Double Indemnity

By James S. Cain

This is nearly a short story (about 30K words, which puts it on a par with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and it’s nearly ironic that I read it so close after John D. MacDonald’s Barrier Island, which I sort of criticized for having a whole chapter of nothing but dialogue on real estate proceedings, while this one has a whole chapter of nothing but dialogue on insurance.

It’s a “sort of” criticism. I don’t object much, I guess, though it was actually even harder to follow here than it was in Barrier, and here it seemed to matter a lot more, since MacDonald used his quote-walls for exposition, and there’s a fair amount of character in this dialogue.

Also, MacDonald has some lovely prose when he’s not doing the quote-wall thing. Cain does not. This book is all business. It feels even more like a script treatment than Barrier.

I was a little disappointed. The movie is, of course, a cinematic masterpiece, in IMDB’s top 100 films. This is—it’s okay. Without the lighting and the music, and Fred MacMurray’s personableness, it’s far from great.

The problem, for me, is that we have to sympathize with Huff and there’s little good reason to. He quickly goes into blaming Phyllis for the murder, but as thin as his motives seem to be in the movie, they’re almost non-existent here. Also, the great device of Huff narrating his story in the insurance office while bleeding to death is—well, it’s something else here that’s not as good.

Fans of this very spare sort of writing should rejoice, I suppose, since there’s a lot to read into it, but I’m a lot cooler on reading more Cain after this. I didn’t find it suspenseful or thrilling. It’s about as exciting as reading a movie synopsis. And I don’t say that because I’ve seen the movie, but because things just happen. Cain seems to eschew all the ordinary devices of fiction telling, and there’s never really much in the way of mystery either.

It’s a good enough story, though, and it lacks any sort of pretension, other than the odd-sounding (to me) poor grammar of the insurance salesmen. (I come from a long line of salesmen and clerks and they all seem to be able to use “doesn’t” instead of “don’t”, when appropriate.) Almost like Cain was putting tough-guy private dick patter in a pencil-neck’s mouth.

But again, tough to complain too much about something that takes about an hour to read.

The Name Of The Rose

By Umberto Eco

I was a little concerned reading this because I’d been forewarned of Eco’s love of medieval European arcana and heard him described as a post-modernist. To the former, I’m down with that, with my music and Christian history classes in college and some of my readings (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of CrowdsA Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century,Aristotle’s Ethics) dovetailing nicely with medieval antics.

As to the latter, he may well be (I think he describes himself thus), but it’s only in terms of revisiting the past with modern eyes, not in terms of breaking the rules of good storytelling out of some ambition to destroy art and beauty.

Fundamentally, then, this is a solid murder mystery. I found myself amused at the notion that it was a “difficult” read, per its reputation, but then I realized I had my computer handy the whole time I was reading it so that I could look things up. So, for those reading it without guides and those reading it pre-Internet, I doff my cap. There’s a lot—a whole lot—of religious minutiae, to say nothing of entire passages in Latin (very little of which I could make out).

Despite that, it’s hard to accuse this book of being self-absorbed. I wondered at times who Eco’s audience was: Maybe a handful of college professors? Even so, it seemed very definitely for someone, even if the audience is necessarily narrowed by the demands of historical knowledge.

Here’s a concrete example of what I mean: Eco does one of these wall-of-words things I’ve mentioned in several reviews. It’s often found in the “curio shop” trope (The Wild Ass’s Skin,Shatterday) but I noticed Wilde indulging in one in The Picture of Dorian Gray) and there’s a similar type of thing here as Eco describes the tympanum (the carving above a church door) of one of the buildings with a list of medieval creatures that will defy the Internet. (This actually isn’t that uncommon: There are many areas where search engines are nigh worthless.) Some of them I knew, or recognized as corrupt variations (he said smugly) but lots I did not.

I was irritated by this initially, but unlike the wall-of-words passages I’ve referred to in other works, elements of this passage are repeated and referenced throughout the subsequent pages. In other words, he wasn’t just showing off, Eco really had a purpose to his garrulousness. The whole passage seems to come back as a nightmare (literally) in a later short chapter. And again, while the later chapter annoyed me when I read it, it actually was hugely relevant to the plot.

There’s a lot of good, basic mystery stuff here: Riddles, puzzles, mysterious deaths, labyrinths, poisons, intrigue, sexual perversion, and on and on. If you like mysteries, it’s hard to imagine not liking this aspect of the book.

In addition, there’s a whole bunch of theological material. The specific details are heavily Christian, of course, but there’s a whole bunch of “meta” stuff, too: questions about the questions, if you will. Indeed, the primary mover is that of a fundamental religious question about the nature of heresy, and that of a fundamental philosophical question on the nature of man. I loved it, personally, but it’s obviously not going to appeal to all mystery lovers.

I had seen the movie years ago and so I knew the ending, but I couldn’t really relate the movie to the book. Not because the movie doesn’t do a fairly good job of capturing the book (given the massive limitations of a big budget feature) but because I’m not really good with names and faces. So apart from the ending and basic motive for murder, I didn’t really remember how the audience was supposed to follow the clues.

Truthfully, I probably followed the book a lot better.

Anyway, having read it now, I’m much more interested in reading Foucault’s Pendulum, which is even bigger.

Shatterday

By Harlan Ellison

Long ago, for his birthday, I gave my father a copy of Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine, the collection of short stories he wrote in a bookstore window, with the not-so-hidden motive of being able to read it afterwards. He expressed disappointment at its sameness, which was not something I could relate to.

Why is he telling us this?

Because I get now that sometimes writers take a tour up their own asses.

Those two lines are a riff on the increasingly insufferable Ellison practice of introducing his stories. The introductions will tell you, repeatedly, that Ellison is a writer, that the characters in his stories—however much they all talk like him, and share his worldview, and have events similar to those he’s outlined in his introductions—are not him, and above all, although never exactly expressed, that he is a bundle of neuroses with a narrow worldview who is pretty sure you’re just exactly the same, and the only thing raising you above the rest of the wretched mass of humanity is agreement with him about how neurotic and awful you are.

He is a good technician, of course, except that his worldview is so predictably bleak, his view of humanity so negative, that every story’s conclusion is fait accompli, from the moment you grasp the premise. There will be no sentimentality, sure, but also no sympathy. Everyone goes into the grinder.

Probably the most laughable aspect of this is that Ellison, who has been working on the hallucinatory third book in the Strange Visions series for over 40 years now, views himself as an outlaw, as if misanthropy, quasi-nihilism, a hatred of TV, and various liberal viewpoints (ERA? Check! Ralph Nader? Check!) placed him anywhere but safely in the realm of post-WWII “art”.

As for specifics, well, the title story was a so-so New Twilight Zone episode. The written version here was particularly wan. He apologies for the juvenile “Would You Do It For A Penny?” but the much more vulgar, more pointless, and downright dumb “How’s The Night Life on Cissalda?”, about most life on earth being utterly consumed by extra-dimensional sex fiends—is just a stroll through all our lives.

Gotta shock the squares, you know?

Having just read Balzac’s Wild Ass’ Skin, it was kind of fun for me, personally, to read Ellison’s take on the “Shop of Wonders” in “Shoppe Keeper”, but obviously that’s fairly specific. And the story itself is mostly Ellison’s form of punting: Create an alternate space/time/dimension with no explanation that serves as a rickety vehicle for a shit-ton of exposition/”character development”.

Victims. If you wanted to put a running theme to these stories, that would be it. Everyone is a victim. Victims of weird time anomalies (“Jeffty is Five”, “Shoppe Keeper”, “Count the Clock That Tells the Time”, “All The Birds Come Home To Roost”) or space anomalies (“Cissalda”, “Django”, “Alive and Well and on A Friendless Voyage”) or sometimes just their own pseudo-kindness (“The Other Eye of Polyphemuis”).

If the idea of a protagonist struggling against increasingly difficult challenges until, when all hope is almost lost, he manages to overcome them is too clichéd for you, this might be your book. On the other hand, they follow a formula just as rigid and dire to boot.

And with a distinct sameness.

Beezus and Ramona

By Beverly Cleary

I generally much prefer the older kid books over the new ones—not just the ’60s/’70s stuff, but the ’50s stuff, like Henry Reed, and so on. What children were allowed to do (even in fiction) and grown-up reactions to what they did was so much freer than today. It’s probably a good idea to keep those ideas and traditions alive, even if they’re currently out-of-style (or even illegal) today.

That said, I was struck by what a little monster Ramona is in this story, and how cavalier everyone is regarding her behavior. Obviously, we don’t have much of a story if she’s constantly being policed, and I’ll dismiss most of my objections based on that.

This is the story of 10-year-old Beezus and her struggles with her 4-year-old sister, Ramona. Ramona is a terror. She draws in library books, she destroys birthday cakes, she relentlessly (and often successfully interrupts when her older sister is getting attention), and in one particularly egregious episode, she actually throws herself a party at her mother and sister’s expense.

At the same time, Beezus is rather uptight. When the book begins, she’s lamenting how awful Ramona is before we, the audience, really see anything awful about her. She wears bunny ears, e.g., which upsets Beezus. By the near the end of the book, you’re sort of hoping Beezus stumbles across a convenient wood chipper.

But the actual end of the book—telegraphed, I thought, from the start—gives a nice lesson in perspective that still works, even if you’re not the 1950s era grade-school girl the book was presumably targeting.

The Abolition of Man

By C. S. Lewis

This is my first reading of C.S. Lewis’ essays and, I gotta say, the old boy was on to something. I mean, it doesn’t take much reading of history to realize how it repeats, and I’m used to reading things (like “Extraordinary Popular Delusions”) about the folly of the mob—heck, you can get that from classic episodes of “The Simpsons”—but there’s a particular strain of destructive thinking Lewis (and Kipling and Chesterton) recognized and it’s uncanny how much of this 70-year-old critique on education applies.

It’s also a startlingly good (and non-denominational) examination of Man’s relationship to the universe, with C.S. Lewis referring to axiomatic truths as *The Tao*—although he covers the same concepts in many different cultures, and the back of the book is a compilation of quotes from Confucius, *Beowulf*, the Babylonian *List of Sins*, the Ancient Egyption *Confessions of a Righteous Soul*, the *Bhagavad Gita*, the Bible and on and on.

It’s only about 20K words, and when it came in the mail yesterday, I started reading it and could hardly put it down. I had some objections to aspects of it, but then I realized that most of the discrepancies were matters of semantics, because the big picture conclusions were hard to dispute.

Very glad I read this.

Lives Unlimited; Reincarnation East and West

by H. N. BanerjeeWill Oursler

This is an odd book. Banerjee is basically trying to sell the idea of reincarnation. But even just saying that we get into trouble, since “reincarnation” is rather loosely applied, and usually carries with it a lot of baggage. Banerjee happily—or maybe nervously—bundles all of that baggage together with “reincarnation” and even adds a few other items for good measure, with the results being rather scattershot.

I’m reminded, on two levels of Whitley Streiber’s Transformation, his follow-up to Communion. First, because Transformation handles the multiple-lives issue in an almost perfunctory fashion, saying something to the effect that at university X (I think it was U. Va) a study was done and there are massive reams of data supporting people having lived before. Second, because where Communion is highly focused and damned convincing, Transformation is a jumble of ideas loosely organized into no particular thesis.

And so, with Unlimited, we start with some indisputable data, in the form of people remembering previous lives and being able to recall things from those lives they couldn’t otherwise know. But from there he goes into mediums, clairvoyance, precognition, Nirvana and karma, and we end up with a lot of speculation on a book that wants very much to be respectably scientific.

Actually, I shouldn’t say he bundles all the baggage together. He’s dismisses the karmic concept of a progression through the animals along a spiritual path, and while the evidence doesn’t support that, the word “reincarnation”, to a lot of people means just that. This might seem like a minor point, but precise definitions are pretty important to the subject. This gets very murky when he starts talking about the spirit, the mind, and the soul as distinct entities without really defining them.

The one definition he creates is “extra cerebral memory” or ECM, which seems to be a nod toward the notion that there may be another explanation as to how dead guy A’s memories end up in live person B. He doesn’t really develop this much, because it’s silly. (Sort of like in Streiber’s Communion where he avoids saying aliens, because who knows what abducted him. Unlike Banerjee, Streiber bends over backward to reach for this possibility, which is just as silly as ECM.)

In the end, I feel like he misses the main point: While alien abduction is an exciting topic that gets a lot of attention, living before (and again) really doesn’t. But if you were utterly convinced that aliens were abducting you—if you’re Fox Mulder of the “X-Files”—what changes in your life? What do you differently? Pretty much nothing. If there are aliens and they’re that advanced, there’s nothing you can do.

If, on the other hand, you’re convinced that you’ve lived before, and that you’re going to come back to the same approximate place shortly after you die, well, that might really change your perspective on things. In particular, you might be interested in making the world a better place not for abstract future generations—but for yourself, very concretely and really. You will literally inherit the world you left behind.

That might be a message worth getting out.

The Artificial Man

By L.P. Davies

It was a genuine pleasure to read this after the Campbell *Islands of Space*, for it is genuinely *written*, and very well so. It’s also so terribly English, with its central character a novelist who chats with the lawn-obsessed neighbor, and visits with his friendly postmaster, neighborhood ex-military major, and so no.

Of course, this is all fabricated (literally) and the underlying premise goes almost surreal in its quest for the dystopic goodness so prevalent in ’60s SciFi. There’s a sudden shift of characters, too, as well as some twists-and-turns you might not see coming. I did not expect the ending at all. Well, maybe the “stinger”—but not how it gets there.

And despite the change of main character(s) and viewpoint switches Davies keeps you interested in all of them.

Amusingly, this book, written in 1966, takes place 50 years in the future, and posits (naturally) an overpopulated world, totalitarian governments everywhere, and makes the global conflict between England and China. Heh. Oh, and of course, we ran out of food. (I always thought SF writers were supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology.)

Nonetheless, it’s a good yarn.

Islands of Space

By John W. Campbell

One of the great pleasures of reading Astounding/Analog magazine back in the day was John W. Campbell’s editorials. He’d come up with the germ of an idea for a story that was simultaneously scientific and tantalizing. The mission, back then, was to focus minds on the stars, on the future, on something other than these damned world wars people kept fighting.

Islands of Space is a perfect example of that kind of writing. It’s full of little ideas and suppositions that make you wonder “what if…?” and want to break out your calculator.

Unfortunately, a lot of the times you feel like you’re reading about a story rather than reading the story itself. A lot of the best potential “set pieces” are elided over with a sentence. Moments of great suspense are breezed by. The storytelling is as cavalier as the characters.

And, boy, are the characters cavalier. With about half-a-dozen world changing inventions under their belts, our four protagonist launch into space and get into bunches of potentially life-ending scrapes, and all their revolutionary technology would go with them. It would be such a huge event to launch a genuine interstellar trip, just making a successful journey and back would be enough.

This ideas is dismissed idea early on, but there’s really no reason for that. They could have touched base at minimal loss, reported back what they learned, and this still wouldn’t have interfered with any of the plot devices. Instead, they keep pushing their luck because they want to find life, apparently. (And even then, one bitches about the inhospitableness of a planet—20 million light years from where any human has ever gone. Cavalier!)

They do find life, about 2/3rds of the way through the book and, I kid you not, the remaining 60 pages are devoted to them resolving a civil war. With SCIENCE! An alien civil war apparently not being worth a full book, I guess.

It’s odd. It flits from idea to idea, just long enough to (essentially) exposit that idea.

The other thing about the “hard science” nature of this is it tends to make one (or at least me) more suspicious of the science I don’t grasp. I couldn’t figure out the rules of inertia for the Mariner for example. They seemed to be jerked from super-light speeds at some points with minimal trouble, but the ship would be rocked by explosives. Which, dramatically, you want—but I couldn’t figure out how any explosions (of the size described) could have any effect at all on a ship that could withstand the sort of forces this one did.

On this, and several other points, I couldn’t say for sure the author got it wrong. It just made me go “hmmm.” A curious artifact from 1931’s Amazing Stories.

Beyond Calculation: The Next 50 Years Of Computing

Edited by Peter J. Denning

Let’s be honest: Reading this book is the nerd equivalent of watching Nascar. You do it to watch people crash and burn. That said, many of the contributors’ natural sense of self-preservation make it much less interesting than it should be.

This is a book of predictions about what The Next 50 Years of Computing will look like. It was written about 20 years ago, in 1997, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association of Computing Machinery. (And what an odd name for an association that is, as if it were made of computing machines!)

It’s divided into three parts: The Coming Revolution, Computers and Human Identity, and Business and Innovation. Most of the hilarity is up front, as therein are given the most concrete predictions. Even in 1997, this would’ve been a difficult book to read from cover-to-cover, but today it borders on painful. There’s no real connection between things, and the essays can have wildly different scopes and levels of detail, as well as focus (or lack thereof).

They are short essays. However, this isn’t as much of an advantage as it should be.

Observations made can be grouped into:

1. Obvious, due to being history lessons or referring to things going on in the ’90s.
2. Vague, being an attempt to predict the future in a highly general way.
3. Insightful, for 1997.
4. Specific, in which case they are invariably wrong. (Any of 1-3 may be wrong, but “specific” is always wrong.)

Of all of these, #4 is the only one with interest today (beyond the historical). #3 had interest 20 years ago, maybe, if the insight was in a field you knew and could act in. But there’s not a lot of #3, honestly.

There’s not a lot of #4, especially outside of the first section, but these mostly consist of the pundit at the time saying, “I think this aspect of technology [as exemplified by this product] will bloom in the future”.

Sometimes it’s not that bad, like when one of the writers comments on IBM InfoMarket, you can squint and say, “OK, that never even got off the ground, but Amazon, iTunes and Steam are sort of what you’re talking about.” But then you read about “Orbis” and “Starwave” or even MSNBC and realize that the whole “technologists move into media creation” thing didn’t shake out at all like the ’90s expected it to.

And POTS. POTS hasn’t been replaced but it fell in importance real fast. Or how about the revolutionary power of Microsoft Talisman, which was probably dead by the time the book was published? Also, there’s the inevitable discussion of the end of Moore’s “Law” some time in 2010 when an obvious slowdown had occurred in the late ’90s. This is a debatable point, on the other side of which we could point to Intel’s announcement that things have slowed since about 2012, but I felt like in some ways it typified the book’s failure to predict the present, much less the future.

On the other hand, we can say that the prediction of the Internet of Things (IoT), while not called that, and while predicted grossly smaller than imagined (a billion Internet connections by 2047! We’re well past that now!), that’s fairly insightful. Most of the interesting aspects of that—Monitoring All The Things!—have yet to be borne out, but probably will be.

But, for a book of predictions, you give the guys points for being game enough to make bold enough statements that can be contradicted. The second section, oriented toward AI, is occasionally abominable. Sherry Turkle’s essay on how the younger generation will be with computers is rife with conversations between an adult who doesn’t understand technology and a child who doesn’t understand technology but isn’t phased by that. (In fairness, I remember thinking that those kids would grow up to be different, too, in how they dealt with computers—but they really haven’t.)

I read David Gerlenter’s piece “The Logic of Dreams” thinking he was nuts, but by the end I could see he was on to something. In contrast, “Sharing Our Planet” was pretty sensible throughout but ends with a neo-Malthusian rant.

The last essay on the book is a reflection on the University system, and how upheaval (in the form of virtual classes) is coming. It’s pretty good, although it gives only a nod to those new concerns of universities like affirmative action. I think we can safely say that the major output of universities these days is Social Justice Warriors. (Wanna disagree? Name any other kind of university activity that gets anywhere near the attention.)

More than a few shoutouts to “Keep those federal research dollars coming!” with no awareness of how those dollars will be diverted toward “feminist glaciology”. Data and innovation no longer matter: All that matters is who gets the credit. (Science!)

Oh, and the most tragic essay of all is the “Information Warfare” piece. This essay, written as the dot-com boom was flowering, is a sober reflection upon all the steps governments, corporations and individuals are going to have to take to protect their privacy in the coming years. It’s almost unthinkable to the author that these issues won’t be resolved before things get out of hand. After Assange, Snowden, and the Clinton semi-private email server, and after rampant, persistent leaks at the IRS, healthcare.gov and straight-up pwnage of Sony, netizens upload their personal information with a casualness that I think must bring Larry Druffel to tears.

I’m sure these are all smart guys with lots of awards and book titles to their names. The real problem is that it’s all so dated, and the fact that they knew this would be a document for the ages makes the authors cagey about being dated. It would’ve been more interesting if they had gone all in for the buggy whip, or the bicycle-propelled-biplane or whatever. It’s really, really hard to recommend this.

Maybe the first thing they should’ve predicted is the end of books like this.

The Wild Ass’s Skin

By Honoré de Balzac

I confess, up till reading this book, I knew two things about Balzac:

1) The song from “The Music Man”, where he’s listed among the scandalous sort of writer they don’t want in their library. “Chaucer! Rabelais! Baaaaalllzac!”

2) Rodin’s famous sculpture, with Balzac gazing into the distance and masturbating under his bathrobe.

After reading this book, I can only say that:

1) The censorious hen party of River City, Iowa, was as ridiculous as portrayed. This book features an orgy, but it’s not much more graphic than me writing “this book features an orgy”.

2) Rodin had a point.

Although, if we look at it seriously, we can see that Rodin wasn’t trying to mock Balzac’s Société des Gens de Lettres—the sculpture isn’t meant to be an insult. Balzac used masturbation (without a release, I believe) as part of his process. It was one of the many cutting edge 19th century ideas that permeate his work (if this book is representative).

“The Wild Ass’s Skin” is about a dissolute young man who, on the verge of suicide, stumbles upon the eponymous totem, which grants him his wishes—but with each wish becomes smaller and smaller, representing the span of his life. So, he goes from being suicidal and full of self-destructive passion to being absolutely terrified to engage on any human level.

This is a book steeped in the self-importance of the time (Paris, 1830). On the one hand, that means it’s very relatable to modern times. On the other hand, it also means it’s chock full of contemporary references. There are occasional walls of text that are nothing but allusions. Balzac alludes to eternally famous things, locally famous things, parodies of locally famous things, his own works and characters—to the extent of, em, Lucas-ing his books to retrofit them according to an evolving grand scheme—and occasionally to things that just plain don’t seem to have existed but were probably inspired by things that did, or maybe that he dreamed of.

And, as long as we’re talking weaknesses (from the perspective of this modern reader), beyond the allusions, the use of the 3rd person omniscient is rather alienating. Perhaps not as bad as it might be, because the narrative voice is very close to that of the protagonist, who is pretty obviously a stand-in for the author. (You can see why the modern admonition is to “show, don’t tell”. There are characters we only know because they were given a name and the writer’s peek into their freshly minted souls.)

The mechanics of the wishing are a little dubious, which is not surprising. It’s magic, but it’s based on theories that Balzac believed in truly and devoted much energy to, so it’s not like rubbing a lamp. It’s more like the skin shrinks as our protagonist (Raphael) expresses his will. But this extends to even the most casual thing, like wishing someone a nice day. Why could he not simply wish himself more life? says the jerk (me) in the crowd.

The biggest weakness, though, has to be that Raphael is, essentially, a knob. I mean, he’s a victim of his passions, as we are frequently and sometimes laboriously told. And his passions are stupid. And he knows they are stupid, and Balzac knows this, too. To say nothing of hypocritical: Given the chance to live out his short life in utter bliss, or to die slowly and miserably, he picks the latter, and we are not even surprised.

And yet, we do end up feeling for him. He’s so devotedly determined to paths that will make him miserable, and only vaguely seems aware that his weird fetishes are so oriented.

I hate rating books. (Or any work of art.) But, I gave this 4/5 despite all my complaints because, beyond them, it’s quite a good an interesting book. There are a few slogs where Balzac is waxing poetic on some horribly wrong theory, but there aren’t that many (less than I’m led to believe are in, say, an Ayn Rand novel), they aren’t that long, and most of the wrong-ness is the sort of casually wrong belief that it’s hard to object to. More importantly, amongst the very, very wrong things are some genuine gems of human understanding.

Also, beyond the occasional passage that is nothing but allusion, it moves pretty well. For a story where much of the action is internal, Balzac clearly had enough craft to keep the reader engaged and feeling the progress of things. The translator gamely provides footnotes to explain some of the more obscure allusions, keeping one from running to the Internet every few seconds.

I prefer Hugo, I suppose, if I’m picking 19th century French authors, but this is still worthy, and remarkably so given how “au courant” it is.

Weird jarring thing toward the end: The translator (and it must have been the translator) uses the phrase “robot-like” even though the word “robot” wouldn’t be invented for 100 years.