Book Review: Inferior

Book Review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Disclaimer:  I received this Uncorrected Page Proof as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  Some material may be changed in the final product, due out 5/23/17.

Inferior

Today there was a news story about a member of the European Parliament arguing against equal pay for women on the grounds that “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.”  Unsurprisingly, this MEP was male.  Equally unsurprising was the tongue-lashing he got from a fellow MEP who happened to be female.  But while it’s unusual for a theoretically respectable politician to say these things in public nowadays, it is a current of thought that stretches back to at least the ancient Greeks.  And often science has been misused to justify such attitudes.

This book is mostly about the science of sex differences (that is, “how are men and women different?”) and how that science has been interpreted over the years to justify sexism and resistance to social change on the subject, but also about contrary evidence and theories that paint a more egalitarian picture.  The author is an award-winning British science journalist who was assigned to write a piece on menopause but found enough material for this book.

The book begins with Charles Darwin claiming that women were less evolved than men for reasons.   Then it covers multiple subjects such as brain imaging and primatology on the way to the riddle of why women don’t just die when they become infertile.  (The last has two major competing hypotheses named “The Grandmother Hypothesis” and “The Patriarch Hypothesis”; all the scientists that have gone on record as supporting the latter are male.)

There’s a reference list for each chapter, and will be an index in the final product.  There may be illustrations in the published version; there were none in the proof copy.

A repeated theme of the book is the suggestion that many sex difference researchers started from “essentialism”, the basic assumption that men and women are different in fundamental ways, and then did their research in such a way as to disproportionately focus on the ways the sexes are different, rather than similar, and sometimes even finding differences that don’t appear to actually exist.  It’s also notable that several male researchers come across as dismissive of research done by scientists (particularly women) whose results contradict their own theories.  One, for example, admits that he’s never studied bonobos himself, but clearly  the research results found by a woman must be wrong since it’s different from what he learned by studying chimpanzees.

The writing is clear and concise, and should be readable by bright high school students on up (although some parents may find parts of the subject matter, such as the existence of intersex people, uncomfortable.)  Recommended to those interested in science, feminism and the intersection of the two.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Book Review: The Ark

Book Review: The Ark by Patrick S. Tomlinson

The generation ship known to its inhabitants as The Ark holds the last fifty thousand humans in the universe.  Er, make that 49,999…and falling.  When brilliant geneticist Edmond Laraby goes missing only a few weeks before the Ark is finally going to reach humanity’s new home in Tau Ceti (which should be impossible due to the tracking device implanted in everyone’s skull when they’re born), it’s up to Detective Bryan Benson to discover what happened.

The Ark

Benson must find out what happened to Laraby, and puzzle out the motive.  Was it his taste in stolen art?  Something to do with his work on adapting plants to the conditions on the new planet?  A personal dispute?  Or something more sinister?  Benson needs to find out fast, or more people are going to die, and failure could mean the end of the human race!

A couple of centuries from now, it’s discovered that a black hole is headed for Earth; there was just enough time to build a huge ship to take fifty thousand humans (chosen for genetic stability and general usefulness) from around the world to the nearest inhabitable planet.  This universe doesn’t have faster than light travel, so it’s taken some more centuries to get there, with generation after generation being born and dying.

Benson’s direct ancestors faked their genetic records to get aboard, and got caught harboring a deadly inherited condition.  The disease was excised, but the scandal has tainted the family line ever since, resulting in a tradition of being the lowliest of hydro-farmers.  But Bryan Benson managed to break out of that by becoming a star athlete at the future sport of Zero, and then becoming the chief security officer of the Avalon half of the Ark.

It’s been something of a sinecure up until now; the Ark’s population is much better-behaved than an equivalent number of people on Earth That Was.  So Benson has been pretty relaxed about the job, having an affair with an subordinate and taking time out to watch the final Zero series before the ship arrives.  He has a lot of catching up to do when there’s a serious crime to investigate.

It’s interesting to compare this book to One in Three Hundred, the last story I reviewed about the remnants of humanity fleeing a dying Earth.  In that one, the governments of Earth decided to go with the cheapest mass-produced ships possible and let the pilots decide which people to bring based on their own values and circumstances, with a low probability of individual success.  So the population of the new world was essentially random.  Here, the governments decided to build one ship with the maximum probability of success and hand-pick the survivors (with about the same numbers who actually make it through.)

As Benson’s investigation continues, he learns to his great surprise that there are a few secrets that have managed to survive the centuries; but murder investigations tend to turn up things people would prefer to stay buried, even if they’re not directly connected to the mystery.  Some of the characters have surprising depths, while others are exactly what they appear.

Benson is a decent viewpoint character, sarcastic and fallible.  In a hard-boiled mystery, he’s a detective that hasn’t finished cooking.  The romantic relationship subplot is okay, but nothing to write home about.

There’s some good lines, too.  My personal favorite is “The last time this gun was fired, sixteen million people died.”

Recommended for people who enjoy SF-flavored mystery stories, and fans of generation ship stories.

Book Review: One in Three Hundred

Book Review: One in Three Hundred by J.T. McIntosh

Most of you will have run into some variant of the “Lifeboat Problem” at some point.  (In my youth, it was done with bomb shelters due to the strong possibility of atomic war.)  A disaster has occurred, and a large number of people are going to die.  There is one ticket to safety, but only a limited number of spaces available.   As it happens, you are the person put in charge of filling those spaces.  Here’s a list of people longer than the number of available spots, tell us who lives and who dies.  Usually, some choices are easy (the person with vital medical skills lives, while the banker dies because seriously no one cares about money right now) but other decisions are more difficult (your beloved granny who’s  partially disabled or the hot woman who dumped you in college but has many good years left?)

One in Three Hundred

And that’s the starting dilemma of this book, originally published as three novelettes in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction in 1953.  The first section, “One in Three Hundred” reveals that in the very near future, the sun is about to become hotter, making Earth uninhabitable.  However, this will also raise the temperature of Mars to the point it will be barely livable.  In the limited time left before this insolation happens, the governments of Earth have pooled their resources to build a fleet of ten-passenger “lifeships” to allow approximately one in every three hundred Earthlings to have a shot at joining the small scientific colony already on Mars.

Bill Easson is one of the Lieutenants chosen to pilot a lifeship, and to pick the ten passengers that will be on board.  For this purpose, he’s been sent to the small Midwestern town of Simsville.  He wastes no time drawing up a preliminary list, but as the deadline approaches, the small-town tranquility is ripped apart as the citizens reveal their hidden sides and true natures, so Bill is forced to revise his list repeatedly, up until the last moment.

“One in a Thousand”, the second section, has Bill and his passengers discover that the lifeship isn’t quite as safe as they’d been led to assume.  Turns out that the Earth governments, decided to give a maximum number of people a small chance to survive, rather than a small number of people a maximum chance to survive.  Thus the lifeships have been built to absolute minimum standards.  (Bill does some calculations and figures that to build the lifeships to the correct standards, the number of potential passengers would have to be one in one million Earthlings.)

The lifeship crew must find a way to survive the rigors of space travel and perhaps more importantly, the landing!

Finally, in “One Too Many” those of Bill’s complement that survived the journey (including Bill) must weather the many dangers of Mars if they hope to have a future at all…but the greatest danger may be one they brought with them!

The first part is the most suspenseful, since we know that Bill survives (he’s narrating the story from several years in the future) but everyone else is on the chopping block.  On the other hand, it makes the narration feel oddly detached; Bill is doing his level best not to get emotionally involved, even though he’s making very emotional choices.

The second and third parts are more SFnal, though this was clearly written before any humans had gone into space, so the author has to guess what zero-gravity conditions are like, let alone the problems of surviving on Mars.  It’s also notable that this potential future (deliberately, probably) has no technological advances beyond those needed to get to Mars–Bill has to make all calculations aboard ship with pencil and paper, apparently not even getting a slide rule to work with.  Atomic power is mentioned as having stalled out.

And it’s very clearly a deliberate decision by the author not to have any social change whatsoever between the 1950s and “the future.”  Simsville is very much an average American town of the Fifties, and the culture shock of what needs to be done to survive on the lifeship and on the new colony is from a very Fifties perspective.  (The thought of miscegenation blows a lot of survivors’ minds.)

Some lapses are clearly down to 1950s standards and practices–there’s no mention of how waste elimination is handled aboard the lifeship.  But others are just weird.  The choices are kept secret until the absolute last minute so no one has time to pack, but none of the survivors had been carrying around a pocket Bible, or a pack of cards or even a family photo just in case?

And there are some skeevy bits.  Okay, yes, the survivors on Mars are going to need to make lots of babies to ensure the human race has a future.   But the standards listed for sexual assault are “if it’s a respectable woman who is trying to make babies with her respectable man, then the assault is to be punished severely, but if she’s a stuck-up rhymes with ‘witch’ that is denying society the use of her uterus, then the offender gets off with a wrist slap.”  I can see, sadly, the male-dominated readership of the time going “Yeah, rough on the women, but got to be done.”

And then there’s the ending, where the bad guy essentially has Bill and his friends over a barrel and unable to act, so someone who’s gone “crazy” has to resolve the problem for them.

The cover is cool, but more symbolic than representative–in-story, the government has taken great pains to avoid such a scene.  This was a Doubleday Selection of the Month, and the back cover copy is more about how science fiction is a popular and respectable literary genre now than it is about the book itself.

This is a good read, with the caveats mentioned above, but don’t think too hard because this is a “gee-whiz” story that will fall apart if you slow down to examine individual parts.  Also, be aware that there are reprints that only have the first story, but don’t say so in the description.

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf

Book Review: The Sea-Wolf by Jack London

Today is an ill-omened day.  It began with a heavy fog in San Francisco Harbor, and the ferry carrying literary critic Humphrey Van Weyden colliding with another ship.  He managed to get into a life jacket, but was swept away from the other survivors by a freak tide that took him out to sea.  You’d think that being picked up by a ship would be a good thing, but this is the seal-hunting ship Ghost, and she is commanded by the much feared Wolf Larsen.  Captain Larsen has no intentions of returning to harbor, and one of his sailors having just died, presses Van Weyden into service as a cabin boy.

The Sea-Wolf

This 1904 novel was partially based on Jack London’s own experience working on a sealing ship, and is considered one of the great sea adventure stories.  The primary conflict of the book is the clash of life philosophies between the idealistic gentleman Van Weyden, and the nihilistic and amoral Larsen.

Van Weyden is a nice enough fellow, but in large part that’s because he’s never needed to test that niceness.  Having inherited a substantial sum from his father, and cossetted by his female relatives, Humphrey has been able to dedicate himself to his books and writing career.   He’s never had to actually work for a living, and the harsh shipboard life comes as a series of shocks to him (even not counting Wolf Larsen’s particular cruelty.)  Van Weyden is rather classist, and as we see later in  the book, very sexist (in the “positive discrimination” sense.)  He grows up in many ways during the course of the story.

But it’s Larsen that the book is named for.  Born into abject poverty as a Dane in Norway, he went to sea at the earliest opportunity.  He taught himself to read and write and speak English, and all the skills needed of a sailor.  No man’s hand was lifted to help him along the way; Larsen clawed every bit of knowledge out for himself.  In a harsh world, Wolf Larsen learned to be harsh and rose in the ranks.  He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way, and has reached the pinnacle of his career path…captain of a small ship, commanding a score or so of men.

It’s said that Jack London modeled Wolf Larsen on the Nietzchean ubermensch, physically superior to everyone else on the ship, and intellectually superior to everyone except Humphrey (but with a more thought-out life philosophy.)  He’s also a perfect specimen of masculine beauty according to Van Weyden.  But he is constrained by his circumstances; his genius and drive could have made him a rich man or politically powerful, or a great artist, but life never fell out for him that way.  His cruelty and amoral behavior make him absolute master of his ship, but immensely lonely, and those under Wolf will turn against him at any chance they have.  In the end his own philosophy of “life eating life to live” is his downfall.

Most of the crew has minimal characterization, but we do get to know a few.  Johnson (not “Yonson”) of quiet dignity and great admiration for the shipbuilding craft.  George Leach (not his real name) who had to flee San Francisco for crimes unnamed, and with too much courage for his own good.  Louis, the consummate survivor.  And Thomas “Cooky” Mugridge, Cockney ship’s cook.  This last fellow is Van Weyden’s particular enemy early in the book.  Mugridge is sniveling to those above him, and tyrannical to those below him, filthy in his habits, greedy and isn’t very good at cooking.  He’s an odious person, but as Van Weyden learns, Mugridge is also constrained by his circumstances, plagued with ill luck as well as bad life choices.

Another presence, never directly seen, is Death Larsen, Wolf Larsen’s brother, and by all accounts an even worse person than him.  He’s in the same business, but with a bigger boat, and the brothers hate each other even more than they hate everyone else.

The story shifts about two-thirds of the way in with the appearance of more castaways, including Maud Brewster.  This moderately successful poet was on a voyage to Japan to improve her health when a storm wrecked her ship.  Fancy her landing on the same ship as the literary critic who boosted her early career!   She and Van Weyden quickly become friends, and in different circumstances, it could be more.  But Wolf Larsen also finds himself attracted to Maud’s beauty and wit, and he is bound by neither politeness nor custom of courtship.

It becomes necessary for Maud and Humphrey to flee the ship, and after some days in a small boat, manage to find a deserted island.  They set their minds and bodies to survive the coming winter…but the couple hasn’t seen the last of Wolf Larsen.  The romance is easily the weakest part of the book, and was considered cheesy even by contemporary critics, but does provide something of a happy ending.

There’s quite a bit of violence in the book, both human-on-human and human-on-seal.  The latter will be even more appalling to modern readers than early Twentieth Century ones, I think.  Van Weyden notes the wastefulness of killing these creatures for their skins, and then just dumping the remainder of the corpses.  There’s torture that goes a bit further than intended, and a near-sexual assault that’s only averted by coincidence.

On the other hand, no one in the book excretes waste, (really obvious during the small boat escape) and no one ever has sex.  (The crew of the ship is explicitly celibate.)  There’s a kiss at the end, but that’s it for physical contact.

Overall, an exciting tale of adventure and philosophy, but the romance takes the book down a notch.  Recommended for fans of sea tales and people who enjoy Jack London’s other books.

Book Review: Storm Over Warlock

Book Review: Storm Over Warlock by Andre Norton

Shann Lantee is a member of the Survey Corps team getting the planet Warlock ready for human colonization.  Well, just barely.  Without any formal education, Shann was brought along to do all the scutwork of the camp, including tending the genetically enhanced wolverines being tested as partners for human scouts.  A bully has let the wolverines out of their cage to get Shann in trouble, and so the young man is well outside the camp when the Throg come calling.

Storm Over Warlock

The vaguely beetle-like Throg are at war with the humans; both species need Earth-like planets, but the Throg prefer letting the Terran-derived people find the planet, then snatch it away from them.  The Throg kill everyone in the camp, and Shann believes himself to be the only living human on Warlock, heading into the mountains to hide.

Soon, however, he is joined by Ragnar Thorvald, the leader of the Survey team, who had happened to be off-planet during the initial raid.  His return ship was shot down, and the officer decides to create the illusion that there are sentient natives on the planet.  Thorvald has his reasons to believe that there are undiscovered intelligent natives on the planet, and Shann will need to uncover the secrets of Warlock if anyone is to survive the Throg invasion.

Andre Norton was born Alice Norton, and like many women writing in the 1930s (and  later) was pressured into having a male-sounding pen name to sell books in a genre that wasn’t considered a woman’s field.  (She later legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton, for convenience.)  Storm Over Warlock is the first of her “Forerunner” series (retroactively named when the Forerunner turned up in one of the later books.)  When published in 1960, it was a “juvenile”; nowadays we’d call it “young adult.”

The story starts with the destruction of the camp, and Shann doesn’t spend a lot of time having detailed flashbacks, so we don’t get a lot of backstory for him.  We do learn that he was born in an impoverished section of a mining planet, orphaned at an early age, and led a hard life–an intriguing remark indicates that he’s seen people being mind-controlled before, but does not expand on that.

There’s even less background for Ragnar Thorvald.  We can gather that he’s been a successful Survey scout , since he was placed in charge of the expedition.  Thorvald was distracted by his worries that Warlock has sentient inhabitants–he’s clearly barely noticed Shann Lantee existed before they’re forced together by circumstances.  He also seems to have been unaware of how much a bully his younger brother Garth was, and Shann doesn’t bring it up.  While he’s much more educated and competent than Shann, Thorvald is sidelined for large portions of the story, forcing Shann to make his own way.

Taggi and Togi, the wolverines, are an important part of the book, Shann’s only friends at the beginning, and often useful in survival.  Since they are incapable of speech, it’s not clear to Shann or the reader how intelligent they really are.

The Throg are treated as innately hostile beings in this volume, their psychological differences with humans making compromise or cooperation impossible, and their deaths a necessity.

The Wyverns, on the other hand, are far more amenable once Shann has managed to establish communication.  They may be a semi-aquatic matriarchy with psychic powers, but they share many values with the Terrans.  Shann must undergo a vision quest/ordeal to win their trust, which also is where we get most of his background.

It’s worth noting that in the book, Shann Lantee’s ethnicity is ambiguous–his skin is darker than Thorvald’s even after the latter tans, and he has curly black hair–the cover goes for rather pale skin.

This is a solid action/survival story for teenage boys, with some dated attitudes.  Recommended for science fiction fans.  My copy is a remaindered library book, but you should be able to find an inexpensive reprint easily.

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday|The Trouble with Tycho

Book Review: Bring Back Yesterday | The Trouble with Tycho by A. Bertram Chandler and Clifford Simak, respectively.

This is another Ace Double, two short novels printed upside down from each other.  Very nostalgic.

Bring Back Yesterday

Bring Back Yesterday stars John Petersen, a merchant ship’s second mate.  Or he was, until he decided to have a night of drugs and sex with one of his former passengers in port.  The drugs were more potent than advertised, and he wound up missing his ship.  Apparently, there is a surplus of starship crewmembers, as the line promptly fires him under their one-strike rule, and he’s blacklisted from any other respectable starship company.

Which leaves Mr. Petersen stranded on Carinthea.  His options are few, as there’s no jobs for starship officers on the planet.  He can take a menial, minimum wage job, competing with the local unskilled workers; sign up with the Rim Worlds starship line on the lonely frontier and their deathtrap ships; or wait until a ship goes by heading to Earth so he can be deported back to that dying planet.  Carinthea has recently left the Federation, so that might be a while.

None of these sound appealing, but Mr. Petersen meets someone who knows a person who’s looking for someone just like him.  Steve Vynalek is a private eye who needs a field operative that knows how to operate in space.  Why?  It seems there’s a retired starship engineer who may have invented precognition and/or time travel, and he’s living on Wenceslaus, Carinthea’s moon, under a spy-ray-proof dome.  The government would very much like to know what’s going on, but their regular spies have been stymied by other circumstances.

It’s off to Wenceslaus then, and Mr. Petersen soon becomes aware that someone doesn’t want him to get there, as the shuttle is sabotaged.  His space training really comes in handy.  From there, it’s dodging death while trying to discover the truth.  But the truth may not set him free, but instead condemn him to eternal imprisonment….

This is in the line of hard-boiled detective stories; our hero does relatively little in the way of mental detection, and a lot in the way of engaging in life or death struggles, including against the deadly Post Office.   It’s also got more sex than was common for SF in 1961, in that it mentions sex at all–Mr. Petersen gets it on with two women, and is interrupted in the middle of a third tryst.  No gory details of that, though.

There are also a number of improbable coincidences, with an actual reason behind them.  The science fiction bits make a certain amount of sense in context, and the action scenes are exciting.  Most of the female characters are there to be sex objects for Mr. Petersen or secretaries, but we do have Liz, the hard-bitten proprietor of the Spaceman’s Hostel, who has a bit more personality and gumption.

It’s middling-good science fiction.

The Trouble with Tycho

The Trouble with Tycho takes place on Earth’s moon.  Chris Jackson is a prospector who’s not been doing very well, and is in danger of losing his stake.  When he runs across Amelia Thompson, a stranded traveler, he learns that she knows the location of valuable salvage.  Just one problem–that location is in Tycho Crater, which no one ever escapes alive.  Joined by a scientist who has his own reasons for entering Tycho, they start an expedition to certain doom.

This is more of a straight-up adventure story with survival elements.  The deadliness of Luna’s environment is played up, and that’s even before the mysterious dangers of Tycho are added in.  It turns out that the secret of Tycho is highly implausible, but Mr. Simak does his best to make it all fit together.

Amelia is depicted as being reasonably competent, but undercuts this by emphasizing that she learned her skills from her brother (who should be the one doing this, but got sick) and giving her a “schoolgirl” appearance.  And of course, Chris is far more competent.  This was a thing in stories of the Twentieth Century; a female character whose useful skills are due to being related to a man who either taught them to her, or allowed her to follow in his footsteps.

The suspense is good. though, as their resources dwindle and their escape options are cut off.

Overall, not the best work by either author, but a fun read if you happen across it.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Book Review: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress

Book Review: Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress by Gaylord Du Bois

World War Two is raging, and the Army needs pilots desperately.   Enter Barry Blake and his buddy Chick Enders, straight out of high school and patriotic volunteers.   They’re to receive their preliminary flight training at Randolph Field in San Antonio.   They are almost immediately make friends with good-natured fellow cadet Hap Newton, but are at odds with the vain and ill-natured Glenn Cardiff Crayle.  Crayle’s sabotage causes Chick to wash out of pilot training, but bombardier school is an acceptable fallback.

Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress
From the endpapers. Art by J.R. White

Barry is soon taught to fly the B-17 Flying Fortress, and assigned to the Sweet Rosie O’Grady, under Captain O’Grady, who named it after his wife.  Originally bound for India, the crew is diverted to the South Pacific, where they participate in a raid on the Japanese base at Rabaul.  After Captain O’Grady is severely injured, Barry takes over as pilot, being reunited with Hap as his co-pilot and Chick as bombardier.

The friends and their flight crew participate in many exciting adventures, repeatedly showing their bravery and combat prowess, until tapped for a special secret mission.  The mission goes off okay, but on the way back Crayle can’t stop himself from taunting our heroes one last time.  His vanity and cowardice get him and the crew stuck in a raft behind enemy lines–it’s up to Barry to shepherd them and a few civilians to safety in Australia!

This book was part of the Whitman Publishing Company’s “Fighters for Freedom” series of novels for young readers about wartime careers.  (Other books covered the WAAFs, WAVEs and Ferry Command.)   As you might expect, it’s pretty exciting stuff, depicting war as an adventure.  While the unit takes casualties, the blood and guts are downplayed, and our heroes get away with some very irregular activities.  I will mention that at one point when their slaughter of the enemy gets too easy, our heroes lose their stomach for further attacks that day.

Barry’s a fairly typical hero for this sort of book; ruggedly handsome, athletic, and valedictorian of his class.   Chick is the not quite as handsome, slightly shorter and hotter-tempered best buddy type.  The rest of the crew are fairly bland, the “white guys with different regional accents” that was considered a diverse cast back in the 1940s.  The Italian-American guy is treated by the story as the token minority.  Crayle, of course, is coded as small-town rich, the sort of fellow who’s used to being a big shot at home and not happy about being just another pilot here.

Barry meets a couple of attractive young women in the story, a nurse and a missionary’s daughter; both are treated as impressive in their own ways, and there’s a bit of romance that is cut short by the flow of the war.

The sticking point for many of today’s young readers will probably be the period racism.  It’s mostly directed against the Japanese, and mild by the standards of the time, but there are a couple of odd moments elsewhere.

The author wrote quite a bit of kids’ adventure books, but I remember him best for his work on Turok, a comic book about a Native American stranded in a valley of dinosaurs.

This book is a product of its time; parents may want to talk to younger readers about wartime racism and how it affects people’s attitudes.

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