The Space Merchants

by Frederick Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth

Wow, what a pleasant surprise. I’m reading Ready Player One along with the 372-pages-I’ll-never-get-back (372pages.com) and so I’m pacing myself there, which is good because I need a break from its awfulness. (And bad, because if I weren’t reading along with the book club, I’d be done by now.)

I half expected this to be another “patch-up” job where they took a bunch of loosely related stories published in a magazine and filled it up and twisted things around to try to make a novel about it. But while there was, apparently, an abbreviated version of the book in “Galaxy” (I think), this one does not show any seams of where it might have been cut or filled out. (In other words, I actually believe it was condensed for a magazine rather than written for a magazine and filled out.)

It’s tight. It’s not long but there is no wasted space here. It’s actually pretty breakneck while managing to flesh out a pretty good dystopic sci-fi world. In fact, I’d ding the book for being yet-another-example of “overpopulated, depleted earth run by evil corporations” but this may have been the first!.

OK, it probably wasn’t the first, but in 1952, it was still pretty edgy, and it has the advantage of the Golden Age’s heroic traditions undergirding it. So, while it gets dark—really, really dark—it does not get nihilistic.

The setting is like “Mad Men” meets Brave New World. Our hero is a copy man—a Star-class copy man, who lands a big assignment: He’s got to sell people on going to Venus, because a megacorp wants to exploit their labor. In this future world, people are born into castes—mostly poor, of course—and basically automated to within an inch of their lives. The two main divisions are “consumers” and, well, the guys at the top, like our hero.

There’s a lot of biting satire here that still has its sting 65 years later. (Though I guess Pohl added and updated the book right before he died, and I would read that.)

The plot kicks into gear when, through a bit of corporate maneuvering, Mitch (our hero) ends up at the bottom of the food chain, robbed of his identity and feeding sludge a giant-mutant-chicken-like-organism. He works with his arch-nemeses, the “consies”, who are…yes, conservationists. (That’s how old this book is: They had to make up a name for enviro-eco-whatevers.) (Ed. note: I’m sure the term “conservationist” predates this book going back to the 19th century, but this is an extraoridnary/extreme use of the word.)

The beauty of this segment is that Mitch manages to escape his fate almost completely unscathed in his worldview. Consumers, he decides, are much different from us and are right where they need to be in society.

Well, look, his life is pretty damn good; he’s got a lot of motivation to believe that society is just fine the way it is.

It’s that kind of depth that makes this book rise above the usual fare. (And I’m sort of embarrassed for not having known of it before, as it apparently generally does well on “top 100” lists.) Mitch is seriously tasked to change his worldview and I’m not really sure he fully does. In fact, like a real person, I sorta think he doesn’t. He comes around a little—in what would now be an uncharacteristically romantic twist.

The book throws words and concepts at you pretty fast, much like Mind Over Ship which I had just read. But despite being much shorter and having some interesting concepts (like the giant chickenish organism), it manages to anchor them to enough in the real world for me to grasp. (Mind Over Ship is much more ambitious in that regard, and much of what this book is pioneering is now part of the SF language, so that’s a big help, too.)

Anyway, at a blazing 150+ pages, it’s “can’t put it down” level stuff and was sorely missing from my education.

Look Back In Anger

by John Osborne

I’m on Os. I had this and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by O’Neill, which I opted not to read because “it’s a play”. Wotta dunce.

The funny thing about this play is that, if you take it out of context (and how can I not?) it’s, like, 90 minutes of people being awful to each other for no clear reason. I think it’s about class warfare. Maybe it’s a big metaphor and I missed it,’cause otherwise it’s just about chicks digging jerks.

I don’t get why people would subject themselves to this in performance form (though, hyporcrite that I am, I’d probably see the Richard Burton/Claire Bloom film if it came to a cinema), but I don’t get a lot of what people go to see in live theater.

I don’t know. It’s just an exercise in futility and anger. Was I supposed to feel empathy because a character had had a hard life? (It’s freakin’ 1956 England! Any adult would’ve grown up in WWII!) This just gets a big “why?” from me. But it was a huge success at the time, so it obviously resonated with its desired audience.

I feel like there’s something wrong when I can relate more to a 16th century playwright than a 20th century one.

Mind Over Ship

by David Marusek

Yeah, this is one of those books where I wonder “How did I even get this?” But I think what had happened was that a very talented friend of mine had set up a review website for books and movies and so on, and had received just tons of review materials. So a few got sent my way and this was one of them.

It’s not my kind of thing. People know I’ve read a lot of science-fiction and end up thinking of me as a sci-fi guy but I’m not per se. (Where “per se” means “I learned all my Latin from 1st Edition D&D books”.) It might be irony but, when I was younger, speculative fiction (sci fi, fantasy, horror) seemed in fairly short supply and I could be counted on to have some base level of interest, ’cause it’s nice to get out of the “reality” thing once in a while. But in a world inundated with the stuff—this world—my bar has gotten a lot higher. In other words, Sturgeon was an optimist.

Anyway, Marusek can write, and that’s a good thing. He hits you with a bunch of terms he never defines—I see this might be an unofficial sequel to something?—and that, well, that’s an old SF trick which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Here, I found it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, as I puzzled through the opening pages wondering what I was dealing with between the clones and the AIs and the “free rangers” and so on.

The plot, if I can recall it, involves a clone who does something un-clone-like that gets him sent to jail and made a pariah, and his struggle to survive in a world where corporate giants machinate against each other to sometimes murky ends.

If you find that a common weakness of authors is there inability to really create vibrant, different characters, try reading a book where many of the principal characters are clones. Marusek does pretty well there, though I did have trouble in places keeping things straight.

Probably the worst part, for me, was the realization that (a la mode) the author was going to make it really morally dubious. We have a hero, he has goals, but he’s basically a pawn for another person, with her own goals, and those goals are…well, the author throws us a bone to suggest that they aren’t the most evil, and may even be the lesser of two evils.

The best part for me, was the realization that, as a writer, this isn’t what I want to write. I don’t mean that as snark: “World-building” as they call it, is in vogue, and I have a tendency to do that, and it is a serious two-edge sword. I feel like Tolkien is to blame for it, but Tolkien was pretty ruthless (or his editors were) in The HobbitThe Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s only the (oft-excised) Tom Bombadil section in LOTR, e.g., that sticks out as “this suggests history that you will not learn from this book”.

The double-edged sword here is that as a reader you at least know that the author has thought things through and actually has an idea of what’s going on beyond just throwing random clutter from his head to the page (cf. Ready Player One). The downside is that the author, carrying that baggage, must either slow things down to explain them (Marusek doesn’t) or trust in your willingness to go along for the ride (I wasn’t).

Also, the underlying philosophy seems to be that a person—an identity—is just a collection of neurological patterns with memories laid on top. Meh. Of course that’s the prevailing view, I suppose, but it doesn’t make for great literature, in this reader’s humble opinion.

So, I dunno. Like I said: Well enough written. (The sex seemed creepy, partly due to the nature of the world, and partly due to sex in science-fiction almost always being a bad idea.) The characters were sometimes quite good and the author showed himself equal to the impressive challenge he set for himself. Just, really, not my cuppa.

The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne

by Ann Radcliffe

OK, you may not grant this four stars but I will. It’s a delightful little book about an ill-considered attempt to avenge a murdered father, star-crossed lovers, dungeons, castles, treachery, ghostly sounds, and a lucky accident of birth.

I know how I have this book: As a young man, I read HP Lovecraft’s “Horror and the Supernatural in Literature” and decided to read all the writing he mentioned. Mrs. Radcliffe featured prominently in this essay, and HPL always referred to her as “Mrs. Radcliffe”. (Pre-Internet, so I had to literally go to a museum and look her up to find out her first name was “Ann”.)

Anyway, the best way to think of Mrs. Radcliffe these days is the forebear of “Scooby Doo”. Although predated by Horace Walpole, Mrs. Radcliffe basically created the Gothic horror/romance in its dominant form, with secret staircases, evil uncles, whistling winds that MIGHT BE GHOSTS! and other clichés that would become the “Old, Dark House” genre.

Now, keep in mind that the movie “Old, Dark House” came out in the ’20s, and was sort of the bubble bursting for those particular horror tropes, which survive to this day and, as I said, are immortalized in the “Scooby Doo” cartoon series, and you get a sense of how profound an impact Mrs. Radcliffe (who was born in 1764!) had.

I do not know if this is her first book, but it’s an early one, and a good starter to see if this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Spoiler alert: You probably won’t. She is very much a creature of her time and her prose is, well, not exactly florid, but lacking the spareness popular today on the one hand, and lacking (e.g.) the poetry of Mrs. Austen.

Northanger Abbey was Jane Austen’s nod to Radcliffe, and it’s probably better than any of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels, or at least possessing of a neoclassic sensibility more suited to modern tastes.

(This paragraph coming up could be considered a little spoilery so maybe stop reading here if you aren’t familiar with the tropes of the Gothic horror.)

But I love this stuff, and really enjoyed this book, even though I knew—and this should not be a spoiler to anyone who has read a book written between 1750-1925—for example, that the star-crossed lovers would be saved by a suddenly revealed accident of birth. (Edgar Rice Burroughs used this device repeatedly in the Tarzan series: You can’t get married because you’re not noble/not white! But wait! You secretly are!)

It’s a fun window into how people used to think. All the swooning ladies and would-be heroes constantly having their characters tested. The dark castles with their secret dungeons and even more secret passages. The romantic tying of noblemen’s characters to the fates of their kingdoms. Etc.

This edition has a glossary and some explanatory footnotes in the back, so if you’re interested in dipping your toe in to the genre and period, this is not a bad start.

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

This book came to me in a Loot Crate, a monthly box shipped to suckers without enough crap in their lives, which contains (typically) a totem, a shirt, some sort of reading material/catalogue, and maybe a mug or whatever, all roughly themed around some aspect of nerd culture.

Well, I used to be a nerd, when being a nerd meant a lot of devotion to something technical, like computer programming (back when that was a big deal), math or actual science/engineering—the boring kind which involves getting excited over the mass of an electron or traffic patterns—but these days, I can’t keep up, since being a nerd these days involves copious amounts of TV watching, which is not something I can abide.

Significantly, though, I was a nerd back in the ’80s, so I figured this book would appeal to me, and when the guys from Rifftrax started their 372Pages book blog reading this, I thought it would be fun to read along with them. The nature of my “reading all my books” project pretty much excludes group efforts because, honestly, who else is sitting on a copy of Berserker or The Daily Newspaper In America that they picked up at a garage sale for a quarter?

At first, I was just shocked at how childish the writing was. It wasn’t child-friendly, like Roald Dahl or, say, Sir Machinery where the author is trying to express things poetically, but in a way that a child can understand. It felt a bit more like はたらく魔王さま! Hataraku Maou-sama! : A Japanese light novel, which is almost like a screenplay. Also, translated from Japanese, with lots of repetition to make sure you really got it.

Then, as I read it, I began to notice that the ’80s references were of two types: One that was used as a crutch to keep the author from having to describe anything; and the other, which was also a crutch, but a different kind: One that allowed the author to describe something other than his actual story.

As an example of the former case, Cline might evoke a sound effect from an ’80s cartoon (or ’70s) by saying “it was just like that cartoon”, rather than saying “the low ringing of the bell vibrated in my very soul, awakening the dark horror of The Wonder Twins…”. If you’re not in on the reference, the “description” does you no good. If you are in on it—well, I’ll get to that in a second.

As an example of the latter case, there is a lengthy description of Blade Runner. This description literally does not matter. It leads to a sort-of gun battle against hordes of enemies (of which there are none in Blade Runner, but there are in The Matrix, interestingly enough) wherein the narrator explains off-handedly that he was never in any real danger.

I had already gotten an eerie, creepy feeling as I was reading. Now, I remember the ’80s. In fact, except for a few of the Japanese robot cartoons, the references were all familiar to me. I have reasonably fond memories of the era. I’ve revisited some of the movies recently and found them better than I remembered, some of the music holds up pretty good, and I’m still up for a game of “Nethack” or some interactive fiction.

But after a while—well before the third invocation of “42” that seemed like a reflexive lack of imagination than a clever reference—I began to wonder if Cline wasn’t actually writing a nostalgic potboiler but a scathing commentary on contemporary society.

Like, why would anyone proudly decorate their super-secret virtual lair like “The Family Ties” living room? One could speculate that our hero, Wade, found comfort in the (now presumably defunct) idealized nuclear family—but one would have to speculate that, because the author remains silent. But if it’s not that, why is it there? Because the audience finds comfort in it, just like they find comfort in games of Joust and Pac-Man, in movies like WarGames and Red Dawn, Rush’s 2112 and…uh…Cyndi Lauper—the book is especially weak on musical references, which perhaps devalues its work as satire.

I started to cringe at every little bit of trivia I knew—which was a lot of it. I knew of “The Tomb of Horrors” for example, though I’d never played it. I can sing (and play) all the “Schoolhouse Rocks”. I just finished reading Mother Night so I—no, I never could figure out where the Vonnegut reference fit in. I began not only to wince at the book’s references but also at the remnants of ’80s culture that I encountered floating around in my daily life, like hearing Sheila E. or seeing a showing of Ghostbusters playing at the local bijou.

I realized then that the ’80s is, itself, the perfect decade for this sort of satire. Society, having been hollowed out by the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, was trying to make a comeback—but the people who knew and appreciated traditional values were long gone, so we got pallid echoes of older culture. Instead of rock ‘n’ roll, we got the ’80s version of rockabilly—which is three chords plus irony. Our action heroes traded upright behavior and grit for muscles and quips. Instead of sci-fi with pro-human visions of the future, we got corporate-run dystopias where people lived their lives in virtual realit—oh.

So, what Cline seems to be saying: We’re subliterate morons utterly stuck in a past that is itself a subliterate echo of an earlier past, much like this novel is itself, only an echo of classic SF about virtual realities. Our current imagination is so poor, we will actually endorse a vision of the limitless possibilities of VR where the highest form of action is someone playing “Tempest”. His contempt oozes when Wade (Cline’s obvious alter-ego) triggers his own corporate kidnapping, and we discover that Wade is completely without empathy for fellow victims—and for virtually everyone else in VR he has to deal with.

Hence, one star. This is just a way too vicious attack on one’s own readers who were only looking for some fun and a few nostalgic references.

I look forward to the author’s future, scathing appraisals of modern society, however.

UPDATE: Just looked at the author’s second book, and it’s exactly the same, so, no, he’s just really into the ’80s.

UPDATE 2: Canceled my Loot Crate.

Studies in Occultism; A Series of Reprints from the Writings of H. P. Blavatsky No. 1: Practical Occultism-Occultism versus the Occult Arts-The Blessings of Publicity

by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

What’s going on here? Where am I?

Kind of fun to read this after The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria and especially Foucault’s Pendulum because it highlights beautifully the incestuous nature of occult/conspiracy books. Leadbeadter and Scott-Elliot (of Lemuria) confidently referred to Blavatsky (among others) as authoritative sources. Saint-German, whose avatar is prominent in Eco’s book, makes an appearance here.

Blavatsky here seems to be reporting on (real or imagined) a tradition of guru and student where she admonishes against what today’s Harry Potter crowd might call the Dark Arts and creates a built-in “No True Scotsman” argument by saying that the only way to acquire true powers is to purge the self (i.e. live and use the powers only for altruism), which gives one a nice double-sided security blanket:

“Why don’t I have powers?”
“You’re still caught up in worldly desires!”
“Hey, that guy’s using evil powers!”
“He’ll never have the true powers because he’s caught up in worldly desires!”

So it provides a nice protection against accusations of fraud or malevolence. I mean, I suppose. I haven’t researched Blavatsky that much.

It’s a little light on the deets, if you know what I mean. It’s almost as if she were trying to entice people into believing you had a lot of power without having to demonstrate it in any fashion or provide any sort of evidence. Again, I have no idea. Maybe she was a great—well, I can’t call her a sorceress because she has nothing good to say about them, but maybe she was on to something. There’s just no way to tell from this.

Then again, maybe she was just in the right place at the right time—i.e., Western civilization at a time when traditional Christian dogma was being challenged by less and less educated people. That’s not really meant as a dig: The industrial revolution and the rise of leisure time meant more people with less grounding in philosophy were able to grasp at popular “edgy” things without understanding the great debates of the first thousand years of the Christian Church. Else they might have recognized the neo-Gnosticism in Blavatsky.

Of course, recognizing they might’ve still embraced it. I certainly don’t know. I hope to learn more as I read more from the time period.

Which is why I read this in the first place.

So any recommendation I might make would be based on that: Curiosity about this strain of thought at this time in history.

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

This was in a set of books I got as a kid, and one of the books in the set I never read. I don’t know why. What’s a mockingbird to me? Why do I want to know how to kill one?

Seriously, though, I think (like many) I have an aversion to “important” books. If someone says “You HAVE to read this” I’m gonna back off. The book was a scant 12 years old when I recevied it, and is now 55, so I guess you could say the aversion is a strong one.

I saw the movie late last year. It’s remarkably faithful!

Anyway, it’s a good book. A good coming-of-age story which dovetailed nicely with the civil rights movement of the era. It’s probably overestimated because of this, but that doesn’t detract from its general quality.

The characters are really well drawn. It’s kind of nice that the narrator, Scout, is kind of a bellicose little girl, with a strong sense of right-and-wrong that doesn’t meet up quite with her father, Atticus’. And her perception of her older brother, as his values come into line more with Atticus’, is a classic depiction of the sort of betrayal all children feel when a former peer becomes “grown up”.

Also priceless is the experience Scout has going to school and discovering she learned to read “wrong”. Disastrous “newfangled” teaching techniques are as old as the 20th century. (I’ve heard from those who were there that they were similarly told about “learning wrong”.)

Of course, the injustice wrought is heart-wrenching, but the book handles it in an unsentimental way, which gives a less exploitative feel to the proceedings than some other works along the same line.

All in all, it’s a fine book, worth reading in spite of all the awards and accolades heaped on it. 😉

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

by Milan Kundera

This is…not my kind of book. But I rated it four stars anyway, which tells you something.

The story concerns many neurotic people caught up in the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the havoc their dissolute ways wreak on their lives, along with all the rationalizations and false significances you would expect.

It is very well written, though. The writing manages to avoid most of the traps of these kinds of stories: It’s light and poetic without being pretentious. You end up caring about the characters, sometimes against your better judgment. Rooting for them, even.

It presents an unsentimental view of communism as well as an unsentimental view of the free world, and does so without creating a moral equivalence, which is kind of interesting. Our characters’ situations are certainly not helped by the emerging totalitarianism of the day, but they’re also not helped by the social chaos beyond the iron curtain. And ultimately their problems are their own.

I give it high marks for that.

The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels

by Henry James

Last time through I had read “Portrait of a Lady” for my “J” book, and I thought I’d give this famous story by James a shot now, not realizing up front that it’s a novella and the book contains six novelas to pad out the length.

Guy can write.

A popular opinion of the time was that the novella was the perfect length for a work of fiction. Short enough to read in one setting (though I mostly didn’t) but long enough to ground you in the characters and world, and so pack a dramatic punch.

I wouldn’t argue, given my love of Conrad and some longer SF stories, but here I wasn’t entirely sold. The title story, The Turn of the Screw is quite good and, I’d say, long enough. But I felt like “An International Incident” was an excerpt, almost, from a Portrait of a Lady style novel. Just as you’re getting to really know the character, the story ends.

Now, “leave ’em wanting more” is not a bad motto. But I wasn’t sure, at the end of that one, whether the writer had punted on the nature of the main character’s, em, character, or I had just missed the motivation behind the sudden change in direction. James is kind of fascinating because he’s a person in the story—the narrator—who relates the tale from a third person perspective that might be called “third person apologetic”. It’s not omniscience, to be sure, but it’s not exactly limited, either. More of a “it would be inappropriate to elaborate further”.

Interesting stuff. As far as horror stories go, “The Aspern Papers” struck me as far more horrific than “Screw”, even though it has no actual supernatural elements in it. You could easily get the sense that H.P. Lovecraft was inspired by it: It could’ve easily turned fantastic at several points. Even the title sounds like later horror story titles.

“The Beast in the Jungle” is also a kind of existential horror. The implication is that some sort of supernatural horror is afoot, but the truth is far worse.

Enjoyed it all. “Turn of the Screw” perhaps not as much as the others, ironically.

Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1890-1930

by Don Rayno

Aw, man. I loved this. I was a little miffed on finding that people had been trashing Whiteman’s legacy since the ’40s (on racist grounds) but—well, of course, they have been. That’s the world we live in. I simply came to this music via the Internet Archive and was massively impressed by the artistry and discipline so I got more and more into it, and then stumbled across this 750 page tome describing he first half of Whiteman’s life.

The first 250 pages are narrative and touch on so many great events of American history. Paul’s father was a prominent bandleader in Denver (where Paul would end up being born, and ultimately kicked out of his parents’ home as a way to motivate him!) with schools named after him, and with his students (and Paul’s peers) ultimately joining Paul’s famous band.

And it was huge. Think Beatles-esque fans, only in 1920.

So much fun and the author does a good job touching on all of the conflicting interests that a famous musician encounters without casting good guys or bad guys—though he does take an especial interest in Bix Beiderbecke, the talented, alcoholic cornettist, the death of whom some have tried to laid at Whiteman’s feet. (It’s preposterous and goes with some romantic notion of “having a steady job is murder” that’s popular among non-artists.)

It’s also an englihtening look at the popular music of the time. What people listened to vs. “jazz”, and how Whiteman shaped both in a profound way. Oh, and that little piece he commissioned from Gerswhin…”Rhapsody in Blue”.

Anyway, it’s chock full of great vignettes and staggering financial info, and then “winds down” with 500 pages (!) of itinerary, bibliography, footnotes and indices for the hardcore fan. Carries a hefty pricetag and is not for everyone—at least those last 500 pages won’t be—but well worth it for a student of jazz or the Gilded Age.