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Book Review: American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-56

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Book cover featuring space ships and people.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 1953 to 1956.  The books included in the collection, in order of publication date, are:

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth (1953)–In the future the entire world runs on the basis of consumerism, and ad men have risen to the top of the heap, above even the president.  Courtenay is one of these ad men whose agency is assigned colonizing Venus.  Soon, Courtnay finds himself in a battle of minds and more with the Consies–the Conservationists who want to save the people and the planet from consumerism.

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)–A village idiot finds himself caring for twins with teleportation abilities, a precocious little girl with telekinesis powers, a baby with Down’s Syndrome, and a boy who he found near to death on the street.  What they can accomplish together could change the entire world.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)–After nuclear war destroyed all cities and broke down society’s ability to depend on technology, the survivors turned to the Amish and Mennonites to learn a new way.  Now everyone is following a simple lifestyle religion of one variety or another but there are rumors that somewhere is a place called Bartorstown that still follows the old, sinful ways.

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson (1956)–A married WWII vet with a young daughter discovers that he is shrinking by 1/7 of an inch a day.

Review:
This is my second Library of America read, and I think I’m officially addicted.  There’s something delightful about burying yourself in a topic or theme of American literature complete with useful notes that are not overwhelming but still give you enough background knowledge to come away with more than just the joy of reading the books but some understanding of the time period and genre.  Since this collection gathers up books written by different authors, I will review the books individually but first I want to say that any Library of America book is always worth your time. Just be sure to choose a topic or author that interests you.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
This was my favorite book in the collection by far. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that it is basically Mad Men IN SPACE. What is not to love about that?!  In addition to that, it can sometimes be difficult to be sucked in by older scifi because even if the theme or ideas it addresses was new in its time, I’m from a later time and have heard it a million times already.  This book somehow manages to be unique in spite of all the books about a future awash in consumerism that I’ve read.  I think what gives it the unique edge is the dual focus on advertising and the conservationist movement.  Also the relationship between the main character and his doctor wife is progressive and refreshing.  She is smart, her own person, has her own career and ideas, and she is still depicted in a positive light.  Also the idea of a trial marriage is essentially the couple living together before getting married, which was surprising to see in something from the 1950s.  It also manages to be witty while addressing hard-hitting issues.  It’s the perfect scifi.
5 out of 5 stars

More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
This book in contrast was dull and borderline offensive, repeatedly, throughout.  Sturgeon utilizes lyrical prose to the extent that the plot suffers.  He gets so caught up in making the language beautiful that the plot gets shoved to the side, and the reader is left wondering what, precisely, is going on.  The book is divided into thirds, and the first third is the most confusing of all.  Sturgeon repeatedly changes perspectives between different characters with no rhyme, reason, warning, or even signal.  There’s not even handy squiggly lines letting you know you’re into a new section.  This improves a bit in the final two sections of the book, but only a bit.  The borderline offensiveness comes in with three of the characters.  There are twin girls who can teleport, and beyond their teleportation skills their most identifiable characteristics are: 1) they never keep their clothes on and 2) they are black.  They of course are referred to as “Negro” or “colored” throughout the book, which is better than the baby with Down’s Syndrome who is described as a “mongoloid,” and never even is given a name but is simply referred to as “Baby.”  The crux of the idea–that people come together with different psychic abilities as the next step of evolution–is creative and interesting, but the execution is dull and drags.
3 out of 5 stars

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
It’s not an unheard of idea for a post-apocalyptic society to revert to less technology-laden ways of doing things, but the execution is certainly unique here.  Many people are fascinated by Mennonite and Amish culture, and this takes that culture and adapts it to a scifi, post-nuclear future.  It is definitely engaging.  The plot is strong and consistent.  I was particularly impressed with how Brackett shows the passage of time when nothing necessarily happens, such as when the main character spends a few months laying low and helping with the crops.  Motivation is clear, and the setting is well-done.  I was disappointed though with the very narrowly envisioned role for women.  It makes sense that women would be put into traditional roles in the groups modeled after the Mennonites and the Amish, but even the most progressive group presented in the book still seems to think women can only cook and clean.  It’s disheartening.  The male main characters spend their time striving for knowledge and indeed the point of the book seems to be about the need humans have to acquire knowledge, but it also gives the impression that this should only be embraced in men.  The one female character who shows any similar leanings is fairly quickly quashed back to the home.  I found this extra disappointing since this is the only book in the collection written by a woman.  The rest of the read is enjoyable and imaginative though.
4 out of 5 stars

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
This book feels the most formulaic of the bunch, perhaps because this trope has made its way so solidly into scifi.  Some person finds something about themselves slowly changing and they can’t do anything to stop it.  Toss in the ant-sized person, and it struggles to find anything unique to say.  I’m no expert, so perhaps this was the first book to have this kind of plot, but the fact remains that there’s nothing that makes this one stick out as special.  In fact, as a child of the 90s, I found myself repeatedly thinking that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was more engaging and less fatalistic.  I am sure scifi purists would argue in favor of this book.  It’s Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend fame).  It has an exciting plot and addresses gender norms and what makes a person feel like a man in an interesting way.  But I found it to largely be an average product of its time with an expected plot and the usual nuclear catalyst.  I also found the ending to be a bit of a cop-out, particularly since it’s evident that Matheson meant it to be inspirational, and I found myself rather unmoved.  It is clearly a classic for a reason–representative of its times, strong plot, interesting themes–but I did not find it to be particularly engaging.
3 out of 5 stars

In Conclusion
This is an interesting collection of 1950s scifi that clearly shows what scientific advancements had people thinking and concerned, primarily nuclear war/weapons/power but also the newly highly commercialized culture, as well as possibilities in psychiatry.  A couple of the books fall short of being truly entertaining in modern times, but they are still interesting to anyone who enjoys the history of scifi.  Additionally, The Long Tomorrow could easily become a sleeper hit today with the current interest in “bonnet” books.  Without a doubt, though, the book that stands the test of time the best is The Space Merchants.  It is unique, engaging, and has a thought-provoking vision of the future.  The collection itself is primarily recommended to scifi fans or those with an interest in 1950s American culture, but The Space Merchants is recommended to all.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely (Series, #1) (The Real Help Reading Project)

January 28, 2012 5 comments

Black woman standing in front of house with hand on hip.Summary:
Blanche’s employers failed to pay her on time, and now she has some bad checks.  She had no idea that bouncing a few checks would land her with a 30 day jail sentence, though, so when she gets the chance, Blanche goes on the lam.  She decides to take a temporary job she had originally decided against as a way to hide out.  She’s going to be the help for a family on a week-long vacation in the countryside.  Naturally, things can never be simple, and Blanche starts to suspect one of the family members is a murderer.

Review:
It’s hard to believe Amy and I are on our penultimate book for the project, not to mention the final fiction book on the list.  And what a book!  If I had to pick one of the fiction books we read to hand to fans of The Help to get a much more real representation of black women in domestic service, this is definitely the book I would hand them.

Somehow this tiny mystery novel (called a Kriminalroman in German, which I think sounds much better) manages to cover pretty much every aspect of black female domestic workers’ lives that we’ve discussed throughout the project.  Blanche faces: police and criminal justice prejudice, stinginess on the part of wealthy employers, rape at the hands of a white male employer, classism, employers’ racist attempts to control her body, non-traditional family structure, and much much more.  Yet facing all of those odds, Blanche remains determined and strong.  She is not someone who needs OR wants a white woman (or man) to come along and rescue her.  I think Blanche’s personality is best summed-up here:

She always returned to domestic work. For all the chatelaine fantasies of some of the women for whom she worked, she was really her own boss, and her clients knew it. She was the expert. She ordered her employers’ lives, not the other way around. She told them when they had to be out of the way, when she would work, and when she wouldn’t. (page 86)

That’s one of the wonderful things about this book.  It turns the whole white woman saving the help thing from The Help on its head.  Blanche is the one who saves the white family in this book, and then she refuses to accept help from them in return, beyond clearing up her ridiculously unfair legal troubles.  Instead of taking a cushy job with them, she leaves, because she is her own woman.

Now, all of that said, I was personally a bit distracted from the race and class issues in this book due to the presence of the character Mumsfield.  Mumsfield is the cousin of the sinister family members, and he has Down’s Syndrome.  I don’t think all of my readers know this, but my niece has Down’s, so I certainly am a bit sensitive to the portrayal of it in literature.  Knowing and loving a person with Down’s removes a lot of the misperceptions of it that exist in the world.  At first, I was concerned that Neely had fallen for these things.  Mumsfield at first seems too trusting, too caring, a real simpleton.  But by the end of the book, Blanche realizes that she hadn’t really listened to what Mumsfield was actually saying earlier in the week.  If she had, she would have realized that while Mumsfield is kind and giving, he’s not stupid.  Knowing Mumsfield also helps Blanche see that her experiences as a black woman in America have made her racist against white people, when not all of them are bad.  Thus, I am pleased to report that Mumsfield is actually an accurate and positive portrayal of people with Down’s.

Now, I will say, personally I’m not generally into the typical mystery novel.  I like to get my genre reading from urban fantasy, pnr, and cozies.  I am well aware, though, that a lot of people love this kind of book, and it is definitely well-done.  It has all of the well-loved aspects of the genre, plus manages to address race, class, and even Down’s Syndrome.  It is absolutely a worthwhile read.

Source: Public Library

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Discussion Questions:

  • How do you feel about Blanche’s initial jail sentence and her decision to go on the lam?
  • Blanche sees Mumsfield as an exception to the rule when it comes to white people, aka it’s unusual for them to be kind.  Do you think this is an unfair assessment?
  • Blanche assesses her caring for Mumsfield as a symptom of “Darkies Disease” aka when the help start acting like the idealized Mammies.  What do you think of this assessment?