Monday, December 30, 2013

West of Eden by Harry Harrison

I read West of Eden in my early teens, I think, and have never forgotten the setting of the 1984 novel, though the plot very quickly faded from my mind. Now, almost 30 years later, finding time in the midst of a lot of holiday travel and visits, I have reread it, and have to say it is pretty good.

The Setting: West of Eden takes place in an alternate version of our world in which the extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mosasaurs, etc., did not occur. Human beings evolve in one part of the world, but over most of the Earth the giant reptiles survive, and continue to evolve; at the time of the novel, in fact, a race of intelligent lizard people is the dominant form of life over most of the planet. While human beings have a stone age level of technology, hunting with spears and arrows with stone points, the cold-blooded, matriarchal reptile people have developed genetic engineering. Instead of having weapons and vehicles made of wood, stone and metal, they have bred giant squids to act as boats, huge ichthyosaurs to serve as ships, even living creatures that perform the roles of microscopes and cameras!

The Plot: The Earth is undergoing climate change, and the increasing cold is forcing the human tribes south to the warm areas where the dinosaurs and other cold blooded reptiles live. The humans have a violent hatred of the reptiles, and kill any they find. The lower temperatures are also making life difficult for a city of reptile people in Africa, so they are starting a new colony in the tropical region of the New World, exactly where the humans have just started hunting.  When the humans and lizard people meet a racist genocidal war immediately erupts!

There are numerous plot threads and subplots; this book is over 450 pages, after all. Happily, the book does not feel long, because Harrison moves the story along at a brisk pace and everything that happens is interesting or exciting. There are numerous human and reptilian characters, but each is distinctive enough that we can tell them apart and are curious what will happen to them. We watch the growth of the reptile colony and the politics among its members. A human child is captured and learns all about the lizard people’s language and society from the inside. That society is in the midst of major changes, not only because of the need to move to warmer climes, but because a new religion is blossoming amongst its members, a religion of peace which sees the war on the warm-blooded creatures as immoral.  We also get a look at religion and diplomacy among the nomadic human tribes.

As the book jacket informs us, Harrison corralled an international team of scientists to try to make this book “realistic.” For example, a British linguist helped develop fake languages for the humans and the lizard people. The lizard people communicate not only vocally, but with hand and body movements and by changing the color of parts of their skin, I guess like cuttle fish.  I'm a little skeptical about how much creating entire fictional languages for the characters actually adds to the novel - the reader only experiences these languages as aphorisms acting as pendants to some of the chapters and words sprinkled here and there in the text.  Maybe for some readers this helps create a believable atmosphere of alienness.  On the other hand, the biology and society of the reptile people is quite well realized and are at the core of the novel, so I think at least some of the scientists consulted by Harrison really did make a worthwhile contributions to the book.

I read a library copy of the 1984 Bantam hardcover. The book includes dozens of charming illustrations by Bill Sanderson, a pleasant addition.  I include two of these here, along with some fun hyperbolic blurbs from the jacket text that compare the novel to Clan of the Cave Bear and Dune, books I myself have not read. The cover, by David Schlienkofer, is just mediocre, I suppose a sort of ironic reference to the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent that echoes the novel's title.

West of Eden delivers the kind of stuff many of us like to see in a science fiction adventure: a cool alien society, action and suspense, plus mastodons and dinosaurs. And if you are into ruminating about gender roles, cultural conflict, imperialism, religion and that sort of thing, West of Eden does a little of that, too. I’m happy to recommend West of Eden.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Swordbearer by Glen Cook

In the second installment of my scholarly examination of Half Price Books’ list of 100 science fiction and fantasy novels worthy of “geeking out” over, I spent substantial time discussing Glen Cook’s Black Company series.  Over the last few days, between expeditions to shopping malls to buy Christmas gifts and marathon sessions washing dishes soiled during my wife's baking of mountains of cookies, cakes, pastries and fudge, I read a Glen Cook grim and cynical fantasy adventure set in a different world from that of the Black Company tales.

The main character of The Swordbearer is Gathrid, the crippled son of a knight charged with defense of a castle on the eastern border of the easternmost of a bunch of small loosely allied kingdoms. A huge army from the eastern empire of Ventimiglia, led by a bunch of undead wizards, comes to the castle and demands a famous magic sword. Gathrid’s father, like everybody else in the castle, has no idea where the magic sword is, and before long the Ventimiglians have taken the castle and wiped out all resistance in their search for the sword. Gathrid manages to escape, and hides in some caves where, wouldn’t you know it, he meets a dwarf who has been slumbering for centuries and is the custodian of a huge black magic sword.

The Swordbearer bears several resemblances to Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories. Elric wields a sentient black sword, Stormbringer, that drinks the souls of those it kills and invigorates Elric, and the sword Gathrid carries is quite similar. It cures Gathrid’s disabilities and gives him tremendous power, but also manipulates him in the interest of a cruel goddess. One of the interesting things in the book is how Gathrid gains the memories, even the personalities, of people he kills with the black sword; this is reminiscent of the alzabo episodes in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. Another interesting facet of the novel is the fact that the magic sword is famous, the subject of many old histories and tales, and Gathrid, and others familiar with the old tales, often wonder if he will suffer the same dreadful fate as earlier Swordbearers, or if he can somehow come up with a happy ending to his relationship with the sword.  (A major theme of the book is the question of to what extent mortals are at the mercy of the gods and fate, and how far can people decide their own destinies.)

Wielding the sword, Gathrid participates in the war between the invading easterners and the western kingdoms. Thanks to the sword, he can fight whole platoons single-handed. Also thanks to the sword, he accidentally kills his own sister (not unlike how Elric accidentally killed his cousin/girlfriend with Stormbringer). Gathrid then leaves the war behind, sneaking east towards the capital of Ventimiglia, hoping to find the ruins where the Ventimiglians dug up the undead wizards and the magical artifacts they are using to conquer the west. He rescues a girl from being sacrificed to a demon, and (this is one of the book’s most inspired elements) Gathrid takes along not only the girl, but the head of the demon, which is still alive and keeps up an abusive and jocular commentary for the rest of the adventure.

Cook’s writing is often “revisionist;” the good guys are often not all that good and the bad guys not all that bad, war is not heroic, politicians are all corrupt, the plight of poor peasants and other civilians is remarked upon, etc. Maybe critics would say this is a response to Vietnam and Watergate. So, when Gathrid gets to the heart of Ventimiglia he finds that the place isn’t so steeped in evil as he expected, and when he meets the leader of Ventimiglia he makes an alliance with him, and joins him in prosecuting a civil war against the now renegade army that is back west despoiling Gathrid’s homeland.  People, Gathrid included, often switch sides in this war, which is not about ideology or patriotism or economics or social forces, but about the ambition and insanity of the individuals at the top, kings, generals, wizards and deities.   

The Swordbearer is an enjoyable “dark” or “grim” fantasy adventure, but there isn’t much in it to mark it as special. I was entertained, so marginal thumbs up, but I'm not going to remember much of the plot, characters or setting.  There are many minor characters with odd names who appear briefly and then get killed and many vaguely described battles and sieges, but Cook doesn't put too much effort into creating personalities for the people or cultures for the cities and nations fighting these insane wars.  Cook isn't trying to paint sharp vivid pictures full of detail here, but rather a powerful mood or tone, and he uses bold and broad strokes and grinding repetition - battle after battle, tragedy after tragedy - to paint a dark, depressing, black canvas of doom.

I read the 1990 paperback from Tor of this 1982 novel, with a cover painting by Keith Berdak. I always think Berdak’s work looks amateurish, and wonder why publishers have used him on Cook’s books.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Drunkard's Walk and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederick Pohl

Via twitter Joachim Boaz points to an interesting discussion of academia as portrayed in science fiction by blogger and novelist Andrew Fox.  Fox talks about Drunkard's Walk, by famous science fiction writer and editor Frederick Pohl, examining Pohl's depiction of teaching technology and of the social status of college professors.

I read Drunkard's Walk  in October 2011 but, unlike Fox, when I went to Amazon to review it I didn't do anything ambitious.  Instead I took it as an opportunity to vent my frustration about my own experiences in academia and to mock Pohl's left wing politics, as you can see below, where I paste my review, typos and all:

The cover of the 1960 Ballantine edition of Fred Pohl's Drunkard's Walk proclaims that it is "biting funny" and "sharply satirical." I didn't find anything in the book funny myself, and am actually at a loss to figure out what the novel is a "sharp satire" of. Does "Rich people are inhuman sadists who use their special powers to control us!" count as sharp satire? Maybe it does to an alumnus of the Young Communist League like Pohl.

The novel is set in a university in 2196. My experience in academia suggests that professors (who take credit for their students' work, use grant money to finance their personal hobbies, espouse wealth redistribution in the media while plotting tax evasion in the privacy of their luxury apartments and summer homes, et al) are a ripe target for satire, but Pohl doesn't take that tack. Maybe the professors he knew in the 1950s were not like the professors I knew in the 2000s.

Anyway, the novel follows the structure of a mystery or detective story, and Pohl has math professors as his heroes. The math profs discover that the incredibly ugly and incredibly rich university president and other wealthy people are immortal telepaths who have murdered numerous people in order to hide their conspiracy to rule the world. This conspiracy includes setting loose smallpox to kill most of the population, but does not include amassing weapons or any kind of defense; once the math profs finger the telepaths it only takes a dozen police officers to subdue them.

Pohl produced in Gateway a brilliant masterpiece, and I continue to read him in hopes of finding that he has gifted the world with a similarly impressive work. Drunkard's Walk is, emphatically, not that work. Still, Pohl's style is not bad, and Drunkard's Walk is short and its plot holds together pretty well (I am being hard on the book because I don't appreciate its anti-capitalist politics and I find stories about epidemic diseases and conspiracies boring. I feel that I can safely recommend Drunkard's Walk to anyone who likes left-wing conspiracy novels or whose current address happens to be "Zuccotti Park."

In September 2010, a year before I read Drunkard's Walk, I had taken a whack at Pohl on Amazon because I was disappointed in the mundane Beyond the Blue Event Horizon, the sequel to Pohl's masterpiece, Gateway.   To the video tape:

Fred Pohl's "Gateway" is one of the great SF novels, an adult novel about one man's harrowing adventure in outer space and his own psychological problems, a novel with perfect pacing and a tone of unrelenting tension. The sequel to "Gateway", "Beyond the Blue Event Horizon," is unforgivably pedestrian and boring. "Blue Event Horizon" replaces "Gateway"'s first person narrator with three or four viewpoint characters plus omniscient narration so the tone is terribly uneven and there are no characters we get to know well enough to care about. The oppressive fear and danger that were on every page of "Gateway" are replaced with the tedium of science lectures and page after page of a business guy talking to lawyers, politicians, and doctors about his business dealings and his wife's health. One of the themes of "Gateway" was that life is terribly difficult, and the main character faced various tragedies and suffered terrific levels of fear and guilt, but "Blue Event Horizon" almost seems like a man's wish-fulfillment fantasy; a rich guy gets richer, has a great sex life, his wife gets killed and is brought back to life, and she doesn't mind that he is also in love with another woman! And then after a few hundred pages of boring businessman stuff he hijacks a space ship and wins a gunfight with the aliens.

"Beyond the Blue Event Horizon" is not a bad novel (the basic plot of the scenes in space with the aliens is good, for example) but it is totally average, and painfully fails to live up to the masterpiece that its predecessor was.

(In those days, after furiously typing a bitter denunciation of a book, I would often feel better, even a little regretful for my bile.  Then I would finish the review by claiming the book was good despite what I had just said; after all, I didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings!)

Because he was well represented in the libraries I frequented in my New Jersey youth I read a lot of Pohl as a kid.  I loved Gateway when I first read it, and I still loved it when I read it in 2010.  (I didn't review it on Amazon, though.  Back in those days I rarely wrote positive reviews of popular books; instead I thought it worthwhile to slag books everybody else loved and to promote books I thought were obscure.  My Amazon reviews must make me look like some kind of weirdo.)  I have vague but positive memories of Jem and Man-Plus; maybe I will reread them someday.   

Friday, December 20, 2013

Imperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke

Earlier in the week science fiction maven Joachim Boaz reminded us via Twitter that it was Arthur C. Clarke’s birthday. Boaz suggested that his favorite Clarke novel was Imperial Earth. I knew I had read Imperial Earth in my youth, but I could recall very little about it. Of Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End I had much clearer memories.

A library a few blocks from my home had a copy of Imperial Earth, so I decided to reread it. The library copy was a hardcover from 1976, with a pentomino design inscribed on the cover. (Pentominoes play a role in the story.)  It appears that I am the first person to open the book in 37 years, and when I did so the dried glue of the spine cracked in many places.  Honor this book which has died in the line of duty!

It is the year 2276. Titan has been colonized, and is ruled by three men, Malcolm Makenzie, the talented engineer and administrator who made colonizing Titan feasible and profitable two generations ago, and his two clones. The younger clone, Duncan, is 31 years old, and is about to go on a trip to Earth, to establish the relationships that will help keep the Makenzies in power on Titan and also to clone himself.  (Malcolm Makenzie is sterile, so the only way to maintain his dynasty is through cloning.) The novel, of 300 pages, follows Duncan’s trip to Earth, where he is to participate in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of U. S. independence as well as clone himself, and also includes flashbacks about Duncan’s youthful relationships with family members and sex partners.

Imperial Earth is “hard” science fiction – Clarke not only tries to make all the technology, astronomy and geography a believable extrapolation of real life science, but spends time explaining Titan’s weather, the speed of moons’ orbits and rotations, the acceleration and speed of the space ship that takes Duncan to Earth, and so on. This is a science fiction book in which the hard sciences really matter; or at least Clarke uses the book to try to teach you some hard science. How much of this stuff really serves the plot is questionable; in fact I doubt if half of Imperial Earth’s pages really deal with the book’s plot. The novel is largely a kind of travelogue through the 23rd century, a utopian vision which serves as a criticism of the 20th century, with additional assorted science and history lectures.

The first hundred pages of the novel introduce us to Duncan and his life, Titan, and interplanetary travel. I enjoyed this part, as space travel and the Titan colony are interesting, and the stuff about Duncan’s sexual and filial relationships is engaging.

Then we’ve got 200 pages on Earth. Duncan travels around, meeting people and taking in the amazing sights, like blue skies, trees, flowers, animals, and the pools of water, things alien to his experience on Titan, where people live in corridors under the deadly surface. Clarke describes this future world and indulges in efforts to infect the reader with some of his own enthusiasms. Clarke was an avid sea diver and supporter of space programs, and so we get a surfeit of pages of romantic gushing over the Titanic and the first moon landing, as well as an interesting scene in which Duncan helps to tend a coral reef.

Clarke depicts a future society that I suppose you could call “progressive,” and reflects 1970s concerns. Everyone is conditioned to embrace a policy of zero population growth – Terrans are “horrified” to find some Titan families have three or more children. Religion is forgotten (it sounds like Christmas has been replaced with "Star Day"), and Clarke subtly endorses the mob that burned down the Vatican. Sex is casual: marriages are “open,” homosexual sex is as common and unremarkable as heterosexual sex – most people are neither primarily straight nor gay, but are indiscriminately promiscuous. People are almost unconscious of racial differences; Clarke says Duncan has never given more thought to his skin color than to his hair color. The human race, through widespread race mixing, is gradually becoming a uniform shade of “off white.” At the same time Clarke hints that, in the America of 2276, African blood and dark skin are more prized than European blood and white skin. A woman is president; presidents are chosen at random by computer.

Like presidential elections, agriculture is a thing of the past, and the American Midwest is covered in dense forests. Most Terrans make their domiciles and places of business underground and almost all food is synthesized in factories. This doesn’t sound so great to me, but the Terran characters, and Clarke, seem to endorse it as a way of protecting the environment. In many SF stories characters moan that the synthetic food is bad, but in Imperial Earth Duncan proclaims that the synth developers have done a fine job.

People in 2276 have been conditioned to find firearms disgusting, but somewhat paradoxically celebrate George Washington, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong.

In the last hundred pages or so the plot finally revs up.  On Earth, Duncan encounters Calindy, a Terran girl he was in love with as a teen, and fellow Titanian Karl, a boyfriend of his teen years, a rival for the Calindy’s affections, and a scion of the Helmer family, a dynasty skeptical of Makenzie dominance of Titan. Karl is involved in some kind of gem smuggling and other clandestine activity, and Duncan has a dramatic meeting with him at a remote spot.  Before the psychologically unstable Karl can spill the beans he acts erratically and gets killed by a government sniper who is detailed to protect Duncan. Duncan figures out what Karl was up to by examining his notebook and minicomputer – Karl was smuggling because he needed money to finance the building of a super radio telescope with which to detect possibly inimical aliens he suspected were perched on the edge of the solar system!

Instead of ending in an explosive climax or a solid resolution, Imperial Earth, like a lot of classic SF, ends with an idea (the aliens perhaps living on the edge of the system, among the comets) that is supposed to leave the reader with a "sense of wonder," a feeling of vast and undefined future possibilities.

Imperial Earth is better than I expected, better than the more flashy Childhood's End.  There is more of a human story here, less mysticism, and even though a few of the Earth tourist segments were too long and felt extraneous, Imperial Earth has a better structure, with things you learned about the characters in the beginning of the novel having a payoff at the end.  Titan, the space ship, and ZPG Earth are interesting settings, and Clarke doesn't just use them to criticize the 20th century, but also to address deeper themes, like decadence and the pioneer spirit, as well as the value of both being cautious and embracing the past and taking risks and embracing change.  I'm glad I reread this one.       

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Bizarre Tales of Terror by B. Malzberg, A. Merrit, and H.G. Wells

One of the many things I miss about living in New York is Book Off, a Japanese used bookstore near the New York Public Library’s Research Division on 42nd Street. It was always fun to look through the thousands of manga, and they bought and sold lots of books in English as well. Recently I have been looking at my copy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book on French painter Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, which I purchased at Book Off.

Another book I purchased at Book Off is Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye, with a wrap around jacket illustration by Edward Gorey. This 1993 anthology, which I got for a dollar (sorry Marvin), contains over 50 stories, many from big names, including Michael Moorcock, Jack Vance, Winston S. Churchill, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jack London. Today I read three stories, one each by Barry Malzberg, A. Merrit, and H. G. Wells.

"Beyond Sleep" by Barry Malzberg
This story is two pages long and first appeared in 1970, in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Its six paragraphs describe in the first person three different dreams suffered by a man under some terrible stress. How much do these dreams reflect reality? Did he really murder his wife, or try to? Did he really try to commit suicide? How much are these dreams the product of taking sleeping pills? A literary exercise.

"The People of the Pit" by A. Merritt
Merritt is important to the history of SF and I want to like him, but I tried to read The Metal Monster once and gave up in the middle as I didn’t like it. I decided to give Merritt a second shot with this story, first published in 1918.

Two guys are up in Alaska, headed for a mountain with five peaks where there is supposed to be gold. No Indian will accompany them there – they think the place is cursed! After seeing some weird lights in the sky a crippled man crawls into their camp. After sleeping for over a day the dying man tells the gold prospectors his horrible tale.

This man also sought gold at the mountain of five peaks. When he got there he found a ruined city at the base of the mountain, and below it a vast pit, several miles deep. A stairway took him down to the bottom of the pit, a march of some days. Down there was another city, an alien city, inhabited by translucent slug people! The slug people chained him up at an altar. All night the slugs sang a weird song, a seductive song that the human felt compelled to sing along with. All day the man scraped away at a link of his chain. Luckily the chain was made of gold, so after five days of scraping the guy was able to break free. Pathetically weak, he wore out his body crawling up the stairway, an epic trek of many days. At night the slug people would sing a siren song to him that more than once almost got him to return to them. His mind as well as his body prevailed, and he escaped the pit, but, worn out, he dies after telling the two gold prospectors his tale of terror. The prospectors decide to look for gold somewhere else; the end.

This is an OK story. I like stories of this type, but this one lacked anything to set it above the pack. Looking around online I find it said that the story is well regarded and even inspired writers like Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton to take up writing careers. Maybe this one deserves credit for being an early, perhaps even seminal, example of this type of story.

"In the Avu Observatory" by H. G. Wells

Like everybody, I’ve read and enjoyed War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. I read Invisible Man as a kid and remember nothing about it, and First Men in the Moon as an adult and thought it was not bad.  I think this is the first Wells short story I have read.

A scientist dude is in an observatory in Borneo, alone at night, watching the stars through a big telescope.  Then some giant bat thing flies into the observatory and the astronomer has to fight it!

There isn't much to this story, but the technique is good and I quite enjoyed it.  The images are vivid, the story flows well, and I didn't feel like I knew who was going to win the fight, who was going to survive.  So, bravo to Mr. Wells.


So, three enjoyable stories, the first very ambiguous, the second mysterious, the third vividly clear but suspenseful.  It is easy to recommend Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Time Regained by Marcel Proust

Over the course of many years, I have read the first five (or six, I suppose, depending on how you count) volumes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time three or four times each (mostly the Modern Library trans, but at least once each in the recent Prendergast trans.) For a variety of reasons, I had never read the final volume, Time Regained, but last week I started it and today finally finished it. I read the Modern Library paperback, translated by Mayor and Kilmartin, revised by Enright.

Reading In Search of Lost Time (when I was a kid people called it Remembrance of Things Past - nobody I knew, I mean people on TV) is a challenge for some people, and I am one of them. Some parts of this monumental novel, at least at first, seem very long and quite boring, and some sentences are so long and convoluted that halfway through them you can lose track of what is going on. There are lots of characters and relationships to keep track of, and people often have multiple names, or change names, or appear incognito. Reading a volume of Proust for the first time can be like hacking through a jungle with a machete. But there are enough engaging ideas, striking episodes, memorable images, and amusing jokes to make the hacking worth it. When you finish a volume for the first time you feel like you've accomplished something, that you've climbed some kind of literary mountain, and when you read a volume for the third or fourth time it is like getting reacquainted with old friends or taking a walk down a pretty street where you recognize most of the lush trees and fine old and glittering modern buildings and recall fondly how you felt the first time you saw them, and the first time you recognized their beauty.

The first half of Time Regained covers the years of World War One, and it is interesting to see how the main locales of the novel, Paris and Combray, and how the many characters we have been following for thousands of pages, are affected by the war. The narrator, Marcel, contrasts a Paris under blackout orders with the traditionally well lit "City of Lights," remarks on how the presence of so many African and Muslim soldiers makes Paris seem exotic, like an Orientalist painting. The German bombers and Zeppelins, and the searchlights and French fighter planes which pursue them, create a beautiful spectacle, while the sounds of the air raid sirens remind him of Wagner. The Baron du Charlus, a promiscuous homosexual and probably the strangest and most sinister of the characters in the long novel, worries that the war will kill off all the handsome young men and then he won't be able to enjoy eating in restaurants. What fun will eating out be if all the waiters are old and ugly, or, perhaps worse, replaced with waitresses? The dearth of men in Paris, so many of them being at the front risking their lives in a war Charlus, a German sympathizer, suspects the Allies may lose, has already forced Charlus to resort to gratifying his insatiable appetites with little boys.

The characters in Proust are not exactly admirable - in fact, Proust's view of people, life and love can be quite cynical and depressing. Time Regained, like the earlier volumes, asserts that people are constantly lying, to others and to themselves, that people are selfish hypocrites, cheaters, and exploiters. People's opinions of art and stands on political issues are based not on consideration of the merits of a painting or a novel, or the wisdom of a government policy; instead, people sheepishly follow fads and fashions, mimic the assessments of critics, and espouse the beliefs that they think will help them gain acceptance in the social set which they aspire to belong to or help them seduce or keep a mistress. Marcel reports these sad truths without condemning humanity; he himself is guilty of treating girls and friends shabbily and molding his opinions to match those of tastemakers.

The first half of Time Regained, which focuses on the war, the strange and unsettling Baron, and Marcel's silly servant Francoise, is a pretty easy read, interesting and funny. In the second half of the book the war is over, the Baron is elderly, and Marcel, who all his life has aspired to be a writer but felt inadequate to the task, has a sudden epiphany while on his way to a party: he discovers how to view life and how to go about being a writer. True pleasure comes not from external stimuli: love is an agony followed by disappointment when the beloved is possessed, friendship is a delusion, and death is always there waiting for us. Genuine happiness comes from studying our inner thoughts, from reliving past sensations. When we relive past sensations, we stand outside of time, we live in both the present and the past, and, being outside of time, the future and death cannot touch us. Marcel suddenly has a plan of action, and makes a determination to avoid society and focus solely on his work of art, his book about life which will mine his own unhappy experiences for raw material. I felt that some of this literary and philosophical talk dragged a bit. But the book picks up again at the party thrown by the Princess Guermantes, where there are hundreds of elite guests, a reading of poetry by a famous actress, and fine music.

Marcel, who is chronically ill and has been in a sanitarium, has not attended a society party in years. As he joins the party he reallizes how old all his acquaintances have become, and is reminded of his own mortality. There follow meditations on old age and death --Marcel even worries that he might not live long enough to finish his great work. We learn about the fates of many of the characters we met thousands of pages ago, the rise of some (the actress giving a poetry reading, Rachel, was a whore at a brothel the first time we saw her), the collapse of others (the famous actress from the second volume, Berma, then idolized by all, is now a decrepit wreck at death's door, exploited by her cruel daughter and humiliated in society.) Finally, Marcel embarks on his great project, writing his tremendous book.

One reason I neglected for so long to read the final volume of Proust and instead was rereading the earlier volumes was that I was worried that the last volume would be inferior to those that preceded it. Proust died before finishing revisions on the novel, and Time Regained suffered the most from this, and includes some errors and inconsistencies. I am happy to report, however, that Time Regained is comparable in enjoyment to the earlier volumes, and serves very well as a climax and resolution to so much that went before.

I'm happy to have finally completed the long journey through In Search of Lost Time, and excited to hear that Yale University and William Carter are producing a new revision of the traditional Moncrieff translation.  My relationship with Proust is not over, and it seems that my next reading of In Search of Lost Time may contain some novelties and surprises.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Half Price Books' List of 100 SF Novels: 51 to 100

Here we are as in olden days, considering Half Price Books' List of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books worthy of "geeking out" over.  Oh those kids and their wacky slang.  Today we are cutting a rug with selections 51 to 100, chosen by 3,000 "bibliomaniacs."  That's right, over the objections of the union, we are doubling production for this post.

51, 52 & 53) The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers, Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling, and Old Man' s War by John Scalzi
These are all books I have not read by authors whose books I have not read.  I remember people on the SF newsgroups praising Anubis Gates, and I have considered reading Stirling's books about people going to Venus and Mars, and John Scalzi gets a lot of attention in what the kids are calling "the blogosphere," but somehow I have not read any of their books yet.

54 & 56) The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers and The Electric Church by Jeff Somers
I haven't heard of these books or authors before.  Am I getting a magic realism vibe?

55) The Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson  
This gets good press, but I'm not moved.

57) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I might read this some day.  It is my understanding that it is a condemnation of the Allied policy of raining bombs on Nazi Germany.  Maybe we've found something on which Vonnegut and John Ringo of Watch on the Rhine fame can agree.

58) Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
I own the very edition chosen by the bibliomaniacs to illustrate their list.  This is Volume II of the Gormenghast Trilogy.  I own all three of the books, and have read Volume I, Titus Groan. I wanted to like it, and I finished it, but it seemed very long and slow - its over 500 pages of tiny little print, like 38 lines to a page!  There wasn't much plot that I can remember.  A bunch of weirdos live in a huge castle and have difficult conversations with each other, then there is some kind of climactic one on one fight, then a funeral.  I must be forgetting something; I am told this is one of the greatest classics of 20th century British literature.

Gormenghast looks to be even longer than Titus Groan

I like Peake's illustrations to the book; will that protect me from charges of philistinism?

59) Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
People are always hailing this as a masterpiece, so I am not surprised it is on the list.  I don't find overpopulation and ecological scare books very interesting, though, and the only John Brunner book I have read (Maze of Stars) was very weak.  Also, this thing is over 500 pages long.

Add another charge of philistinism to my record.

60) Mort by Terry Prachett
I read the first Discworld book when it came out, and it didn't make me laugh, so I have never read any more Terry Prachett books.  I'm not crazy about SF books whose main goal is to be funny or to be a parody of other SF books. 

In a brush with fame, on June 30, 2003, I posted something banal on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup, and Terry Prachett, or someone using the name, agreed with me.

61) Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
I remember women in the office reading this during the Harry Potter craze, and my wife read it as well.  Wizards during the Napoleonic Wars?  Not for me.

62) Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
I've enjoyed some Zelazny, like This Immortal and Damnation Alley and some short stories, and disliked some, including the first Amber book which I read as a kid, disliked, and then tried as an adult, and disliked again.  Lord of Light I have not attempted.  Maybe someday.

63) Ladyhawke by Joan Vinge
Ladyhawke?  I laughed when I saw this on here.  Joan Vinge is a respected writer, but a movie tie-in for a B movie?  Are the bibliomaniacs just recommending it because Michelle Pfeiffer is so good looking?   The cover image of the paperback is an arresting portrait of Pfeiffer, no doubt.

I hate going to the movie theater, smelling other people and listening to them eat.  I can recall all the films I have seen in a theater, because the number is so small.  Ladyhawke is one of the movies I saw in a theater with other kids when it came out.  We thought it was silly - we were cynical kids.  There is a scene in which we see the interior of a castle from the point of view of a fighting man in a visored helmet; we laughed because looking through the slots of the visor as the soldier advanced looked like the view from inside a TIE fighter.  The double crossbow also made me groan.  I was a real killjoy.     

Seeing the Ladyhawke tie-in here makes me wonder why there are no Star Wars or Star Trek books on this list.  If those movie/TV tie-ins were excluded, why not this one?  Half Price Books' bibliomaniacs work in ways mysterious.

64) I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
I read at least some of these stories as a kid, and of course like everybody I know the Three Laws of Robotics.  I can't recall anything about these stories, though.  I'm guessing they are puzzle stories, in which a robot behaves oddly and the human characters sit around and figure out the peculiar way the robot interpreted the Three Laws of Robotics.  Very droll.

65) Armor by John Steakly
I've already described my thinking about MilSF.

There's quite a bit of MilSF on this list, but not the series I thought was famous, one I have actually read a little of, David Drake's "Hammer's Slammers."   

66, 67 & 75) The Lathe of Heaven, The Wizard of Earthsea, and the Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I've never read any LeGuin.  I've always assumed these books would be some kind of feminist polemic.  I got my fill of feminist polemic at Rutgers and CUNY. Maybe I am missing out.  My wife has read some LeGuin, but I think they were "mainstream" books, not any of these.

68) The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey
I might have read this when I was reading those Pern books, or maybe I just read about it.  The idea of imbedding a human intelligence in a machine is of course a good idea.  Probably I wouldn't read this today.

69 & 71) Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell and Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
I must be out of touch; these I have never heard of.

70) War with the Newts by Karl Kapek
Here we go with the esoterica, a book written in Czech in 1936.  Maybe people are reading this in college?

According to Wikipedia this is an attack on racism, fascism, nationalism, consumerism, and scientism that lacks a central character.  Sounds like fun.  The film was scheduled to be released in 2013, and is still in production.  Don't pulp all those extra copies just yet, Half Price Books people! 

72 & 76) To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
I've never read anything by Willis.

73 & 99) Stardust and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I've not read anything by Neil Gaiman. This is magical realism, right?  My wife, Gene Wolfe, and Tori Amos all like Gaiman, but so far I have resisted their blandishments.

74) Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link  
You're not going to be shocked to hear I haven't encountered this one before.  The cover is a "reimagining" of my favorite painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, "Lady with an Ermine."  I think Leonardo is a little overrated; I like Leonardo, but I think Michelangelo, Rafael, and Botticelli are all superior.  One mark of their superiority is that the secret codes embedded in their paintings have yet to be deciphered.

77) Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
I remember the women in the office back in New York lugging this around.  This is a romance novel about a woman who goes back in time to fight in some sexy Anglo-Scottish war, right?  I can't really poke fun at this after gushing about Princess of Mars, can I?

Wasn't it annoying when every time Scotland came up in conversation somebody had to perform that "we got colonized by wankers" soliloquy?  I don't miss those days.  

78 & 79) Mockingbird by Walter Tevis and This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow
These are books I've never heard of.  I've been living under a rock!

Mockingbird sounds like it might be interesting, and would give me excuses to reminisce about New York.

Morrow is one of those guys who makes sure his pets are mentioned in his Author's Bio.  Woof!  This is the Way the World Ends takes an audaciously bold stand and tries to awaken the public to the possible negative effects of a nuclear war.

80) Robotech: Battlecry by Jack McKinney
Ladyhawke doesn't look so crazy now, does it?

When it was first on U.S. TV I loved loved loved the Macross sequence of Robotech.  I thought the mecha designs and the Zentraedi space ship designs were brilliant, and I even thought the soap opera story of the Rick Hunter/Lynn Minmay/Lisa Hayes love triangle and the Romeo and Juliet story of Max and Miriya Stirling worked.  (On the inside I am a sentimental sap.)  I loved the background music and the funny subplot about the three alien spies (it's like Ninotchka, isn't it?). I bought Macross comic books and role playing game books, I drew Zentraedi battle pods in my notebooks during boring college classes. I was hooked.

When I first saw these Jack McKinney novels I was past my Robotech phase.  The story of how they came about, which I just read on Wikipedia, is pretty interesting.  Jack McKinney is a pen name for two writers, one of them Brian Daley.  As a kid I read Brian Daley's Han Solo's Revenge.  The other kids in school saw me carrying it around, and so, one day, when they were trying to start a fight between me and some other kid, one of these little bastards told me, "You need to get revenge on him, like Han Solo!" 

81 & 82) Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marrillier and Resurrection by Arwen Elys Dayton
These must have been published while I was in that coma.

83 & 84) Parable of the Sower and Kindred by Octavia Butler
I haven't read any Octavia Butler.  We were supposed to read a Butler book in my Science Fiction class at Rutgers, but either we didn't get to it, or I just neglected to read it.  I wasn't a very conscientious student.

85 & 86) The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
Covered these already.

87 & 88) Grass by Sheri Tepper and Three Days to Never by Tim Powers
Nothing is coming up on the scanner.

89) Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Often, at the New York Public Library's Mid-Manhattan Branch, I would pick up their hulking copy of this book, feel I should read it, then put it back as appearing too forbidding.  I had read Delany's Nova and The Ballad of Beta-2, both of which I thought were just OK.  Today I can remember almost nothing about either.  

The Wikipedia page for Dhalgren makes the book sound very exciting, with titans of SF ranged on both sides, ecstatically for or against the book.  800 pages full of typos, however, is an investment I am not currently willing to commit myself to. 

90) That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
I was disappointed in Out of the Silent Planet, so didn't get to this one.

91) Logan's Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
I've seen this movie, and never considered reading the novel. 

92) The White Mountains by John Christopher
I read the three Tripods books as an adult, and enjoyed them.

93) Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov
I thought this movie was fun because of the art direction, special effects and cast, but I never thought to read the book Asimov came up with based on the screenplay.

94) Mister Monday by Garth Nix
I see this guy's name in the anthologies I take out of the library.  Is this a kid's book?

"Tuesday Afternoon" by the Moody Blues and "Drive In Saturday" by David Bowie are great songs.  When I was a kid I went through a U2 phase, and loved "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."  

95) Ringworld by Larry Niven
This is a good novel, but has a bunch of nagging problems.  The characters are too much like caricatures, you can't take them seriously and you can't care about them.  The book's tone is too silly and light.  Also, Niven's idea that "luck" is not only real, but hereditary, is irritatingly stupid.

96) The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans   
I kind of want to read this.  When I was young I read Watt-Evans' Cyborg and the Sorcerers and really enjoyed it.  I'd like to read that again.  

On a side note, I like many of the realistic cover paintings Darrell K. Sweet and Michael Whelan have done over the years.

97) Robopacalypse by Daniel H. Wilson
I feel like I just failed a spelling test. 

98) The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor
Looking Glass War is my favorite novel by John Le Carre.  Is this the sequel?

100) The Giver by Lois Lowry
This is SF?  Who knew?


Final notes on omissions
There is no Frankenstein, no Dracula, no I Am Legend, and no H. P. Lovecraft.  Maybe the Half Price Books bibliomaniacs consider that those popular and important books belong in the horror category.

There's also no H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, which is odd, especially when we see Karl Kapek on there.

Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance are not represented. Wolfe and Vance have devoted followings in the SF community, and are the kind of SF writers who receive praise from prestigious mainstream institutions like The New York Times, so it is noteworthy that the bibliomaniacs left them off but put a cartoon tie-in and a movie tie-in on there.

There are fantasies I've never heard of on the list, and fantasies the critics frown on as Tolkein clones, like Sword of Shannara, but no Conan or Elric.  Robert Howard and Michael Moorcock have been very influential, have critical defenders, and Conan and Elric are very popular, so it is a little strange.

If Lord of the Rings and the Pullman thing had been considered as a single book there would have been space for representative works of famous authors like Arthur C. Clarke or Harlan Ellison, writers important to the history of the SF field like Poul Anderson or A. E. Van Vogt, or acknowledged classics like Pohl's Gateway and Haldeman's Forever War.

Still, this is a fun list of SF books, and I encourage everyone to rush to the library to seek them out.  I mean to Half Price Books.  And keep an eye out for the faithful adaptation of War with the Newts starring Will Smith coming soon to a theatre near you.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Half Price Books' List of 100 SF Novels: 26-50

Here we have Part 2 of my look at Half Price Book's list of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, covering selections 26 to 50.  This idiosyncratic list was selected by 3,000 bibliomaniacs, or so says the Half Price Books website.

26) Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
I read the first volume of this series when it was new, and enjoyed it, but didn't pick up the second volume when it came out.  Perhaps for the best.

27) The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I'm not really into alternate history or any of that, and I think stuff like the I Ching is ridiculous.  Still, if I was living in an alternate universe in which I had to read a Dick novel, it would probably be this one, as it is so highly regarded.  Also, the title is good poetry.

28) Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov
Is this the detective one in which the shock ending is that a woman had sex with a robot?  I read this as a kid, and was disappointed that there wasn't something more to it.

29) Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

30) I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
I'm a little surprised to see this on the list instead of Starship Troopers, which is so famous and controversial and includes the awesome and influential opening chapter in which the heavily armored human marine fights aliens with a hand flamer.

I read I Will Fear No Evil as a kid, and, looking back, I am surprised I finished it.  Presumably I was charmed by the idea of a friend in my head to keep me company, and I guess there must have been some sex in the book.  I do want to reread this one; I think Heinlein has a good writing style, and there is no way it could be as bad as Number of the Beast.

31) Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind 
This is the Objectivist fantasy epic, right?  I'm sympathetic to Ayn Rand's individualistic philosophy, but I don't want to spend time reading a long book about it.  I haven't read any Ayn Rand's own novels, and I'm not going to read any of this guy's novels.  Those two page articles in Reason magazine about Rand are enough for me to get the gist of her thought and move on.

32) A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs    
This is one of my favorite books.  I love everything about it; Burroughs comes up with a very exciting, even beautiful, version of Mars, and his writing really brings it to life.  The fact that the book is so old, and written in an old-fashioned style, and espouses old-fashioned values (it is basically an apologia for 19th-century imperialism, isn't it?) makes it even more alien and perhaps paradoxically even more believable.  At the same time it is an over the top wish fulfillment fantasy: John Carter is immortal, the best swordsman in the solar system, and also scrupulously honest and decent.  He doesn't use his superior fighting ability to rob people and sleep around like Conan; he is faithful to his wife and tries to teach the people of Mars how to behave.  Somehow Burroughs makes it work and people like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Gene Wolfe have been singing Burroughs' praises ever since.

33) Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I read the four Hitchhiker books as a kid, and I enjoyed them, but I remember little now.  I might read these again.

34) Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffery
I read a bunch of these Pern books as a kid; I liked the idea of having a little friend dragon that would keep me company all the time.  Also, the idea of the Thread attacking the planet every century or whatever is exciting.  As an adult I tried to read Dragonflight, which I think is the first of these Pern books, and thought it was horrible and wrote a scathing review on Amazon. 

35) The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
I loved the Elfstones of Shannara as a kid; it was like 300 pages of guys running around, fighting with swords and bows and magic fire.  I imagined that the Elfstones were like my light blue plastic D&D dice.  Then I read The Sword of Shannara, and I liked it, but I found the end disappointing, anti-climactic.  It was trying to teach you a lesson about telling the truth or something, which I found condescending.  I can still remember sitting in the car, riding home from Nana's in my Dad's car, reading by the dashboard light, finishing the book and thinking, "Is this really how it ends?  This is like a book for kids."  I got the Wishsong of Shannara as a gift, and started it, but the magical artifact wasn't as cool as the Ellfstones, I was older, and the story seemed repetitive, so I abandoned it.

I've been thinking of reading Elfstones again, but I'm afraid the same thing might happen as happened when I tried to read Dragonflight.

36) The Once and Future King by T. H. White
My mother gave me a paperback copy of this and it sat on my bookshelf for twenty odd years.  I don't know where it is now; maybe my brother has it.

37) Brave New World by Aldous Hiuxley
This is pretty good.

38) Foundation by Isaac Asimov  
I tried to read this as an adult; I read the first two or three stories, and then abandoned it.  Asimov's writing style was feeble.  Even worse was the plot: besides being outlandish (a guy can predict exactly what will happen hundreds of years in the future?) it is terrible drama.  (A guy teleporting to Mars and sword fighting everybody is outlandish but good drama.)  The stories consist of a guy sitting in a room, watching a movie of a dead guy telling him what to do; then he does it, all goes perfectly, the end.  There is no humanity, no feeling, no tension, it's as exciting as watching a guy order a burger at McDonalds' drive thru; wow, look, he ordered a quarter pounder and... he receives a quarter pounder! 

What is the ethic, the ideology of these stories?  That an elite of smart guys should manipulate the rest of us behind the scenes?  Sickening. Who does this appeal to?  Smart guys who want to manipulate other people?  I've heard that Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich love Asimov's Foundation books, that they were inspired by the idea of using math to bend history and society in the direction they want it to go.  Horrible.

I remember, as a kid, reading an essay by Isaac Asimov.  I'd like to read it again, but of course I can't recall the title or where I saw it.  It must have been in an SF anthology or something.  Asimov was decrying stories in which a barbarian defeats a wizard.  Presumably he was referring to Conan.  I had never read such stories, they not being at the local library, and I remember thinking it odd that Asimov, who had like a dozen books at the local library, was attacking writers whose work I had never seen as if they were a ubiquitous plague.  Asimov thought it bad that the smart guy in the story was the villain, and the strong guy the hero, that this would teach people the wrong values or something.

Obviously, in the Foundation stories we see Asimov doing the opposite, giving us a story in which a smart guy tricks the strong guy.  In one of the stories I read in the first volume of the Foundation series the heroes win by selling to the villains a space battleship that they have sabotaged.  The villains are so stupid they don't realize the ship has been sabotaged and try to use it to conquer some planet or other, and of course are humiliated when their weapons don't work.  Maybe this is the wish fulfillment fantasy of a smart but weak kid, but to me, this is not drama.

Maybe it was not obvious to Asimov, but it seems obvious to me why stories of strong guys fighting hand to hand with enemies and monsters is appealing -- it is an allegory for our lives, which are a long lonely struggle which we are doomed to lose.  And it is obvious why people like the story of the ordinary man who defeats the smart man who has specialized knowledge.  In our everyday lives we are all at the mercy of people who are smarter than we are, or have knowledge we lack: lawyers, politicians, doctors, bankers, car mechanics, etc.  These people could use their specialized knowledge to take advantage of us, and sometimes they do.  And of course many people envy the wealth that clever people in our modern society can accumulate.  So of course people like the idea of the barbarian overcoming the crafty wizard.  Who would identify with a guy who sells another guy defective merchandise, a guy who wins by lying, by trickery? A lot of people, apparently, because we see Foundation on these lists all the time, but I don't get it.  

39) Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman
This is the guy who hates religion, right?  I'm an atheist already, so what would be the point of me reading this book?  Religion in the West has been in decline for centuries; is it fun to kick a man when he is already down? 

My brother read some of these His Dark Materials books, and said the early ones were good, but they got worse as more and more anti-religious stuff took over the page count.

40) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
This is the basis of the film Blade Runner, I believe.  I thought that movie was OK, but apparently it is common for people to praise it extravagantly.  Once I was sitting with two college professors, and one of them told the other that Blade Runner was the movie that best portrayed "the urban space," or some jargon like that.  I think they were talking about the movie Children of Men, which he had just seen and thought was Blade Runner's only competition for top spot in depicting what city life was all about.  I haven't seen Children of Men, and I haven't read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and I don't need to use the I Ching to tell me I am probably not going to do either.

41) Anathem by Neal Stephenson
This guy has a good reputation, but somehow his books always look like a slog, like a project, and self-consciously educational. Forbidding.

42) The Black Company by Glen Cook
I have read all ten of the Black Company books, and enjoyed and recommend the first four.  The first one, or maybe the "spin off," The Silver Spike, are the best.  As the series ground on it became slower paced and eventually tedious, but out of curiosity I read them all.

The Black Company are a bunch of ruthless jerk offs, a mercenary unit in a world dominated by warring evil wizards. In the first episode of the book the Black Company betrays and murders the people who have hired them because they realize they are on the losing side of a war. The cool thing about the first book is that Cook conceives of ten bizarre evil wizards, each one with a cool name, like The Hanged Man or Nightcrawler or The Howler, and each one has a weird deformity, strange mannerisms, and special powers.  I would have loved reading about these wizards and their insane adventures trying to conquer the world and each other.  Unfortunately, these wizards all get killed pretty quickly.

The books in the Black Company series are the record of the Company's career, written by the unit's annalist.  Early in the first book the Black Company is hired by a female wizard known as The Lady, the most ruthless, evil and powerful wizard in the world.  In a bizarre piece of foreshadowing, the annalist entertains the Black Company's troops by writing and reciting pornographic stories about his imaginary love affair with The Lady!  (This pornography is not reproduced in the book.  You can decide on your own if this makes the books more attractive or less attractive.)  Then, to my dismay, the Lady is overthrown and joins the Black Company and turns out not to be a bad person after all and the Black Company starts being the good guys.  With the Black Company now the good guys, the series loses much of what made it distinctive. 

The Silver Spike is a sort of noirish story of criminals who mess with an undead wizard or something like that; there are lots of plot twists and double crosses and so forth.  I liked it.

43 & 44) The Dragon Prince by Melanie Rawn and The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
I saw these, but I didn't touch them.

45) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll      
I haven't read this.  My wife read it some years ago.  I may read it someday. 

46) Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes
It took three guys to write this?

I read this when it was new, a million years ago.  As I remember, some guys try to explore or colonize a planet, and some monster attacks them.  This novel is an homage to "Beowulf;" the monster is called "a grendel."  I'm not exactly a fan of the whole "I'm going to rewrite Romeo and Juliet and put it in a New York slum," or "I'm going to write Moby Dick, but in outer space," or "I'm going to write a feminist version of the Trojan War," school of literature.  I guess everybody thinks they can do this because James Joyce did it.

I did like when Gilligan and the Professor put on their own production of Hamlet, though.

I guess I liked Legacy of Heorot, but was disappointed that there weren't more monsters or something else going on with the plot.  Or maybe Niven's, Pournelle's and/or Barnes's writing style wasn't doing it for me.  Still, I'd consider reading this again.

Niven and Pournelle aren't exactly master wordsmiths, but they seem like smart guys and Niven definitely has good ideas when it comes to setting.  I liked the setting of the two Integral Trees books, and Ringworld was alright, and Mote in God's Eye was pretty good.  I'm a little surprised Legacy of Heorot is here and not Mote.  I'd bet a million dollars Mote is more famous and sold more copies.

My rule of thumb, based on my career working at book stores and in academia, is that when more than one author is listed, the last person listed probably actually wrote the book.  So I'm guessing Steven Barnes did most of the work on Legacy of Heorot[UPDATE AUGUST 19, 2022:  As a helpful commenter pointed out, I mixed up John and Steven Barnes here.  Doh!]  I have two John Barnes books on my shelf, but I haven't read them yet.  I bought them because Orson Scott Card and Poul Anderson both compare Barnes to Heinlein.  I should make an effort to read them.

47) Dark is the Sun by Phillip Jose Farmer
I am surprised this is on here instead of To Your Scattered Bodies Go.  I have mixed feelings about Farmer, who tries to do adventure stories like, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but tries to make them more "modern" or sexy.  I've read several of Farmer's books, with To Your Scattered Bodies Go being good, Maker of Universes bad, and Dayworld and Dare average.  I might read Dark is the Sun if I stumble on it for a few dollars or at a library.  The cover looks like that of a solid adventure story, and my man Tarbandu at PorPor Books Blog praises it.

48) Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
I've considered reading Weber, but never actually done it.  I am interested in military history (I have big piles of books about WWII tanks and planes and ships, books about Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, a stack of those Osprey books about medieval knights and WWII infantry tactics, etc.) and like the idea of space navies fighting vast wars, but the few times I've tried to read "military SF" I've been disappointed.  Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Haldeman's Forever War, and the Aubrey/Maturin books by Patrick O'Brian are good fiction about guys participating in wars because Heinlein, Haldeman and O'Brian are good writers, and their books are about more than just fighting, they are about politics, society, human relationships, etc.  I guess I'm worried that Weber's books will just be page after page of people shooting it out, and I have no idea if Weber is a good writer.  Perhaps I am doing him a disservice.

49) Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
This is, in my opinion, Silverberg's best book, and the book of his I'd expect to see on a list like this, a book that is quite like a modern mainstream literary novel, about a smart guy living in a big city, trying to face life and its challenges and changes.  I think this is the kind of book a person who reads Nabokov and Saul Bellow, but looks down at science fiction, could enjoy.

50) Watch on the Rhine by John Ringo and Tom Kratman
Most of what I say about David Weber above could probably go for John Ringo.  This book, according to the synopsis on Wikipedia, seems kind of crazy, like it was deliberately written to piss people off.  Aliens attack the Earth, so the Earth raises the Waffen SS from the dead to fight them?  Cripes!   


Tomorrow the saga of Half Price Books' list of 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books will continue.     

Friday, December 13, 2013

Half Price Books' List of 100 SF Novels: 1 to 25

Half Price Books' free calendar has 12 lists of books in it, but except for the "classics" list they consist almost entirely of books I have not read, will not read, or have not even heard of.  Jesse of the Speculiction blog, in the comments to my post about the 10 book classics list, points out a full 100 book list of science fiction and fantasy books from my buddies at Half Price Books.  It actually is a pretty good list; I have read at least some of 30 of them, and have inchoate opinions on many of the others based on prejudices, hunches, knowledge of the author's other work, and augury.
Today I will tackle just 25 of these, which were apparently chosen by a panel of "3,000 bibliomaniacs."

1) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
This is one of those books I haven't read but feel like I know because everyone is always talking about it.  The plot seems good, and isn't it a riff on a one page scene from a Heinlein novel, maybe Space Cadet, in which a young person sits in a simulator and has to plot the defense of the Earth as part of the entrance exam or assessment when he joins the Space Patrol?  As a kid I loved that scene, and had elaborate day dreams about playing that kind of video game.

Card is an important SF writer and very popular, and also controversial because of his political and religious beliefs, so I should probably read some of his work, but for whatever reason I have only read one story by him, "Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory."  I remember thinking it was good, both horrible and thought-provoking.

We were supposed to read Wyrms in the Science Fiction course I took at Rutgers, but we didn't get to it.  The prof, who was a young guy and tried to include jokes in his lectures, told us his one word review of Wyrms was "Ewwww...."

Maybe someday I'll read Ender's Game.  First I will probably hunt down some of Card's short fiction.

2) Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin  
I haven't read this, and haven't even really considered reading it.  I played Dungeons and Dragons like a fiend as a kid, and enjoy many sword fighting fantasy stories, like Howard's Conan, Lieber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Hugh Cook's Chronicles of an Age of Darkness, but somehow this hasn't appealed to me.  For one thing, I like stories about individuals, stories with a singular point of view, and I generally don't like those sagas in which there are twenty different characters from eight different families snubbing each other at parties and stabbing each other in the back, and my spider sense tells me these Game of Thrones books are likely to fall into the latter category.    

I have a funny story about Game of Thrones, however.  One day my sister-in-law came over and said to my wife and me, "I started watching 'Crown of Thorns.'"  We asked her how she liked it, and were amazed when she started talking about it, because we had thought she must have been talking about a documentary about Jesus Christ which we had never heard of.

3) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I read this in my youth and as an adult a second time, and it is a very good novel, and a very good science fiction novel, because it tries to create a future society based on various premises and more or less succeeds.  Part of its fame rests on the fact that it endorses values that we are all expected to embrace, opposition to censorship and advocacy of free speech, but the book is also provocative: the censorship in the book is a government response to the demands of minority interest groups.  Also provocative are Bradbury's attack on television and his idea that an atomic war could actually make way for a rebirth of a better society.  Fahrenheit 451 doesn't just comfort the reader by agreeing with him that censorship is wrong, it challenges and surprises the reader.

4, 5, 6 & 7) The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkein  
I have read this twice, as a kid and as an adult, and liked it.  It is full of striking images and it actually does affect the reader on an emotional level, at least it did me; I had tears in my eyes in the end when the elves and one of the hobbits goes off to wherever it is they go off to, the moon or something?  Tolkein's old-fashioned conservatism, all that jazz about who has the blood and how factories are disgusting, and his celebration of feudal relationships like that between Sam and Frodo, is an interesting contrast to the modern middle-class "conservatism" that embraces individualism and capitalism.

The world Tolkien creates is vivid, but it is also odd in that it almost totally neglects some of the things that really matter in our lives, like sex, money, and religion.  Robert Howard's Conan stories and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales, like our real lives, are full of merchants, gods and priests, and sexual relationships, and the characters, like people in real life, are driven by desire for money and/or sex, or by religious motives.  One could argue that leaving out sex, money and religion is a weakness of Lord of the Rings, but it must have been a conscious artistic choice of Tolkein's, and since the story works so well the choice cannot have been a bad one.  Tolkein's treatment of war, friendship, and politics is quite good, and perhaps throwing in more topics would just have been distracting.

8) Neuromancer by William Gibson
I doubt I'll ever read this; I'm not that interested in computers or "cyberpunk."  I think "steampunk" is a sexy and interesting aesthetic, but I'm not interested in reading a book about it.  I don't really like punk rock, though I do like those early Cure albums and outtakes like "I Want to Be Old" and "I Just Need Myself."  I never watched the version of "Candid Camera" called "Punked."  I didn't watch "Punky Brewster," either.  

Did I say I haven't read Neuromancer?

9) Hyperion by Dan Simmons
I savaged this in an Amazon review years ago for being too full of references and allusions to mainstream and genre literature, and being too histrionic in general. I actually like much of Simmons's source material and the classics he name checks, like Jack Vance and the Fitzgerald translation of The Aeneid, but I couldn't take this novel.

10) Dune by Frank Herbert 
I tried to read this as a kid and gave up on it quickly.  Maybe I should try it again.  Based on the David Lynch movie, which I saw in the theater as a kid, the plot and its various elements seem good.

Jack Vance trivia: Vance and Herbert were friends, but Vance didn't like Herbert's work, as it contained too much mysticism. 

11) The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
Is this really a novel?  Looking at Wikipedia, I'm surprised at how many different versions the book and the stories which make it up have gone through.

I've never actually sat down and read this collection, but I have read versions of many of the component stories, and thought them all worthwhile.  "The Silent Towns" is a great misogynist story about how the last human male on Mars is repelled by the last human female on Mars, and is the one I read most recently.   I also read "The Wilderness" (women are about to move to Mars to meet husbands, like 19th century women on the American frontier) relatively recently.  Many of the stories, like "Ylla," "Mars is Heaven!" "There Will Come Soft Rains," and "Million Year Picnic" are famous classics which I have experienced in TV or comic book form. 

12) Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
I am a Heinlein fan, but I started this one as a kid and gave up pretty quickly.  I was pretty fickle as a kid.  Probably I should read it.  Is this the one in which there is a painter who takes photos and then paints over the photo?  For some reason that has stuck in my mind.

13) 1984 by George Orwell 
Orwell has a very good writing style and this is a great novel, very immersive and effective.

14) Ubik by Philip K. Dick
I haven't read this, in fact, I think I have only read one Dick book, and I can't quite recall which one.  The way people talk about Dick's work doesn't make it sound very appealing to me.

15) Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin
See 2.

16) The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
As with The Martian Chronicles, I have read a bunch of these stories over the years in various places.  For the most part I like them.

I always think "The Veldt" is a little overrated.  I can't quite suspend my disbelief enough; the TV animals come to life and kill the parents?  "The Rocket" is too sappy for me.  "Kaleidoscope,"  "Zero Hour," "The Visitor," "The Long Rain," and "The City" I have fond memories of.

17) "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell
I have read two novels about space war by famous SF editor Campbell, Ultimate Weapon and Invaders from the Infinite, and was not particularly impressed.  I've read one or two of his short stories, but can't recall anything about them.  I should read more of his short fiction; maybe someday.  I also haven't seen either of the movies based on this story.

These 3,000 bibliomaniacs must really be into esoterica if they put this above anything by Asimov, Gaiman and LeGuin.  Was there a surplus of these on the remainder pile?

18) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Never heard of it.

19) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
I read this as a kid and liked it.  One day at the Rutgers library I looked at Alexei Panshin's book of criticism of Heinlein.  Panshin leveled a number of very effective criticisms at The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and for decades now I have been thinking I should reread the book and reassess both the Heinlein novel and Panshin's criticism.  I should also reread this because as a kid I knew absolutely zero about history or politics or sex, and many things probably flew right by me.  I think the thing I liked about it as a kid was Heinlein's style, and the idea of making friends with a computer.  I don't really find computers very interesting, but the friendship between the narrator and Mike the computer, somehow, touched me.  I was a lonely kid. 

As an adult I was thrilled when I first read the passages in the second volume of Proust in which Proust tells us friendship is a load of crap.  It's not just me, I realized.  

20) The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
Never heard of it.  I also haven't read Jane Eyre.

A name that starts with two consonants is sexy, though.  Two consonants in the middle of a name, like "Ylla," is also sexy.  Two consonants at the end is useless, though.  Sorry to all you Jeffs and Bills out there.  I also think it is sexy when you can call a woman by a traditionally male name, like calling a Roberta "Bob" or a Mikella "Mike."  It's like women in men's clothes, like those famous Dietrich photos or Ingrid Bergman decked out in armor in Joan of Arc.  Jasper can be a man's name or a woman's name, can't it?

Anyway, Jasper Fforde has the best name on this list.  Congrats to him or her.

21) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
I read this in 6th grade.  Or maybe just the start of it.  Fickle, fickle.  Is this the one in which an Arab and/or Muslim dictator has an atomic bomb, and some kid decides to say "Fewmets" instead of "shit?"  That's all I remember.

I remember what grade I read (part?) of A Wrinkle in Time in because I remember the particular teacher who loaned it to me, the specialist that ran the "Gifted and Talented" program at my grammar school, a program which, I know not how, I was included in.  When I was a kid people thought I was going somewhere in life.  Joke's on them.  

22) The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
I never read these.  (I read Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet and didn't like it very much.)  Tilda Swinton looked pretty good in the movie, though.  Just imagine if her name was Ttilda Swintton.  Hubba hubba.   

23 & 24) The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
I've heard of these.  That is all.

25) Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
I think a lot of kids read this when I was in grammar school, but I haven't read it.  Was there a TV version or something that was pushing sales?

I like Bradbury, but it is a little funny the way he criticized TV in Fahrenheit 451 (and I guess in "The Veldt") but embraced TV as part of his career. 


Tomorrow I will assault 25 more of the SF books on Half Price Book's list.  Stay tuned for more trivia about my early life and clues as to which actresses I think are pretty.