Tag Archives: book

Four Tomorrows (Nine Tomorrows, first half; 2-26-1959)

For twenty years, Isaac Asimov (spelled with an “s”) has been a name synonymous with science fiction.  Quite recently, Asimov has been making a name for himself as a science fact writer a la Willy Ley.  It’s a natural transition, I think, so long as you can swing it.  Thus far, I’ve preferred Asimov’s defunct column in Astounding to the one he does for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but that doesn’t mean the latter one is at all bad.

But today, I’m going to focus on Asimov the science fiction writer.  I’ve a confession to make: I recognize that Asimov is one of the field’s major icons, but I’ve always found his work, well… workmanlike.  Unlike Dick or Sturgeon or Sheckley, there’s not much flavor to his stuff, and the writing and concepts are still rooted in the Golden Age of Campbell.  I have a suspicion that his stuff will date poorly.

Why do I pick this particular moment to faintly praise my colleague in age, ethnicity and interests?  Nine Tomorrows, an anthology of recent Asimov fiction was just published, and I thought you’d like to know what I think.  I’ll cover the first half today.

Being an avid digest reader, several of the stories were already familiar to me.  To wit, I read the lead novella Profession in Astounding back in June of ’57.  In the story, it’s the far future.  Humanity has spread across the stars, and the demand for specialized knowledge is so acute that people now have a college degree imprinted in their brains at age 18.  Yes, it’s another “everyone does the job they are best suited for, and the one who can’t be programmed ends up running the game.”  I liked it better the second time around, but it is hard for me to swallow that there can be sufficient innovation at the hands of so very few innovators.  I am not surprised to hear (through the grapevine) that this was a Galaxy reject before Campbell took it.

The Feeling of Power came out in IF about a year ago, and it covers similar ground.  In a world where all mathematical computations are done by computer, manual/mental arithmetic is seen not only as wasteful but impossible!  It’d be good satire if Asimov meant it as such, but I don’t think it is.  Interestingly, Asimov posits that computers will have a minimum effective size and, as such, missile guidance will always be limited to a subhuman level of accuracy and responsiveness.  In Power, it is concluded that the best use of the rediscovered human computation ability would be to employ humans as pilots for spacecraft and missiles. 

It is such a strange point for the author to assert as even he concedes in other stories that computer logic components, if not computers as a whole, are trending toward the smaller.  From mechanical switches to vacuum tubes to transistors.  I don’t know what’s next, but I suspect it’s not far off.  Oh well.

If you like Asimov’s scientifically inspired mysteries, you might enjoy The Dying Night.  It’s a straight whodunnit with the key to the puzzle being the environment in which the murderer has lived.  Not bad.  Apparently, it came out in one of the F&SF issues I missed before I started reading them regularly (July 1956).

Finally, for today, is I’m in Marsport without Hilda, which came out in Venture in the November 1957 issue (after Robert Silverberg made me stop reading it with his vile, misogynistic tale, Eve and the Twenty-three Adams–it’s right up there with Queen Bee).  It has the potential to be cringeworthy, but it degenerates (evolves?) into another decent whodunnit with a slightly dirty, somewhat silly solution. 

I note and applaud that Asimov makes a conscious effort to include an international cast of characters in his stories.  If only he’d recognize that women are people too…

So, thus far, a solid 3, maybe 3.5 stars out of 5.  Not at all bad, but not the work I’d ascribe to a master, either.

See you on the 28th!

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The Mixed Men by A. E. Van Vogt (1-23-1959)

The best-laid plans of mice and men…

So here I am on a DC-7C turbo-prop headed for the emerald isle of Kaua’i.  A full week of lying out on the beach with nothing but my family, my typewriter, and a large backlog of books and magazines.  I had intended to write, today, about the rest of the February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Unfortunately, due to a S.N.A.F.U. in bag-packing, that magazine was unavailable to me for the flight out. 

But every cloud has a silver lining.  As it turned out, I had packed a random A.E.Van Vogt novel called The Mixed Men.  It was published some seven years ago, and the original stories from which it was compiled were published during the War.  I finished the short novel in just a few hours, and, as the flight takes nearly half a day, I found myself with time to write this article and flash it to my editor.  On time for the evening edition, no less!

The book is very very good.

I read a lot of science fiction, and precious few authors write advanced technology and settings in a way that is not destined to become dated in short order.  There is an art to boldly plotting the future while keeping the descriptions of the advanced components of technology non-specific.  Van Vogt, of course, is well-regarded for a reason.  A spiritual descendant of Doc Smith, his space opera is both sweeping and plausible. 

In The Mixed Men, it is some tens of thousands of years in the future, and humanity has colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy.  The Imperial Battleship Star Cluster has been dispatched to the Greater Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy of ours) on a ten-year mapping mission.  The vessel is enormous, fully a mile long and crewed by 30,000 men and women. 

Significantly and refreshingly, its skipper is a woman, the viewpoint character Lady Gloria Laurr.  More refreshingly, she is brilliant and capable (gasp!)

The story: at the tail-end of the Star Cluster’s assignment, the ship finds incontrovertible evidence of a human presence spanning the Greater Magellanic Cloud.  Complicating the matter is the revelation that the Magellanic peoples are actually mutant refugees (and their non-mutant allies) from Earth.  The mutants possess superhuman intelligence and strength, but at the cost of their creativity.  The “robots,” as they were pejoratively labelled, were reviled by “normal” humanity and became the victims of a genocidal war prosecuted against them some 15,000 years prior.  They were forced to flee our galaxy to the Magellanic Cloud, where they have now lived for millennia on 50 hidden worlds.

With the discovery of this renegade branch of humanity, Lady Gloria orders the ship to undertake a new mission: the incorporation of the 50 worlds into the Terran Empire—by force, if necessary.  Her aim is not subjugation for its own sake.  The Imperial policy is one of freedom and democracy for all, but no independent states are allowed to exist for fear that an external force might pose a threat to the Empire.

Lady Gloria’s decision predictably leads to an all-out conflict with the Magellanic state, which also has a protagonist in the person of Peter Maitland.  Ostensibly an astrogator on a Magellanic warship, Maitland is actually the hereditary leader of the “Mixed Men,” offspring of the mutants and non-mutants.  These Mixed Men have double-brains conferring to them the brilliance and toughness of the mutants as well as the creativity of normal humans.  Moreover, Mixed Men have the ability to exert psychic domination upon others making them quite formidable indeed.

Just as the mutants were mistrusted and shunned by Earth, so are the Mixed Men discriminated against by the Magellanic Government.  Thus, the Mixed Men are forced to constitute a hidden state within the 50 worlds. 

Confused yet?  And that’s just the set-up!  Yet the story flows quite naturally and with a strong personal connection.  There are wheels within wheels, machination after machination, and best of all, intelligent decisions made all around from beginning to end.  If I have any quibble at all, it is that the second half flags slightly after the brilliance of the first half; Van Vogt was not quite able to completely caulk over the seams of the three stories that make up the book.  I also felt a little uneasy at the mind-control exerted not just by Maitland, but by Lady Gloria (the latter using machinery where Maitland needs only his mind).  But only a little: Van Vogt sensitively restrains himself from portraying mind-rape, for which I am grateful.

In short, The Mixed Men is science fiction that is at once of the widest and narrowest scope.  Whole galaxies are involved, yet the players are few and well-drawn.  I heartily recommend it.  Interestingly, going back over my old Astoundings, I see P. Schuyler Miller didn’t like it much, and he felt the protagonist “wasn’t very convincing.” I wonder which protagonist he’s talking about.  I liked ’em both.  I know, too, that Van Vogt has been attacked for reworking his short stories into “fix-up” novels, but I think it worked pretty well with this one.

Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for another article and photos from Nawiliwili Bay!

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If we’re not alone, will we be lonely?  (12-20-1958)

Are we alone in the universe?  That’s a question that has been asked with greater frequency and intensity recently, corresponding with Humanity’s first faltering steps into outer space.  Are we about to enter an interstellar community?

If you ask me, the answer is “no.” The time scales involved are just too immense.  Allow me to explain.  Let’s be optimistic and assume that most stars have solar systems like ours around them.  Let’s be more optimistic (starry-eyed?) and assume that a good portion of these solar systems possess Earth-like planets that can support life.  There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy—perhaps as many as 300 billion.  Surely, around some of these stars, intelligent life must have evolved.

I don’t dispute any of the above, actually.  I think life is a fair inevitability given the right original conditions, and once you have a creature that is multi-cellular, eats other creatures, and is mobile, you have a creature that would benefit from some kind of brain.  Once the brain gets started, it seems likely that it would continue to grow in the creature’s descendants as intelligence is generally a useful trait.

Here’s the problem: Homo Sapiens, if we are being charitable, has been a species for about a million years.  We have been a civilized society (again, charitably) for 6,000 years.  Industrialization began 200 years ago, and space travel is exactly one year old.  At this rate, we’ll have a window of a few hundred or maybe even a thousand years during which we will be spacefaring and recognizably human, whereupon we will “graduate” to whatever the next step is.  Or we’ll blow up the Earth when the Federation of Atomic Scientists’ clock strikes Midnight. 

That few thousand years compared to the entire history of the universe is a razor thin slice.  It’s the width of a penny atop the Empire State Building.  Sure, there are probably intelligent aliens out there, but odds are extremely high that they are either behind us, and therefore limited to their planet, or beyond us, and therefore uninterested.  Humanoid aliens with technological levels similar to ours make decent fiction, but they might as well be fantasy, not science fiction.

If we ever do meet an alien civilization, it is bound to be unrecognizably alien and bewilderingly beyond our comprehension technologically.  Not many authors have tackled the subject, but some stories do exist.  Clarke’s Childhood’s End is perhaps the archetypical example.  Much of that book is devoted just to the effects this contact would have on humanity: the humbling, the shaming, the frustration, and the technological/sociological benefit. 

Another example, and the catalyst for this article, is William Tenn’s Firewater.  This story actually came out six years ago in Astounding (where I missed it), but it was recently reprinted in a Tenn anthology called Time in Advance.  Tenn is a good writer; I have come to look forward to his stuff, and the anthology is worth picking up.

In Childhood’s End, the aliens at least had the decency to talk to us.  In Tenn’s story, they appear simply as jiggling dots in ethereal brown or umber bottles floating above our cities.  They hang in the sky, watching us, intentions unknown.  If we attack them, with rocks or missiles, it has no effect.  Worse, it sometimes invites retaliation—the destruction of the weapon and/or the weapon’s user. 

Yet, there are some people who can communicate with them.  These are the Primes—people who have lost their sanity trying to conform to the aliens’ thought patterns.  In doing so, they have acquired the ability to do tremendous psionic feats, but they are also quite mad.  The Primes live on reservations camped out next to a congregation of aliens in Arizona.

The Primes have figured out a number of technological and sociological advances, though they do not apply them.  It is a kind of game to them.  Moreover, because dealing with the Primes can be so dangerous, due to their instability and contagious insanity, dealing with them is highly illegal.

One person, Algernon Hebster, is willing to take that risk.  A highly successful businessman, he has perfected the art of trading with the Primes, exchanging various artistic gimcracks for new technologies: washless dishes, better televisions, finer clothing, etc.  But his situation is becoming increasingly untenable.  The United Humanity government is hot on his trail with an investigation into his illegal activities and the atavistic Humanity First movement is plotting a revolution with Hebster as Enemy No. 1. 

I particularly liked Hebster’s (admittedly over-simple) analogy for the situation.  He likens Earth’s contact with a vastly more-technologically advanced civilization to the (devastating) meeting of the American Indians and the Europeans.  The native Americans generally responded in one of two ways: they either resisted the Europeans, futilely (as Humanity First wishes to do in the story), or they were subjugated, accepting the European firewater and becoming worn-out shadows of themselves. 

There was a third kind of Indian, however (in Hebster’s analogy).  This one didn’t fight the Europeans nor had any interest in firewater.  What was exciting to this Indian was the bottle in which the firewater came.  This artifact represented a product of a technology far beyond what was possible for the natives, and it was something that could be traded for, if one were canny enough to develop goods that the Europeans wanted.  Hebster notes that after a wretched period of adjustment, the American Indian cultures adapted to the new situation and managed even to profit from it.  Perhaps humanity as a whole could do the same, if a good that the aliens wanted could be found and developed.

How Hebster deals with this crisis and ultimately is the lynchpin to establishing real contact with the aliens, makes for an excellent 50 pages of reading.  It is an ambitious story, and one of the few attempts to posit a truly alien species and the likely effects the meeting with such a race would have on humanity. 

Find it.  Read it.  Let me know what you think.

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The Incomplete Enchanter (12-12-1958)

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I’ve given anything unreserved praise.  Moreover, it’s been a while since I’ve reported on anything really fun.  To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. 

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago.  He didn’t write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels.  He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College. 

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together.  Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber.  It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic.  Sort of.  You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”).  Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea’s adventures.  They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940.  In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology.  He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok.  None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional.  On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy.  This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect. 

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants.  All of this is written with a fun, light touch.  Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don’t go too badly. 

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition.  This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers.  They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queen.  It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse.  Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart).  It’s all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun.  It’s also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer’s realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review.  There are so many fun scenes.  For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine ‘Goldtop’, after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor.  Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword.  The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent’s armor.  These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter… or you really must do so post-haste!

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Killing Time (Robert Sheckley’s Timekiller; 12-06-1958)

Regular readers of this column know that I am unreserved in my praise of Robert Sheckley.  Since bursting on the scene early this decade, he and his alter-ego, Finn O’Donnovan, have graced the pages of Astounding and Galaxy and probably more magazines.  If you haven’t read his three short-story anthologies, you need to plunk down the $1.05 and expand your library.

I’m not quite so enthusiastic about Sheckley’s first novel, serialized in Galaxy as Timekiller.  It’s not bad; it just doesn’t rise to the standard set by his shorter work.

Timekiller is the story of the bland Thomas Blaine, a junior yacht designer from 1958.  He lives a pleasant but uninteresting life as the dogsbody of an East Coast boatwright.  Blaine is charming-enough, but he’s never really scored with ladies, work or life.  On the way home one night, his car swerves out of control causing a fatal collision with an oncoming driver.

Yet Blaine awakens—in 2110!  It turns out that some time in-between Blaine’s death and rebirth, it is discovered that each person has a soul distinct from his/her body, and about one in ten thousand make it through the death trauma with the soul intact.  The soul hovers about in a transition between Here and the Hereafter, occasionally causing unrest on Earth.  Hence the stories of ghosts and poltergeists.

Not long after the discovery that one’s persona survives death, a company is founded to insure that everyone with enough cash on hand can safely navigate death and journey to the Hereafter.  The company is fittingly called “Immortality, Inc.” Unfortunately, the work of this company has played havoc with the world’s religions, who are staunchly against Immortality, Inc.  This is why they tried to save the soul of a 1958 religious leader, who could serve as a spokesman for the company after his resurrection.

Unfortunately for Immortality, Inc., they got Blaine instead.

I commented in an earlier piece that science fiction authors tend to incorporate only one or two truly revolutionary changes into their stories, either for fear of alienating their audiences or for inability to envision more (or both).  Sheckley’s future is not that different, technologically, except for the flying cars that we all expect to be driving.  Instead, Sheckley focuses on the social and medical implications of resurrection.  People sell their bodies in exchange for Hereafter insurance to rich people who want to stay on Earth for another lifetime.  Others transplant their souls to other bodies for kicks or more-nefarious purposes.  Imperfectly transplanted souls never synchronize properly with their host bodies, which become zombies and eventually decay to uselessness. 

In a story about independent souls, the consuming questions to my mind are (1) does a transplant body retain any vestiges of the old soul inhabitant? and (2) what is the Hereafter like?  The first is answered pretty well.  The second isn’t touched upon.  I suppose that makes sense, but it is hardly satisfying.

My issue isn’t with set-up but rather the execution, which is a bit lacking.  Much of this can be attributed to the format.  The novel began serialization way back in the October 1958 issue of Galaxy, and it was spread over an unprecedented four installments.  As a result, the story reads a lot like four connected novellas.  The first primarily deals with Blaine’s arrival, in which Blaine narrowly escapes death at the hands of a body peddler.  In part two, Blaine is a “hunter,” an assassin hired for an elaborate suicide game in which the quarry expects to die in a blaze of combat.  Part three, perhaps the most interesting, reveals a sinister plot against Blaine’s life and introduces us to the subterranean zombie community.  Part four wraps things up in an exciting escape from the country and finishes off with a good (though not unguessable) twist.

Because of the format, Timekiller feels a bit padded and uncoordinated.  I had a similar problem with Heinlein’s latest serial, Have Spacesuit Will Travel; Part 2 of that novel was largely filled with an exciting but rather pointless escape attempt that ended in frustration. 

The characters in Timekiller aren’t terribly exciting either.  Most prominent besides Blaine is Marie Thorne, the scientist in charge of Blaine’s recovery; she ends up largely a love interest.  The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, though I did like Ray Melhill, a fellow target of the aforementioned body peddler, who provides Blaine a lot of assistance despite being dead most of the story.  Smith, a zombie, probably has the most interesting story to tell, and his thread runs from beginning to end.

So what’s the final verdict?  I’m afraid this review makes me sound a bit harsh.  Timekiller is thoroughly readable, and the world it portrays does capture the imagination.  I could see the novel being improved in editing for book publication, which I understand is forthcoming.  As is, however, it is merely competent.

For Bob Sheckley, that’s damned faint praise indeed.

3 stars out of 5.

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Beyond this Horizon (11-21-1958)

The traveling circus has moved to Osaka, Japan’s second metropolis.  It’s a grubby, earthy place, with a colorful dialect and brasher manners.  For an American, it’s actually kind of refreshing; the formality is less forced.  Like Tokyo, the city is alive with new construction and industry.  In contrast to cities back home, which have infrastructure dating back to the turn of the century, Japan looks like the future. 

It was thus the perfect place to finish Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon, which was first published under a pseudonym back in 1942 and republished under his own name in 1948.  This was a second-hand copy I’d picked up specifically for this trip. 

Beyond this Horizon is an odd duck of a novel, particularly in comparison to Heinlein’s recent, more conventional works (i.e. The Puppet Masters, The Door into Summer, etc.).  It divides neatly into three parts, and only the middle section has any real plot.  I didn’t read the version originally serialized in Astounding, but I imagine much of the disjointed nature stems from the story having been written for magazine publication.

The book is set in a utopic far future, and it follows the life of Hamilton Felix (the order of names is reversed, Japanese-style, for reasons central to the premise of story).  He is the genetically superior result of a dozen generations of eugenic breeding.  In this regard, he is no different from most of his fellows.  Most everyone on Earth in the story is the result of the weeding out of undesirable traits and the promotion of positive ones.  People are allowed to find their own mates, but the children are artificially assisted to be the best possible offspring.  Only the “control normals” are left unmodified.

Hamilton’s primary involvement in the story is to be resistant to the possibility of having offspring (the first part), to infiltrate and disrupt a revolutionary group bent on deposing the world government and eliminating the control normals (the second part), and to give in to having offspring (the third part).  Hamilton’s children offer glimpses into an understanding of the world beyond the veil of mortality, the philosophical and scientific exploration of which is a recurring theme.

It is difficult to tell with Heinlein when he is portraying the mores and opinions of his characters and when his characters are simply spouting the mores and opinions of Heinlein.  I suspect the latter is more common.  I find this book fascinating as it makes a point of distinguishing between bad eugenics (which led to two devastating wars in Beyond’s timeline) and good eugenics as practiced by the government in the book.  Hamilton is, himself, dubious of the benevolence of the concept as exemplified by his statement in Part 1, “There is something a little terrifying about a man with too long a view.” Given that the world war raging at the time the book was written was in large part motivated by eugenics, the positive portrayal of same is a bit disturbing. 

On the other hand, Heinlein may simply be a seer.  In the book, the field of ultramicroscopy makes genetic mapping possible and turns breeding into a scientific art.  With the recent discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick, we seem right on Heinlein’s predicted schedule.  Who’s to say that we won’t soon find it desirable to edit out the genes that may cause disease and disorder for the good of humanity?

The other concept explored by Heinlein in the book is the idea of universal bearing of arms.  Most of the men pack heat (so long as they are sober), and many women as well.  It is made clear by the wearing of distinctive clothing that one is in an unarmed state, and those wearing the signifying brassards must defer to their armed fellows.

For most of the book, the practice is neither lauded nor condemned.  It simply is.  Near the end, however, one of the main characters praises the practice.  He recites the old maxim, “An armed society is a polite society.” As depicted in Heinlein’s novel, an armed society is an overly peevish one, prone to potentially lethal dueling for the most trifling of insults.  The other justification is that it weeds out the overly combative, a crude element of the eugenics project, essentially.  I suppose this makes sense coming out of the mouth of someone in Beyond’s world.  I hope Bob Heinlein doesn’t agree with him.

There are no female viewpoint characters, but many strong women are featured, and one has a decidedly central role to play in scouting “Beyond this Horizon.” I don’t know if Heinlein was exceptionally progressive (this was 1942!), or if we’ve simply gone backwards since the war.  Perhaps both–Heinlein generally populates his stories with smart, resourceful females, even if they are never quite the star.

Hamilton’s son, the only child character, does not fare so well.  In fact, other than his spotless genetics, I can find nothing at all to endear him to anyone.  I don’t know if Heinlein has kids, but I’d bet that he was not a father back in 1942, otherwise the relationship between dad and boy would have rung more true.  On the other hand, perhaps the lack of connection was meant to be a commentary on the world they inhabited. 

In summary, Beyond this Horizon is a bit of a meandering, preachy mess.  It is, however, quite readable.  Moreover, like many of Heinlein’s works, it does an excellent job of portraying a future, if not the future.  Heinlein presents the technology and culture with a glib vagueness that will help preserve the novel from becoming dated. 

3 stars out of 5.

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Pilgrimage to Earth (11-19-1958)

There is nothing that satisfies like a good collection of short stories.  And there is nobody who consistently releases good collections of short stories like Robert Sheckley.

A fellow lanzmann, Bob Sheckley emerged onto the science fiction magazine scene early in this decade, and he has elevated the standards of every digest for which he’s written (Galaxy seems to be his primary literary residence).  His first compilation, 1954’s Untouched by Human Hands, was a masterpiece right out of the gate.  I am especially partial to his second collection, Citizen of the Galaxy, perhaps because it is the first one I read.  It was published in 1955.

Somehow, I missed his third, Pilgrimage to Earth, even though it was published last year (1957).  It’s good, though perhaps not quite as good as the previous two.  It does deliver the qualities I’ve come to expect from Mr. Sheckley–whimsy, comedy, satire, horror.  The collection also has several stories I had missed when they were first published.

Standouts include the AAA Ace stories, Milk Run and Lifeboat Mutiny, featuring the unlucky yet plucky interstellar hustlers, Gregor and Arnold.  Bad Medicine, in which the protagonist receives psychiatric aid from a machine tuned to the Martian brain, is quite good.  I enjoyed All the Things You Are, a tale of a disastrous first contact between humanity and an alien race, but with an unexpectedly happy coda.  Protection is a cautionary tale regarding guardian angels–sometimes we’re better off without their help!

There are a few stories in this collection that miss the mark, to my mind.  These are stories that betray a certain degree of misogyny or at least resentment toward the female (I understand Mr. Sheckley divorced a few years back, and this may have colored his views; he is recently re-married, mazel tov.) We saw a bit of this attitude in last collection’s Ticket to Tranai and it is quite evident in the titular Pilgrimage to Earth.  In the latter story, a hayseed colonist travels to Earth, where he purchases a very convincing love affair.  The unsatisfactory ending leaves him bitter and soon a customer of another Earth commercial specialty–shooting galleries with live women as targets. 

Also unpleasant was Fear in the Night.  I won’t spoil the story, but it highly disturbed my wife when she read it. 

On the other hand, Human Man’s Burden features a mail-order settler’s bride, but the execution and the twist make the story surprisingly good.  There is a bit of male fantasy and wish-fulfillment in it, but I thought the bride was well-developed and a strong, self-reliant character.

In short, this collection is worth getting despite being more of a mixed bag than the previous two.  I am not too worried.  Anyone as prolific as Sheckley is bound to dash out a few clunkers, and perhaps his second try at marital bliss will improve his outlook on women.  Moreover, I’ve enjoyed Sheckley’s (and his alter-ego, Finn Donnovan’s) recent, as-yet unanthologized stories, and that’s a good sign.

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Farmer in the Sky (11-09-1958)

When I started this column, I had not expected this to turn into a travelogue.  Given that I do much of my reading on a plane heading somewhere glamorous and exciting, I suppose it can’t be helped.  I hope you can all bear with me.

Northwest Orient, a Seattle-based airline, has been filling the air waves with advertisements about their shorter route to “The Orient” (i.e. East Asia).  Well, I decided to bite, and this weekend found us on a plane to the Far East.  There is no direct route to Japan, but Northwest has the next best thing: after a hop back to Seattle (how familiar!), there was a short layover in Honolulu.  Less than a day after takeoff from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, we arrived at Tokyo’s modern air hub, Haneda airport.  The DC-7 is not as fast as the 707, but I think I prefer the gentle drone of propellers to the loud roar of jets.  Call me old-fashioned.

When I get used to the time difference (they should come up with a term for that logy feeling you get after long-distance air travel), I’ll tell you all about the wonders of Japan.  Or perhaps not–you come here for the science fiction commentary, don’t you?

With Anderson’s “Bicycle Built for Brew” deterring me from rushing off to finish this month’s Astounding, I decided to catch up on my burgeoning backlog of Heinlein novels.  I liked “Have Spacesuit Will Travel,” recently serialized in F&SF, so I read Farmer in the Sky on the trip.

The book was published eight years ago in 1950, but it feelst up-to-date.  It is the story of an Eagle Scout in his mid teens emigrating out to a newish colony on Ganymede with his family.  Interestingly enough, nearly half of its length is devoted simply to getting there: the application, the preparation, the flight to Ganymede on the Mayflower.  Once there, the tale emulates prior settler stories.  You have the hard times, the loving description of food raised and eaten, the triumphs, and the tragedies.  All throughout, Heinlein does a pretty good job of portraying the physics involved in spaceflight as well as a primer on agronomy on a recently dead world.  The book ends satisfyingly if on a slightly bittersweet note.

A few of interesting points from the book:

Bill, the book’s protagonist, is from San Diego, like me. 

As usual, the author does a good job with technology predictions.  His “quickthaw” and “autoresponder” are plausible and seamlessly executed.  I always find it a little jarring when “slipsticks” (slide-rules) are in copious evidence.  In these days of IBMs and UNIVACS, am I alone in thinking that portable computing machines are the wave of the far future?

California has around 50 million people in the book’s indeterminately dated (but probably the mid-to-late 21 century) future.  This is five times that recorded in the 1950 census.  Extending this to the world population, there must be some 10 billion people on Earth.  I talked about this in an earlier piece; 10 billion sounds like a lot, but not in the doomsday area.  But Heinlein’s future Earth has food rationing, and it is big impetus for leaving the planet. 

I would be okay with this, but Heinlein’s depicted future also has developed complete matter conversion drives and power plants.  Humans have the ability, in the book, to manufacture a breathable atmosphere for Ganymede.  As Bill’s father says early on in the story, “Wherever Man has mass and energy to work with and enough savvy to know how to manipulate them, he can create any environment he needs.” It seems to me that once humanity taps the limitless power afforded by mass conversion, or even thermonuclear fusion, providing food for even 10 billion people should be a trifling concern. 

There is a little bit of gentle misogyny: Bill’s father tells his step-daughter that she’s not allowed on the bridge of the Mayflower because she’s a girl, though this may be meant teasingly.  Bill notes that girls should be kept in a well until they are sixteen, and then a decision made to let them out or leave them there.  Again, I don’t know how out of character this is for a teenaged boy.  On the other hand, there is a skilled female pilot, Hattie.  She’s not the most likable of characters, but she knows her job, and she’s been at it for a long time. 

These are minor quibbles.  The book is good and should fire the imagination of many a young (and old!) reader.  It’s worth it just for the chapters describing the trip to Ganymede.

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Childhood’s End (10-22-1958)

Arthur C. Clarke has been a household name for a long time: The “ABCs of science fiction”, Asimov, Bester and Clarke (or Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, if you’re so inclined, and I’m generally not) is a cliché.  Yet, up to now, aside from a few random stories in lesser magazines, I’d read nothing by the fellow.

This weekend, I flew in that sleek new symbol of the modern age, the Boeing 707.  My destination was a newish science fiction/fantasy convention in Seattle.  Aside from being quite an amazing experience (the convention and the flight), the trip gave me time to read a book cover to cover. 

And just barely.  Jets are fast.  It’s hard to believe that the trip from San Diego to Seattle lasted just under four hours; it used to take the better part of a day in a DC-3.  And that was only a decade ago!

The book that accompanied me on this adventure was Clarke’s best-seller, “Childhood’s End.” I can’t tell you why it took me five years (it was published in 1953) to finally get around to it, but there it is, and you can’t chide me anymore for my illiteracy.

Here’s what I will tell you: It is more of a series of novellas than a novel, detailing glimpses of the future of humanity in chronological order.  It is written skillfully, oft-times poetically, in a third-person omniscient style.  This might have been tedious, but instead, it just made the scope feel more grand. 

For a good deal of the novel, I noted approvingly, the protagonist is Black, or at least a Mulatto.  For the entirety of the novel, I noted disappointedly (but not unexpectedly), there are no significant female characters.  Where they do show up, they are wives and/or mothers and rather frivolous.  Still, it is a very fine book.

And I shan’t tell you any more than that.  Because first and foremost, it is a mystery.  Really, a Russian nesting doll of serial mysteries.  It was such a joy to read this book with no prior knowledge of its story, that I would hardly be doing you any justice by spoiling it.  Suffice it to say that Childhood’s End is very original and never dull.

I will relate just one tidbit I found disturbing and, perhaps, prescient: per Clarke, by the mid-21st century, television will be a 24-hour affair with 500 hours of programming available per day.  It boggles the mind to think of 20 full-time networks when three (plus the odd local station) are already quite a lot.  Moreover, Clarke’s future Terrans watch an average of three hours of the stuff every day.  It is no surprise that our descendants in Clarke’s vision are losing their artistic touch, preferring to be audience rather than creators.

Disturbing stuff… but then Clarke’s book is filled with disturbing and thoughtful stuff.  Pick it up!  You won’t regret spending four bits.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)

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