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, April 29, 2012

The Grand Masters of Science Fiction: Harry Harrison

I have not chosen well when it comes to my reading of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction. I have searched out early honorees by whom I had previously neither read nor been inclined to read anything. BIg surprise. I haven't much liked anything I've come across. Some of it I have admired and found historically interesting, but nothing have I been crazy about,

And now I've done it again with Harry Harrison. Years of working with used books made me familiar with Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series, novels that i knew instinctively I would not find funny. I still have that instinct without ever having so much as opened one of the books, but I think such complete lack of contact with the material gives my opinion a certain purity. Then there was Make Room Make Room, a novel I never read since Charlton Heston had already told me, "Soylent Green is people!"

The Deathworld Trilogy was new to me when I looked into Harrison again. The idea is hard to beat. Here is a planet where every animal, plant. and microbe is out to destroy human life and the gravity is twice that of earth. Humans live there only because mining operations create such enormous wealth that the high mortality rate seems worth it. The novel opens with planet-hopping professional gambler Jason dinAlt receiving an offer he can't refuse. Kerk, resident of Pyrrus aka Deathworld, want dinAlt to turn a 27 million credit bankroll into three billion credits in one night of gambling. He can keep anything over the three billion. Pyrrus needs ships and weapons.

The opening chapters of Deathworld are full of tough talk and action and are really a lot of fun. dinAlt wins the money, the cassino owners want him dead, and he wants to escape with Kerk to get a look at Pyrrus for himself. Why is never really that clear.

Once the action moves to Pyrrus, things slow down. What should be some pretty funny stuff about dinAlt taking survival classes with ten-year-olds before he is allowed outside never realize their comic potential. And dinAlt, for all his wild past and swashbuckling ways, transforms into a one man NGO on Pyrrus, determined to crack the mystery of why everything on the planet is so darn mean. He does so through a series of encounters that are not particularly exciting and completely lacking the comedy of the novel's opening scenes. 

I confess I started the second novel in the trilogy but couldn't face it. It promised to be more of the same.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


I hate it when this happens. I try out a brand new hallucinogenic drug only to find out that it is addictive after a single use. Then, while suffering withdrawals, I'm offered help only if I agree to spy on my estranged husband who is now special physician to the ailing Sec. Gen of the United Nations Gino Molinari. I take more of the drug to get me through the trip to the White House in Cheyenne, Wyoming, only to find that the drug messes not only with my sense of time but with time itself. I'm  stuck in a cow pasture in a auto-cab in the year 1935. The cab cannot make it to Cheyenne without refueling, and so we have to wait for the effects of the drug to wear off so we will be returned to the mid 21st century where the super-refined protonex that fuels the cab will once again be available. 

Actually that has never happened to me. But it happens to Kathy Sweetscent in Now Wait for Last Year, and true to the spirit of PKD novels this wild scene is barely a sidebar to what -- or whatever -- the book is about. Kathy will make it to Cheyenne, where the time-traveling aspects of the drug JJ-180 will mess with her life and that of her long-suffering, at least in his own mind, husband, Dr. Eric Sweetscent. He has an obese, hypochondriac despot to keep alive while earth is embroiled in a losing war between 'Starmen and reegs. Earth has teamed with the 'Starmen because they are humanoid. The reegs are six-foot tall bugs who must communicate through boxes that resemble training potties. But they are also winning the war. And 'Starmen are infiltrating earth, and Molinari, known affectionately as The Mole, may actually be at death's doorstep, or he might be yet another of the simulacra he has had made of himself, one of which is his young, vibrant leader self while another is a bullet-riddled corpse lying in a glass coffin. 

Molinari is both a buffoon and shrewd politico. His constantly failing body may only be a ruse to get out of awkward meetings with the overbearing Frenesky, leader of the 'Starmen. I pictured him as a character actor whose name I cannot remember, but PKD  thought of him as a combination of Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and Mussolini. (That was an personality triad PKD attributed to several of his favorite characters.)

The plot starts running out of steam towards the end, but there are classic PKD moments of paranoia, intrigue, and absurdity. Now Wait for Last Year has made it into the three volume set of PKD novels distributed by the Library of America, so its reputation must be pretty good. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Mysterious Reiko Tamura
I am still not convinced that this series should not have ended with Volume 8. There were loose ends, which I figured were better than whatever resolution could be cooked up to tie them together. And I thought Migi, the parasyte living in Shin's right hand, had died. It was sad. But some part of him seems to have survived in Shin, although in a weakened condition. He sleeps through more and more of the action.

This new installment returns to the mysterious Reiko Tamura, the parasyte with an interest in how human and parasyte might learn to coexist. Much of which boils down to whether or not parasytes can control their taste for human flesh. Several installments ago, Reiko stole a human baby -- I think it belonged to the human she possessed. It is now her bargaining chip with Shin and the detective that are on to her. This episode ends up with most of the main characters meeting up in a park where the requisite amount of blodshed and weird body transformations ensue. 

Starting with Vol 9, the copies I am getting from the library come from Tokyo Pop. They have westernized the layouts, which causes some awkwardness with Migi's name. Migi is Japanese for "righty," since he lives in Shin's right hand. Now with the panel reversed, he lives in Sihn's left hand and goes by the name "lefty."

The question left hanging at the end of Vol 9 is, is Shin ready to be a single parent. He still has to finish high school and fight parasytes.

Parasyte like to have fun

Parasytes play rough

Wednesday, April 11, 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.)

I know this will be difficult, but try to imagine a world where millions of common, everyday people live their lives vicariously by following the fashion trends, the sex lives, and the day-by-day doings of a select group of super glamorous, super wealthy people.

Wait a minute! That's our world. But do not despair, the world Jon Armstrong creates in his debut novel takes all our fascination with celebrity and wealth and cranks it up several notches. (TMZ would seem as sober as C-SPAN in this world.) We are in an unspecified future with society divided between members of the elite, ruled over by families whose aristocratic status is determined by their corporate holdings and the amount of publicity they can generate, and then, down below, well, everybody else. The slubbers. Those who live in the slubs -- the vast wastelands of housing developments and thrown-together shacks visible some twenty feet below the highways were the families travel in luxury conveyances at jet propelled speeds. (Slubs is my favorite neologism of recent science fiction.)

Enter Michael and Nora, dream couple. Michael, once famous as a teenage dancer on programs watched by millions, is scion of the River Group. Nora family is older, possibly more distinguished, but not so loaded. The slubs and really everyone else in the world seem to watch the couple's every move. As the novel opens they are returning from a highly formalized date that took them around the Pacific Rim. Michael and Nora, however, are also rebels of a kind. In a world where you are defined by what fashion magazines you read, Micheel and Nora are dedicated followers of Pure H, a magazine of excruciatingly subtle layouts complemented by enigmatic statements. Devotees of Pure H reject the gaudy flamboyance of the world around them and wear only shades of gray, brown, and a few carefully chosen color accent pieces. It sounds like that want to live in a Calvin Klein shop from the 1980's, but they do go to extreme. Each has chosen to burn out the rods in one eye so that by closing the other they see the world only in shades of gray.

In a way you can't fault Michael and Nora for their revolt into tastefulness. Michael's father epitomizes the vulgarity of this society. His fashion crimes go far beyond mixing stripes and checks. He is always in what would be some ridiculous costume were it not accepted as high fashion by those around him. His mouth is a fountain of enthusiastic obscenities that would give Judd Apatow pause. He has a cameraman in charge of documenting his every move and a hairdresser, with the marvelous name Xavid, who never leaves his side.

This book does have a plot, taken loosely from Romeo and Juliet. As star-crossed lovers Michael and Nora may be rather tedious, but that's part of Armstrong's joke. Their coupling while on the run is left discretely off stage. It is impossible to imagine the two of them involved in anything as squishy as sex.

There are assassination attempts, betrayals, daring escapes, and a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride shortcut over the North Pole. And Michael's estranged mother runs a carnival. She's quite a character.

I can imagine people either loving this book or thinking it is too clever for its own good. I am obviously in the first camp.

(Follow the "slipstream: label for reviews of other slipstream novels,)

Thursday, April 5, 2012


The creators of this series seem determined to pick at every scab of 20th century Japanese history. In Vol. 4 it was Unit 731, the infamous biological warfare initiative from WWII. This time. the Kurosagi team gets involved in tracking down the truth about a small village supposedly wiped out by a mass murderer many years before. The murderer turns out to have been on of the perpetrators of the Nanking massacre, the Japanese mass murders and rapes in a Chinese city in 1937. Returning home with an extreme form of PTSD, the man kills his entire village. Hardly social commentary, but still an approach to surprising, sensitive subject matter.

There is also something about a body in a mummy case and a really funny episode about the cryogenic industry that allows author and artist to cut loose with the grisly fun. 

As always, the notes are informative and useful.

Disgruntled Customers

Wednesday, April 4, 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.)

While on a skiing vacation in France, a young London couple, Jack and Zoe Bennett, are caught in an avalanche. Jack, who has made it up a tree, digs Zoe out from under the snow. The event is devastating, and they fear that another avalanche is imminent. It's early morning and they are alone on the mountain. They walk back to the resort and find it deserted. Food remains set out on the kitchen counters, but no one is in sight. This sudden disappearance convinces them that the resort has been evacuated, as has the village, which is similarly deserted. Around this time I thought the point of Joyce's novel was what happens to people when they do not grow up watching the Twilight Zone, because it is not for another fifty pages, and various failed efforts to leave the village, that they confront the fact that they are almost certainly dead.

Joyce has more tricks up his sleeve than that. Some of the scares may be predictable, but they are frequent enough to keep this complex and thoughtful love story linked to the author's background in horror and fantasy. Several customer reviews have complained that Jack and Zoe are too ordinary, but surely that's the point. Their reactions, from experiments in high-end shopping to the guzzling of expensive wines, are exactly what I would expect ordinary people to do while waiting to see what comes after death. Others have accused the love story of sentimentality, and here I strongly disagree. By the final revelations, which, yes, you will probably guess a chapter or so before the end, the depth of the Bennett's love carried me much further into the mournful nature of Joyce's novel than I had expected given what seemed to such a slender premise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


I am not by nature a fantasy reader. I am not intrigued by magic or wowed fantastic creatures; I find pseudo-medieval settings or language off putting; and, the sexism in anything written before about 1985 is awkward. So I picked up Jack Vance with low expectations, knowing that he had earned his Grand Master status with the SFWA in 1997 at the age of 81, but that much of his writing, and in particular the group of writings I had chosen, were firmly placed in the realm of fantasy rather than SF. (Full disclosure: I have read only the first two of the four books in this collection.)

That said, I realized just a few pages into the first story of The Dying Earth that here was a real storyteller. On an earth where its few inhabitants realize that their sun is dying and where magic has replaced science as the highest pursuit of mankind, Vance zips his characters from continent to continent, delights in their peccadilloes and blunders, and gleefully concocts for them personalities riddled with the baser range of human qualities. Most of them I wouldn't trust as far as I could throw them, but with the right bit of runic magic I could throw them into another universe or a million years back in time.

Magic, as a narrative device, is usually an exercise in adolescent wish-fulfillment. Why else do ten-year-old boys ask for magic kits for their birthdays? There is plenty of that here, along with that other adolescent standby -- beautiful women in diaphanous gowns; but, Vance has a sardonic approach to the dark arts. Unlike science, magic is a closed system. Its mysteries are available only to the few and must be jealously guarded. The desire to attain greater magic makes fools of most of his characters and can cost them their lives. 

The Eyes of the Overworld is a series of stories that link together and form an entertaining picaresque novel. Our hero, Cugel, is one of Vance's finest creations. He is known as Cugel the Clever, although that epithet is certainly self-assigned. Cugel is wily and gets away with most everything he tries, but it is rare that cleverness is the quality that saves his days. Dumb luck is often on his side and his casual disregard for the lives of others comes in handy. Vance's stories are among the most lightheartedly bloodthirsty I have ever read. Individuals or entire villages can be struck down thanks to Cugel's machinations, and the mass deaths are all part of a day's work. His outrageous actions serve an egotism crystalline in its purity. In one scene, Cugel trades a princess, whose kingdom he has just ruined, to bandits. In exchange he receives directions, probably not trustworthy, to his next destination. 

One piece of magic in Vance's own possession must be a spell that spontaneously generates an endless supply of silly names for people, places, food items, and just about everything else in his far future world. I quickly tire of unpronounceable names, but Vance has a real flair for it. He reels them off in lists that it would take me days to dream up, and mine would never be as fun as Vance's. Monty Python may have learned a thing or two from this particular Grand Master.

On Worlds Without End I review Trullion by Jack Vance.