A Night in the Lonesome October

Well, I’ve reviewed other Zelazny titles, so I’ll take a look at this one. But I was not as fond of this book as many are. (I actually had to scrounge for my paperback copy a few years ago and paid a relatively high price for it.)

Low Res Scan: A Night in the Lonesome October, Roger Zelazny, 1993.night in the lonesome october

Yes, we have a book nicely segmented into 31 chapters so you can read it, as so many people do, a chapter a day in October.

Yes, it’s narrated by a dog. Not just any dog — Jack the Ripper’s dog.

Yes, Frankenstein and his walking lab project and Dracula show up. Larry Talbot the Wolfman does too.

There’s a witch, a Russian monk, a bit of Yog-Sothethery. You can throw in Gypsies, grave robbers, and a vicar too.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson even show up though here only known as the Great Detective and his sidekick.

Most of those characters, except Holmes and Watson, have animal familiars who often talk to each other — which I found the most amusing part of the book.

And most of the characters are jostling for position (figuratively and literally) to make the best of the magical rite on October 31st — at least the Halloweens with a full moon. There are two camps — the openers and the closers. One camp wants to open a dimensional door so the Elder Gods can come through. The others want to keep it closed. Continue reading “A Night in the Lonesome October”

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By the Light of Camelot

The review copy for this one was requested mostly because it had a William Meikle story, but I suppose I had a subconscious desire to return to a bit of Arthuriana after not reading any for more than 30 years apart from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

I’ve watched the movie Excalibur countless times, but I’m not any kind of Arthurian buff. Not so coincidentally, I have been listening to Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s King Arthur: History and Legend lectures from The Teaching Company which actually was a bit helpful in understanding a couple of names I came across in this book. In my English major days, I did read a fair number of the medieval Arthur texts – but there’s a whole lot I didn’t read too.

Review: By the Light of Camelot, eds. J. R. Campbell and Shannon Allen, 2018.By the Light of Camelot

The stories here roughly divide into two categories. There are the stories where the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s reign and the Quest for the Holy Grail are honorable institutions and men engaged in worthwhile pursuits. And there’s the stories where they aren’t, literary acid corroding the legend of Camelot.

Generally, when it comes to Arthur stories, I want the former though I enjoyed the last bit of Arthuriana I read, Roger Zelazny’s “The Last Defender of Camelot” which portrays Merlin as a dangerous fanatic. (And, after hearing Prof. Armstrong’s summary of the alliterative Morte Arthure, which sounds like a real downer, I’m interested in that too.) [Actually, in thinking about it, the last bit of Arthuriana I read was Charles Harness’ Cybele, with Bluebonnets.]

Let’s start with the fictional gripes about the Camelot’s legend.

Simon Kurt Unsworth’s “The Terrible Knitter” is well-told, a grim tale of Dysig, a Round Table knight, still alive and in the wreckage of England after the Norman Conquest. Tracking down yet another rumor of the Grail, he comes to Dent, a village that’s a “thin” place between worlds, plagued by vampiric locals. Like a lot of these tales, the sting is in the end. Continue reading “By the Light of Camelot”

Carve the Sky

The Alexander Jablokov series continues.

Raw Feed (1991): Carve the Sky, Alexander Jablokov, 1991.Carve the Sky

I was first puzzled by this book’s title. It turns out to be a metaphor and allusion to the central theme of the book: that all of us carve and create — if we are truly to be alive — the reality we want, be it an act of artistic creation or a political creation. We are all, the book seems to say, artists to one extent or another

This is a very literary — and good — sf novel where a theme is played out in a number of variations in plot and character

The central theme is expressed in the metaphor of the Dispossessed Brethren of Christ, one of the best and most interesting features of the book. They are warrior-monks reminiscent of the Knights Templar (right down to building a Jerusalem Lost) with a strong gnostic streak. To them the world is evil and God is imprisoned in it, awaiting the art of sculpting to free him from the world as Christ’s divinity was revealed on the cross when his divinity was revealed in death administered by the sculpting tools of hammer, nail, and lance.

I don’t know how much of their fascinating theology is a Jablokov invention, but a look through the Encyclopedia of Freemasonry [yes, I do have a copy] showed that three of the four named elements in their spacedrive — Jochin, Boaz (which are the principle pillars in Solomon’s temple), and Aaron’s Rod — are associated with Royal Arch Masonry. Continue reading “Carve the Sky”

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

And the PKD series continues with a look at the second volume of his collected short stories.

Raw Feed (2000): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, 1987.PKD 2

Introduction”, Norman Spinrad — A very useful introduction in which Spinrad points out how Dick’s short stories, right from the beginning (these stories are from 1952 through 1955), were different artistically and thematically from other sf writers. While author collections, as Spinrad rightly notes, often have a sameness of style, incident, theme, and character and Dick was no exception, his sameness was unique. Spinrad sees Dick’s overarching theme to be a concern with empathy, the quality that distinguishes man from the mechanical, sometimes thinking, “pseudo-life” (particularly weapon systems) that menace his heroes. And those heroes are usually ordinary people trying to survive worlds of time paradoxes and shifting realities or the menacing security state. Spinrad notes that Dick didn’t do “action-adventure formula” stories or space operas or mad scientists or “fully-developed alien civilizations” or stories with “real good guys versus bad guys”. Dick did not write stories in a consistent universe or future history or feature recurring characters. But the most interesting claim by Spinrad (and I tend to believe he’s studied the matter) is that he invented the multiple viewpoint technique in sf (a technique Spinrad is fond of, indeed he took it to its extreme in “The Big Flash”). Spinrad claims “few if any writers” used it before Dick and that all writers who used it afterwards owe a debt to Dick.

The Cookie Lady” — Fantasy tale of vampirism by the title character who lures a boy with cookies and steals his life. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”

The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford

I’ve already reviewed later volumes in this series, so I thought I’d go back to look at the first two.

Raw Feed (1991): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1:  The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, 1987.PKD 1

Preface” — This is an interesting piece by Dick on what he valued in sf. Dick makes the valid point that all fiction involves dislocation from the reader’s world but that sf involves a major conceptual dislocation. Dick eloquently speaks of the joy in reading sf coming from the “chain reaction of ideas” set off in the mind while reading good sf. What is good sf to Dick? New ideas or new variations of old ideas. He quite clearly says it isn’t just the future or advanced technology. I disagree with this view. To me Dick is guilty of committing a variant on the sin of many other sf critic/author: he insists that sf meet some functional definition (define man’s relation to technology, the effect of change, prepare man for change, the dreams of technological society) and not assign a descriptive definition like it being fantasy with a pseudo-scientific or technological or scientific or pseudo-technological rationale. [I think younger self missed the importance of “good” in Dick’s argument. He may have considered a lot of things sf — just bad sf.] Many sf critics and authors seem quite content to denounce large parts of the sf genre as unfit for the label. I can’t see the need for this.

Foreword“, Steven Owen Godersky — It occurs to me in reading the Philip K. Dick Society’s Newsletter (and biographies and interviews of Dick) that the quality and character of Dick scholars varies greatly: some examine his mystical visions and religious themes for signs of mental illness, philosophical speculation, or divine revelation; some proudly point to him as one of sf’s best, others — scornful of most sf — point to him as a wasted gem in the garbage of sf; some see him as liberal, others as paranoid. Godersky sees a major theme — which he obviously, in a liberal way, likes — of anti-military, anti-war. That may be true but I suspect this strain in Dick’s work has more to do with living in the tense 1950s and having a strong distrust in authority.) Dick may be one of those rare authors that many a critical theory and observation could apply to. Dick’s contradictory statements, the philosophical/religious speculations, his concern over the small, his characterization and empathy, his distrust of authority and descriptions of reality all mesh to create a multi-faceted and complex man and body of work that can be described in political terms (such as Cold War satires), religious terms (the gnosticism of later books), and philosophy (e.g. Paul Williams description of the I Ching‘s influence on Dick). In some sense, most of these views are right, provide insight, and can be supported (and almost all contradicted) by evidence. Godersky makes the valid observation that Dick’s fiction has cosmic struggles between good and evil, death and life, order and entropy, callousness versus empathy often taking place in out of the way corners in a muted, hidden way between rather small, ordinary figures. The everyday, the mundane in Dick can have cosmic significance. Continue reading “The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 1: The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford”

Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

The PKD series continues with a rather expensive academic book that I loaned out and never saw again.

Don’t loan your books out, kids.

Raw Feed (1989): Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, eds. Patricia S. Warwick and Martin H. Greenberg, 1984.Robots Androids

Introduction“, Patricia S. Warrick and Martin H. Greenberg — Despite the glib and (at least as far as I can tell from my reading of Dick’s work so far) silly assertion that Dick’s war robots are similar to machines planned by the military and the retreading of the now familiar analysis of Dick’s theme (the nature of reality and humanity), this introduction did have two valid observations. [The older Marzaat certainly thinks we have lurched a lot closer to Dick’s killer machines.] The first is that Dick believed that to preserve your humanness you had to forswear allegiance to any ideology, be unpredictable (unlike the machine which is programmed for predictability), unconstrained by predictability. This explains the characterization of Dick’s protagonists whom we are supposed to empathize with. The second is the point that Dick has a definite propensity to confuse the line between human and machine (a crucial element of his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) with machines being quite human and humans being cold and unempathetic.

The Little Movement” — More of a fantasy than sf story . We never find out exactly where the toy soldiers come from, their larger purpose, or if they are part of a larger plot. This story is not particularly moving, but it does show some Dick characteristics: the dangerous toy whose harmless appearance is deceiving; mysterious, battling forces present in the universe with humans in the middle; and the hint of Dick’s concern with individual perceptions of the world with the in passing reference to the different worlds of adults and children. And, of course, there is a oh-so Dick baroque plot twist at the end.

The Defenders” — I’d heard about this story and read Dick’s The Penultimate Truth so the main plot feature of this story — that robots were faking a war to keep humans underground — was not a surprise. What was a surprise is, unlike in The Penultimate Truth, the robots are not doing this at the behest of manipulative, selfish masters but for altruistic reasons. Ironically, Dick, the anti-authoritarian, sees the initiation of the One World state as good and his characters pragmatically unite to rebuild the destruction and wildly exalt in the possibilities of the future. Unlike the vicious robots of The Penultimate Truth, these robots are kind but firm and view man as needing one final temper tantrum before uniting into one culture. (I don’t buy Dick’s argument that cultures who lose moral goals opt to civil war.) [I’d say it’s when cultures differ on moral goals.]

The Preserving Machine” — A light hearted story (with a black statement) showing Dick’s love of music. I fully agree with music being a wonderful, terribly fragile product of culture. [No, I’m not sure what younger self meant by “terribly fragile” — subject to the availability of technology? musicians?] I liked the fantastic notion of a machine turning music into animals (with oddly appropriate results including the final scene of the Beethoven beetle building a mud hut). Yet the story has a odd, rather depressing theme if I’m interpreting it right: the beautiful products of man’s cultures — the art, ethics, philosophy — are all fragile and, like living forms, respond to evolutionary pressures of the environment and mutate into unrecognizable forms. Dick’s depressing conclusion seems to be that art is doomed. He ties this into a curious religious point: that God must have felt humiliation and sadness at seeing his creation in the Garden of Eden respond to evolutionary pressure. A strange conclusion I’m not sure I agree with. But I do agree culture is fragile.

Second Variety” — If you read enough Philip K. Dick, you begin to become familiar with some of the turnings of his mind, anticipate his plot twists. That was partially the case here. I did immediately suspect the first David (with the disturbingly lethal Teddy bear) of being a crab. Towards the end I suspected Tasso. However, Dick still managed to catch me by surprise with Klaus being a crab, and I thought Dick was going to be sneaky and simply have no second variety crab — have the implication of the second variety’s existence be a plot to demoralize both sides and create general paranoia. Speaking of paranoia, this had some fine, powerful moments of such on a par with John Carpenter’s The Thing. The plot of robotic soldiers slaughtering humans while disguised as such reminding me of another movie: The Terminator (at least as much resemblance as Harlan Ellison’s “Soldier”). [Harlan Ellison famously sued director James Cameron which is why later prints of the movie acknowledge the works of Harlan Ellison.] Dick did a very effective job of describing the bleak, post-nuclear landscape and the violence, confusion, and rush of combat. Clearly the crabs are a stark example of Dick’s theme of thanatos: they are animal-like creatures utterly dedicated to destroying life, the ultimate realization of the Frankenstein theme, a weapon turned against both sides. They may, has Major Hendricks implies, have unrealized potentialities they will realize after the war, but we don’t see them. Indeed, the fact, like all other life forms, they’ve taken to killing each other seems a good thing at story’s end. However, that introduces an ambiguous note: are the crabs just another life form (they certainly are creepy) albeit made of metal? Has man introduced them only in his folly? Or has he served as a creator, passing man’s torch on (probably not a valid reading given Dick’s stated use of the robot/android metaphor)? Tasso does say we always did nice work. Irony or gratitude from created to creator? Ah, that Dick ambiguity. I do not, incidentally, see Tasso — as the story notes state — as a prototype for Dick’s consuming female. The characterization isn’t very similar.

Imposter” — A line from Blade Runner (though not scripted by Dick it accurately conveys his sensibilities) kept coming to mind when reading this: “How can it not know what it is?” Despite the rather telegraphing title, knowledge of Dick’s plotting proclivities, and a vague knowledge of this story from reading past criticisms, this story still caught me by surprise at the end. I thought, all through the story, that Spence Olham was a robot but, at story’s end when the real Olham’s body is first thought to be the robot’s, I thought he was human. Dick gets you whatever your original preconception was — a typical feature of his stories. I thought the portrayal of a self-deceived machine feeling unjustly persecuted was poignant. I also found it ironical that self-knowledge was what finally triggered the U-Bomb. A notion occurred to me that the robot could be a metaphor for all those evil people who really, truly don’t feel they’re evil, a threat, and are being persecuted.

Service Call” — This is one of those stories about a visitor from the future who can’t even really be questioned because human culture has changed so much. I liked this story a great deal. The idea of eliminating war (an extreme manifestation of disagreement) by imposing ideological (of whatever flavor) conformity is ironic given Dick’s values. He hated war, but he also hated conformity. This story has some of the moral ambiguity of Dick’s “The Last of the Masters“: good achieved at perhaps too high a cost. The idea of having a machine, willingly buying it, to insure your ideological conformity is both scary and funny (“Why be half loyal?”) and great entertainment. The end, with the swibble consortium securing their past, was unexpected.

Autofac” — Another very good story in which Dick invests his machines with animal-like qualities. Here the autofacs (I was reminded of the delightfully crazed autofac — the only part of the novel I really remember — in Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Dies Irae.) plan, war (like the crabs in “Second Variety” waging war on each other seems a major step in becoming another lifeform), and reproduce. This is another story of Dick’s where people try to thrust off oppression, succeed, and don’t get the expected results. Rebellion, good, evil are not clear cut things in Dick’s life. There is also an intriguing element of satire: the factories of production protecting themselves, reproducing, serving humans second, an economic system perpetuating itself. Given Dick’s view and economic separation) from the conspicuous consumption of the fifties, this is an outsider’s disapproving look at that cultural phenomenon (this story was written in 1956). I also thought Dick’s description of the bleak, blasted landscape and the many trappings of the autofacs was quite effective.

To Serve the Masters” — This is another one of Dick’s many stories with an ambiguous ending. The robots may have been irrationally destroyed by man because of religious fanaticism or they may have truly been a threat to man. There is a hint, as the story’s introduction says, that the former is true with the brutality of the humans. There is little more to this story than Dick’s well-crafted (the injured robot was rather poignant) ambiguity and plot twists.

War Game” — This is another of Dick’s lethal (well, here only subversive) toy stories.  The idea of a Monopoly-like game that manipulates people psychologically to facilitate economic conquest via surrender was interesting, but Dick didn’t sufficiently work out the details of how the game could do so. Maybe Dick’s point was the power of games to shape world views.

The Electric Ant” — I disagree with Warrick’s and Greenberg’s contention that this is the most important and powerful short story in Dick’s corpus. I can think of better stories in this anthology alone. It certainly is, as they say, quintessential Dick, but this story has several problems which make it a prime example of Dick’s thematic obsessions imperfectly realized in a story. Dick entirely ignores the question of pre-destination which logically arises from the plot. If all of Garson Poole’s stimuli are punched on tape then all of his stimuli is predetermined. Also Dick, in the act of expressing his theme, ignores the idea of blocked perception not being the same as the unperceived object not existing. Dick, I believe following the path of Hume (but I couldn’t say for sure being woefully ignorant of philosophy) equates unperceived with non-existence. Also, someone had to construct Poole so there is an objective reality somewhere. This story exhibits too much ambition on Dick’s part. He tries to incorporate too much of his philosophical concerns at the expense of the story which is interesting but ultimately a failure.

The Exit Door Leads In” — A strange, at times funny, story by Dick of a college of the future where the moral and psychological education of an individual is even more important than vocational knowledge. (The idea of an institution conducting secret moral and psychological tests is hardly a new one in sf.) You kind of feel sorry and depressed at Bob Bibleman’s (an obvious bit of symbolism, the Bible being the ultimate manifestation of institutionally encoded morality) fate. Dick makes us empathize with him and then assigns him back to the dump mercilessly. In most sf stories of this type, the protagonist passes the secret test. Bibleman disappoints Mary Lorne and gets the cold approval of a robot at story’s end. When the test was revealed, I thought Dick was going to go for a typical — for him — ending and make you wonder if the Panther Engine was real and Bibleman’s expelling a retaliation or if the stated facts were true.

Frozen Journey” — A fitting end for the anthology. This story of a man wracked by guilt and plagued by an increasingly inaccurate perception of reality seems a spiritual autobiography of Dick in his last years. [Let me repeat that Tim Powers, who knew Dick in his last years, said he was definitely not crazy.] Victor Kemming’s life of fear and anxiety, of spiritual visitations, of agony over his complicity in the death of a bird (a pointed reminder of how Dick valued life), seems Dick incarnate. The story is quite sad in its depiction of psychological deterioration and severed relationships. Like Dick’s life, it is poignant and blackly funny.

 

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

The Golden Man

The PKD series continues.

Raw Feed (1989): The Golden Man, ed. Philip K. Dick, 1980.the golden man

“Foreword”, Mark Hurst — Standard collection intro on why book was done and its history.

Introduction” — Brief tour of the life of Philip K. Dick, a subject as fascinating as any of his novels. We hear of Dick’s anger and love of sf and his friends in it (particularly Norman Spinrad and Thomas E. Disch but also Roger Zelazny and Robert Heinlein — who loaned Dick money and who, though Dick was almost completely opposite politically to him, Dick loved. His adoration in France, his fascinating life on the streets, his many loves of women and music, is all dealt with. It reminds me how much, more than any other author, I wish I would have met Dick while he was alive.

The Golden Man” — I’m sure too much prior knowledge of this story ruined my enjoyment of it. The story is structured to make one sympathetic towards the Golden Man (Dick comes up with an interesting assortment of mutants) and, as Dick points out in his story notes, this was the Golden Age of the sympathetic mutant in John W. Campbell’s Astounding and A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. At the end though, we are faced, like the androids in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with beings that seem outwardly human but are not. The pre-vision talent of the Golden Man was interesting, and Dick tried to go into some of its implications. The idea of a mutant’s sexual attractiveness was original and valid. The main strong point of the story is the turning of reader’s sympathy from the Golden Man to his hunters. Unfortunately, I spoiled my surprise. Continue reading “The Golden Man”