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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teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.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: 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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