Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hunter/Victim By Robert Sheckley

'His wife, an innocent victim, was slain in a senseless act of terrorism. And now, Frank Blackwell was a perfect recruit for the underground operation known to a select few as the Hunt. In a world on of exterminating itself, the men and women of the Hunt sought to create order out of deadly chaos, choosing Victims with care. Blackwell was chosen to exterminate one of the world's major gunrunners, a man who almost singlehandedly could supply the equipment to launch the Third World War. It was a once-in-a-lifetime assignment that could see Blackwell stalked by the top assassins of every undercover power around the globe- in a fast-paced game of blood and betrayal!' -The back cover

Copyright 1988, published by Signet. 269 pages. $3.50 cover price.

This is the third book in the Hunter series by Robert Sheckley, and is something of a prequel. The book begins with Frank Blackwell having a terrible time on a trip to Paris: arguing with his wife, having his travellers checks stolen and then finally witnessing his still upset wife blown in half during an attack by some Balkan terrorists seeking a 'free Montenegro.' Frank returned to the US vowing, “somebody's going to pay for this.” He repeats this mantra to everyone he knows until he gets the attention of Minska, a Polish tavern keeper in New Jersey whom Frank had seen photos of in Soldier of Fortune. Frank asks the man about how he can become a mercenary himself because, well, I want to kill somebody, Minska.” The ex-merc tavern keeper knows a better way: he takes down Franks number and has him contacted by the Hunters. Frank, a free-lance book editor with no combat experience or know-how, has just become an assassin for a shadowy organization.

This all sounds rather dark and grim (which it is), but the book lightens up quite a bit at this point. Peppered throughout all the vengeance and murder is a farce about spies and international intrigue, which has before and since been used as a vehicle for laughs in countless films and novels. Blackwell is educated by the Hunters much like a college student would be: he has an unarmed combat class, an explosives class, and finally the professional killing class--all with whimsical details and deadly results. Once he is deemed ready, Frank is handed a dossier for Alfonso Alberto Guzman Torres, the aforementioned gun runner that had been active politically and militarily in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Frank was informed that his anticipated success rate--and therefore chance of his survival--was very low. This didn't seem to bother Blackwell, who had fostered quite the death wish over the last year. 

After a period of planning, the book is crammed with mayhem and hijinks due to either a blunder caused by Blackwell, or some double cross by one of the many shadowy organizations that pop up in this book (the CIA, an Armenian cartel, etc). Minska accompanies our protagonist and pulls him out of the fire on numerous occasions, cracking jokes and making dry commentary all the while. Guzman is an extremely paranoid individual with a long list of enemies, which does not help our heros cause in the least. In the 269 quick pages of Hunter/Victim, there are a few torture scenes, plenty of shoot-outs, a sexy double agent or two, and pages worth of cheesy one liners to lighten up the non-stop violence. All in all, Hunter/Victim is a fun book, but it is pretty shallow outside of the action from the few notable characters it has. 

Labeling Hunter/Victim as 'Sci-Fi' (as the publisher did at the time) seems rather erroneous as there isn't anything scientific outside of the stock spy gadgets you would expect out of any James Bond vehicle, but I will let it slide and add it as a label. If you prefer your explosions in your imagination rather than on the big screen, you will definitely enjoy this paperback. 

'I couldn't let that fat slob shoot you' -Mercedes, sexy double agent.

Thank to my homegirl @lbnass for the edits

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Slan By A.E. Van Vogt

“Why was he feared?... His name was Jommy Cross, and to all appearances he was human and harmless. But the Slan tendrils half-concealed in his hair identified him as a SLAN. And to the men who ruled the world, naturally all SLANS were freaks.

But Jommy believed that SLANS were not the monsters men claimed. And though still a child, and alone- and with only a secret weapon left to him by his father- he set out to find his fellow SLANS, and with them, to win a way to peace with men.”

Published 1946, originally a serial for Astounding Science Fiction beginning in 1940. 24c, 223 pages. I gave up trying to find out when my Dell reprint is from, since it doesn't say inside, but I would guess early 1950s.

Have you ever listened to a Beatles record and imagined that it just came out? Neither have I, nor have I been able to read work of fiction written half a century ago and been able to gauge its emotional impact in that day and age. Certain media just does not age well, and gold age sci-fi serials definitely fall into that category. Well, that isn't entirely true, as a certain few golden age stories were improved by their serial nature—keeping the readers interested from issue to issue demanded the storytelling be tight and the action constant. Unfortunately for SLAN, the story suffers from chapter to chapter and ends up being chaotic, confusing, and just plain ugly in novel format.

Right from the get-go, this story felt slapped together and hackneyed—the naming conventions of the protagonist Jommy and the main setting of Centropolis were enough to make me groan in the early pages. The middle of the book is fairly strong, but the ending feels stretched thin, probably in order to get a few more issues of action out to the Astounding Science Fiction fanbase. Several annoying twists and turns add little to the actual story’s suspense, but probably kept subscriptions up from late 40s teens.

I will attempt a synopsis here, although the SLAN wiki page has a succinct yet spoiler-ridden one for the world to see. The novel begins with Jommy and his mother on the run from a mob of humans who mindlessly fear the slan and kill them on site. Jommy's mother gives him a pep talk involving slan/human relations and sends him off to escape while she creates a diversion, and, inevitably, dies. Jommy escapes the crowd and authorities, but is then whacked on the head by a malevolent old lady who calls herself 'granny' in third person for the rest of the book.

Jommy ends up living with the old bag and uses his telepathic abilities to aid him in shoplifting goods so she can fence them and buy liquor. During the next six years Jommy somehow gets an education and conveniently some insight as well from his late father, who planted hypnotic thought seeds in his mind when he was a child. The thought seeds lead him to his father's hidden atomic ray gun, which uses “concentration rather than diffusion” to magically vaporize anything in its path. In each of the remaining fifteen chapters, Jommy uses his telepathic skills, atomizer, and a self-learned doctorate in rocket science to escape all the slan-hating factions of earth…over and over again.

I can envision someone popping open a 1940 issue of Astounding Science and thinking SLAN a groundbreaking, riveting story, but it just doesn't translate well in novel form or to a reader in 2010. The backdrops and dialogue are too reminiscent of a film being trashed by Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to be taken seriously, and Jommy's 'tragic' life plays out way too conveniently to be a good story vehicle.

I really wanted to like SLAN for all of its faults, but all the “old sci-fi” hype in the world can't save this overburdened mess. Though it does include lasers shot by sexy, tunic-wearing slan women, which is a definite plus.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Goblin Reservation By Clifford D. Simak

'Himself again- Having just returned to Earth from an inter-galactic research mission, Professor Peter Maxwell, specialist in Supernatural Phenomena, finds himself in dire straits.

Earth, as he is aware, is well-advanced in many areas; perfected time travel, for instance, enables all creatures (goblins, dinosaurs and Shakespeare!) to coexist. But Maxwell has accidentally discovered a mysterious crystal planet containing a storehouse of secret information not yet known on Earth.

Knowing the value of the planet for the future of Earth, he attempts to convince those in power that they must, at any cost, get control of it. But his efforts are thwarted by a startling fact: Maxwell was ingeniously duplicated on his return trip. The "other" him came back before he did, and was soon after "accidentally" killed. Now no one will believe the original Maxwell really exists...' The back cover of the 1969 edition

'Professor Peter Maxwell is in desperate straits. En route to an interplanetary research mission, he was snatched by a strange, shadowy race to a previously uncharted planet. Ancient beyond comprehension, this planet is a storehouse of information that would be invaluable to the people of Earth- even an Earth so far advanced that perfected time travel allows goblins, dinosaurs, ghosts, even Shakespeare to coexist. His attempts to interest the rulers of Earth are thwarted, however, by a startling discovery- Maxwell was ingeniously duplicated. The "other" him came back before he did, and soon after was "accidentally" killed. Now no one will believe the original Maxwell really exists...' -The back cover of the 1993 edition

First copyright 1968, cover price of the 1969 version 75c and the 1993 version $3.95. Both are 192 pages.

They tweaked the cover description a bit in the 24 years in between these editions, and they still managed to make it deceptively sound like an action packed story of intrigue, which it is not. Not much happens in The Goblin Reservation other than dialogue, which is often on the whimsical side and rarely as clever as Simak is going for. First off- the 'rulers of Earth' Maxwell is attempting to speak to are the head faculty of Oxford college, where this story takes place. Last time I checked academia wasn't exactly the United Nations, but this is 'the far future', so who knows? Oh yeah, Oxford moved to Wisconsin, which is a stab at humor and an example of how earnest and unfunny The Goblin Reservation ended up. The jokes and slapstick involved in this short little novel will make you cringe over and over again.

By now you have figured out that I didn't care for this novel much, but the poor comedic delivery is only one of my gripes. The Goblin Reservation makes an attempt at bridging the often mutually exclusive worlds of fantasy and sci-fi, and fails miserably by trying too much. In 192 pages this novel has aliens, goblins, teleportation, warlocks, trolls, time travel, fairies, space ghosts, a dragon, an educated neanderthal and a 'bio-mech' saber tooth tiger named Sylvester (ha?). I can imagine Simak sitting in front of a dry erase board, writing out the formula for 'coolest shit ever', and trying to jam it into the plot line of The Goblin Reservation. All this book needed was a passive aggressive unicorn that communicates solely through rainbows and it would have run through the gauntlet of stupid sci-fi and fantasy tropes. Fuck this fucking book.

Watch out! Sylvester the bio-mech is stealing the steak off your plate! Oh no, Oop the educated neanderthal is drinking moonshine again! 

I wish there was more of a plot to save this novel, but it was completely secondary to the existence of gnomes and witty banter in restaurants. I know that someone is going to tell me that fantasy and sci-fi is about making the reader 'marvel at possibilities' or some shit, but they probably haven't read this terrible book. The Goblin Reservation is honestly one of the worst novels I have read, but sadly not the worst since I started this little project. That illustrious award is still owned by Golem 100 by Alfred Bester, who was at least in his decline and not the middle of his career when he wrote that piece of garbage. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Demolished Man By Alfred Bester

'A staggering achievement- First, Alfred Bester created a world- a future world ruled by enlightened telepaths who can prevent crime by knowing about it before it occurs.

Next he created a man- a 24th-century Oedipus who imagines himself irreplaceable, irreproducible, and above the law. 

Then the man set out on his own- to do the impossible. To defy the forces of mind and nature. To do what he alone could do. To get away with murder. 

The Demolished Man is an undisputed masterpiece of inventiveness and sheer suspense, acknowledged throughout the world as one of the most influential and brilliant science fiction novels ever written' -The Back Cover

1978 reprint, first published 1951. Cover price $1.95, I got it for $2.50 at Bucket O' Blood. 239 pages.

I acknowledge that The Demolished Man is a well known, heralded novel of golden era Sci-Fi, so it doesn't really fit the theme of this blog, but I have been told by numerous people that read my thoughts on Golem 100 that I just had to read this book and change my perception of Alfred Bester. They were right. This book is excellent and is a great example of a writer hitting his stride and creating a near classic. Some of the aspects of Golem 100 that drove me crazy are present: weak psychoanalysis, an overly fantastic murder plot, meandering writing and some shallow characters--but this novel is so fast paced and groundbreaking that you barely take notice. 

Ben Reich, the unnamed antagonist/anti-hero referenced on the back cover, is a ruthless man with plans on financial domination of the universe who seemingly is without a conscious. From the onset of the novel he begins devising a way to circumvent the authority of telepaths--or 'peepers' as they are known--in order to murder D'Courtney, his primary business rival. Peepers have created a world wide institution and have taken an oath similar to the Hippocratic: they not only will not commit violent acts, they will also do everything in their power to prevent them. Ben Reich is a powerful man who runs Monarch Utilities and Resources, Inc., a company that has many facets and spans several solar systems. Reich uses his vast resources and bribes a peeper with suspect conditioning (and an even more suspect moral code), which is just the beginning of his plan. 

There is the plot set up, which is pretty cool in itself for a book published in 1951.  What I found most appealing about The Demolished Man was the vintage Sci-Fi setting. You could get a way with a lot of ridiculous futurism in the 1950s and Bester goes all out in that regard. Hover cars, a supercomputer judge, far flung planets, ESP battles, gravity guns and a slew of clever naming conventions and futurespeak terms add a lot of fun to an already fast paced murder story. Many of the characters were simple plot vehicles, but I found the police prefect Powell to be a great foil for the rampaging Reich. His dialogue was witty enough to actually make me chuckle here and there. The mystery elements had a noir feel to them, which is something that appeals to me more and more every day. All in all, The Demolished Man is a very entertaining book that makes me want to delve deeper in Bester's earlier works.

Synopsis: I am very glad for the recommendations to read this book, although it does make me sad to see how far Bester fell from greatness in the period between The Demolished Man and Golem 100. I can only imagine what fans of the genre thought at the time!

Thanks to Lindsay Nass for the edits. I know this entry was a bit of a cop out, it being a Hugo award winner and all, so I will be doing another book later in the week.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Before The Classics- Time Out Of Joint By Phillip K. Dick


Ragle Gumm had it easy, living with relatives and making enough money to get by on just doing newspaper puzzles
and winning all the time. He had to admit he was essentially a bum... But a happy one.

But then... A refreshment stand disappeared in front of his eyes and a slip of paper inscribed 
SOFT DRINK STAND fluttered down... Messages about him came in on his nephews crystal set... And a tattered old magazine he found featured things he knew never existed
such as a supposedly famous actress named Marilyn Monroe...

Ragle gumm knew that either he was going mad... Or the universe was.
”—The back cover

Dell Books $2.25 1979. I paid three bucks. Originally published 1959.

Philip K. Dick is probably better known now than at any time in his life- there are numerous biographies about the man, best of collections of his work, and even an award named after him. In 1959, when Time Out of Joint became his fifth (published) novel, Dick was a relative unknown to all but Sci-Fi die-hards, and would continue to be until The Man in the High Castle was published in 1962. 

Time Out of Joint begins at a slow burn, as not very much happens for the first forty-five pages other than the introduction of the cast of characters, until the aforementioned surreal 'SOFT DRINK STAND' incident, which kicks the story into a higher gear. Like most of Dick's work this novel focuses, on reality and our perceptions of it. However, Time Out of Joint makes a small spin on that by making it fairly obvious that this is a simulated reality executed by some outside force (if you have read Enders Game or even seen the terrible Truman Show movie, you will pick this up pretty quickly).
I liked Ragle Gumm as a protagonist, but I got the distinct feeling that Dick did not want us to. Looking through a 1950's lens, we were to believe that a man who made a large salary, had decent luck with women, and a good rapport with his family, could still be a 'loser' because he did all of these things outside of the norm. Ragle's family helps him in his quest to unravel the mystery of what is wrong with their reality- from his sister and nephew attempting to decipher radio signals on a homemade 'crystal set' to his brother in law Vic helping Ragle try and leave town and see what is going on outside of their little community. The results ha a strong 'Twilight Zone' feel.

The beginning of this book definitely had a frustrated artist feel to it, almost to the point of being 'angsty'. Boiled down, Time Out of Joint is a period piece about a time in Philip K. Dick’s life that I would assume he’d rather have forgotten. A story that could have easily laid the paranoia on real thick is deflated by tentative jabs directed at consumerism, conformity, and anti-communism.

This review is taking a turn toward the negative, which was not my intention, but the faults of this novel are many and fairly easy to point out.The illusion that is the backdrop of Gumm's reality is much more interesting than the secret its hiding, which is probably the most that I can state without venturing into 'spoiler' territory.

Time Out of Joint shows more promise than creativity or writing chops, and you can see Dick teetering towards the greatness that characterized the middle of his career. Although I enjoyed this novel, I wouldn’t say it’s a classic or even a must-read from Dick’s pantheon. The payoff just isn’t there at the end, but there are some cool moments leading towards the climax.