Monday, January 15, 2018

The Moon Pool

A Merritt
Completed 1/14/2018, reviewed 1/15/2018
4 stars

This is perhaps the oldest book I’ve read since high school.  It’s 99 years old this year.  It shows its age, being very much part of the adventure genre that SF was before SF existed.  But it’s still very good and a fairly easily readable introduction into the world of early science fiction and fantasy.  There were some parts that dragged, but in general, it was a wildly imaginative adventure from a time when the earth still had undiscovered places. 


The story is about a group of people who find a secret passageway to an underground civilization.  Specifically, Dr. Walter Goodwin finds out about a vampiric energy field, which they call the Dweller, that comes out during the full moon and captures people and sucks the life out of them.  He takes Larry O’Keefe, a roguish Irish-American, Olaf Huldriksson, a Norse boat captain whose wife and daughter were abducted by the Dweller, and Marakinoff, a Bolshevik from the newly formed Soviet Union.  They enter through a portal at some ruins in the South Pacific.  There they meet several races, including frog people as well as humans who seem to be related to Polynesians.

The prose for the most part is quite delicious.  Merritt uses some great language in describing the underground caverns and their denizens.  Sometimes it dragged a bit, but in general it was enjoyable.  One thing that bothered me though was that he overused some of his descriptive words, like lambent and coruscating.  At times it became almost comical when the words came up.  It reminded me of a sketch from The Kids in the Hall where a guy in a factory learns a new word and uses it in every sentence.  While it’s not that bad, it does become obvious as you progress through the book. 

Another complaint I had was that the story eventually devolves into a love story and love tries to conquer all.  This is the place where the book doesn’t hold up over time.  However, I have to put the book in context.  Today, love stories have to be complex to be entertaining and believable.  A hundred years ago, this may have not been the case, particularly in science fiction adventure stories. 

There isn’t that much science in the book.  Specifically, there are some sections which are deleted because of concern over Soviet espionage.  I thought this was a clever way to get around trying to describe something that was perhaps too complicated for the author.  However, there is a retelling of the creation of the earth and moon that reminded me of my elementary school textbook cosmology.  This being 1919, I’m thinking it must have been quite advanced for its time.


Despite my complaints, the story is very entertaining.  His visions of hidden worlds are quite creative.  I haven’t read any H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, (Yes, take away my nerd card) but I’ve seen references that compare Merritt to a sort of combination of these early masters.  If you are looking for an example of science fiction from the time before it was so classified, this is a good one to read.  And you can get the electronic version for free on Project Gutenberg since the copyright has expired.  Four stars out of five.  (And the A stands for Abraham)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Manseed

Jack Williamson
Completed 1/7/2018, reviewed 1/7/2018
2 stars

Yes, this title of this book sounds like gay porn.  It’s partly why I bought it, it made me laugh.  The other part though was because I had only read one other book by this Grand Master of SF, Darker Than You Think, which I really enjoyed.  Unfortunately, this book wasn’t nearly as entertaining, and dragged in parts.  It had a great concept but never grabbed me.  And the ending was quite uninspired. 

The book is about a group of people who send out hundreds, maybe thousands of small spacecrafts looking to seed new earths with human DNA.  When found, a spacecraft will land and begin populating the planet with cloned humans.  The humans are derived from the group of people who put this project together, hoping to have enough diversity to create an actual new population of earthlings on these new planets.  They see it as the only way humanity will survive.  The spacecrafts can also spawn Defenders, cybogs based on the best of the best of the people on the project.  These Defenders can help the spacecraft in time of trouble, like when one gets hit by a micro-meteor, or help the humans being created on the new planet.  This story follows one such spacecraft and its Defender.

As I noted initially, the concept sounded great:  seeding the galaxy with humanity by cloning humans once the spacecraft arrives at a new planet.  It allows for the spaceship to be much smaller than a whole generations ship which would have to carry a diverse enough population to start a human colony.  Even the Defender was intriguing, a golden cyborg based on the minds of some of the greatest scientists on earth, which could make human decisions or take human actions when the ship or the colony needed help.  Of course, the decisions and actions would be based on the real-life experiences of the people from whom the cyborg was created, so there would be flashbacks illuminating the history of the mission.

Unfortunately, I thought the characters were pretty cardboard.  There was not much character development at all.  The brains of about five men went into the creation of the first Defender, and almost all of the focus is on Don Brink, the mercenary soldier and only non-scientist in the elite group, and his relationship with the only female character of note, Megan Drake.  Their relationship, or rather, their lack of a consummated relationship on Earth plagues the Defender through many of his decisions.  It becomes more troublesome when Defender Two is created and she’s the spitting image of Megan. She even tells him she loves him, blah, blah, blah.  But she has genitals and the Defender, now known as Defender One, doesn’t.  So they still can’t consummate their relationship.  It gets pretty soapy.

The bouncing timeline gets pretty annoying as well.  Defender One has a decision to make or comes across some kind of circumstance and it throws him into a recollection of one of the five men in his head.  It got occasionally confusing at times who he was referring to in the past.  This was a major criticism of other reviews I read, although I thought it wasn’t quite that difficult.   

There were also some plot holes.  The most noticeable one to me was that Defender One was created without genitals or wings.  However, Defenders Two and Three had them.  The wings were intended to be solar radiation collectors, that being one of the ways a cyborg can be recharged.  Later in the book, Defender One somehow grows a pair of wings himself for collecting solar energy, although it’s not explained very well.  I think it was something the spacecraft was able to do for him when he was hooked up to it with his umbilical cord.  Well, if he could grow wings, why couldn’t he grow genitals?  There is never an explanation of why Defenders Two and Three have them, so why can’t Defender One have them?  But probably the ultimate question for me was, why are genitals even an issue, other than to create existential angst for Defender One?  His constant moaning about not having them eventually became irritating.

I was really disappointed with the ending too.  No spoilers, but it rather felt like Williamson didn’t have an ending.  He started to throw some things in that didn’t really make sense, but tied up some loose ends, and then stopped writing. 


I’m giving the book two stars out of five.  It’s not bad, it’s just not very good.  

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer

Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/31/2017, reviewed 12/31/2017
4 stars

This book is considered the third book in the VALIS trilogy.  In actuality, the third book was supposed to be The Owl in Daylight, but Dick died before he had outlined the story.  According to online sources, though, he did once consider Transmigration to be part of the trilogy.  While it doesn’t deal directly with his psychic/psychotic event, it does deal with God, theology, and Gnosticism, topics which appeared in the previous two novels.  This book is the most mainstream novel Dick ever wrote.  It has no science fiction element, but does have some speculative aspects.  It’s literary and intellectual, but mostly accessible to the average reader.  It’s also the first time Dick has a woman as the main character of a novel.  I really enjoyed it, even though the content is fairly tragic.


The plot is a little more straightforward than in the last two books.  Angel Archer goes to a self-help guru on the day that John Lennon is shot and reflects on the previous decade or so and her relationship to her husband, Jeff, his father and Episcopal bishop of California, Timothy, and Timothy’s lover Kirsten Lundborg.  Timothy Archer is based on Bishop James Pike, a friend of Dick’s who died in the Dead Sea Desert.  He’s the central figure in her relationships as he draws everyone into his own personal existential crisis.  He becomes privy to new scrolls found in the Dead Sea caves which indicate that Jesus’ sayings may be two hundred years older than Jesus himself.  They are part of a Gnostic tradition that points to some sort of Messianic event pre-dating Christ.

I did a little reading of Bishop Pike’s life and found that Dick didn’t just loosely base the book the Pike, he basically created a docudrama of the bishop’s life.  If you read about Pike, you’ll have the plot of Transmigration.  What makes it interesting is that it is told from Angel Archer’s point of view.  Dick shares his own personal theology through her and her interactions with the other characters.  That’s what makes the book fairly intellectual.  Yet the headiness doesn’t distract from the story.  Sometimes Angel’s thoughts get pretty rambling, but they’re still interesting.

Dick also continues his exploration of mental illness.  Kirsten’s son, Bill, is schizophrenic.  He’s not a central character, but does come into play more fully towards the end and has to do with the transmigration of Timothy Archer’s soul.  The best thing about the character is that he’s quite real, and shown in quite a compassionate light.  We see him when he’s normal and when he’s in the throes of his illness.  We know that Dick was quite possibly schizophrenic himself, and I have to hand it to him for keeping his depictions of it based in reality and not in fear. 


I give this book four stars out of five.  It kept me quite engrossed for two whole days.  I would have liked a little more elaboration of the Gnostic scroll findings but what we get is pretty good.  As I mentioned earlier, the book is quite tragic, but so was Pike’s life.  And through Pike/Archer’s tragedies, we get a pretty clear peek into Dick’s theology.  

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Divine Invasion

Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/29/2017, reviewed 12/30/2017
3 stars

This is the second book in Dick’s VALIS trilogy.  It’s a standalone novel, but having read VALIS, the first book, adds a lot of insight into the plot of this book.  It once again deals with his schizophrenic episode of Feb-March of 1974, but more specifically, the theological and philosophical questions and ramblings that grew out of that experience.  The plot is way more complex and more science fiction-ish than VALIS.  I’ve read from numerous sources that this book was written in about a month, and it shows.  There are what I consider pretty big plot holes and the rambling goes on and on.  Still, I found it an enjoyable read, but not as tightly put together as VALIS.

The plot is very complex, so here goes my attempt at a summary.  Herb Asher is in cryogenic suspension and is dreaming about his life before being put in suspension.  He lived on a distant planet in a dome.  Yah, the divine being of that planet tells him to help his neighbor, Rybys Rommey, who is sick with MS.  There they meet Elias, who is really the immortal soul of the prophet Elijah who reveals that Rybys is pregnant with Yah by immaculate conception.  Yah’s plan is to return to earth as Rybys’ unborn baby, since he is really Yahweh, and usurp the demon Belial who has been ruling earth since 70 C.E.  Things go awry and Rybys dies, but the unborn baby, Emmanuel, is saved, but with brain damage.  The fight to regain earth continues. 

Throughout the book, there is philosophizing and theologizing.  A lot comes from Emmanuel and his companion Zina, who attempts to help him remember who he is and what his mission is, as well as from Herb and Elias.  The theology comes from Christian, Hebrew, Islamic, and Zoroastrian traditions.  I really don’t know much about the last two, but Dick is kind enough to let you know that’s where the ideas are coming from.  Some of this gets really dense, but is fairly readable nonetheless. 

Dick also once again retells his account of his 1974 episode that was either a divine revelation or a schizophrenic break.  Even though this book could be standalone, this incident is more understandable thanks to having read VALIS first.  In fact, there are times the book seems to be a further attempt at the fictionalization of the incident.  In VALIS, the narrator is himself and the main character is his split personality.  In this book, Herb Asher is the main character who has the incident. 

There is one part that is a little creepy.  Apparently, Dick had an obsession with Linda Ronstadt.  He incorporated that into the book via a character named Linda Fox who becomes the most famous singer in the galaxy.  He works her into the plot most interestingly, although it did seem to be a little deus ex machina-ish at the end.  Unfortunately, I can’t really elaborate on that because it would be quite the spoiler. 


I liked the book, but felt that VALIS was the better book, even though this has a more science fiction setting.  The bouncing back and forth in time was a little tricky and there’s a switch to a parallel universe which really adds to the complexity.  And it just feels to me like it’s a forced rather than a natural unraveling of the story.  I give the book three stars out of five.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

VALIS

Philip K. Dick
Completed 12/24/2017, Reviewed 12/26/2017
4 stars

Wow.  What a crazy book.  This is the story of a paranoid schizophrenic incident in the author’s life, vaguely veiled as fiction.  I was engrossed by it, finding it equally intriguing and terrifying.  Basically, how do you tell the difference between reality and fantasy, especially when the fantasy has an element of truth in it?  It calls into question all the rest of the fantasy as well.


The story is basically about an episode the author has that causes a split personality.  At least, I don’t think the split personality existed before the episode.  Anyway, in this episode, the other personality, Horselover Fat (a Greek and Latin translation is Philip and Dick, respectively), receives a data transmission from God in the form of a pink laser beam.  In the transmission is the correct diagnosis of his son’s mysterious stomach ailment.  Confirmed by doctors, the question becomes, if this is correct, wouldn’t everything else in the data transmission be correct?  So Fat searches for the truth, including the birth of the new messiah.

Dick is the narrator of the story, retelling Fat’s experiences searching for the truth as if Fat was a separate person, even though right in the beginning, Dick tells you he’s one and the same person.  That’s one of the scariest aspects of the book: he is aware of his own schizophrenia while relaying Fat’s experiences.  And he reinforces the notion that if the diagnosis of his son was real, why aren’t the rest of his experiences real.  Even more coincidentally, one of Dick’s friends finds a film called VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) that seems to mirror the schizophrenic incident, including the pink beam, and many of the seemingly paranoid imaginings that Fat has.  Are there others out there who have received the same messages?

Dick also studied and analyzed his experiences in what became known as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.  It’s a nearly one thousand page collection of notes and reflections on the schizophrenic incident.  He includes the main theses of the exegesis in VALIS.  For me, including these statements simultaneously added a veracity to his experience and exemplified how detailed the incident was.  I found it truly frightening how complete the experience was.  His delusion didn’t come as a simple fleeting thought, but as a complex and detailed encounter with God.


Valis is the first of a loose trilogy of the last three works before he died.  They are a trilogy only in that they are thematically similar, questioning God, reality, and existence.  I’m about 50 pages into the second book and I’m glad I read VALIS first.  It adds insight into the plot of the second book.  However, I don’t think this is a good first book to read by Dick.  I would make sure to start with one of his other stories.  VALIS, as I mentioned before, is thinly disguised fiction.  It’s really the search for truth by a mind in crisis.  I give the book four stars out of five.  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Treason of Isengard

JRR Tolkien
Completed 12/19/2017, Reviewed 12/21/2017
4 stars

This is the seventh book in the History of Middle Earth (HoME) series, and the second in the History of the Lord of the Rings.  It picks up where the last left off, in the mines of Moria.  It covers the development of the story up through the beginnings of Rohan.  I found the previous book, The Return of the Shadow, to be quite entertaining, watching the development of a story that actually led to publication.  I thought this second book would continue to be as entertaining, but I found it much drier than I had expected. 

I think the reason for the dryness is that the changes between drafts are much less dramatic.  In the previous volume, the story was still simply a hobbit adventure.  As it grew into being much more than that, the changes in the drafts were more profound and therefore interesting.  It was fun watching where, how quickly, and how often the names of the characters were changing.

Perhaps the biggest change in this volume is that Aragorn goes from being a wooden-shoe wearing hobbit and comes closer to the ranger we all know and love.  He still goes by Trotter at this point, instead of Strider.  He was going to marry Eowyn.  Arwin wasn’t even in the story yet.  And Boromir wasn’t going to die originally.  Rather he was going to go to Ondor (not yet known as Gondor) and be a rival to Aragorn.

Other points of interest include the beginnings of Treebeard.  He was originally going to be evil, but instead turns into the giant talking tree.  Galadriel also comes in here.  She starts out as Mrs. Keleborn and evolves into a dominant presence.  And Wormtongue barely shows up in these drafts.

Once again, I give a nod to Professor Cory Olsen at Signum University for his Tolkien Professor podcasts of his textual analysis of the book.  It really makes a difference in reading these HoME volumes.  He and his audience add a lot of levity to what could easily be a very boring study.

Even though this book is a little drier than its predecessor, I still give it four stars out of five.  And I still don’t recommend the book for the average reader.  This is for serious fans only.  I’m only reading two a year at this point, following along as Cory Olsen completes his analyses. 


Monday, December 18, 2017

That Hideous Strength

C.S. Lewis
Completed 11/15/2017, reviewed 12/18/2017
2 stars

This book is the third in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy.  And it nearly put an end to my blogging career.  When I finished reading it, I didn’t even want to review it.  I found it that dull and uninteresting.  I put off the review for over a month.  I think I was somehow expecting something akin to Lord of the Rings when I began this trilogy, mostly because I knew Tolkien and Lewis were friends and critiqued each other’s works.  They couldn’t have been farther apart.  I was also expecting something great because in my Fantasy Lit class in college, we had the choice to read this book or Earthsea Trilogy.  I chose Earthsea, but I thought THS would be equally as good.  I was so disappointed.

The book is about Mark Studdock, a sociologist at an Oxford like school who is drawn to work at an organization called N.I.C.E., the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments.  Unbeknownst to Mark, its mission is to take over the planet.  Mark’s wife Jane has terrible visions of the near future.  She meets up with people who believe her visions are real and indictments of N.I.C.E.  These people are led by Elwin Ransom, the hero of the previous two books.  Their mission is to put an end to N.I.C.E.

The book is very British.  Manners play an important role as to why Mark can’t get out of N.I.C.E.  They are more sinister than that, but it just feels like he’s too polite to put his foot down when he has the chance.  It’s also very old-fashioned.  There’s one woman who works for the organization who is every negative Lesbian stereotype, right down to the cigar chomping.  It’s so bad, it’s offensive.  Even knowing that this book was written in the ‘40s, I couldn’t help but feel offended.

I read many reviews of this book looking for like-minded readers, but there weren’t many.  One thing many fans agree on is the prose.  I thought it was overbearing.  It was simply just a tool for converting his philosophical arguments into fiction.  It’s about natural law versus logical positivism.  I didn’t know this until after I began reading the reviews after finishing the book.  I think I might have gotten a little more if I knew that ahead of time.  It’s pretty clear though, that N.I.C.E. represents the more atheistic logical positivism and Jane and co. represent the more theological and spiritual natural law.  N.I.C.E is mean and destructive and pushes the good little people of England out of their country homes and into the terrible city.  Jane is wholesome and mystical and pastoral.    Ugh.  Make me barf.


I’m giving this book two stars out of five because it did have some moments.  I did rather like the appearance of Merlin.  On the whole, I’m not fond of Lewis from my experience with the Space Trilogy.  Maybe I’ll like Narnia, if I get around to reading it.  But I feel like I wasted several weeks reading books that propagate a moral argument thinly couched in near-science fiction, or I guess this was fantasy since Merlin showed up.  Life is more complex than any one philosophical statement and I believe anyone who thinks otherwise is terribly na├»ve.