Archive for the 1:No Launch Category

Review: Cosmic Engineers

Posted in 1950, 1:No Launch, Review with tags , on September 19, 2009 by Aaron

Clifford D. Simak
1950

Clifford D. Simak’s novel City has the reputation of being one of the classic SF tales, and being in the Gnome Press stable, I’m looking forward to picking it up sometime (it’s one of the big ticket books, so I’ll have to save for while…).  As a result, I had high expectations of Cosmic Engineers.  Expectations which were sadly left unfulfilled.

Clifford D. Simak, according to Wikipedia began writing in the Space Opera but later developed his style to be more ‘pastoral’, which I guess means more considered, sensitive and sedate.  City (from what little I have read about it) appears to fall under the pastoral label, but Cosmic Engineers most definitely does not.

All Space Opera is ridiculous to a certain extent, that’s the nature of the beast and serious SF readers know this, can accept it and enjoy these tales for what they are.  A skill especially important for today’s reader when taking in tales from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  Sadly though, it’s a skill that I suspect is dying out as the ‘pool’ of people who really understand the literary significance and cultural context of this period’s stories gets smaller and smaller.  I like to consider myself part of that pool despite being two generations  removed from that period – I’m thankful I spent my formative reading years (in the mid-late 1970s) enjoying books of that ilk.

Getting back to the book at hand, Cosmic Engineers is Space Opera of the particularly hard to stomach kind, even with reference to what I just talked about.  But before I lambast it too much, what was there to appreciate and enjoy??  I guess the biggest thing was the pace of the book.  Like most Space Opera the pace is rapid, and as I mentioned in the Review of Pattern for Conquest (a better book though with similar issues), I enjoy never having a dull moment.  Another positive was the start.  A newsman and photographer(!) doing the rounds of the solar system, diverted out to Pluto for a breaking story, encountering a derelict ship with a beautiful young woman in suspended animation.  Despite being in this state for about a thousand years, when they awaken her she tells them her brain has been active the whole time.  She’s been thinking for a millennium and in partial communication with some unknown intelligence.

Ok, great so far.  Sounds intriguing, where’s this tale going??

Our band of three make it to Pluto where they engage the assistance of  a genius scientist and a gung-ho spaceman.  Contact is established with the mysterious message-senders and our party finishes up at the edge of the universe where the ‘cosmic engineers’ enlist their help to stop two universes colliding. Which of course they do thereby saving each from total annihilation.

I liken reading this story to a discovering train wreck from the caboose end.  While walking down the tracks we find the end of a train.  The final carriage is nice, it looks good.  However, the further up the tracks we walk the less organized things become – paint flaking off here, a wheel dislodged there – until eventually the devastation we encounter is truly alarming.  The front of the train is smashed beyond redemption and the machinery of the business end is strewn all over the place.

So maybe I’m being a little dramatic and perhaps it’s not quite that bad, but you get the picture.  We’re talking time travel, universes in collision, using ultra advanced mathematics to break off mini-universe ‘sand-boxes’ (to use a modern expression), fourth and fifth dimensions, the mysterious area between universes…  It’s all just so mind-bogglingly bizarre, outlandish and 224 pages is hopelessly inadequate for stuff of this magnitude and it’s all just given cursory treatment besides.  Wow, I am being a bit rough.

I always have rose-tinted glasses on when I read Gnome Press books and I really, really wanted to enjoy this story.  I tried, and tried hard too.  Unfortunately my effort remained unrewarded.

Great cover though.

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Review: Five Science Fiction Novels – Part 1 of 5

Posted in 01 - But WIthout Horns, 1952, 1:No Launch, Five Science Fiction Novels, Review with tags , on July 2, 2009 by Aaron

This is the first installment of a 5 part review of this anthology put together by Martin Greenberg.  The book claims to be ‘Five SF Novels,’ but it really is five novellas housed in a thick book.  These mini-reviews will be done between reading other GP books, and each of these five reviews will be a bit shorter than usual.  At the end I’ll aggregate the scores for a final verdict and ‘over-review’ of the whole.

But Without Horns
Norvell W. Page

An intriguing title. I was interested. The story started off quite well too.
Norvell W. Page was a prolific pulp and comic writer penning many installments of several long-running super-hero type magazine serials.  This particular story is claimed on his wikipedia entry to be ‘an early classic explication of the superman theme.’  Perhaps so, but I can tell you that I didn’t enjoy it very much.

We were pitched straight into the story, having to pick up over the unfolding pages what our main character apparently already knew.  This was great, I was taken along for the ride in a fast paced noir-style adventure.  Our protagonist Walter Kilderling with two of his bureau buddies attempt to track down and eliminate a faceless entity.  This unseen force/character is named John Miller(!) and he gains control of people by either driving them insane or inspiring devoted worship by getting inside their minds.  John Miller is supposedly some sort of superman and is trying to breed a race of supermen using the city of Metropolis as a farm.  All the people that don’t reach the required level of intelligence are eliminated using some sort of electrical effect and the remaining populace are kept happy by the kind of communal communist-style arrangement (I think there’s supposed to be some sort of political commentary here).  However, about a third or half-way through, alarm bells started to go off.  I could sense the wheels of the story were starting to lose traction.IMG_3868-1

Anyway, to cut it short, the reasons I didn’t enjoy it are thus:  The motives of John Miller are never resolved.  We never find out for sure who (or what) he really is.  All the action in the story appears to lack a definite sense of direction.  And the ending is a total let-down.  I’m not going to ‘spoil’ the ending, but I turned the page and when I saw the ending was over on the other leaf I thought (as I had had the above questions running around upstairs for quite a while by this point), “Uh oh, this is either going to end spectacularly well, or spectacularly badly”.

The badness was indeed spectacular.

Review: The Philosophical Corps

Posted in 1961, 1:No Launch, Review with tags , on March 11, 2009 by Aaron

Everett B. Cole
1961

I alluded to this looking like a space opera in a comment I made in an earlier post.  It is.  I compared it to Agent of Vega, which I had not long completed.  This is an interesting book for several reasons. The first being that this was the final volume that Gnome Press published. Second, that this is yet another book of theirs that has been cobbled together from previously published pulp fare. The third (and this one has a big impact on the book) is that though this is actually a series of short stories it is presented here as a novel.

Look, I have to give props to Gnome Press for pulling all those short stories out of pulp obscurity.  If it wasn’t for them engaging in this style of publishing we wouldn’t have, for example,  the early Foundation Universe novels.  There are however, cases where it just doesn’t work.  Agent of Vega was skating those boundaries, but managed to pull it off because of the strength of the material and the fact that it as a reader we knew what we were reading – a collection.  Another example is van Vogt’s The Mixed Men – like Corps, a collection disguised as a novel but with strong source material and good continuity between stories.  This is reflected in the longevity of these publications, the latest publication of The Mixed Men was in 1980 (as Mission to the Stars), of Agent of Vega in 1983 (also as Agent of Vega & Other Stories in 2001), and we needn’t even mention Foundation.  Contrast this to the book we are reviewing here; this is the one and only publication.  The bottom line is that it just doesn’t work for The Philosophical Corps.  This isn’t Mr Cole’s fault.  The fault for this lies at the feet of the publisher.   However, don’t let all this put you off the book.  Like anything, if you go in prepared, you will come out the other side much better off.  Go into this book armed with the knowledge that this is actually a collection, read it as such, and it will be a whole lot better and make more sense.  I went into this knowing only intellectually it was a collection, but emotionally prepared to read a novel.  As a result I was disoriented at several points during the read.

That was a long preamble.

I’ve mentioned Agent of Vega.  They are of course both firmly in the space opera genre, but aside from that there are obvious similarities between the books.

Both concern interstellar police agencies – The Department of Galactic Zones and the Criminal Apprehension Corps.
Agents in both books have psi abilities.
There is all manner of trick gear available to agents.
Both agencies and their operatives have absolute power in the course of their operations. Though to be fair, CAC agents seem to be more accountable to their superiors.
Technology just exists and works. No explanations.  Typical for a space opera though.
Both books have crappy covers.

The Philosophical Corps itself is a new arm of the CAC.  The first few chapters set this up.  What the Corps tries to achieve is the smooth eventual integration of growing and still planet-bound civilizations into the Galactic Federation.  They do this by covertly steering things like social mores, tradition and technology gradually towards those that are more amenable to being accepted as a constructive member of said federation.  These guys don’t fool around either.  If things don’t work out, or if a particular civilization is deemed to be incapable of ‘fitting in’, or be otherwise unable to play galactic happy families, they’ll eliminate it.  A modus operandi that is unusually resonant today.  I said the first few chapters set this up, it would be more accurate to say the first story.

Another function of the corps is to root out and rehabilitate Drones and Degraders – both terms for former citizens of the federation that secretly set up shop on pre-spaceflight planets to capitalize on their superior skills and technology without thought to the long-term consequences on a civilization that isn’t ready. The second story gives us an example of a Corps operation in the field where natives are recruited to the cause.  And the third is another operation on the same planet by the recruited natives.  Just harking back to the discontinuity in the book, it’s the transition between these three parts – practically seamless in print – that gives rise to that “..hang on a ‘sec, what’s going on here..?” feeling that really adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.

The concept behind The Philosophical Corps, as an organization, is sound.  Shepherding fledgling civilizations towards galactic acceptance and apprehending those that would take advantage of ‘immature’ societies are concepts that would happily stand much more detailed treatment in true novel form.  But trying to glue three loosely related short stories together to cludge novel like this left me a little less than philosophical about the result.