremely implausible and not very well explained. His characters also struck me as flat and uninteresting, and the storyline was frankly quite boring. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Ganim, and he did a good job capturing the meditative tone of the story. However, that was a double-edged sword as I was continually struggling to maintain any interest in the book, and my concentration failed again and again. This might have been less so if I read a print copy, but then I’ve listened to many audiobooks and loved them, so I have to believe the story was the problem. Next time I read a story about the world going to the dogs (and robots), I’m hoping it will be more convincing....more
There isn’t any other book is SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, published as a cheap 25 cent paperback back in 1950 by Hillman PubliThere isn’t any other book is SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, published as a cheap 25 cent paperback back in 1950 by Hillman Publications. I wish it had been picked up by Ballantine Books and published along with some other early classics of the early 1950s like The Space Merchants, Childhood’s End, More Than Human, Fahrenheit 451, Bring the Jubilee, etc.
Despite this, the book has had an enormous influence on writers ranging from Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, the influence of Vance on Gygax and D&D is so obvious that he really deserved a cut of all the proceeds from that once-mighty franchise. Anyone who has played D&D will immediately recognize the idea that magicians can only memorize a few spells at a time (which takes great effort), and forget immediately after casting them. Even better are the crazy spell names that Vance has concocted (The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, Spell of the Slow Hour, etc).
Of note, Wikipedia indicates that Vance himself was influenced by earlier fantasy writers like H.G. Wells (The Time Machine), William Hope Hodgson (The House on the Borderland, The Night Land), Clark Ashton Smith (Zothique stories), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Barsoom series). I haven’t read any of those writers other than Wells, but they sound like pretty good company.
Since all art takes its inspiration from earlier works, it’s not a knock on Jack Vance that he shows his influences quite clearly. Instead, he deserves great credit for taking those earlier stories and giving them entirely new life though his amazing imagination, precise yet baroque writing style, and somewhat archaic dialogue that disguises an incredibly dry wit and skeptical view of humanity. I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, and I can say with confidence that his voice and imagery are unique. If you’ve encountered anything like it, it’s most likely that those writers took their cue from Vance.
The book is very short (around 175 pages), and is actually a collection of six slightly overlapping but self-contained stories set in an incredibly distant future earth where the sun has cooled to a red color, the moon is gone, and humanity has declined to a pale shadow of former greatness, and struggles to survive amongst the ruins of the past. The world is filled with various magicians, sorcerers, demons, ghouls, brigands, thieves, adventurers, etc. The events are episodic but are compulsively readable, and really beautifully written. The sense of melancholy and decline are ever-present, yet the characters themselves are not cowed by this situation, and strive to achieve their own goals even as the world moves toward a time when the sun will eventually snuff out like a candle. Despite this, many of the situations they find themselves in are quite funny, in a dark and ironic sort of way.
The Dying Earth was later followed by The Eyes of the Overworld in 1966 (featuring Cugel the Clever) and two further sequels, Cugel’s Saga in 1983 and Rhialto the Marvellous in 1984. They are collected in the omnibus volume Tales of the Dying Earth, and it is a treat to be able to read them in succession with no gap it time. Unlike many other classics, the book has not aged at all because it occupies a place outside of time, where science and magic mix together with entropy, quirky characters, and vivid adventure for a unique world vision....more
Hothouse: Plant creatures gone wild! Human characters wooden Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Yeah, Hothouse (1962) was definitely written with sHothouse: Plant creatures gone wild! Human characters wooden Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
Yeah, Hothouse (1962) was definitely written with some chemical assistance. Maybe some LSD-spiked vegetable juice? It may have been written as a set of five short stories in 1961, but it’s a timeless and bizarre story of a million years in the future when the plants have completely taken over the planet, which has stopped rotating, and humans are little green creatures hustling to avoid becoming plant food.
There are hundreds of fearsome carnivorous plants that would love to eat human morsels, but will gladly settle for eating each other instead. As the planet has come to a stop, a massive banyan tree now covers the sunny-side of the planet, with all other plants surviving in it’s shade. But there are gargantuan plant-based spiders called traversers who dwell above the plant layer and actually spin webs across space to the moon and other planets. Yeah, the science here is, well, complete and utter bollocks! But who cares when you can come up with the most bizzare plant species ever conceived in an amazing dying earth setting?
And this book never lets up on the crazy vegetable creatures and pitiful rat-like humans. The main characters are continuously fleeing from one crisis to the next, and never have the upper hand. They encounter the most annoying creatures ever created, including the tummy-belly men, whose speech mannerisms make Jar-Jar Binks sound like Shakespeare. Then there is the fish creature carried by a crippled human called the Catch-Carry-Kind, a prophet who knows the sun is dying and Earth is doomed. He has great wisdom but meets his match with an intelligent, parasitic fungus called a Morel. In fact, the fungi is really a pretty fun-…no, I won’t go there. But, Aldiss was definitely tripping on some fecund and fertile thoughts.
However, his human characters and dialogue are dreadful! This is the most amazing world-building but the most god-awful characters ever created. The storyline is so episodic it drove me crazy, but the malevolent Black Mouth with its irresistible siren cry and a brooding cliff with a 1,000 staring eyes were so cool that I was rooting against the puny humans. If only some other author like Jack Vance were allowed to use this world (like the Dying Earth), this could have been a contender. Oh, the humanity…or is it vegetality?
Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962), and Greybeard (1964) were chosen by David Pringle for his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, and they’ve been on my TBR list for years. In fact, the five short stories that make up Hothouse collectively were awarded the 1962 Hugo for Best Short Fiction. Last year I tried to read Non-Stop, one of the original generational starship stories, but I found the characters so clumsily-drawn that I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages. I don’t want to make an unfair assessment, but I feel that Aldiss, who has some great ideas, really isn’t very gifted in the characterization department. He’s been a major figure in British SF, and wrote a well-regarded history of the SF genre called Trillion Year Spree (2001), but I feel like he’s not one of the top authors from the 1960s....more
Fahrenheit 451: Who needs books when you can have a 24/7 TV family? (Revised and expanded after listening to audiobook by Tim Robbins)
This classic dysFahrenheit 451: Who needs books when you can have a 24/7 TV family? (Revised and expanded after listening to audiobook by Tim Robbins)
This classic dystopian tale by Ray Bradbury depicts a future in which books are illegal and burned by firemen whenever they are discovered. Moreover, the populace is thoroughly brainwashed and pacified by a never-ending flow of mind-numbing entertainment shown on giant screens covering every wall of the living room. Clearly, Bradbury had no clue what the future would bring back in 1953. Waaaay off...
Of course this book is standard assigned reading in school for it's stance against censorship and book-burning, and it's championing of the eternal value of literature and the great thinkers of Western civilization (no mention of other cultures' literature, since Bradbury had no apparent interest in them). It is frequently grouped in high school curriculums with two towering classics of dystopian literature, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
However, although I loved the imagery and writing, I thought the book was too slim to really be considered a full-fledged dystopian novel worthy of 1984 or Brave New World. It’s focus is far less political, and more dedicated as a love-poem to the power of books and ideas, and on how our society needs to always fight against moves to crush free thought and replace it with mind-numbing entertainment meant to pacify the populace.
This year I discovered audiobooks and picked up all 4 Bradbury books I had first read last year (Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes) and decided to give them another chance. The narrator for 451 is Tim Robbins, champion of all liberal causes in Hollywood along with his wife Susan Sarandon. It’s no surprise he’d want to be involved with a book dedicated to freedom of thought and expression and opposed to intellectual repression. I was not disappointed. He does the most impassioned, fire-breathing reading of any audiobook I have yet to encounter. It’s almost unfair to other narrators how good he is! The book’s imagery and writing come alive in a way they didn’t when I read it in print. His impressions of Montag and Captain Beatty are brilliant, especially the cool cynicism of the latter as he reveals he is very expert in literature but still considers it contradictory and irrelevant.
My personal taste in dystopian fiction runs more to the grim, relentless visions depicted in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and George Orwell's 1984, since they feel more real and thus more frightening, so I can't rate this as one of my favorites, but it certainly gets props for its contribution to the early 1950's SF oeuvre of cautionary tales of the future, many of which were spot-on (particularly the cacophony of the “Family” that cover every wall of Montag’s living room and keep his wife brain-washed and distract her from depression).
This book has also sparked many a lively and intelligent debate on what Bradbury's main message was: the dangers of censorship, the dumbing down of the populace through media control, and fears of people becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world due to technological development. For example, the Internet allows us to connect to others around the world and exchange ideas far more freely than anytime before in history. And while it’s not clear whether greater literacy and technology improve education levels or whether this equates to greater intelligence, the fact that open forums like the Internet allow us to discuss topics like censorship is one of the best arguments in favor of technology. Unfortunately, much of the info exchanged is very trivial and mind-numbing, but we cannot blame the medium for the message. There have been intelligent, inquisitive minds right alongside ignorant, foolish minds throughout history. However, our access to information (and knowledge, as they are separate things) has improved greatly, and if we do not take full advantage of it, that is our own fault, not the fault of technology.
So my question to you is this: What need is there to censor and burn books now that there are so many alternatives that are more easily consumed by people wanting instant gratification?...more
Brave New World: Be careful what you wish for (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) We all know Brave New World (1932) as a classic dystopian tale of a woBrave New World: Be careful what you wish for (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) We all know Brave New World (1932) as a classic dystopian tale of a world bereft of conflict, pain, hardship, but also lacking individuality, free will, and intellectual thought. You were probably forced to read it in high school (I somehow missed it) and if you were a normal teen it must be have been either very weird or strangely appealing (unlimited free drugs and sex, a carefree life). Granted, it's a brilliant critique of the early socialist utopias penned by H.G. Wells. After that the Europe was engulfed in World War I and the Russian Revolution. So it was with much cynicism that Huxley must have wrote his story in 1932 to debunk the naive fantasies that socialists and libertarians had that humanity would solve all economic and social ills and create a perfect society.
Brave New World centers on the post-scarcity World State, where everything from reproduction and social interactions to education, work, entertainment are ruled by a rigid hierarchy, and society is separated into five genetically-engineered casts. Only the upper casts, the Alphas and Betas, are allowed to develop normally, while the lower Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons fill the more menial tasks of society. Children are engineered in labs and raised in group facilities and the hypnopaedic method is used to condition children to accept their allotted roles in society and not question the status quo. Consumerism is at the core of this society, and individuality is considered an aberration that can be cured with the freely-available feel-good drug “soma”. This drug allows for harmless group bonding without the potential danger of religion or independent thoughts.
The story begins with Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus psychologist who somehow is not fully satisfied with his regimented and stress-free existence, and Lenina Crowne, a hatchery worker who is fairly content with life. Bernard insists on taking Lenina to a Reservation where some Savages are allowed to live in a state of simple existence, cut off from the wonders of the World State. Here they observe many strange and disturbing rituals conducted by the Savages, and encounter John, the son of a civilized women who became stranded on the Reservation and bore a child there. Bernard takes John back to civilization and becomes the toast of society, enjoying his celebrity status for parading around a Savage who has been ironically raised almost exclusively on Shakespeare’s works.
The Savage becomes increasingly disturbed by the hedonistic and mindless society of the World State, which is at odds with the romantic and passionate ideals of Shakespeare. In particular, the vapid promiscuousness of Lenina shocks him. Eventually he causes various uproars and is brought before Mustafa Mond, the World Controller for Western Europe. John and Mustafa have a very profound debate on religion, morality, and the principles of the World State. In the end, John rejects the empty happiness of this society, and elects to go into self-imposed exile. However, he discovers that it is not so easy to escape the modern world, which refuses to leave him alone. Suffice to say, things don’t end well.
This book owes a great debt to We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which to me is a superior book, and George Orwell thought that Huxley was being dishonest when he claimed no knowledge of that book while writing Brave New World. And of course it will always be compared with that greatest of all totalitarian dystopias, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is a much more powerful book. Where Orwell feared the dangers of totalitarianism, total control of information and personal freedom, along with doublethink and newsspeak, Huxley was more worried about humanity succumbing to hedonism, rampant and emotionless promiscuity, and systematic brainwashing/conditioning of the populace.
I think that all three books (We, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four) form a scathing critique of the dangers detailed above, each with a different perspective. For example, We and Nineteen Eighty-Four are clearly directed at the horrors of Russian totalitarianism, while Brave New World is more opposed to the excesses of capitalism, consumerism, and hedonism. And while the authors of We and Nineteen Eighty-Four could probably breath a sign of relief to some degree (posthumously) when the Iron Curtail and Soviet Union fell, in some ways Huxley's vision was the most accurate. What could be closer to the Brave New World of "feelies", soma, and endless entertainment than our current world of brain-dead Hollywood blockbusters, lowest-common-denominator reality TV shows, rampant drug use among both affluent and the poor, social media, ubiquitious digital devices, etc. Sure, the modern world is very far from being a utopia for all but the most wealthy and indolent, but each in our daily lives can escape to our own private fantasy worlds via an electronic device and close their eyes to the problems of the world.
At the same time, though Huxley seems to have been most afraid of us losing our individuality in a flood of mind-numbing consumerism, I would say that hasn't really come about. The proliferation of the Internet has certainly allowed a great deal of trashy consumerism to spread around the world, but at the same time we are drowned in waves of different ideas and perspectives, so that people are probably more exposed to diverse ways of thinking now than they ever were at any point of history. So Mr. Huxley, were you right after all?
Why the 3-star rating, you might ask? Well, this book was so relentlessly satirical and contemptuous of all the characters in the book in order to bludgeon its points home that I couldn't identify with anyone except the evil, super-urbane Mustafa Mond, whose arguments against culture, art, literature and individuality in favor of stability, uniformity, and brain-washing are remarkably convincing despite their obvious shortcomings. In particular, by making John such a foolish, misguided and unhappy individual, though he is one of the few champions of literature, individuality, and free thinking, it makes you wonder what Mr. Huxley wants us to think. Is he trying to get us to sympathize with Mustafa, or are we supposed to see through that and embrace the pained Savage who cannot tolerate this Brave New World of soma-induced happiness? I for one would much rather spend time with the World Controller than the Savage, who is unfortunately a self-punishing, Shakespeare-spouting nut-case. At least in the case of We and Nineteen Eighty-Four, we can fully sympathize with the downtrodden D-503 and Winston Smith as they are ground under by the juggernaught regimes that oppress them. So perhaps Mr. Huxley has outsmarted himself and his readers. Certainly this book is required reading for all serious readers of dystopian works, but for my money We and Nineteen Eighty-Four are better works of literature. ...more
Childhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us Originally posted at Fantasy Literature There's something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur CChildhood’s End: The Overlords have a plan for us Originally posted at Fantasy Literature There's something very comforting in the SF novels of Arthur C. Clarke, my favorite of the Big Three SF writers of the Golden Age (the other two being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov). His stories are clearly-written, unembellished, precise, and focus on the science, ideas, and plot. Though some claim his characters are fairly wooden, I don’t see it that way. They tend to be fairly level-headed and logical, and focus on handling the situations on hand in an intelligent manner. In Clarke's world, the average protagonist is a smart and scientific-minded person, much like...the author himself. And I think his target audience is also readers who think scientific progress will steadily continue, bringing humans further and further along a path of enlightenment and shedding the foolish superstitions of the past (i.e. organized religions, antiquated political and social conventions).
And then we have Childhood's End. I won't bother describing the entire plot of this SF classic from 1953, beyond the basic conceit that super-advanced aliens (dubbed "Overlords") suddenly descend on Earth and, instead of bringing death and destruction like the Martians of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, they immediately impose a benevolent rule over mankind and swiftly solve all of the political, social, racial, and religious problems plaguing the planet, not least of all imminent nuclear destruction (a reasonable fear considering the timing of the book). The only catch is that the Overlords refuse to explain the motivations for their altruistic intervention, indicating only that they are Supervisors in charge of helping mankind for some unknown ultimate goal.
So what is the catch then? Clarke builds the story slowly and reveals things at a very measured pace, and we don't find out what the Overlords are really up to until the final 50 pages or so. This is actually the biggest weakness of the story, because the small glimpses of the Overlord’s gradually grooming of the human race for SOMETHING BIG don’t really seem to connect very well with the final denouement. And since the final 50 pages are a fairly mind-blowing vision of the transformation of mankind, I would’ve preferred if Clarke devoted more pages to this and less to the lead-up. It’s like having to listen to the opening act for a full 90 minutes, and then having the headline band play an amazing set of just 3-4 songs and waltz off stage with the crowd crying out for more. Then again, sometimes the best books leave you hungry for more, and let your imagination fill in the details.
Arthur C. Clarke is without question a SF writer with a wealth of ideas, but I think he owes a huge debt to two of his British predecessors, both visionaries of enormous talent and ambition, H.G. Wells (The Time Machine in particular) and Olaf Stapledon's (Last and First Men, Star Maker). Although I think those other works are superior in their scopes and execution, I certainly enjoyed Childhood's End and think it deserves its position as a classic of the genre....more
Bring the Jubilee: A brilliant alternative history where the South prevailed Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Bring the Jubilee is a fairly obscuBring the Jubilee: A brilliant alternative history where the South prevailed Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Bring the Jubilee is a fairly obscure alternate-history story published in 1953 in which the South won the "War for Southron Independence". In this world, Robert E. Lee succeeds Jefferson Davis as the second president of the Confederacy in 1865. The Confederacy steadily expands its empire through Mexico and South America. Its chief rival is the German Union, which splits control of Europe with the Spanish Empire. In response, the Confederacy has allied with Great Britain, creating two opposing empires that straddle the Atlantic.
Strangely enough, slavery was abolished but minorities continue to face persecution, and poverty is rampant in the United States, the former Union states of the North. Other than a rich landowner minority, most people are indentured to their owners, effectively a form or slavery. In addition, the combustible engine, light bulb, and aircraft were never invented, instead they have steam-powered minibiles (the equivalent of cars) and dirigibles, so horses or trains are still regularly used for transportation. The telephone was also not invented, so the telegraph is the main means of communication.
The main character is a directionless youth named Hodge Backmaker who leaves his impoverished life in the countryside of Wappinger Falls, Pennsylvania to move to New York, one of the few cities in the North to still thrive in a North America dominated by the Southron Confederate States. He comes to NY eager to get into a university, only to immediately be robbed of his possessions. Though great luck he manages to find work at a bookshop, reading almost constantly to educate himself. He develops a close relationship with the proprietor, who turns out to be in league with the Grand Army, a subversive organization devoted to restoring the United States to its former greatness.
The story then takes a sudden turn, as Hodges decides to leave NY and join a small progressive intellectual co-op in rural Pennsylvania. He pursues his dream of becoming a historian dedicated to studying the war between the North and South, gets involved in a love triangle, and then encounters a device that could help him very directly in his research, with totally unexpected consequences…
The story is extremely well-written, informed by the initially ignorant but intellectually-hungry mind of Hodge. His desire to pursue pure knowledge for its own sake in a poor, downtrodden North that has been left to decay after losing the war, and where blacks, Asians, Jews and other races are treated cruelly and with contempt, is not what you would expect of an alternate history tale centered around the Civil War.
I wouldn't even have known about this book if it weren't featured in David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels and I'm glad I read it. It presents so many brilliant little details of his alternate world, but the main story revolves around the life and thoughts of the main character, so that I often felt prevented from seeing the bigger picture of his alternate world, and despite the depth of characterization, this book could have been longer and more complex, taking more time to explore his concept, and most likely have made a greater impact in the SF field. If he was writing today, I think it would have been just the first book in a long and successful series. As it is, it's a "minor" classic that few people have read, and I’d like to change that. ...more
The City and The Stars: Restless in a perfect future city (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) This a rewrite of his first book Against the Fall of NightThe City and The Stars: Restless in a perfect future city (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) This a rewrite of his first book Against the Fall of Night (first published in 1948 in Startling Stories). There are plenty of adherents of the original version, but the revised version is pretty good too. As one of his earlier classic tales, this one features many familiar genre tropes: A far-future city called Diaspar, where technology is so sophisticated it seems like magic, a young (well not exactly, but close enough) protagonist who curiosity is so strong it overcomes the fear of the outside that all the other inhabitants share, and a gradually expanding series of discoveries by our hero Alvin (actually, would anyone really have a name that is shared by an animated chipmunk, one BILLION years in the future???) as he strives to discover the reality of his world, and the larger universe around him.
Arthur C. Clarke’s specialty is “sense of wonder”, and he does a pretty good job here, gradually giving us the bigger picture, and expanding his scope to the larger universe, with his protagonist always driven by the desire to know more and refusing to settle for a comfortable existence. The writing isn’t particular eloquent and the characters are fairly flat, but hey, this is not China Mieville or Gene Wolfe we’re talking about. So if you’re willing to accept that, you can certainly enjoy the story.
As I’ve said before, Arthur C. Clarke owes an enormous debt to another British pioneer of science fiction, Olaf Stapledon, who wrote on as grand a scale as any SF writer ever has, even including more recent writers like Vernor Vinge, Alasdair Reynolds, and Peter Hamilton. In fact, I think Stapledon deserves much more credit than he has received (you gotta read First and Last Men, Star Maker if you consider yourself a serious SF fan), and the ending of City and the Stars was actually a bit of a letdown for me.
I’ll close this review with a couple images that basically sum up the story:
Double Star: No second-rate actor could ever become president, right? Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Double Star is one of Robert Heinlein’s moDouble Star: No second-rate actor could ever become president, right? Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Double Star is one of Robert Heinlein’s most enjoyable early period SF novels, a short and tightly-plotted story of out-of-work actor Lawrence Smith (aka “The Great Lorenzo”), who is unexpectedly tapped for a very important acting job, to impersonate an important politician named John Bonforte who has been kidnapped. Initially the job is supposed to be just short-term until the real guy can be rescued, but as things drag out, this becomes more difficult. Even more surprisingly, Lorenzo finds he is actually getting quite good at impersonating Bonforte, and has started to understand and sympathize with his politics as well. But how far can this situation go before somebody blows his cover…
Published in 1956 and winner of the Hugo Award, this book is perfectly paced, with great supporting characters and plenty of twists and turns. The characteristic Heinlein wit is effortless, and even when he discusses politics, it doesn’t get tiresome. More than anything, what amazing foresight he had. I mean, that would be unthinkable that an action star or second-rate actor could be a governor, or even, God forbid, President of the United States, right?
While Double Star is a great novel, I have mixed feelings about the works of Dean and Grand Master of Science Fiction, Robert Heinlein. I couldn’t stand Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, but loved The Door Into Summer and Double Star. I found much to admire in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but also got tired of some of the lecturing. You couldn’t find a more opinionated person on the subjects of politics (liberal and conservative), personal responsibility to society, the military, criticism of organized religion, sexual freedom, libertarianism, very mixed attitudes (both admiring and condescending) towards women, and of course a great enthusiasm for depicting realistic future societies of all kinds.
His early books (haven’t read the juveniles, though I’m sure they were great for young folks growing up in the early 1950s) are really fun, with exciting plots, snarky dialogue, plucky characters, and interesting ideas. His middle stuff gets much further into exploring his ideas about politics, sex and religion, and his later stuff is almost unreadable, bloated, self-indulgent explorations of his own inner obsessions, with a healthy dollop of incest and kinky sex. I’m sure those books would never have been published if they were written by anyone other than Heinlein.
In the end, the SF genre has been enriched immeasurably by the presence of Robert Heinlein, along with his fellow giants Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and the genre will probably never see his like again....more
Way Station: A solitary Midwesterner holds the key to the stars Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Way Station is Clifford D. Simak’s 1964 Hugo AwaWay Station: A solitary Midwesterner holds the key to the stars Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Way Station is Clifford D. Simak’s 1964 Hugo Award-winning novel. By many readers it is considered his best, and it features some his favorite themes: a rugged Midwesterner who shuns society, human society flirting with nuclear disaster, a more enlightened galactic society that is wary of letting unruly humans join in, an appeal to common sense and condemnation of man’s penchant for violence.
Having recently read Simak’s 1952 fixer-up novel City, in which dogs and robots take over Earth in the far future, I’m getting a pretty good sense of the author’s likes and dislikes. He was born in a small Wisconsin town (just like my father, incidentally), attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison (also like my father), spend time working as an editor at various newspapers, and finally became a SF writer. I grew up in Honolulu, HI, but my dad took me back to my grandmother’s house in Delafield, WI every summer and winter, and I developed an affinity for the rhythms of country life in Wisconsin, including the lush greens of trees and blues of lakes in summer, the bitter but beautiful white snow-cover of winter, the rolling hills of pastures and various crops, lots of birds and squirrels and possums and deer, and more than anything the hearty but modest folk, most of whom are really warm and welcoming when they get to know you. But there is certainly a strong desire for people to respect each other’s space and privacy, and with acres between each residence, everyone has plenty of time on their own to mind their own affairs. That’s how they like it, I suspect.
Simak’s novel Way Station is about a man named Enoch Wallace, who is rumored to have been a veteran in the Civil War, but lives a solitary life on a small farm and has almost no doings with his neighbors other than during brief encounters during his daily walk on his property. From the outside, there is nothing interesting about him or his little house and shed, but in fact this placid façade houses a secret way station for aliens making pit-stops during interstellar travel. Since the aliens never go outside, but merely chat and swap stories with Enoch, nothing seems untoward. The only problem is that Enoch never ages, and finally the CIA gets wind of this and send someone to investigate. When they snoop around and find a strangely-engraved gravestone, they unearth it and discover something shocking…
Unlike City, which was really a series of loosely-connected stories that I didn’t find added up to a compelling story, Way Station is a well-plotted novel that takes it time with lots of intriguing episodes as he meets a myriad of different aliens, including an alien named Ulysses who becomes his friend. It’s quite endearing that he feels more connection with the aliens than with the people around him, but sad that he has a strong enough yearning for human contact that he invents an entire group of imaginary friends that he converses with like real people. One wonders how much of Simak can be found in Enoch’s character, and how much is just storytelling.
Although the book isn’t rushing to forward the plot, it does slowly reveal the scope of the importance of the Way Station in intergalactic politics, and how Enoch himself is the only representative of the human race who will likely decide whether aliens will intercede in humanity’s suicidal urge to destroy itself with nuclear weapons. The only problem is that the aliens’ cure is almost as bad as the disease. Enoch reaches a crisis point when both ornery locals, the CIA, and hostile aliens all converge on his little place, and the story really delivers a satisfactory conclusion that isn’t that predictable.
Having read a number of recent novels with massive page-counts but disappointing finishes, I really appreciate a nicely-paced story that delivers the goods in under 250 pages. This book really stands the test of time (much more than City, in my opinion) and is worth your precious reading time. The audiobook is narrated by Eric Michael Summerer and he does a nice job of capturing the steady Midwestern rhythms of the story and narrator....more
The Rediscovery of Man: The strangest future mythology you’ll ever read (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) The universe that Cordwainer Smith created hThe Rediscovery of Man: The strangest future mythology you’ll ever read (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) The universe that Cordwainer Smith created has captured the imagination of many SF fans and authors thanks to the short stories that have been collected in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1975), and The Rediscovery of Man (1999). It is without doubt one of the strangest and most memorable creations in SF, even if it only affords short, tantalizing glimpses of a much greater tapestry that the author was never able to fully reveal due to his untimely death at age 53.
The most famous of those stories are included in the Gollancz edition:
Scanners Live in Vain (1950) The Lady Who Sailed the Soul (1960) The Game of Rat and Dragon (1955) The Burning of the Brain (1958) Golden the Ship Was---Oh! Oh! Oh! (1959) The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal (1964) The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1964) Under Old Earth (1966) Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons (1961) Alpha Ralpha Boulevard (1961) The Ballad of Lost C'mell (1962) A Planet Named Shayol (1961)
Just by the titles you can get a sense of his unique and playful mind, and the stories themselves can be strange, haunting, humorous, and lyrical by turn. It’s fair to say that his voice was unique. Every story stands alone but adds a thread to the tapestry of his Instrumentality of Mankind universe. The stories are told like far-future fables or legends, and really defy easy description.
“Scanners Live in Vain”, which is about a rebellion by a guild of cyborg-like scanners that help pilot ships through “The Great Pain of Space”, is probably one of the strangest and most disturbing SF short stories I have ever read. Strange concepts like habermen, cranching, and the fraternity of scanners are thrown at the reader immediately, so you have to be prepared to take it in. It is the best story in the collection, and some consider it the best SF short story ever written.
“The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” is an epic love story of two star-crossed lovers who go to great lengths through time and space to be reunited. The linkage between pilot and sailing ship to navigate the stars is quite painful and awkward, and perhaps was inspired by the author’s continual health troubles in real life.
“The Game of Rat and Dragon”, about pin-lighters and their partners who help protect interstellar spaceships that travel via planoforming, is one of the most bizarre, original, amusing, and touching stories I’ve read. I can’t reveal any more details without ruining the surprise, but this is also one of my favorites.
“The Buring of the Brain” features a famous Go-Captain (a pilot who directs his ship to planoform from one part of space to another) and his formerly beautiful wife, who has become mentally disturbed. To save his ship and passengers, he must make a terrible choice. Smith goes back to this theme frequently in his stories.
“Golden the Ship Was---Oh! Oh! Oh!” is another strange story about how the Lords of the Instrumentality take unusual and underhanded tactics to combat an upstart rival threatening Earth. Besides the strange title, it also features the best character names ever, Prince Lovaduck (there is an explanation of course).
“The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal” tells the tragic tale of a brave and well-meaning space captain who comes to the aid of a rescue call from the planet Arachosia, which turns out to be a trap designed to lure humans into the clutches of a bizarre all-male society. He uses time travel and feline genetic material (what???) to orchestrate his escape, but is still punished by the Instrumentality for his mistake.
“The Dead Lady of Clown Town” is a very powerful tale of martyrdom by a Christ-like dog-girl (one of the underpeople) named D’Joan (the name is not accidental), a human therapist named Elaine, an electronic copy of the long-dead Lady Panc Ashash, and a telepath named The Hunter who start a revolution to uphold the rights of underpeople, genetically-modified animals who are essentially slaves that serve real humans. The religious overtones are quite overt, but the story is very good.
“Under Old Earth” is perhaps the most bizarre story of the bunch, telling the story of Lord Sto Odin, the most venerable Lord of the Instrumentality, who is now dying and ventures to an unregulated region of Old Earth called the Gebeit to see a cure for the “tired, sterile happiness” of humanity. He encounters a wild and suicidal young man below the surface who has stolen some “congohelium” (matter + anti-matter) and is under the thrall of a continuous, loud, pounding music that he must dance to, while all the other young people have collapsed in exhaustion. According to an article on www.everything2.com, this story is Cordwainer Smith’s response to the frightening hippie and youth movement of the 1960’s.
“Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons” is a story about Norstrilia, the planet that has a monopoly on the immortality drug stroon, which itself can only be harvested from giant sheep infected with a certain virus. Due to the incredible wealth of this planet, every criminal and government covets the stroon and Norstrilia has developed a drastic means of repelling all attempts to take it by force. The title refers cryptically to this, so I wouldn’t dare spoil it for you.
“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is set later in the history of the Instrumentality, when the tired utopia is starting to crack and the Rediscovery of Man is taking place, where the Instrumentality deliberately allows danger, uncertainty, mortality, and all the illogical and messy old cultural practices of man be reintroduced to reinvigorate humanity. The story is about some of those first people who encounter this new and dangerous world.
“The Ballad of Lost C'mell” is about one of the most famous underpeople, a feline femme fatale named C’mell whose job is a “girly girl”, an escort and geisha-type entertainer of humans who visit Old Earth. The plot is fairly convoluted for a short story, and is somewhat hard to follow, but basically involves a plot by Lord Jestocost, a Lord of the Instrumentality, and the E'telekeli, a powerful telepathic underperson that is unknown to the Instrumentality, to use C’mell to steal information from the Instrumentality to further the rights of the underpeople. These characters are also featured in Smith’s full-length novel Norstilia.
“A Planet Named Shayol” is another standout story, a very literal descent into Dante’s Inferno, the prison planet of Shayol where the worst criminals in the Instrumentality are sent to be punished eternally. The main character is named Mercer, a name also used in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to describe the Christian-like martyrdom cult of Mercerism. He is sent to Shayol for an undescribed crime, and learns the true nature of punishment there, which is in turns more cruel and yet more benevolent than anyone would have expected. The imagery here would not be out of place in a Hieronymous Bosch painting....more
Norstrilia: The only novel set in the “Instrumentality of Mankind” universe Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve always wanted to read the workNorstrilia: The only novel set in the “Instrumentality of Mankind” universe Originally posted at Fantasy Literature I’ve always wanted to read the work of Cordwainer Smith (pen name of Paul Linebarger, a scholar and diplomat who was expert in East Asia and psychological warfare), who also moonlighted as a quirky SF author who wrote a number of short stories mainly in the 50s and 60s set in the Instrumentality of Mankind, a full-fledged galaxy-spanning far-future universe.
He has something of a cult following, but really only has a few books to his credit, the collected short stories that can be found in The Instrumentality of Mankind (1974), The Best of Cordwainer Smith (1977), and The Rediscovery of Man (1993). He wrote only one novel, Norstrilia (1975), which itself was initially two shorter books The Planet Buyer (1964) and The Underpeople (1968).
Not knowing which to read first, I decided to start with the novel Norstrilia, but I now think that was a mistake. Although Smith has created a rich and imaginative world that doesn’t resemble anything else I’ve read before, I think he really established his reputation with his short stories, and having just read the most famous one, Scanners Live in Vain (1950), I’d say that Smith’s skills lie in the short form, not the long. That is a poignant, bizarre, and haunting story that really is an amazing creation. I found more to like in that story than in the entire book, so I am now reading The Rediscovery of Man collection. If you want a taste of Cordwainer Smith, start with his short stories instead.
Norstrilia features an immortality drug called stroon (derived from a fungus that infects giant sheep) cultivated by hardy, frugal and conservative and now ultra-wealthy settlers from Old North Australia, space travel via planoforming, telepathic spieking and hiering, and a permanent underclass of Underpeople on Old Earth genetically engineered from various animals. Ruling over this is the Instrumentality of Mankind, a quasi-government body of immortals that seek to keep mankind vigorous by introducing imperfections and problems into what had become a stagnant and decadent utopia, and also reviving some of the ancient cultures of man, a process known as The Rediscovery of Man.
The protagonist of Norstrilia is Rod McBan the 151st, a young man born into the most venerable family on Old North Australia (“Norstrilia”), who lacks the telepathic ability to spiek and hier like his fellow Norstrilians, and thus faces a life-and-death test (“The Garden of Death”) at age 18 that determines whether he can a full-fledged man and citizen, or be given a lethal injection of the giggling death. Suffice to say he survives due to extenuating circumstances, but after that gets targeted by an assassin jealous of his status and immortality.
He decides to let his ancient computer, which has been idly calculating various scenarios to accumulate vast wealth for thousands of years out of cybernetic boredom, to leverage all of Rod’s considerable assets contained in his farm’s stroon fortune to do a byzantine series of futures transactions to corner the market for stroon. Incredibly, the computer manages to pull this off and makes Rod into the wealthiest individual in the universe overnight. With this new fortune, he literally buys Old Earth and everything it contains, and decides to travel through space via planoforming to visit his new acquisition.
Of course Rod’s incredible wealth attracts all sorts of thieves, gold-diggers, and revolutionaries, all who want something from him, so he genetically alters himself into a cat-man to travel Earth anonymously, with a gorgeous girlygirl cat-woman named C’mell and a tiny monkey physician named L’Agentur. He undergoes various adventures with aristocrats and underpeople, learning of the harsh inequalities that permeate Old Earth society, and finds himself sympathizing with the underpeople, who actually keep decadent human society functioning but get treated only with contempt in return. In the end Rod finally takes decisive actions that change the fate of the underpeople and himself.
I give the author full credit for creating an unusual and quirky universe, but I found the ultra-rich but stubbornly-frugal farmers of Norstrilia pretty hard to believe 15,000 years in the future. The idea that their society would be sustainable as a group of independent-minded sheep farmers sitting on vast wealth but prevented from spending it by a 20 million percent tax on imports seems pretty ridiculous, don’t you think? Yes, they allow citizens to cash out and lead an opulent life offworld, it’s hard to picture anyone not taking this option over time. Even more absurd is the idea that an antique semi-military computer could manipulate the stroon futures market of a galactic civilization spanning thousands of worlds, overnight. This is the equivalent of the NYSE or NASDAQ being taken over by a nerdy kid with a Commodore 64.
Norstrilia also betrays its origins as two different stories cobbled together. The first half featuring his trials on Norstrilia and the second half with his adventures with the Lords of the Instrumentality and the underpeople don’t really mesh well together. I’d have to say the second half is more interesting, but neither really captured my interest like I was hoping. If I was feeling harsh I would give it 2 stars as it feels a bit slapped together, but will be generous and assign 3 stars for the overall unique vision of the future he gave us....more
A Case of Conscience: A Catholic priest faces aliens with morality but no religion Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Great A-side, dreadful B-sideA Case of Conscience: A Catholic priest faces aliens with morality but no religion Originally posted at Fantasy Literature Great A-side, dreadful B-side. This is James Blish’s 1959 Hugo-winning SF novel, expanded from the1953 novella. Part One (the original novella) is set on planet Lithia, introducing a race of reptilians with a perfect, strife-free society and innate sense of morality. However, to the consternation of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, they have no religion of any kind. Their morality is inherent, and they have no need of a religious framework to direct their actions.
As a Catholic, Ruiz-Sanchez cannot make heads or tails of this. Without religion, do the Lithians have souls? If so, are they fallen into sin like humans, or still in a state of grace like Adam and Eve? He struggles with this conundrum, as well as the purpose of the expedition to Lithia, which is to determine whether the planet should be exploited for its lithium or quarantined since the Lithians are clearly created by Satan to undermine the need for faith to form the basis for an ideal society. It’s very unclear whether Blish thinks this is a legitimate debate or not, and while it’s good for the author to let the reader decide (I’d like to see Heinlein hold back on judgment, for example), this Part ends inconclusively with Ruiz-Sanchez receiving an egg from his Lithian friend Chtexa to bring back to Earth.
Part 2 must be the most incoherent and poorly-written second act ever in SF. It’s about Egtverchi, the Lithian born from that egg, as he grows up in human society. He quickly learns about the world, and starts to question why humans are living in underground shelters brought about by earlier nuclear conflict. In the process, he causes a massive rebellion among the stir-crazy people of Earth, who are suffering from the psychosis of living underground.
At the same time Ruiz-Sanchez is brought before the Pope fore heresy, since his suggestion that Satan created Lithia to undermine God is a form of Manichaeism, a religion that posits a struggle between equally-matched good and evil. The Pope points out that Ruiz-Sanchez may have been deceived by the Lithians (and by extension Satan) and that he should have performed an exorcism of the planet! That wouldn’t have been my conclusion, but…
Then the story does another sudden about-turn and we discover that a scientist from the initial expedition has gone back to Lithia and is trying a dangerous experiment that may destroy the planet. As Ruiz-Sanchez performs his exorcism, Lithia explodes. Was it his exorcism that did it, unraveling Satan’s illusion, or merely the mad experiments of the scientists who destroyed an innocent and perfectly moral society? The story provides no answers, and furthermore no basis to form an opinion.
Part 2 was so badly-constructed and garbled that I wonder what happened to James Blish when he wrote it. It’s just a complete mess and actually got me fairly irritated. I really cannot understand how this book won the Hugo Award that year.
A Case of Conscience is truly dated in every sense, and it would almost certainly never be written or gain any following today. The wooden characters and dialogue wouldn't withstand scrutiny, and a philosophy-centric story almost certainly would seem irrelevant in our information-drenched, hyper-realist world.
While I consider the book a failure as a piece of SF literature, it certainly deserves credit for its unlikely storyline and refusal to wrap things up neatly at the end. However, the deplorable quality of the latter half really makes it hard to take seriously. It's clear that back in the 1950s authors often wrote good short stories and were then pushed by publishers to expand them into less satisfying longer works. Of course the pendulum has swung too far the other way now, since any genre work that wants to be taken seriously has to be at least 800 pages long. But it is unfortunate that some early classics feel poorly constructed, and that reflects the tenuous state of the genre back in the Golden Age of Astounding and Galaxy before full-length SF really hit its stride....more
I guess I'm just not in tune with John Wyndham's cozy British classic catastrophy stories, both The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids. I abaI guess I'm just not in tune with John Wyndham's cozy British classic catastrophy stories, both The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids. I abandoned ship on the Triffids after less than 100 pages, and I've given up on this one after just 50 pages. It's not just that I know the basic storyline, and I've never seen Village of the Damned. It's basically the sleepy British country villagers that just bored me to tears, so that I couldn't care if they were about to be eaten by man-eating plants, or impregnated by aliens, giving birth to kids with paranormal powers.
I did like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides, a post-apocalyptic tale set in California and written in the early 50s, and I am a huge fan of H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien, but Wyndham just doesn't do it for me. And with over 400 books on my waiting list, this one didn't make the cut....more
A Mirror for Observers: Aliens battle for the soul of a young man Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It's somewhat surprising that this 1954 InternA Mirror for Observers: Aliens battle for the soul of a young man Originally posted at Fantasy Literature It's somewhat surprising that this 1954 International Fantasy Award winner has never found a very large audience in the SF genre. The writing style is reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury, very much focused on the characters and their inner thoughts and struggles, a big contrast with the more pulpy science and space-adventure tales featured in magazines like Galaxy and Astounding.
I knew about this book only because it was included in David Pringle's "Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels". Although it is ostensibly the story of two undercover Martian Observers who battle over the heart and soul of a promising young boy, it basically breaks down to 65% character study (quite well done), 35% observations of human nature in general (with some valuable ruminations), and 10% threadbare sci-fi framing story about the two Martian factions (one protective of humans, the other antagonistic) that have meddled secretly in human affairs over the last 30,000 years.
The story, for what it’s worth, follows Angelo Pontevecchio, a child prodigy unknowingly caught between two rival factions of Martians, the Observers and Abdicators. The novel is told from the point of view of Elmis, Angelo's Martian guardian, who must protect him from the malignant Abdicators.
There are dozens of very elegant passages that show Edgar Pangborn was a sensitive, intelligent, and above all humanistic writer (Ursula K. LeGuin considers his works to be her inspiration that SF could be focused on emotions and psychology, not just laser beams and bug-eyed monsters).
However, and this is a big however, the SF elements of the story are extremely flimsy and not at all important to the narrative. Instead, this book have just as easily been a contemporary fiction novel that studies a boy growing up in a small New England town, and then follows him later as a troubled young man torn in different directions by older people with greater influence (including the Martians).
So there was never any need to have a SF framing narrative about Martians in order to deliver insights about human nature from the outside. You can do that just fine in a standard novel. And the supposedly dramatic events of the final chapters simply didn't work for me at all. In addition, the period details feels extremely dated, although the word "bodaciously" was used once in a very unexpected way (I thought Bill & Ted invented that one)....more
Mysterious green comets, a planetwide-outbreak of blindness, and worst of all, killer walking plants!!! Crikey and bother all! The end of civilizationMysterious green comets, a planetwide-outbreak of blindness, and worst of all, killer walking plants!!! Crikey and bother all! The end of civilization is such a dreary event...just imagine if one couldn't have a proper cup of tea or stop at the pub for a pint, it's enough to make you throw yourself in front of a lorry! Nothing could be more upsetting than having your beloved garden plants whiplash you in the eye with poisonous tendrils. It must be those nasty Russian scientists behind the Iron Curtain who've been playing with genetic engineering AND designing satellite weapons and the odd green meteor shower or two...
I gave up on this quintessentially British 1950s disaster story after 100 pages. I know, I know, it's a beloved classic and forms the basis for a host of other disaster genre traditions and tropes, and we owe it a great debt. But I can't erase my knowledge of all the books and movies that have come since then. The story path is so well trodden I think my boots got caught in the literary ruts. The whole thing feels so well-traveled I started flipping ahead, which I almost never do, and finally I asked myself, why bother? This year I've been reading all the 1950s SF classics to improve my genre street cred and fill the gaps in my knowledge, but I've found some authors just can't stand the test of time, and in some cases they may be victims of their own success (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery). Despite that, some books like Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, Clarke's Childhood's End or Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee still come across as fresh, exciting, and imaginative now as back when they were first written.
Unfortunately, in this case I knew it was time to throw in the towel when I found myself rooting for the triffids to win...
More Than Human: Introducing the “Homo Gestalt” (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) This book must have been quite an eye-opener back in 1953 in the GolMore Than Human: Introducing the “Homo Gestalt” (Also posted at Fantasy Literature) This book must have been quite an eye-opener back in 1953 in the Golden Age of Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, where robots, rocket ships, future societies and aliens ruled the roost. For one thing, it hardly features any credible science at all, and in tone and atmosphere owes more to magic realism and adult fantasy. In fact, the writing reminds me most of Ray Bradbury, full of poetry and powerful images. Try reading just the opening paragraph for instance:
“THE IDIOT LIVED IN a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead.”
The story involves the forming of a "homo gestalt" group organism assembled from various misfit and mistreated children, and the book is broken into three parts, "The Fabulous Idiot", "Baby is Three", and "Morality". Apparently "Baby is Three" was written first as a novella, and I wonder if anyone has picked up on the idea that the book itself is a cobbled together construct that, in my mind at least, adds up to less than the sum of its parts. What would that make it, then? I don't know the antonym of "gestalt" in German or English.
I found the first section "The Fabulous Idiot" to be the best written and most involving, and while the next two sections became interesting midway through, they both involved the main characters spending dozens of pages lost in their own identities, painstakingly trying to piece together who they were. As a result, this reader at least felt equally disoriented. And there were many times when I had to re-read a passage several times to tease out who was saying what. Although I imagine this was the effect that Sturgeon was going for, I found it a bit difficult to read at times.
I did like the ending, despite some heavy exposition about morality (at least it was concise), and overall the story does not read like something written in the fifties. So I give it props for pushing the envelope of the times with its heavy focus on psychology, ethics, and abuse of children, but it didn't add up as a fully developed novel, which is so often the case for something expanded from a shorter novella....more
Last and First Men: The ultimate vision of man’s evolution (Posted at Fantasy Literature) Olaf Stapledon's vision of mankind's entire future history untLast and First Men: The ultimate vision of man’s evolution (Posted at Fantasy Literature) Olaf Stapledon's vision of mankind's entire future history until the end is profound, beautiful, and affecting, and was written way back in 1930. It is unfortunate that this work has not found a wider audience, though it has had a deep influence on many of SF's luminaries, including Arthur C. Clarke, who indicated that this book and its later successor Star Maker were the two most influential books he had ever read. In my mind, it is one of the most imaginative early SF classics ever written, just as important as the works of H.G. Wells.
He touches on so many themes that still resonate today, particularly mankind's potential for both great achievements and selfish cruelty, for deep insight and self-delusion. And as mankind progresses through 18 major stages over billions of years (apparently influenced by the Hegelian Dialectic), even delving into his own racial past, we see the vast potential of mind in the universe. And though mankind is finally likened to a single movement in the vast eternal symphony of the cosmos, this does not detract in any way from the tragic beauty of our brief existence.
Unlike modern novels, the book reads like a future history without specific characters, touching down briefly to document key events, and pausing to reflect on their significance. Because it was written in 1930, the early chapters about the First Men actually covering world history through our present time, so they are interesting in their predictions of world politics between the two world wars. However, it is only as the time scale picks up towards the end of the First Men that the book hits its stride, so some readers may decide to skip the first 3-4 chapters if they want to delve straight into his ever-expanding vision of humanity's future.
The book gets far more fascinating as newer generations of men develop, forming larger brains, a telepathically-linked groupmind, but ever again falling back into decay and destruction, before seeding the next generation of man, until the Eighteen Men, which turn out to be the Last Men. It’s hard to imagine a grander scale of progress and decline, and it is stunning that Olaf Stapledon produced a work of such scope and vision during a time when Europe was consumed by nationalism and conflicting ideologies. ...more
Star Maker: The grandest vision of the universe (Posted at Fantasy Literature) Star Maker is perhaps the grandest and most awe-inspiring vision of the uStar Maker: The grandest vision of the universe (Posted at Fantasy Literature) Star Maker is perhaps the grandest and most awe-inspiring vision of the universe ever penned by a SF author, before the term even existed, in 1937 by the pioneering English writer Olaf Stapledon.
Although some readers might think that this book was only outstanding for its time, I would say it remains an amazing tour-de-force today, and has clearly inspired many of the genre’s most famous practitioners, including Arthur C. Clarke, with its fountain of ideas about galaxies, nebulae, cosmological minds, artificial habitats, super-heavy gravity environments, an infinite variety of alien species, and telepathic communications among stars.
This may be the only novel I’ve read that essentially has no individual characters. A nameless narrator sits on a hill contemplating the stars, when without warning his consciousness is transported into space, and he starts rushing towards the nearest stars. He discovers he can control his speed and direction, and proceeds to search for stars with intelligent life. Initially his search is fruitless, and the oppressive loneliness of space discourages him.
Eventually he discovers other intelligent minds, and joins in a collective mind with them. We are then treated to a mind-blowing series of encounters with ever greater and stranger life forms, as the scale expands by increasing series of magnitudes, until individual galaxies and universes have formed united spirits and proceed to seek the ultimate creator of the universe. To give you an idea of his writing style, below is a brief passage. The entire book is written like this, so it may not be your cup of tea if you like quirky characters, intricate plots, or pithy dialogue.
When at last our galaxy was able to make a full telepathic exploration of the cosmos of galaxies it discovered that the state of life in the cosmos was precarious. Very few of the galaxies were in their youth; most were already far past their prime. Throughout the cosmos the dead and lightless stars far outnumbered the living and luminous. In many galaxies the strife of stars and worlds had been even more disastrous than in our own. Peace had been secured only after both sides had degenerated past hope of recovery. In most of the younger galaxies, however, this strife had not yet appeared; and efforts were already being made by the most awakened galactic spirits to enlighten the ignorant stellar and planetary societies about one another before they should blunder into conflict.
The communal spirit of our galaxy now joined the little company of the most awakened beings of the cosmos, the scattered band of advanced galactic spirits, whose aim it was to create a real cosmical community, with a single mind, the communal spirit of its myriad and diverse worlds and individual intelligences. This it was hoped to acquire powers of insight and of creativity impossible on the merely galactic plane.
The book culminates with a brief but searing encounter with the omnipotent and yet imperfect Star Maker, who created all the universes in an endless series of efforts to improve upon the last, never satisfied, yet deriving ultimate meaning through those acts of creation. Olaf Stapledon’s descriptions of the Star Maker's efforts in the final part of the book are truly mind-bending, and bring to mind the latest ideas of quantum universes, infinite probabilities, the curvature of space-time, and the origins of the universe. It is a staggering achievement, still more incredible considering this was published in 1937....more