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.

 

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!

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