The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale

And the PKD series continues with a look at the second volume of his collected short stories.

Raw Feed (2000): The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, 1987.PKD 2

Introduction”, Norman Spinrad — A very useful introduction in which Spinrad points out how Dick’s short stories, right from the beginning (these stories are from 1952 through 1955), were different artistically and thematically from other sf writers. While author collections, as Spinrad rightly notes, often have a sameness of style, incident, theme, and character and Dick was no exception, his sameness was unique. Spinrad sees Dick’s overarching theme to be a concern with empathy, the quality that distinguishes man from the mechanical, sometimes thinking, “pseudo-life” (particularly weapon systems) that menace his heroes. And those heroes are usually ordinary people trying to survive worlds of time paradoxes and shifting realities or the menacing security state. Spinrad notes that Dick didn’t do “action-adventure formula” stories or space operas or mad scientists or “fully-developed alien civilizations” or stories with “real good guys versus bad guys”. Dick did not write stories in a consistent universe or future history or feature recurring characters. But the most interesting claim by Spinrad (and I tend to believe he’s studied the matter) is that he invented the multiple viewpoint technique in sf (a technique Spinrad is fond of, indeed he took it to its extreme in “The Big Flash”). Spinrad claims “few if any writers” used it before Dick and that all writers who used it afterwards owe a debt to Dick.

The Cookie Lady” — Fantasy tale of vampirism by the title character who lures a boy with cookies and steals his life. Continue reading

The Simulacra

Raw Feed (1989): The Simulacra, Philip K. Dick, 1964.Simulacra 

The worst Philip K. Dick novel I’ve read to date.

It was obvious what Dick was trying to do. His main inspiration, I’ll wager, was William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp (or, if not that specific book, the same historical topic).  The book is paralleled on the Nazi political structure, its various battling factions, and its industrialist underpinnings. Dick also speculated on the nature of media and psychology in American politics.

Dick produces a wandering plot with a real conflict introduced only about half way through the story and one of Dick’s notoriously ambivalent endings; this one is very reminiscent of Dick’s The Penultimate Truth.

Surprisingly enough, Dick doesn’t even produce any memorable characters and few memorable scenes. Continue reading

Time Out of Joint

The PKD series continues.

Raw Feed (1989): Time Out of Joint, Philip K. Dick, 1959.Time Out of Joint 

A very fun and enjoyable book.

I guessed, about half way through, (and given slight clues of book blurbs and Dick’s thematic preoccupations) that Ralph Grumm was being used as a weapons targeting system in a war. I did not guess the mechanism of control (and would have liked more details on that besides just “brainwashing” and mysterious gases), why Grumm had to be insane, or the nature of the war (I thought, given my limited experience, that the economic and philosophic origins of the war between Luna and Earth original and interesting).

The characterization was, as always, excellent.

One of the sad moments of the book was when the main characters found out they really had no relationship with each other. During the course of the novel you really cared for them as a family and as individuals.

I liked the look, however warped, of that alien world of the fifties with its social consciousness, conformity, and Freudian jargon. Continue reading

The Golden Man

The PKD series continues.

Raw Feed (1989): The Golden Man, ed. Philip K. Dick, 1980.the golden man

“Foreword”, Mark Hurst — Standard collection intro on why book was done and its history.

Introduction” — Brief tour of the life of Philip K. Dick, a subject as fascinating as any of his novels. We hear of Dick’s anger and love of sf and his friends in it (particularly Norman Spinrad and Thomas E. Disch but also Roger Zelazny and Robert Heinlein — who loaned Dick money and who, though Dick was almost completely opposite politically to him, Dick loved. His adoration in France, his fascinating life on the streets, his many loves of women and music, is all dealt with. It reminds me how much, more than any other author, I wish I would have met Dick while he was alive.

The Golden Man” — I’m sure too much prior knowledge of this story ruined my enjoyment of it. The story is structured to make one sympathetic towards the Golden Man (Dick comes up with an interesting assortment of mutants) and, as Dick points out in his story notes, this was the Golden Age of the sympathetic mutant in John W. Campbell’s Astounding and A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. At the end though, we are faced, like the androids in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with beings that seem outwardly human but are not. The pre-vision talent of the Golden Man was interesting, and Dick tried to go into some of its implications. The idea of a mutant’s sexual attractiveness was original and valid. The main strong point of the story is the turning of reader’s sympathy from the Golden Man to his hunters. Unfortunately, I spoiled my surprise. Continue reading

Oath of Fealty

The Jerry Pournelle series concludes with one of my favorite Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and, I think a book of some political prescience.

The desire to retreat from crime and social chaos is still with us: gated communities and billionaires buying bolt holes in New Zealand, and survivalist compounds in South Dakota.

And Alphabet’s plans for its workers sounds like a return to feudalism which, of course, is what this book is about.

This is the only work of Niven’s or Pournelle’s to appear in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985).

Pringle exhibits a bit of snark in his capsule review of the novel when he says

 . . . memories of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise intrude; but that is a novel which Niven and Pournelle are unlikely to have read.

I suspect that’s true of Pournelle, but Niven’s essay, “The Words in Science Fiction“, hints at fairly broad tastes in the genre.

This was the next novel Niven and Pournelle started after The Mote in God’s Eye, but it was put aside for other novels.

For the 2008 edition, they wrote an introduction, but I have not read it.

If you go to Pournelle’s website and patiently read the search results for “Oath of Fealty”, you’ll find many references to people still thinking about an urban arcology as a shelter in turbulent times.

Raw Feed (1998): Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1981.Oath of Fealty

This book was certainly shorter and better than the last Niven and Pournelle collaboration I read, Footfall.

It also stands as the most explicit endorsement of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of Pournelle’s solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and a type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from medieval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield, Higher Education.

The title derives from the medieval feudal oath between vassal and lord, and the novel’s plot of Todos Santos fighting for legal and economic independence from LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords. [Yes, I’m aware that some medievalists argue that feudalism never existed. I just don’t accept the argument.]

That independence is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles’ reliance on Todos Santos (an emerging economic and social unit like the medieval towns) economically is used as leverage against the city. Continue reading

The Craft of Science Fiction

This is something of an oddity and not the type of book I’ve reviewed before.

It’s mostly a how-to book for would-be science fiction writers but also includes some interesting perspectives on the art by its contributors. Of course, a lot of the professional advice is outdated since the book is 41 years old now.

With Jerry Pournelle’s passing, I’m posting it now since he was a contributor, and I’ll be interrupting the Lovecraft series to post some more Pournelle material from the archives.

As usual, I’m still working on getting new reviews out.

Raw Feed (1987): The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1976.Craft of Science Fiction

“Foreword”, Reginald Bretnor — It is billed as advice from experienced writing veterans.

SF:  The Challenge to the Writer”, Reginald Bretnor — Nuts and bolts on some basics needed to practice sf craft including some knowledge of science, more intimate knowledge of sf and mainstream literature. Bretnor urges mastering basic story elements like characterization and dialogue. He recommends books to read and compiling own reference library as well as knowing how to use well a public reference library (and to know its staff).  He advises how to avoid errors by avoiding explicit details when possible and thoroughly check facts.

Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come”, Poul Anderson — Like most essays in this book seem to be (at cursory glance), this is interesting as criticism as well as how-to advice. Anderson’s definition of a saga is larger than life story of a non-introspective character who wants to do something. In addition, a saga must have the right feel as far as language goes. Anderson names some of his candidates for sf epics (L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think and The Humanoids, A. E. van Vogt’s Slan and The Weapon Makers and World of A; Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore’s Fury) and why he classifies things as he does is revealing. Anderson also (and I agree) says the saga is only one of many legitimate fictional modes. He also makes the valid point that sf (and maybe fantasy) is the last refuge of the outward turning hero. Other hallmarks of epic sf are (according to Anderson) bold language, a hero bending fate (or refusing to be bent). Anderson also gives interesting details on how study of Olaf Stapledon helped him in writing Tau Zero. Continue reading

Year’s Best SF 6

And the Norman Spinrad series concludes.

I’ve read his collection The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and the novel Bug Jack Barron, but I made no notes on them. The notes I did make on his novellas “Journal of the Plague Years” and “Riding the Torch” really aren’t very useful even by the standards of my Raw Feeds.

Raw Feed (2001): Year’s Best SF 6, David G. Hartwell, 2001.years-best-sf-6

“Introduction”, David G. Hartwell — A bit more information than Hartwell usually gives in the introductions to this series. He talks about the importance of the Scottish and English sf magazines and important new, non-English language, sf writers emerging.

Reef“, Paul J. McAuley — This story had most of what you need for an entertaining sf story: interesting scientific speculation, adventure, and interesting social speculations. The science part was provided by an experiment in trying, through accelerated evolution, to develop lifeforms which live in the vacuum of deep space. The wreck of an old research facility is infested with those lifeforms which have developed, through a parasitic intermediary, a clumsy but effective means of sexual reproduction which has greatly facilitated adaptive radiation. The interesting social speculations comes with a typical asteroid society, supposedly resembling an old Greek city-state, in which the citizen shareholders live in luxury while the real work is done by poorly paid maintenance workers and scientific contractors, both of whom are played off against each other in competition for better wages and living conditions. (The citizens manipulate the money supply and conduct massive surveillance, amongst other things.) The adventure comes in when scientific contractor Margaret Henderson Wu tried to penetrate to the depths of the titular reef in space, the fissure in the Enki habitat where the vacuum organisms have evolved to their highest state. Wu is not only, by the standards of her time, an ugly and sickly woman, not being genetically engineered and born on Earth, but the child of disgraced parents who fell from citizenship status when they, as environmental engineers, allowed an alien fungus to destroy the ecosystem of a space habitat. (McAuley, in passing, does a nice job outlining some of the complexities of designing artificial ecosystems for space habitats.) Her insistence of exploring the reefs depths cause her to not only run afoul of the ambitious geneticist Opie Kindred, who wants to become a citizen by sucking up to the ruling elite of the habitat Ganapati, but also Dzu Sho, head of the habitat, who seems to think that the lifeforms of the reef might break the monopoly habitats like Ganapati have in supplying the carbon necessary to plant colonies on the planetoids of the Kuiper Belt. Wu is successful at the end, but the only complaint I have at the end is that McAuley should have provided an more precise economic explanation as to how the lifeforms of the reef enabled a revolution against social setups like Ganapati.  (Oct. 20, 2001)

Reality Check“, David Brin — Hartwell’s introductory notes claim this story, one of several sf stories the science journal Nature commissioned for 2000, is a humorous tale. I saw little evidence of that. I also found it a bit obscure. It’s premise, if I’m reading it right, is rather clever — addressing the reader directly as a citizen inhabiting a vast computer simulation of the Transition Era which is to say a simulation of our 20th Century, that time of drama and myth where the future — and cataclysmic failure — and much else seemed possible. A time much different that The Wasteland of Reality Prime Level, that is a world of plenty and longevity and access to all knowledge and also a world of boredom where the possibilities have been mined for life’s purpose. It’s an interesting notion, and it’s thematic relationship to the film The Matrix makes me wonder if Brin intended this story has some rejoinder or playful reinterpretation of it. Brin also postulates that the vast retreat into colorful simulations of the past is the reason behind Fermi’s Paradox —  other alien races have felt into the same decadent trap. That answer for Fermi’s Paradox may be new, but the idea of man decadently retreating into a virtual reality playground has shown up elsewhere: Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, James Gunn’s The Joy Makers, and, to a certain extent, Charles Platt’s The Silicion Man. The story’s narrator challenges the reader to wake from his dream. The story’s last four sentences do have some wry significance from being printed in the context of a scientific journal: “Go back to your dream. Smile over this tale, then turn the page to new ‘discoveries.’ Move on with the drama, this life you chose. After all, it’s only make-believe.” Continue reading

Songs from the Stars

The relative popularity of my last post confirms what book publishers have long known. Put a swastika on the cover!

The Norman Spinrad series continues. Don’t you love the Eighties cover?

Raw Feed (1994): Songs from the Stars, Norman Spinrad, 1980.songs-from-the-stars

Spinrad once said there were only a few themes in literature. They were, as I recall, love, death, sex, and transcendence. This novel has them all.

There is the love between Clear Blue Line Lou and Sunshine Sue (such psychedelic names). There is death in the post-holocaust background, Harker’s suicide, and the remains of the Ear’s dead crew. There is certainly, as in all Spinrad novels, sex, and only Spinrad would probably conceive of a menage á trois as a political solution to put two lovers from conflicting tribes back together. As for transcendence, that is the very theme of this book. Not only is there political/moral transcendence as Sunshine Sue and Clear Blue Lou find a higher way that reconciles white and black sciences, the Tribes and the sorcerer spacers, but spiritual and psychological transcendence as Lou and Sue jack into visions of alien life and see what mankind is capable of doing in the universe. There is also the possibility of social transcendence as promised by Sue’s new broadcast network.

This novel – even more so than the other two Spinrad novels I’ve read, Little Heroes and The Iron Dream – works on many levels.

First, there are the signs, mainly in the first seven chapters, that this is a novel by the Spinrad that really does seem to believe in the redemptive power of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (though music is not heavily emphasized here). Lou, Perfect Master (sort of a judge and spiritual guide), and the tribes of white magic practice free love and mind-expansion via drugs. Spinrad has also said this is a sort of political novel though it doesn’t contain any really specific condemnation or praising of a particular type of political or economic system. Capitalism seems to be the order of the day in the trade between the tribes yet communes also exist. Justice is administered, at least in the city of La Mirage, by Lou. He administers justice based on his intuition of a person’s heart as well as their actions, tries to consider a parties karma (constantly, we are reminded – humorously – that Clear Blue Lou can see both sides of the issue and that if he couldn’t he wouldn’t be Clear Blue Lou), and his ruling tenet is that justice must be sweet to all parties and that no justice not willingly accepted is sweet. This idea of justice as something that can be non-coerced is silly and indicative of Spinrad’s ‘60’s idealism.

The politics of the novel mainly concern themselves with technology. The white tribes of this post-holocaust world regard the only good technologies as being based on the way of wind, water, sun, and muscle. Thus they have only very primitive transportation and communication though a rich knowledge of natural pharmacopia. The black sorcerer – spacers of the trans-Sierra regions practice more arcane, powerful and forbidden arts. What is unacknowledged by most in the appropriately named town of La Mirage is that their highest forms of technology (a very primitive chain of radio relays run by Sue’s Sunshine tribe and solar and muscle powered – but still sophisticated – ultralight planes) are the product of black or at least gray science. Lou and other officials of La Mirage acknowledge this but don’t make a public issue of it. They resent the self-righteousness of some Whites and believe that the good hearts in their town can take the evil out of black science. (Spinrad also briefly mentions the Remembers – people who determinedly hang on to cultural and technological remnants of the pre-war past. At the very least, they are despised and mistrusted. At most, they are subject to occasional pogroms.) However, a deliberate plot by the Spacers destroys this tacit political arrangement and maneuvers Sue and Lou into the lair of the Spacers. The Spacers want to bring a New Age of Space about and, in a plot reminiscent of van Vogt, they have been working for centuries to not only preserve and build upon man’s pre-war knowledge but to reclaim space. They want to reclaim some hardware – a space station, a satellite broadcast network, and a radio antenna – the Ear – that captured extra-terrestrial’s signals right before the war. They are confident that once Lou sees what they are up to he will rule in their favor, get the Aquarian whites to accept the Spacers, and heal the rift between the two cultures so man can reclaim space and together hear the Songs from the Stars (interesting that Spinrad again uses the metaphor of music to describe the transcendent messages of aliens). Lou and Sue find the spacers, except for their passion to reclaim space, a rather unspiritual, bound up lot who aren’t as happy or communal as the Aquarians. However, they both believe that the Aquarians need technology to foster their development, to bind them closer together. The alien messages provide the rationale to unite the two strains of man; technology will help not only man to become more of a family but also to help join the broader community of life in the galaxy.

The metaphor Sue seeks to bring about – the electronic global village, is thus to be writ large on a galactic scale. Ironically, Spacer Arnold Harker – instigator of the whole chain of events that bring Sue and Lou to hear the alien messages – can’t stand their content. He fears both the content of the messages for their potential to destroy man’s culture, possible ability to corrupt man, or as a sign of alien malevolence – and man’s worthiness to receive those messages. He kills himself after listening to all the wonderful alien songs that Lou and Sue love and see as signs of man’s wonderful future in a galactic brotherhood – and one other message they didn’t listen to from a race that died after their galaxy was devoured by a central black hole. For Harker, the idea that even advanced superscience can’t save the race from ultimate death is to much to bear. But, as Lou wisely notes, life – whether the individual or the race’s – as always been a brief period between two eons of blackness, and the alien message does not change this truth.

In his “Rubber Science” essay in The Craft of Science Fiction [edited by Reginald Bretnor], Spinrad talks about how an sf writer should acquaint himself with all types of hard and soft sciences. Spinrad does show a knowledge of aeronautical research in his depiction of Aquarian fliers and Spacer shuttle craft, and he has clearly researched the physical details of extraterrestrial radio-communication. (Though his notion of trinary logic as being more rich and better than binary logic for communicating complex information seems wrong-headed. I don’t know what difference a logic format would make transmitting a given amount of information.) In that essay, Spinrad makes reference to Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media as “the single most consciousness expanding book of the decade”, and Spinrad makes specific reference to it when a young Sue finds a copy in a Remembers’ cabin. I particularly liked the novel’s bit where Lou, Sue, and Harker – under Sue’s tutelage – create a media event They go to La Mirage and, Sue, through her news network, begins to emphasize story’s involving alien contact with humans. This creates public interest which is further heightened by alleged second-hand stories, whose credibility Lou and Sue don’t vouch for, of a similar nature. This creates a feedback cycle of heightened interest creating more stories creating more interest, all of which psychologically prepare the populace to believe the reality of a faked alien landing in La Mirage. It’s a nice, plausible explanation on how to change people’s perceptions of reality and manipulate the news. In the alien messages, Spinrad throws out some sf ideas that he may not have been the first to use but have since become more popular – aliens transferring their consciousness to digital form and now haunting cyberstructures, alien reverentially sowing and maintaining life in the desolate universe, alien cyborgs inhabiting space, and giant black holes in galactic centers slowly devouring everything.

It was a good read and – like all Spinrad – surprising in its richness and twists and turns of plot.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

The Iron Dream

The Norman Spinrad series continues

Raw Feed (1991): The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad, 1972.iron-dream

This novel took awhile to get into because it comes across exactly as advertised: a novel by Adolf Hitler. It took me awhile to warm up to it, to read it in the gulps necessary, but, towards the end, I enjoyed it a lot.

This is sf as Hitler would write it right down to a wishful plot that partially mirrors history — here Feric Jagger justifies the cynical killing of Sons of the Swastika leader Stag Stopa as Hitler justified killing Ernst Rohm and the SA who performed a similar function in history. Here author Hitler treats us to constant references to urinating, defecating mutants; a novel where “fanaticism” is a complimentary term; where military maneuvers are improbably conducted like a parade or opera; where there are constant, obsessive references to the colors of red, white, and black and swastikas (even in floor tiles); and genocide and forced sterilization are portrayed as merciful acts. But most pervasive, most hilarious is the constant, not-so-hidden sexual imagery from the awkwardly described motorcycles (Hitler goes on at great length in describing a machine whose appearance is presumably known to the reader) with their throbbing engines slung between the riders legs, to the super-phallus of the Steel Commander, to the barely disguised homoeroticism between Feric Jagger and Best, to the descriptions of the Helder army penetrating and pushing aside the Zind forces to the numerous towers and rockets, to the final scene of Jagger clones and Jagger seed rising to the stars on a rocket as a barely disguised orgasm.

The prose rises to a shriek like one of Hitler’s speeches. The afterword is hilarious in revealing not only a literary critic’s naiveté in the book’s alternate world (he thinks it improbable a Jagger leader could take over a nation with parades and phallic symbols) but Spinrad’s satirical intentions. The afterword discusses the book’s plot holes (including an improbably rapid technological progress during the war), its sexual symbolism, and the underlying pathology — a compelling pathology — of its author. It’s a fun book, but I don’t think Spinrad ultimately convinces us of his points. Nazi symbols are compelling, but I don’t think they’re sexual images. Nor do I think Spinrad makes good his contention of a connection between the fascist mindset and the plots of some power-trip sf pulp stories. I have read Spinrad say elsewhere that this book (and this isn’t really brought out in the Afterword) is a satire on the hero-discovers-innate-magic-powers-and-saves-world plot of so much fantasy. Jagger discovers (in a strange twist on Arthuriana when he wields his Steel Commander) his racial purity and saves the day and will populate new worlds with his seed. It’s the logical, solipsistic, egomaniacal extension of that plot idea. Continue reading

Countdown to Midnight

It’s Bobbie Burns’ birthday. Grandpa MacDowall would not be happy I’m not doing anything to celebrate it.

Sorry, instead of something Burns related material, you get this, a continuation of the Norman Spinrad series.

Raw Feed (1991): Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War, ed. H. Bruce Franklin, 1984.countdown-to-midnight

Nuclear War and Science Fiction“, H. Bruce Franklin — I read this book after reading Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation which included a perhaps apocryphal story about leftist Franklin saying he was taking up scuba diving because the revolution will need frogmen. I wanted to read it when I’d be most sensitive to Franklin’s insinuation of politics into the collection. Franklin talks about the early (pre-1945) sf depiction of nuclear weapons and the feedback between sf and science, and vice versa, in the development of these weapons. (Franklin has also written an entire written book on this subject.) That part’s interesting, but Franklin’s politics began to show. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg become “alleged” spies. Franklin makes the patently false claim that the U.S. did not warn Japan prior to using the first A-Bombs. In fact a warning and appeal to surrender were given before each of the two detonations. Various military officials, including Eisenhower, are quoted as stating that the A-Bombs were unnecessary. Their saying this does not automatically make it true. The claim, probably partly true, that A-Bombs were used to have a better bargaining position with Russia is made. The tacit assumption here is that Russia was no real threat to U.S. or world freedom when the opposite was proved true before and after WWII. It is alleged that the U.S. could have ended nuclear terror by destroying its bombs when only it had some. This ignores other nations’ research efforts which had, or would have, started and the effect of spies like the Rosenbergs. [To say nothing of all the other Soviet agents who had penetrated the Manhattan Project.] Franklin sees no difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. is chastened for its efforts to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Franklin apparently choses to ignore Soviet post-WWII belligerent imperialism. Its disarmament efforts are sincere while evil America threatens the whole world, in Franklin’s eyes, by not capitulating. Franklin also cites the hard to believe assertion that American military thinkers were convinced each technological advance in nuclear weapons systems would lead to permanent superiority. I doubt they were ever that naïve.

To Still the Drums“, Chandler Davis — This very political story (circa 1946, I suppose the title’s “drums” are war drums) has not dated well. It involves a soldier stopping a military plot to involve the U.S. in a war — with atomic weapons much like ICBMS — against Congressional wishes. This story cites the old chestnut that preparing for war and building weapons ultimately leads to war and the use of the weapons, not necessarily consciously but almost as an inevitable social dynamic and metaphysical precipitation. More than forty years of atomic cold war has proven this supposition wrong as has the almost universal restraint in the use of chemical and biological weapons. As for Congress being a naïve dupe of alleged militaristic technophilia for nuclear weapons, that most definitely is not true. Congress has often said no to new nuclear weapons systems. Continue reading