Tuesday, November 23, 2010

1958: The Big Time

I don’t know where to begin with The Big Time by Fritz Leiber. First off I’m not even sure this is truly a novel. My copy was only a 129 pages, making me think this more of a novella. It is also one of the strangest time travel stories I have ever read.

There are only three good time travel stories: the Back to the Future Trilogy, the video game Chrono Trigger, and H.G. Wells’ Time Machine . Every other time travel story ends up being too farfetched and requires jumps in logic that I just can’t make. I don’t need stories to be realistic but there should be some internal logic.

The three I mentioned work because for different reasons. Back to the Future doesn’t take itself too seriously, Chrono Trigger is so methodically put together, and The Time Machine takes place so far in future that the usual problems of time travel are irrelevant. Time travel was one of the reasons I couldn’t bring myself to watch Lost (much to the disappointment of my wife and friends). Besides the mysterious island stuff, I didn’t want to get involved in convoluted past timelines, sidelines, forward lines, and I don’t even want to know what else. Sometimes the fiction created is too convoluted and the story cannot hold together
Such is the case with The Big Time. The characters are all part of the “Change War” between the Spiders and the Snakes. Those aren’t the real names of each side, just what they are known as. In fact that is all that is known about them. The Change War is fought by plucking individuals out of history (never anyone famous) and recruiting them to jump to different times and change history to how their side wants it. Following so far? Now, not everyone is a frontline Soldier (caps are the story’s); some people man R&R stations that float through the cosmos and take in battle weary Soldiers.

One of these stations is the setting for The Big Time (just called “The Place”). The narrator is Greta Forzane, an Entertainer. The story begins with three Soldiers becoming after a mission. One of the soldiers is a Nazi officer, another a World War I British soldier and the last one is a Roman legionnaire. This a fairly routine day until another three Soldiers arrive (one a Cretan woman, another a Moon alien from a billion years in the past, and another is an Venusian satyr from a billion years in the future) with an urgent mission and an atomic bomb in a chest. Eventually, “The Place” falls out of sic with the cosmos and they must figure out who caused it before the bomb explodes.

I’m not sure of my feeling on this book. It strange and there is some interesting ideas and characters but at 129 pages it’s difficult to get a handle on everything that is happening. This is both helped and hinder by the narration. Greta is an unreliable narrator and doesn’t always explain things well. It’s a hindrance because that makes the setting very hard to understand. Greta will explain some things but not others. On the other hand her voice is distinct and gives the novel a unique tone. The writing is purposely not always clear because Greta’s mind isn’t always well organized. It is not stream of conscious though so it isn’t as strange as Ulysses. Some of Greta’s actions are creepy. Erich, the Nazi, is sort of her boyfriend and she often and casually mentions that he beats her.

The Big Time was certainly like nothing else. I’m not sure if I would recommend it. It’s too big and strange a concept for such a short novel. Even after finishing it I’m not sure I understand all that happened.
The next book is A Case of Conscience by James Blish. This one is easy to find so it won’t be long.

Friday, October 29, 2010

1956: Double Star

Winner of the 1956 Hugo is Robert Heinlein's Double Star. For those of you who don't know Heinlein casts a large shadow over science fiction. He has won more Hugos then any other author at 4 and also won 1 retro award. Along with Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov, Heinlein is a pillar of Golden Age science fiction. I love the term "Golden Age" because it is always given years after the fact; long enough afterward for best works to be remembered and everything else to be forgotten. In the case of science fiction, the Golden Age is when the genre came out of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and more into the mainstream. This is, if you will, old school science fiction: stories about Mars, men in rockets, and strange aliens.

First and foremost, Double Star was a fun read. The book is narrated in first person by Lawrence Smith aka Lorenzo Smythe aka Great Lorenzo, actor extraordinaire. Lorenzo is full of himself and high sentence, prejudiced against Martian,s and a master of his craft. He also is immensely entertaining and likable. Within the first few pages, I felt I both understood and liked Lorenzo.   Sometimes, the first person narrator can be lost in a story and the observations he gives sound out of place for the character. Not here though. At no point does during Double Star does Heinlein lose Lorenzo's voice. The character feels very whole and real, as do most of the characters surrounding him, with the exception of Penny who feels like the obvious romantic interest and just kind of boring.

Lorenzo is hired to take the place of the prominent leader of the Expansionist Party, John Joseph Bonforte. Initially, he just has to impersonate Bonforte during his initiation into a Martian nest, but that's just the beginning. To tell more would give away the plot but it's a fun journey. I wish the ending had a little more force to it though.

The novel is vague on when exactly it takes place. Lorzeno does not talk about much that isn't relative to him as an actor or the politician that he is impersonating. It takes place far in the future, where the solar system is mostly colonized and ruled by a constitutional monarchy based on the Moon. Mars, Venus, and Ganymede are all populated by aliens. It's an interesting universe, and as far as I know, Heinlein never comes back to it.
I would recommend this to any science fiction fan. It isn't the deepest novel or the most innovative but it is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

1955: They'd Rather Be Right

More like They'd Rather Be Preachy. This book is a step down from the last winner, The Demolished Man, and not a very good novel.
It's also not easy to find. Not a single bookstore I visited had it in stock or on their website. The New Castle County public library system didn't have it either. The University of Delaware library did have it but it was part of the special collections. There were a few copies on the Amazon marketplace but I wasn't so sure I wanted to pay $25 dollars plus shipping for what is considered the worst novel to win the Hugo. Finally, I struck on the idea of looking at the University of Buffalo library, where my brother is studying for his PhD in the Classics. Sure, enough they had a copy and he was able to send it my way.
They'd Rather Be Right wasn't worth the effort. The plot has some promise. In the future (the 1990s, it seems. This was written in 1954 after all), the United States is under Opinion Control so when scientists at Hoxworth University create a supercomputer named "Bossy" they are forced to go on the run with Joe Carter, a young telepath. From a hidden lab on skid row in San Fransisco, the scientists are able to use Bossy to turn an old woman named Mabel into a beautiful young woman with psychosomatic therapy. After that Bossy become well known as everyone wants immortality and blah blah blah.
It doesn't really matter. The remotely interesting premise is squandered on boring one-dimensional characters, a slow plot, and endlessly preachy asides. Every character is a stereotype. Drs. Billings and Hoskins, and every other member of academia, are narrow minded intellectuals who don't so much speak as spout scientific mumbo jumbo. Their dialogue reads like a bad Star Trek episode. As in:
Hoskins: "Do you think (techno babble techno babble)?"
Billings: "No its obvious (techno babble techno babble).
This is not good writing. Science Fiction can be heavy on the science but it needs a good story to back it up. All the non-academic characters act like nothing the "Brains" say is understandable. The telepaths are even worse characters. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Joe is the only telepath and that he manipulated the scientists into working together so they could create Bossy which would turn other people into telepaths. Joe seems to have complete control over his powers and comes across as too perfect and thus uninteresting. For a guy who has been able to read everyone's thoughts since he was a child and has had no training, Joe is remarkably well-adjusted. When Mabel and Carney become telepaths, they also adjust quickly and seem too perfect.
There are so many plot holes. For instance, Joe and the scientists are on the run because they have wronged Opinion Control but what that exactly is is never explained. Its usually treated as an informal but powerful force yet if that is the case why are they running from federal agents? It just doesn't make sense.
The worst part of the book is its endless preachy tone. The authors go on and on about how people can't see beyond their own prejudices, preconceived notions, and tensions and how everyone is secretly full of themselves. Frankly, after the 2nd chapter this gets tiresome. Apparently the supercomputer Bossy is above all that because it only follows facts. Thus Bossy seems too perfect and, like the telepaths, uninteresting.
They'd Rather Be Right isn't worth reading. So far the Hugo Awards has had one good book and one bad. I have faith that the next one, Double Star by Robert Heinlein, will be better. It's easy to find so I should know soon.

One final note: Why did they think a supercomputer named after a cow was a good idea? C'mon- Bossy?!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

1953: The Demolished Man

From the back of The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester: "In 2301 A.D., guns are only museum pieces and benign telepaths sweep the minds of the populace to detect crimes before they happen. in 2301 A.D., homicide is virtually impossible - but one man is about that change that."

And one man does change that. It does not give anything away to know that Ben Reich, one of the two main characters of The Demolished Man, kills his intended target. That's not the point. This novel is about the journey and the ramifications far more then it is about the crime. The joy of this novel is reading how Reich pulls it off and how Lincoln Powell, a powerful Esper (telepathic) detective, tries to prove he did it. 

The cat and mouse game these two play is at the heart of the novel. Reich is not telepathic but he is one of the richest man in the world and uses everything at his disposal to outwit Powell, who has all the resources of the police and the powerful Guild of Espers, as well being a level 1 (the highest level) peeper, the slang term for Espers. 

What is most surprising about this book is how well it has aged. Science fiction, especially from the 1950s, has a habit of feeling very dated. At least that's what I expected. Most of my experience of 1950s science fiction is from movies and I would hard pressed to think of any of them that were good. They were full of rockets and squared jawed all American pilots fighting evil aliens or exploring the final frontier. The Demolished Man isn't like that at all. True, there are rockets and trips to other planets but they treated with no more awe then a character in a modern novel taking a flight to another city. When Powell asks when the next rocket to Venus leaves from Idlewood, he might as well have asked if he could catch the 2:30 flight to London from JFK. An interesting historical note there, JFK Airport in New York was known as Idlewood Airport until 1963. Maybe when it becomes a rocket port the name will change again. 

The two protagonist are hardly squared jawed all American boys either. Ben Reich is a rich amoral industrialist planning to murder his rival and Lincoln Powell is a telepathic cop with a bad habit of playing tricks on people (he calls this part of himself Dishonest Abe) and a strange father/romantic relationship with a woman who has mentally reverted into a baby.

Any science fiction novel, regardless of when it takes place, is a product of its time to some degree. The Demolished Man does not feel like a novel written in the 1953 with a few exceptions. The super computer used to predict the outcome of criminal cases is very antiqued by modern standards. It has a typer writer attached to it and gives answers are reams of paper. Also Venus is a completely habitable planet in this story rather then the unlivable hothouse we know it to be today. But these and a few other minor details hardly take away from the book. The culture in which the novel takes places feels familiar enough to immerse the reader but different enough to feel like another time. The characters use slang that doesn't feel manufactured or forced. The idea that some people are telepathic is perfectly integrated by the author. Bester even changes the flow of the typer to show how different telepathic communication is from regular conversation. 

I would easily recommend this to anyone looking for a good science fiction story. The ending is a little too spelled out for my taste but all and all it was a great read. 

Up next is They'd Rather Be Right aka The Forever Machine. It's a cool title but I have read it is supposed to be the worst book to win the Hugo. It is also very hard to find. Right now I am trying to get it from the special collections of a university library. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Beginning

Hello readers,
A few months ago I started reading the Box of Paperbacks Book Club in the Onion AV Club. The premise is pretty simple. AV Club writer, Keith Phipps, bought a big box of 75 paperback books and is slowly reading his way through them in hopes of finding some new authors and undiscovered gems. Here is link: 


So I thought why not do the same thing myself? Since I don't have a big box of books I decided to read through every Hugo Award novel since the prize's inception in 1953. For those of you who don't know, the Hugo is an award given every year by the World Science Fiction Society for the best sci-fi or fantasy book published that year.  A causal glance showed me that the award was initially dominated by science fiction with fantasy becoming more and more common by the 1990s. Even though all the winners are science fiction or fantasy, the titles alone hint at a great variety of work. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress sounds pretty different then American Gods.  
There are 4 main goals of this blog. 
First and foremost is to find a good book to read. Just a step into a Barnes and Noble or a public library shows that there are a bewildering large number of books. It's hard to judge a book by its cover so hopefully this list of award winners will lead me (and you as well) to some good reads. 
Second I am a writer myself and hope that I can learn something from best genre novels published over the years.
Third, I want to trace of the evolution of science fiction and fantasy of the years. I'm a history buff as well as a sci-fi nerd so it would be interesting to follow the changing ideas of the future and technology in each year. 
The final goal is just to have fun. Reading a good book and sharing it with others is a pleasure. On the flipside going on about why you dislike something is also great fun. 
The first book on the list is the Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. I have never read any of his works or even heard of him before. I have no idea what to expect. 
A quick note about this blog: It will not have a regular posting schedule. The books are all of varying lengths and some are difficult to find. 
Happy reading!