Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff

Vasily Grossman isn't anywhere near as well-known as he ought to be.  My plan is to read some of his books, but they're heavy stuff so I thought I'd start with this biography so I could get situated.

Grossman was born in 1905, in the Russian Empire, and was educated as a chemical engineer in the USSR.   He changed careers and became a writer and journalist in the 1930s -- he was always trying to tell the truth about what he saw, so his first novel was about the miners he'd known at his job. 

He then worked as a journalist attached to the army during the war, and was present through nearly all of the battle of Stalingrad.  He was also one of the first people to witness what had happened Treblinka.  After the war, he had to deal with constant censorship and difficulty, as he spent just about the rest of his life trying to communicate what he knew and believed.

He worked on the Black Book of Russian Jewry, only to have it blocked from publication in the USSR.  His first really major novel about the war took years to publish, as editors and committees issues conflicting orders about what to edit or cut, especially the Jewish bits.  It sounds torturous.  The next big work, Life and Fate, was simply confiscated completely.   Two extra copies had been hidden with friends, and it was eventually smuggled out and printed after great effort, but Grossman had died years before.

If he'd lived longer, or if his work had gotten a little bit luckier with timing, I think he would be well known as the major writer he is.  OK, I haven't actually read any of his work yet.  But that's up next!  There is lots of good stuff in this biography; fellow fans of Russian history and literature, take note.

A few bits:
Grossman, among the first to write about the Holocaust, realized that the slaughter of millions must be explained beyond statistics.  Individuals cannot relate to the murder of people en masse in the same way they can to a single death.  Grossmas possessed a unique ability to describe multitudes with personal, individual detail....

Tvardovsky [publisher of Novy mir] was by then absorbed with his new author, Solzhenitsyn, and used his influence with Khrushchev to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Curiously, Tvardovsky admired Solzhenitsyn for the very things he disliked in Grossman.

Grossman expected that Solzhenitsyn might want to come and see him.  Had they met, he would have discovered that Solzhenitsyn's attitudes to freedom, democracy, science, Russian history, and "the Jewish question" were incompatible with his own.  

[After appealing to Khrushchev to release his novel] Grossman spent five months anticipating a response: in the daytime he stayed in his apartment so as not to miss a phone call from Khrushvhev's office.  In July, just as he gave up and went out for a walk, someone from the Central Committee phoned.

Little Fuzzy

What an awful cover
Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper

I'd heard of this novel, but didn't know anything about it when I picked up a battered paperback from a donation box.  I figured if it was pretty famous I should read it.

Centuries in the future, humanity has an interplanetary civilization, and Zarathustra is a newly-settled planet.  Rich in resources, it's classed as having no sapient life and is run by a management company.  Then Jack Holloway, a prospector out on the edges, meets up with a critter so cute that it can only be called a Fuzzy.  Little Fuzzy clearly wants to live with Jack, and so he adopts him as a pet...but right away it becomes clear that Little Fuzzy is pretty smart.  In fact, he's got a spear, and he can figure things out, and make art, and the next thing you know he's brought the whole family in.  Pappy Jack is delighted with the Fuzzy family, and so is everybody else, except the executives of the Company.  Because if Fuzzies are sapient, they will have equal status before the law as a kind of people, the planet will be reclassified, and the Company will lose its charter and the enormous profits it's just starting to collect. 

So it all becomes a race.  The Company would prefer to wipe Fuzzies out (they would make great fur coats!) and pretend nothing ever happened.  Barring that, they want to prove that Fuzzies are cute animals, but not sapient.  Assorted civilians, cops, and anybody who isn't a Company executive wants to prove that Fuzzies are indeed sapient -- but what exactly is the definition of sapience anyway?  Shenanigans ensue!

There are actually several Fuzzy novels; Piper published one sequel, and after his death a couple of other writers did other sequels.  A final Piper manuscript was found and published too, in the early 80s, which made for a total of five.  More recently, John Scalzi re-wrote the original story as a 'reboot' for current tastes, and Wolfgang Diehr wrote three more sequels, but it doesn't seem like those two collaborated.

It was a fun novel, and I wouldn't mind reading more.  At the very least, I've become familiar with a pretty famous SF novel I didn't know about before.  If you'd like to read Little Fuzzy, it's actually in the public domain, so easily downloadable from your favorite source.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Ordeal in Otherwhere

Ordeal in Otherwhere, by Andre Norton

It's very odd, but I've never read Andre Norton.  Her books were all over the house when I was growing up, because my sister was a big fan, but I never picked them up.  So this year I decided I'd have to give Norton a try.  We had a few around the house, but they were all fantasy, so I got some from my sister's old room -- there was a whole pile.  I picked this one.

This incredibly amateurish cover hides a pretty good story set on the world of Warlock.  Some googling taught me that Warlock books are not the same as Witch World books; there are five Warlock books, called the Forerunners series, and it turns out that the first one is in my pile too, and the only reason I didn't pick it was that it's in a protective bag with a price tag on it, which made me nervous.  OK, so...

Charis, member of a planetary colony gone wrong, is sold to a trader and ends up on the planet of Warlock, where she is supposed to work out trade deals with the inhabitants on behalf of the newly-established human traders -- these folks only want to deal with females.  But!  The Wyverns, who live in the sea, have powerful psychic talents, and instead Charis just finds herself living with them in a wondrous dream...until it turns out that the Wyverns also have some serious problems of their own.

Working as a team with her special cat friend, and an Earth officer with a wolverine, Charis is going to have to figure out how to use her newly-learned powers to save the humans, and also to convince the female Wyverns that they can't just use their males as slaves forever.  A society split in half like that cannot last, and is vulnerable to outside attack.  The fact that she works in partnership with a man has to serve as proof that it can be done.

So, a neat story that I liked.  Have you had enough Vintage Sci-Fi Month yet?  I promise I'm reading other things too, but they are long.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Prisoners of Geography

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, by Tim Marshall

I've been having a lot of fun reading all that old-time SF, but I have also been reading regular books!  It's just, they are a lot slower.  So here is a non-vintage-SF book for you, that I found just fascinating.

Years ago, Jared Diamond showed readers that geography determined much of world history, because basic factors like domesticatable animals, navigable rivers, and mosquitoes are so important.  Tim Marshall shows readers that geography still does determine modern history and current geopolitics.  Why will China never, ever let Tibet regain independence?  Why will Russia do pretty well anything to keep Ukraine firmly under its thumb?  Why does everyone tread very softly around North Korea?  It all comes down to the cold, hard facts of geography.

In ten chapters, Marshall explains -- in a thumbnail version -- the past and present of various areas of the world.  We start off with the most depressing parts: Russia and China.  Then it's on to the US, Latin America, Asia, and eventually the Arctic.  In fact, the only area Marshall doesn't tackle, kind of inexplicably, is Oceania.  Eleven maps would have been fine.  But it's all quite gripping stuff, well-written but not heavy.  This is in fact a fairly fast and easy read, even hard to put down.  And being British, Marshall sprinkles in a lot of humor and wit (albeit sort of spottily; North Korea isn't very amusing).

The book was published in 2015, and is still pretty current, but pre-dates Brexit and the American 2016 election.  Both of those must have given him a shock.   He's a little more dismissive of Russia than he probably would be now -- he says Obama was right that it's mostly a regional power these days, but that underestimates how enthusiastic the Russian government is about disinformation and general undermining, and I think he even contradicts himself, given that he spends huge chunks of text explaining just how many countries depend on Russian oil and gas, and act accordingly.

So here are some bits I liked:
The Americans...are deeply unimpressed with the European countries' commitment to defense spending.    [On NATO and its importance] 

If you won the lottery, and were looking to buy a country to live in, the first one the real estate agent would show you would be the United States of America.

Greece...still spends a vast amount of euros, which it doesn't have, on defense.

What is now the EU was set up so that France and Germany could hug each other so tightly in a loving embrace that neither would be able to get an arm free with which to punch the other.

The Europeans used ink to draw lines on maps: they were lines that did not exist in reality and created some of the most artificial borders the world has seen.  An attempt is now being made to redraw them in blood.  [On the Middle East]

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Lotus Caves

The Lotus Caves, by John Christopher

I really like John Christopher, and I think it's a shame that his books have disappeared so completely.  I'm thinking of collecting him.  I have some, of course, because my oldest really likes Christopher too, and I found that we had more than I thought when I was moving some books around.  So I read The Lotus Caves, from 1969.

In 2068, the Moon colony is doing well.  Marty has lived his entire life inside the Bubble; visits to Earth are too expensive, so everyone is there on a 25-year contract, no vacations.  Everything is extremely utilitarian, but there's a nice recreation center for sports and fun.  When Marty and his buddy Steve play a prank, they're punished with a month's ban from the recreation center, which strikes me as a really bad plan if you're trying to squish a couple of rowdy 13-year-old boys.  Marty and Steve find a way to take a crawler out of the Bubble and explore farther than they're allowed, but it should be perfectly safe.  Until they fall into an underground cave and discover a giant sentient plant.

The Plant can give them all the food, air, and sustenance they need in its air-tight cave.  And it doesn't want them to leave and bring a bunch of scientists out to study it.  So pretty soon it's hard to even think about escaping; like the Island of the Lotus-Eaters, it blurs their minds and makes them content to eat and sleep.  Marty is having a hard time remembering his life outside the cave, and Steve is perfectly content.  Will they remain trapped forever?

Yep, I do love a good John Christopher story!  This one was exciting and imaginative.  If you didn't spend your childhood reading Christopher, you should give him a try now.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Case Against Tomorrow

The Case Against Tomorrow, by Frederik Pohl

Here we have six short stories published in the mid-50s, gathered under the theme of 'ways in which things could go kind of wonky in the future.'  They're not anti-future, of course, just oddball takes on it.

The first one, I had read before, though I don't know where.  "The Midas Plague" involves a future in which robots produce a world of plenty, but there's far too much, so it's the job of the poor to consume all the food, clothing, home decor, and everything else.  It's a terrible amount of work, and the richer you are, the simpler a life you can live, and work at an actual job.  I particularly liked the mandated group therapy, which involves a group of therapists for the poor client; only the rich can afford to have just one therapist at a time.  What is the solution to all this plenty?

I didn't much care for "The Census Takers" -- which was about overpopulation but wasn't any too clear about it -- or for the futuristic baseball game, because who cares.  "Wapshot's Demon" was just OK. 

"The Candle Lighter" was rather fun, being about a guy who makes his career protesting for justice, especially for the poor oppressed Martians, but when he's actually put in charge of something on Mars, he finds that he's never bothered to find out what the Martians actually want and need; which of course doesn't have much to do with his human ideas about what is just or not.

"My Lady Green-Sleeves" had a future in a society strictly segregated -- not by race, but by class -- with a girl who goes to prison for her radical ideas about the brotherhood of all classes.  And then there's a prison riot with strange consequences.

Reasonably entertaining.  Though I didn't much care about three of the six stories, those were also very short, and the three I liked took up a lot more space.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Siege Perilous

Siege Perilous, by Lester Del Rey

In the not-too-distant future, Earth has an orbiting space station, which is meant to ensure world peace (especially for the nation that built it) under shifting alliances within a Cold War that never really ended, but which currently has Russia allied with the US against Eurasia.  Most of the staff are there for only a few months at a time, since living in space is hard on the mental health, but Fred Hunter has been there for ten long years, ever since the station was built.  He built quite a lot of it himself, in fact, before the accident that rendered him unable to return home.  Fred is always and forever homesick, but he has stubbornly remained sane.

Then the station is invaded and taken over in a matter of just a few hours, but who are the guys wearing those spacesuits?  Not Eurasia.  A small, scrappy nation?  The invaders' suits are out-of-date, so maybe...but then when they speak, the mystery deepens.
"Mount your cayuses and ride out if you don't want a bellyful of hot lead!"

"All right, you guys. You were real cute.  But we're through playing around, see?"
Where could these invaders possibly have come from?  Nothing they do makes sense.  Fred, Sandy, and Callaghan are the only station staff who didn't get caught, and if they don't want the Earth destroyed, they'll have to figure something out fast.

I guess spoilers for a novel written in 1966 don't matter, so I'll tell you the solution: the invaders are underground dwellers from Mars, and have been watching old Earth movie broadcasts for years.  But, like the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, they don't understand story-telling and so are convinced that Earth people are cowboys and gangsters intent on invading Mars.  Their tactics are entirely based on melodrama.

It's a fun setup, and involves a good deal of MacGyver-esque improvisation as well, so I liked it.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Metal Monster

The Metal Monster, by A. Merritt

I've never heard of A. Merritt, but he was pretty well known; just a long time ago.  The Metal Monster first appeared in 1920 as the inaugural story for Argosy magazine.

Four American explorer-scientists (three men, one woman) meet up in the Himalayas and witness some very unusual phenomena in the sky.  Then they run into a vicious crowd of ancient Persian soldiers, the descendants of the Persian armies defeated by Alexander, who fled into hiding.  They take refuge in a cave, where they discover a mysterious arrangement of metal shapes...which move.

As the soldiers attack, they flee and find a beautiful woman who commands more of the metal shapes.  Arrangements of cubes, pyramids and spheres move and change to do whatever they need to do.  They're clearly intelligent, and Norhala leads the scientists and the cubes back to a massive city hidden deep in the mountains.  The city is itself made of these living metal shapes!  As the crew explores, they try to understand: do these Metal Things grow?  Eat?  Think?  How do they work?  And while they seem benign, even friendly, in an alien sort of they threaten humanity?  The "Monster" in the title is the city itself, not a robot or creature.

The ancient Persians come back, of course, but after that the story takes a truly surprising turn.  I was not expecting that ending at all.

This is a really neat, original story!  It has some very nifty ideas.  The Metal Things reminded me of nothing so much as Hiro's microbots in Big Hero Six, but more complex.

It's all written in very flowery prose.  Merritt never met a two-dollar word he didn't like. Many of his descriptions are massive cascades of fancy words!  He especially liked colors, the more nuanced, the better.  This is probably the most colorful novel I have ever read.  Amethystine was one of the words, I recall.  I give you a couple samples, the first of which is only part of a simple sunset in the mountains: though a gigantic globe of crystal had dropped upon the heavens, their blue turned swiftly to a clear and glowing amber -- then as abruptly shifted to a luminous violet.  A soft green light pulsed through the valley.  Under it, like hills ensorcelled, the rocky walls about it seemed to flatten.  They glowed and all at once pressed forward like gigantic slices of palest emerald jade, translucent, illumined, as though by a circlet of little suns shining behind them.  The light faded, robes of deepest amethyst dropped around the mountain's mighty shoulders.  And then from every snow and glacier-crowned peak, from minaret and pinnacle and towering turret, leaped forth a confusion of soft peacock flames, a host of irised prismatic gleamings, an ordered chaos of rainbows.

Its head was a pyramid, a tetrahedron; its length vanished in the further darkness.   The head raised itself, the blocks that formed its neck separating into open wedges like a Brobdingnagian replica of those jointed, fantastic, little painted reptiles the Japanese toy-makers cut from wood.  It seemed to regard us -- mockingly.  The pointed head dropped -- past us streamed the body.  Upon it other pyramids clustered -- like the spikes that guarded the back of the nightmare Brontosaurus.  Its end came swiftly into sight -- its tail another pyramid twin to its head.
I think this can fairly be called an early science-fiction classic.  It's a lot of fun to read, if you can take the amethystine prose, and it has some really cool ideas.  I gather that Merritt wasn't really all that satisfied with the story, and it was only published in book form in 1946 after some cutting and editing, and that's the version I read.  So maybe it's better than the original, who knows.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Voice That Thunders

The Voice That Thunders, by Alan Garner

Remember last month, when I posted about Four British Fantasists and there was quite a bit about Alan Garner, but I didn't really love Boneland?  Well, the book also quoted a collection of Garner essays, and I ILL'ed it for fun.  I really only expected to skim through it, but to my surprise...

I enjoyed this book of essays so much!  It turns out I like Garner's essays better than his novels, maybe.  They are, of course, still wildly obsessive about his corner of Cheshire, but he's so much more descriptive that it winds up being a lot of fun; it invites the reader in instead of closing out.

These are actually mostly speeches given at various meetings, with the odd essay thrown in.  Garner produces this nice mixture of discussion about his family history; Cheshire language, history, and folklore; archaeology; and his writing.  And also his struggles with his mental health; what he thought was depression turned out to be bipolar disorder, and he has an interesting talk about that.

As with any collection like this by one author, it hits certain themes over and over, but actually it's not too bad.  There's a nice variety here and a lot of highly entertaining stories.  My favorite was the one about how, as a teen, he was reading some old articles about local archaeology* and saw a drawing of a battered wooden shovel, which he knew he'd seen before -- but of course he couldn't remember where.  A few days later, the lightbulb went on in his head; he'd seen it as a little boy in the classroom, hanging on the wall.  So he ran off to the school, but the shovel was gone, either thrown out, or perhaps stuffed under the stage?  So under the stage he wriggled, and searched, and found the wooden shovel, which he kept with him for years until he found somebody he could convince to look at it and take it seriously as a prehistoric artifact, which indeed carbon dating proved it to be.

So, this was a surprisingly engaging collection that I enjoyed and read completely, instead of skimming it as I'd planned.

*The mere fact that a teen boy would read Victorian articles about archaeology for fun shows you what kind of a person Garner is...kind of like M. R. James, who, while at Eton, spent most of a term's pocket money on "the four volumes of John Albert Fabricius on the Apocrypha."

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Exiled From Earth

Exiled From Earth, by Ben Bova

Ben Bova is another new-to-me author!  This is a pretty short novel, the kind of thing a younger SF fan might read, but it does not feature kids.  Also, Ben Bova is 87 but he's still around.

In the future, there are 20 billion people on earth and the cities are no-go zones populated by vicious gangs.  Lou Christopher is a computer engineer at a scientific research center, where they are just on the verge of genetic engineering, and Lou's computer code is the key.  Pretty soon they'll be able to scan a zygote's DNA, find the broken bits, and rebuild them so that people can be born physically perfect geniuses!

Instead, the world government arrests all the geneticists and sends them into exile on a space station orbiting the Earth.  They figure genetic engineering will destabilize the careful balance they're keeping, and it's too dangerous.  Lou tries to escape, but failing that, is recruited by a government official who wants to keep going with the research.  He's got a secret island research center.  This sounds obviously Evil, but Lou signs up and asks for his secretary girlfriend, Bonnie, to be brought along too.

Bonnie is less than thrilled with being kidnapped to a secret, probably evil, island, but it's a good thing she's there, because she's the only one with any sense.  Lou and his physicist buddy are happily coding genes and making mini nuclear bombs (!) until Bonnie tells them that another department is making cortical suppressors.  This island is clearly a base from which to launch a planetary coup, in which half the world population will be stupidized so that the new rulers can build a race of supermen to replace them.

So the trio have to make a plan to save the world...but if they do, their reward will still be exile to a space station and no more research.

This is actually the first book in a trilogy, the other two being Exiles in Flight and End of Exile.  I'd be interested to read those!

I had fun with this book.  For one thing, they get lasergrams instead of letters, ha!  It's weird to see this older theory about genetic engineering, that it would be so easy to just fix DNA and make everybody super-strong and smart.  Now we know that it's much more messy than that, and so often, who's to say what's even a genetic mistake vs. an adaptation?