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Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (Audiobook narrated by Bernadette Dunne)

January 9, 2015 2 comments

cover_hauntingSummary:
Dr. Montague is a scholar of the occult, and he invites three other people to stay with him in Hill House, which is notorious for being haunted.  There’s jovial Theodora, timid Eleanor, and the future heir of the house, Luke. What starts as a light-hearted adventure quickly turns sinister in this horror classic.

Review:
I actually started reading this audiobook way back in September for the Readers Imbibing Peril challenge.  It’s only 7.5 hours long, so I thought it’d be a quick read.  I think the fact that it wasn’t demonstrates quite well how not drawn into the story I was.  This is a classic haunted house tale that perhaps might not work for the modern reader, depending on how much horror they generally imbibe.

This is going to be a quick review because I honestly don’t have too much to say about the book.  Four people arrive at a house. Things appear normal, except one of them, Eleanor, clearly is a bit more emotionally unstable than the rest.  She is, for instance, shocked that anyone is interested in her or asks her questions.  She also has trouble with her own identity, such as knowing for sure what she likes to eat.  Odd things start to happen in the house, and because Eleanor is odd, the others aren’t sure if it’s the house doing them or Eleanor herself.  Eleanor becomes overly attached to Theodora. Drama ensues.

None of the house horror scenes really got to me, because frankly I’ve seen worse in plenty of other horror I read.  I do love the genre.  The parts that actually disturbed me were when the others in the household were inexplicably cruel to Eleanor.  That dynamic of an odd woman randomly tossed in with strangers who proceed to be mean to her in a highschoolish way held my interest more than the house did.  People and their cruelty are so much more frightening than a haunted house.  I understand that the book is sort of leaving it up to the reader to wonder if the house or the people really drive Eleanor crazy, but frankly I think the ending removes all question on this point.

Similarly, there are definitely some undertones in the Theodora/Eleanor relationship that indicates they might possibly have had a fling early on and then Theodora abruptly distances herself from Eleanor when she gets too clingy.  None of this is said outright, however it is heavily implied that Theodora’s roommate back home is her lover who she had a quarrel with, and she and Eleanor establish a close bond early on in the book.  The problem is this all stays subtext and is never brought out in the open of the book.  I get it that this book was published in 1959 so it probably had to stay subtext and was most likely shocking to a reader in the 50s.  But to me, a modern reader, it felt like the book kept almost getting interesting and then backing off from it.  The combination of the former issue and this one meant that I was left feeling unengaged and uninterested.  Basically, I feel that the book didn’t go quite far enough to be shocking, horrifying, or titillating.

The audiobook narration by Bernadette Dunne was excellent as always, and the main reason I kept listening rather than just picking up a copy of the book and speed reading it.  I love listening to her voice.

Overall, this classic was boundary pushing when it was first published but it might not come across that way to a modern reader.  Readers who read a lot of modern horror might find this book a bit too tame for their tastes.  Those interested in the early works of the genre will still enjoy the read, as will modern readers looking for horror lite.  Readers looking for the rumored GLBTQ content in this book will most likely be disappointed by the subtlety of it, although those interested in early representation in literature will still find it interesting.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58 (Series, #228)

Blue aliens walk in a long line by a yellow building that looks a bit like a spaceship.Summary:
The Library of America collects together great pieces of American literature into themed books.  This can be anything from an author, to writing on aviation, to the Harlem Renaissance, to transcendentalism.  Clearly this is a collection of classic 1950s scifi, in particular covering the time period from 1956 to 1958.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (1956)–When out-of-work actor Lorenzo Smythe is approached in a bar by a space pilot with a job offer, he agrees to at least go meet the man’s boss and discuss it.  Quickly, however, Lorenzo finds himself being kidnapped into outer space and impersonating a missing important politician, John Joseph Bonforte, under slight duress.  They must keep the public from knowing the politician has been kidnapped and successfully participate in a Martian adoption ceremony or face interplanetary war.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)–In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other.  The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been.  This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first.  In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.  Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen.  Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive.  Which he does.  What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish (1958)–A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest.  Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet.  The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate.  While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth.  Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.

Who? by Algis Budrys (1958)–In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (1958)–It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
This is my third Library of America collection and, unfortunately, is the one I’ve liked least so far.  Perhaps I have simply discovered that the Red Scare overtakes American scifi of the late 1950s more than I had previously realized, and that is just not to my own personal scifi taste.  The collection still does what it purports to, though: it gathers a selection of the best of American scifi in a particular time period, letting the reader immerse herself and truly come to know a particular genre in a particular period.

Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I have reviewed the books individually as I read them.  Thus, here I will simply summarize my reviews to give you a feeling of the collection as a whole.

Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein
Similar to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein presents a delightful mix of wit, Hollywood glamor, and thought-provoking political speeches all in a well-imagined and engaging future society.  A fun piece of classic scifi that tosses together acting and politics in outer space with Martians who look like toadstools and a heavy sprinkling of wit.  The romance leaves something to be desired, and the tech isn’t particularly predictive or imaginative, but these are minor aspects of the story.  Recommended to fans of witty scifi who don’t mind a dash of political intrigue.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals.  Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here.  Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting.  Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.
4 out of 5 stars
Full Review

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences.  It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created.  However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

Who? by Algis Budrys
An interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber
A thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.
3 out of 5 stars
Full Review

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection that shows how gradually fear of Communism came to take over American thought by the end of 1958.  The two earliest books in the collection are set in a far future with no concerns about the long-reaching impacts of the Cold War.  By the last two books, the futures are heavily impacted by the perceived threat of Communism, with one book even having time itself being unraveled and re-written in an attempt to stop the Russians.  The most light-hearted, entertaining book in the collection is Double Star.  I would recommend fans of witty scifi pick it up as soon as they get the chance.  The most thought-provoking, with a cool world that could work quite well for cosplay is The Stars My Destination.  It withstands the test of time quite well.  The most interesting world is the planet and culture of Lithia in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.  The collection as a whole is primarily recommended to scifi fans with a heavy interest in how the Red Scare of 1950s America can be seen in scifi of the time.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber (Series, #1)

June 3, 2014 1 comment

On a yellow backgrond, two boxes over each other display a snake and a spider. The title and author of the book are written on the boxes.Summary:
It’s the Time War, and the Spiders and Snakes are battling each other up and down the timeline in an attempt to give time the ultimate outcome they each are hoping for.  Nobody knows precisely who the spiders and snakes are, but they briefly resurrect humans and ask them if they want to participate in the war.  Those who say yes become the soldiers, nurses, and the Entertainers who provide rest and relaxation for the soldiers in the waystation.  One waystation is about to hit a ton of trouble when a package shows up and a soldier starts talking mutiny.

Review:
I’m a fan of time-travel as a scifi trope, and I liked the concept of a time war, so when I saw this sitting on my virtual ARC pile, I figured it would be a quick, appealing read.  The book is less about time-travel, and more a type of scifi game of Clue, with everyone trapped in a waystation instead of a house trying to figure out who turned off the machine that connects them to the galaxy, rather than solve a murder.

The book takes place entirely within the waystation.  The waystation exists outside of time to give the time soldiers a place to recuperate without the pressures of time travel.  All but one of the soldiers are men, and most of the Entertainers are women.  The one female soldier is from ancient Greece, the clear idea being that her era of women are the only ones tough enough to be soldiers.  This definitely dated the book and led to some eye-rolling on my part.  On the plus side, the book is narrated by a woman, and she is definitely one of the brains of the bunch.  There thus is enough forward-thinking that the sexist distribution of time soldiers doesn’t ruin the book; it’s just irritating.

The crux of the book is the soldiers wondering who, exactly, is telling them what to do up and down the timeline and worrying that they are ruining time, not to mention the planet Earth they once knew.  The soldiers are told they’re on the side of the good guys, yet the good guys are insisting that Russia must be stopped at all costs, even if that means the Germans winning WWII.  Thus, the soldiers are awkwardly paired up with Nazis in the fight.  It’s interesting to force the Allies to attempt to see Germans in a different light.  However, the whole idea that Russia (and Communism) will ruin the world is just a bit dated.  It’s easy to get past, though, since the dilemma of how to know if who you are following is making the right choices is a timeless one.

The attempted mutineer ends up trying his mutiny because he falls in love with one of the Entertainers.

I decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me. It just gives me two people to worry about. (loc 10353)

The attempted mutiny against the cause is thus kind of simultaneously blamed on love and on the woman behind the man starting the drama.  It’s true that love makes people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I do wish the characters were more even-handed in dealing out the blame for the mutiny to both halves of the couple.  On the plus side, it is left unclear if the mutiny is a good or bad idea, so whether the idealistic couple in love are right or not is up to the reader to decide.

The final bit of the book dives into theories about time-travel, time, and evolution.  It’s a bit of a heady side-swipe after the romping, Clue-like plot but it also shows how much of an impact the events of the book have on the narrator.  At the beginning, the narrator states it was a life-changing sequence of events, and the wrap-up deftly shows how it impacted her.

Overall, this is a thought-provoking whodunit mystery set in an R&R waystation in a time-travel war.  Some aspects of the book did not age particularly well, such as the hysterical fear of Communism and the lack of women soldiers, but the heart of the book is timeless.  How do you know if those in charge are right or wrong, does love make you see things more or less clearly, and does evolution feel frightening and random when it’s happening.  Recommended to scifi fans with an interest in a scifi take on a Clue-like story.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the 1970s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 70s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1970s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Book Review: Who? by Algis Budrys

January 22, 2014 3 comments

A man with a metal arm and head smokes a cigarette while sitting pensievely at a desk.Summary:
In an alternate late 20th century, the Allies are still at a cold war with the Soviets.  The Allies’ best scientist, Martino, is working on a secret project called K-88 when there is an explosion. The first rescuers to him are Soviet.  The norm is for Allied prisoners to ultimately be returned across the line.  But the Soviets claim that Martino’s skull and arm were badly damaged and return him with a metal, robotic head and arm.  Is this man really Martino, or is he a Soviet plant?

Review:
I was excited to read this book because the idea of a transhumanist/cyborg American made that way by the Soviets has a James Bond like appeal.  Unfortunately, it feels a bit more dated than I was anticipating, as well as compared to other older scifi, and doesn’t fully address some questions it raises.

Immediately, there are a couple of plot holes that aren’t addressed until close to the end of the book, which made it a bit frustrating to read.  First, why did the Allies put their best scientist in a lab on the border with the Soviets? The answer to this, given at the end of the book, is pretty flimsy, and only works if you are willing to believe the Allies are very stupid.  Second, it makes sense that they can’t verify Martino’s identity with his fingerprints, because the Soviets could have taken off his remaining arm and put it on someone else.  However, why can’t they verify who he is with DNA? Presumably, he has some living relatives somewhere they could compare to. DNA was discovered in the 1860s (source) so to never even address why they don’t use it is a bit bizarre.  The book mentions toward the end that Martino’s parents and uncle are dead, but you can conduct kinship tests using dead bodies.  It still baffles me that the government in the book didn’t simply dig up Martino’s father and run a DNA test.  Even if DNA testing wasn’t widely known of when the book was published, one would hope a scifi writer could see its future implications, imagine the applicability, and address the scenario.  The fact that DNA wasn’t addressed at all, and Martino’s place near the Soviet border wasn’t satisfactorily addressed really removed a lot of the intensity and interest one should feel from the situation.

Another way Budrys showed a lack of imagination for the future is in the strict gender roles and lack of women in the military or the sciences in the future he has envisioned.  Women are only seen in the book in strict 1950s gender roles. As wives and mothers and not once in the military or in the sciences.  People in the sciences are referred to as the “men” not even leaving room for the idea of a woman in science.  I know this is a symptom of the times, but I also know that more progressive and forward-thinking scifi was written in the same decade.  It was a bit jarring to me to read a scifi that excluded women so much, when I’m so used to women being present, at least nominally, in scifi.

All of that said, the writing of individual scenes was quite lovely.  Budrys evokes setting and tensity well.  I particularly enjoyed the scene of Maybe-Martino running through the streets of New York City, which reminded me of an old noir film.  Budrys also shows a good understanding of what it is like for people who are incredibly highly intelligent.  He writes Martino at a young age as both brilliant in science but also dumb in interpersonal relations.  The fact that he got this and demonstrated it in the 1950s is to be commended.  There is also some solid commentary on the American education system and a desire for it to encourage more independent thought.

Look–these guys aren’t morons. They’re pretty damned bright, or they wouldn’t be here. But the only way they’ve ever been taught to learn something is to memorize it. If you throw a lot of new stuff at them in a hurry, they’ll still memorize it–but they haven’t got time to think. (loc 9163)

Overall, this is an interesting concept that wasn’t fully fleshed out nor the possible weaknesses fully addressed.  It is definitely a scifi of its time, with its hyper-focus on the Soviets and the Cold War that could almost feel kitschy today.  A short read with an interesting premise, albeit a lack of female scientists, soldiers, or government workers.  Recommended to scifi fans who enjoy some old-fashioned red scare in their reads and don’t need the science to be perfect.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: A Case of Conscience by James Blish (Series, #4)

December 17, 2013 1 comment

A bald man's head bowed in prayer.Summary:
A new inhabited planet, Lithia, has been discovered, and an exploratory Earth crew of four is sent to determine how Earth will respond to the planet.  Ruiz-Sanchez is a scientist and a member of this crew, but he’s also a Jesuit priest.  Although he admires and respects the reptilian-humanoid inhabitants of Lithia, he soon decides that the socialist, perfectly co-existing society must be an illusion of Satan, so he advises against maintaining ties with the planet.  The vote of the crew is a tie, however, so the UN must ultimately decide the fate.  While they are awaiting the decision, Ruiz-Sanchez and the others must raise and guardian a Lithian child who is sent as a present to Earth.  Soon, Ruiz-Sanchez starts having fears about just who the child might be.

Review:
This is the third book from the collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley, which I will review as a whole at a future date.  I was surprised that a book that is fourth in its series was included in the collection.  Upon investigation, I discovered that this series isn’t surrounding a certain set of events or characters but instead is multiple books around a similar theme.  The theme for the series is each book deals with some aspect of the price of knowledge.  So each book works as a standalone as well.  There is also some disagreement as to precisely what book is what number in the series.  I have chosen to use the number used by GoodReads.  I had previously read a scifi book with a Jesuit priest scientist visiting a newly found planet (The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, review) and loved it, so I was excited to see a similar idea executed differently.  Unfortunately, I found that this book lacked the nuance and subtlety that made The Sparrow such a lovely read.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a rather two-dimensional character who quickly turns into a bumbling priest trope.  Very little attention is paid to his credentials as a scientist within the story, so instead of coming to know Ruiz-Sanchez the scientist, the man, and the priest, we only know him in his priest role.  This prevents a connection or even a basic understanding of his rather bizarre concerns.  Whereas in The Sparrow, the priest wonders how a new planet can be covered by salvation and has a meaningful crisis of faith, in A Case of Conscience, the priest is just busy seeing demons and Satan and the Anti-Christ everywhere in such a bizarre, unbelievable manner that he may as well be holding an end of the world sign on a street corner.  It’s almost impossible to connect with him on this level unless the reader also has a tendency to see illusions of Satan and the end of the world everywhere they look.

The plot is fascinating, although it does jump around a lot.  Essentially there’s the part on Lithia, which primarily consists of discourse between the scientists.  Then there’s the development of the Lithian child into an adult who doesn’t fit anywhere, since he lacked the social training on Lithia and also is a reptilian humanoid on planet Earth.  He then starts to incite rebellion among the youth.  Meanwhile, Ruiz-Sanchez is told by the Pope that he committed an act of heresy and he must re-win favor by stopping the Anti-Christ aka the Lithian on Earth.  All of the settings are fascinating, and the plot is certainly fast-paced.  However, the plot is so far-fetched that it is difficult to properly suspend disbelief for it.

The settings are the strength of the book.  Lithia is well-imagined, with uniqueness from Earth in everything from technology to how the Lithians handle child-rearing.  The tech involves trees since they lack minerals, and the child-rearing is non-existent.  The Lithians are simply birthed then allowed to develop on the planet, similar to turtles on Earth.  Earth’s setting is interestingly imagined as well.  The fear of nuclear weapons has driven humans to live underground for generations with only the elite living above ground, and the UN working hard to keep it that way.   It’s a fun mix of alternate alien civilization and dystopia.

Essentially, the book has interesting world-building and what could be a promising plot that get derailed by two-dimensional characters and too many bizarre plot-twists and occurrences.  It’s certainly an interesting read, particularly if you are interested in immersing yourself in this odd world Blish has created.  However, readers should not expect to connect with the characters on an emotional level and should be prepared for a bizarre plot.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Doctor Mirabilis
Black Easter
The Day After Judgement
The Devil’s Day (books 2 and 3 published as one book)

Book Review: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

December 6, 2013 4 comments

Man and a redheaded woman standing in close proximity. The man has red marks on his face.Summary:
In the future, men have discovered the ability to jaunte–to teleport from one location to the other.  The only catch is that you can only teleport to a place you have previously been.  This means that jauntes around the world are the domain of the wealthy who can make the journey first.  In this future of teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.

Foyle is one of the working poor. A hand on a spaceship that has an accident, leaving him in a closet grasping to the last straws of oxygen.  Another spaceship passes him by, after clearly seeing his flare, and he vows vengeance upon them if he ever escapes alive.  Which he does.  What follows is a tangle of intrigue across time and space.

Review:
I got this in a collection of 1950s American scifi classics from Netgalley (which I will review as a whole at a future date).  I was surprised to discover that I already had this particular book on my wishlist tagged simply as a scifi classic.  So I went in with an enthusiasm that was definitely well-met.  This book is worth reading for the world-building alone, even if the main plot and point of the novel doesn’t particularly speak to you.

The world Bester built for this book is complex and unique.  Many authors would have left the future building at the jaunting alone.  These people can teleport (and some are telepaths), what more is needed?  But Bester takes it out a step further.  Giving jaunting a limitation allows him to further expand upon how the change impacts people and culture differently based upon their wealth.  On the one hand, since jaunting is only possible if you’ve physically been to the place you want to go, it becomes a bastion of the elite who can afford to travel there first.

They would memorize jaunte stages in widening circles, limited as much by income as ability; for one thing was certain: you had to actually see a place to memorize it, which meant you first had to pay for the transportation to get you there. Even 3D photographs would not do the trick. The Grand Tour had taken on a new significance for the rich. (loc 2465)

On the other hand, the wealthy will show off that they don’t need to jaunte because they can afford outmoded means of transportation like cars and trains.

As men climbed the social ladder, they displayed their position by their refusal to jaunte. (loc 2595)

Jaunting impacts the world further with the wealthy building labyrinths so that people can’t easily jaunt within their estate and home (since you can’t jaunt someplace you can’t see).  In contrast, the working poor jaunte everywhere they possibly can to save their precious time and energy.  On top of all of this, there’s space travel and space colonization, complete with slavery to mine the outer planets.  But even the working poor who aren’t officially slaves are still essentially slaves to the wealthy elite.  It’s a nightmare of a future where a few big corporations, and thus a few families, own the majority of the wealth, power, and luxury, and are unafraid to stomp on the poor to get ever more.

It makes sense that a good plot for this world would be a poor working man out to get vengeance on the corporation that left him to die in space.  But Foyle isn’t a good guy himself.  At first, none of his quest for vengeance is noble or is about anything other than himself.  Plus, Foyle is an animal of a man.  The book clearly believes that this animal state is the fault of the corrupt imbalance of power in the world.  The wealthy elite have made many of the working poor into nothing more than scrabbling animals who will take what they can get violently when they can and live based on the more baser urges.  As Foyle gradually climbs the social ladder in his espionage, he slowly learns what it is to be human and develops a conscience.  I’m not a fan of this idea that the poor are forced into an animal-like state by the elite.  Living without luxury doesn’t make a person animal-like.  A lack of moral education contributes more than anything, and that can occur at any level of wealth.  Thus, although I appreciate the fact that this vengeance plot allows for us to see the entire world from the bottom up, I’m not a fan of how Foyle’s growth and change is presented.

Some readers may be bothered by the fact that Foyle early in the book rapes someone and then later earns redemption, including from the woman he raped.  The rape is described as part of his animal state, and he has now risen above it.  When the rape occurs in the book, it is off-screen and so subtle that I honestly missed it until later in the book when someone calls Foyle a rapist.  I appreciate that Bester does not depict the actual rape, as that would have prevented my enjoyment of the book.  I don’t like the idea of rape being something only done by someone in an “animal state” or the idea that it’s something a person can ever redeem themselves from.  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  However, this is a very minor plot point in an extremely long book.  Most of my issues with it are tied into my issues with the plot overall.  I was able to just roll my eyes and tell the characters that they are wrong.  It’s not that hard to do when most of them are presented as evil or anti-heroes to begin with.  But this plot point might bother some readers more than others.

Overall, the world building is so excellent and gets so much attention from Bester that it overshadows the more average vengeance plot with iffy morals.  Readers who enjoy immersing themselves in various possible futures will revel in the uniqueness and richness of the future presented here.  Those who believe firmly in punishment for crime as opposed to redemption may not be able to get past the plot to enjoy the setting.  Recommended to scifi fans interested in a unique future setting.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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