The OF Blog: October 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

September 2011 Reads

A bit late with this, as usual these days.  50 books were read/re-read in various languages, including a 10 book re-reading (and two new translation reads) of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince in various languages.  Not much detail this time, since I plan on crashing soon after posting this.

334  Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers (excellent)

335  Michel Bernanos, La montagne morte de la vie (French; new translation appears in The Weird; very good)

336  Clark Ashton Smith, Xiccarph (Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition; very good)

337  Justin Torres, We the Animals (outstanding debut, more later)

338  A.D. Miller, Snowdrops (bland, rather forgettable Booker Prize nominee)

339  Dino Buzzati, Il deserto dei Tartari (re-read; Italian; excellent)

340  A.D. Jameson, Amazing Adult Fantasy (good)

341  Zoran Živković, Knjiga (Serbian, very good)

342  Zoran Živković, Čitalelja (Serbian, excellent)

343  Zoran Živković, The Writer/The Book/The Reader (re-read; I really need to write more formal reviews of Živković's work in the future)

344  Charles Perrault, Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (French; classic edition of French fairy tales from the 17th century)

345  Dino Buzzati, Poema a fumetti (re-read; Italian; graphic novel; moving retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story)

346  Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonte (re-read; French; illustration-novel; seminal surrealist work)

347  Javier Marías, Tu rostro mañana:  1 Fiebre y lanza (Spanish; brilliant)

348  Zoran Živković, Most (Serbian, very good)

349  Zoran Živković, The Bridge (re-read; very good)

350  Javier Marías, Tu rostro mañana:  2  Baile y sueño (Spanish; outstanding)

351  Javier Marías, Tu rostro mañana:  3 Veneno y sombra y adiós (Spanish; one of the best literary trilogies of the 21st century)

352  Dino Buzzati, Il Meglio dei Racconti (Italian; collection of the best of Buzzati's short fiction; excellent)

353  Gonçalo M. Tavares, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique (read this in translation due to unavailability of the Portuguese original; very well-written)

354  Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik (decent, but not great)

355  Jean Ray, Malpertuis (French; Ray's only novel; very good)

356  Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow:  Fever and Spear (I read the translations for a possible future project; very good translation)

357  Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow:  Dance and Dream (see comment above)

358  Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (excellent debut novel)

359  Alexander Maksik, You Deserve Nothing (good)

360  Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York (outstanding)

361  Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (very good)

362  Amy Waldman, The Submission (very good debut novel)

363  Javier Marías, Los enamoramientos (Spanish; worthy novel to follow Tu rostro mañana)

364  Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow:  Poison, Shadow and Farewell (see earlier comment)

365 Tom Perrotta, Senior Season (good novella)

366  Rubén Mendoza, Lotería and Other Stories (good story collection)

367  Robert Coover, A Night in the Movies (good collection, but some stories were flat for me)

368  Jean Ray, Les Contes du Whisky (French; early collection; very good stories revolving around whiskey at some point)

369  Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, The Weird (as I have a translation in this, I'm too biased to say anything but how excellent this antho is – even if I didn't have a stake in it, I would have said the same for this massive 750,000 word anthology of a century of weird fiction)

370  Esi Edugyan, Half Blood Blues (decent but not very good Booker Prize nominee)

371  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (re-read; French; sentimental favorite)

372  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, El petit príncep (Catalan; same thoughts)

373  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Regulus: Vel Pueri Soli Sapiunt (re-read; Latin; same thoughts)

374  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Mali Princ (re-read; Serbian; same thoughts)

375  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Il Piccolo Principe (re-read; Italian; same thoughts)

376  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, A Kis Herceg (re-read; Hungarian; same thoughts)

377  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Der Kleine Prinz (re-read; German; same thoughts)

378  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, O Principerzinho (Portuguese; same thoughts)

379  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, El Principito (re-read; Spanish; same thoughts)

380  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (re-read; English; same thoughts)

381  Mercé Rodoreda, The Selected Stories of Mercé Rodoreda (translation from Catalan; excellent story collection released earlier this year)

382  Thomas Ligotti, My Work is Not Yet Done (re-read; already reviewed)

383  Sebastian Rotella, Triple Crossing (good fictionalization of the US-Mexican gang border wars and human trafficking)

384  Daniel Abraham, The Dragon's Path (good start to a new epic fantasy series)

385  Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (not Nabokov's best, but still quite good)

I know October is almost done, but I should have around 51 or 52 entries for that month whenever I get to it in November.  Looking more and more likely that I will have read over 500 books/e-books by year's end, one of my two best reading years.  Any of these you want to know more about or want to weigh in with your opinion?

A look at books being considered for my year-end Best of 2011: Novels

Yes, it's nearly two months away before I start writing those series of posts reflecting back on the year that was and the best 2011 releases that I've read.  Based on current reading numbers (should finish #436 and #437 today), looks as though I will have read over 500 books by year's end.  After a slow start, over a hundred of these will be 2011 releases and several of those will have been either debut novels or debut collections.  A bit more non-fiction was read this year than in year's past and there will be a decent number of non-English and translated fictions to note this year as well.  A few more YA titles (perhaps enough for me to justify a separate post) and the odd graphic novel or three are also possibly on the docket.

Over the past few years, I have consciously moved away from covering only marketed fantasy and SF on this blog.  Although this probably has caused some consternation among (former?) readers, as I have seen a noticeable decline in page views over the past 14 months (some of that likely due as well to working 40-60 hour weeks and not being as active online), I do hope that this longlist of books in a few of the categories I plan on covering will appeal to those readers who want more than seeing me repeat what they can find mentioned on other fine blogs and websites that do concentrate on core genre fictions.  2011 has been a good reading year for me, perhaps the most diverse in its quality and narrative styles in several years, and these titles should reflect this.

Note:  I'll be listing titles based on reading chronology, so there isn't any ranking involved:

Novels (Realist, Weird, and Speculative):

Bradford Morrow, The Diviner's Tale

J.M. McDermott, Never Knew Another

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife

Steven Erikson, The Crippled God

R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

David Albahari, Leeches

Michael Cisco, The Great Lover

China Miéville, Embassytown

Chris Adrian, The Great Night

Minister Faust, The Alchemists of Kush

Blake Butler, There is No Year

David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band

Genevieve Valentine, Mechanique:  A Tale of the Tresaulti

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons

Jesse Ball, Samedi the Darkness

Lev Grossman, The Magician King

Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie

Glen Duncan, The Last Werewolf

Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Elanor Henderson, Ten Thousand Saints

Patrick Dewitt, The Sisters Brothers

Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang

László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann, Animalinside

Mary Horlock, The Book of Lies

Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

Amy Waldman, The Submission

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

Caitlin Sweet, The Pattern Scars

Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox

Kameron Hurley, Infidel

Moacyr Scliar, Kafka's Leopards (translation)

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Stewart O'Nan, Emily, Alone

Graham Joyce, The Silent Land (US release was in 2011)

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

Amit Majmudar, Partitions 

45 novels listed here, yet there are several others I'm working on for November and December (Péter Nádas' Parallel Stories, released in English translation last week, is a massive tome I hope to finish in the next week or two).  Later today or tomorrow, I will list the longlists for other categories.  I like to think that this longlist above ought to pique the interest of some here.  If so, which titles strike your fancy?

Samuel Delany, Dhalgren

This review originally appeared in July 2010 on the SFF Masterworks blog.

 The late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time.  Youth movements throughout the Americas and Europe challenged long-accepted gender, racial, and sexual prejudices.  Radical ways of viewing how the world should be often led to direct and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities of besieged institutions, with several of these confrontations having aftershocks that have persisted until the current day.  From the American Civil Rights movement to the bra burnings in several countries to protest the unequal treatment of women to the Stonewall Riots that marked the birth of the gay rights movement, the decade between 1963 and 1973 has spawned social movements that continue today to urge for a new, transformed world where divisions by race, gender, and sexual orientation would no longer exist.

There was an analogue to this in SF during the same time period.  In both North America and Great Britain (and to some extent in the non-Anglophone European countries),writers such as Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel R. Delany began to question why SF could not be more than the exploration of scientific concepts in a fictional setting.  This "New Wave" of writers incorporated some of the ideas and questions raised by the social movements mentioned above into their writings.  In stories such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Ballard's Crash, and Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, issues of social status, gender equality, and sexual identity were explored.  But it was in Delany's 1975 novel, Dhalgren, where each of these important social issues of the time came to find their highest form of expression.

Dhalgren is set in the fictional American city of Bellona, after an apparent, unspecified apocalypse.  But this event is never referred to directly, only implied.  It, along with the resulting chaos, lurk in the background, like an itch that is never truly scratched.  Dhalgren's first paragraphs give clues to just how dense and foggy Delany's story is:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know:  careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

He rubbed his palms against denim.  Where he was, was still.  Somewhere else, wind whined.

The leaves winked.

What had been wind was a motion in brush below.  His hand went to the rock behind. (p. 1)

Here Kid (or sometimes, Kidd) is introduced.  He is a male with no sense of identity; he appears and does not know his name nor remember most of his past.  He is of indeterminate racial background and he is bisexual.  His wandering through Bellona, his hooking up with a quasi-gang known as the scorpions, his interactions with both males and females, white and black alike, are at first told nearly straight-forward.  But there are gaps in what is discussed.  There seem to be nightly horrors that are rarely referenced and never addressed.  Through the book, Kid searches to make sense out of chaos, to forge an identity out of the disparate remnants of his former self.

Delany's story is so encompassing that it is difficult to pick out a single strand (or even three) and say, "this is what the story is really about."  It does not invite easy comparisons, nor does it provide a linear structure.  What one can only hope to do is to take the text as it is and to wrestle with the myriad questions revolving around identity and see if one can forge a self-identification with the text similar to what Kid does with his new life in Bellona.  Although this is not the easiest of stories to read, the effort expended in trying to grasp what is occurring is more than rewarded by the book's end.

Below is an exchange between Kid and a fellow survivor, Tak, discussing not just Bellona, but also the imagination:

"Do you think that's what happened to Bellona?"  Someday I'll die, turned irrelevantly through his mind:  Death and artichokes.  Heaviness filled his ribs; he rubbed his chest for the reassuring systolic and diastolic thumps.  Not that I really think it might stop, he thought:  only that it hasn't just yet.  Sometimes (he thought), I wish I couldn't feel it.  (Someday, it will stop).

"Actually," Tak was saying, "I suspect the whole thing is science fiction."

"Huh?  You mean a time-warp, or a parallel universe?"

"No, just...well, science fiction.  Only real.  It follows all the conventions."

"Spaceships, ray-guns, going faster than light?  I used to read the stuff, but I haven't seen anything like that around here."

"Bet you don't read the new, good stuff.  Let's see:  the Three Conventions of science fiction - " Tak wiped his forehead with his leather sleeve. (Kid thought, inanely:  He's polishing his brain)  "First:  A single man can change the course of a whole world:  Look at Calkins, look at George - look at you!  Second:  The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application:  In a landscape like this, what other kind do we even allow to visit?  Three:  The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure.  Here in Bellona - "

"Maybe that's why I don't read more of the stuff than I do," Kid said.  He had had his full of criticism with Newboy; the noise was no longer comforting.  "Wasn't there a street lamp working on this block?"

Tak bulled out the end of his sentence:  " - in Bellona you can have anything you want, as long as you can carry it by yourself, or get your friends to."

"It's funny, not that many people have that much."

"A comment on the paucity of our imaginations - none at all on the wonders here for the taking.  No - it's a comment on the limits of the particular mind the city encourages.  Who wants to be as lonely as the acquisition of all those objects would make them?  Most people here have spent most of their time someplace else.  You learn something from that." (pp. 372-373)

This is, I believe, a key passage in the book.  Although it can be taken also as an embedded critique of earlier SF, I think the issue of limits and what the city is perceived to encourage its denizens to think and do lies near to the heart of much of the action that transpires here in Dhalgren.  This issue of limits is brought up again later in the novel, in a much more direct fashion:

I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on.  I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good.  That is wrestling with what I have been given.  Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?)  I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion.  But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception.  And what in life can rip that?  Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands?  I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I rage for reasons, cry for pity.  Do with me what way you will.  (p. 583)

This is perhaps the most powerful single moment in Dhalgren.  Kid's questions resonate because so many of us have asked similar questions before?  "Who am I?",  "What am I to do?",  "Why can't I understand?":  these questions and the ones generated from them form the core of our identity shapings.  Kid, stripped of his past (something mentioned directly in this passage), is about to search deep within in an attempt to discover just what sorts of identity he has come to possess.  In the final section of the book, "The Anathemata:  a plague journal," with its marginalia and excerpted texts creating a fractured narrative "time" for the final part of Kid and his companion's experiences in Bellona, this is explored in a fashion where the very confusing layout of these disparate texts serve as a symbol for the inner turmoil that is roiling within Kid.

Is Dhalgren worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most ambitious novels written in the late 20th century.  Thirty-five years later, it still sparks controversy among those who try to process everything that it contains.  Its discussions of gender roles, racial identity, and sexuality are still controversial in many parts of contemporary society and the novel's power to stir strong emotions has hardly abated.  Such powerful works, written in a bold, unconventional narrative style, may not be enjoyed by everyone, but for those who are willing to wrestle with it and to win some sort of understanding (if it only be an understanding of one's own limits to comprehend), Dhalgren is easily one of the best novels of the 20th century in any genre and it likely will continue to be held up as being one of the best New Wave SF novels ever written.

James Blish, A Case of Conscience

This review originally appeared on the SFF Masterworks blog in July 2010.

Religion may be one of the most difficult topics to tackle, especially in a SF novel.  If an author chooses to espouse one religion over another, inevitably that author would invite a host of criticisms, ranging from how could s/he present something that is, in the minds of many, little more than superstitious gibberish as being something credible and worthy of consideration.  However, if that same author were to endorse the opinion that religion is indeed a simple matter suitable only for children who are not ready to outgrow Santa Claus and Jesus the Christ, there would be criticisms that the author missed opportunities to explore the complex relationships people have with received and developed faith in divine entities and in the ethical laws designed to govern their behavior.

American SF author James Blish, although not a religious person himself, was keenly aware of the thematic possibilities that could be mined from exploring the connections and rifts that could take place when an individual's religious beliefs collided with political and social matters.  Blish wrote four novels that dealt with these issues:  Black Easter, The Day After Judgment, Doctor Mirabilis. and A Case of Conscience.  It is A Case of Conscience (1958), the 1959 Hugo winner for Best Novel, that has received the most publicity, in large part due to the nature of the conflicts found within this relatively short novel (which is actually a 1953 novella that had a second part grafted to it, with mixed results).

The story begins with a Peruvian Jesuit, Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, puzzling out a solution to what he terms a "diabolically complex" problem:

...Magravius threatens to have Anita molested by Sulla, an orthodox savage (and leader of a band of twelve mercenaries, the Sullivani), who desires to procure Felicia for Gregorius, Leo Vitellius and Macdugalius, four excavators, if she will not yield to him and also deceive Honuphrius by rendering conjugal duty when demanded.  Anita who claims to have discovered incestuous temptations from Jeremias and Eugenius - 
Although Ruiz-Sanchez is interrupted before he reveals too much, this problem involving the hierarchy of ethical dilemmas ties in neatly to a very real situation that Ruiz-Sanchez has to confront.  Recently, first contact was established with a sentient, non-humanoid race on the planet of Lithia.  Lithia presents two major problems for Ruiz-Sanchez and for his cohorts (which for the majority of the novel are relegated to being 2D ciphers of characters):  For Ruiz-Sanchez, the apparent evidence that the Lithians do not lie, cheat, or steal, that they by virtually all interpretations of Church Law live the perfect Christian life without being exposed at all, or even understand the theological concept of religion (much less Original Sin), provokes a major internal debate about how to treat these self-aware beings.  For the others, Lithia is an energy goldmine, a source for cheap energy that unfortunately can only be extracted via the destruction of the planet.

These conflicts are explored throughout the two parts of the novel in varying degrees of narrative success.  Ruiz-Sanchez's interactions with a Lithian traveler to Earth, Chtexa, reveals the depths of Ruiz-Sanchez's conflict:  here is a decent, honest being, yet this being cannot be one of God's children because Chtexa has no concept of Good and Evil; he just acts in accordance to his nature and despite that nature being utopic for the Jesuit, it conflicts with everything he has been taught and believes about Original Sin.  Ruiz-Sanchez, in his attempt to rationalize this conflict, begins to wander dangerously close to the Manichean (or Dualist) heresy.  For the latter sections of Part I, this conflict within Ruiz-Sanchez is clear, present, and dominates much of the discussion.  However, by Part II, this has taken a back seat to the arguments about whether or not the planet of Lithia ought to be exploited for its resources, living and sentient beings there be damned, as well as exploring how the infant Lithian, Egtverchi, copes with life on a Earth where its denizens were driven underground over a century before due to the threat of nuclear attack.

As noted above, Part II was grafted onto the first part five years after the fact.  Although the conflict over the exploitation of Lithia is better developed in this section, the other elements introduced in the first part are relegated to lesser roles.  Blish's attempt to develop a plausible underground society fails to convince the reader, especially those who grew up after the bomb shelter craze of the 1950s and early 1960s.  Although there were some promising scenes showing the juxtaposition of Egtverchi among the humans of this Shelter society, for the most part these do not strengthen (and in some instances, they reduce) the impact caused from considering the ethical conflicts that Ruiz-Sanchez has between what he believes and what he experiences from interacting with the Lithians.

The eventual decision regarding whether or not to let the lifeforms of Lithia live and the planet and its star be spared from destruction follows a seemingly inevitable course.  Blish missed an opportunity in making this decision more intriguing and compelling due to his lack of character development among those who were with Ruiz-Sanchez on the original mission to Lithia.  It is a shame, because these questions regarding ethics and religion could have been developed to the point where they rivaled that of Walter Miller's classic A Canticle for Leibowitz for power of expression.  It is in these key areas of characterization and thematic tightness where Blish's story falters and while A Case of Conscience is still a powerful, relevant story over fifty years after its release, its flaws are noticeable and they do weaken reader appreciation for this story.

Is A Case of Conscience worthy of the title of "Masterwork?"  For the most part, yes.  In the 1950s, this story was much more complex in its thematic conundrums than the vast majority of its contemporaries.  Blish's prose is good and while he was not quite the stylist of some of the New Wave SF writers that followed in the 1960s, his treatment of ethical and religious concerns, despite the flaws noted above, were ahead of its time.  Despite dated references to nuclear fallout shelters and to the looming threat of Communism, this novel reads well in 2010.  For those readers willing to consider the central issues in play here, A Case of Conscience would make for an entertaining read and might spark a few thoughts afterward.  If that is all that this novel does for a reader today, then it is worthy of such a title as "Masterwork."

Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

This review originally appeared in May 2011 on the SFF Masterworks blog.

progris riport 1 martch 3

Dr Strauss says I should rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on.  I dont no why but he says its importint so they will see if they can use me.  I hope they use me becaus Miss Kinnian says mabye they can make me smart.  I want to be smart.  My name is Charlie Gordon I werk in Donners bakery where Mr Donner gives me 11 dollers a week and bred or cake if I want.  I am 32 yeres old and next munth is my brithday.  I tolld dr Strauss and perfesser Nemur I cant rite good but he says it dont matter he says I shud rite just like I talk and like I rite compushishens in Miss Kinnians class at the beekmin collidge center for retarted adults where I go to lern 3 times a week on my time off.  Dr. Strauss says to rite a lot evrything I think and evrything that happins to me but I cant think anymor because I have nothing to rite so I will close for today...yrs truly Charlie Gordon. (p. 1)

Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon may be the most widely-read Hugo/Nebula-winning story that its readers never stopped to think of as science fiction.  Ever since its release in novel form in 1966 (it previously appeared in a novella incarnation in 1960), it has been a staple of required English reading lists.  When I first read it at the beginning of my Honors English III class in the fall of 1990, there was nothing said about this being a SF story, yet over twenty years later, it is perhaps one of my all-time SF favorites, despite not thinking of it in those terms until a few years ago.

Centered around the progress report/diaries that the mildly retarded (IQ 68) Charlie Gordon writes over a memorable eight month period, Flowers for Algernon immediately captures the reader's attention through the direct way in which Charlie speaks to the reader.  Learning immediately that he is an eager-to-please adult, we take pity on Charlie, as he struggles with the immediate aftermath of a radical new surgery designed to boost his intelligence to over twice that of "normal" adults.  We see the many cruel jokes played on him by his co-workers at Mr. Donner's bakery and the realization Charlie has to what "pulling a Charlie Gordon" means to those who measure their own self-worth against that of a mentally unabled adult.  However, Keyes' story is much more complex than just detailing the differentness with which we treat those among us who are mentally lower-functioning.

When I chose to revisit Flowers for Algernon for the first time in over a decade, I had in memory Charlie's radical transformation from a child-like, trusting simple soul to a cynical, arrogant, somewhat aloof genius who still lived in fear of the inner Charlie within.  While this impression is of course a true one, it is also very incomplete.  What Keyes explores here through Charlie is how we relate to others unlike ourselves.  Written before the special education reforms of the 1970s, when the functionally delayed children and adults were locked away into institutions rather than being integrated wholesale into society, Flowers for Algernon gives a scathing rebuke of the callous treatment which "normal" society gave to the so-called retarded.  These critiques usually do not appear directly in didactic expounding, but rather in the little comments in Charlie's journals as he notes his changing opinion of the people around him.

Parallel to Charlie is the lab mouse Algernon, who received the same intelligence-boosting neuro-surgical procedure some time prior to Charlie's own operation.  At key points in the novel, Charlie's development is recast in terms of Algernon's own changes from an ordinary lab rat who runs the courses for rewards before it begins to show signs of rejecting its masters' wishes.  This parallelism also serves as a foreshadowing for the latter events of the novel, as Charlie comes to realize the course of the experiment and its fatal flaw.

There is also a romantic angle to Flowers for Algernon, one that underscores the difference between Charlie's cognitive and emotional development.  It was these scenes that makes the final scenes so tragic, as Charlie struggles to integrate his new-found intelligence with his burgeoning attraction to his former teacher.  Keyes' choice of describing this conflict in terms of a near-disassociative state allows the reader a closer look into the fragile state of Charlie's personality during this time of rapid change.  Because we see so much of Charlie, scenes such as this serve as a chilling reminder of what is in store for him after he discovers what the ultimate consequence of the experiment will be for him.

Flowers for Algernon is one of those rare novels that reveal much more to a reader on a repeat read, especially if a period of years elapse.  It works as a diary of a conflicted character, a social commentary on the treatment of the mentally disabled, and as a tragic romance.  Charlie's character is engaging due to his vivid descriptions of life and himself.  Keyes' ability to show Charlie's changes through how he writes his journals makes this novel a captivating experience when it so easily could have been trite or overblown if Charlie's personality was not so visible in those journals.  Flowers for Algernon is a true mid-20th century American classic and it will continue to resonate with those who wonder about those near tabulae rasae who we pass every day in the streets or at school and rarely stop to think about who they are in our rush to dismiss what they are.

Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

This review originally appeared in May 2011 on the SF Masterworks blog.

What am I doing?  What am I doing?  he thought wildly.  Trying and trying like this to find out what I am and what I belong to...Is this another aspect of being outcast, monstrous, different?

"Ask Baby what kind of people are all the time trying to find out what they are and what they belong to."

"He says, every kind."

"What kind," Lone whispered, "am I, then?"

A full minute later he yelled, "What kind?"

"Shut up a while.  He doesn't have a way to say it...uh...Here.  He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head.  He says the 'I' is all of us."

"I belong.  I belong.  Part of you, part of you and you too."

"The head, silly."

Lone thought his heart was going to burst.  He looked at them all, every one:  arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and - the head to direct it.

"And we'll grow, Baby.  We just got born!"

"He says not on your life.  He says not with a head like that.  We can do practically anything but we most likely won't.  He says we're a thing, all right, but the thing is an idiot." (pp. 75-76)

Today, American writer Theodore Sturgeon is known more for his aphoristic "Sturgeon's Law" (90% of everything written is crud, reiterated in various fashions) than he is for his own fiction, but his 1953 fix-up novel, More Than Human was an influential short novel from the Golden Age of SF that incorporated then-en vogue psychiatric elements with a look at a possible world where a diverse group of socially outcast humans with telepathic/telekinetic abilities might find themselves as being part of a greater group-whole, or gestalt.  It is a story that intrigues and yet feels incomplete as well.

The origins of this story lie in the novella "Baby is Three" that appeared in Galaxy magazine.  Here comprising the middle third of the expanded story, it is the core of the story of a band of misfits who don't fit in with normal human society because their own abilities, when taken separately, leave them disconnected from others, often to the point of being viewed as dull or mentally retarded.  The first part introduces four of the six core characters that appear here:  Lone, or the Idiot, a telepath; Janie, an eight year-old with the power of telekinesis; the nearly-mute twins Bonnie and Beanie, who possess the power of teleportation, and the "Mongoloid" Baby, with computer-like processing power.  Separate, each of these four are nigh useless, but as the first part, "The Fabulous Idiot," progresses, the four come to know each other and to realize that each is both complementary and supplementary to the others, creating a new self-consciousness that is greater than the sum of the four.

"Baby is Three" explores the human gestalt's expanding awareness, even as it introduces a new character, Gerry, who possesses his own telepathic powers as well as a sense of ruthlessness that was not previously present.  This section is devoted heavily to psychological themes, such as belonging and the division of the conscious and subconscious.  However, there is some plot and a little character development in this middle section.

The final third, "Morality," is concerned with the gestalt's development of a conscience.  This is seen through the integration of the sixth member, Hip, into the group after initial conflict with Gerry.  This section typifies many of the strengths as well as weaknesses of Sturgeon's work.  The idea of a group consciousness developing a conscience intrigues, but ultimately, the failing of the three sections in regards to developing complex characterizations (or perhaps super-characterization in the case of the gestalt?) dampens the potential power of this story.  The characters rarely are more than sketchy ciphers who serve to fulfill the plot necessities; they do not feel "human," much less "more than human" due to this neglect to develop compelling personalities who are more than just plot vehicles.

In addition, while Sturgeon's prose is never obtuse or opaque, its limpidity is more that of a broad-stroked painting than a carefully crafted work.  The conflicts contained within the three sections rarely excite the desired interest because everything is explicated or brushed over in such a fashion as to leave little room for contemplation of the subtleties of the work.  There are some nuances to the story, but Sturgeon largely fails to develop them adequately, instead leaving a work that promises much that is eventually left unfulfilled. 

Brian Aldiss, Greybeard

This review originally appeared on the SFF Masterworks blog in July 2011.

When Martha was asleep, he rose.  The mutton-fat light still burned, though he had shielded its glow from the window.  He stood, letting his mind become like a landscape into which strange thoughts could wander.  He felt the frost gathering outside the house, and the silence, and turned away to close his mind again.  The light stood on an old chest of drawers.  He opened one of the drawers at random and looked in.  It contained family trinkets, a broken clock, some pencil stubs, an ink bottle empty of ink.  With a feeling of wrongdoing, he pocketed the two longest bits of pencil and opened the neighborhood drawer.  Two photograph albums of an old-fashioned kind lay there.  On top of them was the framed picture of a child.

The child was a boy of about six, a cheerful boy whose smile showed a gap in his teeth.  He was holding a model railway engine and wore long tartan trousers.  The print had faded somewhat.  Probably it was a boyhood photograph of the man now stacked carelessly out in the sheep shed.

Sudden tears stood in Greybeard's eyes.  Childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world, a memory that could not stand permanently against time.  Since that awful - accident, crime, disaster, in the last century, there had been no more babies born.  There were no more children, no more boys like this.  Nor, by now, were there any more adolescents, or young men, or young women with their proud style; not even the middle-aged were left now.  Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained. (pp. 37-38)

Death is an integral part of human life.  From embryo to newborn to adolescent to adult to the old-timer sighing out a death rattle, there is a natural progression in human societies as we age.  For many, the fear of the inevitable death is mitigated by the knowledge that their legacy will continue with the children they have engendered and raised to carry on family traditions.  For others, there is no consolation in death, only the forced acceptance that from birth, one is in a constant state of dying.  Old age in particular contains its mixture of memory and grim acceptance:  nostalgia for things now past, with few certainties besides death remaining for them to experience.

But what if the greying age did not bring the hope of future generations to continue the cycle?  What if this were it, that human life would become extinct when your generation passed?  How would you react in such a situation?  Would there be acceptance or denial?  These questions were raised in several novels in the 1950s and 1960s as humans came perhaps the closest to wiping out human civilization - and the majority of all lifeforms - that we have ever seen.  This period saw the release of novels such as Nevil Shute's 1957 novel, On the Beach, that posited the end of all human life as deadly radioactive fallout slowly moves toward the last southern outposts of humanity, as well as Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1959 classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, that deals with the wiping out of human civilization due to nuclear war and its rebuilding.

British author Brian Aldiss's 1964 novel, Greybeard, takes a different tack to exploring the worry and paranoia that were present during the first two decades of the Atomic Age.  Rather than showing a sudden decline, instead his novel is devoted to a human civilization, as Eliot might describe, that is going out more with a whimper than a bang.  The story begins in 2029 in Oxford, roughly fifty years after the "Big Accident," in which a nuclear weapon explodes in the upper atmosphere, rendering all humans (or so it seems) sterile.  There are no more children, everyone is in their 50s or older.  The story's narrator, Algy Timberlane, most commonly known as Greybeard for his navel-length beard, reminisces on the changes wrought by the collapse of human society following this incident that occurred when he was little more than a toddler.  He does not remember a "before," only an "after."  From billions, the worldwide human population has shrunk to a bare few million.  Flora and fauna rush in to fill in the gaps.  Instead of the hedonistic last days portrayed in Shute's novel or the religious imagery found in Miller's work, Greybeard's focus centers around a slow, gradual march of wilderness overtaking the last remnants of human society:

Man had gone, and the great interlocking world of living species had already knitted over the space he once occupied.  Moving without any clear sense of direction, they had to spend another two nights on islands in the lake; but since the weather continued mild and the food plentiful, they raised very little complaint, beyond the unspoken one that beneath their rags and wrinkles they regarded themselves still as modern man, and modern man was entitled to something better than wandering through a Pleistocene wilderness.

The wilderness was punctuated now and again by memorials of former years, some of them looking all the grimmer and blacker for lingering on out of context. (p. 156)
As Greybeard and his wife Martha move down the Thames River from the ruins of Oxford in an attempt to reach the sea, they encounter not just the empty reminders of what was lost, but oddly enough, signs that perhaps there are still fertile humans.  Yet this discovery does not enliven them with hope.  No, rather it makes no difference to Greybeard's generation, other than these half-feral upstarts are a disturbance to them and a threat to the quiet dissolution that so many of them seek.

This realization is what makes the novel almost lyrical.  More so than its quiet, understated metaphors for decline, decay, and dissolution, Greybeard contains a poetic power in its grim resolution to remember what is passing and celebrating that rather than any nebulous hope that might be born with a new generation that might succeed where they have failed.  This lends the novel a sense of gravitas that otherwise would be lacking.

Greybeard is not a novel to be read for its plot; there really is little to the story other than Greybeard's reflections on the changing scenery and how those changes were wrought.  There is little overt conflict, unless one counts that inevitable conflict with that unbeaten champion of Death.  Some readers might find this 239 page novel to be dull for these absences, but for those who are willing to consider the themes, especially that of aging and the reluctant acceptance of one's impending doom, Greybeard might prove to be one of the more quiet, yet powerful, masterpieces of post-apocalyptic literature produced during the past half-century.

Clifford Simak, City

This review originally appeared in July 2011 on the SFF Masterworks blog.

"Not a park, exactly," explained Henry Adams.  "A memorial, rather.  A memorial to an era of communal life that will be forgotten in another hundred years.  A preservation of a number of peculiar types of construction that arose to suit certain conditions and each man's particular tastes.  No slavery to any conditions and each man's particular tastes.  No slavery to any architectural concepts, but an effort made to achieve better living.  In another hundred years men will walk through those houses down there with the same feeling of respect and awe they have when they go into a museum today.  It will be to them something out of what amounts to a primeval age, a stepping-stone on the way to the better, fuller life.  Artists will spend their lives transferring those old houses to their canvases.  Writers of historical novels will come here for the breath of authenticity." (p. 35)

American writer Clifford D. Simak's City is a notable example of the "fix-up novel":  a series of formerly independent, although similar in some aspects to the others, narratives that are meshed together by some sort of framing element to make a quasi-novel out of short fictions.  At times, these "fix-ups" work well:  Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz perhaps is one of the best-known and loved examples of this.  However, there can be weaknesses that crop up when forcing short fictions into a larger whole.  Sometimes, narrative energy is dispersed and the creaky edges of each individual story segment reveal quite clearly the spot welding applied to the narrative seams.  City unfortunately is less than the sum of its part.

City is divided into eight stories woven together with short framing sections.  Stretching over 12,000 years, from the then-near future (the 1990s) to a distant future in which sentient, speaking dogs have replaced humans as the dominant mammalian species, these stories explore issues of longing for peaceful interaction.  Humans fade away over the course of these stories.  They leave their earthly burdens for a transfigured life as Lopers on Jupiter.  It is a quietly depressing theme, one that is borne out over the course of these stories.

There is a museum-like quality to these narratives.  Oh, not the purposeful type, as is quoted above, but rather there is a sense of withdrawing, a placing of human achievement off to the side, at first to be admired by progeny that have left the crumbling tumult of cities for a simpler, more pastoral life.  One such family, the Websters, are seen at various points over the course of these stories, along with a near-immortal mutant and a robotic servant.  As the stories progress, a quiet sense of despair becomes apparent.  Here, escape is idealized - humans leave Earth for a paradise, at the cost of their own humanity.  The dogs are left to battle with sentient ants, with a further increase in a sort of entropic torpor that persists until the final epilogue appears to sputter like a dampened roman candle.

For some, these stories build up one another to create a rather damning commentary on human life and our propensity for dreaming even as we obliterate all that we supposedly hold dear.  There is something to that, as there is that growing disillusionment with the waking world that is present throughout the generations of Websters and those associated with them.  Yet many, and I am one of them, will find themselves dissatisfied with it.  The stories feel muted, robbed of potential narrative power because there is no conflict when one side just surrenders and fades away into oblivion.

This is only compounded by the herky-jerky nature of this particular fix-up.  With only a few recurring characters, there is little connecting these stories.  By the time one reads 25-30 pages, one story has faded and one gets to experience another iteration of Simak's theme of disillusioning escapism, only with other characters.  There is no sense of depth here, likely due to the lack of apparent conflict or narrative tension.  The simplicity of the narrative/societal fade to black has as its downside the lack of narrative energy; what's the point of caring about any of this when it is clear from the very beginning that there is so little to do other than to shrug one's shoulders?

City may have held an appeal for those readers from the 1940s-1980 that read these tales, but today it is hard to laud a work in which the theme is rather stark, the characters mere ciphers, and prose that is merely serviceable.  There is little to recommend it to those who want something more challenging than a simple capitulation to extinction.  It is a work that may intrigue some, but it lacks anything in the way of narrative energy that would leave readers pondering its message long after the final page is turned.  City is merely a competent work, not anything worthy of being preserved for future generations of SF readers.  It is one of the weakest choices in the SF Masterworks series.

Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

This review originally appeared on the SFF Masterworks blog in July 2011.

Our Father which art in heaven...

He had been brought up, like most of his schoolfellows, paying a certain lip-service to the Christian religion.  Prayers in the mornings at school.  He had taken to saying two prayers at night.  One was the Lord's Prayer and the other went God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy, God bless my sisters and brothers and all the dear people that surround me, and God bless me.  Amen.  That had been taught to him by a woman who looked after him for a while when his mother was at work.  He had added to this a list of 'thank-yous' ('Thank you for a lovely day, thank you for getting the history questions right...') and 'sorrys' ('Sorry I was rude to Molly Turner, sorry I didn't own up to Mr Matson...').  He had been seventeen years old before he had been able to get to sleep without saying the ritual prayers and even then it had been his impatience to masturbate that had finally broken the habit.

Our Father which art in heaven... (p. 9)

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, the image of the Passion of the Christ strikes at the hearts of those who behold it in art, cinema, poetry, or even prose.  A Man (God?) hanging from the crossbeams, arms lashed in place with nails through the hands (wrists) and feet.  The agony on his face contrasted with the taunting or mournful crowd.  How could such a person endure that pain?  Why would he choose such a punishment, if such a thing could ever be "chosen" in the first place?  The Passion has left an indelible mark on European and some Asian and African cultures.  Ecce homo – behold the man, indeed.

Michael Moorcock in his 1969 short novel, Behold the Man, explores the psychological rationale that could lead to the imitation of the Passion.  Karl Glogauer, who time travels back to the Palestine of the Christ's ministry and execution, is beset with a range of issues ranging from his parents' divorce to the near-pathological association of his faults and desires with the symbolism of the cross.  Moorcock alternates between showing Glogauer in the "present" of Palestine and the "past" of mid-20th century England.  We experience his trials and tribulations, his struggles with women, his sinking into a sort of messiah-complex where he sees himself as reliving the agonies of the Passion, all in flashbacks that occur around the events in Palestine.

It would be easy to view this story as a simple denunciation of the faith people put in their religions.  After all, the Jesus of this story is not the Christ of Catholic/Orthodox Masses or Protestant worship services.  Glogauer is weak and possibly demented – could this be seen as a commentary on those who are devout?  While some might think this is so, evidence from the novel indicates something else is occurring.  Glogauer is a sympathetically-drawn character; one cannot help but to feel at least some pity on him as he struggles to deal with the neuroses that afflict him.  He is a dynamic character whose ultimate transformation causes the reader to consider not just him but the entire origins of the Christian faith.

Moorcock's story would not work without Jungian psychology being utilized to develop Glogauer's character.  He feels "real" because his foibles, his little triumphs, and his despairs are described so well that readers may find themselves being reminded of their own histories.  Add to this a narrative that flows almost seamlessly from the "past" and "present" and the story works because it does not get bogged down in the mechanics of the time travel or the nature of the conflicts within Glogauer.  While some perhaps would have loved more elaboration, such would only serve to weaken the story with unnecessary digressions; the story works toward an iconic moment and that moment is largely realized because there is no extraneous detail or explanation.

Yet this is not to say that there are times where things seem to be left unsaid a bit too much.  Glogauer's failed relationships with women seem at times to flow into one another without much differentiation between them.  While there is character development, at times, especially toward the end, he shifts too much toward his ultimate role without much in the way of plausible development.  Although it would, as I state above, weaken the narrative to develop the backstory much beyond what is presented here, the occasional transitionary stage during the Palestine scenes might have made the whole even stronger than what was achieved.

Despite these faults, Behold the Man ends with a powerful scene that is easily among Moorcock's best.  It is not a pathetic, wretched event that we witness, but rather a transformative one that serves to unite Glogauer's fears and obsessions into a moving commentary that makes this book a true masterwork of science fiction.  It does not matter if you believe in the Passion or whether you are skeptical that there was even a human named Jesus in the first place.  Behold the Man asks the reader to do precisely that and in the act of beholding, something occurs that makes this conclusion one of the more memorable ones.  Highly recommended.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

This review originally appeared on the SFF Masterworks blog in June 2011.

 The New Wave of SF broke like a tidal wave over the shores of American and British SF.  Where the "Golden Age" stories tended to focus on individuals striving against the forces of nature or on how scientific advancement would improve the lot of humanity (or see a Communist allegory threaten to swamp certain cherished institutions), the New Wave writers utilized other tools.  More oriented toward the "social sciences" than the "hard sciences" favored by several Golden Age writers, New Wave authors such as J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Samuel Delany, and Ursula Le Guin explored the human condition more than they ever focused on issues of development and advancement (today, such terms seem almost quaint to us who have grown up in the past forty years).  Whereas the British New Wave tended to reflect upon the decline of Empire, American New Wave is characterized more by the utilization of anthropological methods in order to probe and vivisect American culture.

Le Guin herself is heavily influenced by cultural anthropological methodology (her father founded the University of California's Anthropology department, only the second in the United States at the time) and this shows up repeatedly in her fiction.  Le Guin's characters are most often non-white characters who in some key way stand outside of the society being represented in her fiction.  Her earlier novels set in the Hainish Cycle maintain throughout a sense of observation and social commentary on a whole host of issues, ranging from environmental degradation (Le Guin being one of the first SF writers to focus on the consequences of global pollution), societal violence, xenophobia, to the malleability of gender roles.  The characters themselves are keen observers who play small but vital roles in the development of the themes and plots.

This is not the case in her 1974 masterpiece, The Dispossessed.  Shevek, the physicist who leaves the purportedly anarchist moon settlement of Anarres for the fractious mother world of Urras, plays a much more central role in the story.  He is the embodiment of the anarchism of his home world, yet he is as much of an outsider to them as he is to the people he encounters on Urras.  Le Guin alternates chapters, dealing with Shevek both before and after his departure for Urras and how he influences those around him.

No discussion of The Dispossessed would be complete without a keen look at the central theme, that of a single person's embracing of a political philosophy that at its heart confounds and frightens those who favor more regimented societies.  Le Guin is careful to portray Anarrean society as being pacifist; much of this is due to the deliberate changes made to their very language, verbal and non-verbal alike.  Based in large part on the Sapir-Whorf theory on language acquisition and symbolic encoding, the Anarreans lack even the rudiments of possessive language.  All is shared, whether it be one's bed (male or female, it only matters if both prefer to couple), one's work details, or even one's computer-generated name.  It is a seemingly utopic society, yet Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevik, reveals the ambiguities present in swapping out traditional governmental forms for a radically new way of organization.

Time and time again we see the little conflicts that arise.  Jealousies emerge and nascent power structures begin to emerge a century and a half after the Anarreans have left Urras to found their utopic anarchistic society.  Le Guin does not skimp on analyzing these shortcoming; rather, she uses them as a contrast to what Shevik experiences in his travels on Urras.  There, we encounter the insidious effects of plutocratic society, of a Cold War analogue, and of the way patriarchal societies influence societal expectations of women.  Shevik is that stranger in a strange land, yet for us, what he witnesses we understand all to well.  Even thirty-seven years after its initial publication, we still witness daily the power inequalities that so many of us suffer at the hands of others and ourselves.

Yet is anarchism the golden key that will lock all those troubles away?  Based on what we see unfold in The Dispossessed, one might say that its subtitle, "An Ambiguous Utopia," serves as a stark reminder of the insidiousness of these human plagues.  Can a person be free or become free of these social evils?  Perhaps, but how in turn are these rare humans treated by their fellow citizens?  That question haunts the pages of this novel.

Related to this is the meanings of "dispossessed."  Depending upon the context upon which one draws her conclusions, the dispossessed could be the Anarreans who remove themselves from Urras and wipe out possession itself.  Or it could refer to Shevik and his encounters during his life and travels.  Perhaps it references the downtrodden people on Urras who are moved by Shevik's very presence among them.  Or maybe it is all of these and more.  That is the beauty of Le Guin's story.  In roughly 400 pages, she weaves so many elements together that we cannot make a firm conclusion of "this is how it was and what it means."  Rather, we interpret and reinterpret the events upon each rereading, finding possible answers and disturbing truths each time we dare to plumb the depths of this novel.  It is this that makes The Dispossessed an enduring "masterwork" that is one of the finest novels of the second half of the twentieth century.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man

This review was originally written in July 2010 on the SFF Masterworks blog.

Short fiction of 5,000 to 20,000 words dominated American science fiction in the 1950s.  Published almost exclusively in genre-specific magazines that had only been existence for twenty years or less in most cases, these magazines made a name for themselves by being known for carrying the works of say a Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, or Robert Heinlein, to name just a few of the many renowned SF writers whose legacies are tied, at least in part, to the 1950s pulps.

There was another author writing then who also was mainly a short fiction writer, one not quite so famous as the more prolific writers mentioned above, but one whose works have received much praise in the near half-century since his death.  Cordwainer Smith is the pseudonym for a top Pentagon official, Paul Linebarger.  Linebarger was the son of an American legal adviser to Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen and he lived in China for much of his childhood, taking in elements of Chinese culture that would later be utilized in several of his fictions.  Linebarger also became known for writing the training manual that the Pentagon used for maintaining psychological warfare.  Yet despite these accomplishments, Linebarger was dissatisfied and he decided to try his hand at writing SF under the chosen pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith.

This collection, The Rediscovery of Man, contains most of Smith's published short fiction.  There were several editions.  First, there was the 1970s The Best of Cordwainer Smith, from which the Gollancz edition of The Rediscovery of Man, and then in 1993 NESFA Press released its own The Rediscovery of Man, which included even more of Smith's short fiction, leaving out only one novel and a couple of incomplete drafts.  It is this NESFA edition that was read for this review and while there are probably differences in organization (the NESFA edition placed the stories in a rough storyline chronological order rather than a publishing order), there should not be too many problems in discussing the overall value of Smith's stories, whether they be published in the smaller Gollancz edition or the larger NESFA one.

Smith's fiction, despite being written between 1950 and his death in 1966, has aged rather well, at least in comparison to his contemporaries.  While he is not known for having a great literary style nor for a series of spectacular events within them, Smith's fiction contain a mixture of elements that make reading his stories a pleasure.  Before discussing the Instrumentality history, it perhaps is best to note that Smith's fictions are not military SF akin to those of Heinlein.  Nor are they "hard" SF based on the science of the 1950s.  Neither are they space exploration stories or strict sociological stories referencing the then-present.  No, his stories were neither beast nor fowl and perhaps that is why Smith's fictions went out of print soon after his death and have never been praised as much as the authors listed above.  But there is something about them, something that might be hard to pin down at first, which makes his stories, when read as a whole, one of the more intriguing SF creations of the 20th century.  Let's start with one of the earliest stories, "Scanners Live in Vain," published originally in 1950:

She pulled the long gold-sheathed wire out of the pocket of her apron.  She let its field sphere fall to the carpeted floor.  Swiftly, dutifully, with the deft obedience of a Scanner's wife, she wound the Cranching Wire around his head, spirally around his neck and chest.  She avoided the instruments set in his chest.  She even avoided the radiating scars around the instruments, the stigmata of men who had gone Up and into the Out.  Mechanically he lifted a foot as she slipped the wire between his feet.  She drew the wire taut.  She snapped the small plug into the High-Burden control next to his Heart-Reader.  She helped him to sit down, arranging his hands for him, pushing his head back into the cup at the top of the chair.  She turned then, full-face toward him, so that he could reap her lips easily.
This quote, which is given in order to provide some description of the Scanners, is at first glance not elegant at all.  Smith's prose is stripped of all but the most functional of adjectives, plus there are elements such as "Cranching Wire" and "High-Burden control" that seem a bit technical and hard to imagine without further context.  But within even this descriptive paragraph there are some interesting elements.  What are these "instruments" that are set in the Scanner's chest?  What are the "radiating scars?"  Why is the Scanner's wife performing a duty that seems to be a humble, daily exercise akin to bathing an incapacitated loved one?  Below is one more short paragraph that provides a lot of understanding to what is transpiring:

Even with this luxury of senses, he scanned.  He took the flash-quick inventory which constituted his professional skill.  His eyes swept in the news of the instruments.  Nothing showed off scale, beyond the Nerve Compression hanging in the edge of Danger.  But he could not worry about the Nerve-box.  That always came through cranching.  You couldn't get under the wire without having it show on the Nerve-box.  Some day the box would go to Overload and drop back down to Dead.  That was the way a haberman ended.  But you couldn't have everything.  People who went to the Up-and-Out had to pay the price for Space.
There is a terrible tragedy implied in one becoming a Scanner.  Smith does not linger overmuch on scenes such as this, and in his latter stories, elements such as this that provide brief glimpses into a person's souls and to the motivations that drive such animae are presented in more indirect and yet even more powerful scenes, such as the ones found in "On the Gem Planet," where Smith introduces very powerful stories in a rather quaint fashion:

Consider the horse.  He climbed up through the crevasses of a cliff of gems; the force which drove him was the love of man.

Consider Mizzer, the resort planet, where the dictator Colonel Wedder reformed the culture so violently that whatever had been slovenly now became atrocious.

Consider Genevieve, so rich that she was the prisoner of her own wealth, so beautiful that she was the victim of her own beauty, so intelligent that she knew there was nothing, nothing to be done about her fate.

Consider Casher O'Neill, a wanderer among the planets, thirsting for justice and yet hoping in his innermost thoughts that "justice" was not just another word for revenge.

Consider Pontoppidan, that literal gem of a planet, where the people were too rich and busy to have good food, open air, or much fun.  All they had were diamonds, rubies, tourmalines, and emeralds.

Add these together and you have one of the strangest stories ever told from world to world.
Within this odd introduction, Smith alerts the readers not just to the wealth (yes, pun intended) of characterizations that shall be explored, but he also reminds readers of his past stories about how he has covered elements such as justice and how easily it could be perverted into revenge, or how love, ambition, and desire can imprison as well as free people.  This story contains more metaphors for the human condition than most of Smith's other stories, making it a personal favorite, but it is also quite direct about how our frailties can continue to haunt us long after we ourselves have, as Shakespeare put it, "shuffled off this mortal coil."

And that is the engine of Smith's stories involving the Rediscovery of Man.  After an unspecified future "dark age" where human weaknesses have led to chaos, destruction, and the enslavement of parts of the remaining humans, there is a rebirth of old cultures, old languages, and old traditions that contain not just the promise of something new, but also a warning that the old evils have not been eradicated.  These stories may not always pack a punch individually, but when viewed as a continuum where events or persons found in one story influence others, there are signs that Smith wove an incredibly deep and moving tapestry of human lives, dreams, failures, and evils in a future where the technology is but a trapping set around the central mystery of what it is to be human.

The Rediscovery of Man is certainly a "Masterwork" that is much more powerful than its modest publishing history might indicate.  Although most of the individual stories, when taken out of the context of the greater whole, do not reveal much grandeur or much in the way of stirring emotions, when viewed in the aggregate, these stories are powerful expressions of the various and sometimes conflicting elements of the human soul.  The Rediscovery of Man may not be fully representative of the types of fictions written in the 1950s Golden Age of American SF, as several of its elements presage the subsequent New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a work that contains much to appeal to readers living in the early 21st century.  For these reasons, The Rediscovery of Man is an enduring classic.

George Stewart, Earth Abides

Originally posted in August 2010 on the SFF Masterworks blog.

Après moi, le déluge (After me, the flood).   This phrase, attributed to the dying Louis XV of France, perhaps best sums up our collective view of human life after we have departed.  At some indeterminate time, we know that human beings will cease to exist on this planet.  Perhaps it'll be millions or billions of years in the future, or maybe our species will end in a massive conflagration.  Whenever or however human life should cease, surely it would occur after all of us living now are dead and buried, right?

But what if there were some massive event, like a nuclear holocaust or a more lethal descendant of the Black Death that were to strike us?  What if there were only a few stragglers left as witnesses to a massive near-extinction event that wiped out billions over the course of days or weeks?  What if the entire weight of preserving civilization were to fall upon our shoulders?  How would we decide what to keep and what to discard in case the remnant populations manage to forge a civilization of their own out of the wreckage of our "modern" societies?

Ever since Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) was published, there have been frequent attempts to tell a convincing story of future "lastness."  Several of the books on the Gollancz SF Masterworks list focus on this theme, either obliquely or directly, often through the use of rapid environmental change (such as those described in J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World or Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) or the chronicling of "deep time" (H.G. Wells' The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men).  But with the possible exception of Stapledon's novel, none of these stories ever attempts to look at how societies might be reconstructed after the "deluge" of disease/nuclear warfare/environmental catastrophe, except for American writer George R. Stewart's 1949 novel, Earth Abides.  Even after sixty years, this novel is still one of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written because of its depth of themes and the ease for which readers have in understanding its main character, Isherwood (Ish) Williams.

Set in 1940s California, the action in Earth Abides unfolds over nearly fifty years.  When the story begins, Ish is out alone in a wilderness expedition when a deadly superplague strikes almost simultaneously across the planet, wiping out well over 90% of the world's population in a matter of a couple of weeks.  As Ish returns to his San Francisco home, he learns of the situation after it has alreay passed:

He stared hard against the reflection of the light in the window, and suddenly he saw that there were headlines as large as for Pearl Harbor.  He read:


What crisis?  With sudden determination he strode back to the car, and picked up the hammer.  A moment later he stood with the heavy head poised in front of the door.

Then suddenly all the restraints of habit stopped him.  Civilization moved in, and held his arm, almost physically.  You couldn't do this!  You didn't break into a store this way - you, a law-abiding citizen!  He glanced up and down the street, as if a policeman or a posse might be bearing down on him.

But the empty street brought him back again, and panic overbore the restraints.  "Hell," he thought, "I can pay for the door if I have to!"

With a wild feeling of burning his bridges, of leaving civilization behind, he swung the heavy hammer-head with all his force against the door-lock.  The wood splintered, the door flew open, he stepped in. (p. 12)

And in this short scene, we begin to witness the gradual evolution of human life away from its pre-plague years.  The old proprieties on how to interact fade in light of civilization having collapsed.  With this comes the question of whether or not commonly-held moral codes ought to be abandoned or not; Stewart repeatedly comes back to this issue throughout the novel.  After Ish then embarks upon a cross-country tour to see what other survivors he can discover, encountering only an African American farming family in the South and a couple in New York, he returns to San Francisco, where he meets Emma (Em):

"Oh, it's not that!  It's not that!"  she cried out, still trembling.  "I lied.  Not what I said, what I didn't say!  But it's all the same.  You're just a nice boy.  You looked at my hands, and said they were nice.  You never even noticed the blue in the half-moons."

He felt the shock, and he knew that she felt the shock in him.  Now everything came together in his mind - brunette complexion, dark liquid eyes, full lips, white teeth, rich voice, accepting temperament.

Then she spoke again, scarcely in more than a whisper, "It didn't matter at first, of course.  No man cares then about that.  But my mother's people never had much luck in the world.  Maybe when things are starting out again, it shouldn't be with them.  But mostly, I guess, I think it wasn't right with you."

Then suddenly he heard nothing more, for the whole vast farce of everything broke in upon him, and he laughed, and all he could do was to laugh and laugh more, and then he found that she, too, had relaxed and was laughing with him and holding him all the closer.

"Oh, darling," he said, "everything is smashed and New York lies empty from Spuyten Duyvil to the Battery, and there's no government in Washington.  The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jew-baiters and the Negro-baiters along with them.  We're just two poor people, picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it's to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us.  Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again.  But I doubt it.  And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now."

He kissed her while she still was weeping quietly.  And he knew that for once he had seen more clearly and more deeply, and been stronger than she. (pp. 110-111)

Fairly controversial for pre-Civil Rights, segregation-era America.  This scene where Ish and Em decide to start a family, one that would not be judged on skin color, represents perhaps one of the strongest "breaks" of the many that occur within this novel.  Although this passage may not have the same sort of effect for a 21st century reader that it had for readers in the 1940s and 1950s (after all, it was not until 1967 that anti-miscegenation marriage laws were ruled to be unconstitutional in the United States), Stewart makes an extremely powerful argument about then-present (and still present?) social absurdities through the casual addressing and dismissal of them in this one short but poignant scene.

There are other conflicts that occur as more survivors find each other and found a small settlement of less than twenty people in San Francisco.  As Ish, Em, and new friends George, Ezra, and others, male and female alike, gather together, questions of how to reproduce are introduced (bigamy is not exactly an issue with which most Americans would be comfortable), as well as debates on systems of government, holidays to be celebrated, and how years would be marked.  Sometimes, such as the first couple of years of the new colony, much time would be devoted to what was transpiring, while at two other points, decades would pass in a few pages.  As the settlement continues to expand, the salvaged technology (such as cars, gasoline, and rifles) wear out.  The children have no real concept of pre-plague society, viewing it increasingly as myth rather than a past reality.  The elders of the community see their relationships with each other and with their offspring change in ways that are similar to how pre-industrial societies used to view their ancestors.  

This shift to a more "pre-modern" mindset is done adroitly here.  Stewart does not spend more than a couple of pages on any of the moral, political, social, or technological crises that face the community.  However, he manages to infuse each of these issues with a profundity that adds layers of meaning to these events.  As Earth Abides builds to its moving conclusion (one that references the source of the novel's title), the reader is challenged to consider the import of the issues that are raised throughout the book.  

Is Earth Abides a "Masterwork"?  Considering how well Stewart addresses social concerns of the time, some of which still persist today, it could be argued that this book is perhaps one of the two or three best post-apocalyptic novels, not just because of the vivid nature of the devastation, but rather because of how plausible the post-disaster societies are shown in their attempts to salvage meaning from the event and how fragile social and natural ecosystems can be.  Stewart's prose is direct and devoid of florid phrases, yet still manages to be evocative when necessary.  The problems that plague Ish and his new community make this novel a great, absorbing read.  People's tastes may come and go, but Earth Abides certainly will be a relevant, moving work long after we return to dust.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Since I seem to have my reviewing mojo back...

I've been enjoying this reading/reviewing challenge that I've taken upon myself recently to cover the 2011 World Fantasy Award Best Novel shortlist and the 2011 National Book Award finalists for Fiction.  While it's too late to think of buying/reading/reviewing most of the other WFA awards, I have been buying and reading more books in the Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young Persons' Literature categories of the National Book Awards.  To date, I have read three from the Young Persons' Literature category (and the other two should arrive by early next week), two from Non-Fiction (currently reading the third; will order the other two next weekend after I get paid), and one from Poetry (one already ordered but may not arrive before the winners are announced and the other three will be ordered next weekend).

So far, some wonderful reads have occurred.  I will try to review a couple of them later this weekend (I have a commissioned review to write for a magazine that's due by Monday, so after that one is completed), likely Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, then some combination of Deborah Baker's The Convert, Lauren Redniss' Radioactive, Bruce Smith's Devotions, Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now, Albert Marrin's Flesh & Blood So Cheap:  The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy and (if I finish it this weekend) Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve:  How the World Became Modern.  Lots of interesting things to say about each of these books.

Hopefully, some of these books will be of interest to readers here.  Which ones, if any, sound interesting to you and why?

2011 National Book Award fiction nominee: Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision

Peter paused.  He had been lecturing to Meg, taking advantage of her daughterly attention.  In years spent among self-important high school teachers and garrulous old ladies, he had accustomed himself to the listener's role.  Now he had found someone who listened as attentively as he did.  If was as if she had inherited the talent from him – or, since that was impossible, had caught it.  And this house of hers – so old, and so fresh – it too seemed to want to hear what he had to say.  "Mrs. Jellyby's philanthropy isn't very Jewish, either," he went on.  "You could make a case that her charity is in Maimonides' seventh degree – she doesn't know the names of the people she's relieving and they've certainly never heard of her.  But Dickens meant her to be a figure of fun, and he keeps arguing with me.  He says that Maimonides was talkinga bout charity closer to home, and that Mrs. Jellyby doesn't qualify at all...I do get a bit carried away, don't I?

Meg was silent.  Of all the silences he had ever experienced, Meg's was his favorite.  It was not disappointed, like his mother's; not bored, like those of the women he had courted; not embarassed, like that of the search committee that had failed to award him the headmastership; not sleepy, like students in late-afternoon remedial classes; and not terrifying, like his mute aunt after her stroke. (pp. 26-27)

Edith Pearlman's fourth collection, Binocular Vision, which collects the majority of its 18 stories from her earlier three collections in addition to three early pieces and others never collected before, stands out from the other finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction for several reasons.  First, it is the only story collection on this particular shortlist and unlike the others, is comprised mostly of stories that had been published prior to the past year.  While this makes it difficult to review Binocular Vision in a similar fashion to the other finalists, there is much praise that can be heaped on it.

Pearlman's stories are never quite the same in structure, voice, or theme, yet there is a perceived uniformity to them that transcends these typical categories of assessment.  In this collection, she primarily, but not exclusively, talks about Jewish life, whether it be in Europe, Israel, or in the Americas after the second and third diasporas of the Jews during the late 19th century through the years immediately following the Holocaust and World War II.  Yet her tales are much more universal than that distorting generalization.  In stories such as "Settlers," Pearlman gives distinct voices to characters such as the Professor Peter Loy and Meg Wren.  She mixes in references to high culture, literature, existential crises, and other assorted odds and ends to craft stories that never feel dull or mechanical.

The characterizations in particular are outstanding.  Story after story, Pearlman manages to create different, fresh personalities and situations that leave the reader dwelling upon the events long after the end is reached and the next story begins.  Although none of the tales are explicitly connected, there are on occasion stories that share sensibilities with one another, if not a commonality in plot or theme.  This creates a flow that often is not evident in story collections, due to the diverse nature of the stories found in most collections, especially those who are cobbled together, as is Binocular Vision, from earlier collections and whose stories' creations span decades.

Yet it is very difficult to compare fairly even the best of collections against single, unified novels.  I found myself wishing that there were a separate collection category where Pearlman could be compared to tales of similar length and publishing history.  It certainly would be a favorite to win any such category due to the near-universal rate of quality stories compared to the merely adequate tales that often fill out most single-author collections.  However, due to the fractured nature of story collections, it is hard to justify Binocular Vision being compared to the other finalists, each of whom wrote unified novel narratives.  The richness of Pearlman's stories in this case actually works against her, since many, such as myself, likely would judge the mechanics and execution of short fiction differently than they would longer fictions.  As it is, Binocular Vision is deserving of high praise and merit and I am pleased to see it nominated, but I cannot help but wonder if all might be served better if the fiction award were divided into novel and short fiction collection categories.
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