Robert Sheckley–Options (1975)

options1975

(Ron Waltosky’s cover for the 1975 edition)

Options is a novel about a crashed pilot, Tom Mishkin, trying to find a missing engine part on a hostile planet with the aid of a robot who was specifically designed to handle all of the dangers of…a different planet entirely. But not really.

Options is actually a bizarre, experimental, and very meta little oddity of a novel. I picked it up because I read Joachim Boaz’s review, and the core gimmick—the idea that the author loses control of his own story and has to personally step in and set it right—sounded like it had a lot of fun potential. And also I liked the cover ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I’ll start by saying that I liked this novel quite a bit! Though I use the term “novel” loosely. Boaz puts it nicely when he says it reads more “as a series of 77 micro-stories, each with their own punch line,” than as one continuous story. Taken in that way, it’s definitely a mixed bag. Some of these episodes are quite clever and funny, but more often than not I felt like Sheckley’s sense of humor and mine weren’t meshing in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Oddly enough, the novel got much better towards the end, as it became less coherent; the chapters lost even the tenuous connections they had with each other. At points, it was almost prose poetry. Here’s chapter 58, for example:

The heroic figure of a man, holding a flute in one hand, a serpent in the other. This man says, “Enter.”

A horned woman mounted on a werewolf, holding a sickle in one hand, a pomegranate in the other. This woman takes your overcoat.

A man with a jackal’s head, naked except for winged sandals. In one had he holds a fragment of papyrus, in the other, a bronze disk. This man says “Immediate seating in the first three rows.”

How many more reminders could anyone want?

The combination of bizarre gnostic images with theater attendant dialogue, plus the incongruous question at the end are quite good examples of the principles of juxtaposition and torque that guide the poetics of surrealist prose poetry.

The main issue with Sheckley’s novel is its pacing. If he had given us a regular old coherent narrative for the first 30-50 pages I think all of the experimentation would have landed a lot better. A big problem is that there was never any story to lose track of, so when the author is inserted into the narrative and struggles to wrap up the story at the end, we don’t really care, or quite understand why the story went off track, since there wasn’t really much of a track to begin with.

The very best part of the novel comes near the end when we abandon Mishkin for an entirely different story. This part blew me away: in some twenty or so pages, Sheckley crafts a rich, beautiful, well-conceived story. The punchline is that even that isn’t enough to wrap up his novel. But the fact that Sheckley can create such a powerful story here is a really good example of the power of mystery in storytelling; it shows us that the most powerful parts of a story are always the parts we don’t actually get told. Sheckley understands a paradox of storytelling; there’s such infinite potential in implied storytelling that to actually describe the events and emotions takes away most of their power. This is where I found myself really won over.

Overall, quite worth reading, especially if you go into it with the right expectations.

Coming soon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Les Xipehuz, and The Headless Cupid.

 

Naomi Novik–Uprooted (2015)

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(Cover by David G. Stevenson)

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.”

Isn’t that a great first sentence? With 17 words, the book establishes that it’s dealing with classic folklore formulas, that it’s going to subvert those formulas in simple, clever ways, and that it’s self-aware about the role of narrative and legend and all that jazz. It worked on me anyways; I read this sentence in a bookstore and the book stayed on my list for a while until finally this summer presented the opportunity to read it. I’m glad I did!

Especially since everything I just said about the subversion of fairy tale tropes isn’t really the main focus of the novel. It’s all certainly present, but it takes a backseat to good storytelling.

So for example, the book pulls a lot from Slavic folklore (which is another major draw; I love Eastern European folklore and mythology), but it does so without using it as a crutch or a gimmick. A lot of books (especially YA) tends to lay it on a little thick with the cultural influences which makes them feel a little costume-y to me, and distracts from the narrative.

And there are subversions of fairy tale tropes throughout, and the protagonist/narrator is frequently disappointed by the gulf between idealized myth and legend and the actual realities of war and adventure, but this runs through the background of the book, rather than being the main focus.

The point is, Naomi Novik lets her strong storytelling ability and characterization carry the novel, and uses these other elements to add sophistication and style, without letting them overshadow the tale she’s spinning. She strikes exactly the balance I look for and that’s what makes Uprooted successful in my opinion.

Oh! And the magic is done really well; that’s always something to watch out for in fantasy, especially in contemporary fantasy,  where there’s a tendency to over-explain, over-analyze, and over-systemize magic. Novik’s magic feels naturalistic, witchy, and idiosyncratic. Unexplainable. This is what I look for. This is the magic that pervades the history of human storytelling and experience. It’s also a fun characterization tool. When authors overthink the way magic works, it tends to create a disconnect and a distraction, in which we’re asked to focus on the rules or systems of sorcery rather than on the characters, but here it’s the opposite; the role of magic is to support the characters and tell us about their personalities.

All that being said, I have a couple of very specific gripes; I’m going to try to get into them without too much detail, but some spoilers will be necessary, so consider this your official spoiler warning.

First, there’s a little bit of the incompetent protagonist thing, where a lot of the narrative is driven by well-intentioned, but naïve and blatantly stupid decisions. There’s not enough of this to ruin the novel (and arguments could be made that justify it when it does happen) but it was enough to be kind of frustrating at a couple of points.

Second, and more importantly, I felt like the plot could have used some rearranging. There was a beautiful, climactic moment, filled with powerful emotion and catharsis. The problem is that it came way too early, meaning that the high point of the novel arrives before you’re even halfway through. More specifically, the protagonist and the Dragon use a certain spell to rescue someone from the evil power of the Wood, but then they use the same spell over and over again, and it feels a little less powerful every time, so that by the end of the book, everything feels a little flat, and I left wishing that it was about 200 pages shorter. If the book had been rearranged so that climactic moment was at the right place, it would have been more effective.

Overall though, still a very good read. Add it to your list if you like good, adult fantasy with a mythical, natural feel!

And tune in next time for Robert Sheckley’s bizarre and fun “novel” (I use the term loosely) Options.

Keith Laumer–A Plague of Demons (1965)

PLGDMN1967(Alan Aldridge’s bizarre and lovely cover for the 1967 Penguin edition)

 

If the adage were “Don’t judge a book by its monsters” I would flagrantly violate that jazz all the dang time. I added A Plague of Demons to my list because of Wayne Barlowe’s lovely illustration of the titular alien invaders:

Wayne_Barlowe_Demon

(Barlowe also created the cover for the Baen edition, which is the one I read)

The strategy of reading a book for its monsters has worked for me before. I read A. E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle because of the influence it had on D&D’s famous displacer beast, and found it to be an enjoyable enough story with some absolutely brilliant monster concepts. The sheer antediluvian perfection of Ixtl alone is enough to make it one of my favorite novels.

The demon was a standout in Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials because of its name; among random collections of letters and syllables (Czill, Chulpex, Dirdir etc…) a simple, recognizable word is much more evocative. It suggests more about the reactions of fear and wonder human characters have to the alien than it does about some made up culture or civilization, which I think reflects very good writing.

It’s subtle little hints of technique like that that show you Keith Laumer knows what he’s doing. This is a nicely executed, very fun book. It’s part espionage, part horror/suspense (my favorite part) and part space opera, and it does each of the three well in my opinion. Its core concept can be summed up in one simple sentence: Demons from space steal human brains to power their war machines. Simple, elegant, fun. A likeable, witty protagonist. A cool spin on the alien invasion trope. And great monsters. If you’re looking for enjoyable, actiony, entertaining sf novels, this one is worth reading in my opinion.

Getting into Laumer’s technique just a little more…One thing that stuck out to me was how sudden the events were. At first it felt like the pacing of the novel was off; usually things have to happen at a very specific time for a story to come off right, and at moments I thought that the novel had missed the tempo, but I think it actually creates a very nice effect. The suddenness is jarring in a way that really contributes to the feverish intensity and anxiety that runs through my favorite sections of the novel.

This same delirious intensity is what makes the monsters so great. We never get too much understanding of them; mostly we experience the vague and crippling horror created by their bizarre psychic attacks. This mystery is what makes them so successful as monsters; the physical description is vivid and concrete, and the effects they have on their victims and their interactions with humankind are illustrated well, but that’s all we know about them; we don’t know their goals or their history or their emotions. This is a really successful use of monsters in narrative because the narrative is about human experience with monsters and not about the monsters themselves; this makes the plot, the characters, and the monsters all much more memorable.

One final note…this isn’t really the kind of novel where you talk about its “themes” but I have been noticing an interesting trend of disembodiment as a major factor in several of the books I’ve read and I finally put my finger on it with this book. For now, I’m not sure exactly what the importance of this theme is, but I’ve been paying attention and I’ve noticed it crop up surprisingly often; it’s a factor in The Synthetic Man, in this novel, even in The Neverending Story oddly enough. On the other hand, in some books I feel like it’s been conspicuously absent where I would have expected it. It’s something I plan to continue to focus on. Maybe by the end of the summer I’ll have some good new ideas about how our relationship with our bodies has evolved along with our relationship with science…any recommended reading on this topic is welcome!

(David Meltzer’s 1971 cover (left) and Barlowe’s 1985 cover (right))

The quest continues soon with Naomi Novak’s lovely novel Uprooted!

Michael Ende–The Neverending Story (1979, transl. Ralph Manheim 1983)

What a book! I wish I had started with this one. Or ended. Either way, as an actual book quest, it’s so conceptually appropriate for this blog, and it’s so! dang! good! So good, y’all. Children’s fantasy is the pinnacle of genres; the best children’s fantasy will always be better than the best of anything else (and arguably, even, more culturally significant) as far as I’m concerned. And this is, for the most part, a really good example of what good children’s fantasy looks like. I spent a few days happily lost in this book, and it quickly jumped to the top of my favorites list.

A brief synopsis; it’s a book about itself! To be more specific, a pudgy, awkward kid named Bastian Balthazar stumbles into a bookstore and feels a strange attraction to a leather bound book called The Neverending Story. The first half of the book tells the story within the book, and at the same time as it describes (briefly and occasionally, so that it’s not annoying) Bastian’s experience reading the book. Not surprisingly, those lines between the fiction and Bastian’s experience start to get fuzzy, and at the midpoint, he’s magically drawn into the book as the hero who can save Fantastica. Naturally, there are a lot of fun, mind-bending paradoxes associated with this.

The story within the story is a straightforward, perfectly executed fantasy hero’s journey, with all of the bizarre and beautiful characters, monsters, and locales that are classic to a certain brand of children’s book (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, Haroun and the Sea of Stories). The story is self-conscious in a nice straightforward way, it’s not showy or in your face about it’s metafiction, and the lines of thought it invites you on are really fascinating. Ende explores what makes a good fantasy narrative, and how crucial fantasy is to civilization. It bears comparing to my favorite book ever The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones; that book also explores fantasy, but it does so more satirically, lovingly mocking authors who rely on played-out post-Tolkien tropes. The first half of The Neverending Story is pure celebration, both a great tale and an ode to great tales.

There are no big surprises in the first half of the book, in my opinion. Everything follows pretty naturally from the premise. The little details along the way are much more important than the overall structure in the long run, so I’m not concerned about spoilers there, and I don’t fault the book for being “predictable” because sometimes going the obvious route is the best route; it’s a sign of clearly conceived, classic, and satisfying storytelling. Mystery is a really important ingredient of good narrative, but there are other places to incorporate it than in the plot (more on that in a bit).

For now, I’m going to stop for a sec and say where I thought the book was going to go after the first half: at the midpoint of the book, when Bastian is called to enter the story and save Fantastica, he’s hesitant. Atreyu, the hero of Fantastica, has fulfilled his part of the quest simply by the act of going on the quest; the joy of following such a story in all of its vivid and exciting detail is exactly what it takes to bring someone into Fantastica from the human world. But Bastian is hesitant. He thinks he can’t possibly be a hero, with his pudginess and cowardice and weakness of will. So I thought, ok so he doesn’t just come into the story the easy way, he’s going to have to go on a journey for himself so that he can realize his potential and learn to love himself, and grow into the hero Fantasica needs.

That would have been the obvious narrative, and it would have been nice enough, but what Ende does instead is pure genius. Having spent the first half of the book celebrating and praising fantasy and its importance (in a clever and nuanced way), he spends the second half taking that and complicating the hell out of it. For a while, I wasn’t sure where the story was going or what the stakes were and I was a little uncomfortable and ready to be disappointed or upset, but everything starts to reveal itself gradually. I’m being vague, but I want to leave anyone who reads this with the opportunity to explore the second half of the book for themselves, fully and richly. I’ll say I cried few cathartic tears at the end, and leave it at that.

One last note, one of the most important things in second-world fantasy is building a world that stretches beyond the text, and feels massive, mysterious and incomprehensible. The number one sin a fantasy author can make is overexplaining, trying to nail down politics, magic, or whatever else makes them immediately artificial and prevents them from reflecting a confusing and tricky world, and therefore completely irrelevant. This book has such a fun little trick for making the world seem much larger, and to make the Neverending Story actually neverending; often, when the main plot leaves behind minor characters or object, we get a brief tease of their fate, with just enough detail to make us want to know more, followed by the formula “but that is another story, and shall be told another time…” which is simple and elegant and very effective, in my opinion. Telling these stories would be a fun game to play in a classroom or among fellow story lovers.

Anyways Read This Book Please Thansk

Brief Note:

And by brief, I mean obnoxiously long, apparently. Hopefully I got it all out of my system.

Anyways, still figuring things out a little, blog-habit-and-review-writing-wise; thought I’d self-indulgently blab about it since in my mind this blog is as much about self-reflection and personal growth as a reader (and hyphens, apparently) as it is about the books themselves. I’m keeping a good pace with reading through my book list; along with The Neverending Story, I’ve finished A Plague of Demons, Uprooted, Options, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and The Xipéhuz, and I have plenty of ideas and opinions and notes jotted in phone and notebook about all six but I somehow got stuck after the first couple of reviews and I want to think about why that is a little.

One reason is that my original plan was to review everything for the week on Sunday, with the exception of truly exceptional books (The Neverending Story qualifies; it jumped right into my list of all-time favorites) but that’s just a recipe for procrastination. Plus, I’m having trouble being brief. I want a very natural reflective vibe, and my thoughts just tend to branch out and multiply too much; editing 3-5 books worth of thoughts into a not-annoyingly-long review is not the kind of work I want to do for a fun, casual summer project. So the first step is adjusting my plans and expectations for writing; I’ll start to integrate a little prose writing into my daily habits. Reviews should go up on the night when I finish a book, and on nights when I don’t, I’ll try to write more generally about my experience with this project (like this!)

The bigger issue is that it’s a surprising adjustment to make to write casual criticism. I’ve always been pretty successful with writing literary analysis for school, and when I write poetry I don’t really get a sense of how bad it is until later. I work as a writing tutor. The point I’m trying to make is that I usually feel pretty self-assured and confident when I start a piece of writing, but I feel very uncertain trying to blog. Maybe it’s because I’ve developed my other writing skills gradually, starting before I knew enough to recognize my own shortcomings. Now I know enough to recognize that I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I feel a need to be stylish and witty and light, and that’s a muscle I haven’t really flexed that much in my academic writing. I actually like this discomfort quite a bit; it feels productive, like an obvious growth experience with value beyond the act of learning a new genre and form. I just have to acknowledge it and be comfortable with improving gradually.

Hand in hand with that is that I’m not really an expert reader in most of the genres I’m tackling this summer. The one area that I have a pretty deep knowledge and a lot of opinions about is fantasy; those reviews should hopefully come a little easier (though transforming years and years of disorganized rumination into coherently expressed ideas is a feat in itself). And I have enough of a feel for storytelling and for my taste to talk about the effectiveness of stories in general. But I get stuck trying to talk intelligently about the tropes in, say, a detective novel. Sf, I’m getting there…but I’m no Joachim Boaz, for example, and that makes me wonder what the point is. Why do all of this writing publicly at all? Bloggers with a wealth of knowledge and experience provide an obvious service to readers, who can benefit by learning from their expertise. Why should I expect people to want to read my blog? Am I accomplishing anything here or am I just being self-indulgent? I think the answer is: who gives a damn. Even if no one can take anything away from reading this but me, it’s better than watching Netflix shows I’m barely interested in. In the meantime, I’ll just write to the best of my ability.

Alright. Back to books tomorrow. The Nevereding Story! I’m very excited.

Theodore Sturgeon–The Synthetic Man (1950) & Isaac Asimov–The Caves of Steel (1953)

This week I started off with Theodore Sturgeon’s The Synthetic Man (better known under it’s original title, The Dreaming Jewels) another used bookstore find. A brief synopsis: A boy runs away from an abusive home, joins the circus disguised as a girl, and gets tangled up in the circus owner’s evil plot to use sentient alien gemstones to kill as many people as possible out of spite. I’m always a sucker for crystalline alien life, and the disguised-as-a-girl element sounded like an opportunity for some interesting stuff regarding gender identity, so I was pretty enthusiastic about this book, and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Continue reading

Stanislaw Lem—The Futurological Congress (1971, transl. Michael Kandel, 1974)

The inaugural review! (really I’m not planning to start the quest proper until the week after next, but I read The Futurological Congress on a flight today and I’m excited to talk about it)

So I picked up this novel because I’ve read parts of Lem’s Cyberiad (which I’m planning to read in its entirety for this project) and I enjoy his style, plus all of his concepts are just so dang appealing to me. I considered doing Solaris, Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, The Invincible, or even Tales of Pirx the Pilot, but my mind was made up for me when I found The Futurological Congress in my favorite used bookstore.

The novel makes for a decent start to the quest: it’s a fun, good, worthwhile book, but there are still places to go from here.

The book is about visions of the future, reality and illusion, overpopulation, and drugs. Lots and lots of drugs (but more interesting drugs than what you’re thinking!) Continue reading