Archive for the Review Category

Review: The Mixed Men

Posted in 1952, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on October 10, 2009 by Aaron

A.E. van Vogt
1952

What are the Mixed Men??  It’s a question I had when I started into this book.  It turns out that the ‘Mixed Men’ are a product of the union between men and robots.  A union under normal circumstances impossible, but made feasible with the ‘cold fusion’ process.  Sound interesting??  Intriguing??  It did to me.  Actually, the story isn’t about how the Mixed Men came to be, or the specifics of their biology, it’s about how events unfold when the giant space battleship Star Cluster uncovers a civilization of ‘humans’ collectively called The Fifty Suns in the Greater Magellanic Cloud – a culture lost for fifteen thousand years.  Before we look into it a little further, what about the author??

Check out wikipedia for some more in-depth info, but notable about van Vogt is the extent of his influence, with huge names such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison crediting Mr van Vogt for inspiration.  This is the only novel-length story of van Vogt’s in the Gnome Press stable, though he does have several short stories in the various GP anthologies.  The book was apparently put together as a ‘fix-up’ of some short works published in Astounding Science Fiction pulp magazine in the mid-40s.  As we have seen with at least one other fix-up, thing don’t always hang together, but here they do.  Almost as seamless as a proper novel, it’s a great job.  However, here and there I found large passages of time – weeks or months – to have passed also seamlessly, fortunately they didn’t affect the flow of the story at all.

I really enjoyed this the first time I read it almost a year ago, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time.  I mentioned the Mixed Men being the product of robots and men.  This is a little misleading.  In the context of this book, the robots concerned are actually the products of some super-genetic engineering.  A mass panic and genocide against these ‘robots’ led them and their natural human rescuers to flee to the Greater Magellanic Cloud and subsequently over the course of thousands of years passed from our Galactic history.  But this is all back-story, basically at the start of the tale, a mapping expedition from Imperial Earth stumbles upon a ‘weather station’ outpost, thereby discovering the existence of the Fifty Sun society, and this is where we pick it up.

The story has two principle characters.  Peter Maltby is a Mixed Man…

Wait.  Perhaps I should describe what a Mixed Man really is before continuing.  There are three types of human resident in the Fifty Suns – normal (non-Dellian), robots (Dellian, don’t worry about the term, it’s explained in the book) and Mixed Men (Dellian and non-Dellian hybrid).  Mixed Men embody the best of both worlds – with a robot’s physical and mental prowess and normal human’s creativity and adaptability.  They effectively have two parallel minds with exceptional mental powers which puts them at a distinct advantage over both originating human strains.  However, their numbers are relatively few and they have been marginalized because of a failed uprising and have to live in super-secret underground cities.  They have no active participation in society.  Maltby is a captain in the Fifty Suns Navy and, unbeknown to society in general, the hereditary leader of the Mixed Men.

…and Lady Gloria Laurr is Grand Captain of the Star Cluster.  Ms Laurr is seeking to root out the Fifty Suns to bring them under Imperial Earth’s dominion, and Peter Maltby is trying to satisfactorily mitigate their discovery in a way that will temper Imperial Earth’s inevitable domination and reassert the Mixed Men as a functioning sub-group of the Fifty Suns’ government.

I’m getting a bit carried away here, I don’t want to describe what happens in the story but hopefully I’ve given you plenty to pique your interest in this tale, so lets move on and I’ll address a couple of cool things in the book.  First, as I alluded to in this comparison between Cosmic Engineers and The Mixed Men, the characterization here is good.  We really get a handle on our principle actors – their thoughts and feelings, their motivations.  Maltby is a talented leader, careful, considered and able to look at the long-term welfare of the entire Fifty Suns civilization.  Laurr is driven, ambitious but just sensitive enough to recognize when her single-mindedness needs curbing.  Usually.  You can see we are heading for a confrontation here, and we get it, although by the end of the book things between these two have turned out a little unexpectedly.

The second cool thing is the Star Cluster itself.  At about a mile long and with a crew of 30 000 it’s a very impressive vehicle.  Capable of rendering multiple planets uninhabitable and engaging the entire Fifty Suns’ Navy simultaneously, you don’t mess with it.  Unless you’re a Mixed Man.  One neat concept was that under physical stress the ship can split into thousands of self-sustained mini-ships, and reassemble itself later once the danger has passed.  This design feature is employed at one point in the book because Maltby navigates the behemoth into a storm.  Which brings me to another cool thing…

The ‘storms’ are an integral plot element.  I forget their mechanics and they’re described a little vaguely anyway, but they are born out of nova events and like terrestrial stormy weather, can be tracked and mapped.  Similar to their analog here on Earth, keeping tabs on them is vital for safe transit – an uncharted storm can prove disastrous for the unsuspecting spacecraft.  Several points of the tale hinge on these events.  The Star Cluster discovers a Fifty Sun weather station at the beginning of the story, not having local storm location information hampers the location of Fifty Sun worlds by the Earth men and Maltby attempts to destroy the giant battleship by plotting a course into a giant storm.

It’s been in print in various forms up until 1980 (mostly under the title Mission to the Stars – see the ISFDB here) so you could pick up a cheap copy off the Internet without too much hassle.  Do so.  A superb example of Golden Age space opera, I enjoyed The Mixed Men a lot, and compared to similar fare I have read recently such as Pattern for Conquest and Cosmic Engineers, there is nothing mixed up about this tale.

I can now put my finger on it…

Posted in Comparisons, Review with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by Aaron

Something was bugging me while reading Cosmic Engineers.  I couldn’t work out what it really was, but during the course of reading it and then doing the Review I felt there was something missing in the book.  Something lacking that I didn’t have the experience to identify and bring to the light of day.

I’m reading The Mixed Men at present.  While reading (I’m about half-way through) it suddenly occurred to me what that something was.  It was something that was present in The Mixed Men and shone out so distinctly when I thought about Cosmic Engineers.  In a word: Character.  Or rather Characters.  Real ones.

Author of The Mixed Men, A.E. van Vogt dwells a lot in the minds of the principle characters.  We learn what they are thinking and why, a little of their history as people and what makes them tick.  This is totally absent in Cosmic Engineers.  With the possible exception of the revived female character whom we do learn a little about, the other characters are cardboard cut-outs.  No back story, we never learn what they are really thinking and as a result, I at least didn’t really care about them, or the story.  And this, I think,  was also part of the reason I was so critical of it.  I imagine if the characters involved were more substantial, if we got some more insight into their personalities and thoughts, then some of the more outlandish stuff may not have mattered so much.

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.

Review: The Robot and the Man

Posted in 1953, 5:COSMIC!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , on September 7, 2009 by Aaron

Martin Greenberg, editor
1953

I first read this book way back about 9 months ago. For some reason I never got around to doing a Review, so I decided to read it again. The Close Up was done back then, you can view it here.

This is the fourth in the superb ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’ put together by Greenberg.  Every time I do a review of one of these I am always in glowing admiration for Martin Greenberg’s concept, along with the construction and execution of these anthologies.  I feel no different on this occasion.  As I have done for all anthologies in this series I’ll reproduce the Foreword Mr Greenberg uses to outline the intent and structure of the book.  Here it is:

View this document on Scribd

The stories contained within the book are somewhat unusual. Mr Greenberg made some very interesting and eclectic choices to illustrate the history of the robot.  Many of the tales are a little more cerebral than one might expect and as a whole The Robot and The Man is a surprisingly refreshing and thought provoking anthology and a superbly applied take on the history of the robot.  I could even admit to being a little emotional at times.

On the critical front, the vision of the robot in the later stories is very ambitious.  To the modern reader (a point of review I apply often and is actually worth discussing in it’s own post sometime) the portrayal of the more advanced robots seems a little naive.  Especially as they are almost without exception described as having very human emotive ability – sadness, joy and so on.  To have robot’s sighing, for example, does seem a little silly.  Also, the physicality of these robots is invariably described as very… mechanical.  Coils and pistons are quite strange components with which to fashion robots at a time thousands of years in the future.  But personally I embrace these kinds things in stories penned in that Golden Age of Science Fiction.  They serve to remind us of the romantic no-limits-to-contemporary-technology vision these writers had of times to come and part of what makes all these books extremely endearing and such a joy to read.

The anthology traces the evolution of the robot from it’s beginnings in artificial intelligence and powered prostheses, through self awareness, industrial and social integration, ultimately outliving humanity in the final poignant irony to take the role of God in the re-population of the Earth.  My particular favorite was ‘Rust’ by Joseph E. Kelleam.  A touching tale of three aged, lonely, frustrated and rapidly deteriorating killing machines contemplating their nature as agents of destruction and finally facing their mortality as the only sentient beings remaining on the Earth.  Of course, unbeknown to them they aren’t the only ones as subsequent later and unrelated tales testify.

Just a comment about the title to finish with.  The theme that develops throughout this anthology is that without Man there can be no Robot, but what finally hits home or ‘bears fruit’, is that despite at times being light years apart in time and space, our existences remain inextricably entwined and we are led to the inevitable conclusion that without the Robot there will be no Man.

Review: Shambleau and Others

Posted in 1953, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , , , on August 28, 2009 by Aaron

C.L. Moore
1953

Catherine Lucille Moore is probably the better known half of the Lewis Padgett team.  Her husband Henry Kuttner – the opposite half – being more prolific but writing under numerous pseudonyms.  I use the phrase ‘opposite half’ here for good reason.  I read Padgett’s ‘Robots Have No Tails’ several months ago (see the Close Up & Review) and since discovered that it was in fact as claimed by Moore herself, penned entirely by Kuttner.  These two books provide an interesting basis for comparison and I do indeed find Ms Moore’s and Mr Kuttner’s styles to be opposite.  ‘Robots’ is light, whimsical, funny and is a breeze to read.  ‘Shambleau’ is very, very different.  Dark, heavy and serious are words I’d use to describe Ms Moore’s work here.

While we are touching on the style of prose in this book, a couple of other authors sprang to mind while I was reading.  It didn’t take long for me to identify similarities with H.P. Lovecraft.  Quite often a turn of phrase here, or a word there would remind me of the great man.  Here is an example as Northwest Smith reflects upon “fearful symmetry” as he regards Thag – the Tree of Life – for the first time.

Truly a more than human agency must have arched these subtle curves so delicately into dreadfulness, into such an awful beauty that the very sight of it made those atavistic terrors he was so sternly holding down leap in a gibbering terror.

The Tree of Life, p153/154

I’m sure you’ll agree, this could be lifted straight out of any Lovecraft story.  I’m not suggesting C.L. Moore is an H.P.L. knock off, just illustrating how similar the prose is at times, and apparently Mr Lovecraft was a fan of Ms Moore’s according to a brief biography at Red Jacket Press.  I think I would place her in a stylistic space somewhere between Lovecraft for the darkness and depth, Clark Ashton Smith for slightly less archaic expression of the same and Mervyn Peake for her descriptive use and control of color.  Color features very heavily in every tale; she uses it very well to help us enter and visualize her stories.

Well, enough observation on the style front, what about the stories themselves??

This collection consists of four Northwest Smith stories and three Jirel of Joiry tales.  Each of the seven is an excellent entertaining (if dark) read.  But first, lets get the negative out of the way.  The structure of the stories are the same.  If we look at the four Northwest Smith tales, they all go something like this:

  • Smith is hanging out somewhere on some unnamed errand/mission.
  • Some unexpected person appears or random event happens.
  • Smith gets sidetracked into some sort of alternate dimension.
  • After a cool little adventure, Smith saves the day or otherwise escapes.
  • Smith’s nefarious life gets back on track.

You could more or less throw the same blanket over the Jirel tales as well.  This gave all the stories a kind of sameness that bugged me a little.  But, Ms Moore’s aforementioned wonderful style overrode this structural similarity and allowed me to just enjoy each.

On the positive side, I keep mentioning the style as a big plus, but also we get to know these characters very well.  They are very similar in many ways despite being of opposite genders.  Hard, uncompromising, strong, practical, and at the end of each tale it isn’t Jirel’s prowess with the sword, or Smith’s speed and skill with his blaster that come through as the determining factors, it’s their mental strength that enable them to overcome the sticky situations they find themselves in.  Indeed, there is very little physical action at all throughout this collection.  This is part of the reason why for me these individuals are elevated beyond the archetypal hero of typical pulp fare, and into the realms of true literary characters.  They have so much, well… character.

Thank you C.L. Moore, you have introduced me to two people that will stay with me forever:  Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith.  Now I can’t wait to read the GP collection ‘Northwest of Earth’ for more dark adventures with these true heroes from the golden age of science fiction.

Review: Pattern for Conquest

Posted in 1949, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on August 1, 2009 by Aaron

George O. Smith
1949

As I mentioned in the Close Up, I was very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this particular book.  Fortunately I didn’t have any expectations regarding the story, despite my eagerness in possessing a copy.  George O. Smith was a regular contributor to pulp magazines in the 40s, and this is his first true novel – albeit reassembled from serialization in Astounding magazine.  The only previous experience I’d had with Smith was the short story ‘History Repeats’ in audio form, which is available from Librivox as part of the ‘Short Science Fiction Collection 20’ audio collection.  I quite liked that story but just to preempt my review a little, it seems he developed his style a bit between the pulp release of ‘Pattern for Conquest’ in 1946 and the 1959 publication of ‘History Repeats’.

No (or low) expectations turned out to be a good thing.  Another good thing was that I’d read Space Lawyer a few weeks ago.  If you go back and read that review, it might give you a clue as to why it was good preparation.

‘Pattern for Conquest’ is an interesting book.  ‘Interesting’ however, is an adjective that can cut both ways.  The story defies a concise summary as quite a lot happens so I feel something of importance or interest would inevitably have to be omitted so I’m not going to attempt it.  I’m just going to talk about both sides of the ‘interesting’ label.

If you made yourself familiar with the Space Lawyer review, one of the main reasons I gave that book a COSMIC! rating is the use of the vernacular of the times.  The quaint mid-20th-century exclamaitions and language were a couple of reasons I enjoyed that tale so much, yet the very same factor works against this story.  In ‘Lawyer’ some of this language is so over the top that one suspects author Nat Schachner had his tongue firmly in cheek.  As a result, one is free to enjoy it as an endearing idiosyncrasy of the book.  Here, though Smith is not so bold with his turn of phrase, the language and witty repartee come across as especially dated.  Kind of like your old aunt’s 50s living room as opposed to the more progressive designs of the times.  Despite both possessing obvious roots in a common past, one retains it’s charm and style and the other is just… tacky and old.

Another thing that is ‘interesting’ is the apparent attempt at incorporating some ‘hard science’.  I refer to Robert Heinlein reasonably regularly in these reviews as he is probably the benchmark for science fiction of this period.  When RAH explains something in terms of the science or rationale behind it, it comes across as sensible, readable and at least convincing.  Whether it is actually true or not isn’t really important – it doesn’t stand in the way of the story.  Here, it’s not so.  Often I had to go back and reread descriptions of effects or processes as they came across as confused nonsense the first time around.  Even if they were scientifically sound they were clumsily handled. With the re-digestion and extra conjugation required (which took me out of the flow of the tale), I just had to either continue with a mental question mark over it or proceed on faith.  Both cases aren’t conducive to a satisfactory reading experience.

Ok, enough of the bad stuff.  The positive side of the blade is what propelled this out of an ‘Orbital’ rating and into ‘Lunar’ territory.  The story rocks along.  Though many things transpire a little too rapidly to be entirely comfortable, there is never a dull moment.  This book isn’t a page-turner but there is always something to come back to when you put it down.  I like a book like that.  As is typical with science fiction of this vintage, the book is too short – there are many ideas, situations and themes that would be given much more detailed treatment in subsequent eras, but the story itself, the premise of the whole thing is very good.  I especially liked the path that the earthmen chose in the face of their defeat and domination at the hands of their alien antagonists.  I can’t help but think that this was influenced by the cost (in all senses of the word) of WWII, the book being written just at the end of that period.

A story with many shortcomings, nevertheless a light and enjoyable read.  If you don’t mind a bit of simplistic gung-ho space opera and are prepared to accept this on it’s merits as a product of it’s time, then great.  If you are a trifle more demanding, well… you might not enjoy it.  Tempering that though is a faint but detectable current of intelligence and some real food for thought, especially towards the end.

Review II: Starman’s Quest

Posted in 1958, 2:Orbital, Audio Books, Review with tags , , on July 25, 2009 by Aaron

Robert Silverberg
1958

This book has recently become available at Librivox.org.  I thought I’d take the opportunity to listen to it and feed back the experience into the review I did a few months ago.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do anything to change my opinion.  The body of the story is great, right up until Alan inherits his money and takes on development of the Cavour drive.  As I pointed out in the original Review, the big disappointment is the end and this is exacerbated in audio form.  With audio books, it is very easy to just switch off for a minute or so.  If you do that towards the end of this book, as you switch back in you will wonder what the hell is going on as the story progresses in giant leaps.  And all of a sudden it’s over.  As I did with the book, I kind of felt a little cheated out of a fulfilling read (or listen, as the case may be).

It’s frustrating, as there is some great material and ideas here.  Despite all this, the book is well read by Dawn Larsen.  It’s very easy to listen to her voice and she is well paced.  All in all, Starman’s Quest is worth reading or listening to, but pay attention at the end.