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.

free counters

As of 24 December 2015