Friday, January 27, 2017

Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1964)


I need to write a bunch of posts for Vintage Sci-Fi Month before it's over, but really I am mostly watching politics and I am not happy, friends.  I'm not sure what to say, either, so for the moment I'll just talk about Soviet SF, OK?

Hard to Be a God is a fairly early Strugatsky novel, from before their total disillusionment with the Soviet system, but it has some foreboding themes.  It actually started off as a fun, swashbuckling project that was going to be like the Three Musketeers, but it turned much, much darker as the writing progressed.  So:

Twenty minutes into the future, Anton is an Earth agent stationed on a different planet at a somewhat medieval level of development.  Living as Don Rumata in the kingdom of Arkanar, it's his job to observe, by recording history for observers at home, and to quietly influence without actually interfering.  He is a great swordsman but may never kill.  Arkanar, however, is now under the governing influence of Don Reba, who has a fanatical vision of a united kingdom where everyone will loyally obey the King (as represented by Reba, of course).  Literacy is now outlawed and anything resembling intellectual activity is brutally suppressed; there won't be any Renaissance here. Torture -- to uncover disloyalty -- is routine and the fear of it hangs over everyone.  Only the lowest, most violent, most piggish kind of people are surviving.  In such a place, what can the compassionate Rumata even do?
"I have tremendous love for learned men -- that is, gentility of the soul.  And I cannot figure out why you, the keepers and only holders of high knowledge, are so hopelessly passive.  Why do you meekly allow yourselves to be despised, thrown in jails, burned at the stake?  Why do you separate the meaning of your life, the pursuit of knowledge -- from the practical requirements of life, the struggle against evil?"
It turns into a difficult, melancholy story that asks questions about what is right or wrong, and how we can do good when there doesn't seem to be anything we can do.  The Strogatskys are never very easy for me to read, but they are well worth it and this might be a good one to put on your list.

I read a new translation by Olena Bormashenko; the older translation was done from the German, and was apparently not very clear.  Hard to Be a God was and is a popular SF book in Russia; it inspired two movies, a 1989 German-Russian production and a Russian film that took a long time but was released in 2013.  My book cover features a photo from that movie.  The Strugatskys also wrote a short play version, and there was even an RPG video game!


____________________

NB: Hannah Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism is on sale for Kindle today for two bucks.  Jump on it!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Psi-High and Others

Psi-High and Others, by Alan E. Nourse

I found this at the used bookstore and the cover was so goofy that I had to take a picture.  Then I read the back and got curious about the Galactic Watchers, so here we are.  It's really three short pieces bound together by a common theme.

The Watchers have their eye on Earth, and will be judging whether humans can be allowed out of the solar system.  They've sent a representative down to work at a scientific research outfit.  Three tests will determine the outcome; first, when medical technology allows some few people to keep renewing themselves and live extremely long lives, what will be the result?  Then, humanity starts to develop telepathy, and in a story that sounds very much like something out of the X-Men, we see how mankind treats people who are other.  And the last story is about an alien attack that becomes a psychological war between the aliens and the tiny group of people trying to figure out what they even are.

The stories take place over years, with the judgement at the end (though I was irritated to see that the alien plant is never identified!  Maybe he had the same name in every story and I didn't notice?).  The title comes from the second story; telepaths are called Psi-Highs for no reason that I can understand.

Nourse was pretty well-known in his day, and also wrote under a couple of pseudonyms, including "Doctor X."  He came up with the title Bladerunner, which was lifted for the film, but his story has nothing to do with the movie otherwise.  And he also wrote a whole lot of nonfiction medical books for children and teens, the kind of thing you buy for a library collection.

This collection wasn't amazing or anything, but it was a decent read and better than I expected it to be!

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Best of Leigh Brackett

The Best of Leigh Brackett, ed. by Edmond Hamilton

Last year I discovered Leigh Brackett, Queen of Space Opera, when I read Black Amazon of Mars.  My brother lent me two Brackett collections, and I picked this one, which features some of her best short stories (chosen and edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton, who also wrote a whole lot of SF including the book that features as the Vintage Sci-Fi Month poster -- boy I sure find a lot of things out this way!).  In reading the introduction, I discovered more fun facts: that Brackett's first screenplay work was with William Faulkner in The Big Sleep (my daughter, who is reading Faulkner in school, had just told me that Faulkner worked on that movie), she was asked to do more Chandler screenplays, and as time went on, publishers no longer wanted her Mars stories because real information about Mars was becoming known and they figured it was too implausible.

This is really a pretty great collection.  Some of them are individual stories, and some fit into the dramatic solar system background Brackett developed over years, with Mercury, Venus, and Mars each having their own characteristics.  So one story was about early Venusian settlers, refugees from Earth, trying to find a place to live, and another took place a couple of hundred years later, after Venus is fully settled and the humans have intermarried with Venusians.  There's a good story about the last days of a great Martian city, and another one about the last of an ancient Mercurian race who has enslaved a valley full of humans.  Of the individual stories, I best liked "The Woman from Altair," which is spooky and sympathetic.

^Edmond Hamilton book^
This would be a great pick for anyone interested in finding out a little bit about Leigh Brackett.  It was a lot of fun, and each story makes a good read in a day.  I also have a trilogy of Skaith novels to read, which center on Brackett's hero Eric John Stark (aka N'Chaka of Mercury), and the first one is titled The Ginger Star -- pretty hard to resist.


_________________________________
In fact, my pile is not shrinking.  I bought two old paperbacks the other day, I still have Ubik, and I would kind of like to re-read The Worm Ouroboros, plus I have a ratty old paperback of Titus Groan I'm none too sure about and two old YA novels that go together called The Broken Citadel and Castledown.  Anybody ever heard of those?  I picked them up, ex-library hardcovers, some years ago and keep meaning to read them.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Dirt

Dirt: The Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House, ed. by Mindy Lewis

I found this on my bookshelf, and I have absolutely no memory of ever reading it.  None.  I am therefore counting it as a TBR read, because I think I have never read it. 

It's a collection of essays or short meditations on housekeeping.  A lot of the essays are about the various writers' mothers' mental issues, usually something resulting in fanatic cleanliness, which then leads to rebellious slobbiness in the child.  Then that kind of backfires when it turns out that living in filth really isn't very fun.

There are some pieces that do not fit that mold, though.  A couple meditate on historical, economic, or political implications, some talk about the pleasures of cleanliness, and so on.  The last one is a really lovely essay about the important work of making a home for the people you love.

The one that made me laugh out loud in astonishment begins by introducing the writer's second home in Mexico:
My husband and I bought this house six years ago, and we're deeply attached to it, although we're able to stay here just a few months of each year.  Our demanding jobs back home in New York City, where we living a two-bedroom apartment, approximately one-fifth the size of this house, preclude longer vacations.
Poor hard-working New Yorkers, so driven that they can only vacation a few months out of the year.  It's sad, really.

It's a readable collection, but I don't think I will bother with it again.


Time for the Stars

Time for the Stars, by Robert A. Heinlein

The second juvenile novel in this Infinite Possibilities book was fine, though not as good as Tunnel in the Sky.  Citizen of the Galaxy is the last one and I'm not super-optimistic about it, but I might read it anyway; we'll see.  After all, I was at the used bookstore today and got two vintage sci-fi paperbacks to read!

Again we have a massively overpopulated future, but this time there are severe taxes on extra children and they're looking for planets to colonize.  Without anything better than near-light-speed travel, it's going to take a long time to find anything, but there is one big help; it turns out that pairs of twins can often be trained to communicate telepathically.  So one twin can stay home and report what the traveling twin sees, and any good planets can be reported immediately.

Tom and his twin Pat are chosen to go, and Tom kind of resents that Pat, the dominant twin, has just assumed that he will be the one to go into space.  But Pat's skiing accident puts Tom in the spaceship instead.  Tom spends just four years helping to explore space, while Pat lives a long life at home.  The ship finds a pretty good planet, but then a delayed consequence strikes.  The next inhabitable planet is a real disaster.  Tom is really wondering whether they should continue the trip.

A lot of this story is given over to Tom and Pat's relationship and Tom's work on figuring out his feelings about his kind of jerky brother.  As a result, most of the other characters and relationships on board are not as fully described, except for the really wonderful Uncle Alfred.  There is also quite a bit about the twin telepathy and life on board a closed spaceship.  The planet adventures come off as side quests, really.

It's a decent read, nothing wrong with it, but it isn't one of the greats.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Faerie Queene Book IV, Part 2

Yep, I'm still going!  Slowly.  If you recall, Book IV is about Friendship, and the friendship story is mostly a sideline to the much more exciting drama of Amoret, Scudamore, Britomart, and Artegall, plus a whole lot of other knightly pairs and rotten ol' Braggadocio.

Let us look back upon these hopeful dates and laugh
Scudamore spent the night at the house of Care (known to us as Worry), and is in bad shape.  He meets the Savage Knight, dressed in wild clothes and with no device on his shield.  This is Artegall in his guise as rough justice.  Both are angry at Britomart (unknown to be a lady) and agree to search for her.  They promptly meet her and attack with lots of angry male imagery, but it's Britomart who stabs Artegall.  In the fighting her visor breaks off and her face is seen for the first time.  Artegall apologizes for fighting a lady, but she wants to keep going and Scudamore and Glauce have to intervene.  All show their faces, Britomart recognizes Artegall, and Glauce explains all.  Scudamore asks after Amoret and it turns out that she disappeared!  Britomart has been searching for her.  They rest at a castle, where Artegall woos Britomart and she consents to marry him, only to be parted the next day as he continues his own quest and the others search for Amoret.

Sir Artegall as the Savage Knight

Amoret, walking in the forest as Britomart slept (significant for chastity), is abducted by Lust, a hideous beast-man, who throws her into a cave.  Another maid and an old woman are there, waiting to be violated and then eaten.  Æmylia ran away to elope with a squire and was captured.  When Lust enters, Amoret escapes and runs with Lust pursuing.  Belpheobe is out hunting and her squire battles Lust, but it takes Belphoebe to kill him.  They set all the ladies free, but Amoret is wounded by the squire, because he used her as a shield.  Belpheobe assumes the squire did this deliberately and leaves him.  The spurned squire, Timias, lives in despair until Arthur finds him.

Timias is wailing away at his campsite and a turtledove joins him in sympathy for his woe.  He ties a ruby on her that Belphoebe gave him, and the dove shows it to her and leads her to the now-unrecognizable squire.  She asks him what is wrong, he reveals the misunderstanding, and they are reconciled.  Arthur then finds Amoret and Æmylia near death and heals them, but they meet Sclaunder (scandal/slander), a venomous hag.  They claim hospitality of her but she chases them away with abuse.  Don't believe all that abuse though; this is the Golden Age and they are well-behaved!  As they travel wearily on, they meet a squire and a dwarf fleeing from a giant man on a camel (!) -- he has venomous eye beams. (!!)  Arthur uses his adamant shield to block the beams but they're so strong the squire faints anyway.  Arthur attacks and beheads the Paynim giant, who was Corflambo!  The squire turns out to serve Æmylia's lover Amyas.  Corflambo's daughter Poeana (punishment) has him prisoner.

The squire arrests Poeana, frees the captives, and everybody matches up properly.  Even Poeana ends up happy with the squire.  Arthur and Amoret go to seek their lovers and meet six knights fighting -- four are the rude knights who wanted the false Snowy Florimell.  They all 'love' in different wrong ways.  The other two are Britomart and Scudamore.  Arthur subdues the rude knights and then talks with the two good ones about Amoret, who doesn't seem to actually be on the spot any more.

Scudamore, assured of Amoret's well-being, tells his adventures: yet another allegorical tale of his wedding and wooing of Amoret.  There's a castle and a gate, it's all very Romance of the Rose.  Eventually he gets to an amazing garden, finds the Temple of Venus, and meets Concord in the porch with her sons Hate and Love.  Concord, you see, holds the forces of the world in harmony.  She lets him in, and he sees lots of lovers around the goddess, who stands on a giant but brittle altar.  She wears a veil and has a snake tying up her legs.  She is surrounded by flying sports, loves, and joys at the top, and complaining lovers below.  To the side, a group of womanly virtues holds Amoret, who sits in the lap of Womanhood.  Scudamore wins Amoret!

The Temple of Venus in Amoret's allegorical heart
Remember Florimell, the real one?  She loves Marinell who is injured and healing.  Now he is better, and Spenser plans to tell their story, but first he has to describe the marriage of the Thames to the Medway.  There is a very, very long description of all the river and ocean guests and the ceremony.

Back to Florimell, she pines for Marinell, who discovers what love is and pines right back.  How can he save her from her imprisonment by Proteus?  Marinell's mother and Proteus are both persuaded to let them meet, and the courtship may begin.


This book is all over the place.  It's fun, but it can be quite tricky to follow everyone's various stories!  Well, onward and ho for Book V!

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)

Here we have the famous inspiration for the movie Bladerunner, which isn't necessarily all that much like the novel.  As I recall, Bladerunner features a crowded Los Angeles...

Rick Deckard, android bounty hunter, is having a pretty rotten time of it, but he gets his chance when a notice of six rogue androids comes in.  If he can take them out, the bounties will really help his finances, and let him buy a real animal again.  In this future depopulated earth, many animals are extinct and people are required to own and care for one.  (It's a status symbol to have a big animal, and Deckard's real sheep died a while back, so he replaced it with an electric one.)  The trouble is, androids are always being made better, and these are the new model Nexus-6; smarter and tougher than plain old humans, the only way to detect them is to administer an empathy test.  As Decker hunts for androids across the near-empty San Francisco Bay Area, he experiences mental and emotional turmoil around the question of what androids really are.

Like most PKD novels, this one is fairly bizarre, involves a future Bay Area, and kind of goes all over the place.  There is a lot about humanity's new religion, Mercerism, and electric vs. real animals.  The planet is covered in radioactive dust, so nearly everyone has left for colonies on other planets; if they go, they get an android servant to do all their work.  Androids may not come to Earth, but sometimes they escape and try to hide, which is where Decker's job comes in.  Anyone who lives on Earth long enough eventually suffers genetic damage from the radiation, and at that point they may not leave.

It's a pretty good read, strange and questioning.  A classic of SF, of course.  I'm going to try to read Ubik, too, and I don't know what that one is about.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, by Molly Guptill Manning

I enjoyed this book so much!  I hadn't heard of it, but luckily Maphead reviewed it a few weeks ago, and it turned out to be at my library.  I promptly devoured it, but I didn't get around to reviewing it right away.

Manning starts off by describing Nazi Germany's hatred of books that didn't espouse the proper ideas.  I had known that there were book burnings, but I had not realized that they were quite as popular as all that.  Anti-Nazi German writers even collected the disapproved books to save them, sending them to a library in France.

Meanwhile, the American government was preparing for the expected eventual entrance into the war.   They needed recreational materials for the soldiers, who universally found books to be an uplifting and relaxing escape and reminder of normal life, and so the military asked for book donations.  The American Library Association got involved, and massive book drives helped to get reading material to soldiers in training camps.  As hard as the volunteers worked, it was nowhere near enough, and the books were mostly heavy hardcovers and often not suitable in subject.

The military soon contracted with publishers to produce special editions of books for soldiers.  These were compact, light, durable paperbacks (stapled instead of glued, since tropical insects liked the glue).  Every month, a new set of books was published: novels, history and culture, practical subjects, and classics.  They were distributed and traded around as more precious than candy.  The soldiers couldn't get enough; far from home, living rough, and frequently stuck for long periods of time with nothing much to do, books gave them solace, education, and often healing. Men who had never read much before became avid readers, which helped them take advantage of GI Bill education after the war.

The entire story is fascinating!  There are all these different sides to it and Manning gives some time to them all.  It was just so great.  Thanks, Maphead!

The most popular title of them all



Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams

The Brits did a TV show based on this book, so of course I had to re-read it before I watch!  This doesn't count as a vintage SF title, but I read it in January anyway.  It is so long since I read Dirk Gently that I had forgotten pretty well everything, except the Electric Monk was slightly familiar.  And there was a bonus!

Richard, computer programmer and basic hapless fellow (in the tradition of Arthur Dent) gets caught up in some really strange events; a horse is in his old professor's bathroom, he finds himself climbing a dangerous wall for no particular reason, and his boss is found dead -- extra dead, in fact.  Richard turns to his old sketchy college acquaintance, currently known as Dirk Gently, holistic detective.  Through a long series of very odd occurrences, Dirk figures out what's going on.

It's all very fun and Adamsy, and I had a good time re-reading it.  Since I am now a good deal older and more widely-read than I was last time, I discovered an Easter egg bonus on this round.  Adams lifted his own old Doctor Who storylines for this novel; there is some of City of Death, and some of Shada.  Everybody knows this but me, so it's not exactly a great discovery; in fact, soon after I finished the book I started noticing ads all over Facebook for a free streaming of City of Death to go with the new Dirk Gently TV show.


Adams was a bit ahead of his time with the 'holistic' thing; at least, it seems to me that holistic wasn't a trendy word back then, but it sure got to be one about 15 or 20 years later!  I'm sure it was current in some circles back then, though.  Nowadays we have holistic approaches to health and all sorts of things.  A couple of years ago in the car, my older daughter asked me what holistic meant and I tried to explain, but it didn't make any sense to her because she was looking at a shop that sold 'holistic water.'  We had to go home and look it up, and found out that holistic water is very, very pricey water with maybe some extra minerals thrown in.  It makes some really wild claims, but they're all expensive nonsense.  Ever since, she's been dying to go into the holistic water store and argue with the people there.

If you've never read Dirk Gently, it really is fun and you should.  I still haven't watched the show, so I hope it's pretty good too.

Twitter tag: #readingallaround

Hey folks, if you're in for the Reading All Around the World adventure, use the hashtag #readingallaround on Twitter and Facebook!  We can share book titles and such.


It's dang hard to find a hashtag that isn't already the name of a project!

The Underdogs

Los de abajo -- The Underdogs, by Mariano Azuela

It's my very first official Reading Around the World title, and I chose to go next door to Mexico. The Underdogs (literally, those from underneath) is a short novel about the Mexican Revolution written in 1915; Azuela served as a doctor during the fighting.  I've got the Norton Critical Edition (and if you're going to read it, you should too, unless you know a lot more about the Mexican Revolution than I do), and the translator says not only that it's the best novel about the revolution, but in his opinion "may actually be the best Mexican novel ever."

Demetrio Macías is a tough peasant rancher in the sierra.  When he offends some local official, the Federales burn his home and he becomes the leader of a ratty bunch of rebels.  They move around, doing some fighting and some looting, and when Demetrio is injured, they spend a lot of time in one village.  A literate journalist, Luis Cervantes, joins them; he used to make a living writing articles criticizing the bandidos, but now wants to join the glorious cause.  He is quieter and more intelligent than the others (who kind of despise him and call him curro), and he helps out with his superior medical and political knowledge, but he also kind of preys on them, giving them drinking money in exchange for the smaller, more portable valuables they loot.  Camila, a sweet, plain peasant girl, has a crush on him but he deceives her into Demetrio's arms.   In the end, most of Demetrio's followers get killed (not Luis, who goes off to medical school in the US with his gains), and Macías goes home, unsatisfied and hopeless, before one last battle.

Azuela is not portraying these guys as romantic heroes fighting the oppressor.  He shows them, without a smidgen of sentiment, as rough, angry, and none too sure about where they're going or what they're doing.  Mostly they want to loot, dominate, and wreck, and they're perfectly willing to kill over nothing much (though they brag about it a lot more than they do it).  They hang around small villages, forcing their fellow peasants to feed and house them, and then go looking for somebody to fight.  They hope to get into power after the Federales are defeated, and then they plan to act just like their oppressors did.  I'm not sure Macías and his guys are the underdogs as much as the rest of the peasants of Mexico are -- they pay the same price regardless of who is in power.

It's not exactly the sort of novel you enjoy while curled up under a blanket -- it's mostly a rough and ugly picture of a rough and ugly time -- but it's an important one in Mexican literature that seems to offer an honest portrayal.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Shaggy Planet

Shaggy Planet, by Ron Goulart (1973)

This is the first vintage SF novel I've read for the January event that is really a stinker.  I found it on our SF bookshelf and haven't the faintest idea where it came from, nor does my husband, and it turns out we've been giving this thing shelf space under the misguided idea that somebody got it on purpose.  This is just a dumb story and you should not read it.  It's supposed to be funny, but mostly it's clunky.  I wouldn't have bothered to finish it or to blog about it, but I found out some interesting things so I'll talk about those in a bit.

The plot is that this mercenary guy is hired to find a businessman who has gone missing on a mess of a planet called Murdstone, part of the Barnum system.  He's got a reporter girlfriend who wants an interview with a guerrilla leader, there's a famine and an opera and some rioting, and these weird shaggy animals they call hummels are suddenly all over town.  Mercenary guy follows the trail of the missing guy through six landscapes and a lot of escapades before he figures out what's going on.

It wasn't much.  There were a lot of androids going wrong.  The writing was desperately clunky in places, especially when describing people; a dialogue would have every other sentence ending in some permutation of "said the small, slightly plump blonde."  Or "the lovely slim young redhead."  Or "the tall narrow black man."  Over and over and over, like I was going to forget that the girl is slim and redheaded.

But let's talk about Ron Goulart for a moment, or at least, reel off a collection of fun facts that can be vaguely connected to him.  He's still around, aged about 85, and he wrote a ton of comedic SF and comics and various things.  He ghostwrote the TekWar books for William Shatner, and he's originally from Berkeley, one of my personal favorite places.  He went to Cal and wrote for the Pelican, which was the student humor newspaper -- it lasted about 80 years and folded in 1983, and it actually had its own building on campus with a pelican statue in front.  (The guy who founded the Pelican in 1903, Earle Anthony, had a lot of money and so could pay for Anthony Hall, which now houses the grad student association.)  Rube Goldberg drew artwork for the Pelican!  In my own day at Cal, a humor newspaper was finally re-started -- the Heuristic Squelch -- and it's still running.  It was frequently quite tasteless then, and probably still is, but that is after all the entire point of student humor newspapers.  The Pelican, also tastelessly, was apparently partly named because it was an uncomplimentary term for women students.  Since Cal was co-ed from 1871, three years after its founding and before it even had a real location, you would think that they'd have been used to the presence of female students...

Don't bother with Shaggy Planet.  It's terrible.  But now you know that Rube Goldberg drew cartoons at Cal, and that's kind of worth knowing.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Deathless

Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Is this a fabulous cover or what?  As soon as I saw this book and read the premise, I had to read it.  It's a fairy tale retelling with Koschei the Deathless and Marya, daughter of the Revolution.  (I maintain that "Koschei the Deathless" is the most fantastic name ever.)

As a little girl, Marya Morevna saw birds transform into husbands for her older sisters.  She waited for her own bird groom too, but The Russian Revolution changed all that and instead she became a revolutionary with a red neckerchief.  The tales she knew to be true got buried, until Koschei came to the door and whisked her away to a new life -- a life no less cruel than the old, but one where her best friends are a vila, a leshy, and a vintovnik.  She talks with domovoi and hunts firebirds, but Koschei is immersed in his war.  Marya clashes with Baba Yaga, who shows her the price paid by Koschei's many former wives when they, inevitably, ran off with their fairy-tale Ivans.  Marya manages to complete the impossible tasks set for her, but someday an Ivan will come for her too, and she will have to choose between two possible lives, each of which exacts its payment.

Valente intertwines the Russian folklore with Russian communism up through the war; St. Petersburg/Leningrad plays as large a part as the world of magic.  Marya spends time in a fairy war and in the siege of Leningrad; house elves hold soviet meetings, and Ivan, the youngest of three brothers, can be a soldier instead of a woodcutter.

This story is beautifully written, bizarre and strange, and fascinating to read.  Valente's husband is Russian and his family's heritage and tales served as the inspiration for this novel.  On the whole, I really enjoyed it, although, truth be told, it was a little much in the blood and sex department for my taste.  This is very much a fairy-tale retelling in the Angela Carter mode, though I think Valente did it quite a bit better and with more complexity and ambiguity.  If you're into fairy-tale retellings, this one is a must-read.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Tunnel in the Sky

Tunnel in the Sky, by Robert A. Heinlein

Rod Walker, high school student, has been taking a higher-level class in advanced survival.  His ambition is to someday see the other worlds humanity is colonizing, and survival skills are of the first importance.  The final exam is a field test; Rod and his classmates will be dropped on an unknown planet for anywhere from two to ten days.  They can take whatever equipment they wish.  Rod is surprised to find himself alone on the other end of the gate -- they've dropped the students far apart instead of in a group -- and he does all right for the first couple of days.  But the exit gate never opens, and Rod and his classmates have to build a surviving society of their own, without knowing if anyone will ever come to get them.

This was a great read!  My 16-year-old daughter loved it too, and says it was what she hoped Lord of the Flies would be, before she read it and was disappointed.  (She really likes survival stories, and as a kid informed me that Robinson Crusoe was a big cheater, taking all that stuff off the wrecked ship.)   It's a great story, with strong characters -- including a good few women.  The first half is focused on the survival stuff, and the second half on building a working society from scratch. 

Now, the setup is a very Malthusian future, so there is a massive population of humans but no more food than before.  Thus, thanks to a handy gate technology, people are constantly emigrating to new, empty planets, and Earth people live mostly underground, leaving the topsoil for wilderness and farming.  It's kind of funny to see Heinlein insisting that everybody in an overcrowded future will still have six children each (when now, world fertility rates have plummeted, so that we will have a future full of old people and relatively few youngsters) and that you can't grow more food on the same amount of land (in fact, we now grow more food on less land, allowing for reforestation in some places).

Anyway, it was all very fun; this is a good pick if you're looking to read a Heinlein title.  I read it in a three-pack called Infinite Possibilities, but it's available on its own too.

German edition, featuring a wagon train to the stars!

Sakuntala

Shakuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala), by Kālidāsa

Some time ago I read The Cloud Messenger, a longish poem by the Sanskrit poet Kālidāsa, who lived about 1500 years ago apparently.  I thought I would like to read his play, too.  The introduction of this book says that ancient Sanskrit drama was considered divine, a fifth Veda that was supposed to instruct through pleasure.  All could understand it (unlike the four Vedas), and it should represent the world, give good advice, and "bring peace of mind to those afflicted with the ills of the world" (such as kings).  Drama is not particular and individual, but shows a generalized picture and should produce "the aesthetic emotion" called rasa by building impressions through the words, music, and art.  The story therefore reads like a legend or fairy tale.

Shakuntala is a lovely, sheltered girl living in a holy enclave with her adopted father, the sage Kanva.  Other holy disciples and girls live there as well; it's a small community in the wilderness.  The king, Duhsanta, happens upon the hermitage during a hunt and stops to pay his respects to the sage.  There he meets Shakuntala, and they immediately fall in love, but Sage Kanva is temporarily absent, unable to give his consent.  Duhsanta determines that Shakuntala is an appropriate bride for him and talks her into an immediate marriage by declaration.  He then takes his leave, promising to send for her, but, naturally, there is a barrier to their love that must be conquered.

It's a lovely, poetic story that must have enchanted the court that saw it.  I'm sure the English version doesn't measure up to the original, so I can't appreciate it properly, but it was neat to read and it would be fun to see it performed.  It's not at all difficult to read, except that a glossary and cultural footnotes come in pretty handy, so the Penguin edition is a good one for those not familiar with ancient Indian literature and culture.  The Loom of Time collects two poems and this play.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Star Trek 7

Star Trek 7, by James Blish

Somebody besides me must remember these fun paperbacks.  When I was a kid, my library had a whole bunch of these and I remember reading a lot of them -- although I don't actually remember the stories, unless they're really famous episodes.  What they really are is short story versions of old Star Trek episodes.  As far as I can tell, they are nearly the same, but Blish filled them out a little.

Volume seven starts off with its strongest pieces, putting "Who Mourns for Adonais?" first (that's the one where they run into Apollo), and then the Nomad story, "The Changeling."  After reading that, I had to watch it, so we all saw it together.  The other four stories are less memorable, but there's the one where they find a planet of Native Americans (and Kirk marries a girl!), the one where they all get old, the one with Zefram Cochrane and the electric cloud that loves him, and the one with a barbarian princess who enslaves men with her tears.

Some of the moments in these stories make me do a double take when I think about them.  I've seen Star Trek so many times that it doesn't surprise me when a beautiful ex-girlfriend shows up and allures Kirk, but it gets a little egregious in the getting-old one.  It turns out that they had a relationship 6 years ago but had to break up for the sake of their careers, so she married a man in her own field, and now she's a widow, so when she shows up she promptly announces that while she respected her husband, she always loved Kirk and throws herself at him almost as soon as they say hello.  Really?  I mean, good golly.

Another funny moment is when Zefram Cochrane realizes his electric cloud is in love with him, and reacts with utter horror to this inter-species romance while the more cosmopolitan Enterprise crew think it's no big deal.  Cochrane changes his mind when the cloud takes up residence in the dying diplomat lady's body, which I think is the weird part, but nobody seems to mind since she was dying anyway, and now she gets to have a romance.  That's kinda odd, I think.

Anybody else remember these, with their psychedelic covers and giant stylized numbers?  My kid actually didn't recognize the seven as a number; she thought it was a blob.  I guess she hasn't been exposed much to that 70s font.

Awesome old covers for the series -- there were 13

They Walked Like Men

They Walked Like Men, by Clifford D. Simak (1962)

I always love Vintage Sci-Fi January, and I jumped right in with a nice Simak title that has been on the shelf for years.  It turned out to be a really fun read!  This is a great one.  (Then I took about a week off blogging for no reason except that I was finishing a quilt and cleaning a lot! I'm now on my fourth vintage SF read.)

Parker Graves, a newspaper reporter, comes home one night a bit tipsy, but that saves his life when he spots a strange trap in front of his door.  Then the trap melts and rolls away.  When more odd things happen around town -- most especially, there's a sudden massive housing shortage -- he realizes that an alien invasion is under way.  Who will believe him?  And why do the aliens look like....bowling balls?

It's just a funny, well written story that perpetrates an impossible situation, so I was really wondering how it could be solved.  And the aliens believe that they are doing their takeover in a perfectly legal and businesslike manner, which is a fun take on the alien invasion theme.  I recommend this one.




Monday, January 2, 2017

Eneas

Eneas: a Twelfth-Century Romance, translated by John Yunck

Storytime: way back in college when I was taking literature classes, one of my favorite classes was on medieval literature, and it was taught by one of my favorite professors, who had a newly-minted Oxford PhD and probably not much familiarity (yet) with Berkeley students.  She threw a mass of really weird stuff at us, which in retrospect was probably not the usual kind of fare for an average introduction to medieval literature -- though of course I had no idea at the time.  We started with the Aeneid, because it was so admired and emulated, and then at some point we read Eneas, a medieval re-telling of the Aeneid that is also really the first of the French romances.  The author took the old-fashioned chansons de geste about heroes (like The Song of Roland) and combined them with the new fashion for romantic love and psychological evaluation.  So this story features Sir Eneas, the prince and knight, and his great romances with Dido and then with Lavine.  The author also had a great love of wonders, especially architectural wonders, which furnishes the modern reader with a lot of entertainment.

Sir Eneas sails the ocean
 I still have my photocopied reader from the course, but I went looking to see if there was a new edition or anything.  No dice.  Eneas is an Old French poem, and the only English translation is this one from 1974 by John Yunck.  I think it's high time somebody published it in a nice paperback!

The story is just the same as in the Aeneid, just with different emphases.  Sir Eneas, the prince of Troy, leads his people on a quest for the land the gods have chosen for him.  He ends up in Carthage, where he and Dido fall in love, but he's ordered to move on and Dido kills herself.  He visits the underworld.  Eventually he gets to Italy, where the king recognizes his claim and promises him the kingship and his daughter Lavine, but the previous claimant is angry and there's a war.  Eneas has the victory and he marries Lavine, founding Alba and a dynasty that will lead to Rome.  But Dido spends all her time fainting and turning white and red by turns, and there are long discourses about the nature of love.  Lavine has no intention of falling in love with anyone, but when she spies Eneas from her window, she falls prey to the malady of love too; and so does Eneas, so they spend the week before the wedding pining for each other.

Dido casts herself into the flames
The Eneas author does not, however, make much of the Roman gods except for Cupid/Love in the medieval fashion.  The gods' constant interventions are really downplayed; the author is quite embarrassed by all this pagan superstition stuff and tries as hard as he can to edit it out whenever possible.

Did I mention the wonders?  Oh, golly, the wonders are so much fun.  I can't possibly quote them all, since it would be boring and spoil the fun, but I do have to quote a couple.  If you read it, look for Camilla's horse, which tops them all. 
...they make black dyes in Carthage from the blood of a great water serpent, which is called the crocodile, of which there are a great many on an island.  These serpents are enormously large, and of a very unusual nature; when one of them has devoured his prey, then he falls asleep with gaping jaws.  He has no bowels whatever.  The birds enter inside his body and during his sleep feed on what he has previously eaten.  He does not purge himself otherwise, for he has no fundament.
...and a cloak which was very valuable.  Its fur was cut in squares, from an animal of a hundred colors; the whole mantle was hemmed with other furs richer and finer, in front and on the bottom border.  The lining was very costly, and the outside was worth much more; it was all embroidered outside with gold.  The fasteners and the buckles and the buttons and the tassels alone were worth more than three castles...
The deer was so well behaved that at night it served at dinner, and acted as a candelabrum before the father and daughter.  Its head was marvelously beautiful when a large candle burned on each of the points of its antlers.
My personal favorite marvel is Camille's tomb, which is far too lengthy a description to quote here, but starts with two intersecting arches and then each successive layer is taller and wider than the one below -- and made in a completely different style -- until it is surmounted with an adamant pointy roof topped with a magic mirror, at least 150 feet up in the air.  Within, Camille rests with an eternal flame and even more wonders.

Eneas is just a kick to read, and it's neat to find the first time that a poet melded knightly deeds and romantic love into one story.  I'm really glad I read it again, and if you're interested in medieval literature, it's well worth getting a copy of the book on ILL.


_____________________________________________
I enjoyed the medieval literature class so much that I audited the next semester too.  And that's where I got my abiding affection for weird medieval stories.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Postmortal

The Postmortal, by Drew Magary

In 2019, a cure for aging is developed.  It's a gene therapy that will prevent you from ever getting any older, although you can still get sick or die from plenty of other causes.  John Farrell gets the cure while it's still illegal, and he will be 29 forever.  His online journal entries over the next 60 years form this novel.

What happens when age can be cured?  According to Magary, first people party a lot (despite their lack of immunity from liver damage).  Pro-cure groups protest, demanding it be legalized, while pro-death groups insist the cure will be disastrous and are ready to commit a lot of terrorist acts in the name of getting rid of the cure.  People almost immediately stop getting married and start getting divorces, or inventing cycle marriages with expiration dates.  But within twenty years, things aren't looking so good.  The population of the US has exploded to 750 million and has become a third-world country, just like everywhere else on earth.  Drugs and crime are everywhere, while water and food is not.  (See, here we have a scenario where a massive water shortage makes perfect sense.)

Over the 60 years of the diary, Farrell records a society going down the tubes.  He has a son, who grows up to join the new Church of Man, but Farrell himself winds up as an end specialist working for the government's voluntary euthanasia program.  Well, it's voluntary at first....

This was not exactly a fun books to read, but it was gripping!  Magary has some great ideas and the whole thing is really pretty good.  I don't know why anybody would want to live forever anyway -- staying young for 40 years, I get that!  But who wants to live forever?   Not me.  And this novel explores some interesting stuff and makes a really good case for NOT trying to stop aging or kill off Death.

I bet it's already been optioned for a movie.  Probably starring Tom Hiddleston, with Scarlett Johansson as Solara.