Tag Archives: 1950s

STARSHIP TROOPERS – Robert A. Heinlein (1959)

Starship Troopers Jerry RobinsonMuch has been written on this seminal title by one of SF’s most famous authors – especially about the book’s alleged fascism, satirized by the 1997 Paul Verhoeven movie. The Wikipedia article lists 104 references, and has fairly long sections on the themes and their reception.

I don’t feel like writing an in-depth analysis this time, so let me try to break things down in a few short paragraphs. Reading experience first, politics and a bit of ethics second.


Starship Troopers is a rather fast paced military procedural novel. There’s much less action than I expected – especially in comparison to the movie: the novel focuses on the training and promotion of the main character, Juan Rico. There are a few battle scenes, but the bulk of the book focuses on the organization and procedures of Earth’s army. Continue reading

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)

A Canticle For LeibowitzWhat to write about this one? A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of science fiction’s most classic texts, and as a result it’s on the 4th place of the cumulative Classics of Science Fiction list, right behind The Left Hand of Darkness, Dune & The Dispossessed.

It is also widely read outside the science fiction community, and that gets you long articles in The New Yorker over 50 years after it was first published. This isn’t just sci fi, dear readers, but serious Literature too!

I’ve reviewed two other post-apocalyptic books the last few months – The Wild Shore & The Day of The Triffids. A Canticle has a wider scope in time than those novels, chronicling events after a 20th century nuclear holocaust in the 26th century, in 3174 and in 3781. At the same time, it feels just as provincial – even in the third part, when humanity is trying to colonize space. This is because Miller focuses on one community, in an American abbey founded to preserve the few scraps of knowledge that survived the Simplification – a purging revenge against science, scientists & literacy.

For those of you not familiar with the book, I’ll first write up a few basic facts and zoom in a bit on Walter Miller Jr.’s tragic life story. Continue reading

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – John Wyndham (1951)

The Day of the TriffidsJust as I was mistaken about the content of Solaris, I had the wrong impression about John Wyndham’s classic post-apocalyptic novel as well. The title is responsible for that misconception, as The Day of the Triffids is not about triffids. Obviously aggressive & carnivorous mobile plants do play a part, but they are a sideshow. This is not the simple, verdant horror of the 1962 movie. Instead, the overall story deals with the social fall-out of another catastrophe altogether: an event in the beginning of the story that blinds nearly all humans.

The book is told by Bill Masen, who wakes up in a London hospital and discovers the vast majority of other people lost their sight overnight. A similar hospital opening was used in Danny Boyle’s 2002 zombie film 28 Days Later… – and again in The Walking Dead. Boyle has acknowledged The Day of the Triffids as an inspiration, and his movie indeed has much more in common with the novel than that opening scene. It goes to show how influential Wyndham’s book has become, a huge commercial success when published, widely read by non-genre readers too.

Commercial success doesn’t imply quality, but I have to say: of all the early 60ies and 50ies science fiction I have read, this might very well be the title that feels the least dated – and that does say something about quality.

Not that its age doesn’t show at all. The book’s historical context informed its writing: Wyndham’s angst for nuclear catastrophe looms throughout the narrative, and also tensions with the USSR play a minor part. Wyndham partook in World War 2 – although how much of the fighting he has seen is unclear, serving as a cipher operator in the Normandy landings, “landing a few days after D-Day.” Continue reading

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 story-wise: 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 as well thought out as any of the books in the Foundation trilogy, which were published 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 hasn’t heard of 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. Air-pollution? Radiation? Who knows? ‘Caves of steel’ seem like a neat idea – and makes for a good title – but as well crafted world building goes, it’s a gimmick only. The effects on humans of living indoors aren’t explored at all.

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