The Burning; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

The mini-James Gunn series continues.

As with the other installments, Joachim Boaz provides the parallel optics on this one.

Raw Feed (1991): The Burning, James E. Gunn, 1972.The Burning

This was an interesting book both philosophically and structurally.

This novel is a fix-up of three stories.

As usual Gunn is interested in exploring philosophical points and his characters are symbolic, but Gunn manages to flesh them out somewhat, usually through interior monologues, particularly Susannah of the last of three stories. This novel, at least the first story — “Witches Must Burn” — is partially a product of the fifties with its in passing talk of security issues involving scientists and its use of the slang term “eggheads”. But it is, in its own way, relevant to now. The novel’s burning of the universities as a reaction to the stresses of modern, technological civilization seems to be mirrored in the current environmental movement with its talk of slower development, “limits to growth”, the arrogance of science, the “fallacies” of traditional western thought. And, one could argue, that the universities are even more isolated from reality (present and historical) than ever now, and it is the isolation which Gunn sees as harmful.

The novel takes an interesting tack. At first, we sympathize with protagonist John Wilson. He is a figure ready for an sf audience to sympathize with: a scientist who flees a mob burning his university, destroying his research, faced with betrayal, murderous irrationality, and cowardice on every side. (There is a parallel to A.E. van Vogt’s Slan here — not only in the hunting of an intelligent man by a less intelligent mob — but also because Wilson has a machine that reads brain waves and can, like a slan’s telepathic sense, warn him of danger.) But that’s only for the first 40 pages. Continue reading

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The Immortals; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

There seems to be enough interest in James Gunn’s work that I’ll continue.

I’ve read most of Gunn’s work. Unfortunately, I didn’t write anything up on a lot of it.

I think he deserves a detailed treatment like some of the other authors I like. That is in the future, though, since I already have more immediate projects I want to tackle.

Apropos of little, I always think of this book when visiting the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota — close to an entire town given over to medicine.

Joachim Boaz took a look at the novel too.

Raw Feed (1990): The Immortals, James Gunn, 1962.The Immortals

This novel belongs to that sociological sf school of the fifties and early sixties — a time of much great sf. In it, one sociological trend is extrapolated — often to absurdity — to see where it might lead. This may seem like an absurdly unrealistic style — especially in the age of cyberpunk authors like Bruce Sterling who extrapolate several trends at once — but it’s perfectly valid. It’s not sf’s job to predict the future. Any success in that regard is usually limited and coincidental. Extrapolation is ideally suited to philosophically examining the issues surrounding a matter — which is Gunn’s forte.

Here the scientific extrapolations, at least technology-wise are limited — mainly a gamma globulin factor in the blood of the Cartwright family which grants immortality. The novel uses the now dated concept of cancer, arteriosclerosis, and old age as one disease that can be cured by keeping the circulatory system operating.. (Now we know, of course, cancer has many causes and that good arteries aren’t the only secret to long life.) Gunn uses the concept of immortality transferred by blood transfusion to explore a variety of questions.

Gunn looks at the way humanity handles the idea of death. As is repeated throughout the book, we’re all dying. It’s just that with some death is more imminent. Life is a chance to produce. Gunn’s attack on the idea of intensive medical care to prolong life includes the argument that those so treated are often not the most productive members of society. The book is also a call to live life fully. As Dr. Pearce says to Leroy Weaver — ruthless, evil millionaire — you must feel religious about your job or not do it. Continue reading

The Listeners

I’m off working on reviews of new books, so you get old stuff.

The choice was between a review of an economics book or more James Gunn.

I think we can all agree I made the right choice.

Raw Feed (1994): The Listeners, James E. Gunn, 1968.The Listeners

A very good novel especially considering, like most of Gunn’s novels, it is a fix-up with all chapters, except Chapter 5, being published originally as stories. That format works very well for a novel spanning 97 years which deals with the issues of interstellar communication between man and an alien race. Gunn has said that, at least in the short story and novelette form, sf must first stress the primary of idea over character.  Another of Gunn’s critical tenets, that sf is racial fiction, is followed here as the dialogue with an alien race greatly alters human society. There is, in fact, a counterpoint to the idea of communication between sentient races in that most of this book is filled with troubled, failed communication between characters and, each chapter usually concludes with the Project overcoming another hurdle by not only solving interstellar communication puzzles and problems but also communication advanced – or at least instrumental in changing minds – between human minds.
The first chapter has legendary Project director Robert MacDonald failing to recognize the despair of his wife Maria before she attempts suicide. The third chapter has Robert MacDonald convincing Solitarian (a new religion whose central creed is “We are alone.”) leader Jeremiah Jones that the Project is not a theological threat to him and gives him an opportunity to be one of the first to view the first message from the alien Capellans (which he interprets as a haloed angel). Andrew White, protagonist of the fourth chapter and the U.S.’s first black president, can’t understand his son’s disdain for politics, can’t communicate his zeal for maintaining the progress blacks have made in society, that the progress can be reversed, that inequality exists. The fifth chapter has Robert MacDonald and his memories of his failed communications with his now dead father, the Project Director. The chapter concludes with him leaving to read unopened letters from his father.
The larger scope of this book involves two things.

Continue reading

Jungleland

Another book I got through the Amazon Vine program. While I’m interested in history and archaeology, I mainly got it for the espionage angle.

A retro review from February 18, 2013.

Review: Jungleland: A Mysterious Lost City, A WWII Spy, and a True Story of Deadly Adventure, Christopher S. Stewart, 2013.Jungleland

Don’t come to this book expecting much about the wartime espionage activities of Theodore Morde. Apart from an episode in Istanbul where he talks with Franz von Pappen, Germany’s ambassador to Turkey and an old spymaster himself, about assassinating Hitler, this book has little to offer in that area, and you’d be better off just going straight to the listed bibliographic sources.

While I didn’t get the espionage history I hoped for when picking up this book, I still enjoyed it. Stewart moves his narrative along quickly, alternating between Morde’s life – particularly his 1939 expedition to the Mosquito Coast -and his own expedition (with archaeologist Chris Begley as a guide) to that area 70 years later. Stewart juggles so many things in this book – archaeological discovery, self-discovery, Morde’s life, espionage, and Honduran history – that, if you’re bored with one subject, your area of interest quickly shows up again. The flip side of that is, of course, that it’s more of an appetizer than a meal, but it’s still an enjoyable book and not a major investment of time. I particularly enjoyed the encounters with Hondurans (and tourists) in both time periods.
And, yes, there is a resolution of sorts to the matter of whether Ciudad Blanca exists.

 

More reviews of espionage titles are indexed on the Espionage History page.

The Joy Makers; or Adventures in Reader Reactions

Maybe it’s reading tech news — which I don’t find all that comforting — or some kind of genetic imperative to become a cranky, contrary old guy, but I’ve been thinking about James Gunn’s The Joy Makers and VR.

I don’t think humanity is going to handle it well. Ryan Landry’s “This Is What Decline Will Look Like on Virtual Reality” came up with even more reasons for pessimism.

Other looks at the novel: Eight Miles Higher and Joachim Boaz.

Raw Feed (1992): The Joy Makers, James Gunn, 1961.Joy Makers

This is the third novel of Gunn’s I’ve read (the other two were The Burning and The Immortals) and with it I realized Gunn’s works (at least the ones I’ve read) are concerned with the ultimate concerns, goals, and problems of the human condition. Like the other two above novels (or, at least, some of The Burning according to the copyright page), The Joy Makers was written in the fifties and is a fixup. I suspect (without checking the exact dates) that the stories making up most of these novels were written around the same time for they deal with similar themes, specifically humanity’s quest for certain goals and conditions. In The Burning, it was the quest for social and cultural stability in a world continually transformed by science. In The Immortals it was the quest for health and immortality.

The Joy Makers is about the ultimate quest: the quest for happiness. As Gunn points out, entertainment and art evolved to achieve happiness through illusion; technology evolved to free man from the time-consuming task of staying alive culminating in automation to free man from labor; medicine evolved to free the body from pain, philosophy, religion, psychology to free the mind from pain. Happiness is the goal all man’s efforts are directed towards. Gunn’s science of Hedonics delivers it (As Hedonist Wright says “happiness is everything money can buy.”). Continue reading

nEvermore!

After my less than enthusiastic review of EDGE’s Expiration Date, I feel like I’m kicking the company with my less than enthusiastic review of another of their offerings.

I don’t really have it out for the company. I liked their Technicolor Ultra Mall, my first ever commissioned review.

Still, it was a struggle to write this one up because so many of these stories were mediocre and unmemorable. By mediocre, I don’t mean bad or of unacceptable quality, just unremarkable. Unlike the stars of a recent podcast I listened to, I know by definition that the outputs of any profession, including that of writers, is going to be mediocre. (Assuming, as Mr. Taleb would note, the range of quality follows a Gaussian distribution.) You probably live in a house with mediocre plumbing with mediocre food in the refrigerator, but you’re not going to forsake either.

Still, I promised a review in exchange for this book from LibraryThing. I’m not going to skimp on coverage. As usual, everyone and everything will get covered.

 

So … let’s get this over with.

Review: nEvermore!: Tales of Murder, Mystery and the Macabre, eds. Nancy Kilpatrick and Caro Soles, 2015.nEvermore!

This anthology has an even more diffuse effect than Ellen Datlow’s Poe. Both allowed a variety of stories in, not all of a fantastic nature. Poe was a more protean author than generally realized. (A point Uwe Sommerland’s opening article, “A Rather Scholarly View of Edgar Allan Poe, Genre-Crosser“, makes well.) He wrote in a variety of tones and styles and more than just the macabre and mystery stories he is most remembered for.

The connection many of the stories have to Poe is not obvious apart from the authors’ foreword though some are quite explicit takeoffs on Poe’s work.

Lest you get bored, let’s start us with the best.

The razor-wielding orangutan of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” gets to tell his side of things in Robert Lopresti’s “Street of the Dead House”. He’s one of those science experiments gone wrong. A large mansion on the shores of British Columbia, a large family, and a family secret are the heroine’s inheritance in Robert Bose’s effective “Atargatis”. An archaeologist’s involvement in a police investigation and a pagan cult result in the oh-so-Poe ending of burial alive in Michael Jecks’ “The Deave Lane”.

Loren Rhoads places her series heroine Alondra DeCourval in Venice to put a stop to a rash of suicides in “The Drowning City”. Tanith Lee’s “The Return of Berenice” ruminates on the follow up to Poe’s odd tale of obsession and dental horror, “Berenice” — moody and effective. Continue reading

Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII

I have several volumes of this series, but this is the only one I’ve read — probably because a review was expected since I got it from the publisher via LibraryThing.

A retro review from February 16, 2013.

Review: Writers of the Future, Volume XXVIII, ed. K. D. Wentworth, 2012.Writers of the Future

Don’t think of this as a collection of amateur stories. These stories are as proficient as those you will find in any anthology, more than many I’d say. Many of these stories are not even the first publication of their authors.

And don’t think of this as some sort of talent-spotting exercise, a dutiful survey to see who might be the subject of “buzz” in the future. As with past winners, some of these authors will go on to distinguished careers. Others will fade away.

There is something here for most tastes in the fantastic: fantasy, surrealism, a bit of steampunk, and military and straight science fiction.

Some of that science fiction is conceptually inventive. If it isn’t entirely groundbreaking, it at least looks at some old ideas in a new way. Three stories in this category were my favorites.

Actually, my favorite, Gerald Warfield’s “The Poly Islands“, may do something completely new in its setting – the famed island of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean. Here, it’s populated by criminal gangs, those on the run from those gangs like protagonist Liyang, and political refugees. Add in the mysterious nature of the Crab, leader of the Poly Island community, some intrigue, and the well-worked out details of living on an unstable platform of plastic garbage, and you have a winning story marred only a tiny bit by a somewhat schmaltzy ending. Continue reading

Dream Baby

I’m working on new stuff.

In honor of From Couch to Moon’s recent post on military science fiction, I looked through the archives for some relevant work.

Raw Feed (1990): Dream Baby, Bruce McAllister, 1989.Dream Baby

This book was reminiscent of Frederik Forsyth The Day of the Jackal. There is an inevitable but suspenseful feeling of doom. You know the mission to destroy the dikes above Hanoi is going to fail; you just don’t know how. Like The Day of the Jackal, the failure is last minute and surprising.

The novel’s theme of transcendence is also reminiscent of Charles L. Harness The Paradox Men (in putting protagonist in danger to provoke the development of extraordinary talents) and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

The plot is also interesting in what McAllister doesn’t choose to do. He deemphasizes the commando action and the adventure aspect while telling a tale that is suspenseful, compelling, and realistic. He chooses to concentrate on the psychological aspects of war as symbolized in Mary Damico: the desire to kill and heal, the necessity of killing and the desire to greet the enemy with kindness and humanity.

I learned a great deal of what I believe to be accurate details as to how the war was fought and covert actions conducted.

If I have any complaints with the novel, it is with the lack of detail at crucial scenes of combat (particularly on the river) and few insights into the character of the oh-so-manipulative, cunning Colonel Bucannon. But these are not really flaws but the logical results of the viewpoint McAllister chose. Damico isn’t a soldier, but she, like a soldier, is most interested in protecting her friends.

The mission and details (particularly of the various ethnic groups I had never heard of in relation to the Vietnam War) were exciting, but the novel really took off with the startling incident at the dikes above Hanoi when the combat team becomes a gestalt mind transcending not only individual consciousness but time and space and gaze into alternate timelines and the past and future alternatives of their own lives.

McAllister obviously has some views on Vietnam, but he is subtle and not at all hectoring. He uses the concept of alternate histories in an original way and shows how U.S.-Vietnam relations could have proceeded. McCallister gives us a weird, wonderful few last chapters. The novel has not only a wonderful sense of Damico’s character; a novel and intriguing and plausible impetus for and application of paranormal powers; a surreal, original exploration of alternate worlds and psychic powers; and a compelling portrait of how the human mind reacts to the horror, stress, wonder, and comradeship of war.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Great North Road

Another retro review, this time of a rare Peter F. Hamilton singleton.

Being a Hamilton fan, I was happy to get this via a review copy from Amazon.

From January 18, 2013 …

Review: Great North Road, Peter F. Hamilton, 2013.Great North Road

After something of a misstep with his Void Trilogy, Hamilton is back in top form.

This has almost everything you expect in a Peter F. Hamilton novel: a murder mystery, soldiers, mysterious tech billionaires with ambitious ideas for transforming the world, gazillionaire families, detectives, a sort of technologically mediated telepathy, spies, an astronomical mystery, life extensions, aliens, sex and easy, casual travel between planets.

The plot is relatively straightforward. A North turns up dead in Newcastle, UK. Norths are the male clones that fill many of the upper echelons of business in this society. The trouble is not only is it not obvious who killed him but his exact identity is unknown.

And the method of death wakes the professional paranoia of the Alien Intelligence Agency. They already have one alien menace to contend with — the Zanth, who have destroyed one human inhabited world. They don’t need another, but the murder weapon seems possibly related to a 20 year old mass killing done by one Angela Tremelo.

The story centers around two main characters: Sid Hurst, the detective heading up the Newcastle murder investigation, and Angela, who is taken out of jail to serve as technical advisor on a mission to the planet St. Libra, the site of her alleged murders – which she has always claimed were done by an unknown alien.

Hamilton keeps the pace cranked at full level. At about midway, the story of the St. Libra expedition becomes even more compelling. Its isolation, stalked by an alien force from without and, maybe, from within reminded me a bit of the Alastair Maclean novels I used to read, especially Night Without End. At this point, when he’s got you hooked, Hamilton makes a lot of diversions to backfill the story of his characters’ lives. Some of these may strike the reader as a bit too long, but I didn’t mind all that much.

What I did mind, but it didn’t ruin the experience in a major way, was a couple of things at the end. The first was a bit of silly, eco-centered moralizing. The second was a bit of happy talk and improbability about the fate of a minor character.

As perhaps a sign of the times, this is not an almost utopian world like Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga. There is a note of economic anxiety throughout it. I also liked the air of casual corruption, especially tax evasion, amongst the Newcastle police. I also note that Hamilton, in his depiction of his Grande Europe political alliance, shows some of the Euroskepticism that marked his Misspent Youth.

And, yes, this truly is a standalone novel. Everything meaningful is wrapped up, so there’s no reason to wait to start this one whether you’re new to Hamilton or an old fan.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

North by 2000+

A retro review from January 8, 2013.

Review: North by 2000+, ed. H. A. Hargreaves, 2012.North by 2000

There are four possible audiences for this collection.

Fans of Hargreaves or admirers of North by 2000 will want this book. It adds four stories to that earlier volume to make it a complete collection of Hargreaves’ science fiction.

Students of Canadian science fiction will definitely want it. As editor Runté notes, North by 2000: A Collection of Canadian Science Fiction, published in 1975, was the first collection of science fiction stories to be explicitly marketed as belonging to a Canadian. In his very useful and interesting afterword, Runté talks about the themes and their implications which set Canadian science fiction apart from that of the British or American variety. Like so many Canadian science fiction writers, Hargreaves was an immigrant – from the Bronx, specifically. He lived and taught literature at a Canadian college and eventually became a Canadian citizen. While Hargreaves submitted stories to the American magazine Analog, its editor, John W. Campbell, never accepted any. All the stories of the original volume were published in British publications, and some of the additional ones first saw light in non-genre Canadian magazines. Runté shows how the Canadian preoccupation with the polar world, national disaster (even if only of the political sort), and alienated outsiders plays out in specific Hargreaves’ stories, stories whose protagonists are often “victims, or losers with occasional wins”.

If you like to read old science fiction, however technologically dated, for insights into the time it was written (here 1963-2011), you’ll probably like this collection. Most share a common world, a future Americanada (which, as Runté notes, could be construed as a national political disaster for a Canadian) administered by vast computer banks, a universal welfare state where people carry their resumes and bank information on AP punch cards aka All Purpose Cards, where penal systems have been greatly modified (including, in one instance, mandatory hockey lessons), people live in Efficiency Living Spaces with fold up furniture, pipelines cross the wilderness and cities are being built in the Arctic waste. Yes, these stories are from that era in science fiction when vast national and international projects were dreamed, central planning and administration was the vogue, and the psychological sciences were thought to be able to solve old and new problems. Continue reading