Tag Archives: 1950s

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.

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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.”

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THE DEMOLISHED MAN – Alfred Bester (1953)

The Demolished ManWhat to write about this first ever winner of the Hugo award? The main conclusion must be this: times have changed. The CIA had a secret program (‘Project MKULtra’) trying to gain insight into mind control during the 1950s and the early sixties. Arthur C. Clarke dabbled in the paranormal (see the few lines I quoted from the foreword to Childhood’s End – also published in 1953), Asimov had telepaths living in a second Foundation, and Frank Herbert wrote The Santaroga Barrier as late as 1968. It were trippy times, and the belief in the potential powers of the mind was hopeful and naive.

Is this book science fiction? Not because it’s set in 2301 AD, as that doesn’t matter for the story: it could have been 1981 AD just as well. Not because it features Venus or Ganymede as locations, as that doesn’t matter either, it could have been Hawaii and Malawi too. The fact that humans colonized the solar system is not explored one bit – the most comical moment of the book is when a character wonders if he’ll catch the “10 o’clock rocket” to someplace off-planet. Not because cars are called jumpers and can fly. And not because the judge is a computer, as that could have been any bureaucrat.

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CHILDHOOD’S END – Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

Childhood's EndIn a way, this book is the opposite of Rendezvous with Rama. In both books big stuff from outer space approaches, and whereas in Rama ultimately nothing happens to Earth, in Childhood’s End ultimately everything happens to Earth. Childhood’s End is 20 years younger than Rama, and I found it much harder to like. Although the novel starts promising, the biggest problem I experienced was my growing disbelief. Clarke acknowledges this in his 1989 preface:

When this book was written in the early 1950s, I was still quite impressed by the evidence for what is generally called the paranormal, and used it as the main theme of the story. Four decades later (…) I am  an almost total sceptic. (…) It has been a long, and sometimes embarrassing, learning process. 

Seen in this light, it is one of the more interesting historical pieces of speculative fiction I’ve read… So much has changed in a few decades, and Childhood’s End is clearly a reflection of that. Interesting, yes, but after about the halfway mark I didn’t really enjoy the book anymore.

Aside from the paranormal being such an important part, there are other problems too. The book makes a few interesting social projections (like the effect on the sexual and marital mores of an oral contraceptive – about 10 years before it was invented – and easy paternal tests; or on South Africa) but misses the beat on the supposed effect the arrival of the alien Overlords has on culture. A big part of the book is devoted to this. Clarke poses that great art can only flourish if there is strife. The Overlords bring peace and material prosperity – Iain M. Banks must have surely read this book, humanity after the Overlords resembles his post-scarcity Culture in more than one respect – and as a result humanity becomes “placid, featureless, culturally dead”.

This is utter baloney, and Clarke knows it too. Yet, he is still stuck in the elitist Low vs. High dichotomy of modernism – and everything that came before it. In Childhood’s End entertainment thrives as never before, but of course, that is not real culture, no real, “significant” Art. A strange irony for a writer of what could be considered pulp. Continue reading

CAVES OF STEEL – Isaac Asimov (1954)

Caves Of SteelIt’s heralded as one of the best books Asimov ever wrote, but to me The Caves of Steel felt pretty pulpy. Maybe there’s not a lot more to be expected from a 200 page SF novel released in 1954.

There’s really not much meat on the bone storywise: it hardly does anything new with the revolutionary ideas Asimov introduced to humanity in the earlier robot stories, and it basically only toys around a bit with them in what is just a plain, straightforward and wooden detective story.

It’s also not nearly thought out as well as any of the books in the Foundation trilogy, which came out a few years before, and that’s a shame. Here, Asimov writes about a robot that talks and understands English very well, and can even mindread pretty complex mindsets – like the emotional ability of a human to kill or not -, yet doesn’t understand or even heard of terms/words like “mercy”, “forgiveness”, “curiosity” or “bible”. That’s just inconsistent writing, sadly only for the sake of a few pages with some vague Ethics 101-stuff.

There’s other annoying stuff: while there are some interesting (and probably visionary) bits about ecology, overpopulation and the limits of Earth’s resources in the book, and hence about the reorganization of cities, there’s absolutely no justification for the fact that those cities on future Earth aren’t open to the air, the sun, the weather. ‘Caves of steel’ seem like a neat idea – and make for a good title – but as well crafted world building goes, it’s dead in the water.

Finally, on a surface level the book seems to radiate a message of peace and understanding, since it’s about adjusting and overcoming prejudices – but actually — tiny spoiler alert — the main character’s development is the only one in the book, and paraphrases as this: “human is nudged to overcome fear of robots due to mild drug administered to him, without his knowledge”.

Still, it definitely was a mildly entertaining, fast read with some nice SF tidbits. So, those who have an interest in Asimov or 1950ies SF should give it a chance, for sure.

originally written on the 11th of July, 2015

FAHRENHEIT 451 – Ray Bradbury (1954)

Fahrenheit 451There are many quibbles to be had with this book, but – aside from the ludicrous, unbelievable back story – its most important problem is that it tries too hard to convey a MESSAGE, and as such undermines the message it tries to sell: that imagination and independent thinking are important. Bradbury, however, doesn’t leave things to imagination and force-feeds his warnings about the importance of literature and beauty, and the dangers of mindless consumerism to the reader. In trying to warn against a thought police, he tries to police my mind a bit too much.

Books about books can be boring, gloating even, like a lot of meta-art. Explicitly political books are often boring too, as is most openly political art, since in most art like that, the art serves the message, and not the other way around. Sadly, Fahrenheit 451 falls in both categories, it’s meta and explicitly political, and doesn’t escape the pitfalls of either category. The only real merit this book has is Bradbury’s prose, which is often beautiful, and kept me reading the 150-ish pages.

The book is extremely elitist in its projections about mass culture and humanity in general. Consider this telling sentence from an English professor, a character that serves as a mentor to the protagonist: “The things you’re looking for [truth, beauty, etc.], Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.” An average chap??

While I can understand Bradbury’s eagerness to communicate his anti-totalitarian message loud and clear – the book was written not long after WW2, at the onset of the Cold War – that doesn’t excuse its simplicity, and surely not its elitism & cultural snobbery.

It’s understandable this has become a classic: it’s easy, and a fast read, yet it conveys a seemingly ‘deep’ truth about how books and their readers are special, and as such makes the uncritical reader feel special.

originally written on the 18th of March, 2015