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Summing Up: The 2009 Reading Challenge

I have a lot of books. Two questions people always ask me when they see my book collection: 1) have you read them all? and b) why do you keep them if you’ve read them?

The answer to the first question is: not yet. About 80%, perhaps.

And the second question: I might want to reread them one day.

Except, of course, rereading becomes increasingly less likely as the number of unread books I own grows. Yet every time I see my book-shelves, I always recognise that there are many I would indeed like to read again one day. Especially those I last read back in my teens.

Which is why I decided that my reading challenge for 2009 would be to reread those sf novels I remembered enjoying twenty years ago. I also wanted to know how I’d respond to them now. The twelve titles I chose were, I admit, somewhat arbitrary. There are a few I wish I’d included – such as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – but I’d reread them in the last decade, so they didn’t meet the criteria. For a reason I now no longer recall, I also chose to ignore a few acknowledged sf classics on my book-shelves which did meet the criteria.

The books I picked were… Ringworld, Rendezvous With Rama, Star King, The Tar-Aiym Krang,The Stainless Steel Rat, Second Stage Lensman, Jack of Eagles, The Left Hand of Darkness, Lord Valentine’s Castle, Radix, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and Stranger in a Strange Land.

The 2009 reading challenge is now over, and… some I’m glad I reread, even though I didn’t think they were very good.

JanuaryRingworld, Larry Niven, was a dissatisfying read. It needed a meatier plot. There’s much to be said for the ringworld itself, of course, but the novel felt surprisingly thin when compared to my memory of it. See here.

FebruaryRendezvous With Rama, Arthur C Clarke, on the contrary made a virtue of the thinness of its plot. It explained nothing. Some bits of it read somewhat dated now, and Clarke’s prose was rarely more than workmanlike, but… read as an historical document – as what sf was, not what it is or should be – this novel did not sort of remind me why I’d become a fan in the first place. See here.

MarchStar King, Jack Vance, felt like a wasted opportunity more than anything else. It’s middling Vance, but it’s, well, it’s Vance. There’s not much point in reading it as Star King. I might as well have picked any Vance novel. See here.

AprilThe Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster, was just ordinary, and I wondered why I’d like it so much as a teenager. On reflection, it’s probably because so much sf of later years is like it. It has that sort of generic role-playing game space opera feel to it, and whatever was new in it has subsequently been buried beneath a mass of similar material. See here.

MayThe Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison, was a real surprise. It was rubbish. I hadn’t expected that at all. After finishing it, I purged my book-shelves of all my Stainless Steel Rat books. See here.

JuneSecond Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, I expected to be rubbish. And so it was. There was a certain fascination in the universe of the book, but the cringe-inducing dialogue and offensive sexism made it hard to enjoy. It sort of defines “historical document” when it comes to sf. No one should ever read it without a a full appreciation of when it was written. See here.

JulyJack of Eagles, James Blish, was not as good as I’d remembered it, but neither was it embarrassingly bad. Blish was one of the better craftsmen working in sf during the 1950s and 1960s, and it shows in this. See here.

AugustThe Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin, was another surprise. It was a great deal better than I’d remembered it. If this had been a competition, this book would have won by a considerable distance. See here.

SeptemberLord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg, was enjoyable, but more lightweight than I’d remembered. It was one of those novels where the setting had stayed with me, but the story had evaporated. I have to wonder if that’s how many classics of sf are chosen… See here.

OctoberRadix, AA Attanasio, was almost entirely how I’d remembered it. Interesting first half, wishy-washy New Age-y second half. On reflection, I should have chosen another book for this month. See here.

NovemberTo Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer, was another one of those sf classics whose central premise I remembered well – i.e., all the people who had ever lived are reincarnated on the banks of a great river. The actual plot of the book I didn’t recall so well. And, it seemed, for good reason. I wasn’t convinced by it very much. See here.

DecemberStranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein, I knew was going to be problematical. As a teenager, I’d devoured many of Heinlein’s novel, but they’d never felt entirely… healthy to me. Perhaps that was the attraction. This sf classic was, I knew full well, going to be the most contentious read of the challenge. I was going to hate it, I just knew I was. Instead, I found myself initially enjoying it, but growing increasingly annoyed with it as the story progressed. It’s almost Rand lite, although nowhere near as risible as her books. Only thirteen year old boys could consider Stranger in a Strange Land a classic of the genre. See here.

So that’s it, the 2009 reading challenge, and the third one I’ve done since starting this blog. Like the others, it’s been of mixed success. Some of the books I’m glad I reread, others I wish I hadn’t bothered. Looking back over the twelve books, there are a few titles I’m sorry I didn’t choose instead of those I did pick – such as The Many-Coloured Land by Julian May, Helliconia Spring by Brian Aldiss, Neuromancer by William Gibson, or Gateway by Frederik Pohl… And I could no doubt find others. Perhaps they’re for another challenge in another year…

This year, I’ll be tackling fantasy series – see here – and I’m sort of looking forward to it, much as you look forward to a visit to the gym…


Reading Challenge #12 – Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

I first read Stranger in a Strange Land back in my early teens, twenty or more years ago. I think I may have read it more than once during that time. I vaguely recall being aware of the book’s reputation, but not entirely understanding why it had such a reputation – I enjoyed it, but I thought other Heinlein novels were better. My opinion of Heinlein’s oeuvre has changed considerably in the decades since then, and according to my records the last book by him I read was in 1996. And that was a reread of I Will Fear No Evil. Well, yes, I did read Starship Troopers last year, but I didn’t read it for enjoyment, so it doesn’t count – see here.

Throughout my science fiction reading career, Heinlein has never been a favourite sf author, although I’ve read around two dozen of his books, many of them more than once. I also owned around a dozen of them – although I purged my book-shelves of all but a handful early last year.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that, despite its reputation, I had relatively low expectations for this reread of Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s 1940s somewhat patronising dialogue-heavy prose style no longer appeals to me; his politics certainly don’t appeal. So what to make of the sf novel that, along with Dune (a personal favourite) and The Lord of the Rings (I really should reread it one of these days), was beloved by college students around the world in late 1960s and 1970s?

First, the plot. A mission to Mars comes a cropper, and a second mission sent twenty-five years later finds a single survivor living among the Martians: Valentine Michael Smith, the son of two members of the first mission’s crew. They return him to Earth. Smith is Martian in all but physiology, and he introduces his Martian way of thinking to the people around him. He also proves to have “magical” powers. For a while, he stays with Jubal Harshaw, a cantankerous multi-millionaire, who has opinions on everything. Smith leaves him to see more of the world – well, the USA of the time – and then creates a charismatic church. But society at large – well, the society of the USA of the time – does not want to hear his “message”, and he is torn apart by a mob. His church and message survive in his followers.

So. The good stuff. Stranger in a Strange Land is surprisingly readable. Heinlein’s prose is like beige – it’s not colourful, it doesn’t stand out as either good or bad. Some people think all novels should be written in beige prose. I happen to think that’s a waste of English. Why does the language have such a large lexicon if all you’re going to use are the blandest words in it?

That readability may well be because so much of the book is dialogue. A reader doesn’t need to exercise their imagination as much for dialogue as they do for descriptive prose. Sadly, for a book originally published in 1961, the dialogue in Stranger in a Strange Land sounds like it’s straight from some 1940s screwball rom com. In fact, the whole book reads as though it were written twenty years earlier. Nor is it really science fiction. Michael Valentine Smith may be a survivor from a mission to Mars, but there are sections of the book set among angels in heaven. And Smith’s powers are pretty much magical.

And then there’s the politics… Which is sort of Rand lite. But with sexual liberation and some distinctly dodgy 1950s gender politics. Heinlein, many will tell you, was a proto-feminist – and yet one female character, Jill, in Stranger in a Strange Land says, “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (p281). This is after two pages of her ruminating on why she enjoys showing off her body to dirty old men and why it is A Good Thing. As is, apparently, pornographic depictions of women.

Stranger in a Strange Land is also apparently a satire – it says on the back-cover of my 1980 NEL edition: “a searing indictment of Western Civilization”. All I found it in were a few off-the-cuff observations of the sort found in a some channel TV sitcom, and a made-up church that owed more to 1920s carnivals than it did to organised religion. In fact, Smith actually joins a carnival for a while after leaving Harshaw’s mansion – but this is a an old-style carnival, rather than simply a travelling funfair.

Incidentally, I couldn’t find a copy online of my NEL edition’s cover art, hence the current Hodder edition shown above. Still, look at that hyperbole “the Hugo-winning bestseller they wanted to ban”.  It doesn’t say who wanted to ban it – lovers of good literature, perhaps. If it was some religious group – well, don’t forget one such group also wanted to ban Watership Down, a book with a cast of rabbits.

Heinlein’s characterisation never stretched much beyond Competent Man and Perky Female, but in this novel he also manages Dim-Witted Innocent – science fiction’s very own Forrest Gump, if you will. Except Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, is a Magical Forrest Gump. There are a couple of feeble attempts at passing off his powers as ESP, but I’m not aware of any previously-documented psionic power which makes clothes disappear – telecdysiasism, perhaps? The many mentions of the Martian “Old Ones”, who are “discorporated” members of that race but who still interact with the living, also read more like fantasy than science fiction.

I’d always pegged Heinlein’s later works – the 1970s and onwards – as his Dirty Old Man books, so I was surprised to see he’d actually started on that phase a decade earlier. In 1961, when Stranger in a Strange Land was first published, he was 54, so not really that old, but it’s plain that Jubal Harshaw is Heinlein. Admittedly, Heinlein was known for putting mouthpieces into his fiction, but Harshaw has to be the least subtle of any of them. He’s also, quite frankly, full of crap. He gives a lecture on modern art that is little more than ill-informed opinion. Indeed, some of the “facts” he spouts are anything but. Not to mention that, for all his much-vaunted egalitarianism, he’s nothing more than an old school capitalist patriarch.

Which makes Smith, the Magical Forrest Gump, something even worse. Perhaps in 1961, he might have been seen as something akin to a carnival freak, a “good monster”. But now, he’s more of a Charles Manson / David Koresh type figure – and Smith’s church, with its creed of nudity and group orgies, only makes the resemblance worryingly closer. I personally find little to admire, and much to condemn, in such cults, so a novel celebrating them is unlikely to find much favour with me. To be fair, Heinlein is innocent in that regard, as Stranger in a Strange Land predates both Manson and Koresh, not to mention Jonestown or Heaven’s Gate.

I knew before I opened the cover that reading Stranger in a Strange Land was not going to be fun. That’s one reason why this post is late. But I’d forgotten how downright irritating Jubal Harshaw is, how annoying his Heinlein’s female characters are – and how interchangeable: Harshaw has three “secretaries”, a blonde, a brunette and a black-haired one, but they might as well be the same woman with a few bottles of hair-dye; likewise the other women in the book. I’d also forgotten how stupid the whole concept of “grok” is. Try rereading the book, and substituting “understand” or “comprehend” for “grok”. The book is entirely unchanged.

In the history of science fiction, Robert Heinlein was undoubtedly an important writer, and Stranger in a Strange Land is one of sf’s few break-out books, enjoying success outside the genre. Like Rand’s novels, I suspect Stranger in a Strange Land is also a book read more for its politics and philosophy – it certainly can’t be for its prose, characterisation, or depiction of a near-future USA. And, again like Rand’s novels, there’s not much in there that appeals to me. Nor is it especially timeless. Stranger in a Strange Land reads like a novel of the 1940s, and feels wildly inappropriate in the twenty-first century.

I very much doubt I’ll ever read Stranger in a Strange Land again, but I think I’ll hang onto my copy for the time-being…


Reading Challenge #11 – To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer

Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series is recognised as a classic of the genre – it says so on the blurb of my 1981 paperback copy of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in the series. The last time I read it was, I think, back in the mid-1980s. Like Ringworld (see here) and Rendezvous With Rama (see here), it’s one of those sf novels which is overshadowed by a Big Dumb Object central to the story. In this case, it’s Riverworld itself, a planet whose surface is one long river valley which weaves its away across the entire surface.

On reflection, that characterisation may be slightly unfair – yes, Riverworld qualifies as a BDO, but it’s not that which is most often remembered about the Riverworld series. It’s that Riverworld is entirely populated by the resurrected dead of Earth, from all regions and all ages. Including known historical figures.

And it’s a historical figure who is the protagonist of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. He is Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer, discoverer of Lake Tanganyika, and translator of 1001 Nights and Kama Sutra. The novel opens with him waking up in a vast space, whose limits he cannot see, floating in some sort of clear gel and surrounded by rank upon rank of sleeping human beings. He attempts to escape, but is caught and returned to sleep… only to awake at the side of the River.

The entire population of Earth from its entire history has been dumped along the River. Burton finds himself the leader of a small group which includes Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Carroll’s inspiration for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and a number of fictional characters – including a Neanderthal (I think), and an alien from Tau Ceti (who apparently visited the Earth at the start of the twenty-first century).

Each person arrives on Riverworld with nothing but a “grail”, which is a sort of tiffin tin. Every mile along the River are “grailstones”, large mushroom-shaped stones with rings of depressions on their tops into which the grails fit. Twice a day, grails left in the depressions are filled with food, alcoholic drinks, soap, cigarettes, and other items. Initially, everyone is naked, and Farmer is keen to get this across, describing it more often than is really necessary. Later, the grails provide simple garments – kilts, halter-tops and the like.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go does not present a cheering vision of humanity. Not content with having the resurrected humans display the worst elements of their nature during the first few days after their arrival on Riverworld, Farmer later has them banding together to form small nations, most of which fight each other or run slave economies.

After several chapters in which Burton et al explore their immediate surroundings and build huts – and little else except violent encounters occur – he decides to build a boat and travel up the River. Which he does – on a large catamaran, with a crew of a dozen, including Alice, the caveman, the Tau Cetan, and several others of his group.

They travel a great distance – “exactly 415 days later, they had passed 24,900 grailrocks” – and see a great many people – “they must have passed an estimated 44,370,000 people, at least”.

The journey comes to an abrupt end when the boat is attacked and its crew captured by a state ruled by Herman Goering and early Roman emperor Tullus Hostilius. These two have enslaved all those in their vicinity, letting them keep the food from their grails, but confiscating the luxury items – whiskey, narcotics, cigarettes, etc. Goering apparently managed to take control after whipping up anti-semitic feeling amongst the people around him.

Unfortunately, Riverworld, for all that its population contains all of human history, is nothing more than middle America. Farmer has obviously read a book on Richard Burton – perhaps even the one mentioned by another character, Burton: Arabian Nights Adventurer, Fairfax Downey (1931) – and so he made him his hero. But the Burton of To Your Scattered Bodies Go reads like an ordinary mid-twentieth century competent man, and his one historical quirk appears to be an impassioned defence – usually cut short – of writing a book repeatedly described as anti-semitic. In fact, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is full of anti-anti-semitism. Goering used anti-semitism as a route to power; one of the catamaran’s crew is a twentieth-century Jew who argues repeatedly with Burton; and after being enslaved by Goering, Burton and the others are imprisoned with a group of Israelis. Strangely, there are no Arabs in To Your Scattered Bodies Go. And Burton, who spent so long in the Arab world – and was the first European to visit Makka – never discusses Islam.

Then there’s the cigarettes… Yes, more people are alive today than have lived throughout history, but is it really plausible to expect cigarettes to feature so heavily in Riverworld? Perhaps it’s understandable that a sf short story submitted to a US magazine of the mid-twentieth century would be so parochial, but I’d have expected more of novel. Admittedly, two parts of To Your Scattered Bodies Go were originally published as short stories – ‘The Day of the Great Shout’ in 1965, and ‘Riverworld’ in 1966.

More than this, the story’s plot is fundamentally flawed. When Burton and the others are captured by Goering’s mob and enslaved, they immediately begin plotting an escape. They manage to break out and, in fact, seize power and remake the state along more egalitarian lines. But the whole slavery thing is flawed. Everyone already knows that if they die they are resurrected again, although not in the same area in which they died. So they could try to escape their enslavers – if they fail and are killed, well, they’ll just re-appear somewhere else. No one has any reason to accept slavery. Yet they do. It makes no sense.

And this means of “escape” later becomes a major plot point for Burton. He is being hunted by the builders of Riverworld – dubbed the “Ethicals” – and in order to stay out of their clutches, he repeatedly takes his own life – 777 times before finally being caught by them.

Like The Stainless Steel Rat earlier this year, To Your Scattered Bodies Go failed for me on this reread because it seemed little or no thought had been put into the story beyond its central premise. Burton is not a convincing recreation of the historical figure. And every period of history presented in the book is the same as twentieth-century America in its outlook and sensibilities. I need more than a neat idea for me to enjoy a story, and certainly more than that for me to think a story is any good. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that, in a genre in which it’s now extremely difficult to come up with a new original idea because they’ve all been done, present-day sf readers tend to look at the stuff around the central premise – the world-building, the writing, rigour, plausibility, logic – in order to determine quality.

Despite my disappointment with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I think I’ll hang onto to my Riverworld boxed set for the time-being. I’ve never been a big fan of Farmer’s fiction – in fact, I’ve always wanted to like his books more than I do, because he never seemed to approach the genre in an especially straight line like the other writers of his generation. One day, perhaps, I’ll read more by him.


Reading Challenge #10 – Radix AA Attanasio

When I decided this year to reread books I remembered fondly from my teens, it was a given that some – if not all – might not survive the experience. After all, I’d like to think I’m a more discerning reader now. I’m certainly a more experienced one. And what I look for, and expect to find, in fiction has changed a great deal over the past few decades. So, ten months in, and the results of this year’s reading challenge have not been entirely unexpected – and yet, there have been surprises too. I hadn’t expected to hate The Stainless Steel Rat so much that I’d purge my book-shelves of it and its sequels. I hadn’t expected The Left Hand of Darkness to impress me so much all over again.

And so, for October, albeit somewhat late, we come to Radix, AA Attanasio’s debut novel. Which I’d expected to survive a reread. (The cover below is not the edition I own – a Corgi B-format paperback from 1983 – although mine does also feature a naked man.)

I don’t think anyone would ever describe Radix as a “classic”, although it was shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1981. Certainly it impressed me enough on my first reading that I subsequently followed Attanasio’s career, buying and reading each of his novels as they hit paperback. And during the 1980s and 1990s, Attanasio churned out a succession of well-regarded and reasonably successful genre novels. Not all were sf – for example, Wyvern was an historical novel, the Arthor series was fantasy, and The Moon’s Wife was an urban fantasy. At the start of the new century, however, Attanasio seemed to drop from sight. He returned only recently, with a pair of YA fantasies.

But, Radix. In this book, the Earth has moved into the path of a Line of energy being broadcast from the centre of the galaxy. This energy was generated in another dimension, and has had catastrophic effects on the planet. In the thirty-fourth century, when the novel opens, Earth is very different. There is a map at the front of Radix, which depicts an area of North America (with north and south swapped), but which bears little or no resemblance to any territory from a real-world atlas. This is where the story takes place.

Sumner Kagan is a fat, lazy, teenaged slob. He’s also a serial killer – he puts together complicated plans in which he lures gang members who have humiliated him into traps, and then he kills them. Kagan is also the father of Corby, a voor-human hybrid who is a sort of voor messiah. The voors are an alien race with psionic powers, who have travelled to the Earth along the Line and taken human form. Kagan is arrested, beaten to near-death by the police, and sent to a penal camp in the jungle. The commandant there makes Kagan his personal project, giving him tasks which improve his physique, fitness, strength and agility, with the aim of selling him later as a slave. But Kagan escapes, and ends up joining the special forces. He trains in a swamp, goes on several missions, suffers burn-out, and ends up living with a tribe of mutants on the edge of a desert…

There’s a lot to get through in Radix. Especially since the above – the history of Sumner Kagan – is only the build-up to what the novel is really about. Which is: when the Earth moved into the Line in the early twenty-second century, a “godmind” called the Delph took up residence in the mind of an Israeli pilot, Jac Halevy-Cohen. The Delph has more or less dominated the Earth ever since. Sumner Kagan is the Delph’s “eth”, “a fear-reflection that haunted him in many human forms”, as the glossary has it. Yes, Radix has a glossary.

For three-quarters of Radix, Kagan is honed and tempered for a final confrontation – but not with the Delph, with the AI it created to manage its affairs, Rubeus, and which has turned megalomaniacal. Along the way there’s lots of weird New Age-y stuff, little of which seems to add much to the story. In fact, Radix is very much a book of two halves – there’s the straightforward sf story recounting Kagan’s adventures; and there’s the underlying battle between Rubeus and the eth, fought with the assistance of the voors (especially Corby, who is disembodied and takes up residence in Kagan’s mind). It makes for an odd reading experience…

… and one, sadly, that these days I have less patience for than I once had. Radix reads like a bizarre cross between Dune and Samuel R Delany, and I admire both. But in Radix, Attanasio was either trying too hard, or not fully in command of his prose style, because his attempts at Delany-esque language are not always successful – “He was a shark slendering…”, “The presence of people was palpable as blood”, “a dreamworld had intrigued into reality”

Having said that, Attansio’s world-building in the novel is very good. He has created an interesting backdrop for his story, and he uses it well. It is in that respect, and in the character journey undertaken by Kagan, that Radix most resembles Dune – well, that and its appendices, comprising a timeline, character profiles and a glossary.

Incidentally, Radix is actually the first book in a thematic “tetrad”. The sequels are: In Other Worlds, Arc of the Dream and The Last Legends of Earth.

I’ve read Radix several times during the past twenty-six years, but I suspect it’s one of those books I remember as being better than it actually is. It starts off well enough, and some of the set-pieces are very good, but when the New Age-y stuff starts to overwhelm the plot then my eyes start to glaze and find myself looking around for something else to read. I’ll keep the book on my book-shelves, but I’ll not be rereading it again in the foreseeable future.


Reading Challenge #9 – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

I can’t say I’m a huge Silverberg fan. I’ve read many of his books and short stories, and I’ve enjoyed them. But I’ve never made an effort to seek out those of his works I’ve not read – as I have done with some other writers. To be fair, Silverberg is one of the stalwarts of the genre. He’s had – and still has, of course – a fifty-four year writing career, and has mostly produced good books and stories. During that more-than-half-a-century, he has won four Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards.

Silverberg’s most well-known creation is, arguably, the world of Majipoor, on which he has set seven novels, two novellas and a short story. The first of these is Lord Valentine’s Castle, published in 1980.

Majipoor is a big planet – in fact, it was inspired by Jack Vance’s novel, Big Planet – with four enormous continents. The world has been settled for thousands of years and has a population of some sixty billion; but it is now something of a backwater, and rarely visited by people from other planets. It is home to several races – humans, Skandars, Ghayrogs, Vroons, Su-Suheris, Liimen, and Hjorts. There are also the native Metamorphs, from whom the humans took the world, and they now live in a reservation. Majipoor is ruled by four potentates – the Coronal, who is the executive arm of government and rules from his castle atop the thirty-mile-high Castle Mount; the Pontifex, the legislative arm, who lives in the Labyrinth; the Lady of the Isle of Sleep, who through dreams provides the world’s moral framework; and the King of Dreams, who punishes wrongdoers, also through dreams.

Lord Valentine’s Castle opens with a man called Valentine on a ridge looking down upon the city of Pidruid, on the western shore of the continent Zimroel. He doesn’t know who he is, or how he got there. A passing boy, taking cattle to market in Pidruid, approaches him and the two enter the city together. Within a couple of chapters, Valentine has shown an uncanny natural ability at juggling, and joined a juggling troupe. The Coronal – also called Valentine – is due to appear shortly in Pidruid on the Grand Processional all coronals take shortly after ascending to power.

The name is not a coincidence. Valentine the juggler soon learns that he was Coronal Valentine but, by some art or science never explained, his mind has been swapped into another body and someone else has taken his place as coronal. The more of his memory Valentine recovers, the more he determines to take back his throne. So he travels across Zimroel to its east coast, and there takes ship to the Isle of Sleep, in order to persuade the Lady (who is always the mother of the coronal) of his true identity. And after succeeding in doing that, he continues on to the eastern continent, Alhanroel, to first gain the Pontifex’s support, and then march on Castle Mount and throw down the usurper.

And that’s pretty much the plot. Silverberg intended that “the book must be fun”“all light, delightful, raffish…” And in that respect he succeeds. Valentine encounters obstacles on his way, but he overcomes them. He has exciting adventures – some of which seem a little too much, such as being swallowed by a legendarily giant sea-dragon while en route to the Isle of Sleep.

But then, Lord Valentine’s Castle is not a book to take seriously. It has a simple plot and a hero who prevails. It is, above all, colourful – Valentine’s journey east is very descriptive. And everything he sees and meets is exotic. And we know it is exotic because Silverberg has given it a made-up name. Although not all names, it has to be said, actually work all that well. “Niyk-tree” isn’t too bad, nor is “blave”; but “stajja” and “dhiim” just look like typographical accidents.

What strikes me most about this book is not the acknowledged debt it owes to Big Planet, but the debt it owes to Vance. Silverberg is channelling Vance. He does it well, because Silverberg is nothing if not a master craftsman. But, all the same, Lord Valentine’s Castle often feels a little like there’s too much Vance in it, as if Silverberg has crammed several novels by Vance into one book – which at 506 pages (in my 1982 Pan paperback; not the cover shown above) probably is equivalent to several novels by Vance…

Unlike some of the other books I’ve read in this year’s reading challenge, I didn’t regret rereading Lord Valentine’s Castle. I quite enjoyed it. It’s mind candy, but the sort of mind candy a friend might bring back from a trip to a foreign country – still fluffy, but with an exotic flavour to it. It’s a good book to read on a dull journey. And, like many books of its type, its general shape will linger – that the world of Majipoor is so big, Castle Mount and the Fifty Cities on its slopes, the overall story of the book but not Valentine’s individual adventures… and that it all ends happily. It had been a good twenty years or more since I last read Lord Valentine’s Castle, and still it felt comfortably familiar. Which is no bad thing sometimes.


Reading Challenge #8 – The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin is an author who grows as you grow. You can read and admire her at thirteen, and you can read and admire her at forty-three. As I have done. Because I think it must be around thirty years since I last read The Left Hand of Darkness. I’d never really felt the need to reread it because I knew the story. It’s one of those novels whose plot and characters have entered science fiction common knowledge – we all know about it even if we’ve not read it.

Which is a shame. Because it’s definitely worth reading, and certainly stands up to rereading.

The book is set in Le Guin’s Ekumen, a loose mystical/economic interstellar polity of eighty-odd human planets with the world of Hain at its centre. Earth was seeded by the Hainish. The Left Hand of Darkness is set on Gethen, also known as Winter, which has just been invited to join.

The Gethenians have no space travel and, strangely – and uniquely among the humans of the Ekumen – they are hermaphrodites. For three weeks of every month they are effectively neuter, but for a week they are in heat, or “kemmer”. And the gender they take during kemmer depends entirely on those around them.

The Left Hand of Darkness is essentially a character study of a Gethenian called Estraven. He is the royal contact of Genly Ai, the Ekumen’s lone Envoy to the world. And it is through Ai’s, er, eyes that we come to know Estraven and, by extension, the people of Gethen. The novel is essentially world-building, and it’s a fascinating society Le Guin has created – a result of both the Gethenians’ sexuality and the planet’s harsh near-Arctic climate.

The plot of The Left Hand of Darkness is considerably less complex than the world itself. Estraven falls from favour and is banished from Karhide. The king’s new adviser is not interested in joining the Ekumen, only in provoking a war with the neighbouring police state of Orgoreyn. Ai visits Orgoreyn, hoping to have more luck with its “commensals”. He meets the exiled Estraven, who warns him that no one is interested in the Ekumen, only in using the Envoy to improve their own political fortunes. When those machinations fail, Ai is arrested and shipped off to a “Voluntary Farm”, where he is continually drugged and interrogated. There is an ongoing discussion amongst the Gethenians regarding Ai’s true nature – is he what he claims to be, or just the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax? This is purely Gethenian speculation; for the reader, Ai’s nature is never in doubt.

Estraven rescues Ai from the farm, and the two trek across the northern ice shield to return to Karhide. Since the commensals had claimed Ai had died of a virulent fever, his miraculous return should be enough to provoke the king of Karhide into inviting the Ekumen ambassadors to Gethen.

The story is told by Ai, who begins the novel with the line:

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Ai’s narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the journal of Estraven. And between the two they cover the entire period between Estraven’s exile from Karhide and the landing of the ship containing the Ekumen ambassadors. The focus remains firmly on the two narrators.

Since the Gethenians are neuter for 75% of the time, and can be either gender when in kemmer, their society is essentially single-gendered. So The Left Hand of Darkness is as much a book about gender-roles as it is an exploration of an alien Other. And, while it was first published in 1969, perhaps in order to better contrast Gethenian society with the reader’s, Le Guin seems every now and again to drop into gender stereotypes – especially for women, since Ai is male and Estraven is neither. But that’s a minor quibble.

The Left Hand of Darkness is Gethen. And Gethen is one of the best-realised worlds in science fiction. I’d last read this book years ago, but had since then reread The Dispossessed… and decided the latter was the better of the two. But having now read The Left Hand of Darkness once again, I find I’m not sure. There’s no doubt they’re the best two of Le Guin’s Hainish novels – which makes them amongst the best the genre has produced – but I suspect I’ll never decide which is best and which is second-best.

Unlike the other books I’ve reread for this year’s challenge, The Left Hand of Darkness did not disappoint. In fact, it did the opposite – I like it even more than I thought I did. I will definitely be reading it again one day. I might even add it to the bottom of my favourite novels list…


Reading Challenge #7 – Jack of Eagles, James Blish

This month’s book was somewhat delayed as I’ve been focusing on reading and writing about books related to Apollo 11 for my celebration of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing. You can find those reviews on my Space Books blog here.

But on with the reading challenge…. My edition of James Blish’s Jack of Eagles is a 1977 Arrow paperback with cover art by Chris Foss. I suspect it was bought for me some time around then. So I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first read it. I actually have a number of Blish novels from that period – all with Foss cover art – as he was one of my favourite sf authors at the time. Which made rereading Jack of Eagles an interesting exercise.

The novel is about Danny Caiden, a young man who develops psychic powers – precognition, telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, etc. – and subsequently becomes embroiled in a secret war between two groups of powerful psychics, one of which is bent on taking over the world. With the help of a parapsychology professor at a local university, Caiden learns how to control his new-found powers… but it is only when he comes into conflict with the Brotherhood In Psi that he discovers he is the most powerful psi ever.

There’s a definite sense of time and place to Jack of Eagles. It was expanded from a 1949 novelette, ‘Let the Finder Beware’, and with its mention of the GI Bill and other details, it’s clearly set a few years after the end of World War 2. The book is also, like much of Blish’s fiction, well written. But. And this is a problem I had with his The Quincunx of Time when I read it at the end of last year. That too had originally been a short story – which I’d read – but Blish had not chosen to expand the plot, or provide more details of the setting. Instead, he’d used the greater wordcount to waffle on about the bogus science and philosophy which underpinned the book’s central idea – a faster-than-light communication device which allowed people to pick up signals from the future.

And I suspect the same thing happened in Jack of Eagles. The first half of the novel is a relatively straightforward action story – Caiden loses his job, and seeks to learn more about his burgeoning powers by visiting various “experts”. But there’s a long section in which the parapsychologist, Dr Todd, tries to explain the scientific basis of Caiden’s powers, referencing some mangled form of quantum mechanics and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. It’s pointless, implausible guff, and it slows down the story to a crawl.

Later, during Caiden’s battle with the Brotherhood, he escapes by travelling into alternative futures – explained once again by the bogus science of earlier. Each of the futures he visits is interesting, but Blish spends far too long trying to explaining the how of it and his explanations ring false and spoil the atmosphere.

I can’t remember what it is about Blish’s stories and novels that appealed to me when I was in my early teens. Rereading them now, thirty years later, it’s plain that Blish was a good writer. But he seems to have this bad tendency to pad out his novels with implausibly bogus science and philosophy. He should have just finessed it. The explanations interrupt the pace of the narrative and add little or nothing to the story. They probably seemed impressive to a naive thirteen-year-old. Perhaps that was the attraction of Blish’s novels. That and the Chris Foss cover art, of course.

I’m tempted to try reading or rereading a Blish novel that wasn’t expanded from a shorter piece, just to see if it’s the expansion process which led to him padding out the story with scientific bollocks. Perhaps he didn’t do that for stories which were originally planned to be novel-length. The only difficulty is finding such a novel in his oeuvre.

Jack of Eagles was certainly better than the other books I’ve read for this challenge. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the book which originally appealed to me all those years ago, but I doubt I’d have become a fan if I’d read it at my current age. All the same, I still think Blish is a pretty good sf writer, and I won’t be purging my shelves of his books…


Reading Challenge #6 – Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith

I don’t know who to be more embarrassed for: myself, for liking this book when I was young; or the genre, for continuing to revere the series and its author. Because, let’s face it, Second Stage Lensman is not a novel we should be holding up as indicative of the genre. A person who has a low opinion of science fiction is only going to have it confirmed by this book.

Second Stage Lensman is the fifth book in EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s well-known Lensman series. Which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best all-Time Series in 1966 (it lost out to Asimov’s Foundation series). Second Stage Lensman was originally published in Astounding Stories between November 1941 and February 1942. In book form, it was not published until 1953.

It hasn’t aged well.

The hero of Second Stage Lensman is Kimball Kinnison. He is a member of the Earth-based Galactic Patrol, and the Lensman of the novel’s title. (Incidentally, it’s not “Earth” in these books, nor “Terra”. For reasons best known to himself, Smith uses “Tellus”.) A Lensman is someone who carries a Lens, a biological jewel created by the noble, but aloof, Arisians. A Lens gives its wearer great psionic powers, such as telepathy and “perception” (a form of clairvoyance). The corps of Lensmen are one of the weapons the Arisians have created in their ages-long war against the evil Eddorians.

Second Stage Lensman opens with a foreword, describing in broad strokes the events of the earlier four books. Since the story-arc of the series covers the Arisian vs Eddorian war, there’s a lot to get through. The novel then dives straight into the story, following immediately on from the events of the preceding book, Grey Lensman. In fact, Second Stage Lensman opens with a vast space battle in the Solar system between the forces of Tellus and those of the Eddorian conspiracy. This conspiracy is called Boskone, and the Galactic Patrol had thought it destroyed. Second Stage Lensman follows Kinnison as he works his way up another branch to its leaders.

The books of the series are framed as historical documents written by Smith. He refers to himself throughout as “your historian”, at one point writing “your historian is supremely proud that he was the first person other than a Lensman to be allowed to study a great deal of this priceless data”. Despite this conceit, there’s very little rigour to the narrative – the focus pulls in and out with dizzying speed, events not witnessed by the cast are dropped omnisciently into the story, and there are even assorted lecturettes: one chapter opens with, “This is perhaps as good a place as any to glance in passing at the fashion in which the planet Lonabar was brought under the aegis of Civilization“. At one point, Smith writes “… the appallingly horrible sensations of inter-dimensional acceleration. For that sensation is, literally, indescribable”. And then promptly goes on to describe it.

Far worse than this is the novel’s outright sexism. All women – with the exception of Kinnison’s fiancée Clarissa McDougall, the product of a millennia-long breeding programme – are beautiful and brainless. They frequently admit to being unable to “think”. Certainly none, except McDougall of course, are capable of becoming Lensmen. She is given a Lens, despite her protestations that as a woman she has less brains and willpower than a man. Even the alien Lensmen are male. When Kinnison’s investigations lead him to a planet with an entirely female population of humans, they are, of course, all beautiful. And all naked. And they despise men.

Then there’s the dialogue…. The frequent “as you know” moments are perhaps forgivable. But since most of the speech is written in a cringingly-dated slang, it makes it difficult to take the story at all seriously. It’s not just that Smith uses his invented “QX” in place of “okay”, but lines such as, “Save it!” he ordered. “Jet back, angel-face, before you blow a fuse.”

Of course, Kinnison is an absolute paragon. Not to mention a genius. And the most powerful Lensman in all the galaxies. His colleagues are no slouches either. One, Nadrek of Palain, a non-oxygen-breathing alien from a frigid world, often describes himself as “cowardly”, but it’s put forward as something admirable in his case.

There’s very little invention displayed in the book. The various worlds chiefly resemble early Twentieth Century USA but for one or two futuristic details. There are spaceships, of course – ranging from tiny “speedsters” to huge “super-dreadnoughts”. All use an “inertialess” space drive for interstellar, and inter-galactic, travel. However, Smith describes everything that is not inertialess as “inert”, which is not what that word means. He also has a computer working for weeks on plotting courses for all the ships in a fleet, and a communications centre comprising a “million-plug board”.

So why are these books still revered nearly seventy years after they were first published? They’re badly written, the attitudes in them are offensive, they show very little rigour in voice or narrative or world-building, and they’re wildly implausible. But people still read them. Why?

When they were first published in Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories, each new installment introduced a greater and more powerful threat. The story expanded as it progressed. I can understand the appeal of that. Not to mention opening a story with a space battle between fleets containing millions of ships each. It’s the sheer ever-expanding scale of it all. But scale alone is not sense of wonder, and it’s a mistake to confuse the two. In fact, scale can work against sense of wonder – make everything simply too big and it either loses its wonder or becomes implausible. There’s a fine line to be walked between disbelief and wonder. Using planets as mobile fortresses is sense of wonder. A fleet comprising over a million ships is too much to be entirely plausible (where did all the people to crew the ships come from? how long did it take to build the ships?).

I can, sort of, understand why a cast of paragons battling pantomime villains might also appeal to an unsophisticated reader. But. The genre has moved on since then, it has progressed. And the likes of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s novels are now embarrassments. They are perhaps indicative of the genre at a particular point in time – the 1940s – but they’re not science fiction classics and they are not typical of science fiction as it now is.

Some sf novels remain historical documents, of interest only to historians. Second Stage Lensman is one such sf novel.


Reading Challenge #5 – The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison

I don’t know why I thought the books on my reading challenge for this year could ever be considered sf classics. They’re not. They’re just sf novels I really enjoyed as a young teenager. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me that this challenge is turning out to be little more than me poisoning the well of my own early years as a science fiction fan. I’m older now and a more discerning reader. And these books I’ve been reading, which have sat on my book-shelves for nearly thirty years… well, they’re proving to be not very good at all. I can sort of understand why I liked them as a kid, but that doesn’t make them good books.

After all, what kid can resist a character like Slippery Jim diGriz in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat? He’s a master thief who’s been co-opted by the Special Corps, the interstellar organisation which catches master thieves. Set a thief to catch a thief. There is something appealing about a hero who not only marches to a different drum but, once made a member of the band, still takes advantage of his new position. Well, perhaps it wouldn’t appeal to schoolyard bullies and the like. But to impressionable young sf fans….

So it’s a shame that The Stainless Steel Rat fails on so many other levels. The genre is so much more rigorous now than it was back in the 1960s. DiGriz’s universe is pretty much the West of the mid-20th Century with added spaceships and robots. All the characters smoke like chimneys, computers use punched cards, records are made on paper and stored in filing cabinets, cameras use film…. There’s almost no invention on display. Harrison has just wheeled out a couple of sf tropes in order to call his book science fiction.

After all, diGriz could have been caught by some secret branch of Interpol. And the plot of The Stainless Steel Rat could be easily translated into present day (as was). The story goes something like this:

During a bank robbery, diGriz is captured and recruited by the Special Corps. Chafing to escape from his training, he trawls through the Corps’ records and discovers that someone is building a banned battleship, cunningly disguised as a giant freighter, on a backwater world of the federation. DiGriz is tasked to discover who the ship-builder is. It transpires that all those on the world involved in the construction is an innocent dupe, except one man and his female assistant. But they manage to escape in the battleship before diGriz can stop them. So diGriz sets off in pursuit….

Instead of a space battleship, make that some sort of missile destroyer or something, and you could pretty much tell the same story set in 1961 or 2009. So why bother to make it science fiction? There’s no central idea, there’s no exploration of a central idea.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the gender politics in the book appear to resemble 1921 more than 1961. The villainess of the piece is Angelina, a beautiful psychopath. The reason for her psychopathy, it is explained, is that she was originally ugly:

To be a man and ugly is bad enough. What must it feel like to be a woman? How do you live when mirrors are your enemies and people turn away rather than look at you? (p 138)

The horror of it: an ugly woman. Clearly it’s enough to twist the most stable of minds. And yet, throughout the book, both diGriz and Angelina frequently change their appearance. Sometimes it’s merely disguise; other times it requires surgery. Which suggests such techniques are relatively common. So why was Angelina ugly long enough for it to trigger her psychopathic tendencies?

It’s a silly quibble because Harrison’s stated explanation for Angelina’s murderous nature is offensive tosh. And to add further insult, Angelina is now beautiful but still has to work through men – cf the mention of “female assistant” above. The same happens later in the book – diGriz’s universe is clearly a man’s universe, and women only get to play secretaries, wives, whores and manipulative mistresses.

Oh, and did I mention that diGriz falls in love with Angelina? Because she’s beautiful, intelligent and a “stainless steel rat” like himself. Never mind the fact that she kills people for no reason at all, she’s gorgeous and clever…. If there’s an argument for sf being a young boy’s genre, then The Stainless Steel Rat provides plenty of ammunition.

After reading Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang last month (see here), I wondered why I’d bother hanging on for so long to the five Pip & Flinx books I own. But The Stainless Steel Rat is much worse. And I own seven of the books from the series. They’ll be going on eBay, then.

Incidentally, Harry Harrison was this year made the SFWA’s “Damon Knight Grand Master”.


Reading Challenge #4 – The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster

The Tar-Aiym Krang is hardly classic sf by anyone’s definition. But I vaguely recall enjoying it and its three sequels when I read them back in my late teens. And it was unlikely I’d ever get around to trying them again unless I bunged the first book on a reading challenge list. The same, of course, was also true for Vance’s Star King… and that pretty much cured me of wanting to reread the rest of the series (see here).

So, The Tar-Aiym Krang. First published in 1972, this was Foster’s first novel as well as the first book in his popular Flinx & Pip series of, at present, fourteen novels. Flinx is an orphaned young man of (mostly) good character, but dubious morals and profession, in the city of Drallar on the world of Moth; Pip is his minidrag, a flying poisonous reptile. Flinx is also a little bit telepathic, and Pip is empathic.

Flinx stumbles across a mugging and is forced to intervene when Pip attacks one of the muggers. Both the victim and the two muggers end up dead, and Flinx finds a map clutched in the victim’s fist. He takes it. Shortly afterwards he agrees to guide a human and a thranx, Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex, around Drallar, and is present when they visit the home of wealthy merchant, Malaika. Tse-Mallory and Truzenzuzex want Malaika to finance an expedition to recover a legendary alien artefact. The Tar-Aiym had once ruled part of the galaxy some 500,000 years earlier. And then abruptly disappeared. Legend had it they’d met a race who blocked their expansion, and the biological weapon they developed to destroy this race backfired and wiped out themselves as well. However, the Tar-Aiym were also working on another project, the Krang, which is either a weapon or a musical instrument. No one knows. It could be both, like a bagpipe….

The Tar-Aiym Krang is a straightforward quest. Flinx joins Tse-Mallory, Truzenzuzex, Malaika and assorted spear-carriers on their hunt for the Krang. They have adventures. Unfortunately, it’s crude stuff. The writing tries for flavour but fails. The characters in Draller talk in some sort of cod-historical accent which just looks silly. When Flinx is onboard Malaika’s ship, he helpfully asks questions on everything from space travel to galactic history, resulting in great info-dumps of background. The characterisation relies on stereotype – Flinx is every artful dodger who has ever appeared in fiction, and a little bit too good to be plausible. The other characters are… roles. To be fair, this was a first novel and it’s thirty-seven years old, but it certainly compares unfavourably with first sf novels of the twenty-first century.

I said earlier that I had vague memories of enjoying The Tar-Aiym Krang and its three sequels – Orphan Star, The End of the Matter and Bloodhype. I also have on my book-shelves Flinx in Flux, a later sequel written when Foster returned to Flinx & Pip eleven years after The End of the Matter. (Bloodhype was actually written second, although its story is chronologically last of the four.) I seem to recall not being very impressed with it. Certainly I never bothered trying the nine other books in the series….

Ah well, another book I fondly remember proves not to be not very good without the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia. Looks like I’ll be taking The Tar-Aiym Krang and its sequels off my books-shelves.