Thursday, October 24, 2019

Frederik Pohl, Digits and Dastards (1966)

Pohl, Frederik. Digits and Dastards. New York: Ballantine Books, June 1966. (my edition)

Digits and Dastards at ISFdb
Digits and Dastards at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     5/10


With the exception of "Fiend," published in Playboy, the short stories and novelettes in Frederik Pohl's Digits and Dastards were originally published in Galaxy Magazine and Worlds of If. Four of these five were published during the 1960s when Pohl himself was editor of both. Of the six total stories, five were published in 1963 or 1964, with the sixth in 1955. The stories are largely forgettable, though I did like "Father of the Stars" to a point. Not terrible, but as average as these are, none are memorable.

Alongside the stories are two essays on binary numbers, and a brief introduction that explains their conception. Dated but somewhat enjoyable to speed through.


The Children of the Night     6/10
Galaxy Magazine, October 1964. pp 158-194
Not too long after a war with the Arcturians, a race of aliens who decimated a human colony on Mars, a public relations firm takes on the challenging job of easing the aliens' bid to build a port in the town of Belport. (Yes, Belport, as in the unsubtle "beautiful port.") Relations chief Odin "Gunner" Gunnarsen must navigate the tense political and social realities of small-town America, made more difficult when he learns of the children living in the local hospital, who were permanently maimed by the alien race. An interesting read and perhaps the strongest story in the mix.


The Fiend     5/10
Playboy, April 1964.
The titular subject is Dandish, the sole crew of a ship transporting frozen colonists. He awakens a young woman, thinking he could have his way with her. An interesting enough idea, but unfortunately the female character is dated and not at all engaging, and the story does not do very much with its material.


Earth Eighteen     4/10
Galaxy Magazine, April 1964 (as "by Ernst Mason"). pp 106-119
A tour guide takes the alien traveller across a post-apocalyptic USA, where the human inhabitants are few. A cutesy idea which for me was not at all funny. After a couple of pages I admit I skipped some paragraphs.


Father of the Stars     7/10
Galaxy Magazine, April 1964. pp 110-127
Norman Marchand has spent his life devoted to space exploration and the dream of colonizing other worlds, and has succeeded years ago to raise the funds to send some ships carting colonists into deep space. Now elderly and nearing death, he is given a chance to visit deep space and catch up with one of the ships, thanks to a recently developed FTL drive. Depressed that someone can steal his glory and downgrade his life-long endeavor, he nonetheless allows his brain to be transplanted into an ape in order to make the trip.

Despite the sentimental ending, I did like this one, primarily because I found myself sympathizing with the protagonist, something I could not do for Pohl's other characters in these stories. Also, and I liked the brain-to-monkey transfer thing, as comical as it sounds, and thought Pohl did well in characterizing Marchand in ape form. Though it cross my mind we'd encounter a three-quarter submerged Stature of Liberty somewhere along the way. My favourite story from the collection.


The Five Hells of Orion     6/10
Worlds of If, January 1963. pp 6-31
A navigator in deep space finds himself captive on an alien vessel, with no recollection of how he arrived. The aliens, meanwhile, are letting loose a series of tests on the man. The story begins with back-and-forth point of view, and is interesting until the human fully takes over the narrative. The first third is quite good and suspenseful, whereas the middle section drags, and the last portion is rushed through. Oddly, the story's tone takes a major shift, beginning with a light humourous take on the aliens, and at the half-way mark maintaining a solely dramatic tone. The story reads as though Pohl was nearing a deadline and did not present the final draft he had originally intended.


With Redfern on Capella XII     5/10
Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1955 (as "by Charles Satterfield). pp 120-146
About to be set on fire by the local Fnits, Redfern is freed and becomes allied with a foursome hoping to dupe the planet's gullible inhabitants. The story starts off interestingly enough, but soon the characters do not transcend their comical stereotypes, and the story, dated as it is, is both sexist and ageist.


How to Count on Your Fingers     (essay)
Science Fiction Stories, September 1956. pp 85-102


On Binary Digits and Human Habits     (essay)
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1962. pp 69-80


I have the first 1966 Ballantine edition, in terrible condition, and am getting rid of it along with a stack of other old sci-fi books I had kept only to read. If anyone wants this mailed to them in a plain envelope, let me know.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Theodore Sturgeon, Starshine (1966)

Sturgeon, Theodore. Starshine. Pyramid Books: December 1966.
______. Starshine. Pyramid Books: March 1969. (my edition, pictured)

Starshine at Goodreads
Starshine at ISFdb


Overall Rating:     6/10

At the time of publication, many prolific genre short story writers were having small paperback collections published regularly. Since producing these thin paperbacks at the time was an inexpensive exercise, allowing the books to be sold cheaply, publishers released as many titles as possible (or as seemed reasonable). Often stories were reprinted several times across different collections, so that some of these collections mirrored each other by more than half their content (Brian Aldiss immediately comes to mind). In the case of Sturgeon (and others of course), once the popular stories saw print, publishers pillaged the pulps for the less interesting pieces, in order to continue releasing collections under these popular names. Therefore, the latter books during this run tended to be generally weaker.

Sturgeon's Starshine was his fourteenth collection, and the sixth published in English in the 1960s. Half the content was published in the early 1940s, and only one was published in the 1960s (in 1961), which was a straighforward  and fairly standard mystery. Slim in size and content, it contains only six stories, including three novelettes, which is unfortunate since weaker stories in a longer format are more painful to plod through than a bad short short. The collection is not terrible, merely average, and the only strong story, "The World Well Lost," had already been included in Sturgeon's respected second collection, from 1953, E Pluribus Unicorn.


"Derm Fool"     6/10
Unknown Fantasy Fiction, March 1940. pp 114-124
A taxidermist continuously sheds his body parts. A combination of body horror, science and comedy, that works surprisingly well as a quick, though forgettable read. The story lacks subtlety and features familiar comedic character types. An amusing read, sure, but not worth re-visiting.


The Haunt     5/10
Unknown Fantasy Fiction, April 1941. pp 106-117
A young man is in love with a seemingly mean-spirited, lively and tough young woman, and is frustrated at not being able to get through her protective shell. He recruits a friend to rig an old house so that it appears haunted, with the hope that by rescuing her she will fall for him. Predictable and less than original, what saves this story is its light tone and playfulness, which makes for a speedy read. For something like this, however, I need to be in the mood, since a comical genre piece can be infuriating if it's not what I'm hankering for.

Similar in tone and character relationships to "Derm Fool." Both stories feature a clever young man wooing a clever and hard-headed young woman, with a third character who is male, entirely comical and unappealing, who acts as a foil to progress the plot. "The Haunt" is far less original, however, and while the tone is amusing, the writing lacks the attention to detail of the preceding story.


Artnan Process     5/10
Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1941. pp 50-68
Here we go... A few centuries in the future, five hundred years following humanity's excursion to the stars, Earth finds itself in passive submission to Mars. Relying heavily on Martian uranium, the people of the red planet have slowly gained quiet rule, by providing Earth with the power source and making suggestions as to how we live, what we read, etc. Humans who do not uphold those suggestions are killed, but of course that does not keep the good people of Earth from developing an underground rebellion. At the same time, an extra-solar system race, the Artnans, have developed a way to cheaply produce the same type of required uranium, which they send to Mars in exchange for other materials. Two humans are sent to the Artnan world where they encounter three Martians, and the two races try to outwit each other in becoming the first to discover the Artnan process of developing the valuable uranium.

Part space opera and part hard sci-fi, the story is fairly interesting but much of it is quite dated, from the comical representation of the Martians to the technology and character relationships of our human men. Yes, men, since no woman is even referenced in this novelette. Part of me thinks the story is too long for what it is, but since my synopsis itself is lengthier than my commentary here, I shouldn't judge. Overall not bad, but also not good.


The World Well Lost     8/10
Universe Science Fiction, June 1953. pp 16-33
"Why must we love where the lightning strikes, and not where we choose."

In the distant future, Earth encounters the planet Dirbanu. Its people are protective, and the planet is shielded so that no one is able to gain access. Even farther in the future, Earth is visited by two aliens, and soon afterwards the planet Dirbanu, now a distant memory, sends a communication to Earth. They are requesting the return of the two visitors, who are criminal refugees. Earth sends a prison ship to Dirbanu, manned by two men, Rootes and Grunty.

So much detail for what becomes a satisfying story of prejudice. Where this story ends is unexpected (to me, at least), and in a good way. It is difficult to discuss its objective without giving anything away. By far the strongest story in the collection. Impressive also that this was published in 1953.

On the cover of the issue of Universe Science Fiction, where it originally appeared, there is a claim that this is "Theodore Sturgeon's most daring story."


The Pod and the Barrier     6/10
Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1957 (as "The Pod in the Barrier"). pp 8-48
In the distant future (yet again), a helpful race called the Luanae have guided humans to terrestrial planets where they can continue to survive and expand their race. Now, with Earth dying, they have directed humanity to a set of habitable planets, but to reach those potential new homes, humans must penetrate "the barrier."

A ship reaches the barrier on a potential suicide mission. A group of four experts in different fields, along with the ship's small crew, must test the barrier in the hope of finding a way through, or of dismantling it. The story is told through the point of view of one of the experts, an arrogant tough guy who learns to his disgruntled dismay that he is perhaps not the cleverest person aboard.

The best part of the story is the description of the Luanae and the history of the barrier. Otherwise the story is quite weak. The narrator does not work as he is not sympathetic, which resulted in his self-discovery coming across as irritating since it intruded on plot progression. The story development is slow, and the plot itself, though it is interesting and takes on an unexpected direction, is just not as interesting as the premise, so that the story descends from premise onward. The story may have worked better in the third person, or through a more objective or serious point of view; the occasional light tones for an uneven narrative and the humour is flat.


How to Kill Aunty     6/10
Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, March 1961 (as "How to Kill Your Aunty")
Bedridden after falling down the stairs of her home, an elderly woman suspects that her dim-witted nephew Hubert is plotting her murder. An entertaining story, though predictable. The final character revelatory moment is a good addition and does elevate the story in terms of character.

Surprisingly, this was included in Best Detective Stories of the Year (17th Annual Collection), edited by Brett Halliday, (Dutton, 1962). It would only be reprinted in a Sturgeon collection with the complete works series, nearly four decades later.


For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Briefly: E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (1993)

Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News. New York: Scribner, 1993.

The Shipping News on Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10
Image result for 0-671-51005-3 shipping news


A less than average man is driven by tragedy to Newfoundland, where he must battle the harsh landscape and face the reality of his stained lineage. The fairly straightforward and interesting plot is told through a sparse, evocative style, which many readers have found challenging. The novel is among many to hold a reputation for readers failing to read past the first handful of chapters. Once gripped, as I was at the opening paragraph, a reader can breeze through the book as though it were written in the most straightforward prose. I suppose many readers are simply not gripped by the terse style.

Oft reviewed, I have little to add, and am not interested in engaging in the value of the writing as this is mostly subjective. While I enjoyed it immensely, I do understand why readers can feel distanced from the dry, sometimes harsh tone.

What I am interested in mentioning is the sharp contrast between that dry tone and the abundance of poetic imagery in the novel. With the frequent use of similes and other descriptors, Proulx seems to have worked hard at melding the imagery with the bleak writing. I preferred the bleak tone over the descriptors, but acknowledge the need for balance. Some of the visuals were excellent; my favourite being "Fog against the window like milk," but I found the overuse of similes tiresome, and found myself, in the latter part of the novel, glazing over them, like one might perform a routine chore without realizing it was being performed. The result is that I might have missed some other descriptive gems, and the loss here is my own.

But at least I had the opportunity to build a simile into my criticism of its overuse.


Friday, July 12, 2019

James Chambers, Resurrection House (2009)

Chamber, James. Resurrection House. CA: Dark Regions Press, 2009

Resurrection House at Goodreads

James Chambers's website
Dark Regions Press website

Overall     6.5/10


I purchased a copy of James Chambers's Resurrection House alongside many other books directly from Dark Regions Press, a specialty horror press that produces attractive books. It was bought on a whim--I'd never even heard of James Chambers--but taking risks with reading is important, not just to potentially help discover new pleasures, but also to be more aware of what is available. In a market saturated by familiar names, many worthy reads are left overlooked.


Resurrection House is Chambers's first collection, and followed only by The Engines of Sacrifice in 2011. It is the third installment of DRP's series New Voices in Horror, which also includes collections by Michael Kelly, Angeline Hawkes and Steve Vernon. The volume is illustrated by Jason Whitley, with an introduction by C.J. Henderson.

I didn't care for the introduction, an excessively exalting piece that, rather than reflect on the work itself, astounds at how a normal middle-class person can write such dark fiction. The style of humour just isn't my thing.

The fiction itself is a good mix, selecting nine very different stories, to help showcase the author's versatility. Overall I enjoyed the collection. The two strongest stories are, without a doubt, "Mooncat Jack" and "Resurrection House," which provide a good execution for interesting premises. I also quite enjoyed "The Last Stand of Black Danny O'Barry" and "Refugees." My only issue with Chambers's writing in general, is the focus on abstractions, particularly in "Gray Gulls Gyre," which would otherwise have been a stronger piece.


Mooncat Jack     7/10
Mooncat Jack. MD: Die, Monster, Die! Books, 2002
Following the disappearance of some neighborhood children, a twelve year-old boy grows increasingly aware of rumours of "Mooncat Jack," a figure who takes unwanted children away. I tend to enjoy coming-of-age stories that employ an element of the supernatural, since the world is a strange and fascinating place to a kid. A good story that is even touching by the end. Though I anticipated the ending, it nonetheless had an affect on me.


Trick     6/10
No Longer Dreams, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Lee Hillman, L. Jagi Lamplighter and Jeff Lyman. Life Circle Books, 2005
An elderly widower is preparing to hand out treats for Halloween. He had lost his wife the Halloween before, and blames the children, believing them to be vessels of evil. This Halloween he is preparing his revenge. A quiet tale, not entirely original but satisfying in its briefness. The story in its entirety is available right here, on the author's website.


Gray Gulls Gyre     5/10
Dark Furies: Weird Tales of Beauties and Beasts, edited by Vincent Sneed. MD: Die, Monster, Die! Books, 2005
New Age healer Jennifer Truth returns to her childhood town at the request of an old friend's dying father. He believes she can save him from the spirit that has manifested itself in the gulls keeping vigil on his house. A good story overall, marred by some abstractions, and dry, expository dialogue. A little tidying would make it a far better read. The gulls themselves make for strong imagery. The dying man's departed wife's name, Marion, hearkens back to Robert Bloch and Hitchcock, Marion Crane from Psycho, a character named after a bird who awakens the passions of a man who performs taxidermy on our avian friends.


Refugees     7/10
Allen K’s Inhuman Magazine #1, July 2004
(Originally published as "by James Chambers and Vince Sneed," the latter is not mentioned in this printing, as sole authorship is given to Chambers.)

A small town high school outcast befriends the strange new girl who has recently moved to the sea-side town, bonding over their common interest in marine life. Despite the predictable nature of such a story, the emotional investment is present throughout, making it among the better reads in the collection.

The opening sentence is an example of a troublesome abstraction: "The odor of the bundle laid out across the back seat comes in waves that wrap me like the scent of guilt." (p. 53) I suppose this means the narrator is feeling guilty as a result of that bundle, but this is not what the sentence actually says. I like the image of the odor coming in waves, as we assume a moving vehicle, perhaps with windows open, and the scent strikes from time to time depending on movement or speed or whatnot. That's a good opening image, but here it is unfortunately tainted by a purple simile.


Resurrection House     7/10
The Dead Walk. Vincent Sneed, ed. Baltimore, MD: Die, Monster, Die! Books, 2004
An aimless young man purchases Resurrection House, a property where the dead become animated. The story is patient with its premise, presenting us character and mystery before revealing much about what Resurrection House actually is. Well constructed, the details fall nicely into place. Though the story relies on some pre-climax expository dialogue to tie up loose ends, this does not harm an overall good short story.


The Feeding Things     5/10
Cthulhu Sex, Vol. 2 #23, 2006
Womanizer Malcolm is gifted the power to seduce any woman he desires. In return, his seed destroys his lover and gives immediate birth to a creature that settles dormant in the sky. Not a bad story, but among the weaker ones.


The Last Stand of Black Danny O'Barry     7/10
Weird Trails. Michael Szymanski, ed. Lockport, NY: Triad Entertainment, 2002
"Go to the parlor two doors down from Black's Melodeon. Knock twice. Ask for Ling." (107)

The tale of Black Danny O'Barry, a rough and tough cowboy with a hidden fortune in gold who spends his nights drinking and whoring. Local bartender tells of the evening O'Barry visited the celebrated mysterious prostitute known as Ling. One of the stronger stories in the collection, with good detail and grounded writing.


The Tale of the Spanish Prisoner     7/10
WarFear. Bruce Gehweiller, ed. Marietta, GA: Marietta Publishing, 2002
Learning the strange tale of his his great-grandfather, a boy becomes a renowned composer and tries to re-create the strange events in his compositions, alienating the music community as the music becomes dark and terrifying. Another solid story.


Vicious Swimmers     6/10
Resurrection House. CA: Dark Regions Press, 2009
A group of soldiers infiltrates a marine research centre following an odd occurrence. An interesting concept but a familiar plot; not among the better stories.


Five Points     6/10
Resurrection House. CA: Dark Regions Press, 2009
A pair of New York City police officers investigate the odd occurrences in a dingy bar, and soon find that patrons have become possessed. The longest story in the collection, this one I found to be average, and overly long. Like "Vicious Swimmer," it was not previously published.



For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.

The Martian Chronicles at Goodreads
The Martian Chronicles at ISFdb


Overall Rating:     7.5/10


There are a number of good articles on this book readily available, and my comments will be brief.


Space colonization stories reflect colonization experiences on Earth. Bradbury references human experiences, sympathizing consistently with the colonized. Here, humans are the aggressors, and though there is some sympathy for the individual, there is little sympathy afforded the human race. Characters are most often representative of different attitudes, and rarely fleshed out. Often a human is a flat out aggressor, as in "The Off Season," or a sympathizer, as in Spender from "--And the Moon Be Still As Bright."

Many of the stories were re-worked to fit the chronology, some fitting in fairly well, while others obviously re-tooled for the purpose of inclusion. While there is a certain amount of consistency, the overall effect is jagged, as there are great variances in tone and approach. What is consistent is the progression of human colonization of Mars, and a kind of circular pattern takes shape. Humans fail at their conquest, then gain the planet by inadvertently killing the inhabitants through disease, establish their own culture while treating the previous culture disrespectfully, until finally they must abandon the planet, only to later leave on Mars the seed to develop a new civilization. Vulnerable on Mars, this new civilization appears ripe for eventual conquest, and the pattern can repeat.

Vignettes are included between some of the stories. These are slight, some more effective than others, and I won't be commenting on these individually.


Ylla     7/10
Maclean's Magazine, 1 January 1950. (As "I'll Not Ask for Wine.")
A Martian woman named Ylla tells her husband Yll of an odd dream she had. In that dream, a rocket ship from Earth has descended to Mars, carrying two odd-looking men. Though Yll laughs at the silliness of this dream, he is also uneasy. Ylla continues to dream, and Yll's discomfort increases. A sympathetically-told story. Character driven, it could have been set on any countryside on Earth. The story would have to be character driven and detailing human experience in order to be purchased by the popular Canadian political and current affairs magazine, Maclean's. A good opening story, as it gives the collection's only potential for unity between the two races.


The Earth Men     7/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, August 1948. pp 69-76
The second human expedition to Mars carries four men. Expecting great honours and a treatment of champions, they are instead welcomed with indifference, passed on from one household to another. Far lighter in tone than "Ylla," it is a little odd as it presents the martians as being somewhat loopy, whereas the humans are comically arrogant. Nonetheless an enjoyable story.


The Third Expedition     7/10
Planet Stories, Fall 1948. pp 56-66. (As "Mars is Heaven!")
During the third expedition to Mars, humans have become incautious and not too logical, in this story that borders on fantasy. Members of the expedition land on a Mars from the bygone Earth year of 1926, and soon encounter deceased family members, leading them to the conclusion that Mars is heaven. Not quite, as the reader suspects. This story was apparently re-worked considerably to fit the scope of The Martian Chronicles, but rather than push the setting to a later decade, Bradbury instead created a form of longevity that is otherwise non-existent in the rest of the stories.


—and the Moon Be Still As Bright     6/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1948. pp 78-91. (As "...and the Moon Be Still As Bright")
The fourth expedition to the red planet informs its crew that Martians are all but extinct, thanks to the diseases brought over by the earlier expedition, namely chicken pox. While many of the crew act like freshman university students on a resort during spring break, archaeologist Spender instead empathizes with the Martians, and on their behalf takes a stance of vengeance. Emulating and acknowledging the actions of Europeans colonizing the Americas, Bradbury's sympathies are with the indigenous, and a Cherokee astronaut, likely among the first indigenous astronauts to appear in literature, appropriately named Cherokee, makes an appearance. The story is a bit overlong but does its duty to bring the book to its second act, whereas Martians are less loopy and the overall tone of the work less playful. The satire on human materialism contrasted with the spiritual Martians allows Bradbury to make some still relevant points on consumerism and cultural insensitivity.


The Green Morning     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
Despite having difficulty in getting accustomed to the thin atmosphere on Mars, Benjamin Driscoll is recruited to elevate the atmosphere to Earth standards. In an isolated area, he begins to plant the seeds that will help make the planet habitable to humans. Written specifically for the collection, this is among the weaker stories, and reads like both filler and a convenience in explaining human adaptability to the planet.


Night Meeting     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
Another story written for the collection, it fits better in the whole of the work than does "Green Morning." Here a simple blue collar Earthman encounters the spirit of a Martian.


Way in the Middle of the Air     6/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
A hardware shop owner and his buddies are shocked to learn that the black people of the south are making their way to Mars. The only story in the collection to be set on Earth (aside form the descriptive piece ""There Will Come Soft Rains" and a vignette), it is in some ways progressive, despite being dated, but the characters are stock, providing an outlet for Bradbury's point. The story does fit in well with the notions of oppressed races, though ideas are not followed up later, as we don't actually see any black people on Mars. The story was controversial upon the release of The Martian Chronicles, where it first appeared, and was removed from many earlier editions.


Usher II     6/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1950. pp 95-103. (As "Carnival of Madness")
As a result of the 1975 ban and burning of all fantastical fiction, such as the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Mr. Stendhal has a replica of the house of Usher built on Mars. Pursued again by the moral authorities, he uses the house as part of his vengeance on society. A good story on its own, but doesn't seem to fit the collection, and was likely re-formatted with the Mars slant. It is a predecessor and companion, of course, to Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, dealing with censorship and government-sanctioned book burning. The original title, "Carnival of Madness," is more appropriate than "Usher II."


The Martian     8/10
Super Science Stories, November 1949. pp 72-79. (As "Impossible")
An older couple settle on Mars to get away from Earth and the memory of their lost son, Tom. Late one night a figure appears, and Tom has returned. The father quickly learns the truth, that a telepathic Martian can take on the role of a lost one, via the memories of the living. To me the most powerful story, as the tragedy in not only that of the couple who must again lose their child, but also this unfortunate Martian, who will forever be the object of someone's grief. Likely heavily re-fitted to suit the collection, the original, titled "Impossible," likely has little to do with Martians and possibly set on Earth. This one I will hunt down.


The Off Season     7/10
Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948. pp 99-104.
Sam Parkhill, a member of Captain Wagner's expedition from "--And the Moon Be Still as Bright," sets up the first hot dog stand on Mars, expecting to earn a fortune. Yet when a martian comes to pay a visit, his fear grips reason and he kills the visitor, which leads to an all-out chase, as other Martians appear. Though the humans in the story are barely characters, the tragedy of useless Martian deaths is effective.


The Silent Towns     7/10
The Martian Chronicles. New York: Doubleday, May 1950.
In an abandoned Mars, the last man in a deserted town hears the ringing of a phone. Missing the call, he too decides to try connecting via the Martian phone system (using a land line), and fantasizes meeting an attractive woman. A comical and enjoyable last man story, though adds little to the whole.


The Long Years     7/10
Planet Stories, Spring 1949. pp 51-58. (As "Dwellers in Silence")
Following years of living alone in a Martian cave with his family, archaeologist Hathaway from the fourth expedition discovers a ship is returning to the red planet. Having been in the field with his family when Earth was abandoned, he and his family took to the caves where they have been living since. Something is off, however, as the reader is subtly informed. A good story with a surprisingly bittersweet final image.


There Will Come Soft Rains     6/10
Collier's, 6 May 1950.
An automated home continues to function in a post-apocalyptic setting. Entirely descriptive, the piece is quite haunting. Interesting that the dad of the house has his shadow burned by the atomic blast while mowing the lawn, when later we learn that lawn mowing is a function of the automated house. Perhaps it was a hobby?


The Million-Year Picnic     6/10
Planet Stories, Summer 1946. pp 95-100.
A family lands on Mars, escaping the war-ravaged Earth. A fitting end to the collection, though a little sentimental for my taste.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Brian Aldiss, Who Can Replace a Man? / Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss (1965)

Aldiss, Brian. Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Signet, November 1967. (My edition)

A concise bibliography at ISFdb
Who Can Replace a Man? at Goodreads


Rating:     7.5/10
Signet, 1967


In a small white box in my dad's basement, I recently discovered a selection of books I enjoyed as an early teen. At that time I experienced a relatively brief affair with science fiction, focusing mostly on short stories of the 1950s through the 1970s, and some more contemporary 1980s novels. Among my favourite short story authors was Brian Aldiss, and of his collections I preferred this one. So I thought I would re-visit, thinking I would cringe at my immature tastes, but to my pleasant surprise, I breezed quickly through the book and, with some minor exceptions, enjoyed the collection perhaps even more under the guise of my more mature self. Nuances I likely did not catch as a youth, and a greater appreciation for dark fiction, no doubt adding to my enjoyment.

The collection is a good range of science fiction story sub-genres of and 50s and 60s: distant future, near future, hard science, political fiction, cold war paranoia, elements of fantasy, new wave and dark humour. The one constant is that each story contains some element of the dark, with an emphasis of pessimistic depictions of the far future, ill treatment of human values and individuality, and the ill consequences of a mechanized future. An argument can be made that these are the best of Aldiss's pre-1965 stories, as the original title suggest, with my favourites being  "Outside" and "Who Can Replace a Man?", along with "Old Hundredth", "Not for an Age" and "Man in His Time." The collection, however, also includes two pieces that can be excised to improve the whole: "Psyclops" and, mainly, the semi-adventure paranoia piece "Basis for Negotiation."


Who Can Replace a Man?     8/10
Infinity Science Fiction, June 1958. pp 58-66 (as "But Who Can Replace a Man?")
On a cultivation farm in a dystopian future, the agricultural robots learn that humans have become extinct. Their logical minds seek a plan of action, and a small group leaves for the city. A bleak story dealing with the idea of power and anticipates man's perpetual rule over machines (at least while machines have limited AI), Aldiss manages to infuse humour in what could have become a very dated robot story, but instead remains quite solid despite the obvious 1950s design of these over-sized machines. The story infuses robots with recognizable human traits, and has them, in their own dry logic, adopt an all-too human approach to conquest. In terms of technique, the pacing is excellent, as the quiet opening escalates nicely toward chaos, until we reach that great finale.

This story is generally highly regarded and readily available online.


Not for an Age     7/10
The London Observer, 9 January 1955.
Middle aged professor Rodney Furnell has become aware that he is perpetually re-living one single, average and mundane day of his life. Though he is unable to change his actions, his thoughts are independent, and he contemplates both his situation, and the crowd of faces surrounding each scene, as some future audience is watching each moment play out.

Little detail of the future society is given, only what is essentially necessary for the story. Aldiss is not exploring the world, but rather the individual and his tragic circumstances. As in many of these stories, the twist only helps to make a tragic situation even worse.


Faber & Faber, 1965
Psyclops     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #49, July 1956. pp 30-39
A father tries to telepathically warn his unborn son of some great impending danger.

This is among Aldiss's many experimental new wave pieces, first published in the new wave advocate New Worlds (edited by John Carnell). I did not care for the story when I first read it as a naive and impressionable teen, and still care little for it as a jaded adult. It is not a bad idea for a story, but some of the fetal ruminations, particularly at the start, are plain bad, and much of the incidental information dropping by the father, though required for the story, is awkward and unsubtle (How do I explain to unborn child and, more importantly, the reader, that I am miles away and he is drifting off course! Whadda ya know: I just did!).


Outside     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #31, January 1955. pp 29-37
Six people occupy a house. Their only communication with the outside world is via "the store," a closet where every morning they find food and other random necessities or luxuries. This morning there is no food, and one of the six, Harley, begins to question their circumstances, and tries to recall why they are confined to this space. An excellent science fiction suspense story, a product of cold war fears and paranoia. Great pacing and suspense, Aldiss sets up his clues quite nicely, resulting in an effective ending.


Dumb Show     6/10
Nebula Science Fiction Number 19, December 1956. pp 58-66
In the midst of a future war, Mrs. Snowden and her granddaughter live their meager lives in Mrs. Snowden's childhood home. As the artillery for this war is sound, all is silence and the landscape is diminishing as structures collapse. Another dark Aldiss story, made darker by its finish, and one among many featuring the potential horrors of war, as weapons technology becomes both more advanced and more creative. Though a good story, the characters are overshadowed by the theme, whereas stories such as "Outside" and "Not for an Age" manage a consistent balance between the two.


The New Father Christmas     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958. pp 69-74
Yet another dark future tale. In the year 2388, an elderly couple who oversee a mechanized factory, along with three "tramps" illegally boarding inside, appear to be among the last remaining humans on Earth. Christmas morning they gather for tea and discuss the changes around the factory, and their belief in the New Father Christmas. Claustrophobic and haunting, another technological horror story. Appropriately, the adults act like children, and we see how the world has progressed physically, whereas humans have digressed.


Ahead     7/10
Science Fantasy v6 #18, 1956. pp 96-109 (As "The Failed Men")
In the distant future a group of humans known as the Failed Men have buried themselves underground. The elite group, the Paulls, have meanwhile collected volunteers from different time periods to help them in handling this population. One man from their past (though our future) has become obsessed with why the group has "failed," and what they failed at, but the translating machine used to communicate with them can only translate literally, and the words lack meaning. An affecting and oddly powerful story. Re-titled "Ahead" for this collection, which in the story is what the narrator uses as reference to going to the future, its original title is far more accurate, as the story does not deal with the future, but with the isolation of this particular group, and the lack of clarity surrounding their failure.


Poor Little Warrior!     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1958. pp 125-130
In the distant future a man travels to the Jurassic age to hunt brontosaurus. A rare second person stream of consciousness story, effectively written as it adopts an aggressive tone and sarcastic title. The story features an average man, unhappy with his life, who clings to the hopes of escape via a marketing brochure. He is less a victim of the Jurassic as he is of his life, and cannot escape either. The story holds up well and has some cleverly thought out phrasing, such as: "...all destined in that awful jar-full movement to turn into bowel movement." (79)


Man on Bridge     6/10
New Writings in S-F 1, John Carnell, ed. UK: Dennis Dobson, 1964.
In a future where free thinking is prohibited and intellectuals are persecuted and forced to live in camps, a group of "cerebrals" has developed a technique of transforming men into entirely logical thinkers. One heavily lobotomized man, aptly named Adam X, claims to be a new breed of man. Though set seemingly in the far future, the story maintains an impression of the past, as it is heavily referenced with recognizable symbols of the past, such as military camps, the term "prole," and the rural farmhouse inhabited by our protagonist's family.


The Impossible Star     7/10
Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1963. pp 143-162
Four astronauts are stranded on a planetoid orbiting an incredibly massive and unusual star. As they attempt to repair their ship and communicate with the other two ships of their survey party, the members become increasingly aggressive toward one another. A good combination of hard science and psychological suspense. In this story neither space nor humanity is enviable, and the two combined is disastrous.


Basis for Negotiation     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #114, January 1962. pp 50-90
In a near future nuclear age, China declares war on the U.S. Britain declares neutrality, which results in civil tensions and inner turmoil. A university professor travels to London to oppose the Prime Minister's stance.

An overlong and dated story, very much a product of its time. It is saved by decent writing, an interesting eventual bit of irony (though after thirty-plus pages), and the fact that Aldiss does not preach but tosses out a couple different viewpoints. Each opinion is consistent in its claim that Britain is ruined, they differ only in the detail of which set of politics or social class did the ruining. Aldiss also hammers these points until they become dull. Interestingly, after its original printing in 1962, the story was included in three separate collections/anthologies by 1965, and in an omnibus collection in 1969, after which it fell off everyone's radar. It might only be remembered in the future for having been selected for inclusion in Aldiss's first Best of collection. (The anthology reprint was for a book edited by John Carnell, then editor of New Worlds where the story first appeared. This can imply that Carnell and Aldiss were really the only two who saw value in the story. Since they did work closely with New Worlds, perhaps it came about from a discussion or proposal of some kind. No other editor seemed interested in keeping it in print.)


Old Hundredth     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #100, November 1960. pp 62-73
Once again Aldiss presents us with a distant future Earth, only on this Earth there are no humans. At least not in form. Having long since transcended matter, humans exist as wisps of light, or as music or other forms of non-matter. On Earth dwell creatures to whom humans have granted sentience on their experimental Venusian labs, as Venus had long ago taken the place of the moon and revolves alongside Earth around the sun. We follow re-purposed giant sloth Dandi Lashadusa, a musicologist studying the "musicolumns" that house those who have trans-substantiated into music. Quite detailed and complex for such a short story, Aldiss succeeds in creating an unusual, potent world. With a touch of fantasy, Aldiss makes something so potentially abstract into a world quite concrete.

Unlike "Basis for Negotiation," "Old Hundredth" has been reprinted consistently throughout the decades since its initial publication. It was included in Judith Merrill's The 6th Annual of the World's Best SF (NY: Simon & Schuster, October 1961).


A Kind of Artistry     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1962. pp 6-27
In the far flung future, humanity has reached deep into the galaxy, taking on new knowledge and new ideas, and in doing so taking on new forms; only Earthborns retain some semblance of the original human being. One such man, Derek Flamifew Ende is tasked with making contact with the Cliff, a sentient asteroid that has crashed into a distant planet.

A complex story of ideas. The title refers to both suffering and happiness being "a kind of artistry." Humans have lost both purpose and drive as they have become self-preservationist. Derek lives with his "Mistress" in the matriarchy of old Earth, and while he is devoted to her, he is in constant need of being away from her. The secret of their relationship, which we learn late in the story, reveals how inward and self-interested this future society has become.


Man in His Time     7/10
Science Fantasy, April 1965. pp 5-32
Jack Westermark, the sole surviving astronaut of a British expedition to Mars, returns with an odd condition: He is living 3.3077 minutes in the future. The theory is that each planet exists within its own time frame, and while some might be ahead of Earth time, others might be lagging behind. (It is not explained why the affected astronaut returns to Earth maintaining Martian time, rather than re-adapting to Earth time, as depicted in a similar situation in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.)

The story is more philosophical than scientific, and above anything it is character driven. The plot is set up through a series of sequences, most of which are set at Westermark's home, and much of it through his wife's point of view. It was refreshing to read a story, among a number of heavily male-centric pieces, focusing primarily on a woman (uncommon for the period), and science aside, in a sympathetic and all-too human way. As interesting as the premise may be, it is presented as a tragedy, for both the victim and those around him. A short story finalist of both the Nebula and Hugo, it was included in Nebula Award Stories 1967 (co-edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison).


For more of this week`s Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Alan Dean Foster, Sentenced to Prism (1985)

Foster, Alan Dean. Sentenced to Prism. New York: Del Rey/Ballantine, September 1985


Sentenced to Prism at ISFdb
Sentenced to Prism at Goodreads

Rating:     7/10


Del Rey/Ballantine, 1985
As a pre-teen in the mid-1980s, I read a modest of amount of science fiction, and for a few years enjoyed the campy works of Alan Dean Foster. I read about thirty of his books published in the 1970s up until about 1990, including a number of the novelizations. The books are quick reads and I found them to be colourfully imaginative, though many I found, even at that time, to be quite dull (Cachalot and Voyage to the City of the Dead come to mind). Eventually I abandoned his works for more complex books, and soon stopped reading science fiction novels, aside from a book or two a year. Then a couple of weeks ago I was rummaging through my parents' basement and came across a number of his, and other science fiction authors', books. And reminiscing, I thought why not.

I picked up Sentenced to Prism, which, though I've owned for many years (bought for $2.25 at the local secondhand bookshop that no longer exists, so the markings on the first page inform me), I have never read. Perhaps it was the glaring yellow cover that kept it at bay, or most likely I got tired of Foster's books before I got around to this one. Proof of the latter are the handful more paperbacks of his I came across, which I've never opened up.

What I found with Sentenced to Prism was a pleasant surprise: an enjoyable novel despite the light writing, two-dimensional characters, and seemingly lack of depth. The novel deals with an arrogant company research man named Evan Orgell who is sent to a newly discovered planet, Prism, to uncover the fate of a research team which has stopped communicating with home base. Orgell soon learns what a unique planet this is, and, following many unusual dangers, meets up with some native species with whom he forms an alliance. More than the plot, and certainly more that the non-character of Orgell, who we follow throughout the bulk of the story (aside from a couple of glaring point of view shifts), what makes the read a compelling one is the planet and its various life forms. Foster has the reputation for creating interesting worlds and species, but I don't recall his work ever being this imaginative and immersive.

New English Library, 1988
In addition to the interesting world is the late development of some thematic links, which help to elevate the book in the last few chapters from being a simple plotted fare developed only for Foster's imaginings to a narrative that contains, though simplistically, a point. The notions of "Associatives," of community and collaboration, is brought full circle when Orgell and his new friends encounter an unusual, chaotic creature that has its own interpretation of what a community ought to be, and what it can achieve. Furthermore, the idea of the alien Associative challenges Orgell in his own understanding of the purpose of community. The novel fails in that Orgell is so under-developed (we are told endlessly that he is selfish and arrogant, yet since the moment he lands on the planet he appears to be selfless and to understand the importance of team-work in the face of survival), that there is no real transformation from human-thinking to embracing another culture. This is no Dances with Wolves, or say, Toy Story. It is instead a contrived novel that is oddly a pleasure to read.



For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

As of 24 December 2015