You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Robots make great workers
I never care for books that claim to be as pertinent today as the day the day they were written, or to contain a story that could be ripped from today's headlines. Copies of The Penultimate Truth(1964) do not make those claims, but as we watch the various "Occupy" movements take place, I couldn't help but think that PKD's novel described a society badly in need of an Occupy Earth movement.

As is so often the case with PKD novels, there has been an atomic war. I think he places this one in the 1980's, and he still imagines such a conflict would involve Western democracies and Soviet controlled countries. As bombs drop, much of the fighting is carried on by "leadies," robots manufactured to be soldiers. With spreading radiation, millions of earthlings are moved underground into what are unflatteringly known as Ant Tanks. Now safe from the radiation and destruction, the tankers' sole function is to manufacture an unending supply of leadies for the war effort.

Severeraldecades pass, the war goes on, and tankers receive nightly news reports of just how bad the situation continues to be. There is just one catch. A treaty ended the war years ago. As radiation hot zones continue to decrease, the ruling elite that has remained topside has decided that life without hundreds of millions of the common sort is not so bad. Let them stay in their ant tanks, producing leadies that go not into the war effort but become the worker bees for that 1% that now live in lavish mansions on thousand acre demesnes. The only real work done by humans is the effort to maintain the illusion that life topside is hell and that the tankers are best off where they are. 

But the strains are beginning to show. Radiation has sterilized most of the human race, and the advertising men, government officials, and police agencies that rule the globe are paranoid, bored, and slipping into senility. Down below, tankers realize that certain things just don't add up. When the chief engineer of the Tom Mix Tank dies of pancreatic cancer, his tank colony is terrified that they will not be able to meet their leadie production quotas. The engineer is flash frozen and the president of the group is sent tunneling to the surface, despite all the dangers, in search of an artiforg pancreas that will save the day.

The Penultimate Truth is one of PKD's more tightly constructed and coherent narratives. There are plots and counterplots and mysteries; and the characters have coherent motivations. Perhaps readers will miss the wild ride of something like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch but coming after the grab bag of The Simulacra and the perverse incoherence of Lie's, Inc I found it a satisfying read.There is a lot of talk as characters explain the situation to one another, and tortuous internal monologues are not uncommon. But this keeps the novel to the 200 page sweet spot, and what action set pieces take place are well told. An assassination scene is one of PKD's most creepily effective episodes. You may want to toss any old portable TV sets you still have lying around after you read it.

One highlight of twisted thinking among the elite topsiders is that if the hoi polloi come streaming back to the surface, another war will be inevitable. Since when did commoners start wars? I think they are mistaking war for some serious ass kicking. If I remember my history correctly, wars are started by those very people who are currently running the PKD's future earth like a well-oiled but fatally flawed machine.

Friday, January 27, 2012


(Science fiction author Bruce Sterling wrote an article in 1987 that defined "Sliptream" as those novels that incorporated elements of genre fiction into literary fiction. In other words, novels that at the time gave a sense of what it felt like to live in the late twentieth century, and could be even more descriptive of daily life now in the 21st. INTO THE SLIPSTREAM will take a look at some of these novels.)

Let's imagine that at some point during the 1980's a group known as the Kirkpatrick Academy scoured the country, maybe the world, for the brightest young minds they could find. They then took them to the Academy, which to the ouside world does not appear to exist, and set them to work on whatever projects they found most interesting, And what if their plan for saving the earth involved eliminating 95% of the polulation, the only schism in the group being whether to do it sooner than later.

That's the underlying story of Blueprints of the Afterlife, a novel that takes place well after the FUS --the Era of Fucked Up Shit -- when a largely de-poplulated earth, helped by some truly amazing technology, does not seem to be doing so badly. The scars are there. There has been a devastating war against the newmen, anthropoids, possibly from China, who fight ruthlessly and long. But now they are humanity;s servants. Global warming is still a problem, and retirees in Phoenix have to vacuum seal their homes and head north for the winter. Most cities are decimated, victims of the Melaspina glacier that leaves its home in Alaska and goes on a self-guided tour across North America destroying most major polulation centers. A innovative building project is turning Bainbridge Island off the coast of Seatlte into a carefully reconstructed New York City.

Boudinot's novel is told in many voices. Scattered through the novel are taped, pre-FUS interviews with Luke Piper, a young man who has lived through a middle-class childhood, a late hippie phase, become a dotcom millionaire, and happens to be the best friend of one of the architects of the FUS. Skinner is an aging war veteran who provides accounts of just how bloodthirsty the war against the newmans really was. Abbie slips into the darker side of the new society. The bionet is a technology that can cure everything from the common cold to paralysis, But DJ's use the bionet to highjack personalities, controlling their every move until they get tired of them and put them on autopilot programs that may be either destructive or simply boring.

Boudinot keeps a lot of balls in the air over 400 pqges, and I am not sure if all the story lines reach real conclusions or if he intends for them to, What he can do is keep you entertained with episodes that range fro outrageously funny, to excruciating, to downright creepy. Residents of New York Alki, the name of the project on Bainbridge island, find themselves slipping into the personalities of the dead New Yorkers; whose apartments they take over. (Creepy.) The war veteran Skinner, when he has finally had enough, contacts the bionet and orders "Combat Ready!" Immediately his old head is on a G. I Joe torso. (Funny)

Not the current cover
I've read that this novel fits into the "Slipstream" category of books that employ genre conventions but are not genre books. So despite plot elements involving marauding glaciers, dj's hacking into personalites, mass cloning, and the vacuum-sealing of Phoenix, this is not a science fiction novel. Right. Perhaps its a question of the publisher, in this case Grove Blackcat, and the cover style they choose. Blueprints has a classy blueprint cover and does not show panicked crowds fleeing the glacier Melaspina. Perhaps a mass market edition will have that latter cover.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


(The sf website Worlds Without End is encouraging members to read and review a book by one of the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Masters each month for the year 2012. Participate or read other reviews here)

Count Alfred Korsybski
Science fiction writer A. E. van Vogt liked big ideas. In the 1950's he became head of fellow sf writer L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics Institute, the secular precursor to the Church of Scientology. When Hubbard's institute failed within a year, van Vogt and his wife formed their own institute and kept it going for the entire decade. 

Earlier, the big idea that captivated van Vogt was the Gerneral Semantics program of the Polish count Alfred Korzybski, a program defined in the count's 800 page self - published book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.(1933). This was a grand system intended to make people think more clearly, reach better decisions, and create a better world. Much of General Semantics seems like common sense, but the insistence on its "science" is shaky and always prompted as many detractors as followers. Van Vogt was enthusiastically among the latter. Martin Gardner is among those who dismiss the enterprise as "pseudo-science," but there is a still an Institute of General Semantics in Chicago. Of course there is also an International Center of Theosophy, and London is home to the Swedenborg Foundation. Sorry to sound dismissive but I am. 

True Believer van Vogt used Kozybski's ideas as the underlying philosophy of his breakthrough novel The World of Null A and two sequels, one of which has only been published in France. (Van Vogt, while not as popular as Jerry Lewis, is highly regarded in France.) The story originally appeared serialized in 1945 in Astounding Stories and was published, in hardback and to general acclaim, in 1948. Van Vogt revised the novel again and wrote a new introduction in 1980. 

"Null A" is shorthand for non-Aristotelian, and in his 1980 introduction van Vogt lays out how integral Korsybki's ideas are to the novel. I will have to take his word for it. The novel reads like a dated sf adventure story involving an intergalactic plot to take over the Sol System. Our hero, Gilbert Gosseyn has lost his identity but is somehow central to the saving the earth. Clunky prose does nothing to help the storytelling. In his introduction, van Vogt makes a statement that is either poorly phrased or breathtaking in its hubris: 

I cannot at the moment recall a novel written prior to Null-A that had a deeper meaning than that which showed on the surface. 

A. E. van Vogt earned Grand Master status from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1996, but his reputation has always had significant detractors. Damon Knight wrote a blistering evaluation of van Vogt in the 1950's that some say finished his career. Other writers, like Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick, write about how significant van Vogt was to the own, early immersion in science fiction. Perhaps today van Vogt is of "historical interest only," but I will not make so sweeping a judgment based on this one book. I am certain he earned his Grand Master status, but I am not tempted to delve deeper into his work. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Times are tough for the enterprising young people of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. They haven't had a client in weeks and the local government has cancelled the annual sweep of the forest for the bodies of suicides and murder victims. The KCDS has been reduced to advertising as a general disposal service.

Fortunately, the first call comes from an area prison, where, due to some sloppy handling, the guards have left the corpse of a recently hanged murderer in with the daily garbage. The corpse, of course, has a story to tell.

Volume One of the series was episodic, but this time out you get a book-length adventure that involves the families of the protagonists, a very shady funeral home, a little girl who can bring the dead back to life, and some over-the-top gore. A good time will be had by all.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


After an installment that consisted mostly of one long, cinematic fight sequence, Iwaaki gets back to the plot. In-fighting among the parasytes, plots against family members and humans in the know. Of any of the manga I have read or am currently reading, this series is the only one that has me genuinely hooked on a story, not just its weirdness or wildness.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Over the past year I have read I think 15 PKD novels in more or less chronological order. I have read some good ones, some bad ones, some sloppy ones, and a couple of brilliant ones. Lies, Inc, is the first I have read that pissed me off. A certain level of incoherency comes with the PKD territory, and keeping up with what he is thinking and typing furiously onto the page is part of the fun. But this time out, he creates an irritating mess.

Cool Cover from 1966
This novel had a chaotic publication history, and it's problems stem from editors' determination, early on with Dick's approval, to make it into a book. In 1963 or 1964, PKD wrote, along with about a dozen other novels, The Unteleported Man, intended for Fantastic Stories or some other Ace Publsihing outlet. (All this information comes from the afterward to the current edition of Lies, Inc., published by Vintage.) With the short novel already in hand, Donald Wolheim, publisher of Ace Books, received what he thought was a really cool cover painting and asked PKD to expand his novelette into book form so the cover might be used. PKD doubled the length of the novelette, but Wolheim, reportedly, was not pleased with Part Two.  (If his reaction was indeed that mild, publishing, in the 1960's, remained a "gentleman's profession.) Part One appeared in 1966 as part of an Ace Double. In 1979, now working with Berkeley Publishing, PKD had the idea of issuing the complete novel, although what he found of Part Two was missing around a dozen pages of text. PKD wrote a new opening, filled in most  but not all of the gaps, and decided that Part Two, rather than succeeding Part One, should appear about halfway into Chapter 8 and end somewhere in Chapter 15. The book, retitled Lies, Inc.,  winds up in another 25 pages. It was not published until 1983, sixteen months of PKD's death and melodramatically labeled "uncensored."

All of the above is more interesting than anything else about the book. I will not pretend to summarize the plot, but Part Two has the main character appearing on another planet under the false identity that had been assigned to a different character. He is immediately injected with LSD, and PKD wallows in a hyperbolic description of the LSD experience for almost fifty pages. Somebody, more dedicated than myself, might dig up a copy of the short Unteleported Man and see if it makes sense. But Lies, Inc., spins so seriously out of control that I cannot even recommend it for PKD Completists. It is only for PKD Masochists.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


I am afraid this series jumped the shark some volumes back. This time round it's more clouds of toxic gas, more fights to the death between 10 year olds, more of what's becoming mundane for our long-suffering heros. There is one shocker after they reach Paradise, which turns out to be an old amusement park, but even it I had been predicting since the first volume. 

I thought Volume 10 finished the story, but no, there is more. One more volume that is going to have to be pretty spectacular to not to be an anti-climax.