Tag Archives: 1950s

THE LORD OF THE RINGS – J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)

The Lord Of The RingsBefore I get to the main course of this massive 7261 words review after the jump, some introductory remarks on my relationship to Tolkien first.

There will be one big problem with this review: I truly cannot assess this book on its own merits. I was 22 when the first Peter Jackson adaptation came out, and over the years I’ve seen all three movies multiple times, as well as the extended versions. Not that I consider myself a The Lord Of The Rings geek – not at all – but the movies were such a dominant cultural force back in the days, with CGI and other special effects on a scale unseen before. In an age before streaming, popping in a LOTR DVD simply was easy escapism, even if you’d seen it twice already.

I had read The Hobbit in translation when I was 14 or so, but wasn’t that impressed, and subsequently got bogged down in a Dutch translation of The Fellowship of the Ring a few months later. When the movies came out a few years later, I didn’t feel like I needed to read the books – as my friends who had read them assured me there wasn’t a whole lot more to the story, so I wasn’t curious – I mean, why read 1000 pages just to get a few scenes with Tom Bombadil or Radagast The Brown? And yes, the Scouring of the Shire is a significant coda, but it wasn’t crucial to satisfy my escapist urges.

Today, I have read the books. I even read the 894-page A Reader’s Companion by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull – well, I skimmed certain parts of that, to be honest. As I said, I’m not a LOTR geek, but the 2014 version of 2005’s Companion was included in the edition I ended up buying. I wanted to have a hardcover edition (with the appendixes) in 3 separate bands – as I’d found that the single tome I bought first was simply not practical to read, so I send that back, and an edition with the Companion turned out to be the cheapest. As I knew I wanted to write this review, I thought it would be interesting to read up a bit on LOTR now that I had that Companion anyway. For those of you interested, I’ve included a short review of Hammond & Scull’s volume at the very end.

All the prefaces and introductions and histories of the work’s origin and quotes from letters and notes and notes and notes did enhance my reading experience. It showed that Tolkien had too much time on his hands, and invested so much in backstories of details that the entire Middle-earth mythos is a work of art so far out there it borders on the insane – the fact that A Reader’s Companion makes crystal clear again and again Tolkien was foremost preoccupied with the linguistic aspects of his creation only amplifies that.

But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself: I was talking about the one big problem of this review. I will do two things in the remainder of this text:

First, I’ll talk about my reading experience in relation to having seen the movies first, and try to compare the two. That might be of interest to a whole lot of new LOTR readers, as I take it most newbies will have seen the movies first, but it might also be of interest to people who read the books first, as, paradoxically, having seen the movies first also allows me to reflect on the bare bones of the story as story, regardless of medium.

After that, I’ll write a fair bit on what I wrote in my 5500 words analysis of that other monument of speculative fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune:

I have long held the suspicion that what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined. At a basic level, everybody understands that reality is deterministic: if an egg falls, it breaks. If you drink alcohol, your behavior changes. If our heads are chopped off, we die. Physical and chemical laws – via evolution – give rise to biology, behavior and society. That knowledge is a problem for our consciousness, for we feel in control. As freedom is inherent in so many human claims, our basic understanding of reality short circuits with our basic perception of ourselves. It is humanity’s most basic problem (…).

It is my firm conviction such is also The Lord Of The Rings most basic problem, and it turns out again that authors are not always the best theoreticians about their own work: Tolkien’s writing on his own writing is a mess.

For those who might be confused by what I already wrote so far: I’m generally positive on this Monument of Fantasy. If pressed, I would give it 4 out of 5 stars as a literary accomplishment – which is excellent: 5-star reads are rare. As a work of outsider art, it’s way off the charts: 5+++ it is!

This text is the longest review I have yet written and especially the part on choice and “acts of will” is heavy with quotes from LOTR itself, but you can skip those if you want. Throughout this review, I will also quote extensively from letters Tolkien wrote, and I’d say those are crucial either way.

If you’re a seasoned Tolkien fan, I’m very curious about your view on what this LOTR newbee wrote about the matter, so don’t hesitate to disagree in the comments.

Continue reading

THE FARTHEST SHORE – Le Guin & THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA – Hemingway

These books are related somewhat, I realized when I finished The Farthest Shore. Both deal with old men in boats, old men trying to overcome negativity through perseverance. Both books explicitly offer supposedly deep insights on human nature, and humanity’s place in Nature. One could easily write a 50-page essay on similarities and differences, but the farther I’m removed from the literary sciences that dominated my early twenties, all I can think is: why would I?

Assuming Hemingway and Le Guin are authors positioned differently on the ideological spectrum, it could be a fun exercise to point out they share a lot of common ground, but in the end, doing that would also point out the relativity of such verbal heuristics – which ultimately most theorizing about culture is.

In this case, my heart goes out to Hemingway: his old man returns home, accepting the futility of his efforts, to a world that keeps spinning just as it did before. Interestingly, for a leftist author as Le Guin, her old man also returns home, accepting his mortality, to a world that is fundamentally changed for the better because it needed a Young New Leader. Peace, in Le Guin’s fictional world, is not reached by painstaking processes, but simply by the prophetic arrival of a King.

But I digress – I’m not going to write that essay. Instead, two reviews after the jump.

Continue reading

THE SIRENS OF TITAN – Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The Sirens Of Titan

I generally read up on book before I review them, and it doesn’t happen a lot I come across a good, thorough scholarly essay that’s available online. The fact that I did find one about The Sirens Of Titan attests to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s status as an author embraced by the literary establishment.

A big part of that is the fact that Vonnegut did not write clearcut science fiction, but something that seems more important to the uninitiated. His voice is critical, satirical, grotesque. The question of genre is exactly the subject of said essay. It’s written by Herbert G. Klein, and in doing so he tackles a lot of other aspects about this novel. It’s here.


The Sirens Of Titan is Vonnegut’s second novel. Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my all-time favorite books, was published 10 years later. The general consensus is that SH5 is Vonnegut’s masterpiece, so I did not expect Sirens to top it, just as I didn’t expect Cat’s Cradle to top it. To be clear: it didn’t. If I have to believe what I’ve read, it is only in Sirens that Vonnegut really found his voice, and it indeed reads as what I’ve come to expect from him: similar in themes & method. But, it does not feel as invested and personal as SH5. Just below all the satire of his most known book is a thick layer of emotion, and that’s lacking here. As a result, I didn’t feel as invested in the characters & the storyline.

Still, Vonnegut had had his share of bad luck by 1959, and one would imagine that to be an emotional reservoir for any writer. Power reader, music historian and jazz critic Ted Gioia points out how the biographical does seep into this book, in yet another excellent text on Sirens, to be found on Conceptual Fiction.

Continue reading

THE STARS MY DESTINATION – Alfred Bester (1956)

The Stars My Destination

When I read The Demolished Man – Bester’s debut novel – over a year ago, I was impressed by his command of pacing, tension and prose. I didn’t really think it a SF novel though, at least not by today’s standards: Freud and telepathy are not considered scientific anymore. There were other issues too: no character development, a rather binary view on humanity and tons of plot inconsistencies. Still: people were impressed, and The Demolished Man won the first ever Hugo.

Three years later, Galaxy Magazine published The Stars My Destination in serialized form. It first appeared as a novel in the UK as Tiger! Tiger! – the USA edition again used the original title. In these three years, Bester has grown tremendously as a science fiction author. So much, his second book is nearly universally praised. William Gibson even called it “a model, a template” for Neuromancer. My edition has an afterword by Neil Gaiman, and laudatory quotes by Silverberg, Delany and Haldeman.

That begs the obvious question: do I agree with these gents?

Short answer: yes and no.

Continue reading

NON-STOP – Brian W. Aldiss (1958)

Non-StopNon-Stop is a short book by today’s standards: only 160 pages in a pocket edition. Yet it manages to cram quite a lot of content in its small space: a nice analogy for a book about a generational starship.

Some claim giving that away is spoiling it, but the knowledge is out in the open on page 21, and the book was published in the US as Starship.

Non-Stop/Starship is the debut novel of Brian Wilson Aldiss, and one that left me wanting to read more of his work.


The book is not entirely without problems. It’s partly 50ies pulp, especially in the character department. Today’s readers might complain about a lack of depth or character development. Yet to do so would be the result of superficial reading. Indeed, there’s only 160 pages, and Non-Stop generally focuses on plot, so drawing complex characters wasn’t Aldiss’s main intention. There’s simply not enough room for it. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Consider the very first two sentences – great, great lines by the way.

Like a radar echo bounding from a distant object and returning to its source, the sound of Roy Complain’s beating heart seemed to him to fill the clearing. He stood with one hand on the threshold of his compartment, listening to the rage hammering through his arteries.

It’s in passages like this, often almost hidden, Aldiss manages to say profound things about being human – namely, about humans being bodies. Spread throughout the novel there are similar observations – about love and feelings too. What more character depth do you want? Is “being a body” flawed enough for today’s crowd?

There are some other small problems too, but lets not dwell on those. Non-Stop is a very rich book – I made 4 pages of notes, a ton for such a short book – and this review wouldn’t do it justice if I start nitpicking. I won’t elaborate on all the book’s goodies either, but focus on two big -isms: postcolonialism & existentialism. Continue reading

MORE THAN HUMAN – Theodore Sturgeon (1953)

more-than-humanTheodore Sturgeon is one of SF’s greatest short fiction writers, and so it is apt that More Than Human stems from a novella, Baby Is Three. Sturgeon added a part before and a part after. Each part is quite distinct, 3 novellas if you will, but taken as a whole, they are yet another, different thing. Readers familiar with this book’s content will not find that surprising: More Than Human is roughly speaking about a mind-reading idiot, teleporting twin girls, a retarded baby with a supermind and a telekinetic girl, together forming something new: the “Homo Gestalt” – something more than human indeed.

I’ll make a few general remarks on content and writing first, and elaborate a bit about the philosophical foundations of this book in the second part of my review – Friedrich Nietzsche, oh yes!


Obviously, the fifties were a different time, and parapsychology and the likes still held great promise. I started my reviews of Childhood’s End and The Demolished Man in the same fashion. So yes, this is science fiction, even though it might read as psychic fantasy at times. Sturgeon even gives a kind of hard SF explanation for his premisses, should his reader have trouble with suspension of disbelief.

“It would lead to the addition of one more item to the Unified Field – what we now call psychic energy, or ‘psionics.'” “Matter, energy, space, time and psyche,” he breathed, awed. “Yup,” Janie said casually, “all the same thing (…).”

But I have no interesting in pointing out where More Than Human feels a bit dated, as it remains an outstanding novel. Approach this simply as you would approach a contemporary novel like Susanna Clarke’s: a supernatural tale.

The first part of the book focuses on the early life of the idiot, living in the woods, being one with nature. Certain parts felt like something Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Thoreau could have written. Imagine my delight when I read on Sturgeon’s Wikipedia page he was a distant relative of Emerson. Sturgeon’s prose is a treat. At times it has a bit of formal ring to it, but there’s great lines throughout.

Continue reading

THE END OF ETERNITY – Isaac Asimov (1955)

The End Of Eternity 2Colonial studies have been part of the curriculum for over two decades at literature faculties on universities across the globe. I wonder how many professors and scholars realize lots of science fiction can also be considered as literature that deals with colonialism. There’s the obvious Prime Directive in mainstream culture’s Star Trek. There’s a variant of that in Banks’ Culture novels: how and when to intervene in other – technologically less developed – cultures? There’s Ursula Le Guin. China Miéville explored the theme a bit in Embassytown. And so forth… The fact that lots of SF deals with encountering and engaging with other, alien cultures makes it a perfect genre to explore real world colonial issues.

The End Of Eternity fits into this way of looking at SF as well. It is one of Asimov’s stand-alone novels, and is considered among his best by many. The protagonist is Andrew Harland, one of the few who live in Eternity, a location outside place and time, where “Eternals” enact “Reality Changes”, small, calculated shifts in the course of history made for the benefit of humankind. Though each Change is made for the greater good, there are also always costs.

For those who have read it, 1971’s The Lathe Of Heaven of Le Guin instantly springs to mind. I have written extensively about my view on utilitarianism – an important theme in both books – in Lathe‘s review, so I will not repeat those here. Le Guin is more overtly critical on the matter than Asimov, who doesn’t necessarily fault utilitarianism, but instead faults placid, safe, stale thinking, and pleads for ambition, difference, diversity and risk.

“Whom do you mean by ‘we’? Man would not be a world, but a million worlds, a billion worlds. We would have the infinite in our grasp. Each would have its own stretch of the Centuries, each its own values, a chance to seek happiness after ways of its own in an environment of its own. there are many happinesses, many goods, infinite variety… That is the Basic State of mankind.”

Continue reading