Tag Archives: 1960s

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA – Ursula Le Guin (1968)

A Wizard Of Earthsea 1st editionWhen I was 14 or so, I tried to read a Dutch translation of A Wizard Of Earthsea, but stopped a few chapters in. It didn’t click – maybe because it was a bad translation, or maybe because this might not be a children’s book at all. Or maybe it was because at 14 I was too old to appreciate it as a child, and too young to appreciate it for what it really is: a humbling, brilliant piece of writing.

Le Guin’s first book in what would eventually become a cycle of six – The Tombs Of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001) – appeared a year before her other landmark work: The Left Hand Of Darkness.

TLHOD is a favorite of mine, but I think this surpasses it – easily. Why?

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STAND ON ZANZIBAR – John Brunner (1968)

Stand On ZanzibarJudith Merrill called Stand On Zanzibar “the first true SF novel”, and in his introduction to the 2011 edition Bruce Sterling calls parts “radically antinovelistic” and the book in general a “unique formal achievement”. Let me assure you, dear reader, such hyperbole statements are bollocks. I’ve written about some SF-readers’ real literature frustration before, and I won’t repeat all that here. It seems that some people still need to be told that what they are reading is really True Art, and really worth Their Time.

Sterling goes on to compare John Brunner’s first non-pulp novel to George Perec’s 1978 La Vie mode d’emploi in an attempt to make Brunner’s book more formally visionary than it actually is: it predates the English translation of that ‘real’ literature masterpiece by 20 years. While doing so, he almost casually brushes aside the formal comparisons to Dos Passos’ U.S.A., a trilogy from the 1930s that uses the same narrative techniques. Sterling claims Dos Passos doesn’t really count, as he was an “naturalistic” writer, and Brunner “antinaturalistic”. Content is not form in my book, so “unique formal achievement”? Yeah right. And in Dutch Louis Paul Boon already wrote an even more radical cut up book right after WW2.

Maybe it was unique in the context of SF. Brunner might have been the first speculative writer to put all these techniques together in one book: I’m not widely enough read in pre 1968 SF to verify this. But its partial techniques were tried & tested, in speculative fiction too. I’m guessing books that alternate the big storylines with smaller storylines or vignettes can be easily found. The habit of inserting made up texts from the future period somebody is writing about is not unheard of either: just look at this list of fictional books Frank Herbert quoted from in the Dune series. Asimov did the same in the early 50ies. And Tolkien had fictional song and verse too.

All this is not to shit on Stand On Zanzibar, as Stand On Zanzibar is a masterpiece.

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CAT’S CRADLE – Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

Cats CradleThe cover at the left is a total fraud. Vonnegut doesn’t really write science fiction, nor is this, at heart, an apocalyptic book – his work is firmly rooted in a tradition of absurdist critique. Just as Slaughterhouse-FiveCat’s Cradle starts as a book about a writer wanting to write a book. And also Cat’s Cradle is war related, as the yet-to-be written book will be about the (fictional) father of the atom bomb, Felix Hoenikker. It quickly evolves into a travelogue of the protagonist visiting San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island with a fictional dictator, on which the children of Hoenikker find themselves in possession of the final remnants of their father’s last invention, Ice-9, a chemical with the potential to destroy the world. And, importantly, everybody on the island is a Bokononist: a follower of a fictional religion.

Bokononism’s main creed is that truth is problematic, and that we should all just live by the harmless untruths that make us happy. Humanity’s ability to lie to ourselves is probably the most important theme in the book.

(…) the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.

&

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

Cat’s Cradle is often funny, with deadpan cynicism pervading the 203-page novel. I laughed out loud several times. It’s divided in short chapters of about a page, and the pacing is generally fast and smooth. Wikipedia quotes Vonnegut himself on this: his books “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke.” Nevertheless, I felt it dragged a wee bit in the middle, but it quickly found its relentless pace again.

My guess is that Vonnegut is an active nihilist. That’s not a negative. He tackles themes like the stupidity of humans, nationalism, the moral responsibility of scientists working on weapons, colonialism, soldiers being too young, the duties of artists and writers, free will and human progress extremely well, and does so without fleshed out characters, imaginative world building or an intricate plot.

He shrugged. ‘People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order, so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.’

&

‘Sometimes the pool-pan,’ Bokonon tells us, ‘exceeds the power of humans to comment.’ Bookman translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as ‘shit storm’ and at another point as ‘wrath of God’.

&

‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God. ‘Certainly,’ said man. ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God. And he went away.

Cats CradleI don’t think Cat’s Cradle is as good as Slaughterhouse-Five, since it feels as if Vonnegut is simply less involved in telling this particular tale. The book’s tone feels less personal, less written out of an internal necessity. It’s also a whole lot less absurd and outlandish than his most known book. Cat’s Cradle‘s prose isn’t as poetic as Slaughterhouse‘s either.

It’s also not as bleak, as it focuses more on the theoretical possibility of the world’s destruction, and less on Death and the horrors that have already actually happened. As such, it’s a bit less compelling. If you like satire, it’s still a great, great book though –  Slaughterhouse-Five makes for impossible competition, as it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Readers that have enjoyed other works of Vonnegut probably won’t need encouragement or convincing. Readers new to Vonnegut that are still not convinced his books might be something for them can sample an exemplary passage from Cat’s Cradle after the jump. It’s a good example of how he is a sharp observer of human dialogue, of his pacing, and of the fact that absurdist fiction is more than able to put the finger to the human wound…

Recommended.

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THE SANTAROGA BARRIER – Frank Herbert (1968)

The Santaroga BarrierI’m not too thrilled to write a review about this book. The Dune-series is among the best thing I ever read, so I hate to report that Frank Herbert didn’t even come close with The Santaroga Barrier. In short: this book is pulpy and feels dated. After about 100 of the 241 pages, reading it became a chore. The premise is interesting nonetheless, and Herbert manages to create an eerie vibe in the first couple of chapters.

Gilbert Dasein, a psychologist, is sent to invest the valley of Santaroga, a prosperous farm community that has no juvenile crime and no one smoking, and that doesn’t allow outsiders to buy or rent property, nor does it allow cheese, wine or other produce from outside to be sold. Two previous researchers both died of accidents during their stay in the valley. Dasein has, aside from his professional endeavour, a love interest in Santaroga too. He’s in love with Jenny, a girl he had a relationship with at his university. A few months before the story starts, she has moved back to her native town. The story is situated in the 1960s, somewhere in California.

Santaroga is mainly build like a mystery novel: what’s the deal with this town, and what’s the deal with those accidents? Plus, what’s the deal with those drugs!? Pretty soon it becomes clear that the Santarogans all eat something called “Jaspers”, a kind of drug. So, the book is a drug-novel too: references to LSD aplenty.

“Sometime you should feel the fur on the water,” her companion said. “It’s the red upness of the wind.”

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WAY STATION – Clifford D. Simak (1963)

Way StationWay Station is firmly rooted in its time of publication. While the language and descriptions are still worthwhile, the themes of this book seem dated and naïve. Simak tells the story of Enoch Wallace, a soldier that survived Gettysburg and afterwards was chosen by an alien to transform his parental house in a secret way station for all kinds of different alien travellers. Enoch is to be the keeper of this station, and doesn’t age any more. At first, the story holds tremendous promise. There is a sense of mystery, and Simak’s rural descriptions of the lonely Enoch and his daily occupations really achieve a unique, emotional mood.

As the novel progresses, this mood at times becomes muddled by the obvious messages Simak wants to convey. The fear of a devastating, apocalyptic nuclear war lays as a heavy hand on the story. Progressing intelligence, technology and science are pointed out as culprits, something which has been in fashion for thinkers since the second half of the 20th century. They forgot that the brutal Mongol conquest in the 13th century was able to kill more than 40 million people, as opposed to the 55 million that were killed in World War 2. Yet the Mongols did so in a world with only 1/7th the population of the mid-20th century. They also did so without atomic bombs, tanks and gas chambers. Although war and violence remain potent themes for a book, the way Simak approaches them seems dated.

Simak also ventures into a strange mysticism, possibly also inspired by the sixties vibe. The universe seems to “care” in unexplained way, and an important part of the plot has to do with an ill-conceived “Talisman”, a mysterious device made 10.000 years ago by some alien. This more or less magical device is needed to keep the different societies of the galaxy, and even the galaxy itself, together. How the universe held together before this talisman was constructed is unclear. The fact that, near the end, the ultimate savior of humanity (and the other galactic races) turns out to be a deaf-mute child with unexplained magical powers, shows Simak actually is a hopeless, messianic Romantic.

Add to that a pervading feeling throughout the book, exemplified in the following sentence:

In the old days it would have been – what did you say, gentlemanly and on a plane of principles and ethics.

Simak is not only a Romantic, but a reactionary too…

As the magic above, there’s quite a lot of other stuff that’s underdeveloped. True, it’s a short book – only 189 pages in my edition – , but I feel some decisive editing would have made it stronger. There’s a side plot about the impossible love between Enoch and a kind of AI woman. It should have been cut away, or explored fuller. And Simak, as Asimov more than a decade before him, also dabbles a bit in the possibility of calculating the future with math, and even hints at an ethics calculator. It’s only dabbling & hints, sadly. There are strange artifacts that traveling aliens leave at the way station, and Simak clearly has a vivid, strong imagination, but I wanted to know more.

This book has merit, but not as a novel of ideas. The back cover talks about “pastoral science fiction”. The following quote illustrates this, as well as Simak’s real strenght…

It stood as it had always stood, unchanged, except that in the olden days there had been ruffled curtains at each window. The yard around it had changed with the slow growth of the years , with the clump of lilacs thicker and more rank and tangled with each passing spring, with the elms that his father had planted grown from six-foot whips into mighty trees, with the yellow rose bush at the kitchen corner gone, victim of a long-forgotten winter, with the flower beds vanished and the small herb garden, here beside the gate, overgrown and smothered out by grass. 

The old stone fence that had stood on each side of the gate now was little more than a humpbacked mound. The heaving of a hundred frosts, the creep of the vines and grasses, the long years of neglect, had done their work. In another hundred years, he thought, it would be level, with no trace of it left. Down in the field , along the slope where erosion had been at work, there were long stretches where it had entirely disappeared.

All of this had happened and until now he had scarcely noticed it. But now he noticed it and wondered why he did.

THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS – Robert A. Heinlein (1966)

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

First things first: although it is not without troubles, I enjoyed The Moon is a Harsh Mistress a lot. It’s exciting and interesting, even half a century after it was first published. A classic, yes.

So, troubles? The main problem is the pacing. The narrator – one of the main characters – doesn’t dose his telling one bit. He simply starts, and he rushes to the ending, all in short, chronological paragraphs. There’s a lot of information to digest, with lots of detail, at a high tempo. As a reader, there was not a moment to breathe. The book follows this template: “This happened, we planned this, we did that, repeat ad infinitum.” Boring in a way, but the story told is action packed, so you just tag along. Heinlein lets his narrator speak in a kind of mildly broken English – but whether this is a hybrid form of English spoken on the Moon, or just echoes the Slavic roots of the narrator isn’t really clear. He uses some Russian words, and, more annoyingly, he hardly uses any articles – the Russian language doesn’t have articles. It gives a bit of flavor to the book, true, but makes it harder to read too. I would have dropped the no-article thing, since it doesn’t really advance the story. The choice Heinlein made for the narrative voice also results in a book that is mainly telling, there’s hardly any showing – some readers might object to that. (The same goes for the lack of character development.)

Narrative technicalities aside, Heinlein is an interesting, fairly original thinker. I say fairly, since the subject matter of the book was undoubtedly shaped by the Cold War context it was written in. The book reads as a revolutionary manual, and makes some interesting observations about human societies. This is definitely “social sciences fiction” too. Although some of Heinlein’s projections are probably off (rather naïve thoughts about what would happen on an isolated moon with a 1 to 10 female-male ratio, or about the self-regulating peacefulness of a lawless Luna full of convicts,…) or outdated by contemporary science (like the fact that Loonies live a lot longer because of low gravity), there’s a lot of other, dead-on thought packed in the 288 pages of my pocket edition.

To end, since this book deals with AI too, I want to stress Heinlein’s hands on take on consciousness, being alive, etc.: right away in the opening chapters the narrator brushes of possible critical remarks as just semantics… For all practical purposes Mike, the sentient supercomputer that plays a big role in the story, is alive indeed: Heinlein is my kind of no bullshit philosopher. (It is a shame though that Mike solves about every problem the other protagonists encounter. That’s lazy plotting.)

This was my first Robert A. Heinlein, I’ll read more of him for sure.

Recommended.

originally written on the 25th of September, 2015

PALE FIRE – Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

Pale FireTo call this book fantasy is a bit of stretch, a bit of a very big stretch even. Nabokov’s seminal book takes the form of a fictional publication of a 999-line poem by fictional author John Shade who died just before completing the poem, with a preface, very elaborate notes (the bulk of the book) and even an index by Charles Kinbote, a fictional scholar.

As such, it won’t appeal to regular fantasy readers. Kinbote is crazy, and his notes often read like the ramblings of a madman. In it, he talks about “the fantastical tale of an assassin from the land of Zembla in pursuit of a deposed king”, as a synopsis online says. But, the word “fantastical” should not be taken as an indication this tale being of the “fantasy” kind, but simply as “made up by a nutter”. Zembla is more or less a metaphor for Nabokov’s native Russia, and the fleeing king echoes the Tsar’s persecution by revolutionary forces.

I had a hard time getting through the book. It is hard work, since ramblings of a madman aren’t a particularly easy read. The book is stuffed with cross-references, hidden easter eggs, interplay between the poem, the notes and the index, etc. As such, it has pleased literature scholars across the globe, and has been analysed to death. I guess it should indeed be read twice or thrice to fully appreciate Nabokov’s construction. Nabokov did a fine job there, since scholars can’t seem to agree whether Nabokov intended the scholar to be real or invented by the poet himself, or the other way around, or that there is even a third person who made up both Shade and Kinbote. It might even be possible that Kinbote is actually the exiled Zemblan king himself. Add to all that the fact that the book’s obviously meta (it’s about notes to a poem!), and you get a regular feast for the literature professional…

I didn’t really enjoy it, since Pale Fire‘s mystery didn’t really interest me. The story felt empty, and mainly a gimmick. Still, Nabokov’s mastery of language is an amazing, stunning thing to behold. There are truly magnificent sentences on nearly every page. If you just approach the preface and the notes as a long prose poem one just has to experience, immersed in a beautifully written stream of consciousness, without wanting to comprehend or unravel every little allusion or hidden trinket, the book is a masterpiece.

originally written on the 20th of September, 2015