Friday, January 31, 2014

Complete Peanuts: 1987 to 1988

Like everybody across the galaxy, I love Peanuts, Charles Schultz's genius comic strip about the defeats life metes out to us, and the consolations we can sometimes find in religion, music, or our own imaginations.  One of my few happy memories of grade school was reading from a big hardcover collection of Peanuts strips that sat on the classroom bookshelf, I guess in 2nd or 3rd grade.  My grandmother would save us the comics from the Newark Star-Ledger and when we were at her place on the weekends we kids would read an entire week of comic strips.  When we were older we would buy the old Peanuts paperbacks, the ones with strips from before we were born, at used bookstores.  I still remember laughing hysterically when, for the first time, I read the strip in which Linus is energized with a lust for power and decides to run for class president.   

When Fantagraphics announced they would be printing The Complete Peanuts, two volumes a year, each volume covering two years of the strip, it was great news, and Fantagraphics has lived up to the hopes I had back in 2002.  The books are well-designed, showcasing Schulz's work without being too large or unwieldy to read comfortably.  They started coming out during that period of my life when there were still green pieces of paper in my wallet, and I bought each of the first twelve as they appeared.  The more recent volumes I have been sporadically borrowing from the library.  This week I borrowed the volumes covering strips from 1987 to 1990.

The 1987-88 volume is introduced by Garry Trudeau.  I think the last time I read a Doonesbury strip was during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, when one of the characters commented on the survivability of the controversial Bradley IFV.  Doonesbury was in the Rutgers student paper, as was Dilbert, which I have never really liked.  The real star of the Rutgers paper was the brilliant Jim's Journal, which became a topic of conversation at Rutgers, with many people not liking it and wondering why it was in the paper at all.

In his introduction Trudeau reminds us that the cognoscenti hate George W. Bush and supported the communists in the Vietnam War; you know, in case you had forgot.

My favorite Peanuts strips are often the ones in which the characters go on some kind of trip or adventure; I like seeing the characters in a different milieu.  The summer camp story arcs are often very good, and in 1987 Schulz combined the summer camp trip of Peppermint Patty and Marcie with another classic theme, that of unrequited love, with Marcie missing "Charles" and calling his home repeatedly from camp.  Patty warns Marcie that "Chuck" will break her heart, and we know Patty is right; as Proust and our own lives have made all too clear, love often flows in only one direction.



Some of the weakest of Schulz's strips are the ones that rely on puns instead of on the particular personality of a character or some horrible life experience.  In this volume we get a Sunday strip in which Charlie Brown throws pennies at Lucy Van Pelt and then admits that it is true that you can't solve a problem by throwing money at it; this is one of the better pun strips, because it is integrated with our knowledge of how hapless Charlie Brown is and how much of a troublemaker Lucy is.  On the weaker end of the spectrum is Sally Brown's mistaking electoral violence in a foreign country for "violins," though I suppose this strip reflects Sally's indifference to the outside world - when corrected she says, "Whatever."

Sally's venality and solipsism is one of the things that struck me in this volume, and here are some of her greatest hits from 87-89.


Another thing that I noticed in this volume was that starting in late February of 1988 the daily strips, which had been four panels forever, are now shorter, usually three panels, sometimes two large or even one single panel, a few times four tall narrow panels.  (Back in the 1950s and '60s, the four panels were actually wider than they were tall; in 1987 the panels are square.)  This change is obvious in the context of this book, because the dailies, which used to fill the page, now leave wide margins. Was this an artistic decision made by Schulz, or had something changed in the newspaper industry?  The quality of the strips does not seem diminished, and perhaps Schultz welcomed the flexibility of being able to construct strips with a variety of shapes and volume.  

This is a fun volume, with numerous clever story arcs (Snoopy is in the hospital with a hockey injury; Charlie Brown trades his right fielder, Lucy, for Peppermint Patty's right fielder, Marcie, and gets Patty to throw in a pizza to seal the deal; Peppermint Patty wears a distracting wig for her class picture) and some laugh out loud moments, like a perfect drawing of Snoopy as an angry chauffeur, and Lucy declaring, "Snapping your fingers is what you do when you want to look cool."  In addition, all you Eudora fans will want this volume, as, I am told, her single appearance in 1987 is her final appearance in the strip.   

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Stolen Sun by Emil Petaja

On January 17 I announced to an indifferent world that I had never even heard of Emil Petaja.  The Fates must have been listening, because yesterday I stumbled upon a book by Petaja at Half Price Books, for sale for only a dollar.  I could not pass up this opportunity to familiarize myself with Mr. Petaja's work, and today I finished the short novel The Stolen Sun.

My DAW paperback edition, copyrighted 1967 and published in 1979, also includes Tramontane.  Both The Stolen Sun and Tramontane are based on the Kalevala, the national saga of Finland, about which I know absolutely zero, which may have led me to miss some nuances, but also protected me from spoilers.

A thousand years in the future, Earth's ruthless expansionist empire is at war with the Mephiti, gaseous aliens who hide in deep clouds of black goop that they spread wherever they go, including around planets the Earth empire wants to colonize.  (The Earth is overpopulated and must colonize every available planet.)  Wayne Panu is the best pilot in the Terran Space Navy, his psychic powers enabling him to form a mental union with his ship closer than that of any other human pilot.  Wayne and his ship, The Lady, go on many sorties, bombing Mephiti-occupied planets and clearing them for human settlement.  But Wayne is starting to have second thoughts, to feel compassion for the alien enemy.  If only there was some way the human race could communicate with the mysterious Mephiti, make peace with them.  And what is it with all these weird visions Wayne is having of an old man in a copper ship with oars?

After Wayne's wingman is killed during a bombing run Wayne and The Lady go AWOL, meet the old geezer in the copper ship, and travel back in time to an ancient snow-covered Earth, where Wayne joins a tribe of primitives led by a wizard who are in a war with a witch who has blotted out the sun and then falls in love with a girl cursed to be a vampiric werefox.  Wayne, Hercules-style, has to do impossible tasks for this witch.  This gives him the opportunity to converse with the giant who is sucking the energy out of the sun; Wayne convinces the giant to stop draining the sun and thus saves the day.  The space war plot is vaguely resolved in one brief paragraph, resolved in exactly the way you would have expected.  The main thread of the book is not the space war stuff, but the folklorish witch stuff.  Ugh.    

The space navy war plot is OK, but the fantasy plot with the witches and wizards is silly, and totally unintegrated with the future space war plot.  This edition is full of irritating typographical errors, and Petaja's writing style is not very good, clumsy and full of bad metaphors.  On page 27 we get a fight scene with muggers.  "Rage was a sometime thing in Wayne Panu, but in the rare moments when it did overtake him, it possessed him in toto, like cornered lightning."  On pages 29 to 30, we meet Dr. Delph.  "He, of all others, understood the magnitude of such a phenomenon as a Wayne Panu: a farmboy from Proxima with a mind-talent as inexplicable as the mysterious stirring of primordial Terran slimes into life....Delph was dedicated to serving mankind, no matter what the serving might lead to.  It was a soul-searing job, and it didn't pay off in dreamless nights."   There are lots of odd distracting sentences like these.  The characters are not interesting, and even the ones who don't do anything get long boring descriptions of what they look like and how they dress.   

I'm glad I have solved the mystery of Emil Petaja, and of course I don't regret trying a new (to me) author, but The Stolen Sun is not a good novel and DAW, which has done such a service to the SF community by putting out so many good books by such superior authors as Jack Vance and Tanith Lee, should be embarrassed for printing something with so many typos in it.          

Thumbs down!

Break from Fiction with Thomas Disch and multiple Johnsons


After reading Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song I skimmed through some of Disch’s criticism at The Weekly Standard and read the obituary of Disch published there, written by Joseph Bottum.

I enjoyed Disch’s article about Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” and the exhibition of Victorian nudes, both of which I saw when I lived in New York, and the June 2, 2003 article in which Disch deplores much contemporary art is clever and fun if you are not personally invested in contemporary art. (“It is enough nowadays to declare yourself an artist and then to declare some large artifact in the vast world of found objects to be your work of art.”) I also read Disch’s favorable review of Paul Johnson’s Art: A New History, in which Disch provides an anecdote about Isaac Asimov and mentions Johnson’s 1999 book Intellectuals.

**********

Directed thusly, I read a few chapters of Intellectuals, the merciless hit pieces on Rousseau and Marx being the most memorable and entertaining.

**********   

Intellectuals is dedicated to Paul Johnson’s grandson, Samuel Johnson, and I took this as a cue from above to read Volumes IV (covering the years 1782-84) and V (including those few letters for which a date is unknown) of The Letters of Samuel Johnson, edited by Bruce Redford.

Johnson was an old and sick man during the period covered by Volume IV, and many of his friends were in similarly poor condition, so these letters are full of descriptions of symptoms, assessments of the kinds of remedies 18th century people resorted to (including drawing of the blood, taking opium, and “frequent changes of air”), and expressions of sympathy and hope for recovery, as well as lamentations when Johnson's intimate friends Robert Levet and Anna Williams die and leave Johnson alone in his house.  But there are also charming expressions of friendship and fun little anecdotes. Hester Thrale has to sell her silver plate and Johnson consoles her; James Boswell inherits his father’s estate and Johnson recommends frugality to him time and again (“Do not accustom yourself to consider debt only as an inconvenience: you will find it a calamity”); Joseph Cradock borrows a manuscript from Lord Harborough and in turn lends it to Johnson, and then Johnson loses it and actually forgets he ever received it.

We see lots of evidence of Johnson’s generosity, of his reputation as an honest broker, and of his great influence. When Mauritius Lowe’s painting “The Deluge” is rejected by the Royal Academy, Johnson, who has never seen the painting, writes to the Academy president (Johnson’s best friend) Joshua Reynolds as well as to James Barry, a professor at the Academy, and convinces them to have the painting included despite its rejection. Johnson finds a job for one of his young cronies on Captain James Burney’s 50-gun ship H. M. S. Bristol by applying to the Captain’s sister, another of Johnson’s friends, novelist Fanny Burney. When Joshua Reynolds is not getting along with his sister Frances, and William Strahan is not getting along with his son George, Frances Reynolds and George Strahan ask Johnson’s help in patching up their relationships, and Johnson scribbles letter after letter trying to do just that.




There are also interesting tidbits that throw light on literary, political, and economic life in these years. When there is a spike in coal prices Johnson asks to borrow coal from friends, and then complains of the quality of the coal he receives; Johnson sends first editions of books to correspondents in India but learns they “fell by the chance of war into the hands of the French,” and so he sends the books again; Johnson laments Britain’s humbling in the American War (“perhaps no nation not absolutely conquered has declined so much in so short a time”) and the resulting chaos in Parliament; somebody, without Johnson’s collaboration, prints a collection of excerpts from Johnson’s work and Johnson takes to the newspapers to correct an errant interpretation of his thinking that has arisen as a result.  London suffers an influenza epidemic,
and a sudden mania for ballooning, and Johnson gets swept upp in both.

**********

I also read a bunch of Martial’s epigrams from the first volume of the 1993 Loeb edition, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, including grotesque verses about beast fighting in the arena and crude poems in which Martial calls some other guy a cock sucker.  Calling a guy a cock sucker seems to have been the acme of wit back in 86 AD, and who is to say things are much different in 2014 AD?



Friday, January 24, 2014

Out of this World Science Fiction Classics from Bantam, 1983


In the back of my 1983 copy of Samuel Delany’s Empire Star is this advertisement for Bantam’s “great series of science fiction classics,” full of fancy, terror and adventure.  What is the story with these ads?  Why do some paperbacks have them, and others do not?  Was Delany annoyed that his book contained ads like this?  How were the books chosen for the ad... are these books Bantam is proud of, or are these books they printed too many of and are scrambling to unload?  If Ursula K. LeGuin saw this page back in 1983 would she say, "Awesome, my buddies at Bantam are really working hard promoting my work!"  or would it be more along the lines of, "Cripes, Bantam must really be having trouble selling all those copies of my Earthsea books to the stores."  How many people actually used this "handy coupon" to order books from Bantam?  What percentage of Bantam's gross revenue came from such orders?       

Four of these books are by Ursula K. LeGuin, whom I’ve never read, and three of them are by Warren Norwood, whom I’ve never even heard of, but I am familiar with several of the listed books.

Sundiver by David Brin

I read this in the ‘90s, in fact I think it was the first SF book I read after a few years of avoiding SF and reading mostly history and poetry, the period when I thought I might actually finish grad school and get a degree.  I thought Sundiver was just OK; I liked the sciency stuff of flying into the sun, but wasn't impressed by the murder mystery stuff (the guy with laser eyes did it.)  I never read any more of Brin's fiction, though his critique of Star Wars (that it is elitist and promotes hereditary aristocracy), which I must have read in Slate right after "Phantom Menace" came out, I found very interesting and has stuck with me.  

The Dinosaurs by William Stout, Byron Preiss and William Service

I love this book to death, and have spent many hours admiring the beautiful illustrations.  Stout works in various media and various styles, so even though its dozens and dozens of pictures of dinosaurs by the same guy, each page is fresh and exciting.  I can still remember seeing this in the bookstore in the mall for the first time, and then buying it on a subsequent trip.  The store only had one copy, and it was a little shopworn, but I put a piece of masking tape on the spine and the book is still in one piece, 30 years later.

Harlan Ellison also loved The Dinosaurs, and wrote a gushing blurb-sized review for it in the February 1982 issue of "Heavy Metal," which I learned on tarbandu’s blog, The PorPor Books Blog, back in February of 2012.   There is also an enthusiastic preface by Ray Bradbury. 


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury 

As I have said earlier, I don’t think I have read every story included in all the different editions of Martian Chronicles, but I have read many of them here and there, and liked them.  I think Thomas Disch's criticisms of Bradbury (that Bradbury can be too sappy and sentimental) have some merit, but in the same way that I still like Star Wars even though David Brin scores some points against George Lucas, I still like lots of Bradbury's work.  "The Silent Towns," one of the stories included in Martian Chronicles, isn't sappy or sentimental at all. 

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

This book is on Half Price Book's list of 100 SF books, and its Wikipedia entry makes it sound like it might be good. 

The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis

I saw the movie of this with David Bowie. I really like Bowie, as a musician and just as an appealing character who livens up the TV screen whenever he appears, and the movie had some memorable images and scenes, but also felt too long and a little too silly.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.

I read this in the mid '90s, when I worked at a bookstore in New Jersey, after graduating college but before moving to New York and starting grad school.  This may have been the last SF book I read for a long time, before the SFless period ended by Sundiver. (Though I read Dave Wolverton's On My Way To Paradise and two Serpent Catch books around the same time.  I enjoyed those books, and remember them pretty well.) I remember very little of A Canticle for Leibowitz, except a vivid discussion of how you shouldn’t try to euthanize a sick cat.  I should probably read A Canticle for Leibowitz again.   

************
If you want to join Harlan, Ray and me in gushing about Stout’s The Dinosaurs, or if you want to tell me who Warren Norwood is and why I should know him, or say anything at all about these Bantam books or David Bowie, feel free to do so in the comments.   

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

Elsewhere on this blog I have reported that I read Samuel R. Delany's Nova and Ballad of Beta-2 years ago, and found them underwhelming. Today I read Delany's short novel Empire Star and found it a little underwhelming as well, despite its pretensions to depth.

I have the Bantam 1983 edition of Delany's 1966 novel, with the Wayne Barlowe cover. Barlowe's drawing and composition seem fine, but the colors are unappealingly washed out, all some shade of purple.

Empire Star is the story of Comet Jo, an 18-year-old boy living four thousand years in our future on a moon where they grow plants in caves that are made into building material. Jo's simple rural working-class existence ends when a spaceship crashes on the moon, and a dying member of the ship's crew gives Jo a small crystallized being and the instructions that he must take the being, and a message, to Empire Star. Jo undertakes this quest, even though he doesn't even know what the message is or what Empire Star is, bringing along an eight-legged cat with three horns named Di'k.

The story is told like a child's fable, with Jo meeting various mentors along the way and being given little lessons, like the importance of keeping an open mind and asking questions, the insight that criminals and artists are the most important people because they are agents of change, and the fact that slavery makes people sad and if you own slaves you can never relax. On the one hand the whole thing is cloyingly precious, but on the other Delany takes the book very seriously, with two epigraphs (one from W. H. Auden, one from Proust) and with various literary allusions which he challenges you to figure out (the easy one is to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas), an experimental chapter in the form of a list (it almost looks like a poem) to help you follow out the time travel plot, and the revelation at the end that tries to convince you the simple story is in fact very complicated. At its conclusion we learn that Empire Star is one of those time travel stories in which everybody has been going back and forth through time again and again, providing young people crucial advice and artifacts that we have already seen them using earlier in the story, when they were older and went by different names.  For example, the person who gives Jo the crystal turns out to be Jo himself, older, and the comb that an adult woman gave Jo at the start of the story is the same comb Jo gives her at the end of the story, when she is a 16-year-old princess.

One reason I don't generally like time travel stories is because of irritating paradoxes like, "If he gave her the comb when he was old and she was young, and she gives it back when she is older and he is younger, where did the comb come from?"

There are numerous reasons why I felt the book, though it aims high and wants you to think it is an epic worthy of serious cogitation, is not a very entertaining read. The characters lack any depth and there is no reason to care about them. The tone and plot generate no tension or excitement; Jo doesn't drive the plot by making decisions or overcoming challenges or escaping dangers, he is just carried along by all the other characters who tell him what to do. You never think Jo is in danger; collisions between space ships and the infiltration of a space battleship are just treated as a joke.  All the literary references, including Delany's extravagant praise of Theodore Sturgeon of "Killdozer" fame, feel a little tacked on, like gratuitous showing off.  At times Delany seems to take an almost adversarial stance towards the reader, basically saying, "You won't understand this story unless you are sophisticated!"

I've got a lot of complaints about Empire Star and I didn't really enjoy reading it, but looking back on it as I compose this blog post, flipping though it as I try to figure out who was who and did what when, I have to grudgingly admire it for its ambition and for the way Delany gets all those moving parts to mesh together.  It is frustrating, but I can't decide whether I'm recommending this one or not.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Changeling by A. E. Van Vogt plus Van Vogt links

I have the 1976 Manor Books printing (128 pages) of The Changeling, which first appeared in 1944 in Astounding. I like the Bruce Pennington painting on the cover; it’s a realistic painting of a girl and flying saucers, but the limited color palette, the girl’s archaic helmet, and the repetitive patterns of the laces on her boots, the saucers, and the running figures in the background, lend it some of the attractions of an abstract design. The painting and back cover blurb have almost no correlation with what actually happens in the story, however. The same painting was used on the cover of an earlier edition of Van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers.

Van Vogt’s stories often depict characters who are disoriented and confused, facing bizarre and novel circumstances, and Van Vogt, either by design or because of his difficult writing style, often similarly confuses the reader. This story fits that mold. Business executive Lesley Craig has memories of working at the same firm his entire career, working his way up from a teen age office boy to, today, a fifty-year-old general manager. Yet today one of his colleagues casually lets slip, and the pay records indicate, that he has only been at this company for four years!

Immediately after he realizes this Craig is taken captive by slender women wielding shiny pistols. The women wear short skirts and by their “bright” appearance Craig recognizes them as women who have taken drug treatments to make them equal to men! Thousands of women have taken such treatments, but the “equalized” women have not benefited much by it; ordinary women resent them, and men refuse to marry them! One of the themes of this short novel is the role of women in society and men’s resistance to any increase in women’s authority, though Van Vogt's treatment of the topic is unlikely to win him any awards from feminist groups.

The equalized women, ostracized by society, have become the personal bodyguard of the ambitious U.S. President, and Craig is taken to see the President. Van Vogt, writing this story during World War II and setting it in the 1970s, posits that the traumatic war will damage the morale of the human race and lead to scientific, technological and social stagnation. The solution to this stagnation is a strong leader; the president believes he is just the man to be that leader, but he is having trouble winning the next election and thinks that Craig can, indirectly, help. After a brief interview Craig is forced to give a blood sample, and then he is released.

It turns out that Craig is some kind of superman with super healing abilities. A transfusion of his blood into someone with a suitable blood type will rejuvenate that person, taking 30 years off his age. The President, who thinks that he should become dictator of the U.S. for life, and maybe the world (why not?), has just the right blood type, and thinks that suddenly appearing 30 years younger will help his political fortunes and make the U.S. population more likely to accept his seizing unprecedented powers. There’s another conspiratorial group in the mix that knows about Craig’s abilities and isn’t crazy about the president’s Napoleonic ambitions, and Craig spends the bulk of the book escaping imprisonment by and then pursuit from one or the other of these two groups. Over the months he is on the run his powers expand and increase, until he becomes virtually invincible and is in a position to solve the world’s problems with stagnation and gender politics.

This is a pretty crazy story, full of the skepticism of democracy, interest in elite conspiracies, and fascination with human evolution and mental powers that we see in other Van Vogt tales. And then there are Van Vogt’s ideas about the increasing prominence of women in the post-war world, and how the trauma of the war might damage human morale. While Van Vogt's prediction of post-war stagnation is 180 degrees wrong, it is still intriguing, and the stuff about women facing resistance when trying to achieve equality is a little closer to the mark.  The (apparent) advocacy of authoritarian government is a little hard to take, and seems to contrast with the concern for freedom and individualism seen in Van Vogt’s more famous story, “The Weapon Shop.”

The Changeling is a worthwhile read for those of us interested in Van Vogt’s odd ideas and strange body of work, but perhaps will not appeal to others.

************

If you are at all interested in A. E. Van Vogt it is worth your time to check out Isaac Walwyn’s blog and A. E. Van Vogt bibliography.

Yutaka Morita also has a fun Van Vogt site; there you can see some original illustrations by Paul Orban for The Changeling.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On Wings of Song by Thomas M. Disch


I have read quite a few books and stories by Thomas M. Disch, and how I have felt about them runs the gamut. I thought The Prisoner poor and forgettable, Echo Round his Bones mediocre. I thought The Genocides memorable but a bit weak in execution. 334 I thought above average, and Camp Concentration I thought far above average. Disch’s criticism is also interesting; he seems to not only dislike but bitterly resent Ray Bradbury, for example.

This week I read On Wings of Song, Disch’s 1979 novel, in the ugly 2003 trade edition. (I mean that the cover’s color and stock images are ugly; I actually like the old-looking typeface of the main text inside.)

On Wings of Song is set in a near-future dystopic world in which the United States is in terrible shape, subject to terrorist attacks, food shortages and power shortages, but still better off than the rest of the world; early on we learn that Tel Aviv has been destroyed by rockets, that Iowa is full of refugees from Italy, and that potentially dissident populations, like Basques in Spain, Jews in Russia and Irishmen in England, carry implanted in their bodies explosives that can be detonated by government radio signals should they cause any trouble.

Iowa is a theocratic police state, home to the book’s protagonist, Daniel Weinreb. Daniel’s father immigrated to New York from Israel, and Daniel was born in New York, but moved to Iowa as a child when his father was sent there to practice dentistry.

The United States is riven by a controversy, what we might call a “culture war,” over the issue of “flying.” By connecting themselves to an “apparatus” and singing, people can leave their bodies and fly around as invisible “fairies.” Not everybody can do it; achieving flight takes a high level of commitment. Some people fly once and are never able to do it again, some try and never succeed, despite much effort. Some leave their comatose bodies behind for good.

Religious people are opposed to flying, and there have been attempts to pass Constitutional Amendments outlawing it. In Iowa flying is forbidden by state law, the type of music people are permitted to listen to is tightly controlled, and even newspapers which run ads for flying gear are illegal. Daniel, as a teen, gets in trouble with the law because he has been delivering black market copies of the illegal Minnesota newspaper. The authorities have been turning a blind eye to the sale of the paper, but when Daniel’s best friend disappears (apparently running away from home with $845 of stolen money because he wants to fly) Daniel is arrested in hopes that he will be able to provide information on his pal’s whereabouts. He cannot, and is stuck with a substantial prison sentence.

In prison Daniel meets a woman who has flown, and a cold-hearted murderer who is also a talented singer, and he is inspired to devote his life to music and achieving flight. After he has served his sentence he starts a relationship with a wealthy girl, Boadicea Whiting, the daughter of the richest man in Iowa. Soon Daniel is married into this wealthy family, which lives in what amounts to a feudal manor; because of all the crime and terrorism, farms in Iowa are developing into high security complexes behind the walls of which the farm workers as well as the farm owners live. Daniel isn’t above enjoying the luxuries afforded by his new access to the Whitings’ wealth, but he also feels that money is inevitably corrupting.

On their honeymoon, a trip across the world, Daniel and his teenage wife stop in New York where they check into a hotel that caters to people who want to fly for the first time. In separate soundproof studios they each strap into an apparatus like a dentist’s chair, affix wires to their heads, and begin singing songs they have specially chosen. Daniel tries to fly for hours but fails, while Boadicea succeeds and leaves her limp drooling body behind… for fifteen years. Their airplane flight to Europe leaves without them and the jet explodes over the ocean, presumably blown up by terrorists who hate Daniel’s in-laws, though I thought there was a hint of possibility that the in-laws themselves had arranged for the disaster.

Having registered at the flying hotel under a false name, and believed by the world to be dead, Daniel takes up a precarious residence under a new identity in an economically depressed and crime-ridden New York City. For a few years he lives by pawning Boadicea’s jewelry, and when that runs out he works odd jobs, like waiting in lines for theatre tickets for people too busy to wait for their own tickets. He isn’t above working as a prostitute or begging. Daniel not only has to keep himself alive, but pay for a place for his comatose wife and the IV fluid she needs - he feels it is his duty to keep her body alive so she can return to it, should she wish to.

Daniel continues to aspire to sing professionally and to fly, and eventually falls in with the opera crowd, meeting various bizarre characters, among them castrati, whites who admire blacks and have their skin dyed in order to emulate their idols, and a hunchbacked recluse who writes operas that are pawned off as rediscovered 18th century originals. Daniel’s good looks, and a bit of luck, land him the position of concubine to the leading castrato, and in the final stages of the novel he is the world famous star of a new opera about cartoonish bunnies. Boadicea returns to her body, urges Daniel to continue to try to fly so that he might join her, builds up her strength over a few months and then flies again, never to return. Daniel returns to Iowa a hero, where he is murdered; Disch leaves open the possibility that Daniel has flown right before he dies – it is not clear if he is in a real flight apparatus when he dies, or a fake one, whether he has truly flown or is shamming.

Over the years, when I read ads and references to On Wings of Song, I had assumed it would be all about the liberating nature of creative expression, and I guess that is part of it, but in the main the book is bitter and cynical. Disch suggests that the world is incurably corrupt and unjust, that we are all at the mercy of circumstance and none of us masters of our fates. One of the book’s themes is how successful or happy people are putting on an act, fooling the world and themselves. In prison Daniel reads a book on religion which argues that, while Christianity is obviously absurd and incredible, by pretending to believe it, acting as if we believe it, we can make ourselves happier and our lives better. Boadicea presses upon him a self help book which advises readers to “Always pretend to be your favorite movie star – and you will be.” The richest man in Iowa wears a false beard in public because it helps him to act, and thus become, a “gentleman.” In New York Daniel not only takes a fake name but grows a beard as a disguise, and later wears blackface to further his career as a prostitute and a singer. Daniel’s last act is an attempt to fool people into thinking he can fly when he cannot.

Disch also really seems to have it in for Iowa, where he was born and spent his childhood years, and for that iconic Iowan, the farmer, as well as for religion and religious people in general. I guess it is not surprising that a gay man interested in the arts would prefer New York City to the Midwest, and be hostile to religion, especially in the time period in which Disch lived his early life and wrote On Wings of Song.

Finally, what are we to make of flying? It appears to be a metaphor for artistic expression, though at times the novel seems to be comparing it to drug use or sexual experimentation; the response to flying of religious people in the novel certainly seems to be based on real life religious people’s attitudes towards sex and drugs. But flying takes special equipment and a level of skill and commitment, and is thus reserved for an elite; Daniel himself (it appears) never flies, even after he has become a world famous singer (though of ridiculous material.)  Perhaps Disch is telling us that truly transcendent art requires talent, dedication, and sacrifice, and that only a few people can produce such art; probably this is what we should expect an accomplished art, theatre and poetry critic like Disch to believe. I do have to admit that when I first picked up the book I expected its vision to be more democratic; after all, even the least talented people find pleasure in singing, if only in the privacy of the bath or in the anonymity of a church service.

Disch’s style is very good, very smooth, making On Wings of Song a joy to read, and the strange world Daniel explores and the issues Disch addresses are all interesting and thought-provoking. On Wings of Song is a very good novel, and I highly recommend it, with the warning that some might find it offensive or depressing.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inherit the Stars by James P. Hogan

Twenty-five or 30 years ago I read James P. Hogan's The Genesis Machine.  At this far remove all I can remember about it is that the woman in the novel complained that one of her lovers had sex "like a machine."  As a young unpopular person it was a little worrisome to know that even if you had somehow convinced a woman to have sex with you, you would still be measured on vague criteria and could be found wanting.  James P. Hogan and I then parted ways for over two decades, until a few weeks ago I picked up a 1978 paperback of his 1977 novel, Inherit the Stars, at a library book sale.  The cover painting by Darrel K. Sweet, the jocular quote from Asimov comparing Hogan favorably to Arthur C. Clarke, and the tag line "A Novel About Man's Place in the Universe" sold me.  As I left the library I did not feel that my 50 cents had been wasted, and today I finished the novel, and feel I got a pretty good deal for my two quarters.

There is an adventurous prologue, in which two beings in space suits march across the desolate lunar landscape until one expires. Then in the first chapter we meet two men, partners, theoretical scientist Hunt and engineer Gray, who are on a supersonic flight from London to San Francisco. The engineer uses what we would call a laptop computer to make aircar reservations in SF. Hunt and Gray are the inventors of a sort of microscope that uses neutrinos to see into and through matter, and they have been summoned to America on secretive business.

It is the early 21st century, and the world is a happy place. “High technology living” has led to the end of political, ethnic, racial and religious strife, national borders have weakened and the UN seems to be running almost everything, including a space agency for which price is no object! Hogan is painting for us a picture the exact opposite to that which our depressing buddy Barry Malzberg is always laying on us!

It turns out that the body of the man who died on the moon in the prologue has been discovered, and examination has revealed that he expired 50,000 years ago. The scope Hunt and Gray invented is needed to examine his books and equipment; the scope can photograph the pages of the books without touching the books, which after 500 centuries are extremely fragile. Hunt proves himself such a mastermind that soon the UN space agency is giving him more and more power and responsibility and eventually sends him off to Ganymede, where an ancient space ship has been uncovered.

Hundreds of scientists and astronauts toil in labs and explore the solar system for many months, making additional discoveries. A picture of life in the solar system 50,000 years ago emerges. A modern human civilization existed on a planet named Minerva whose orbit lay between Mars and Jupiter. Minerva was doomed by an approaching ice age, and totalitarian governments seized control of every aspect of life, channeling all human efforts into figuring out how to escape Minerva and into fighting each other over the scarce resources afforded by the mineral-poor planet. Tragically, in a nuclear war the Minervans managed to blow up their entire planet, creating the asteroid belt!

And there are discoveries more shocking still: The Minervans were the descendents of primates imported from Earth to Minerva by mysterious aliens 25 million years earlier. Earth originally had no moon; the war that destroyed Minerva also propelled Minerva’s moon sunward, where it was captured by Earth’s gravity. Most shocking of all, present day Earth humans are descended from the refugees from the Minervan war who rode the moon past Mars’s orbit to Earth orbit! These people escaped the moon, landed on Earth, conquered the Neanderthals and are the ancestors of us all!

It is easy to see why Asimov would call Inherit the Stars “pure science fiction” and why it would appeal to a scientist like himself; it romanticizes scientists and engineers and their work and dispenses with distaste the fighting men, politicians, government bureaucrats and business people that populate so many SF books and who so often seem to be in charge of the world in our real lives. The book is full of science lectures on things like radiocarbon dating, evolution, the geology of the moon, the reasons an African has a different body shape than an Eskimo, and on and on. Besides the lectures, the book consists mostly of scenes in which scientists, sitting around tables or standing before projection screens or models, smoke cigarettes and cigars, argue various points, and make shocking revelations. Hogan handles all this sciency material well.  There is very little action or character development stuff, but what is there is also reasonably good.

Science!
Inherit the Stars is a pretty good read: I had little trouble suspending disbelief, I was actually curious about what the scientists would find out, and the revelations all lived up to my hopes. I would definitely recommend it, especially to people who want a science fiction story that is actually about science, and not (as so many science fiction stories really are) an adventure story, or detective story, or war story, or political polemic set in the future and/or outer space. Wikipedia is informing me that Inherit the Stars has several sequels; if I see the next few at a library book sale or used book store, I will be happy to part with a few more quarters for them.     

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jeeves in the Offing by P. G. Wodehouse


Jeeves in the Offing, from 1960, is one of the later Bertie Wooster books, and one I have never read before.  I read it in the fourth volume of the 2000 printing of the 1992 collection The Jeeves Omnibus, published by Hutchinson.  I bought all five of the volumes of The Jeeves Omnibus in London like 13 or 14 years ago, and I like them, but don't understand how they are organized; Volume 1 doesn't include the earliest stories.  Maybe they put the best sellers or most famous ones in Volume 1 and the least popular in Volume 5?

Jeeves in the Offing is a solid entry in the chronicles of of the life of Bertram Wooster.  Bertie is an idle gentleman of means who lives in London, a clumsy, silly, selfi-absorbed and ignorant man, but essentially decent.  He finds himself suffering lots of stupid problems, due to his own ineptitude and the ineptitude and meddling of his relatives and friends, but luckily he has a valet, Jeeves, who is some kind of genius and always figures out some way to save the day.  These books are light entertainment, with a veneer of sophistication due to the fact that Bertie and his buddies received classical educations, and Jeeves has encyclopedic knowledge, so Wodehouse has the characters make all kinds of Biblical, classical and Shakespearean references (Bertie's usually garbled to comic effect).  The books provide some insight into the milieu in which Wodehouse lived and worked, that of early 20th century writers and performers in New York and London, and there is also some light satire of communists, fascists, and, during a period when Wodehouse was in a feud with him, A. A. Milne.  The Wooster books are a sort of wish fulfillment fantasy for young men who are lazy and would like to do no work and have someone guide them through all the troubles of private life that are caused by bossy women and impertinent relatives.  Some have suggested that the entire Jeeves canon is a subtle attack on the middle and upper classes, as Bertie and his peers almost all act irresponsibly and have to be rescued again and again by a servant who is undoubtedly more intelligent and responsible than his social superiors.

There is some controversy over how much the appeal of Wodehouse lies in his style, and how much in his plot.  I think all Wodehouse fans love his style and humor, but some of us find the plots of his books, though they help set the tone, to be needlessly complex, somewhat repetitive and ultimately forgettable.  For this reason I think I may prefer Wodehouse's short stories to his novels; there are fewer characters and the plots are easier to follow.  Others, including science fiction writer Jack Vance, admire Wodehouse's plots for their intricacy and the evident care Wodehouse took in getting them to operate like clockwork.              

Jeeves in the Offing, perhaps, provides a good example of a convoluted Wodehouse plot.  In this episode in the life of first person narrator Bertie Wooster, numerous characters descend on the country estate of Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia Travers. Aunt Dahlia’s husband, Tom Travers, is trying to close a business deal with American businessman Homer Cream. Cream’s wife, a writer of murder mysteries, and their son Wilbert ("Willie”), reputedly a New York playboy, have come along. Dahlia invites Bertie down from London to help her butter up Mrs. Cream by pretending to be an ardent fan of her “novels of suspense.”

Also at the estate is Aubrey Upjohn, retired master of Bertie’s old preparatory school and widower of Jane Mills, a friend of Aunt Dahlia’s; Dahlia has the idea that Upjohn should give a speech at a local grammar school event. Upjohn doesn’t like Bertie, who was not only a poor student, but whose clumsiness and carelessness (he was known as "Bungling Wooster" in those days) caused Upjohn no end of difficulty. Upjohn is accompanied by his stepdaughter Phyllis Mills. Willie has begun courting Phyllis, and Aunt Dahlia wants Bertie to help in preventing this relationship from coming to fruition (Dahlia takes a motherly interest in Phyllis, and considers Willie “a screwball.”) Upjohn is urging Phyllis to marry into the wealthy Cream family, so Dahlia has also enlisted the aid of Sir Roderick Glossop. (Glossop is not to be confused with Roderick Spode, one-time fascist and designer of women’s undergarments.) Glossop, variously known as “a brain specialist,” a “nerve specialist,” “the greatest alienist in England,” and (by Bertie) “a loony-doctor,” is disguised as a butler (named Swordfish) so he can observe Willie Cream surreptitiously; Dahlia hopes Glossop will diagnose Willie as insane and thus unsuitable for marriage and convince Upjohn to cease pressing for a Willie-Phyllis engagement. Of course, Dahlia's efforts to prevent the Willie-Phyllis marriage cannot be allowed to damage the prospects of the lucrative Travers-Cream business deal.

Also at the estate is Roberta “Bobbie” Wickham, a pretty, spirited girl dedicated to practical jokes and always eager to take the initiative; Bertie has been the victim of her jokes and misguided leadership in the past and is wary of her. Bobbie is in love with one of Bertie’s friends, Reggie “Kipper” Herring. Reggie returns Bobbie’s feelings, but Bobbie’s mother does not approve of Reggie, so Bobbie announces in The Times of London that she is engaged to Bertie (without telling either Reggie or Bertie beforehand.) Bertie is so famously idle and ignorant that Bobbie figures he will make Reggie, a writer at a London periodical, look like a great catch in comparison. Bobbie and Bertie will break up and Bobbie will spring her engagement to Reggie on her mother while she is filled with relief at escaping an alliance with the useless Bertie.

Reggie attended Upjohn’s prep school at the same time Bertie did, and found the experience as unpleasant as did Bertie. As fate would have it, this very week that Bertie will be spending in the same house with Upjohn is when Reggie will achieve his revenge on Upjohn. Upjohn has published a book full of advice on how to run a school, and Reggie has written a scathing review of it. Upjohn is a subscriber to the journal Reggie writes for, and will no doubt read the review, which is included (under an anonymous byline) in this week’s issue; Reggie hopes Bertie will be present when Upjohn reads the review so he can experience first hand Reggie Upjohn’s expected discomfiture.

I'm not sure if typing all that out makes the plot seem more or less complicated than I thought it was.

Everyone's plans quickly go awry, and new schemes hatched by Aunt Dahlia and Sir Roderick to resolve complications only humiliate poor Bertie.  Finally, Jeeves, his vacation interrupted, is brought to the scene and he rapidly produces solutions to everyone's problems.  These solutions also humiliate poor Bertie, but at least he has sacrificed his pride and reputation for a good cause.

I thought Jeeves in the Offing was approximately as good as most of the other Wooster stories, and I look forward to the next Jeeves adventure, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.