Tag Archives: 1960s

DESTINATION: VOID – Frank Herbert (1965)

destination voidDestination: Void was the last Herbert book on my list before I’ll eventually reread the Dune saga. I wanted to get to know Herbert better before I start such a reread, and at this point I feel I have a firm enough grip on his writing persona.

I’d read 4 non-Dune books up unto Destination: The Santaroga Barrier, Whipping Star, Soul Catcher and The Dosadi Experiment – of which Soul Catcher is the only one I would recommend, all the others having mild to severe problems. Destination: Void adds to that negative tally: it hasn’t survived its time. And yet, I do recommend it for some readers, but more on that later.

As these 5 titles are considered to be among his best non-Dune books, if not his best, I now can safely attest that Herbert’s enduring legacy indeed solely is Dune and its sequels. The word on the street was already pretty clear on that, obviously, but I wanted to check for myself. It’s also a safe bet that if Herbert hadn’t written Dune, hardly anybody would still care for his other novels, and the few die-hard Herbert fanboys highly praising his other output too probably would not exist.

My little nay verdict here shouldn’t be taken too harshly, especially not as Herbert did try, and did take risks – these 5 books are widely different, some pretty ambitious even. As bills needed to be paid, one can hardly hold it against Herbert he wrote a bit too much, too fast. Besides, having only one or two books stand out is true for a lot of authors – and especially in a genre with pulpy origins, one might say most of them.

So, what’s the deal with Destination: Void? Continue reading

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THE FOUR-DIMENSIONAL NIGHTMARE – J.G. Ballard (1963)

The Four-Dimensional Nightmare

This collection of short fiction is my first exposure to James Graham Ballard – best known for diverse books as the controversial fetish exploration Crash, the autobiographical war novel Empire Of The Sun and the post-apocaloptic early clifi classic The Drowned World.

Some of the stories featured are published in other collections, and there are slightly different editions of this collection too – from 1984 onward under a different title, The Voices Of Time. But there’s also a slightly earlier collection that has a very similar title, The Voices Of Time And Other Stories, with an overlap of 3 stories with The Four-Dimensional Nightmare / The Voices Of Time.

I try to shed light on all that in a bit more detail at the end of this review, with an advice about which edition you should get.

First things first: my thoughts on the individual stories in this early collection of J.G. Ballard.

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MEMOIRS OF A SPACEWOMAN – Naomi Mitchison (1962)

Memoirs Of A SpacewomanEach and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.

Recurring readers of this blog might have guessed I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.

This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.

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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’.

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‘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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