Tag Archives: 1960s

THE DROWNED WORLD – J.G. Ballard (1962)

The Drowned World (Powers)“The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

At times, I read up on books while reading them, and this time my explorations of other reviews significantly colored my reading, in particular the review of BlackOxford on Goodreads.

In that review, BlackOxford develops a mostly symbolic reading of the text that accuses Ballard of racism. The arguments are interesting, but the reading might be reductive. On the other hand, Ballard seems to encourage this interpretative method of searching for latent symbolism.

Before I will add my two cents to the debate – and I’ll keep it short – let me do the non-political part of the review. Continue reading

JELLYFISH – Lisa-Ann Gershwin (2016) & ICE – Anna Kavan (1967)

2 reviews in this post: first the best jellyfish monograph published to this day – I’ll treat you with a bunch of stunning facts at the end of the review. After that, a much lauded slipstream classic.


JELLYFISH: A NATURAL HISTORY – Lisa-Ann Gershiwn (2016)

Jellyfish A Natural History GershwinGood books on jellyfish are hard to find: there hardly exist any. I’ve had the German ‘Quallen’ by Thomas Heeger (2004) for years, and that used to be the only comprehensive scientific monograph on the subject: someone should translate that in English.

I’m fascinated by the subject, so when I saw this very book in the biography of the underwhelming little book on jellyfish that Peter Williams published in 2020 I bought it instantly.

This book isn’t really about 50 jellyfish as advertised on the back: it rather is a monograph on 5 subjects: jellyfish anatomy, life history, taxonomy and evolution, ecology and finally the impact of humanity on jellyfish. Each subject gets about 20 pages in text (and some graphics & pictures), and after that Gershwin each time presents 10 jellyfish that illustrate some of the stuff from that particular chapter’s subject. Each jellyfish gets a full page photograph, and one page with additional information.

This makes for a bit of a hybrid: this is both a coffee table book with great, clear illustrations & a fairly thorough introduction to jellyfish biology. I doubt experienced marine biologists with an interest in the subject will learn a lot of new things from Gershwin, but for the general public the book is detailed nonetheless.

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SOLARIS – Stanisław Lem (1961)

Solaris Lem cover first editionAt the beginnings of my forays into science fiction, it quickly became clear Solaris was one of the key texts, and so a physical copy of the book has been on my shelves for years. There were two reasons I didn’t take it out sooner. The main thing was me having the wrong idea of what it was about. I’m not sure why, but I thought the story focused on a crew slowly growing mad, and I’d mentally labeled it something like ‘psychological horror in space’, a genre I’m not that interested in. The other reason was Steven Soderbergh’s adaption: I’d seen it in a movie theater when it came out back in 2002, and while I don’t remember any other thing about it, at the time my reaction was lukewarm at best.

It was only after a conversation in the comments to my review of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves that I realized I had the wrong idea about the book. That conversation was with Polish native Ola G, and it turns out she wrote two excellent pointers about Stanisław Lem, here and here – do click on those if you want an accessible yet fairly thorough overview of Lem. On the strength of Solaris and Ola’s posts, I have added Fiasco, The Invincible and The Cyberiad to my TBR.

Before I look a bit closer at the novel itself, a few notes on the translation. The English translation from 1970 by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox was based on a French version. Not ideal, and Lem wasn’t satisfied with the result either. Sadly, it is the only available English version in print, even though Bill Johnston completed a direct translation from the original Polish in 2011 – a version Lem’s wife and son thought “captured the spirit of the original.” Johnston’s translation was released as an audio book and a Kindle edition, but a paper edition is stuck in legal limbo. I can’t say the prose was bad, but some sections felt a bit dry & lifeless, and I’m chalking that up to Cox & Kilmartin. Just to be clear: all this is no reason to not read this book – it is a deserved classic – but should you have the option: go for the Johnston version.

As in lots of Stanisław Lem’s stories, an important theme of Solaris is “the complete failure of human beings to understand an extraterrestrial intelligence”. I will not write a whole lot more about it here, as heaps of pages been written about it already. Curiously this theme is largely absent from the two latest movie adaptations, while it is central to the novel. Continue reading

UBIK – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Ubik (Peter Rauch)When I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 5 years ago, I approached it the wrong way. That novel is full of plot holes & other inconsistencies, and while I appreciated the mood, I ended up being bothered by its mushy core. I decided to not make the same mistake for Ubik, and see if a go-with-the-flow attitude would yield another reading experience.

Being who I am, I still ended up writing down numerous inconsistencies, but indeed, they did not really bother me. Maybe that is because Ubik simply is a much better novel, I don’t know: I’d have to reread Androids, and that’s not going to happen.

A bit before I started Ubik, I read a review on Calmgrove that determined my reading experience this time. It hinted at Serious Levels of Depth, and that provided the novel with lots of my credit upfront. It made me go down another rabbit hole this time: in search for truths about life & death.

For the uninitiated: Ubik is a strange novel, in which Dick draws back the curtain numerous times, only to close it a bit later on. It involves time travel – or not?, strange temporal digressions, merged states of half-life, a conflict between two psychic mutant factions, a trip to the moon and capitalist consumerism satire. An American-made Kafka: light in calories, and with a dose of cigarettes, X-Men & half-baked religion.

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THE MAN IN THE MAZE – Robert Silverberg (1969)

The Man In The MazeRobert Silverberg’s bibliography is massive. The guy wrote tons of stuff. In 1968, the year he published The Man in the Maze serialized in Worlds Of If, Silverberg released three other novels, 8 books of non-fiction and 8 short stories, according to this glowing review on Fantasy Literature. Ah, quality and quantity.

Then again, this novel is just 192 pages in a pocket edition – the good old days of brevity. Today, a story like this would be published as a novel of at least 492 pages, adding lots and lots of world building and an attempt at deep backstory for the characters. In other words: authors and publishers alike would try to give it the veneer of serious literature. The wonders of word-processing indeed – it only makes the length and depth of Dune or LOTR all the more impressive.

So, what we get in The Man in the Maze is ideas condensed to their basic form, draped in a fast paced action/mystery story to make the medicine go down. It’s snappy pulp, yes, but it has deep ambitions – or does it?

I was drawn to read more of Silverberg since I read his classic Dying Inside, a fantastic fuck off to intellectual snobbery, that even today is mistaken as serious literature with metaphors about dying. His tone just felt right.

What about The Man in the Maze?

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DUNE MESSIAH – Frank Herbert (1969)

Dune MessiahI’ve always considered the Dune series the best SF I’ve ever read, but as I read it fairly early in my ventures into SF, a reread is in order. Do my past opinions still hold, years & years and books & books later?

My reread of Dune itself was a fantastic experience, and before reading this review, I politely urge you to read my 5000+ word analysis of Dune – it deals with the question of determinism & Paul Atreides as a tragic hero, among other things, and I’ll talk about those themes here too.

I remember that when I first read the sequels, I thought Dune Messiah and Children of Dune to be a lesser affair than Dune itself. I also remember feeling Herbert got into his full stride again with the final 3 installments.

We’ll see how all that holds later, but my feeling on Dune Messiah turns out to be more or less the same. I really liked it, but it’s not on the same level as Dune: 4 stars, instead of 5. It’s also of note that I liked it a bit better now than the first time around.

I’ll try to keep this text under 5000 words, so that’ll be all for the introduction. In what follows, I first compare Dune Messiah to its big brother: why exactly is it a lesser book? That part is the proper review, so to say.

Afterwards, I’ll zoom in on a few things for those interested in a deeper analysis. I’ll first write about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and how that ties into Paul being a tragic hero. I’ll finish with a discussion on determinism & free will in Dune Messiah – even though I’m starting to feel I’m beating a dead horse on this blog, especially after my massive post on the same subject and Lord of the Rings. The last two parts will be heavy with quotes.

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DUNE – Frank Herbert (1965)

Dune (Folio Society)I’ve read Dune for the first time 5 years ago. I finished it the day Iain Banks died. The entire series became one of my favorite reading experiences. I tried some of Herbert’s other books too – they all proved to be duds, except for Soul Catcher. I even read what Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson concocted as what was supposed to be the finale, Dune 7 – the so-so Hunters of Dune and the god-awful Sandworms of Dune.

Rereading is always a risk, and I hardly do so. Taste evolves. The thing is: when I first read Dune, I wasn’t that well versed in science fiction. I’d read about 5 Culture novels by Banks, Anathem by Stephenson, maybe the Foundation trilogy. I might have been easily impressed. Today, 5 years later, I’ve read a whole lot more of speculative fiction: about 240 titles says my Worlds Without End database. I’ve tried to be broad in my approach, reading older stuff and newer stuff alike. Today, I’m a different judge.

This time, I read the fantastic Folio Society edition, which has an excellent essay by Michael Dirda, and an interesting afterword by Brian Herbert. It’s good to see confirmed that Dune indeed was revolutionary. A book much longer than most other novels of its day – other titles were only a quarter to a third of Dune‘s 215,000 words. That meant an expensive book – “in excess of 5 dollars”, the highest retail price yet for any science fiction novel. And it was not only revolutionary because of its size – it was also an untold commercial succes. While initial sales were slow, it got the Nebula and Hugo awards, and by 1970 the book began to sell well. The sequels became bestsellers too, with sales running into the millions. By 1979 it sold over 10 million copies, and when David Lynch’s 1985 movie adaptation was released, Dune reached no. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, 20 years after its first publication. Frank Herbert was “the first [science fiction] writer to obtain such high level of readership.”

So, what has this reread told me? What to write about the most lauded science fiction book of all time? Well, easy! That it is within rights and reason to call this one of the greatest books ever – if it falls into your taste range.

My guess is that it will still be read a century from now.  Dune has a timeless quality: ditching computers was a genius move by Herbert. In Destination: Void – which was first published in Galaxy Magazine around the same time as Dune – Herbert took the opposite route, embedding a great thriller in pages and pages of computer babble. Even though that babble was realistic at the time, it utterly fails today. Not so with Dune.

There’s hardly anything that can age in this book. Some have argued that the feudal structure of the galactic empire is unrealistic for a far future human world – and as such dated in the 21st century – but that is an utterly naive, Western centrist thought. If the last decade has taught us something, is that we should not take democracy for granted – especially not as global turmoil has only just begon at the dawn of disruptive climate change. Who’s so arrogant to claim they have a clear grasp on the arrow of time? Hegel fans? Hari Seldon?

Before I’ll try to shed some more light on why this book remains such a joy to read in 2019 – brace yourselves for a 5444 words analysis of both form and content – let me tackle a bit of critique first. I’d rather have that out of the way, and let the rest of my text be an unapologetic celebration of Herbert’s creation.


Not everybody likes Dune. Blogger Megan AM, in her 2014 review on From Couch To Moon, worded her problem with the protagonist, Paul, as follows:

If he’s cold, the reader doesn’t care what happens to him. If he’s infallible, he’ll survive every conflict. Wrap him up in a nice blanket of spiritual powers and preordained destiny, with a powerful clan to serve him, and you’ve got the makings of a demigod whose story is predetermined. Dune is worthy warning against allegiance to charismatic personalities, but it’s D.O.A.

Gender pops up a bit further in her review:

Unfortunately, I suspect that many Dune fans actually admire the unearned arrogance of our rich noble-born leader. I worry that Paul’s behavior toward his women and his clansmen actually appeals to many males in the SF community. Paul is in control of everything—his emotions, his actions, his thoughts… even his followers. Even Paul’s mother recognizes his calculating moves as manipulative and unfair. “You deliberately cultivate this air, this bravura,” she charged. “You never cease indoctrinating” (p. 620). How incredibly appealing to a young male…

I think both issues are partly the result of a biased reading – admittedly, something we are all prone too. Yes, older fiction is up to “contemporary dissection” – but the text itself has its rights.

I fully agree that the hero in Dune appeals to readers because of his control, among other things. But there are two problems in Megan’s gendered reading. First are some facts residing in Dune itself. Also Jessica – and to a lesser extent Chani – are in control. They too are heroes of the book. There are other characters who are just as calculating and manipulative, and some of them – all of the Bene Gesserit – are female. Focusing on Paul’s male biological sex seems strange in that light. Moreover, when Paul becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert explicitly frames this as a fusion of 2 genders, Paul becoming both taker and giver, male and female. Sure, one could debate the problematic dichotomy of that – but either way these facts show the analysis of Megan is a bit superficial.

A second problem is Megan’s own portrayal of “young males” and “many males in the SF community”. I’m sure there are quite a lot of women too who want control over their emotions, thoughts, actions. I think Megan too easily frames Paul’s behavior as a problematic masculine ideal.

To end this first part of my review, let me get back to Megan’s first quote. Paul is “cold” and “infallible”, a “predetermined” “demigod”, and all that could make readers not care for him. Megan is fully right about the predetermined part, but I think exactly that is one of the crucial strengths of the book – I’ll get to that in more detail after the jump.

Yet cold and infallible? One could maybe argue about cold –  it is partly in the eye of the beholder – but again, the text itself has its rights. Paul gives moisture to the dead! He does mourn his father – he only has to postpone it, due to the situation he is in. That doesn’t make him cold. It makes him tragic. He has intense friendships with Stilgar and Gurney Halleck. Near the end, he is upset by his mother’s cold shoulder. He struggles emotionally with his own role. And maybe most importantly: he loves & respects Chani deeply, in an explicitly tender way – the ending pages are proof of that. I agree Herbert doesn’t devote lots of page time to these aspects, but they are there. Clearly.

A reader is well within his or her right to think Herbert should have devoted more time to the characters’ emotions – and granted, characterization is not the book’s main focus – but the claim that Paul is cold is not how I experienced it.

One cannot argue about infallible though. Paul fails. He fails spectacularly. Yes, he dethrones the emperor, he marries the princess. But all that is just superficial pomp, not at the heart of this story. It strikes me as odd that Megan AM didn’t mention this. Paul’s failure is even double.

One: his own son is killed. It is one of the pivotal moments of the book – even without taking into account the strong emphasis Herbert puts on the importance of genes and bloodlines. More so, the death of his firstborn is one of the pivotal moments of the entire series, with possibly galactic repercussions. “He felt emptied, a shell without emotions. Everything he touched brought death and grief. And it was like a disease that could spread across the universe.” Two: Paul’s main drive in the book is to prevent the jihad, yet he fails to do so. That only becomes fully clear in the sequels, but still, it is spelled out explicitly multiple times.

Herbert didn’t write Paul as a true masculine infallible hero. He is noble-born, strong and superbly trained, yes, but he is more than that, and morally ambiguous. It is when his firstborn son dies that – maybe? – Paul embraces jihad as cosmic revenge for all the suffering he had to endure. “Something seemed to chuckle and rub its hands within him. And Paul thought: How little the universe knows about the nature of real cruelty!” Herbert doesn’t spoon-feed it to the reader. It is unclear how to interpret that italic sentence, but either way, it is one of many that makes Paul human – somebody this reader could connect to.


Before I’ll dive into a more substantial analysis, the following needs emphasis: reading Dune was even better the second time around. One part of that is that I was familiar with its world – the first half can be tough on new readers that don’t know what’s going on. Another part is that I have become more experienced as reader, seeing both the book’s literary mechanics and its philosophical implications much clearer – and because of that I appreciate it all the more.

Books that can be reread don’t hinge on novelty & surprise alone. There is no better testament to what Herbert achieved artistically. Please join me in celebrating the how & what of Dune some more!

I’ll first highlight a few technical issues: Herbert’s prose, his plotting power – including a detailed case study of the first knife fight, between Paul and Jamis. After that, I’ll zoom in on Dune‘s tragic philosophical content.

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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

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’.

&

‘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.