Friday, January 27, 2023

Review: "And God Created Woman", by Simone Colette

Review: "And God Created Woman", by Simone Colette    

by Rich Horton

The last book I read, Erasmus -- with Freckles, was made into a movie, Dear Brigitte, with Brigitte Bardot. So I figured why not read this book I've had hanging around for a while: "And God Created Woman", a 1961 novelization of the 1956 movie that made Bardot a star, Et Dieu ... Crea La Femme. The "author", Simone Colette, was likely a house name for an American writer working for Popular Library, which at that time published three novelizations of notorious foreign films: Ecstasy, the 1933 German-Czech film starring Hedy Lamarr; The Lovers, the 1958 French film starring Jeanne Moreau, which was the subject of the case in which Justice Potter Stewart declared of pornography "I know it when I see it"; and this movie.

The book itself is competently written, though the signs of movie novelization are all over it. The story concerns Juliette, an 18 year old orphan just discovering the effect she has on men, and accustomed to sunbathing nude and such. As the book opens a rich older man, Eric Carradine, who is angling to build a hotel in St. Tropez, is trying to make Juliette his mistress. She is interested, but her real attraction is to Antoine, the oldest of three brothers in a family that owns a failing boat repair business on property that Carradine needs for his hotel. Antoine's father is dead, Antoine is working in Toulon, and his younger brothers, Michel and the teenaged Christian, maintain the boatyard. 

Juliette's guardian, the prudish Mme. Morin, threatens to send her back to the orphanage, and Juliette looks for refuge, first with Eric, but then she encounters Antoine, who is back in town dealing with Eric's attempt to buy his family's property. After a couple of days seeing Antoine and dancing with him, while Antoine and his family refuse Eric's offer. Antoine hints that Juliette might accompany him back to Toulon, but he ends up avoiding her (he's got the boss's daughter to marry, even though she's cross-eyed.)

Juliette, again tempted by Eric, but still threatened with the orphanage, shockingly decides to marry the meek middle brother Michel. Meanwhile, Antoine is back in town, because Eric made an alternate offer -- Antoine can run Eric's boatyard, with he and his brothers drawing generous salaries. Juliette is trying to be a good wife to Michel, but Antoine is a constant temptation. Things come to a head with a storm, and an emergency at the boatyard, and Juliette and Antoine taking off in a boat and running into trouble. After they reach the shore, the inevitable happens (described (by Juliette, and also as written in the book) as a rape, though the Wikipedia entry on the movie claims Juliette seduces Antoine -- is the movie different?) ... leading to a confrontation with Michel -- which, ambiguously perhaps, seems to resolve in his favor.

It has to be said that whatever shock Juliette's actions might have provoked in 1956 seems all but gone now -- she's just a young woman playing around a bit, not betraying anyone really (until the end) -- and, actually, she hardly ever actually has sex. The movie (and novel) is very much a product of its time. Really, based on descriptions (I've seen none of the three movies Popular Library novelized as mentioned above) the actions in Ecstasy and The Lovers were somewhat more transgressive and a lot more interesting. 

As I said, the novel clearly reads like a novelization, often with a by the numbers feel as the scenes pass by. And the sensuality which was obviously a big part of the movie's appeal just doesn't come through. Add the fact that the Eric Carradine character was shoehorned into the movie at the last minute, because the financiers wanted a role for Curd Jurgens -- and the novel just can't really adequately account for his oddly insignificant role. The movie is probably entertaining -- and to be fair the novel is well enough done that its readable -- but I do think it's a case where what was need was the presence of actors to sell the story. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Review: Erasmus -- with Freckles aka Dear Brigitte, by John Haase

Review: Erasmus -- with Freckles aka Dear Brigitte, by John Haase    

by Rich Horton

I came across this book at an estate sale, for pennies (100 pennies, to be exact) and it was intriguingenough that I picked it up. The author is John Haase. He was born in Germany in 1923, and his family emigrated to the San Francisco in 1936, to escape the Nazis. He became a dentist in the Los Angeles area, apparently a successful one (his clients included Conrad Hilton). He wrote about a dozen novels between 1958 and 1983. They were fairly successful, and at least two of them became movies. Erasmus -- with Freckles, from 1963, was made into Dear Brigitte in 1965. The movie flopped, but seems to be remembered with some fondness. Me and the Arch Kook Petulia, from 1966, was made into Petulia in 1968. That movie flopped as well, but its reputation has grown enormously over the decades. (John Haase was one of the people who hated the movie.) The original screenplay, by Barbara Turner, was to be directed by Robert Altman. But that deal fell apart, and Richard Lester took over the project, with Lawrence Marcus rewriting the script, and Nicolas Roeg as cinematographer. Julie Christie and George C. Scott starred. Those are names to reckon with, and indeed the movie is now considered (by some) one of the great movies of the 1960s. (Roger Ebert predicted this at the time -- his first review gave it 4 stars.)

Well, I don't mean to write about Petulia. Because I had never heard of the film, nor of Dear Brigitte, nor of John Haase or any of his novels. And, really, I think he -- as a novelist -- has been nearly completely forgotten -- though perhaps that's my ignorance showing. I will say that if Petulia was changed as much from its source material as Dear Brigitte was changed from Erasmus -- with Freckles I'm not at all surprised that Haase hated it. Anyway, Erasmus -- with Freckles is a charming little book, though very slight. The movie looks to me like it might also be charming, but in an entirely different way -- and it too is clearly slight. (On description, Petulia is NOT slight.)

So, what about the novel Erasmus -- with Freckles? (My copy, I should note, is called Dear Brigitte -- a movie tie-in, of course.) It's about Robert Leaf, a poet and a Professor at the University of Caronia, in San Francisco. Robert has a beautiful and loving wife named Vina, and five children. The second youngest child is a boy named Erasmus. Names are given to the other four, but honestly they have no presence in the novel. The Leafs live on a converted ferry, long beached in San Francisco Bay. There is lots of room in the ferry, and so Robert and Vina also host a horde of young poets. Robert does have rules -- calisthenics every morning, French horn practice for his five children, etc. He's clearly a loving father and a loving (and loved) husband, and an engaged Professor. He's also involved in a constant war against the modern world, especially anything to do with Engineering or Math. And he's in the way of causing trouble for his college, with stunts like giving a test to all the students, essentially asking them the last two lines of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn", and expelling them when the fail (the college's Chancellor not excepted.) He has one close friend, a retired Anglican Bishop named McGonigle, who lives on the neighboring boat.

The crisis arises when Erasmus suddenly reveals a savant-like ability in mathematics. Robert hates this on principle -- he detests anything to do with math or science or engineering or logic. (He's really rather a nutcase about this.) But there are practical reasons to dislike this -- numerous organizations -- banks, IBM, the US government -- want Erasmus to work for them. Also, Erasmus can no longer play the French Horn. (My French Horn playing engineer friend will question the logic of this!) 

The other curious thing about Erasmus is that he is desperately in love with Brigitte Bardot. And he sends her a letter every night. Robert Leaf is fairly tolerant of this quirk.

The true crisis comes when Leaf's college starts pressuring him to offer Erasmus' services to the government. (They are likewise under pressure.) Leaf refuses, and is fired. Around the same time Bardot actually answers one of Erasmus' letters, and invites him to France. But now Leaf has no income. The Bishop, however, has a solution -- sell one of the boats, and sail the other to France! But there are complications (money remaining one of them). The solution I will leave to the book to reveal -- it is, frankly, absurd. But really in this light book that's not a drawback.

Really, this novel is a lot of fun. And it is often very funny -- downright hilarious in spots. I haven't mentioned some of the incidents -- Bishop McGonigle playing his harpsichord at the "coffee house" Robert Leaf's poet hangers-on offer to start to raise money for him is one delight. Leaf's battles with his college are great fun as well. It's a minor novel, no doubt, and a short one, and it doesn't bother to make much sense, but it's a fun read. 

The movie, I should say, seems quite different. Mostly, I think, it shifts a lot of the focus from Robert Leaf to Erasmus (who is actually a somewhat minor character in the book.) The other children get bigger roles, too, especially the eldest daughter, Pandora. The way the plot works out is quite changed as well -- presumably partly to make sure there's an onscreen role for Brigitte Bardot, who would presumably have been a draw at the box office. James Stewart is one of my favorite actors, but this movie is a late one, and by this time he seems to have been more or less finished as a major actor. (I suppose his last great film was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, from a couple of years earlier.)


Saturday, January 21, 2023

Review: Aliens From Space and Lost Race of Mars, by Robert Silverberg

Review: Aliens From Space and Lost Race of Mars, by Robert Silverberg      

by Rich Horton

I continue my journey through the early novels of Robert Silverberg. These are both first contact novels, though otherwise they don't resemble each other much. (Though they both feature important characters who are Professors at Columbia, which was Silverberg's university.) Aliens from Space was published in 1958 by Avalon, as by "David Osborne", and has never been reprinted. It's definitely an adult novel, though a slim one at some 40,000 words. Lost Race of Mars was published in 1960 by John C. Winston. Between 1952 and 1962 Winston published many SF books aimed at younger readers -- the "Winston Juveniles", but this doesn't seem to be officially one of those. The Winston Science Fiction books were numbered -- there were 35 in all. Lost Race of Mars isn't labeled as one of those -- probably because it is aimed at an even younger audience, it's more of a middle grade book, and quite short at about 20,000 words. In 1964 it was reprinted by Scholastic in paperback, and was reissued many times. Both editions were illustrated by Leonard Kessler.

I mentioned that Aliens From Space was never reprinted. There is an ebook edition from Gateway/Orion, but that is only available in the UK. I ordered it through Interlibrary Loan, however; and I also tracked down an audio edition, part of a series produced by Blackstone called Galaxy Trilogy -- four volumes, each with three novels, all of them from the same period, mostly the 1950s, and most quite obscure. I listened to the audio version and as it finished, the library called -- they had my book! Which does help in writing the review! 

It's 1989. Jeff Brewster is a Professor of Sociopsychology at Columbia (which was Silverberg's university.) One day he gets a call from a certain Colonel Chasin, from UN Security. He is needed in Washington immediately. Jeff complies, of course, even while wondering what they want with a mere 32 year old assistant professor ... As the title has already hinted, Jeff quickly learns that a spaceship has landed, with three aliens, from a very advanced species. The UN has decided to set up a multinational negotiating team, and Jeff has been tabbed due to his theories about communication. 

I'll stop here to fill in the world situation. After Sputnik in 1957 (presumably when the book was being written) humans reached the Moon in 1959, Mars in 1968, and Venus in 1970. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1965, and the world is largely at peace, though the US and Russia remain the superpowers, and don't entirely trust each other. Also, in 1989, a really fancy lunch cost five dollars. But, hey, we can make all the fun we want of the missed predictions of SF in any era -- ours will do just as poorly, I'm sure!

Brewster learns that the aliens seem to have previously visited both Venus and Mars, based on artifacts -- with writing -- found there. But that was centuries or millennia ago -- not they are here. They are called Morotans, and they propose an alliance of friendship -- and they offer immense technical and scientific knowledge in exchange for the right to build a base in Antarctica, and an agreement to be their allies against the maximally evil (because reptilian, natch!) M/e/r/s/e/i/a/n/s Zugloorans. Brewster's academic understanding of nuances of communication, however, leads him to suspect the Morotans are a bit too eager for an alliance: but can the Earth risk defying them? He has an ally in the Russian scientist Pirogov, and a foe in the blustery American Senator Morris ... and then a Zuglooran ship lands in Russia, and quickly makes a similar offer to Earth.

The general shape of the resolution is fairly obvious, but it's also fairly honest and decent, so I wasn't disappointed. That said, the novel is really pretty minor work. Even though it's quite short, it still feels padded -- things like careful description of Brewster's morning routine at the opening, or of meals later on, are clearly there to get to the 40,000 words or so that make it saleable as a novel. There are other bits that are sheer cliché, such as the notion, often seen in SF, that humanity's short lifespan compared to certain aliens (those in this book live hundreds of years) will prove an advantage -- so, here, the aliens are shocked that the world they visited a few thousand years ago which had barely started living in cities now has space travel. There is really only one female character with any lines -- Brewster's wife Mari -- and she is really a cipher and a rather overtypical '50s wife. It's easy to see why Silverberg has not chosen to reprint this book, and it is not something I really recommend you hunt down, but, for all that, I enjoyed the quick read. Silverberg, from the very beginning, had that knack. 

I'll consider Lost Race of Mars here just for convenience. I really am not, at my age, the audience for this book -- and I probably wasn't except at about age 10, when I discovered Silverberg's other Scholastic book, Revolt on Alpha C. (And even that book seems pitched a a slightly older age group than this one.) In this book, Dr. Chambers, a Professor of Biology at Columbia University (again!), gets permission to take his family to Mars to study the local flora and fauna. Alas, he won't be able to study the Old Martians, as they have surely gone extinct! Jim and Sally are 12 and 11, and they and their mother will accompany Dr. Chambers. When they get to the small colony of Mars, they find that they are greatly resented by the other members of the colony, because they are only going to be there for a year. But things improve when they fortuitously get to adopt a Mars kitten -- a new discovery. And then Jim and Sally hatch a foolish scheme to help their father -- convinced that there is more to see in the Old Martian ruins -- perhaps even Old Martians! -- they steal a Mars rover and go looking around ... with no success, until a dust storm kicks up, and they get lost, and their Mars kitten escapes and runs to a cave ... complete with, you'll never guess, Old Martians (who only allow themselves to be discovered because the kids are in danger and they seem to have treated the kitten well.) You can see where this is going ...

As I said, I'm not really the audience for this book. I might have loved it in 1970 when I was 10. Nowadays it's truly negligible -- for one thing, the didactic elements (sneaking in scientific facts (as of 1960) about Mars, mainly) are both out of date, and not really that interesting anyway. The plot is implausible and too rapidly developed (and even at that, it doesn't really get going until over halfway through the book.) This is one for completists only. But, hey, it is what it is, and it was adequate, I suppose, for its time, though I don't really think this age group was Silverberg's strength. (I do remember some of his books for older teens, such as Time of the Great Freeze and The Gate of Worlds, with great affection based on my reading at 12 or so.) 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Review: Sometime, Never, by William Golding, John Wyndham, and Mervyn Peake

Review: Sometime, Never, by William Golding, John Wyndham, and Mervyn Peake       

by Rich Horton

In my recent survey of potential Hugo winners and nominees from the 1950s I realized that this book was a major gap in my reading. It includes three original novellas, by major British writers. Of these three only John Wyndham (1903-1969) was part of the SF genre, and had a good deal of visibility to the general public -- books like The Day of the Triffids had been bestsellers. (His full real name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and he used all of his names in various permuatations as pseudonyms, but it was John Wyndham that had the most success.) Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an artist and novelist, best known for the Gormenghast Trilogy, an eccentric fantasy masterpiece. And William Golding (1911-1993), of course, was most famous for Lord of the Flies, but wrote other SF-adjacent work such as Pincher Martin and The Inheritors. He won the Nobel Prize in 1983. 


In a sense Sometime, Never is a precursor to the many three novella original anthologies that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. No editor is credited. It's quite a remarkable book, though, and it seems to have sold very well, as it had numerous reprints in its Ballantine paperback edition. Its first edition, in 1956, was a UK hardcover from Eyre and Spottiswoode. Ballantine published simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions in the US in 1957. 

The three stories are "Envoy Extraordinary" (about 22,000 words), "Consider Her Ways" (about 25,000 words), and "Boy in Darkness" (about 23,000 words.)

The opening story is William Golding's "Envoy Extraordinary". This is set in the Roman Empire. The old Emperor and his bastard son Mamillius agree to see a petitioner. This man, Phanocles, is accompanied by his sister. He has offerings for the Emperor, created based on his brilliant scientific insights. But it is only his sister Euphrosyne's beauty that interests Mamillius, who calls her the Tenth Wonder of the World -- a term Phanocles would apply to his steam engine, his pressure cooker, or his cannon. But Mamillius' infatuation with Euphrosyne is enough to allow the indulgent but skeptical Emperor to support a trial. Things are complicated, however, by the Emperor's legitimate son, Posthumus, who is impatient to take the throne, and jealous of his father's apparent preference for his bastard son. Once Posthumus hears rumors of a fantastic new ship, he makes his move ... with terrible consequences for many ... This is a darkly satirical story, and slyly funny. The message is an old one: scientific and engineering advancements must wait for a society ready for them. A simple message in its way, but well conveyed, and supported by Golding's portrayal of the Emperor and his variously foolish sons; and by the cynical Emperor's treatment of Phanocles and his sister -- not cruel but opportunistic.

Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" opens with the narrator waking to a thoroughly confusing situation -- surely an hallucination. She is in a grotesquely huge body, recovering from what she soon learns was a pregnancy, resulting in four daughters. Her nurses are tiny women, who call her a Mother, and they are perturbed by her confusion, and her evident belief that this is not real -- it must be a dream of some sort. She is taken to a home -- on the way she sees nothing but women, of various body types. Over time her memory returns -- she knows her real name, Jane Waterleigh, and knows that her husband Donald has been killed in a plane crash. But what is this hallucination? Finally her case brings her to the attention of an older woman, an historian, who explains the situation -- this is the future, after an engineered plague which killed all males. The surviving women managed to preserve society, partly by creating several "castes", based on ant society: Mothers (or Queens), Workers, etc. Jane remembers that she had agreed to experiment with a new drug, hoping it would help her depression over the death of her husband. Instead, her mind was cast out of time into that of Mother Orchis. Her interlocutor, the historian, explains how superior their society is -- largely because there are no men to control -- to own -- women. Jane resists, but her arguments seem weak. (That said, the future society as portrayed seems -- to present day eyes, at least -- quite awful; and no woman, I would think, would sign up for the role of Mother in this society.) It's a pretty decent, again rather satirical, exploration of an idea, but I have to say I think it might have been more convincing if written by a woman -- partly because I suspect this future society would have been more interesting and would have portrayed a more convincing woman only future.

Finally, "Boy in Darkness" is fairly clearly a pendant to Peake's Gormenghast series, and the title Boy is surely Titus Groan, the protagonist of that series. Here, the Boy (who is occasionally called Titus) rebels against the constant ceremony of life in the castle, especially on this day, when he turns 14. At the end he escapes, and makes his way to the countryside, and a river, and a terrifying encounter with two odd creatures -- a Goat and an Hyena. These are both in thrall to a certain Lamb -- and we gather that the Lamb somehow has the power to turn humans into his idea of their essential animal nature. The Goat and Hyena have been searching for a long time for another human to offer to their lord, the Lamb -- and the Boy is at last a possibility. But the two are also sworn enemies, and the Boy is able to use that enmity to resist the peril he faces in his encounter with the Lamb. It's a very strange story, very dreamlike, but really quite impressive. Dark, yes, and weird in the best way. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Review: Two Obscure Early Novels by Robert Silverberg

 Review: Two Obscure Early Novels by Robert Silverberg

by Rich Horton

I mentioned recently that I am very close to having read all of Robert Silverberg's early novels -- that is, the novels before his remarkable transformation, early in the 1960s, from a skilled but rather shallow, and very prolific, writer to a quite powerful and interesting writer (still prolific but less so than before.) There are two novels that are either unavailable (in the US) or too expensive used for my blood. These are Aliens from Space and Invisible Barriers. I had an idea for an end run around this problem -- Silverberg very often published shorter versions of his novels as novellas in the many magazines of the period. I found a couple of novellas cited as progenitors for these books. So, I went ahead and got copies of the novellas. These are "We, the Marauders" (Science Fiction Quarterly, February 1958) and "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" (If, December 1957.) I fairly quickly figured out (and Silverberg confirmed) that "We, the Marauders" is a short version of yet another novel: Invaders From Earth, first published as half of an Ace Double in 1958. Naturally, I bought that full novel as well.


In this review, then, I consider "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down", "We, the Marauders", and the novel Invaders From Space. Aliens from Space will have to wait for later, as will the full version of Invisible Barriers. (For those who wonder, the other early Silverberg novels I am missing are the very slight juvenile (really a middle grade book) Lost Race of Mars; another 1958 Ace Double, Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, that is a fixup of three novellas from Science Fiction Adventures, and which was reprinted a decade or so ago by Paizo Press as The Chalice of Death; and the 1964 novel Regan's Planet. I have copies of all those, and I have an audio version of Aliens From Space.

So -- first "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down". This novella (some 25,000 words long) is about John Amory, a successful television director in the year 2021 -- almost now! But he's a dissatisfied man -- the scenarios he directs are always heavily rewritten, with the object of pleasing the advertisers and suppressing any knowledge of places outside the US. For there are "Walls", as the novella has it; or "Invisible Barriers", as the novel's title puts it, between the countries of the world. Originally this was sold as a means of preserving peace. 

Amory, with several of his friends, including some of the better writers in his circle, regularly attends parties at which smuggled foreign films are shown, and this night there is another. He attends and enjoys the film, amateurish as it is -- but suddenly he falls unconscious. Evidently he was drugged! When he wakes, he is in the presence of a very strange looking being. evidently an alien -- who puts a curious proposition to him: the aliens are visiting Earth to make copies of the great art humans have produced. This seems odd but interesting -- but by chance Amory sees a piece of paper that reveals the aliens' true goal -- the cultural harvest is simply prelude to eliminating humans. Amory is shocked, but almost resigned. Do humans really deserve to survive? But he realizes -- a unified Earth, instead of the enforced isolationist Earth of the "invisible barriers", might be able to resist the aliens, and also could throw off the censorship regime that reinforces the "barriers". But how to do this? The plan -- necessarily accomplished while seeming to cooperate with the aliens -- is to sneak some anti-isolationist messages into his TV shows. This can't last long -- but maybe he can reveal the presence and motives of the aliens before he's caught ...

The story continues as Amory develops his next program. But things don't go quite as he hopes -- and there is, in the end, a shocking twist, that probably won't surprised most readers. Still -- it's an effective enough story, readable throughout, with a decent message. That said, I think the story is about the right length -- or even a bit too long. I don't know how Silverberg padded it for the book version; but I don't quite see how that would have improved it.

"We, the Marauders" came next in my reading. (I read this in a 1965 reprint, from Belmont Books, an edition combined with a James Blish novella, "Giants in the Earth", as A Pair from Space.) And I quickly realized it had some parallels with "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down". The first story is about a TV director, whose productions are essentially propaganda; and slanted to please the sponsors. "We, the Marauders" is about an advertising man, Tom Kennedy, who creates campaigns that are similarly propaganda, to please his clients. Also, "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" is about aliens coming to Earth, and using their cultural campaign to excuse their eventual invasion. We soon learn that "We, the Marauders" is about humans visiting Ganymede, realizing that the natives resent their presence, and using an advertising campaign to convince Earth that the Ganymedeans are dangerous and need to be exterminated.

Tom Kennedy is in his 30s, rising in the firm of Steward and Dinoli. One day he is summoned to a top level meeting -- it seems the company's newest client is the corporation exploring Ganymede. They have learned that the Ganymedeans don't like humans, and certainly won't let them mine the valuable radioactives. Steward and Dinoli are charged with creating a campaign that will convince Earth people that a war is justified ... and it is Tom who has the key idea: invent a fake human colony on Ganymede, and eventually show the Ganymedeans slaughtering the (nonexistent) colony residents. The client is delighted, and the campaign goes into motion. But Kennedy's wife is appalled, as is one of Kennedy's deputies ...

Eventually Kennedy is sent to Ganymede, to gather some convincing local color. (I have to say this plot device doesn't convince.) While there, Kennedy, already a little uneasy because of his wife's resistance, illegally learns some of the Ganymedean language, and after meeting some of them, realizes what they are really like, and has a crisis of conscience. He manages to get one of the Corporation's staff to help him, and brings the Ganymedeans some arms ... but is inevitably arrested and sent back to Earth. The resolution involves an unconvincing escape, and an even more unconvincing return to New York, where he steals some damning documents, and manages to arrange a dramatic reveal at a UN meeting. In the end, he realizes the only right future for him is on Ganymede ...

As hinted, a pretty implausible story in many ways, but pretty effective in its way, with a resolutely anti-colonial message. I learned that the novel version, Invaders from Earth, is significantly longer (Silverberg states that he wrote that version originally, and cut it by some 10,000 words for the magazine, though by my estimate the novel is maybe 52,000 words, as against about 38,000 for the magazine version. He cannot remember at this date how much editorial suggestions from Science Fiction Quarterly's editor, Robert A. W. Lowndes, affected the shape and plot of the novella. He does credit Lowdes for the title "We, the Marauders".) I decided I needed to compare them.

To my surprise, the novel's changes are quite radical, and actually a significant improvement. (One change is the name of the main character: Ted Kennedy, instead of Tom. I realized that the change from Ted to Tom was actually made for the 1965 reprint of "We, the Marauders", and I assumed (and Silverberg confirmed) it was due to the newly prominent politician named Ted Kennedy.) Some are just a paragraph here and there -- a bit more fully developed, and more cynical, presentation of the life of the Kennedys -- such as the need to eat real meat, not synthetics, and also a slightly more finished indication of stresses in their marriage. But about halfway into the novel, the plot changes a good deal. Kennedy's involvement with the Ganymedeans is more complete, and they teach him their philosophy of life, which serves to change his views. He doesn't give them arms -- they wouldn't use them. His actions on the return to Earth are less implausible -- he's in more danger, his escapes, though still a bit of a stretch, are less absurd. And the final confrontation is better handled. The resolution of his personal issues is perhaps a bit too pat -- I think I believed his wife's character more in the novella than the novel -- and I won't say this is a particularly great novel. But it's not bad. And it is interesting to look at the way Silverberg rewrote the novel. The message of the two stories, I should add, is pretty much the same. 



 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Review: 51, by Patrick O'Leary

Review: 51, by Patrick O'Leary

by Rich Horton

Patrick O'Leary published three impressive novels a couple of decades ago: Door Number Three, The Gift, and The Impossible Bird; but has been silent since a story collection, The Black Heart, appeared in 2010. So it was very exciting to see his new novel appear in 2022: 51, from Tachyon Press. O'Leary says in the afterword that it took 16 years to write, which in itself accounts for his "silence" the past decade plus. 


The novel opens in 2018 in Detroit. The narrator, Adam Pagnucco, or Nuke, is coming home from an AA meeting when he sees a tall old black man, a bum, stops to help, and the man recognizes him. This man is Winston Koop, and Nuke was the best man at his wedding. It's clear that both of them have fallen on rough times (and drink seems to be involved) and Nuke takes Winston home, to get him warm and get him some food. And then, over the next little while, Koop tells him a story. A crazy story. But it's a story that Nuke was also involved with ...

The title, 51, tells us pretty much what the story is about -- a secret Air Force base in Nevada. But of course it's about much more and stranger things than that. The novel, in short chapters, bounces back and forth and around in time -- back to 1947 of course, and to Nuke's and Winston's childhoods a bit later than that, and to the 1970s when they both end up working together at that Air Force base, and to Winston's career since then. 

The central story concerns -- maybe? -- what really happened in the late 1940s at Area 51. The alien visitor story, you see, was a coverup. Or, sort of. The visitors are real, but they come through a portal apparently opened by a atomic bomb test. They are called Imaginary Friends, or IFs -- because not everyone can see them, and because they, or at least some of them, seem desperately to want friendship. Over the decades all Presidents get to meet them, and there's a hint of technological secrets they offer; but there is also plenty of danger. And what the IFs really want is -- something we refuse to give them.

All this is assuming we believe Koop's story. There is a human story here, too. About Koop and Nuke's friendship. About Koop's wife -- and Nuke. About Koop's apparent job -- to track down anyone who knows anything about the IFs and who isn't under Air Force control and erase their memories. (Wait a minute -- what about Nuke? ...)

It's a confusing story, entirely on purpose, in part because of the atemporal arrangement, in part because of the unreliable nested narrators -- and maybe mostly because the IFs are confusing period. But it's fascinating, and compulsively readable, and cumulatively quite moving. O'Leary's first three novels proved he is a major writer in our field -- and 51 shouldn't change anyone's mind about that!


Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

by Rich Horton

Recently I was glancing through the ISFDB entry for Robert Silverberg, looking mainly at his early novels (written in the 1950s), and I realized that I had read nearly all of them. It is perhaps a silly thing to be completist about -- trying to read the products of a young and very prolific writer who had not yet fully mastered his craft, and, worse, who was not yet writing with real ambition -- instead, by his own account, spending much of his time producing yardgoods to fill magazines under a contract whereby the editor would accept a certain number of words per month essentially sight unseen. (It should be said that Silverberg in this period was already sufficiently competent that this early work remains consistently readable, and occasionally interesting, but it is never outstanding.) Indeed, when I mentioned to him that I was having a hard time finding a couple of his early books, he suggested it would be much more rewarding to reread Downward to the Earth instead -- and likely he was right.

(For that matter, even if I finish all these early SF novels, the ones by Silverberg as well as by "Calvin Knox" or "David Osborne", there will still be rafts of work from other genres, such as the crime fiction and soft porn he wrote under such names as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, and Stan Vincent.)

All that said, I did find a copy of Silverberg's 1958 novel Starman's Quest, published by Gnome Press, for a reasonable price. (The novel had a 1969 reprint, and a more recent trade paperback edition is available, which may make used books more affordable.) It seems to be the only form of this story -- many other Silverberg novels were originally published as novellas. (Indeed, sometimes one version was under Silverberg's name, and the other as by one of his pseudonyms, which made the pseudonyms pretty open! (I don't think Silverberg minded.))

Starman's Quest begins with an introductory fictional quote from an essay, discussing the Lexman Spacedrive, which allowed what Ursula Le Guin later dubbed NAFAL ("Nearly as fast as light") travel between stars; and also mention one James Cavour's failed attempt at a hyperdrive. Thus, in the year 3876, the settled worlds are linked by a fleet of starships, crewed by "Starmen", who typically live their entire lives on ship. Due to the Fitzgerald Contraction -- that is, more familiarly, time dilation -- there lives extend for hundreds of years objective time, but only a normal span subjectively. As the novel opens, the Valhalla is returning to Earth from a trip to Alpha Centauri. Alan Donnell is just turning 17. His father is the Captain. Alan himself is a twin, but his brother Steve jumped ship the last time they were at Earth. Alan wants to track down his brother, against his bitter father's wishes, though he knows that Steve is now nine years, subjective, older than him. Alan is also obsessed with the research of Cavour -- what if Cavour's discoveries really could lead to a working hyperdrive?

All this, really, is potentially fuel for a fascinating book. The sociological effects of the slower than light travel, the Starmen who are always years out of date when they come to a new planet, are worth exploring. The effects of a sudden change to hyperdrive, were it happen, are also worth a look. There are other worthy ideas -- Alan's ratlike "pet", actually an intelligent alien from Epsilon Eridani, is one. The horribly crowded and cramped society on Earth is another. Alan's relationship with his father and his "older" twin brother could be interesting, and so too the surely unusual society of the starships -- with just a couple of hundred or so people on each. Thing is, Silverberg really doesn't do justice to any of these aspects, and the only one he tries to cover is Earth society.

Anyway, Alan decides to leave the Enclave where the Starmen say, and go look for Steve. Alas, finding one person in a huge city is all but impossible. Especially as Alan doesn't understand Earth customs at all. Luckily, he is saved from jail or a beating or worse by a guy named Max Hawkes, who turns out to be an expert gambler. It seems that gambling is about the only job available for people not born into a profession. Max helps Alan find Steve (rather luckily) and then gives him an offer -- stay on Earth, and he'll teach him how to gamble ... and Alan takes him up on it (after returning Steve to the Valhalla) -- largely because Alan thinks that on Earth he can study James Cavour's work and maybe find more hints ... To be sure, though, Max will exact a price for his assistance ... 

Things work out a) pretty much as you will have expected; and b) involving a lot of sheer ridiculous luck. Leading to a cute enough if all too convenient conclusion, and leaving all the interesting questions I had about this future society unanswered. 

So -- is it a good novel? No. Is it readable? Yes -- Silverberg was from the beginning a competent writer who could keep your interest. Does it hint at the writer Silverberg became? Not really, except in that it does have the seeds of some pretty worthwhile ideas.