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.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Joan Samson, The Auctioneer

Samson, Joan. The Auctioneer. New York: Simon & Schuster, January 1976
______. The Auctioneer. New York: Avon Books, January 1977 (my edition, pictured)

The Auctioneer at ISFdb
The Auctioneer at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

Well received critically and commercially upon its initial release, The Auctioneer has since fallen into semi-obscurity. This unfortunate fate is partly due to the author's death shortly after the novels's publication, and the absence of a second book. I understand that Joan Samson was working on a second novel when she sadly succumbed to cancer shortly before the age of forty. While some novels persist in part because they are the author's only published work, such as John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) and, most notably, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960; for many years at least, prior to the publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015), there was no mystique around this author, nor an attached Pulitzer, to help keep this first and only novel in the literary consciousness. Regardless, the novel is still respected by those who have read it, and its near-cult status will ensure that it will continue to be read.

Or so I hope.

The novel focuses primarily on a family living in the fictional rural town of Harlowe, New Hampshire, comprising of John Moore, his wife Miriam ("Mim"), their four year-old daughter Hildie, and "Ma," John's elderly mother. Having lived their entire lives in that community, amid the hardships of rural farming, Samson explores the affects of a charismatic auctioneer, a contrasting outsider, who moves into the community and progressively takes over. By holding regular auctions to raise funds for the benefit of the town, Perly Dunsmore is able to manipulate those funds and the people they are meant to serve. Professing the values of the "old ways" in a town built on tradition, Dunsmore is in fact quite modern and progressive, albeit amoral, in a business sense, as the reader discovers in the latter parts of the novel.

The Auctioneer blends many elements into its narrative. It acts as mystery, thriller, horror and even family drama. The scenes of basic survival, as the family members struggle to maintain their livelihood when they have been stripped of most of their belongings, is for me the most vivid. With family dynamics at the fore of the drama, Dunsmore appears seldom in the novel, which is to the story's benefit. Dunsmore unleashes the tensions, but most of the drama is located within the family and within the community, only highlighted and elevated by the presence of this daemon-like figure, who at the end proves all-too human. The real daemon is that aspect of humanity that can allow such usurpation, and it appears Dunsmore's downfall is a result of the members of the community finding themselves in the same building facing that man, as only then do individuals find the courage to fight back.

The ending comes across as a little too convenient, and reveals an odd flaw in Dunsmore's otherwise perceptive understanding of human nature. Yet the novel is not about the ending, and it does not detract from the challenges Samson has set for her characters. These characters are well delineated, strong despite the predicaments in which they find themselves, and it is this strength and drive for survival that renders the situation so bleak, since they are unable to oppose the auctioneer. In particular it is the women in the novel who are both driven enough to fight back, while being rational enough to hold back, as they must defend the family unit. The men are driven more by vengeance, or frozen by the apathy of frustration and hopelessness.

Though the novel enacts a specific period with well-defined characters, it can nonetheless act as allegory. The auctioneer himself is the state rendering its citizens dependent on its continued presence, replacing a mild form of government with a kind of modern, capitalist totalitarianism. The pretense of communal ownership is false, and glaringly fails as its members are robbed of what is essentially theirs.

Also prevalent is the threat of urban sprawl, as large cities, in this case Boston, are overgrowing and becoming stifling to humans who long to connect with the peace of a past, uncomplicated life. Or at least what is envisioned by the urban mass to be an idyllic return to nature, ignoring the hardships that Harlowe's inhabitants have been struggling with for generations. The idea of urban sprawl threatening these communities and this way of life is splattered throughout the novel, as we learn more of Dunsmore's ultimate plan, not just for Harlowe but for the surrounding communities as well.

However one would wish to interpret the novel, it is a powerful work that is deserving of a read, and a later re-read. The weight of these ideas packed into a suspenseful novel adds to the tragedy that Joan Samson was not given the opportunity for a follow-up. Regardless, we should be grateful she has left us with such a profound work.

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Robert Silverberg, The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities

Silverberg, Robert. The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities. New York: Ballantine Books, March 1972.

The Reality Trip at ISFdb
The Reality Trip at Goodreads

Overall Rating:     7/10

Between 1969 and about 1985, the world was subjected to the publication of a Robert Silverberg short story collection on an annual basis. Some of those years even experienced multiple collections. A prolific and fairly consistent writer, the material was plentiful, so that most stories did not need to wait long before being included in a collection; in fact, many were collected the same year they initially saw print, such as "Caliban" in this volume.

The Reality Trip and Other Implausibilities was made up primarily of a small number of new, as-yet uncollected stories, with five of the eight first appearing between 1970 and 1972. The remaining three stories include two recycled pieces from the fifties, though "The Shrines of Earth" had not yet been reprinted, and the first-time collected Hugo and Nebula nominated novella, "Hawksbill Station" (1967), which had already re-appeared as a novel, an expansion of the novella, in 1968.

In Entropy's Jaws     8/10
First published in Infinity Two, edited by Robert Hoskins, 1971

Skein is a Communicator, a skilled telepath who can unite two minds with the purpose of effective communication. During a lucrative communication session, however, the connection damages his brain, and he no longer lives in a linear state, but experiences continuous flashbacks and flashforwards. Now Skein is searching for a purple planet that he has seen in his future which he believes can heal his damaged brain.

A riveting story, well structured and with a vividly created world for such a short piece. Skein is not very likable, a talented telepath who capitalizes commercially on his talent, yet Silverberg manages to reign in sympathy for this man, who undergoes a great transformation throughout his humbling experience. My favourite story in the collection.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction of the Year (1972).

The Reality Trip     7/10
First published in If, May/June 1970

After eleven years in New York City, studying humans and transmitting copious data daily to Homeworld, an alien visitor must fend off the attentions and advances of a neighbor, Elizabeth Cooke. Cooke is a bohemian, a pot-smoking poet who is attracted to the alien's otherness, his loneliness and social distancing. A highly entertaining story, the first person narrative focuses both on the alien's struggle to deal with the attentions of Cooke, alongside his intense loneliness. Despite the seeming contradiction, there is never in the protagonist's mind the notion that such a relationship with such a human, or any human, can make up for his extreme isolation, and in addition, despite that loneliness, he is not interested in relocating until the situation with Cooke escalates.

Though considered to be among his best short stories, "The Reality Trip" was not included in any of the "Best of" anthologies for 1970. Terry Carr only began his run as sole editor of a "Best of" series the following year (he was previously co-editor with Donald A. Wolheim), and did include "The Reality Trip" in the relatively forgettable paperback anthology, This Side of Infinity (Ace Books, September 1972).

Black Is Beautiful     6/10
First published in The Year 2000. Edited by Harry Harrison. New York: Doubleday, February 1970

In the year 2000, Manhattan has been taken over by African Americans, as whites have moved out to the suburbs. The story follows an angry senior high school student, James Lincoln, who prefers to go by James Shabaz, as he festers with anger over the centuries of oppression blacks were forced to face in the hands of the ruling whites, and the seeming apathy of those in his community. The story envisions a future racial peace in the US as a result of total segregation, with different minority groups taking over different areas across the country. Like most racial stories of the period, this one is  certainly dated, though it is surprisingly not a bad read. It is, however, interesting that with all this seeming social progress, black men still speak as though they lived in 1970, when you think language would evolve differently with a reduction in the influence of white culture.

Ozymandias     7/10
First published in Infinity Science Fiction, November 1958
Published in the UK in New Worlds Science Fiction #94, May 1960

Exploring the rim of the galaxy is a vessel run jointly by the military and a small group of archaeologists. These two opposing groups struggle to compromise amid differing agendas, and the tension is thick, brought to a head when they reach a planet which the archaeologists wish to explore, whereas the military believes has no value.

The story begins in the third person, though this voice is eventually revealed to be one of the five archaeologists, which is an interesting shift not often used. Since the story is primarily about two distinct social groups, each appropriately stereotyped, the lack of individual characterization makes for a good third person tale. Though names of some of the minor players are given, we are essentially dealing with two distinct groups rather than individual characters, a detail highlighted by the fact that each group's only standout character is their leader. Though the military is responsible for the larger portion of the mission's budget, the archaeologists do have some contractual weight, and essentially force the ship down onto the dead planet for a week's worth of investigation. They quickly make an incredible discovery, and do their best to conceal it from the other party, which is not interested in extraterrestrial culture, but in practical materials, either resources or weapons technology.

By far the strongest of the earlier stories, it is elevated by its original and well structured narrative form, and pays off with a tragic ending.

Caliban     6/10
First published in Infinity Three. Edited by Robert Hoskins. Lancre Books, 1972

A man awakens in a future where physical beauty is the norm, and people can exchange their body parts and take on any appearance they wish. A world where everyone looks exactly alike. A blatant, humourous take on extreme conformity, basic body image issues and the need to fit into one's social circle. In this world, however, the other, that ugly time traveller, is accepted rather than ostracized, and while this future society attempts to mold him into one of their theirs, his difference is instead leaving an influence on the beautiful people. Certainly not original, but entertaining, particularly in light of the protagonist/narrator's self deprecation, and that breathing underwater scene. The title refers, of course, to the half-breed Caliban of William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Included in Terry Carr's The Best Science Fiction #2 (NY: Ballantine Books, July 1973).

The Shrines of Earth     5/10
First published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1957
Astounding Science Fiction (UK), March 1958

Following three thousand years of peace, terrans on Earth have become passive and non-confrontational, focusing primarily on the arts. Among the colonies scattered throughout the galaxy, terrans have earned the reputation of being innocent and inconsequential. Yet when the terrans learn that a group of aliens plan a takeover of Earth as part of their conquest of the galaxy, they must find a way to defend themselves. Since they are unable to use weapons, they must rely on craft. A slight story, whose initial premise immediately reveals what is to come. The bulk of the story features somewhat repetitive scenarios that lead us to the obvious conclusion, during which one of the terrans expositorily explains the already obvious crafty plan to the reader. The weakest story of the collection, and not previously reprinted.

Ringing the Changes     5/10
First published in Alchemy and Academe. Edited by Anne McCaffrey. New York: Doubleday, November 1970

Humans take vacations via shunting: the act of entering another person's consciousness and thereby experiencing that person's life. When a malfunction occurs, a group of consciousnesses are separated from their bodies, and technicians must link them back together, by requiring that each person enter each separated body in turn, and for the person to raise their hand once they are re-connected with their body. However, there exists the risk that a person might deceive in order to permanently take on the identity of another.

Told through a series of experiences through a single consciousness, the story appears to be more invested in relaying diverse life experiences than in dealing with its themes of risk in this kind of technology. The focus also indicates that there is perhaps only so much to discuss with this idea. The weakest of the newer stories.

Hawksbill Station     7/10
First published in Galaxy Magazine, August 1967

In the politically rife and repressive future, those with strong opposing political views, rebels, dissidents and even philosophers, are sent to Hawksbill Station, a prison set up in the distant past. The trip to prison is a one-way affair, and lies in the Precambrian era, on a bit of land that would eventually lie underwater.

We experience this extreme penal colony through the eyes of its leader, a role earned through seniority. Vivid and detailed, with many characters and a suspenseful plot, this is an excellent novella that is tightly woven into its premise. It is odd, however, that the suspicious newcomer does not develop a better back-story when navigating through Hawksbill Station, or that he takes notes rather than leave details to memory, but these are small qualms as the story is overall fascinating and well developed.

The novella was expanded into a novel, and released by Doubleday a year after its original publication. In the UK the novel was published with the title The Anvil of Time. I will likely hunt this down at some point.

Included in:
World's Best Science Fiction: 1968. Edited by Terry Carr and Donald A. Wolheim. NY: Ballantine Books, 1969.
Best SF: 1967 (The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 1, UK). Edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison. Berkley Medallion, March 1968.

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

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