Two days ago, Salem Press gave me the green light on to do a collection of new scholarly essays on Robert A. Heinlein...and within 30 hours of my first solicitations, all 15 chapters had been assigned! Critical Insights: Robert A. Heinlein, part of the wide-ranging Critical Insights Series of Salem Press, will be written by a crew of scholars from all over world, arranged and edited and whatnot by this most humble editor, and released in late 2015. I suspect it is going to be very, very good...
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read Jonathan R. Eller’s Ray Bradbury Unbound in preparation for a review for the journal Extrapolation—loved it.
The review itself will have to wait for late 2015, but below is the brief note I did on Goodreads:
For right now, I will simply comment that Jonathan R. Eller'sRay Bradbury Unbound is a top-notch conclusion to the two-volume biography of perhaps the most famous name on modern speculative fiction, by perhaps the top scholar of Bradbury textual criticism. While the book of course discusses the author's life after Fahrenheit 451, it is not simply a chronology of personal matters but an explanation and analysis of Bradbury's development as an artist. As such, this study will be enjoyed by scholars and non-academic readers alike.
A fuller 1400-word review will be forthcoming in the academic journal Extrapolation in late 2015.
6 October 2014
Mark Twain's 1906 Diaries of Adam and Eve, with original early twentieth-century illustrations by F. Strothmann and Lester Ralph, is exquisitely witty, visually appealing, and even, by the end, touching.
The extracts from Adam's diary, which has each page of brief text paired with a gently humorous Strothmann illustration of a sometimes-broken tablet of a cartoon in rather Sumerian style, is sure to make many a beleaguered husband smile. Apparently jokes on the talkativeness of wives, the desirability of loafing on the weekend, and similar matters began around 4004 B.C. Really, though, it is all in good fun. And after the Fall, when Adam comes back from a trapping expedition on the north shore of the Erie, it is amusing indeed to see the clueless man's attempts at puzzling out exactly what is this strange little human-like creature that Eve claims to have found. Perhaps it is a fish, thinks he, and thus naturally he chucks it in the water to check--and yet for some reason Eve snatches the thing out most indignantly. From there on, it is a long, sleepless series of months...
Following Adam's diary extracts are Eve's, illustrated page by page with straightforward but charming woodcuts or engravings by Lester Ralph. In a nice twist, rather than remaining something of the butt of the joke, the former rib of the first diarist now comes into her own. Whereas in Adam's account she can come off as a pesky, unreasonable nuisance, Eve shows herself to be, although occasionally distracted, the emotional yin to Adam's unimaginative intellectual yang. In Adam's account, for example, when he tries to escape from "the new creature" and then, when found, simply leaves it out in the rain with water coming out of the holes it sees with rather than let it into his new shelter, the incident is presented as a minor though somewhat perplexing annoyance. In Eve's account, however, we now see actual human emotion rather than mere slapstick, and we begin to notice that simple male self-centeredness may not always be the most hilarious thing in the world.
Indeed, the growing maturation of the characters, deftly handled by the wry Twain, is an unexpected pleasure of this brief, easily read volume. Eve's musings on the nature of love, for example, are homely and touching, as is her final prayer that when death comes, it come first for her instead of Adam, "for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me--life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?" And yet just when we think the husband rather an unworthy clod, the final pair of pages, with an achingly solemn Lester Ralph illustration and a single heartfelt line from Adam, poignantly show that he has learned what it means to be human, too...
5 October 2014
I happened to run across a Heinlein cover I hadn’t seen before, a Bean combo of The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace from Earth, with a cover by Bob Eggleton. Now ’tis duly scanned, therefore, and put in the “Collections” page of my Heinlein cover art galleries.
The 90% discount sale for the sensual, poignant drama Student Body begins at 9:00am Pacific on Monday, September 15th, with the $9.99 Kindle edition available for only 99 cents! The price will increase a dollar a day thereafter, with the sale ending Monday the 21st.
Charming young professor-to-be Rick O’Donnell seems to have it all, but he also hides a desperate secret: his brief, passionate affair with a beautiful girl who had been his own student just the semester before, and who now is a fellow teaching assistant with an office right down the hall from his. If the truth comes out, he will lose everything—his once-promising career, his marriage, perhaps even his life. This novel is the frank and intimate tale of a harrowing week and a half which will decide a deeply conflicted man’s entire future…and the lives of the women who love him.
Hailed as “vivid” and “emotional,” “smoothly presented” and “carefully crafted,” with an “unexpected conclusion…both believable and satisfying,” Student Body on September 15th at last can be downloaded for your enjoyment at deep discount: http://www.amazon.com/Student-Body-Rafeeq-O-McGiveron-ebook/dp/B00IICK44Y/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-1&qid=1410640161.
About a year and a half ago I picked up a 1963 Pyramid printing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World, and I finally got around to reading ’er.
Really, it was quite a fun read. Below is a review I did at Goodreads:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 The Lost World is, for its period, a very nice five-star adventure story. While the very beginning, with its seemingly conventional sentimental claptrap of competing for a lady's approval, is perhaps the weakest part of the tale, we soon get down to treacherous Amazonian jungles, conniving betrayals, and prehistoric beasts galore--and the close of the novel reveals that, as conventional sentimental claptrap goes, the author actually is a jolly good sport about poking mocking holes in it.
The tale begins when the narrator, Edward Malone, an Irish rugby champion and now earnest young reporter for the Daily Gazette, desireth for the purposes of marriage the hand of Miss Gladys Hungerton. This coolly superior icon of desirable young womanhood, however, is swayed neither by words nor by flowers but by deeds. Heroism is required, she preaches from the comfort of an English drawing room. Only a hero can win her, for only then can she be "what [she] should like to be,--envied for [her] man."
This may not be the deepest or most flattering thing a girl has ever told a suitor, but 'tis enough to send the love-struck newspaperman to attempt the closest thing he can to heroism: interviewing the imposing Professor Challenger. Challenger, after all, already has violently assaulted several who doubted his stories of finding during his most recent expedition to South America a seemingly inaccessible plateau in the depths of the jungle, along with the sketchbook of a dead American artist depicting pterodactyls and other Jurassic beasties. When the bristly Challenger speaks at the Zoological Institute, he of course is denounced as a charlatan, and it is agreed that a mission shall set out to the Amazon to prove orthodoxy still correct. Professor Summerlee, Challenger's most vociferous critic, calls for volunteers to join him, and Malone literally jumps to his feet, followed by adventurer and big-game hunter Lord Roxton. Miss Hungerton's suitor will have his heroism, apparently, or die trying.
Adventure ensues. Really, the standard travelogue of the deep Amazon, replete not only with danger but also with both beauty and wonder, is a fine read, and it is spiced with the amusing conflicts of the exquisitely arrogant Challenger and the equally determined, if more restrained, Summerlee. Once the explorers surmount the seemingly unclimbable plateau--and, naturally, are trapped upon it--we will see rookeries of huge pterodactyls, great iguanodons and freshwater sea monsters, unclassifiable dinosaurs like giant toads, and even savage "missing link" ape-men. That 1300 rounds of rifle ammunition listed in the supplies definitely will come in handy, eh, what?
This book is not necessarily the place to turn for modern paleontologic or evolutionary theory, of course, nor is it for modern race relations. The trope of "faithful Negro"--who calls his British employers "Massa," no less--versus sinister and sneaky "half-breed" is painful, but it should not be a surprise, given the time of writing. In terms of outmoded ideas, however, at least when what I might call something of the intellectual narrative frame closes, the notion of jousting for a fair lady's honor takes a lovely little drubbing.
Most importantly, though, despite occasional scientific or ethnographic shortcomings inherent to its era, The Lost World simply is a fun and entertaining adventure, and even more than a hundred years later it still remains well worth reading.
1 September 2014
I just read Natives of Space by Hal Clement, which is actually a collection of three novelettes, one from 1946, one from ’43, and one from ’42.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve read, say, Eric Frank Russell’s Men, Martians, and Machines or A.E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but I found this maybe half a notch below what I remember those other two to be. I seem to recall the Russell being a bit less serious, mind you, but for the adventure it was, it was just fine.
Still, this early Clement was indeed decent fun, and worth reading. Below is the review I did at Goodreads:
Natives of Space is a 1965 repackaging of three 1940s Hal Clement novelettes from, it appears by the Street and Smith copyrights, Astound Science-Fiction.
Assumption Unjustified of 1946 follows a pair of aquatic aliens who stop off on Earth to withdraw some blood--painlessly and carefully--from an unconscious Terran for use in a rejuvenation treatment. Mildly amusing attitudinal irony abounds, but the aliens' mistaken conclusion at the end is a whopper, and therefrom springs the title.
The 1943 Technical Error is one of those classic puzzle stories of the humans-must-figure-out-ancient-alien-technology variety. Here the only hope of spacemen marooned on an asteroid by the meltdown of their atomic motors is to make use of a seemingly inscrutable alien ship before their air runs out. It is good as far as it goes, but modern readers might the piece frustrating because the artifact, with its recognizable ion engines, electrical cables, and whatnot, simply isn't alienenough.
Impediment of 1942 returns to the third-person-alien point of view when telepathic moth-like creatures from a low-gravity planet must try to communicate with a human in hopes of finding on Earth the materials with which to replenish their ammunition supply so that they can return to their feudalistic, warring solar system. Clement's investigations on the biochemical nature of thought are interesting, but the notion that the human character, "like many people, involuntarily visualize[s] the written forms of the words he utter[s]" is a gimmick that seems completely divorced from reality...
So long as the reader understands that, despite its funky mid-1960s cover, Hal Clement's Natives of Space actually is a product of the simpler days of the pulp magazines circa 1942 to 1946, it can be considered a decent three- to four-star read. Rounding up a tad, I'll call it four.
24 August 2014
Some time ago at The Reading Place in Charlotte, Michigan, I picked up a nice 1963 Dell reprint of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers—no “invasion of” in the original title, apparently. It was a marvelous read.
I cringed whenever the main characters ventured out of each other’s sight. I frowned at their attempted rationalizations of the unbelievable things they had seen. I gaped when, after finally having captured a cop’s service revolver, the protagonist ends up throwing it away because he cannot carry it inconspicuously—Come on, Doc, no jackets in 1955...? Really, though, every sidestep and piece of self-doubt made perfect sense, and it simply set us up all the better for the time when the baddies trot out the fuller explanations.
In any event, below is the review I posted at Goodreads:
Jack Finney's 1955 The Body Snatchers is an exquisitely terrifying story of alien invasion which, despite the basics of its plot having become cultural tropes in the succeeding decades, remains as suspenseful as the day it was released.
Point of view, style, and setting here work together to make the unbelievable seem completely possible. First-person narrator Dr. Miles Bennell is the perfect character to deliver this story. The small-town doctor is well-educated, of course, and as a lifelong resident, he has the good general practicioner's eye for detail and tolerant understanding of human behavior, along with an intimate knowledge of the residents, geography, and history of the city of Santa Mira, California, population 3,890. His prose is matter-of-fact, sometimes wry, sometimes mildly self-deprecating, and when he begins by "warn[ing]" us that the tale "is full of loose ends and unanswered questions" and admitting that he "can't say [he] really know[s] what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended," we are hooked.
The 1950s small-town setting then allows Finney both a nostalgic backward look and the firm grounding in prosaic reality needed by any good story of extraterrestrial invasion. The direct-dial telephone has been put in only within the previous year, for example, and the sexual tension between the divorced young physician and his divorced high school friend Becky Driscoll, with its mixture of amiable man-of-the-world roguishness and rather touching hesitance, is a subtly rendered portrait of early postwar mores. The familiar streets of the town, the back yards and porches where Miles played as a boy, the countryside where he hunted rabbits with a .22--in the warm sunlit day, all of these belie the seemingly impossible thing, human and yet not, that he and Becky see in the nighttime basement of the grim and frightened Jack and Theodora Belicec. Yet see it they did.
Finney here is a master of the night, and much of the action of the novel takes place after the comforting sun has set, in creepy basements lit by a single overhead bulb or by a dim penlight, on deserted roads where anything, anything at all, might wait in the dark beyond the headlights, in locked rooms where to sleep might mean to lose one's very self. Back and forth Finney deftly works us between the utterly shocking evidence seen firsthand at night and the sheepish uncertainty of plausible-seeming explanations in the morning. Clues are parceled out adroitly, and the protagonists' doubts, even as we wish to shake them into immediate understanding, are achingly believable. Yet eventually even these level-headed people must admit to themselves that something awful truly is going on, something inexplicable and threatening, a conspiracy that grows and grows, unseen and unsuspected by anyone but themselves.
The era of The Body Snatchers was, of course, ripe for such beautiful literary paranoia. Once the war had been won and the world apparently made safe for American ideals again, why, new threats suddenly lurked everywhere. The Berlin Blockade of 1948 brought American and Soviet armed forces to a precarious standoff in Occupied Europe, while the hugely populous former ally of China fell to Communism in 1949. Despite the testimony by General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, that it would take the Soviets twenty years to develop the atom bomb, August 1949 saw this event, and the beginning of war in Korea in June 1950 seemed to many as if it may have been a feint to draw Western forces away from a forthcoming thrust in Europe.
Yes, Cold War sparring, Red spies, agitprop, suspicion--these helped prepare readers for The Body Snatchers, and of course for Robert A. Heinlein's 1951 The Puppet Masters, but Finney's novel does not have to be approached from this mindset. The book, after all, in its writing is as matter-of-fact as a Life magazine article, and the science-fictional notion of spores drifting slowly across interstellar space, from soon-to-be-ruined world to world to world, replacing one's most trusted friends and family with emotionless doppelgangers, is chilling. The Body Snatchers remains a top-notch, scaring read.
23 August 2014
I confess that when I think of Lester Del Rey, I happen to be rather more familiar with his 1950s YA works--The Mysterious Planet, Moon of Mutiny, or Rocket Jockey, for example—than I am with his adult pieces. I did read “Nerves” in Healy and McComas’ Adventures in Time and Space, and in the last couple of years I got around to The Eleventh Commandment and Preferred Risk, but it seems to be my teenaged readings of the juvies that have stuck with me.
And while I of course had seen the 1971 Pstalemate on the shelves as a kid, I never picked it up...until recently, that is. Actually, I bought a copy at The Reading Place in Charlotte, MI, and then, maybe a year later, I apparently forgot I had it, so I picked up a different edition in the local library’s basement sale... Anyway, I finally pulled one off the shelf a few days ago and read the thing—definitely worth waiting for.
Below is the review I did at Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1031264524?book_show_action=false.
Lester del Rey's 1971 Pstalemate is an intriguing and nuanced tale of a man who suddenly realizes--despite his disdain for what he regards as merely a "current fad in science fiction," despite his singular lack of luck at any sort of guessing games, and despite apparent common sense--that he himself possesses psionic power.
It makes no sense to bight young mechanical engineer Harry Bronson. Or...well, does it? Occasionally, after all, Harry has flashes of inexplicable dread, or even voices seeming to call him. His complete failure at guessing Rhine cards, moreover, actually is just a little too complete, a statistical aberration no less than had he gotten them all correct. And certainly his own past is strangely shrouded, with all memories of life before age ten, and of the death of his parents, now lost to amnesia.
But telepathy exists, the unwilling Harry discovers, and even precognition, too. His own parents had set up some kind of colony or commune of believers, now disbanded, of which little is known anymore, and he begins as well to be able to sense the mental presence of others like him in sprawling New York City. Yet he senses also something he can term only "the alien entity," a force utterly unknowable and frightening, and which seems to be trying to take possession of him.
Extrasensory perception, a researcher's lifelong notes reveal, first truly manifested itself following a mutation caused by petrochemical pollution just three generations earlier. Yet although the people whom the increasingly sensitive Harry from a distance comes to recognize as fellow telepaths seem, in general, more decent than the average human being, he begins to realize that he finds only the young, never the old...for some intrinsic factor of the mutation drives all to inescapable madness. And now Harry's precognition tells him exactly how long he has: three months, and then descent into the living hell of insanity.
Despite his delayed awareness of his abilities, Harry Bronson actually may be the strongest telepath still living. But he has only three months to solve the mystery of himself, lest he lose his own self, and this strange mutation prove merely an evolutionary dead end rather than a transformative quantum leap in consciousness. As Harry and his new wife, once his childhood friend and a telepath as well, race desperately for an answer, Lester Del Rey explores with subtlety and insight the very fundamentals of the human condition--growth and maturity, love and sexuality, and the nature of consciousness--and thereby gives an exciting, intriguing, sometimes touching story.
20 August 2014