Alien

by Alan Dean Foster

When I realized I wouldn’t be able to read my “E-is-for-Eco” book before bedtime (because I’m trying to avoid looking at screens at night), I figured I would head on to “F” for nighttime reading and this was by Alan Dean Foster, who is I think a competent writer.

But there’s not a lot here. Movie novelizations are tricky at best. Make a movie based on a book, and you can pretty much do whatever. Make a book based on a movie, and you’d probably best not deviate much. At the same time, I think Foster ghost-wrote the novelization of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (Roddenberry took credit) and I seem to recall that had a little more depth than the movie. But this was literally decades ago and also the only other time I read a novelization of a movie.

So, yeah, this is the story of Alien, which is a decent one. It lacks the movie’s style, acting, and shock value, which is about all that movie is. But I didn’t have to look anything up, which is all I was asking for in a book.

Foucault’s Pendulum

by Umberto Eco

I enjoyed Eco’s The Name of the Rose enough to where I was actually looking forward to this rather thick read, and it is very much like that other book, “only more so”. Fundamentally, it’s a kind of mystery, and a tale of group madness and Eco really knows how to put a story like that together.

At the same time, if Rose was steeped in 14th century medieval history, this book is steeped in six hundred years or more of conspiracy theories. Much like Rose it’s not actually a “hard read” in the Joyce-ian sense: The grammar is straightforward and the author doesn’t use language to try to obscure his meaning.

But, man, oh, man. It’s not enough to know about the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Masons, Kabbalah, alchemy and other European delusions. The author spends a chunk of the book in Brazil and details distinctions between the various forms of (what most of us would probably call) voodoo.

I noticed something as the book wore on: Latin and French weren’t translated but German and old English were. I take this to mean Eco understood Latin and French, but not German and Old English. So his audience was limited to people who understood those languages. And who also possess a highly idiosyncratic subset of knowledge. You could probably fit everyone in the world who could read this book without a ton of references into a small room. I doubt it was actually read much at all when it came out.

But I knew, going in, that this would be the case, so it didn’t bother me. (It did take me longer to read because I’ve been trying to avoid looking at screens before bed, and I do most of my reading before bed.) If you wanted a bibliography of historical conspiracy material, this would serve.

What did start to bother me toward the end of the book was Eco’s godlessness. I had this problem with Rose because I didn’t feel like he actually understood sincere religious belief but (perhaps ironically) it bothered me more here, because all of his characters are of the same sort of areligious mold, and most of their thrashing about seems to be the result of this.

Eco was obviously aware of this. A quote beginning a late chapter says something about the loss of faith in God results in a search for meaning through conspiracy. That didn’t make it any less annoying to me, especially as regards to the main character’s search for meaning ending in a rather diminished and prosaic fashion, with no small overtones of nihilism.

It’s not bad, as a book. Eco could plot, he could write, he could write serviceable male characters. (His female characters strike me as implausible, except in how the male characters regard them.) He uses that most awful of authorial cheats, the hallucinogen, to create a sense of wonder that he can then back out of or use to create doubt in the reader’s mind about whether something supernatural is occurring. (This is the literary equivalent of pulling off the mask in “Scooby Doo”.)

But ultimately, I wondered who Eco’s audience was, and I came to believe it was: himself, and people who had his exact same knowledge of esoterica, i.e., himself. And I can’t believe most people are going to find the work involved reading this to be sufficiently rewarded by the story itself. If you’re like me (and I know I am) and you like the research aspect, you’ll probably enjoy the overall effect.

But the difference between me and Eco is that I know there aren’t a lot of people like me. 😉

Growing Up with Manos: The Hands of Fate

by Jackey Neyman Jones, Laura Mazzuca Toops

As Joel Hodgson notes in his introduction to this book, Manos: The Hands of Fate was not the best riff MST3K ever did—not by a long shot. It has become the most notorious for a variety of unclear reasons, one of which is that it is bad in many of the right ways. Although, unlike, say Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its goofy throwback to ’30s-era horror, Manos is also bad in ways that make it a “hard watch”.

Jackey Neyman Jones has diligently researched the topic for her book, which is also based on many of her own personal recollections, as she played “Debbie”, the young daughter of the poor saps who are drawn into The Master’s web of…web of…well, whatever it was The Master was doing up there in San Antonio.

The paradox of the movie (and many like it) is that the very person who has the personality to cause a movie to suddenly spring up in the deserts of Texas is the very person who will aggressively work against the things that might make a decent film. (This is so frequently true in low-budget film-making as to be a cliche.) In this case, our culprit is Harold P. Warren, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in this film.

Some of the stories sounded familiar. If you’ve ever read the brilliant Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, you may recognize the bombastic tales of artistic excellence, overshared profits (that never were), and a charismatic ringleader a bit over-convinced of his own brilliance. And Warren was no Wood, that’s for sure. Warren seems to have had a fair bit of talent at his beck-and-call (which he exploited ruthlessly), and a fair bit of talent in making others’ talent look bad.

The making of Manos included many fixtures of young Jackey’s life: Her father was The Master, and he expertly manipulated her into playing Debbie. Her mother made the (wonderful) black-and-red hands costume The Master wore. The wild sculptures on the set were the work of her father’s, and he had some hand in the special FX as well.

But only part of this book is about the making of Manos. A fair portion is about Ms. Jones, her adoration of her father (who played The Master), and how after a period of estrangement, the sudden re-emergence of the film allowed her to re-connect with her father. You can really understand how the author became the virtual mascot of the MST3K crew, introducing “The Mads” and being at the premiere for the recent MST3K reboot, because people coming together over truly bad (but sincerely made) films is what that show was all about.

There’s a lot of fun stuff about the post-MST3K “Manos” craze, which has been truly phenomenal, with stage productions, sequels, and even a video game based on it. Another (sad) cliche is that, when the whiff of fame and wealth came around, a lot of would-be Warrens came out of the woods to try to exploit it.

There’s a chapter toward the end called something like “Little Debbie reveals all” and, thankfully, she does not. It’s enough to have the arc of her life separating and reconnecting with her dad without the sorts of highly intimate details that fuel some more self-indulgent works. The effect is to be touching without being, you know, gross. (The sort of subtlety missing from, say, the film in question.)

Anyway, this definitely joins Nightmare and The Evil Dead Companion on my list of great low-budget movie-based reads. Much like the MST3K episode that features it, this book is a testament to how even a bad movie (one of the worst even) can result in good things.

Lone Wolf and Cub, Omnibus 3

by Kazuo KoikeGoseki Kojima

So, here I am on volume 3 of the Omnibus, having read a dozen of these stories about this assassin who chops people up while pushing his son around in an increasingly aggressively armed baby carriage, and you’d think maybe this stuff would start to get stale.

If a Westerner did this, it would end up schlocky. Or worse, campy.

But the sincerity of this, where the authors’ earnest passion for the topic neither blinds them to the harsh realities of the time (as one might see, e.g., in a child’s tale about knights) nor drives them to exaggerate the harshness (as one might see, e.g., in a modern Batman or Superman movie), is matched by the artistic skill of its execution.

It’s as if, for every episode, the authors realize that they must bring something new: A new take on the rolling hills or the rice paddies or the brutal battle, sure, but also some new view on a point-of-view, or a historical event, or a character.

For example, this volume features a law that allows a child to be beaten for a crime. I doubt, historically, it was ever used on a toddler like Daigoro, but this story sets up the tension between a thief and lawman, and Daigoro’s sense of honor (as modeled by his father) to create a starkly dramatic moral dilemma. The very exaggeratedness of the situation creates genuine high drama.

In retrospect, I suppose the amazing thing is that you don’t fear for the toddler—Daigoro’s fate was sealed a long time ago—but for everyone else’s soul who would allow something like this to happen.

I’m eager to read the next volume!

Twilight Journey

by L. P. Davies

I don’t know why I picked this one out of all the “D”s. When I started it, it seemed so much like The Artificial Man that I wondered if I grabbed the wrong book. Also, the dystopic nature, though not thoroughly described, felt very much like the one in that book, and I had a recollection of that one as being a 2- or 3- starrer.

Just now checking I see that I gave it four stars, which is what I gave this one—all the while reading it and thinking “Now, this is much better than that last!”—which I suppose comes from reading a bunch of dystopic ’60s/’70s sci-fi, and probably from having read 70 books or more in-between the two.

And it’s true that this era of science-fiction is particularly displeasing to me—especially the dystopic stuff, which is a risible (and worse, what might be called “anti-book:The Toynbee Convector|76783]”) as all of the past several decades’ climate change horrors—and of course most of that eco-horror stuff began back in that era—but for Davies, it’s merely a convenient (and doubtless an instantly recognizable setting for readers of the time).

The “scientific” premise of this book is also particlarly nonsensical: A scientist invents a kind of internalized virtual reality that works through words translated into electrical currents and fed into the brain of a subject. This internalized VR is “more real than real” to the subject. OK, so far, so good—or at least not totally ridiculous.

The ridiculous part of this is that the scientist perceives (and the book’s reality accepts) this as being a good educational tool. An hour of dreaming is equivalent to an hour of experience. This begs the question of why not just have people have the experience, but its primary use is for history and, of course, those past times don’t exist any more.

The first problem one has with this is that the virtual experiences, as described by Davies, are particularly flat and unconvincing. They’re like sets from the Twilight Zone or Star Trek: Mostly just facades for people to recite lines in front of. (And such stilted lines.) Since Davies is a writer (and a good one), he surely had to realize that anything going from words->images was going to be heavily influenced by the subject’s understanding of those words. No mention at all about what happens with words the subject didn’t understand; I guess we’re to presume that a word can be translated into a generic electrical impulse that itself contains the precise semantic content of the word. (The mind reels!)

So, here I am picking at the premise, yet still I give it four stars, and here’s why: Our hero is laying down his life in anticipation of his device being abused by those in power. That is, he sees the potential for abuse, for mind-control, for a totalitarian state, and he’s ready to sacrifice himself to stop that.

Or is he?

Is that, in fact, what’s going on at all?

So, you get hooked on the suspense aspect, and then the characters end up being largely admirable (if not perfect) to various degrees, with just a few dodgy ones, and even those somewhat dismissed. And contrary to The Artificial Man this book works by having a large scope that is focused down to a very narrow, very personal and very believably heroic point.

I like that. I admired how it was done. And it made it easy for me to overlook the premise.

The Devil Is A Part Timer #1

by Satoshi Wagahara

I promised myself I would shelve the books I had left out on my last A-Z run before starting on “A” again. I lied. (Though I did finally shelve them, and I’m only up to “D”.) But then, the whole point of this project was to read the hundreds of books I had accumulated over the years but not yet read.

So, having plucked this book to read before I go on to my L.P. Davies novel—that’s another kind of lie.

Heh.

On the other hand, these are called “light novels” for a reason. Despite clocking in at 240 pages, the pages are dialog-heavy and it was no strain to breeze through this in a couple days. So, it’s minor sin, or perhaps a little white lie. But it’s also a breeze because it’s cute and funny, and a nice little send-up of a lot of popular Japanese tropes.

Last year, to try to connect with “the younger generation” (my kids, really), I started watching some anime on their recommendation. My previous attempts at watching anime (going back to before they were born) had been a decidedly mixed bag, as Japanese tropes can seem as dumb to Westerners as I imagine Western tropes seem to the Japanese. But with my kids making suggestions, I had found some series to watch that were quite good. (Doubly challenging, as I find TV series increasingly hard to bear.)

But I saw this whimsical show titled “The Devil is a Part Timer” and watched it, and then turned them on to it. And it became something we all enjoyed for a variety of reasons.

The typical story of this type has a super-powered teen learning how to control his or her powers at a school in preparation for some horrible situation that exists, or is about to arise. Being teens (and more importantly, being aimed at a teen audience) this means that teen angst and melodrama is given a backdrop of epic magnitude.

TDIAPT, on the other hand, begins at the end of an epic battle, when a defeated Satan flees to earth to escape The Hero, and finds himself a powerless human teen, struggling to make ends meet with his sole minion, and being pursued by the Hero, similarly reduced in condition.

It’s not really a “fish out of water” scenario in the usual sense of humor coming from people misunderstanding the little things that are common knowledge in modern life; our other-worldly characters seem to have a good grasp on the events and trends of the day. But where a more typical anime might have an existential struggle punctuated with melodrama on the level of who takes whom to the prom, TDIAPT imposes the epic drama of its back story on the banalities of everyday life.

So, instead of two warrioresses fighting for their lives against some kaiju (giant monster) and one suddenly crying out “Why wouldn’t you let me borrow that dress?”—and I swear I’ve seen something very much like this—the Devil will celebrate the $1/hour raise he gets as taking him another step toward full-time employment which is just another stepping stone to conquer the world!

The bombast coming from such events as making the rent, buying a refrigerator, or the betrayal when the demon’s general discovers that he has been sneaking out to the occasional movie—which occurs when they are locked in an epic, existential battle, come to think of it—provides a lot of laughs.

But one of the other reasons it’s so popular around here is that the Devil loves his job, and does it very well, much to the surprise of those who know him. My son, on viewing the series, said it had given him a new perspective on employment. If the Devil can work a job like MgRonald’s with enthusiasm and see his path to world domination from it, my son figured he could, too. He’s highly technically skilled, so he doesn’t have to, but it’s always a good thing to remember that honest work is honest work, and there’s no shame in it.

It’s not a bad reminder for anyone.

The series hews to the book remarkably closely, making some condensations and allowances for things, but that should tell you again how “light” this is: The 240 pages are effectively shrunk into about six episodes, or about 144 minutes, from the Devil’s arrival in Japan to the big reveal of Things Aren’t Quite What They Seem Back Home in episode six.

A few jokes have been added to the series that are not in the book, and some exposition—things that make you shrug and say “Huh…well, that’s anime for ya” in the series—is provided so that the book actually makes a whole lot more sense, conventionally, then the series. There’s also a little more insight into the Devil’s (and Hero’s) psychology, which is somewhat murky in the series. It’s clearer that his plans for world domination are sincere, but not all that menacing.

Anyway, I did enjoy it. And I can see why all these Japanese kids (in anime and movies) have bookshelves full of these light novels. You could literally read all eighteen books in the series in a month, I’m guessing, without breaking a sweat.
—-
On re-read, it’s not as “unwritten” as I recalled, and there is a kind of meticulousness to the plotting. It’s not (at least in its English translation) something you’d read for the density of its craftsmanship, though. I re-read it as a prelude to reading volume 2.

A Caribbean Mystery

by Agatha Christie

When I started this, I wondered if maybe I had read it before, but I realized that that was just Miss Marple’s voice I was hearing, which is very distinctive and not much like Jessica Fletcher at all. But there’s not much similarity: Marple is old, acts old, uses her age to her advantage in solving crimes, whereas Fletcher is more an ’80s you-go-girl type. (And of course Lansbury’s 60s were dominated by making two dozen hour-long episodes a year—a grueling feat at any age.)

Anyway, the nice thing about Christie and this book is that it’s Just What It Says On The Tin. Marple’s down in the Caribbean, when an old guy dies. (But she knows it’s murder!) It’s sort of amusing that the guy who dies is a bore that no one paid much attention to, and therefore nobody can really put together clues that would lead to the capture of his murder.

Christie throws up enough distractions and subplots to keep you guessing, though everything ties together neatly at the end. I guessed the murderer early on, and then forgot, because all of the misdirection and cross-currents going on. (Also, my guess was based on “Who’s the least likely person to have done it? Now, what would that person’s motive be?”) Anyway, when it is revealed, it actually makes a lot of sense, and is really fairly simple.

That’s good stuff, right there. Also, Christie plays a lot on Marple’s relative helplessness—exaggerated though it is—and manages to create a good atmosphere of suspense from Marple not knowing quite how to act, but knowing something’s About To Go Down.

The tone is spot-on as well. The problem with murder mysteries is that they must be somewhat callous. One is not to get caught up in the actual human drama of death, or the fun goes out of the proceedings. At the same time, to be glib about it reveals too clearly that this is an exercise like sudoku or (more aptly) the Zebra Puzzle. Christie does a good job fleshing out her characters without miring things down.

A top-notch example of the genre.

A Life for the Stars

by James Blish

I felt at first like this book was going to just plod along. It’s listed as “Cities in Flight, #2” but I don’t think this is a series so much as a shared universe, so you don’t miss much (if anything) by starting here. In any event, you get a lot of none-too-thrilling exposition up front. The book is actually peppered with it, and it’s probably a good reminder for writers of what NOT to do.

Or, at least, in my experience, it seems like an un-engaging way to do things, not that I can’t appreciate how difficult it is to tell a concise story in a truly foreign civilization without such things.

It doesn’t help that some of this exposition is just terribly wrong, too, and sometimes unnecessary. Written in the ’50s (I think), the author states, flatly, that neither Communism nor Fascism has ever been tried on earth. (It’s usual to hear defenders of Communism state that; to hear Fascism put in the same terms is odd, to say the least.) The author demonizes cholesterol, saying only women need it (and I think while they’re pregnant) which—I’m not sure on this—may have been cutting edge medical theory back then. A sort of immortality is obtained by preventing all viral disease and eliminating cholesterol and one other thing, I forget what.

One doesn’t expect the science in old SciFi to be good, of course, just fitting the best understanding of the time. It just seemed like there were a lot of “own goals”, one might say.

That aside, this is a book that seems too short for what it wants to do. It’s kind of an epic tale, and when you figure in all the exposition already there, it’s still got so many holes and missing parts that it feels like a shadow of what it might have been.

The “third act” is pretty strong, though. It uses a lot of what was set up to its advantage. It wraps up super quick, though, and comes across like a “young adult” novel (which maybe it’s supposed to be, I don’t know).

Trivia: James Blish ended up novelizing many of the episodes of “Star Trek”, which he had no involvement with and had not even seen prior to novelizing them, but this novel contains the phrase “Prime Directive” and, unrelatedly, the concept of not interfering with alien cultures. (Although, not that alien, since they’re all Earth colonies.) So perhaps Roddenberry was aware of Blish.

An Island Called Moreau

by Brian W. Aldiss

I told myself I would read the books (magazines, actually) that had accumulated in my latest trip from A-Z, before starting back on “A” again, at least until I had reshelved the last set.

I lied.

And “A” brings me back around to Aldiss, that morose mofo who seems to see gloomy apocalypse around every corner, and who has revisited H.G. Wells unpleasant tale The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Aldiss can write and plot, though, so the book is a good read, and a reasonable update (for 1981) of Wells’ story, which is considered here to be based on a real person. The update involves a grownup Thalidomide baby who—actually, sort of surprisingly, isn’t working on a way to fix himself, but instead coming up with newer, better teratogenic (mutating fetuses) chemicals.

Eh. It’s pretty unpleasant, much like the original—though at least it lacks the torture of the original—but additionally because of general misanthropy, which seems to be a recurring theme in Aldiss’ books. And the main character is an officious jerk of the first water whose every action brings death and destruction to the island, and yet who feels little to no responsibility for any of it.

The reveals will probably not shock you.

Because its 1980 and Dr. Moreau, you just know bestiality is going to come into this (and it does), but Aldiss goes out of his way to introduce pedophilia as well. I mean, straight-up pedophilia, not even couched in bestiality.

When I see stuff like this in SF, I tend to blame Heinlein, who achieved some kind of mainstream relevance with the aggressive promiscuity in Stranger in a Strange Land—and once you’ve done all the variants of sex with adults possible (including adult children) where’s left to go?

I don’t know if it holds water as a theory, especially here. Aldiss creates a world of mutants, where the mutants are very unsuccessful at having children, generally, and then creates a fully human child from mutant offspring, and has this four-year-old human girl participate enthusiastically in orgies. It’s only a few lines, including a really gross one at the end. (She refers to herself—I’m not making this up—as “sucky Satsu”.)

I really don’t get it. Was there a statement to be made here about Our Hero’s uptight devotion to a despicable system? Was it mere provocation? Is Aldiss a serious perv? He’s still alive. Maybe someone should ask him.

Anyway, like the other Aldiss stuff I’ve read, we have a good story marred by a relentlessly gloomy (and ultimately preachy) outlook and (in this case) sexual weirdness.

CreatureTech

By Doug TenNapel

Before I go back to “A” I figured I would read some of the books that have accumulated newly (as they always seem to somehow!) upon my file cabinet over the days. I also realized that reading Aristotle while waiting at the barber shop was seldom productive, and perhaps a comic book/graphic novel would be more appropriate.

So it came to pass that I read this book, which I picked up after reading the (rather disappointing) Manga collection, and finding TenNapel being one of two authors I really liked. Andi Watson being the other.

And, well, it’s good. It’s a familiar sort of story at this point—paranormal investigator investigating paranormal things—with some refreshing twists: The guy in question has been thrown into the small town of Turlock where he must go through a bunch of Raiders of the Lost Ark-style crates for the government, and in this story, a strange set of events results in a lich after the Shroud of Turin in order to revive a giant space eel, in the service of world domination.

Our hero is equipped with a motorcycle, an alien symbiote, a steadfast old farmer who taught himself quantum physics as a lark one weekend, and a bad attitude opposing science and religion. Turlock being the hometown he escaped, and his father being the pastor adds a little drama.

It’s a good mix. Some of the theological stuff is a little clunky, but in a world glutted with attempts to make comic books relevant by adding sex and gore, it’s nice to have one that tries to approach things from a spiritual angle. It also tends to make the book quite a bit happier, overall, than most.

So, I’d recommend. Good art, nice ink, lettering is quite legible.