Vermilion Sands; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

I’m off reading new stuff, so you’re getting old stuff.

Specifically, the short J. G. Ballard series continues work with this book of linked stories.

Speculiction provides an alternate perspective.

Raw Feed (1997): Vermilion Sands, J. G. Ballard, 1971.Vermilion Sands

“Preface” — A collection of linked stories from a time when futurists worried about how we would adapt to the future leisure society. Vermilion Sands is a place, cheerfully admitted by Ballard to exist in no real geographical point in the future, in such a world. Ballard says its “spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach” but that he sees it popping up on the northern shores of the Mediterranean where all of Europe seemingly spends its summer. Alas, this world where “no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work” was not to be, and Europeans now find their vacations cut short to compete with Americans, Japanese, and the ambitious Asian nations. Vermilion Sands, says Ballard, celebrates the “neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid, and bizarre”.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D” — Like his novel Crash, this story starts with a rather melancholy summary of how the story ends (though here the summary is shortened because this is a short story and not a novel). (The deaths of major characters in both cases transpire in attempting to fulfill some artistic obsession.) The invented art of sculpting clouds by silver iodide dispersing gliders is implausible but a wonderful image. This story has been described by some critics as a sf version of the movie Sunset Boulevard. There is some truth to that in that it is a tale of artists destroyed by a rich, vain woman – here out of a desire to win her approval, in the film to presumably to tap her fortune.

Prima Belladonna” — This story reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” in that both feature strange, exotic women with affinities for strange plants. In Hawthorne’s story, it was a woman of poisonous breath in a poisonous garden. Here beautiful singer Jane Ciracylides appears to be some mutant hybrid of insect and man attracted to the “Arachnid orchid”. The image of singing plants is bizarre and wonderful and Ballard works it out in enough implausible, but compelling, detail to make work even better. It is strongly hinted that, like the “khan-Arachnid spider” she needs to lay eggs in it. This is Ballard’s first story, and he does a wonderful job depicting leisured young men casually pursuing art and attracted to the woman with “insects for eyes”. Ballard has wit and a knack for concise evocation of mood and character in his first work. I suspect this story with its “Recess”, a ten year period of economic slowdown and “high summer” lethargy and part-time artists, was the inspiration for Andrew Weiner’s excellent “Waves”. Continue reading

Stealing Other People’s Homework: Ron Goulart’s Cheap Thrills — Retro-Forteana

If you’ve come across the name Ron Goulart the chances are it was as a historian of 20th century popular culture – comics and pulp magazines in particular. But Goulart was a poacher as well as a gamekeeper, churning out over a hundred short and easy-to-read novels of his own (the small selection that I’ve…

via Ron Goulart’s Cheap Thrills — Retro-Forteana

Crash

I’m reading a thick book with a deadline to review, so you are going to continue to get old stuff.

J. G. Ballard is on my mind since the Weird Tradition group at LibraryThing was discussing his “The Drowned Giant“.

So I went into the archives for any Ballard stuff I had.

We’re going to start with one of his most infamous works.

By the way, my older self has no trouble believing that the sexual fetish at the heart of this novel could show up in the real world.

The introduction to the J. G. Ballard section in James Gunn’s The Road to Science Fiction #5: The British Way is titled “The Universe Considered as a Concentration Camp”. I think that time in a Japanese internment camp explains a lot about Ballard’s protagonists’ passive observations of wonders and apocalypse.

Raw Feed (1997): Crash, J. G. Ballard, 1973.Crash

This is a perverse novel about a group of automobile accident victims who develop a sexual fetish for car wrecks and the resulting injuries. There is a lot of sex in this book, but it isn’t very arousing. If this is an attempt at pornography (I don’t think it is), it’s not very successful. Ballard’s prose is too clinical (I believe he contemplated a medical career once) to be arousing. This prose tone and quality mutes his attempt at poetic explanations for his narrator and Vaughn’s (that “nightmare angel of the highways”) thuggery, obsessed psychological state. While l I realize that people can and do develop all sorts of bizarre sexual fetishes, Ballard never really convinced me of the reality, plausibility, or emotion behind this one.

While this is not an sf novel per se, it has a science fiction sensibility about it in its exploration of the erotic attraction and mediation involved in a technology – here autos and automobile transportation and the spectacular failure of the latter in car wrecks. Ballard uses the novel to plot an extended series of sexual metaphors involving autos. In that sense, I can see his influence on the cyberpunks and their use of technological metaphors (though William Gibson is more skilled in this area). His fascination with celebrities and media – here symbolized by Vaughn’s obsession with “the film actress Elizabeth Taylor” – also prefigures cyberpunk themes. Sf critics antagonistic to the New Wave and its major figure Ballard accused him of creating disaster stories in which not only does the hero not try to prevent the disaster and is passive in the face of it but actually seem to desire it. This is certainly true here. The narrator – named James Ballard – not only senses a coming “autogeddon” but looks forward to his death in it and plots the erotic configurations of his future death.

 

Distant Signals and Other Stories

As I was walking about the house looking at the stuff scattered in the wake of a recent remodeling project, books disarrayed and out of order, this book caught my eye.

No one mentions Andrew Weiner any more. That’s too bad. He deserves more respect, so you’re getting this bit of unedited coverage of Weiner.

I haven’t read any of his novels, and I made no notes on his other collection, This Is the Year Zero, whose title story is a memorable science fiction treatment of Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide.

Raw Feed (1992): Distant Signals and Other Stories, Andrew Weiner, 1989.Distant Signals

The News From D Street” — Like several Weiner stories, this is a take off of someone else’s work — here Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World”. In fact, when Victor Lazare first reveals the nature of protagonist Kay’s work, Kay’s first inclination is to ask if the studies planned in his world are advertising (the purpose of the miniature world of Pohl’s story). Still, even on second reading, I found this an interesting use of Pohl’s idea. Kay uses the model to plot social structures, how information spreads, and people’s reaction to different types of authority figures. He manages to pack a lot of film noir/hard-boiled detective clichés (the mysterious woman, the evasive client, the menacing underworld figures), but they don’t seem clichéd here.

The Man Who Was Lucky” — This story was very funny. The premise was very much like Alfred Bester’s “Oddy and Id”, another story about a very lucky man. I liked the protagonist’s tremendous string of good luck, his part in a commercial conflict, the Law of Conservation of Luck turning his luck real bad, and the formerly defeated aliens foisting him off as an ambassador of bad luck on the winners till they payoff to get rid of him. Continue reading

The Plague Forge

The review of Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth trilogy concludes with a retro review from September 24, 2013.

Review: The Plague Forge, Jason M. Hough, 2013.Plague Forge

Yes, there is a trip to the Plague Forge, source of the nasty, dehumanizing SUBS plague that has killed billions. And that trip, a set-piece of the book, exhibits Hough`s strengths and weaknesses as a writer: plausible characters whose sometimes surprising turnabouts are plausible in retrospect, well done combat scenes, and escalating tension undercut by sometimes confusing and boring descriptions of the constantly altering structures of the alien Builders.

Hough starts out with a slam-bang opening – an operation to retrieve one of the alien keys from armored subhumans around Bellem. The rest of the book, rather than covering years as does the preceding volume, The Exodus Towers, mostly takes place over just two weeks of globe-hopping in North America and Africa as well as the usual locations in Brazil, Darwin, and space. Things climax in a way that just feels a little bit too neat of a gathering of all the major parties

The structure of the novel is very much like a computer game. There’s a treasure hunt for various alien artifacts – they’re even rather geometric objects like computer icons – which cause, for reasons not entirely explained, the Builder Key Ship to react with “ecstasy”. The explanation for the Builders’ actions and technologies is even delivered in a chapter that reminded me of one of those video clips that rewards you for completing the level of a computer game. While that explanation is not entirely satisfying in the hows or whys of the devastation the Builders have wrecked on Earth, it is at least given. Hough, though, definitely leaves plenty of dramatic potential open for sequels involving a new crew of adventurers.

The book, in places, could have used some tightening. For instance, the phrase “inverted pyramid” is repeated quite a few times when describing the Plague Forge.

Make no mistake. Not all the major characters are going to survive this book, and Hough, again in keeping with characterization and pacing being his greatest strengths, makes you feel emotion at almost all the deaths.

On the whole, though, I confess to being somewhat disappointed at the conclusion to a trilogy which started so strongly, and I’m not sure I will read, if they are written, any future books in this universe.

The Exodus Towers

The retro review series on Jason M. Hough’s Dire Earth trilogy continues.

The review is from September 17, 2013.

The review copy, like The Darwin Elevator, came from the publisher.

Review: The Exodus Towers, Jason M. Hough, 2013.Exodus Towers

The second novel in Hough’s Dire Earth trilogy suffers a bit from the middle book syndrome – escalating conflict and mystery with the resolution to presumably take place in The Plague Forge. Hough steps down the violent action in this book, and, like the preceding The Darwin Elevator, some of it is somewhat confusingly described. However, there are also a couple of well done combat scenes.

Mostly, this novel concentrates on character and the mystery of the Builders.

Russell Blackfield, thuggish and vulgar leader of Darwin, has the “help” of slumlord Grillo forced on him. Samantha, ex-member of Skyler’s crew, is caught up in the machinations of that immaculately dressed man who, it rather disappointingly turns out, is leader of one of those fanatical Christian sects that are something of a post-apocalypse cliché.

Humans have found a new hope in Belem, Brazil, site of several more Builder towers which provide protection to normal humans from the subhuman plague. But it is threatened by the mysterious Gabriel, leader of a cult of immunes with its own ideas as to how humans should confront the post plague future. That conflict will rupture Tania and Skyler’s relationship and give Skyler a new crew of immune scavengers. Continue reading

Misspent Youth

The Peter F. Hamilton series continues with a retro review, from February 20, 2011, of one of Hamilton’s more obscure works.

Like the jihad mentioned in the past of Hamilton’s Greg Mandel, this one, in the wake of the Brexit movement, has a bit of a predictive air about it.

This is a review of the 2002 UK edition. Hamilton has said the 2008 US edition is noticeably different and better.

This concludes the Peter F. Hamilton series for now until I read his two most recent works which should be soon.

Review: Misspent Youth, Peter F. Hamilton, 2002.Misspent Youth

This is probably, not considering The Web: Lightstorm [which I don’t plan on reading], Hamilton’s most obscure and least respected work despite it being the first novel in his recent Commonwealth Saga. I myself read all the other Hamilton first.

In some ways, this novel returns to the beginning of Hamilton’s career and the Greg Mandel books which made his reputation. Like those, it is set in the near-future and in Hamilton’s hometown of Rutland, England. However, the usual detailed combat sequences, the crime, and the espionage usually in his books don’t show up here though the book does end with some riots. Continue reading

The Darwin Elevator

Just because I have it on hand and because I really am off reading for a new review, you get an retro review.

This one is from July 16, 2013, and the review copy came through Amazon Vine.

Review: The Darwin Elevator, Jason M. Hough, 2013.Darwin Elevator

About the year 2257, aliens show up and give us a space elevator. A few years later they show up again, and they give us zombies. Oh, they’re not called zombies. They’re called subhumans. They’re creatures of all consuming emotion and not brain-eating cannibals. But they are mindless and usually aggressive. The alien Builders, however, have handily provided the solution to the problem they created. The 39,000 km. cable to space puts out the Aura – a field that mysteriously stops or, at least, arrests the disease that turns people into “subs” within hours.

The Aura’s effect, though, doesn’t cover much area, and the small remnant of humanity huddles in Darwin, Australia at the bottom of the cable and in orbital stations along the elevator. Locked in a resentful symbiosis, the clean, well-fed, well-educated orbital dwellers supply the slums of Darwin with food and get water, air, and scavenged parts in exchange. Many of the scavengers are like hero Skyler, a select few who are immune to the subhuman plague and go on dangerous missions to pick up requested items. The trouble is Russell Blackfield, ambitious, thuggy leader of the Darwin contingent skims off the scavenged hauls before the crews can sell them. Desperate to keep his crew together, Skyler takes on one more desperate mission to gather some astronomical data in a Japanese observatory.

What eventually unravels – and at much faster pace and in unexpected directions – is a story pitting Neil Platz, the billionaire who cunningly profited off the Darwin Elevator, against Blackfield and that tangles both up in the still unraveling alien contact with Earth. There’s battle, intrigue, double dealing and double crossing, explosions, snipers, mysterious alien artifacts, a beautiful scientist, and a warrior babe. Continue reading

The Evolutionary Void; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

The Peter F. Hamilton series continues with this retro review from December 4, 2010.

I see the mandatory Amazon title line of the review was “Too Much Superscience and Not Enough Tragedy”. Accurate and better than the usual tag lines I come up with.

As with the other books in the Void trilogy, Luke Burrage provides another perspective.

Review: The Evolutionary Void, Peter F. Hamilton, 2010.Evolutionary Void

Yes, if you’ve read the other books in this series, you will want to read this. (That would be, five, four, or two books depending on how you want to split them.) Yes, the Void series, if you haven’t started it yet, is worth the time as a whole.

Hamilton delivers in fusing, thematically and plotwise, the worlds inside and outside the Void. All secrets from the earlier books (except, perhaps, the Cat’s exact origins) are revealed including some mysteries brought up in this book.

Araminta continues her struggle with the Living Dream movement as its putative prophet. The demoralizing vision of Inigio’s last dream is revealed. Gore and Delivery Man seek alien technology. Ozzie shows up with his weird girlfriend. Aaron’s personality continues to deteriorate until we get a wonderful combat sequence told from the point of view of his emergency automatic personality. The rest of the characters continue their spying, sabotaging, fighting, law enforcing ways. New crises emerge. The fate of the galaxy is still at stake. And we get to meet a very old, very cunning survivor of our time.

Most importantly a prime theme of this series – should sentient species evolve by chance or deliberation (and, if so, by what sort of technology) and the spillover effects on those who don’t approve of the chosen evolutionary methods or goals — continues. And not just with the struggle of human factions but the Anomine, an alien race that faced a similar quandary.

But, at the end, the Void doesn’t completely satisfy. Continue reading

The Temporal Void

The Peter F. Hamilton series continues with another retro review, this time from October 22, 2010.

Review: The Temporal Void, Peter F. Hamilton, 2008.Temporal Void

Well, if you’ve invested the time to read the 600+ pages of The Dreaming Void – not to mention the earlier almost 2,000 pages of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained – you’ll want to continue with this book.

Hamilton resurrects – sometimes quite literally – characters and races out of those latter two novels.

It’s been noted (specifically by Luke Burrage of Science Fiction Book Review Podcast) that the Void series is all about power. The worthy purposes of power, the tactics of its use, and the effects of power on its wielders are the themes here. That ranges from the human factions which seek to steer humanity (in various flavors from the barely altered to the nearly post-human Advancers) in a particular direction to the ever increasing psychic powers of Edeard in his world of medieval technology. An election is even a major plot event in the alien city of Makkathran.

In fact, Edeard is the central character here, his adventures take up not only a larger portion of this book than the first Void novel, but they have an inherent interest and suspense, are no longer, as they sometimes were in the first novel, a story interruption. At novel’s end, Edeard faces not only a major challenge to his power but to his moral code. And story’s end provides a better understanding of the book’s rather enigmatic title.  Continue reading