Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Diary of a Nobody

Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: The War with the Newts

The War with the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936)

A Czech sea captain discovers a strange race of amphibians about the size of a child living in a remote lagoon in the Dutch East Indies.  Though these giant newts are intelligent, they are trapped in the lagoon and their numbers kept small by the constant attacks by the local sharks.  The captain trades the newts knives and harpoons in exchange for pearl oysters and within a year he has the backing of a major financier to trade more goods for pearls.  Partly out of fondness of the newts, the captain starts transporting the newts to other islands until they spread throughout the Indies and the Pacific.  Soon the existence of the newts is learned by the world.  At first they're seen as curiosities, then as useful animals capable of manual labour for underwater work, then as an alien race that could be the source of valuable work and as a market for the world's goods.  Unfortunately, the relationship between man and newt begins and continues to be tense.  Within twenty years of their discovery, the newts, which now number in the tens of billions, declare war on mankind and demand the right to flood all the lands of Earth to give the newts more living room.

Better known of his play RUR, Karl Čapek's The War with the Newts is his darkly satirical take on the world of the 1930s.  His targets are so disperse, so universal that the story lacks any solid through-line except for the general progress of the Age of the Newts.  Instead, it's more a collection of episodes, news accounts, scientific papers and footnotes.  Some parts are broadly comic, some are savage commentary and some are thinly disguised polemic about the ills of the modern world.  In the process, Čapek takes his shots at the British, Americans, Germans, Communists, Fascists, Capitalists, the French, colonialism, mercantilism, racialism, consumerism, religion, education, rationalism and a host of others.

The newts are neatly drawn by Čapek.  They are sympathetic, but also very alien and frightening.  That's partly because the humans are utterly oblivious to how they are giving the newts the means to destroy mankind and partly because the newts are not the sort of lofty noble savages that a lesser writer would have employed.  At first, the newts are simple and friendly.  Then it's discovered that their tastes are that of a vulgar reader of evening newspapers.  Then that they are a race without art, music, poetry, philosophy or anything else beyond the pragmatic and the productive.

The satire can often be too heavy and some passages are a bit too detailed for their purpose, but as a satire, it does it's job very well.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Review: Islands in the Sky

Islands in the Sky by Arthur C Clarke (1952)

Young Roy Malcolm wins a quiz show competition and travels to Inner Station, a low-earth orbit space station that is mankind's jumping off point to the Moon and planets.  There he sees all the wonders of this new technological frontier, meets the men forging it and has some minor adventures before returning home.

Islands is one of Clarke's earlier and lesser-known books.  Aimed at the juvenile market, it really is incredibly anaemic.  Roy, who is almost never referred to by name, goes on holiday, sees a bunch of stuff and goes home.  That, aside from a side trip in a clapped-out spaceship, is it.  This isn't entirely surprising.  The whole point of the exercise is to give Clarke and excuse to take the reader on a guided tour of all the wonderful technology and sights of outer space that the future would hold.  And, true, he does do a very good job introducing the neophyte to things like space shuttles, stations, spacesuits, spaceships, artificial gravity and the like, which must have been very interesting in 1952 when the V2 was still hot stuff, but putting it into a fictional guise is frustrating.  Nothing happens, there is no suspense, no conflict, no tension, no nothing.  The characters aren't wooden; they're more like painted with very wispy brush strokes so as to not distract from the bigger picture.

This is a novel that would have been better served as a feature article along the lines of Clarke's "So, You're Going to Mars", which he wrote for Reader's Digest.  That worked.  As a story, this is as flat as lead foil.  In fact, in the 1960s, Popular Science  published an abridged version of the novel that whittled the plot up so much that I came away thinking that the teenage protagonist was, in fact, an adult journalist on assignment.  It worked much better.

Patrick Moore, in a foreword written for the 1970 edition, told the reader that he'll probably get through the whole book in one sitting.  Sorry, it was so dull that it took me six days of concentrated effort to finish it.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: Swords and Deviltry

Swords and Deviltry by Frtiz Leiber (1970)

In the smog-laden warrens of fabled Lankhmar, a strangely civilised barbarian holding a broadsword meets a little man with a little man dressed in grey flashing a rapier.  What makes the meeting notable is that it occurs while fighting off the bodyguards of the two men they've both been robbing by coincidence.

And so begins the saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; one of the most famous duos in the Sword and Sorcery genre.  But this being on the world of Nehwon, the beginning comes at the end.

Swords and Deviltry is the first volume of the collected short stories and novels by Fritz Leiber concerning the career of these two rogues, thieves and mismatched (or is it perfectly matched?) heroes.  Composed of three novellas and an introductory vignette, it tells of Fafhrd and the Gray Mousers origins and how they came to be comrades.  It's also the weakest of the books because they don't actually meet up until the final novella, "Ill Met in Lankhmar".  This story is the strongest of the three and though it's uncomfortably self-concious in places, it's mixture of adventure, wry humour, and moments of pure horror made it well-deserving of the Nebula and Hugo awards that it scooped up.  Unfortunately, in order to get to it, we must wade through a story of Fafhrd's boyhood in the Cold Wastes (a land so grim, strait-laced and henpecked that it could be mistaken for Minnesota) and a second tale of when the Gray Mouser was a magician's apprentice called Mouse.  Both of these are acceptable stories and the plots do tie in nicely with the dénouement of "Ill Met in Lankhmar", but Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser only really work as characters when they are together.  As solo characters, they just aren't up to the job.  It's a bit like those Mel Smith/Gryf Rhys Jones films of the '80s where the comedians spend nine-tenths of the screen time apart to the disappointment of the audience.

Still, I wouldn't pass up this volume, if only on the grounds of completeness.  The last story of how our heroes, at the urging of their girlfriends and the connivance of several jugs of wine, take on the dreaded thieves guild (and their even more dreaded wizard) and come out both winning and losing.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review: Sharpe's Tiger

Sharpe's Tiger by Bernard Cornwell (1997)

The year is 1799 and the place is Mysore, India, where the British are marching on Tipoo Tiger's stronghold at Seringapatam.  In the ranks of 33rd regiment of Foot is Private Richard Sharpe and he is carefully considering the option of deserting.  That question become moot when the insane Seargent Hakeswill frames Sharpe on a charge of striking him and Sharpe is condemned to 2,000 lashes–a death penalty.  However, the punishment is stopped after 200 and Sharpe is sent to see the expedition's commander, General Harris.  It turns out that an intelligence officer has gone missing in Seringapatam and Lieutenant William Lawford is being sent in to rescue him.  Sharpe, with his scarred back, is ordered to go along to bolster their cover as deserters along with Sharpe's lady, the half-caste Mary Bickerstaff,. On reaching Seringapatam Sharpe and Lawford are accepted into Tipoo's army and discover a deadly trap that the British are walking into blindly.

Chronologically, Sharpe's Tiger is the first of Cornwell's popular Sharpe novels, though actually a later story penned when Cornwell revisited Sharpe's past to fill in the gaps.  When we first meet Sharpe he's about as low on the bottom of life's heap as you can get.  A private in an army he joined to dodge an arrest for murder, he serves under a popinjay of a Captain and a murdering sadist of a Sergeant who plots to kill him and steal his woman.  No wonder desertion seems the better option.  His being tapped for a secret mission behind enemy lines not only saves his life, but puts him on the road that would soon make him an officer and a constant thorn in Bonaparte's side.

The Sharpe we see here is Sharpe as he remains through the series; resourceful, angry, disdainful of officers, dangerous in a fight, irresistible to women and a natural-born leader of men.  And that's just before breakfast.  However, this story is refreshing because we see the first time Sharpe's qualities are allowed to come to the fore, how unnerving it is for Lieutenant Lawford when he finds himself reversing roles with Private Sharpe and how Sharpe loses his woman not so much to a romantic rival as to her Indian heritage.  It's also where we see the moment when Sharpe realises he isn't just a man who's in the army; he's a soldier.

As usual, Cornwell does his history proper and moulds fact and fiction neatly. The Sharpe novels are one of those reads that a man picks up and enjoys like a well-drawing pipe, but causes the wife to shake her head; unable to quite see what's the attraction of blood, thunder, sex and secret missions in a colonial war two hundred years ago.  Oddly, enough I can never explain it to her because what mystifies her is the explanation.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Review: Logan's Run

Logan's Run by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (1967)

The year is 2116 and Logan 3 is a Sandman; a combination of policeman and executioner charged with the duty of tracking down and killing anyone who commits the heinous crime of wanting to live beyond their 21th birthday.  Armed with the Gun, a weapon with a small arsenal of specialised bullets, he is an efficient killing machine.  He has also just turned 21 and as the crystal implanted in his palm blinks from red to black, he decides to spend the last 24 hours of his life hunting down the legendary runner's haven of Sanctuary and destroy it.  Accidentally thrown together with Jessica 6, the twin sister of the last man Logan killed, they follow the path to Sanctuary, but the way isn't easy as they find themselves thrown from peril to peril in this brave new world.

One of the most famous slogans of the '60s Counterculture was "never trust any over thirty".  Logan's Run takes that motto and the entire cult of youth that marked the era and took them to their logical conclusion.  It's a time after the year 2000 when the Baby Boomers kept on booming until those under 21 were the largest demographic in the world–and the sealed their supremacy by executing all their elders.  This is a world where merely being an adult is a crime and where youth is worshiped above all else.

Those who know Logan's Run only through the 1976 film will be surprised by the difference between the two. Of necessity, the filmmakers had to trim the story and streamline the plot.  They also had to narrow the world down to a single, self-contained city cut off from the world by a nuclear holocaust that culled its population for reasons of stability.  The cinematic version is also much cleaner and brighter–probably to show up the hedonistic nature of the place and contrasting its darker meaning.  Logan's world in the novel is gritty and dangerous; a place of jet-broom gypsies and Arctic penal colonies.  And Logan himself is, in many ways, a cold and dangerous character who only as the story progresses starts to turn against his wasteful and nihilistic society.

That being said, the characters here are a bit flat, but that's as to be expected.  This is more Wizard of Oz than Brave New World and Logan and Jessica act more as the reader's stand-ins as they tour from one bizarre setting to the next, whether it's the deadly slum of Cathedral or the giant computer beneath Mount Rushmore or the robot recreation of the American Civil War.

The only real criticism is that Nolan and Johnson have trouble keeping their characters in focus.  Though they firmly establish that no one is over 21, too many characters act as though they're much older with much more history behind them.  They've put a lot of effort into their teenage world, but they seem to have forgotten that it's inhabited by teenagers.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Review: The Puppet Masters

The Puppet Masters by Robert A Heinlein (1951)

 A flying saucer lands in Iowa and almost immediately the locals start acting strangely.  Conflicting news reports come in; some saying that the landing is real, others that it's a hoax.  US Intelligence sends in a team that quickly discovers that not only is the landing real, but that its passengers are horrible slug-like aliens that latch onto the backs of their human victims and turn them into zombies obedient to the aliens' slightest command.  Soon the United States and the world are locked in battle with the invaders for control of the planet and the future of the human race.

Heinlein's 1951 novel was one of Heinlein's first to tackle an adult novel and given the couple of racy scenes of sex and violence that the editors cut out, he made a damn good go of it.  Like most science fiction stories, it suffers from the fact that most people only remember it for the "idea" and the problem it poses.  What would happen if creatures that could ride people like horses and control them like super Communists invaded the Earth?  How would they go about it?  How would the Earthmen react?  How would each side try to counter the other.  A lot of it is fairly logical and the book is probably best remembered for Heinlein's idea that if such a thing happened, mandatory nudity would be implemented.  The latter is interesting for three reasons:  First, it has story potential; second, it spotlights Heinlein's view that the best way to carry out social engineering is to put a gun to people's heads and three, Heinlein's personal interest in nudism makes it very creepy in retrospect.

The characters, on the other hand are classic Heinlein.  The narrator is Sam, an intelligence agent who is the typical Heinlein Competent Man, though the young and still we behind the ears version.  It's through him we see the war and what it's like to be a victim of the invaders when he's taken over by one.  Then there's the standard  Old Man, who is the fully developed Competent Man and acts as Sam's teacher.  He's also, we later learn, his father.  This provides some personal drama, but not enough to dispel the whiff of the cracker barrel the hangs over all of Heinlein's Old Men,.  And finally, Mary, who is the typical Heinlein heroine; Competent, hardly described at all and begging to be made gravid by the Sam.  She's also maddening because of Heinlein's insistence on lumbering with pointless things like being able to produce guns out of thin air, making her the centre of a flat romance where Sam literally proposes to her the moment he meets her, and the insufferable tendency of Heinlein to alter her from moment to moment as a convenient plot device.

Part science fiction, part cheap spy thriller, the one place where the novel really falls down is in portraying its world.  Though clearly set in the future, Heinlein is never able to sustain any sense of period despite throwing in flying cars, Venus colonies, implanted phones, flying cars and blasters. No matter what prop he rolls out, it still feels solidly like 1951.  Perhaps it's because Heinlein makes no bones about the invaders being proxies for the Stalinists who were giving the world so much jip at the time.  It sometimes reads like an overblown version of the minutes of the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

Not that this detracts from the fun of the book, and it is fun.  Heinlein clearly is aware that he isn't good at portraying mounting dread, so he starts out the plot with a bang and lots of shooting.  With a couple of notable lapses, Heinlein keeps the story moving forward with only one really pointless detour when Sam and Mary go on a needless honeymoon and the spots where Heinlein insists on editorialising.

Imitated and baldly ripped-off over the years as well as subjected to a disappointing film treatment in 1994, The Puppet Masters is still a prime example of the Grandmaster of science fiction at the height of his powers.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Review; The Best of Henry Kuttner

The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975)

Henry Kuttner was a remarkable science fiction writer with a quirky, broad repertoire that never failed to delight or surprise.  This collection of short stories published between 1939 and 1955 is in no way exhaustive, but it does serve as an excellent introduction to the breadth of his talents.  In here can be found what is probably his most famous story, "The Proud Robot", a couple of the marvelous Hogbens stories, the whimsical fantasy of "Housing Problem" and the bittersweet commentary on parenting, "Mimsy Were the Borogroves"

Reprinted recently as "The Last Mimsy", it is an excellent example of a bad movie acting as an excuse to republish a far superior book.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Review: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin (1998)

Here we see the Seven Kingdoms at war as Robb Stark declares himself King of the North and the brothers of the dead King Robert both declare themselves the true heirs to throne while denouncing the incest-sired bastard King Joffrey.  Tyrian tries to keep Joffrey's follies from getting everyone in King's Landing killed, at the same time, Jon Snow is riding into the unknown of the North and across the seas, Queen Daenerys tries to keep her nomad kingdom together.

The second part of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, we have all the strengths and weaknesses of part one, but with more of the weaknesses laid on.  The main characters are still well drawn, but there are far too many of them and the secondary characters are a blurry mass.   And there are those maddening parallel plots that seem be never destined to actually converge.  Martin also has increasing trouble keeping so many balls in the air with plot lines chopping off, fading out and never coming to an adequate resolution.  He even falls to the amateurish fault of reusing the same plot device over and over again.  How many sudden rescues can there be in one story?  And if you're going to get a character drunk to get the truth out of him, do it only once per series, please–not twice in the same book!

But the worst problem with A Clash of Kings is that it slowly (there's no other pace here) becomes obvious that Martin is aiming for quantity over quality.  There is a lot of story here, but it isn't due to depth nor to complexity, but merely by layering character on character and storyline on storyline and then resolving never to move anything forward with any sort of speed.  Though there's a lot of fighting, intriguing, running about and simplistic brutality masquerading as realism, the plot hardly moves at all from chapter one to chapter 187,265.  Worse, it promises to get even slower as Martin in future volumes apparently hits on the idea of not making the next a continuance of the story, but more parallel plot lines to the ones in the previous book.

Any slower and this series will start to roll backwards.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams (1980)

Earthman Arthur Dent, his Betelgeusean friend Ford Prefect, ex-galactic president and con man Zaphod Beeblebrox, Zaphod's astrophysicist girlfriend Trillian and Marvin the Paranoid Android are a bit peckish after escaping certain death several times and decide to stop off for a bite to eat.  Unfortunately, there plans are disrupted by an attack by a Vogon fleet, sidetracking to Ursa Major, getting dumped into the Total Perspective Vortex and meeting the ruler of the universe.  They are, in other words, famished by the time they reach the titular eatery.

Then things get weird.

The second volume in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy in five parts, Restaurant is also the last volume to follow the BBC Four radio scripts as a guide.  After this, it's all virgin territory.  While very entertaining, Restaurant, isn't as uproariously funny as the first instalment and the jiggling and cutting from the radio scripts often only serves to show the superiority of the source material.  It also suffers from the fact that Adams clearly intended the series to end here, but Fate and paperback sales said otherwise, so we end up with an ending that isn't really an ending.  That does not, however, keep it from being a really hoopy read.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: Dying Inside

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg (1972)

This is the book that I keep pointing to after a disappointing half hour skimming the new sci fi books down the local book shops.  This is the sort of book that is just not written today; a small story focusing on an individual caught up in a fantastic situation.  There aren't any vampire armies here or invading alien fleets facing those of Earth.  There aren't any parallel societies or huge societal changes.  No galactic dynasties or... look at the shelves yourself and you'll see what I mean.

This is the story of David Selig; a middle-aged man in New York who makes his meagre living ghost writing term papers for students at Columbia University.  He is down and out, lonely, disaffected–and he's telepathic.  He's used his powers since childhood as a substitute for human contact.  Why bother to connect with people when you can read their psyche like a railway timetable?  He can touch people's minds and enjoy the heady ecstasy of seeing their souls.  Unfortunately, as he hits his forties, Selig is starting to lose his powers.  He is dying inside.

This is not a slam-bang adventure novel, nor is it filled with the sort of tropes that science fiction has been lumbered with since the genre started dying in the 1970s.  This is a sort of Rake's Progress or mid-life crisis novel about what happens to a man whose gift has also been his curse who finds that gift starting to go away.  It's also an interesting take on the idea of the superman where this particular superman discovers that his power is ruining his life because it utterly alienates him from his fellow man.  Even when he learns that there are other telepaths in the world, he soon realises that even the most successful have shrivelled souls.

My recommendation put away your inch-thick "first volume of the ____ saga" where "Ensign ____ of the Family _____, who have protected the ______ Federation for eleventy generations must _____ her ______ as the feared _____ invade______ space" and pick up a book that actually has something that it wants to say.  It's not the best sci fi ever written, but even forty years later, it is damned refreshing.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Review: Who?

Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)

An American nuclear scientist is injured in an explosion near the Iron Curtain.  A Soviet team responds and carries him over the border for medical attention.  When he is released four months later, Allied intelligence are presented with a man with a stainless-steel skull, an artificial arm and a chest filled with mechanical organs.  Is this Dr Lucas Martino?  A Soviet agent?  Who?

On the surface, Who? is a Cold War espionage novel revolving around the mystery of who the man with the metal head is.   How, in the absence of the usual tests can his identity be established?  He has no face, no teeth to match against dental records and his one remaining arm is certainly Martino's, but is the rest of the body his?  How can you even question a man who doesn't react properly because his organs are now artificial?  Worse, how far can security conciousness go before it becomes counter-productive?  How much doubt is reasonable doubt?  This works as a lightweight thriller and there's even a coy twist when we learn that the KGB mastermind is as equally worried about his Western counterpart as the other way around.  However, Who? is a much deeper novel as it parallels the problem of who the mystery man is against the life of Dr Martino.  In flashbacks, we see the maturing of a young genius as he follows a carefully thought-out career that leaves him little room for a personal life.  As the story progresses, it soon becomes apparent that part of the reason this mystery exists is that before his accident Martino was already something of a cipher; a man as dedicated to his work as a thinking machine whose lack of friends and family make it so easy for him to vanish inside his steel shell.

Part spy story and part study about a man being forced to rediscover the life that he turned his back on and attempt to reconnect with a world he'd cut himself off from, Who? is another example of the sort of small sci fi stories that don't get written today.