Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

Open Thread: Minicon 51 Report

For those of you new to this blog, Minicon is the Easter weekend science fiction convention put on by MN-StF every year.  I’ve been going to it for somewhere around three decades now, and this year was no exception.  Once again it was at the RadiShTree (Bloomington Doubletree) hotel, and I was able to secure a room in the hotel, which was ready when I checked in!

Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.
Art copyright 2016 by Sara Burrier.

I wandered around the Art Show/Dealers’ Room/Science Exhibit for a while, then visited the Consuite for a late lunch.  One of the nicest things about long-running conventions is meeting and talking to your friends you only see there–I did quite a lot of that this last weekend, as some of these folks I’ve had at least a nodding acquaintance with since the mid-Eighties.

I went to the Cinema Obscura to watch a short film titled Yesterday Was a Lie which is black and white, and involves time becoming unstuck for a detective.  Problems with the sound system made the first ten minutes seem even more “noir” than was intended, but being able to hear the words thereafter didn’t help much in unraveling what was actually going on.

Then I attended the panel “It’s Tough to Be an Introvert These Days” which had all three Guests of Honor: Seanan McGuire (writer), Lojo Russo (musician) and Sara Burrier (artist) and a couple of other people talking about how they balance their social media presence with their creative and personal lives.

After that was Opening Ceremonies, which were very short this year as the new MC was no-nonsense.  Dave Romm retired from the job after thirty years!

I went up to my room for a couple of hours to rest, then came down for the first panel I was on, “How to Survive a Horror Movie.”  As Seanan McGuire writes horror (among other things) she was also on this panel.  She got a corn-based trophy from some fans, referencing something I’m not familiar with.  We had a lot of fun, and I got to use my “don’t be a security guard” line.

After that, I dropped in on a couple of parties.  Dave Romm also retired from his day job, it seems, and has been spending time traveling with his mother, who was also there–the party was mostly so she could meet people.  Also got a review copy of a book you’ll be hearing more about once I’ve finished with it.

Next morning, I enjoyed the consuite breakfast–big thank you to the dedicated people that make that possible every year!  Then it was off to the spendy room again–unfortunately the one thing in the Art Show I’d wanted had been outbid.  My niece will be getting a different birthday present.  I noticed a headache coming on, but ignored it at that point so I could go to the Seanan McGuire interview.

She mentioned some things about the October Daye series that increased my desire to read it considerably.  Also a fun story about her visit to Tam Lin’s Well.  Afterwards, Ms. McGuire did a signing, and I got my copy of Indexing signed.  (More on that book in its review.)

By that time, my headache had spiked, and my need to obtain aspirin distracted me, so I was just barely in time for my first panel of the day, “Being a Fan of Problematic Things.”  I was the moderator, so I really had to be there.  Much thanks to my panelists Aimee Kuzinski and Katie Clapham for being willing to do most of the talking!  We covered a lot of ground, from “what does ‘problematic’ actually mean?” through “how to react when you find out something you like is problematic to other people” to “how do we teach our children about problematic elements in their fiction?”

My headache was mostly gone by the next panel, “Psy Phi” (psionic powers in comics) which I again shared with Seanan McGuire, who brought badge ribbons to vote for Jean Gray or Emma Frost as “best X-psychic.”  We talked about psi powers in science fiction and how the use of them evolved, a bit about developing the ethics of telepathy, and how comics tended to give psychic powers to women, the disabled and the “othered.”

A lot of the audience was the same for the next panel I was on, “Being an X-Men Means Never Having to Attend a Serious Funeral”, which was about revolving-door deaths in comics.  Mind, that’s mostly a thing with Marvel and DC–smaller companies and single-creator comics can permanently kill characters and not really hurt their bottom line.  The death of a character (and subsequent return) can be done well, but too often it’s subject to lazy writing.

Did other things for a while, then the headache came back, so I took more aspirin and laid down (I love having a room at the hotel!) for a while before my last panel, “50th Anniversary of Star Trek”  (The pilot was filmed in 1964, but the show didn’t hit the air until 1966.)  Unfortunately, the scheduled panelist who had worked with Gene Roddenberry back in the day took ill, but we managed to find a knowledgeable substitute.  Indeed, all the other panelists were way more informed about Star Trek than I am, so I fell back on the moderator’s privilege of asking questions and letting everyone else talk.

Apparently the JJ Abrams reboot is attracting new fans who can still get into the better old stuff.  (I was happy to see a few people in the audience who were actually younger than Star Trek itself.)

I quickly visited a few more parties, had more conversations, got a root beer float at the Consuite, then went up to my room to watch some dubbed anime on Cartoon Network before turning in.

Woke up late, breakfast in the Consuite again, then packed for the journey home.  (Checkout time is noon, and I am not made of money.)  Made a last sweep through the booksellers, then it was off to “The Year in SF”.  Lots of good stuff last year, the one noticeable trend was more “climate disaster” novels.

Then it was time for the “Mega Moneyduck Reveal.”  “Moneyduck” is kind of like a pen and paper version of “Telephone”–you start with a word or phrase, the next person draws a picture of it, the next next person writes a description of the picture, etc.  This particular game had been played on a long roll of paper all weekend.  The starting phrase was “Shall we play this again next year?” and the mutations took us through sentient alcohol, suicidal teddy bears, and alien preachers to “Batman and Robin caught the Hot Dog Bandit.”  Very silly.

Closing ceremonies were fun, and the assassination of the outgoing MN-StF President was accomplished by informing him that he’d been chosen as Trump’s running mate, bringing on a heart attack.

The bus ride back to Minneapolis was not so much fun–the sky had clouded over and the wind picked up, the local bus took forever to arrive, and the connecting bus drove away just as the local pulled up, requiring another half hour wait in the cold.

Back to work tomorrow!

 

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron

Book Review: Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad

What’s bugging Jack Barron?  Jack used to be a young radical, waving signs and helping form the Social Justice Coalition.  But the SJC became a legitimate political party, and Jack wasn’t really interested in playing politics.  Plus, he’d gotten on television a lot, and the cameras and audiences loved him.  Soon, Jack was offered his own call-in show, and it took off.  The wife who kept him honest left, but his star was on the rise.

Bug Jack Barron

Now he’s the star of Bug Jack Barron, on every Wednesday night.  You call in on your vidphone and tell Jack what’s bugging you, and if he finds your problem interesting, Jack will go on to call important people and bug them about the issue.  And you’d better believe that VIPs are sitting by their own vidphones, because if you’re “not home” to Jack Barron, he will skewer you in front of one hundred million viewers.

Of course it’s all a cop-out.  Sure, Jack Barron is for the little guy…as long as it doesn’t involve any of Jack’s own skin.  And he’ll stick it to the Very Important People, but only to a point, just enough pain to make them sweat, but not enough to make them retaliate.  After all, Jack likes making $400,000 a year, and having a penthouse apartment with the latest electronic gadgets, and free smokes from his sponsor, Acapulco Gold.  And let’s not forget that TV stardom makes you a chick magnet!   No, Jack knows better than to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

Tonight’s show seems standard at first.  Seems there’s a company called the Foundation for Human Immortality, owned by a fellow named Benedict Howards, a powerful billionaire.  The Foundation will cryogenically freeze people to be revived whenever a cure is found for what killed them.  But the process is expensive, you have to have $500,000 in liquid assets for the Foundation to use.  Tonight’s caller tried to get a Freezer spot but was turned down, and he thinks it might be because he’s black.

Jack spots the logic hole right away (the man has $500K in his business, yes, but that’s not a liquid asset.) but decides to roll with it.  He calls Benedict Howards–but Mr. Howards is “not home” to Mr. Barron (for good reason, we learn later) so Mr. Barron decides to turn up the heat on the Foundation a bit.  After humiliating the Foundation’s PR person, Jack calls up his old SJC friend, Lukas Greene, now governor of Mississippi.  Governor Greene explains that the problem here isn’t direct racism, but systemic racism; for historical reasons, there just aren’t that many African-Americans with half a million in cash and negotiable bonds.  That’s why the SJC platform is to nationalize the Freezers so that all Americans have a chance to be revived in the future.

To round out the show and cool things down a bit, Jack calls Senator Hennering, who is sponsoring a Freezer Bill that will give the Foundation a permanent monopoly on their cryogenic process.  The Senator’s a professional politician and an experienced bloviator, so he should be able to provide some calming words.  Except that for some reason, the senator is off-script, and reacting to the call like he’s actually guilty of something.  Odd, but Jack is as gentle as is consistent with his acerbic television persona.

The next day Benedict Howards himself is in Jack Barron’s office, offering Jack a free cryogenic berth if he’ll help put the Freezer Bill through.  Jack still doesn’t know what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure he’s wading into crocodile-infested swamp water, and it’s getting deeper by the moment.  He’s going to have to use all his smarts, and see if he still has a last shred of integrity deep down, and that really bugs Jack Barron!

This 1969 novel was considered the story that put Norman Spinrad on the map.  It’s one of the classics of the New Wave movement in science fiction, when newer SF authors decided to use more experimental literary techniques and use edgier subject matter.  In this case, Mr. Spinrad uses a free association stream of consciousness style of narration to fill us in on the thoughts of the characters randomly sparked by their main concerns.  It takes quite a bit of getting used to.  There was, supposedly, a lot of drug use by New Wave authors–this one reads less like it was made on marijuana than amphetamines.

There’s also a lot of foul language, including racial and ethnic slurs (“shade” is now the slang word for pale-skinned people.)  The sex scenes are pornographic in the “experimental literature” sense, but they’re important for exploring Jack’s state of mind, so you can’t just skip over them.  Racism is an important theme of the book, while the sexism seems to be more of the author’s blind spots.

Most of the action is a match of wills and wits between Jack Barron and Benedict Howards (who is clearly meant to evoke both treacherous Benedict Arnold and nutty millionaire Howard Hughes.)  The one violent on-stage confrontation is one that Jack’s completely unprepared for and survives only by luck.  Jack is an anti-hero, handsome, clever and witty, but having sold out to the Man long ago, and willing to use media manipulation to get his way.  Howards is worse, having such a fear of death that it’s become a full-blown thanatophobia, and he’s willing to do anything to avoid dying.  Ever.

Jack’s ex-wife Sara mostly exists to tell us how awesome Jack is, and urge him to return to the superior levels of awesome he had before he copped out.

Because of the rough language, sex scenes and a suicide, I wouldn’t recommend this to readers below senior high school, and it would probably be best saved for college age.

It’s interesting from a historical viewpoint as well, predicting a 1980s that is very different from the one we knew.  Apparently, at the same time the Coalition for Social Justice became an actual political party, Nixon imploded so badly in his first term that Republicans became poison at the national level.  So the CSJ has become the left-wing party, the Republicans have shifted heavily to the right and are composed of corporatists and the former Dixiecrats (no Religious Right here), and the Democrats have grabbed the large middle ground.  Ronald Reagan is mentioned several times as an example of a politician who is more image than substance, but never became president in this timeline.  One of the major Democrats is referred to as “Teddy the Pretender” and is presumably Edward Kennedy.

Mississippi has suffered massive “white flight” and its new black governor is barely holding on with a crippled economy.  AT&T (not broken up in this world) has produced black & white vidphones, and a “miniphone” (basically a cellphone that works anywhere in the AT&T network) is the latest gizmo.  Marijuana is legal in 38 states, Bob Dylan is dead, and low-level single payer healthcare is the law of the land.  Oh, and there’s a mission on its way to Mars, but it’s not relevant to anything.

There’s an afterword by Michael Moorcock, who ran this novel in the magazine New Worlds, which is why this edition uses British spelling.  He talks about the reaction at the time, including the story being denounced in Parliament.

Overall, a book with a lot of interesting ideas, some pertinence to the current day state of the media, some dated attitudes and a lot of uncomfortable content.   Recommended for those who want to experience New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Analog 1.

Book Review: Analog 1 edited by John W. Campbell

Astounding Science Fiction was one of the most influential science fiction magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s.   But long-time editor John W. Campbell had felt for years that the title did not reflect the more mature, “hard” science fiction he preferred to run.  So in 1960, he finally got permission to transition the magazine over a period of months to Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Analog 1

This volume is a collection of stories from that first year of Analog and as such is a time capsule of the science fiction genre at that moment.  The opening editorial is perhaps a little hubristic, claiming that “mainstream literature” is just a subset of science fiction.  Mr. Campbell touts the fun of science fiction being the way it allows the mind to stretch and struggle with new concepts.  Then we begin the eight feature stories.

“Monument” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. concerns a planet that is a tropical paradise, inhabited by primitive, peaceful humanoids.   A lone spaceman stumbles on the place, and lives out his life in peace…until near his death, he realizes that inevitably more humans will come, and given the history of tropical paradises on Earth, this will result in disaster for the natives.  He comes up with a plan.   Some time later, galactic civilization indeed comes calling.  All unfolds as O’Brien had foreseen–greedy developers, broken treaties, military men with their hands tied by regulations.  The people of Langri have the Plan, but will it come off in time?

This is the longest piece in the volume, being a full-fledged novella.   The critique of colonialism is pointed enough to sting a bit.   The greedy capitalist who doesn’t really hate the natives, but doesn’t understand that their interests should come ahead of his own, and so does them dirt, is the major villain of the piece.  He’ll be quite willing to employ the locals as maids and laborers in the hotels he’s building, once they’re properly put in their place.   He’s blind to the way he’s being outmaneuvered, and even the sympathetic military men don’t quite grok what the natives are really up to.

“The Plague” by Teddy Keller is set in the then present day.  The obscure Pentagon office of Protection from Germ Warfare had the previous officer retire a few weeks ago, and his replacement is tied up in red tape somewhere.  So when a plague breaks out, Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud and Corporal Bettijean Baker are the spearhead of the effort to stop it, despite the military brass trying to interfere.  A general is running interference, but if they don’t figure out why this illness has such a weird pattern of attack quickly, some new officer will be found to start all over.

The vector of spread is a clever one, and I have seen it in at least one other short story.  Younger readers might not catch on until it is spelled out for them, as customs and technology have changed since 1960.   There’s a whiff of the period’s sexism in regards to how grown women in the military are referred to as “girls.”

“Remember the Alamo!” by T.R. Fehrenbach is a time travel tale.  A scholar has gone back to observe the Battle of the Alamo, infiltrating the small garrison to get the full details.  Mr. Ord doesn’t quite grasp that the differences piling up between the history he knows and the events he is experiencing aren’t just trivialities he can dismiss.  The end result is telegraphed because we see the thoughts of those around Ord, and what they’re not telling him, since he should already know it.

“The Hunch” by Christopher Anvil features scout ship pilot James Connely, who is informed that two scout ships have vanished in a certain sector, despite having the latest equipment.  So his ship is being refitted with even newer equipment.  Equipment he has no chance to test before being launched into that same sector. As it happens, his hunch that one of these devices is actually responsible for the disappearance of the other ships is correct.  But which one of these newfangled gadgets is it?  This story is heavy on the sarcastic humor.

“Barnacle Bull” by Winston P. Sanders is a rarity, in that the protagonists are a Norwegian space crew in the “near future” flying the Hellik Olav in an attempt to find a safe way through the asteroid belt.  They discover why none of the other ships ever reported back.  Space barnacles.  This is one of those stories where the problem is in fact its own solution, looked at a different way.

“Join Our Gang?” by Sterling E Lanier concerns a galactic civilization attempting to convince a newly discovered planet to join them.  Sadly, the aliens are refusing, so it is time to apply pressure.  Turns out that invasive species are an Earth specialty.  Not exactly a happy ending to this one, more of a “that’s just the way it goes.”

“Sleight of Wit” by Gordon R. Dickson stars another scout, Hank Shallo lands on the same planet, in almost the spot as, the first alien scout humanity has ever met.  The alien’s ship is heavily armed, while Hank’s has no conventional weaponry.  But as he warns the alien, Hank is in possession of the universe’s most deadly weapon, one that cannot be detected or stopped.  Or is he bluffing?  Does the alien dare find out for sure?

“Prologue to an Analogue” by Leigh Richmond is the sole non-“hard” SF story in the volume.  We’re back in the present day, as an advertising campaign featuring “witches” proves successful in unexpected ways.  For younger readers, I should mention that many television programs used to be wholly owned by a particular advertiser, so a cleaning product company hosting its own nightly newscast wouldn’t have been considered unusual.   The story is also tied heavily to the politics of 1960, with tensions between the USA, the Soviet Union and Red China important to the way the plot unfolds.  The actual mechanism of the events is never explained.  Psionics?  The will of God?  Actual witches?  Who knows?  A rather frustrating tale, as intended.

These aren’t all-time classic stories, a couple are very dated, but are pretty good representatives of the magazine’s content.  It’s been reprinted a few times, and some of the other covers are better–check your local library or used book store.

 

 

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In 1937, the dying genius Mark Humberstone bequeaths his marvelous inventions to a Council of Seven to be used in the service of peace.  Shortly thereafter, the United States grants independence to the Philippines.  When the Japanese attempt to invade the newly freed islands, their entire fleet is rendered inert.

The Dumb Gods Speak

The story proper picks up on April 14, 1947, in Nice, France.  This is the headquarters of the mysterious International Bureau, an espionage organization run by Mark Humberstone, Jr. and a man named Cheng.  Much rumor swirls around the agency, and the person who calls himself Mr. Jonson has come to join it.  Little does anyone outside the agency realize that it is on the cusp of a great coup–the end of war!

This 1936 novel was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific author who mostly wrote spy thrillers and is considered one of the founders of the subgenre.   This one goes beyond techno-thriller and into downright science fiction territory.  The International Bureau uses advanced television (roughly equivalent to satellite TV without the need for satellites) and EMP weaponry; there’s also what appears to be some sort of force field, but that’s only seen as a parlor trick.

The political situation has stayed stagnant (presumably at least in part due to the actions of the Bureau); World War Two never broke out,  but Germany is spoiling for a fight (no mention of the Nazis.)  About the only major change is that Japan has had to set aside its invasion of the mainland due to its naval disaster, allowing China to catch its breath.

The Bureau’s plan is to turn China and Russia into constitutional monarchies, thus making them strong and stable factors for peace.  (Oppenheim was British.)  With that, and the demonstration of the full power of the Humberstone devices, war will be impossible.  Mr. Oppenheim was clearly not familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare.  He also believed and put into the mouth of a character that without religion as a motivating force, the Russian army would have zero morale and fall easily.  (World War Two disproved that; their leaders might have been bad, their supplies inferior, but the Soviet soldier’s will to fight against invaders is unquestionable.)

Period racism and sexism is on display; Prince Cheng’s plan nearly crashes and burns because he failed to take into account that a woman might not want to marry a man she doesn’t love just because he told her to.  There’s also some not so subtle anti-Semitism.  (One of the villains is mentioned as being obviously Jewish, and there are no other Jewish people in the book.)

Quite a bit of space is devoted to telling us how luxurious the main characters’ lives are, what they eat, the fine wines they drink (they also smoke) and the fancy clothes they wear.  Mr. Oppenheim’s books were very much a predecessor to James Bond in these matters.

Humberstone, Cheng and their respective love interests (everyone is kind of surprised to learn that Cheng actually loves the woman he’s marrying) are kind of smug and omnicompetent, except for that one major bump I mentioned earlier.  More interesting are Mr. Jonson, who is also an omnicompetent as bodyguard/hitman/stage magician, but his loyalties are unclear for most of the story; and Suzanne, a femme fatale who works for the Bureau, who is very fallible and relatively sympathetically portrayed.  (I should mention there are lines in gratuitous French scattered throughout the book without translation, most are easy to figure out from context.)

The actual villains of the story are mostly notable for being completely ineffectual.  Mr. Jonson or the Bureau have been several steps ahead of them all along.

The title is explained near the end, when Cheng explains that the gods of China, long silent, seem to speak to him (and possibly through him) to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered country.

Content warning:  There are a couple of suicides.

There’s some good writing, but Mr. Oppenheim is trying for more utopian wish-fulfillment than serious thinking about the future; I think you would be better served by seeking out his straight-up spy fiction.

Comic Book Review: El Deafo

Comic Book Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes in the final product (notably, the proof is in black and white, while the real thing will be in color.  Also, the cover will be much less cluttered with endorsements.)

El Deafo

Cece Bell developed profound hearing loss due to an illness when she was four.   This children’s graphic novel is a memoir of her life from then until fifth grade.  Most of the story is about Cece learning to cope with her hearing loss and the rather obvious hearing aids she was given to mitigate the loss.  In particular, her adventures with the “Phonic Ear”, a powerful chest-mounted unit that came with a microphone for her teacher to use.

The title comes about when young Cece realizes that when her teachers don’t take the microphone off, she can hear them speak and what’s going on around them no matter where in the school they are.  It’s like a superpower!  So Cece imagines herself as the superhero El Deafo.

There is also a theme of learning about friendship.  Cece makes several friends over the years, but there are difficulties with each one–sometimes it’s negative qualities of the friend, sometimes it’s Cece’s own self-consciousness and suspicion that causes problems.

The book is written for elementary school children, but has information that will be helpful for parents and other adult relatives, who should immediately turn to the back and read the author’s note.  Parents are likely to get many cultural references that might escape children–Cece grew up in a time before television had closed captioning.

There’s some body function humor of the type grade school kids tend to love but many parents are distressed by, and one of Cece’s moments of bonding with her classmates may not sit well with adults who think that disobedience should be forbidden.

For whatever reason, everyone is drawn with “bunny” features, which does allow the hearing aids to be obvious.  Cece’s deafness is depicted with empty word balloons, or nonsense words when she can hear some but not clearly enough to understand.

The obvious audience for this book is children with hearing loss and their families, but it will be of interest to any family whose children might encounter someone with hearing loss in their school or activities.  And many children will be able to identify with Cece when her “specialness” doesn’t seem positive at all.

Update:  In 2015, this book was a Newbery Honor selection, which means that it was a close runner-up for the prestigious Newbery Medal for children’s literature.  Congratulations, El Deafo!

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Movie Review: Spider Forest (2004)

Kang Min (Kam Woo-Sung), a line producer for a schlocky “true paranormal” television show, finds himself in a dark forest, headed for an isolated house.  Inside, he finds blood and destruction.  He sees the repeatedly stabbed body of his boss, and then finds his lover Hwang Su-yeong (Kang Kyeong-hyeon) dying and babbling about spiders.  At this point, he detects another presence in the house, presumably the killer.

A misleading scene from "Spider Forest"
A misleading scene from “Spider Forest”

Kang Min gives chase, only to be stunned with a blow to the head.  Dazed, Kang Min finds his way into a nearby highway tunnel, where he glimpses the presumed murderer again.  Before he can act on this, Kang Min is hit by an SUV.  He awakens fourteen days later in the hospital.

His acquaintance Choi, a police officer, is called in, and when Kang Min tells him about the murders, Choi is assigned to investigate.  Kang Min reveals the events that led up to that night in the woods in fragments of memory, dream and possibly hallucination.  Some of what he remembers may not be true.

This is a low-budget psychological thriller from Korea, meant to cash in on the wave of films such as Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.  As such, it’s sporadically violent and frequently bloody.  There’s also several sex scenes, and the film got an “R” rating in the United States.  It’s also mostly shot in dark and dimly-lit locations, with characters whispering their lines (thank goodness for subtitles!)

The story of the film is deliberately confusing, according to director Song Il-gong.  He started by writing a linear script that fully explained what was going on in a way that made logical sense, then cut out as much of it as possible and still have a narrative.   (There are a few deleted scenes on the DVD that fill in some of the gaps, but don’t really explain more of what’s really going on.)

Due to the darkness, whispered dialogue and jigsaw puzzle plot, this is not a movie I recommend for late night viewing.  It’s best when you’re fully alert and able to give it some concentration.  I do not recommend the film for anyone who hates jigsaw puzzle plots or mind screws.

Book Review: Pitch Perfect

Book Review: Pitch Perfect: How to Say It Right the First Time, Every Time by Bill McGowan and Alisa Bowman

Disclaimer:  I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes in the final product.

Pitch Perfect

Mr. McGowan begins the book with a story about how he learned an important lesson about communications skills by being punched in the face.  Because if the person he was talking to had learned some of the skills taught in this book, they’d have had a better response than punching a reporter in the face on camera.  No matter how obnoxious the reporter is.

In his work as a television reporter and producer for such shows as A Current Affair and CBS News, Mr. McGowan learned many valuable lessons about speech and nonverbal communication, which then served him well as a communication coach to celebrities, corporate managers and other people who needed a hand up.

This book covers most of the information he tells his clients, from preparing for speaking ahead of time, to making sure your most important material (and only your most important material) is front and center, to the best way to stand and place your hands during a speech.  It doesn’t include the specific personal coaching he gets the big money for, but offers tips on how to spot your weaknesses yourself and overcome them.

Throughout, the writers tell stories from Mr. McGowan’s career, and from the media presentations of famous people, that illustrate the points.   There are some illustrations in the section on body language and facial expressions (you can train to show the interest you actually feel, rather than a blank stare.)

I found the book well-organized and easy to read, with many helpful tips.  It should be useful for a wide variety of people from job-seekers like myself to the person who’s suddenly called upon to say a few words at a wedding.  There is a glossary, but no index was in the proof copy–it may be added for the published version.

I know that I have seen many examples in my own life of people who could use a bit more help with their verbal communication skills, and hope that some of them will find this volume.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...