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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teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.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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Friday Fun! (Wild Swans at the ART)

February 17, 2012 3 comments

Hello my lovely readers!

So, you may recall that one of my 5 star reads of 2011 was Wild Swans by Jung Chang (review).  Imagine my shock when I saw a poster for a play at the American Repertory Theater by the same name!  I immediately googled and found out that the very same book had indeed been made into a play with the cooperation and assistance of Jung Chang.  Holy shizzit!!  I bought a ticket then and there.

The show was last night, and I was skeptical.  How could a 90 minute play possibly encompass such a large book?  We’re talking the lives of three women and covering decades of China’s history!  But I was encouraged by the involvement of Jung Chang herself so went in with positive thoughts.

You guys.  I was blown away.

We entered the theater to see a Chinese market scene, complete with the actors talking in Mandarin (I think) while we were finding our places and waiting for the show to actually start.

Shortly the show started with De-hong (Chang’s mother) talking with her mother about her engagement to a Nationalist.  I was surprised that they were starting with De-hong.  What about grandma?  Clearly, I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to play adaptations, because how they told grandma’s story wound up being my favorite scene in the play.  De-hong’s refusal to marry the Nationalist quickly won the audience over, most of whom had not read the book.  It quickly established De-hong’s strong personality.

The next scene featured De-hong in full communist party uniform coming to a field of workers to explain communism.  In order to win the workers over to the cause, they explained their own family history of suffering at the hands of the elite.  It is here we got grandma’s story.  One of the comrades pulled out a traditional Chinese stringed instrument and a gong.  The others pulled out these GORGEOUS puppets!  I mean their faces were beautifully painted and so expressive.  The evil elites’ faces were grotesquely disproportionate and painted, whereas De-hong’s mother was simple and beautiful.  In a few short minutes, using the puppets to demonstrate, De-hong told the workers the story of her mother’s life suffering as a concubine and how she stole her away from the house.  I was shocked at how perfectly it worked and completely loved how smoothly it fit into the play.

The show then progressed to De-hong and Shou-yu’s courtship while working as comrades in the fields.  So far everything had pretty much taken place against the same scenery.  I was wondering how they were going to transition what I knew was coming–hospitals, apartments, schools, etc…  I was impressed when they rolled back the matting on the back wall while the action was happening.  Gradually transitioning from field to hospital.  This background scenery of people was used for most of the rest of the play with set pieces being moved around in front of it to depict the main settings of apartments, classrooms, hospitals, and meeting rooms.

The other thing that really impressed me in the play was how they managed to show the problems Comrade Ting caused without totally demonizing her.  They made it clear that Comrade Ting used to be with Shou-yu, and Shou-yu kind of rubbed his courtship of De-hong in her face.  Not that this excused Comrade Ting for going after De-hong, but it prevented her character from being too easily demonized by the audience.

I was also impressed with how, although the play makes it clear that Shou-yu’s commitment to Communism above all else hurt his family badly, it is also evident that his family still loved him and he them.  Another powerful scene depicts the young reds coming after Shou-yu and forcing Er-hong (Jung Chang) to choose whether to “draw a line” between herself and him or not.  Drawing a line is essentially disowning a family member.  Er-hong tearfully refuses and chooses to stand beside her father.  It was a great scene that eloquently depicted so much of the feeling of the book.

The play then subtly shows the passage of time to more modern ones by using a video of people working in a rice field as the backdrop for a scene where Shou-yu is working in a prison camp and Er-hong visits him.  This is when we start truly seeing Er-hong’s story.

The final couple of scenes were set against a background of cubes with more video on them.  This showed both the crowded hustle and bustle of the city and also the relative modernity of Er-hong’s young adulthood.  In just a few short scenes, the play managed to demonstrate the family being reunited, as well as Shou-yu’s persistent refusal, in spite of everything, to help his daughter by pulling strings.  He to the very end was committed to pure equality, even though Er-hong points out to him that nothing they do will change the system.  The father and daughter’s very different opinions are eloquently presented in a few short lines.  Er-hong then leaves her father and steps to the very front of the stage on a mat to demonstrate her eventual emigration from China.

Overall, the play ultimately focuses in on De-hong’s life, but it works.  We see how her viewpoint of her mother’s life influenced her choice to back up Communism.  We then also see how De-hong’s choices influenced Er-hong to ultimately leave China.  It’s an eloquent play that really does the book justice.  I encourage any of my local readers to go see it, as it is still playing.

Happy weekends!

PS I had pictures, but the production scolded me so I had to take them down.  Alas!

Book Review: The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China by Henry Pu Yi, translated by Paul Kramer

August 16, 2011 3 comments

Small Asian boy in dragon robes.Summary:
Henry Pu Yi became the last emperor of China when he was almost three years old.  During the chaos of a post-WWI China fighting between republics and war lords, he would periodically rule, be a figurehead, or be in hiding on foreign-held embassy land.  Working with the Japanese in WWII he sought to refind his throne by ruling as the figure-head of the Japanese-held Manchuria region.  He then was held prisoner by the Soviets for five years before being turned over to the communist Chinese for thought reform.

Review:
Although the translator states that Henry Pu Yi’s life is an excellent way to examine how China survived so many upheavals in the early 20th century, after reading the autobiography I simply cannot agree.  Henry Pu Yi’s life was incredibly unique and absolutely not a reflection of what was really going on in China at the time.  If anything, he seemed to operate from an oblivious perspective up until the communists kind of smacked him in the face with reality.  For instance, during the time of chaos, civil wars, and famine in China prior to WWII, he states:

Just as food was cooked in huge quantities and not eaten, so was a vast amount of clothing made which was never worn. (location 544)

When reflecting on his past perspectives, it is evident that his past self did not understand why such wastefulness would infuriate China’s poor or make them push for a republic via Chiang Kai-shek.  Of course, one cannot entirely blame Henry Pu Yi for this short-sightedness.  He was raised from a young age being treated as a god by all those around him, being told it was his destiny to be the holy emperor.  That would mess with anyone’s mind.  However, as he became older he did have teachers and advisors who tried to enlighten him, he just refused to listen.

Eventually, Henry Pu Yi reached this odd mental compromise where he believed everything Western was good, except for their ruling system.

I also became far more convinced than I had ever been in the days when Johnston was with me that everything foreign was good and everything Chinese, except the Imperial System, was bad.  (location 2184)

His selfish mindset saw everything good he himself could garner from the west, but didn’t seek out anything positive to change or do for his people.  This self-centeredness in a ruler is disturbing at best.

This is even more evident during the time of his life when Pu Yi was puppet ruling for Japan in Manchukuo (Manchuria).  Pu Yi increasingly came to fear more and more for his life as it became more evident that Japan would lose the war.  The more afraid he was, the more he beat members of his household and staff.  Yet he simultaneously claimed to be a good Buddhist who would not even harm a fly.  It seems the only thing Pu Yi excelled at was compartmentalizing his actions.  A former servant of Pu Yi summed up his personality quite eloquently during one of the criticism sessions of the communist thought reform:

Pu Yi is both cruel and afraid of death. He is suspicious, tricky and a hypocrite. When he beat or scolded his servants, it was not for mistakes they committed, but due to his own mood at the time. (location 4020)

Pu Yi, for most of his life, was incredibly selfish.  He was obsessed with his own death and life and with maintaining his emperor status.  He cared little to nothing for those around him or for the people of China.  One must wonder how things may have been different if a strong, selfless man had been made emperor during the same time period.

Thus for most of the autobiography, we’re reading about a most unsympathetic man from his own perspective.  That can become a bit tough to endure.  The light of the autobiography comes in the last quarter of the book, though, when he recounts his time in thought reform.

The translator refers to this time period as Pu Yi being brainwashed.  I can’t say that it appeared that way to me at all.  Pu Yi was not tortured, made to starve, or beaten.  He was simply placed in prison and reformed.  Frankly, I think his time in communist prison did him a world of good.  Suddenly he was having to fend for himself.  Where before he never even had to open a door or mend a button, suddenly he did.  Slowly the communists gave him more and more responsibilities so that eventually he was on the same cleaning and work rotation as the other men in the prison.  Pu Yi says himself that he came to realize how truly useless he was at doing anything worthwhile.  Although at first he blames those who raised him, he comes to acknowledge his own bad character eventually, being ashamed for how he behaved.  When he is eventually deemed reformed by the communists, he enters society as an equal and works hard to do his fair part.  Personally I think if American prison systems could have this kind of excellent 180 result, we would soon see a much smaller inmate population.  For isn’t the purpose of prison supposed to be reform?  And one cannot deny that Pu Yi came out a better man than he went in, even if communist China has made many other mistakes, it is evident with Pu Yi things were handled quite well.  A man was reformed and made useful in society instead of senselessly killed off.

It is a bit of a wait to get to the interesting thought reform portion of the book, however.  Pretty much everything before that makes you want to attack Pu Yi through the pages.  His style is a bit rambling, although the translator claims that’s partly just Chinese culture versus Western culture.  It is an interesting read, but I do think it will only really hold the attention of those with a strong interest in China.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

February 24, 2011 3 comments

Brown cover with three female portraits on it.

Summary:
In this memoir, Jung Chang recounts the lives of herself, her mother, and her grandmother growing up in pre-communist, revolutionary, and communist China.  Mixing extensive historical facts with intensely personal remembrances, Jung Chang presents a vivid portrait of real life in China.

Review:
As an American, I was raised being told communism is bad, but not particularly taught much about it.  So when Meghan blogged about this memoir, I was immediately intrigued.  My history BA taught me to favor first-person accounts over academic ramblings, so a memoir of communist China from a woman’s perspective was frankly ideal.

It has been a very long time since I’ve learned so much from a memoir.  Chang was extremely careful to verify the facts of the historical events surrounding her family’s various issues.  Starting with her grandmother who had bound feet and was essentially sold by her family as a concubine, Change moves up through the drastic changes in China.  From her mother who was part of the communist revolution to herself who ended up an ex-patriot in Britain.

My preconceived notions of communism were frankly tromped upon by this memoir.  As a liberal person, I never quite understood what was so bad about communist China.  Chang makes it clear throughout the book that the governing body of China never actually lived up to the communist ideals of her revolutionary parents.  The passage where Chang best explains the warped version of communism enacted by Mao states:

The Cultural Revolution not only did nothing to modernize the medieval elements in China’s culture, it actually gave them political respectability.  ‘Modern’ dictatorship and ancient intolerance fed on each other.  Anyone who fell foul of the age-old conservative attitudes could now become a political victim.  (page 413)

Thus, communism in China was and is not at all what many hippie Westerners believe and/or believed it to be.

Beyond opening up understanding of communist China, this memoir also distinctly demonstrates the human spirit under pressure.  From Chang’s father who stood by his ideals at all costs to her grandmother who simply wanted everyone in her family to be comfortable and happy to neighbors with their own agendas, Chang demonstrates how an oppressive regime s bring out both the best and the worst in human nature.

This is a fascinating book both for its insider’s view of communist China as well as its female perspective on said regime.  Similarly, it offers an intriguing commentary on human nature.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of China as well as those with an interest in women’s studies or political science history.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree (now defunct)

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Book Review: Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine

April 28, 2010 2 comments

Chinese girl with hair blowing in the wind on a red and black book cover.Summary:
Ling lives in China with her surgeon father and traditional Chinese medicine doctor mother.  She enjoys her English lessons with her father and hates that her mother makes her eat things like seaweed and tofu.  She hears talk about a revolution, and it comes home when her father’s study is converted into a one-room apartment for Comrade Li.  Everything in her apartment complex starts to get scary with speakers blaring Mao’s teachings all day and more and more rules, but when her upstairs neighbor, Dr. Wong, disappears, Ling really starts to realize that this revolution is no dinner party.

Review:
I read some really amazing books set in China in undergrad.  Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress springs to mind, so I came in to this book expecting to love it.  I found myself struggling at first, however.  I believe it’s the narration style.  It is a child’s voice, but it is told in the first person past tense.  That would make sense if it was an adult or even an older child looking back, but the narration doesn’t know any more than the child in the moment does.  Again, that would make sense if it was the present tense, but it isn’t.  I found it all very distancing, and it made it difficult to get into the story.  An afterword informed me that this is a “fictionalized” look at real events in the author’s life.  This explains the narration style, but I really wish she would have just told her memoir.  Imagine, she really lived through revolutionary China with a Western-educated surgeon father.  That’s such an excellent story in and of itself; I don’t see why she felt the need to fictionalize it.

Once I got past the narration style, I really appreciated two elements of this story.  One is that it takes a completely unglamorized look at what any massive political change looks like to a child.  Through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand politics, it just all looks so silly.  At one point she says she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t wear flowered dresses if she likes them.  Reading that makes you stop and think.  It really should be that simple, the way a child sees it.  People should be able to do the things they enjoy, yet adults make everything so painful and complicated.

The other element, and what is the core of the story, is that this is really a story about a father/daughter relationship, and I have a serious soft spot for those.  I think they aren’t looked at in a positive light in literature enough, and Compestine presents it in such a beautiful, realistic manner.

However, even with these two positive elements, I have to say that I don’t see this story sticking in my head the way other non-western fiction has.  It feels like a one-time read to me.  Maybe that wouldn’t be the case, except that the ending is so abrupt.  I feel that Compestine left the whole story untold, maybe because she was at a loss between fiction and memoir.

Overall, if you can enjoy the narration style and like non-western father/daughter stories, you will find your time reading this book well-spent.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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