Archive for the Review Category

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.

Review: Children of the Atom

Posted in 1953, 3:Lunar, Review with tags , on July 18, 2009 by Aaron

Wilmar H. Shiras
1953

This book has quite a reputation (in SF literature at least) for a couple of reasons, and after reading this myself, I would have to say deservedly so.  However, I would like to separate those reasons from my enjoyment in reading it.  Before I get into what I actually thought of the story, I would like to touch upon the reasons this particular book has the reputation it does.

First, this book is considered a very early example of intellectually driven science fiction, as opposed to the action/adventure and technologically oriented ‘space opera’ style fare that was very popular back then.  Not that space opera was the only thing going around, many authors – Heinlein being the prominent example – were beginning to produce tales that saw good character development and a solid grounding in the scientific realities of the times.  But here we see a story built around the central themes of psychology and philosophy.  It’s interesting, it’s refreshing, but leads to a challenge for the typical Gnome Press reader which I’ll address later.

The second thing of note is the similarity to the X-Men comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Though widely credited with the inspiration behind the now global entertainment franchise, this has never been officially acknowledged.  Indeed though, The parallels between the two tales are there and unmistakable.

There is an excellent synopsis of the book over at Red Jacket Press.  I recommend reading that to get a taste of what the books’ all about.  You can pick up a beautiful and faithful reproduction of this Gnome Press 1st edition also if you wish.  The Red Jacket reproduction is reviewed at SFFWorld.  It’s a more academic review than I like (or are capable doing…), but it’s worth a read.

Back to, and regarding the story however, as much as I enjoyed it as a piece of true science fiction history and as part of the Gnome Press family, I was frustrated by it.

It’s very interesting in places and very droll in others.  It might be better to say the story moves along in some places and stalls in others.  The beginning of the book is engaging, we meet our main characters, uncover the source of Tim’s problems and embark on Peter’s quest to collect and empower these special children.  This continues nicely as we move first to Elsie’s and then to Stella’s stories.  However, once the school is established the story starts to founder.  It perhaps becomes a vehicle for the author to voice some speculations and opinions through hyper-intellectual dialogue amongst the growing population of children.  Things get a little more interesting when mysterious pranks start to occur in the school and the prospect of uncovering the culprit begins to engage us again, only to stumble once the perpetrator is found and we dive into the academic discourse once more. I mentioned the typical Gnome Press reader earlier, and it’s with this issue that I think they would have a problem, as indeed did I.  For all it’s cool premise and intellectual appeal, this story just doesn’t rock – stark contrast to the tale I had just completed, Space Lawyer.

It’s all wrapped up quickly and neatly, and in a way that is just a little anti-climactic and bit disappointing.  An interesting book?  Sure.  A different book?  Yes.  Worth reading?  Of course.  But a fun book?  No, not for me anyway.

Just as a footnote, is this book really ‘science fiction’?  The only possible elements of any kind of real sf I could discerne was that it’s set in the ‘future’ (the early 1970s), and that these kids’ intellects were boosted by their parents’ exposure to a dose of radiation.  Are these things enough to constitute a real science fiction story??  I dunno, you be the judge on that.

Review: Space Lawyer

Posted in 1953, 5:COSMIC!, Review with tags , on July 9, 2009 by Aaron

Nat Schachner
1953

I never thought I’d say it, but I really enjoyed reading about a lawyer!!  The author, Nat Schachner, was a lawyer himself, though probably not a bona fide space lawyer like this chap here.  This was the only book he ever had published – albeit like many GP books, it was put together from a couple of his shorter stories.  He did however, contribute to pulp magazines in the 30s and early 40s.  I found Space Lawyer to be a surprisingly good read, but for some quite unusual reasons.  Reasons that I could have taken as negatives.  Indeed probably would be negatives to more than a few modern readers.  But before I talk about those reasons, what’s it about??

Our hero Kerry Dale, bright, young super-hotshot space lawyer, gets himself dismissed from Kenton Space Enterprises, Unlimited by the irascible Simeon Kenton (an adjective used to describe him three times in the first two pages) after being employed for a year with no promotion or advancement to show for it.  No longer a practicing lawyer, he busts out on his own, plying the space-ways of the solar system looking for opportunities and legal loopholes to thwart his old boss and advance his own ends.  Being quite successful – out-smarting ‘Old Fireball’ Kenton, making a fortune and winning the affections of his ex-employers beautiful daughter along the way.

So, what was unusual about it all??  Well, I had an inkling that this would be a little different when on the very first page, author Schachner chose to express ‘Old Fireball’ Kenton’s annoyance by employing the ejaculation “Har-r-rumph!”  In fact, a whole panapoly of outrageously quaint expressions of abuse and aggravation are variously employed throughout the book.  Let me give you a taste:

On page 14:

Old Simeon found tongue at last. It had swelled with indignation until it protuded from his mouth. “That goddasted blitherskite – I mean dadgosted slitherblite – did he dare call me Old Fireball?”

page 31:

“Is he really back on your payroll, father?” Sally asked innocently.
He glared at her. “Quiet! Of all the insufferable impudence, the ratgosted, blatherskited ripscullian!”
“Father, your language! It’s not even English!”

page 97:

“Dadfoozle it!” shouted Simeon.

page 209:

Old Simeon came hurtling over. His eyes blazed, his hair flared, he danced around the young man in a rage. “That’s right dingburn ye for a dimscullion, Dale. I expected almost anything else of ye, but not this. You forced my daughter along on this blamefoozled, scarumharum trip o’ yours!”

I just pulled a couple out at random, but I could go on and on.  I understand that it might not be to everyone’s taste, but to me, it’s brilliant.

Dale’s modus operandi is to do some reseach on a subject, execute a carefully conceived plan and when all and sundry are telling him he can’t possibly get away with it, he trumps them as to why he can by quoting from the law books obscure articles and sections with precedents.  As a reader we aren’t enlightened as to the exact nature of the trumps until he plays them.  It’s very entertaining.

To draw a comparison with another Gnome Press book, Space Lawyer brings to mind Lewis Padgett’s Robots Have No Tails. While they are different in that ‘Robots’ is penned as a comedy and ‘Lawyer’ isn’t (though it’s certainly lighthearted), they are very similar in the way they read.  Both are light and easy, reading them is a breeze.  I want to contrast this with another book I have finished recently – Renaissance by Raymond F. Jones.  It’s so complex and heavy that I can’t even get a review off the ground.  Though perhaps that’s more a testimony to my abilities as a reviewer…

Anyway, both ‘Robots’ and ‘Lawyer’ allowed me to enjoy them with nothing grand and heavy to consider.  This is the other element that I think the typical modern sf reader might have problems with.  Books these days seem to need to be so… for lack of a better term, meaningful.  This one isn’t.  Look, I’m not sure that I’m expressing what I feel too well here, perhaps it’s best just to say that when I finished the book, I could look back, smile and feel a genuine sense of simple pleasure – Space Lawyer is fun.

I can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.

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: This Fortress World

Posted in 1955, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on June 18, 2009 by Aaron

James E. Gunn
1955

James Gunn is a recent Science Fiction Grand Master and a very well respected figure in SF circles.  He has been the director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas since it’s inception in 1982.  I recommend you exercise the link, where you can learn a bit about Mr Gunn, his accomplishments and the work done at the CSSF.  There are some interesting essays and other material there.

I struggled to get into this book, but only for the first few pages.  I don’t know exactly why – if the very start of the book wasn’t as engaging as I needed, or whether it was my own frame of mind at the time.  Whatever it was, I had a couple of false starts getting in to it.  Consequently, the story had an uphill battle to regain what it had lost (or perhaps what I had neglected to appreciate).  Anyway, that it did, and some.

First, a bit of background.  Mankind had forged a Galactic Empire, but it has since decayed into an aggregation of insular planets, each apparently quite independent and mostly run by emperor-like figures.  Aside from the ruling classes, the mass of humanity is uneducated and in a very sorry state.  Humanity seems to be arranged in a kind of caste system, with serfs and noblemen and such.  Religion seems to be the only consistent cultural factor across the Galaxy.  The exact nature of this religion isn’t made explicit, but I took it to be a monotheistic organization something in the nature of a Benedictine or Carthusian order.  Religion caters to the masses while staying away from controversy and consequently the ruling elite are happy with this arrangement providing that it doesn’t evolve and threaten their hold over the people.

All the action takes place on the planet of Brancusi, almost entirely within the capital city.  Our hero, Dane, is an acolyte monk, having lived all his life within the huge walls of the monastery.  The monastery itself is a ‘fortress world’, a motif which recurs throughout the book and one which I’ll talk about later.  In strange and violent circumstances he comes into possession of a mysterious artifact that is believed to hold a secret that could bring great power to whoever can unlock it.  A pursuit ensues that lasts almost the entire book and in the end (to use a cliché) the good guy gets the girl.

The story is fast-paced and keeps it up pretty much the entire time.  Poor Dane finds himself in one predicament after another with the mercenary Sabatini always in close pursuit.

There are a couple of interesting things about the story which I’d like to comment on.

First is Dane himself.  He is a very interesting character and we see him develop from a very naive and cloistered individual into one with cunning and resourcefulness, despite never entirely losing that naivety.  His physical presence and prowess is considerable though it’s never made a big deal of over the course of the story, indeed Dane offhandedly describes impressive feats beyond the physicality of his co-characters.  I’m a huge Gene Wolfe fan and in this way Dane reminds me of the way Mr Wolfe writes many of his characters.  Often very blasé about apparently startling or disturbing events, and deadpan yet fulfilling with descriptions of things that other writers would likely see as opportunity for over-exercising creative prose. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mr Gunn gives Dane a powerful and intimidating presence (apparently as a by-product of his healthy lifestyle and fitness regime in the monastery) through an accumulation of his actions and deeds, rather than laying it out for us.  I like that style.  It gives me credibility and makes me feel smart as a reader.

The other thing is the fortress motif I touched on earlier. This occurs time and time again throughout the course of this tale.  Because I’m no literary academic – I’m just an SF fan who does this for my own enjoyment and hopefully that of others – I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been for one particular exchange in the book:

“But if people aren’t born evil, how do they get that way?”
“They’re afraid of getting hurt, and they build up a wall around themselves for protection.  They build themselves a fortress and sit inside it, sheltered and afraid.  Afraid that someone will break in and find them there, see them as they really are, alone and helpless.  For then they can be hurt, you see.  When they are naked and defenseless.  We’re a whole galaxy of worlds, revolving endlessly, never touching, crouched within our fortresses, alone, always alone.”

This came about half-way through the book, and was the first use of the word ‘fortress’.  That’s really what made me sit up and take notice.  This is a succinct summation of this societies individuals and it scales right up through the fortress of the caste system, to the fortresses of the independent planets and the only interplanetary organization – the religion – has fortress-like outposts on each world.  Even Dane in his quest to keep the artifact from those that hunt him, and his desire to uncover the motivations of those behind the scenes spends time in fortresses of one kind or another.  From the beginning of his adventure in the fortress of the monastery, to the various brief and secret havens he finds, to the cell Sabatini has him incarcerated in for a while and finally to old Earth which is sheltered from the rest of the Galaxy.

Despite the book being like a fortress itself in that I found it difficult to break into initially, once I was inside the adventure opened up and took me along for the ride.  I can see why Mr Gunn has had a very loyal fan-base for so many years.  I am looking forward to picking up James Gunn’s collaboration with Jack Williamson on the Gnome Press book Star Bridge.

Pop over to visit Bill the SciFi Guy and check out his reviews for Star Bridge and for Mr Gunn’s The Immortals.

Review: The Shrouded Planet & The Dawning Light

Posted in 1957, 1959, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , , , , on June 6, 2009 by Aaron

Robert Randall (Robert Silverberg & Randall Garrett)
1957 & 1959

I’ve been looking forward to reading these two books ever since I picked up The Dawning Light from Joe back in November (December?) last year.  Just like the Close Up for these two books, this will be a double-header review.  Both these books by Robert Randall are the joint work of two authors – Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett.  Garrett was an experienced contributor to pulp magazines and several years older than Silverberg, and acted as a kind of mentor to the younger writer.

These two books together represent one almost seamless and continuous story despite their origins as pulp fare.   ‘Planet’ was originally published in three separate parts in Astounding Science Fiction during 1956.  For the Gnome Press hardback release in ’57, linking chapters were added to aid the flow in novel form.  Something, incidentally, that was desperately needed for The Philosophical Corps, so desperately in fact that their absence effectively destroyed what could have been a much better book… but I digress.  ‘Light’ was likewise release over three consecutive months in 1957 in the same magazine. The linking chapters work very well in these books, so well that you wouldn’t know unless you… knew.

Wikipedia goes into quite a bit of detail regarding the plots of these two books (‘Planet’ here, ‘Light’ here) and has a substantial reference regarding the planet Nidor where the books are set.  However, if you want to really enjoy these books, I recommend not reading them (the wikipedia entries, I mean) if you can at all help it.  I somehow managed to studiously avoid all this information until after I completed the tales, and my reading experience was, I think, all the better for it.

So, what was the reading experience??  I’m not going to go into detail, I’m just going to gloss over the basic structure so you can enjoy it the way I did.  The biggest strength of the story is that we never find out what the real motivations of the Earthmen are until the very end.  I found myself swinging one way or the other with regards to whether they were benign or not.  But let’s back up a bit.  The planet Nidor orbits a very bright star and is perpetually covered in cloud.  Indeed, the Nidorians have never actually seen their sun, or even the sky for that matter.  This brings to mind the Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten Planet which I read recently.  In another parallel with that book, nightly rains are a by-product of all that cloud.  Since a great cataclysm some four thousand years ago, the Nidorians have lived in a static society structured around the worship of ‘The Great Light’, their sun.  Everything is in balance from the planet’s ecology, to the economy, to leadership by the oldest members sixteen tribes.  This living, yet petrified civilization is what’s alluded to by the title of the first book.  It certainly is a ‘shrouded’ or ‘mummified’ planet.  Well, it is until the Earthmen arrive and playing on being emissaries of The Great Light, shake things up a bit.

If the title of the first book gives you an indication of what the planet is like, the second title does too.

I’ve decided that I can’t comment how I want here without giving too much away, and if you haven’t read these books then I don’t want to spoil it.  The exact motivations of our brethren in the future really are skillfully witheld until the end, and in such a way that I couldn’t make a confident guess as to what they might be.  Suffice to say that there is a lot of scope for different interpretations and comment on the motivations for intervention/nonintervention in foreign (and not necessarily off-world) cultures.

The authors have created a very believable world here populated by interesting characters.  The writing is excellent and the story well paced and engaging.  I thoroughly recommend it.  The only negative aspect that is worth comment is that the revelations at the end are too hastily resolved.  Upon reflection, I think this may be a by-product of the pulp origins of the story.  Each book was published in three parts so the sixth and final installment had to provide a satisfactory conclusion as well as being reasonably self-contained in the confines of a short story.  If they went to the trouble of penning linking chapters, also fleshing out the ending to be more suitable for one long novel (which these two books essentially are) would have been a good idea.

One thing that many stories of this vintage suffer from is the curse of the outdated technology.  Not so here.  Because all of the action takes place on Nidor where the technology is relatively primitive to that contemporary to the time of writing, there isn’t much danger of attempting to describe stuff that seems odd or flat out nonsense to the modern reader.  One of the reasons why the tale holds it’s own very well today.

This is a very entertaining and satisfying read that despite being a little too quickly wrapped up at the end, I think any SF fan will enjoy.

Review: Men Against the Stars

Posted in 1950, 5:COSMIC!, Adventures in Science Fiction Series, Review with tags , on May 20, 2009 by Aaron

Martin Greenberg, editor
1950

My high expectations of Martin Greenberg’s ‘Adventures in Science Fiction Series’ continues to be met.  Published in 1950, this is the very first in the six volume series, and the best of the four I have read so far.  I haven’t reviewed the 1953 installment The Robot and the Man yet, but you can read the Reviews for 1951’s Journey to Infinity and All About the Future from ’55.  I also have Travelers of Space sitting in the library waiting for me.  I’ll get around to it.  Come to think of it, I’m going to make a promise here in writing, I will read again and Review ‘Robot & Man’ before I get into ‘Travelers’.  There.  It’s been too long and I must do it.

As I have always done in the Reviews for these books, I mention the concept behind them, and because this book is the very first I’ll go into it in a little more depth.  Gnome Press co-founder and editor of the series, Martin Greenberg, came up with the idea of a collection of short stories that reflected a certain set of ideas or progression of ideas.  From the perspective of the modern SF reader, this is nothing new.  It could even be considered ‘old hat’ with themed collections for everything imaginable, from SF crime to gay vampires.   However, it was new 60 years ago and this particular book represents perhaps the very first published ‘theme anthology’ in SF history.  This is a view reinforced by Eshbach:

Probably Marty’s [Martin Greenberg’s] greatest contribution to the SF field (other than Gnome Press itself) was his concept of theme anthologies which began with Men Against the Stars.  So far as I have been able to determine, this and the others that followed were the first collections of this nature to appear, setting a pattern for future anthologists.  These were the most successful of Gnome Press books, their sales figures only approached by Asimov’s Foundation stories.

Eshbach, p 210

I’ve reproduced here both the Foreword by Greenberg and the Introduction by science writer and space commentator Willy Ley.  The Foreword sets the tone not only for this book but for it’s companions to follow, and is an excellent guide on how to read this collection – not just as a simple collection of stories, but in a broader sense as a progression of themes, ideas and issues that future spacefarers might have to consider, be challenged by and eventually surmount.

Ley gives us an excellent ‘in a nutshell’ history of the rocket and a glimpse into a possible future with regards to our first steps to the moon and beyond.  It is really a fascinating piece.  Here they are.  Enjoy.

View this document on Scribd

Well, it’s about time we get into the stories that make up this anthology.  The title of this tome is of course ‘Men Against the Stars’ and it really is.  Contained therein are stories of men.  Men who face challenges from the first flight around the moon until the rejuvination of a stagnating Mother Earth by her children from the stars.  Men who face problems ranging from public resistance, to mutiny, to economics, to politics, to time and even being locked out.  All in the quest to push succeeding generations further from home.  There are twelve tales, and I’m not going to address them all, I’ll just pull out  three or four to talk about.

I’m not going to touch on the opening and closing stories, suffice to say they are well chosen and represent very suitable, natural ways to begin and end this collection.  Nor will I mention the penultimate tale ‘Bridle and Saddle’ with which Foundation fans should be very familiar, and for which reason I didn’t read.  A not-well-known fact about that story though; ‘Bridle and Saddle’ in this volume is the very first occasion an Asimov story was in published in book form.

The second and title story “Men Against the Stars’ by Manly Wade Wellman describes the courage, daring and mortal sacrifice of the men who rode the very unreliable rockets to Mars from their base on the moon.  By taking chances with dodgy technology, the tale invokes the character of such long-haul aviation pioneers such as Lindbergh, Kingsford-Smith, Earhart and Batten.  The principal action takes place on the moon, but the main thread of the story is punctuated by short vignettes of the crews that are making the Mars shot, often immediately before their spectacular demise in transit.  As I mentioned, this is the title story and also provides the beating heart of this anthology.

A.E. van Vogt’s ‘Far Centaurus’ is a familiar tale along the lines of Starman’s Quest.  Space travel is much safer now, and four men set out for the distant stars on a centuries-long journey in stasis only to be overtaken by technology long before arriving.  Greeted at their destination, they discover a civilization that has passed them by.  It’s an interesting situation to ponder…

Hal Clement is renowned for his hard science fiction.  He performs up to his considerable reputation here with ‘Cold Front’.  Men attempt to forge a trading relationship selling global climate control to a newly discovered alien civilization.  They do this on a planet with extremely complex weather patterns that aren’t fully understood by the non-natives.  Their poor grasp of the situation and subsequent embarrassment however, leads to another opportunity that is adroitly taken advantage of – testimony to the wiles of inter-species human traders.  Clement is at his best – some extremely convincing (if somewhat dated) speculation on cause and effect in planetary and solar meteorology here.

Having not long completed Murray Leinster’s The Forgotten World, I was amused that his installment was about fugitives from piracy, crash-landing on a planet dominated by… flowers.  ‘The Plants’ tells us of how three parties – fugitives, pirates and semi-sentient flowers – interact after an almost-bungled heist.

Some very, very famous names from early science fiction are represented here.  Asimov, Clement, Leinster, Hubbard, van Vogt and Padgett make up about half of the contributors.

If you are a SF fan, especially of classic SF, this book should be in your collection.  It’s not expensive, you could pick up a resonable copy (if you can find one) for much less than $50.  I’m going to make a prediction: In the fullness of time, this book will become a real sought-after and valuable collectors item.  I guess given enough time anything will be, but what I mean is though maybe not in the league of Gnome titles such as Asimov’s and Heinlein’s, it will certainly be elevated far above the obscurity it is in now.  This book represents a genuine piece of SF publishing history.  Aside from that, it is a fantastic collection.  From Edd Cartier’s magnificent cover art to the full circle arrived at in the final story by L. Ron Hubbard, I can find very little negative to say, and that’s really saying something for a bunch of twelve very early SF tales.

If you appreciate SF, if you have an interest in SF history, you need this book.