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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: Tundra 37 by Aubrie Dionne (Series, #2)

February 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Man and woman holding each other in front of a spaceship.Summary:
Gemme is the Matchmaker for her generation on board the Expedition a spaceship that has been headed toward Paradise 18 for hundreds of years and multiple generations in the hopes of saving humanity from extinction due to the failure of Earth.  The ship is driven by a pair of seers–twins from Old Earth who have been kept alive an abnormally long amount of time by being hooked up to machines and virtually made part of the ship.  The seers make a mistake for the first time in hundreds of years and end up in a meteor shower and having to crash-land on the barely inhabitable ice planet Tundra 37.  Gemme finds herself reassigned from Matchmaker to the exploratory team Alpha Blue with the hunky Lieutenant that the computer system matched her with just before blowing off into space during the meteor shower.  Can she land the hunk without anyone knowing about the match?  And will the colonists manage to survive Tundra 37?

Review:
Although this is the second book in the series, which I didn’t realize at first, it appears that each book follows a different spaceship that left Earth, so I really do not think it’s necessary to read them in order.  I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, for instance.

It’s been a while since I read a book this bad that came from a publishing house, but it does happen.  This is part of why I firmly believe it shouldn’t matter if a work is self-published or indie published or traditionally published.  Bad books happen everywhere.  Although it definitely is more baffling when something like this slips through a publishing house.  (Then again, Twilight happened…..)

There is just so much wrong with this book.  The characters struggle in this odd land between one-dimensional and three-dimensional.  They’re two-dimensional?  The structure itself is odd.  We jump around at illogical points between Gemme/Lieutenant, the Seers’ lives on Old Earth, and the little crippled girl on the ship, Vira.  I’d just get interested, finally, in one of the plots and then get yanked over to another one, only to have it happen all over again.  Actually, the Seers’ lives are interesting and unique.  I wish Dionne had simply told their story and ignored the total snoozefest that is the love interest between Gemme and the Lieutenant.  These are all moderately minor things though that I could still see another reader enjoying, if it weren’t for the things that make zero fucking sense.  There’s so many of them, I’m just gonna go ahead and bullet-point them for ya’ll.

  • When the ship first crash-lands, the Seers (telekinetic, all-knowing types) announce that they have enough fuel to keep everyone warm and everything running for three months.  Mysteriously, this number changes to three days without any explanation.
  • Seriously, how could one person’s entire career be matchmaking one generation that fits on-board a space-ship? Plus, all she does is double-check the matches the computer sets up.  This could be done in a day or two.  A week at the most.
  • NOBODY noticed little Vira’s telekinetic powers before now? Puhleeze.
  • Supposedly the Seers’ eggs have been randomly implanted into random women for all the generations on-board the ship in the hopes of getting another Seer.  Nobody knows this except the Matchmakers.  Fact: The Seers are African-American.  Double-fact: It appears almost everyone else on-board the ship is white. And you expect me to believe nobody noticed the random inter-racial babies popping up?! When these people mate for life? Apparently the facts of genetics that are so important to these people are completely unnoticed when it comes to race. HUH

As if these inconsistencies were not enough, there’s also the fact that Dionne simply tries to do too much throughout the book.  Among the ideas and storylines going in this rather short book (thank god), we’ve got:

  • People reliving their past lives in their dreams.
  • Soulmates from past lives finding each other.
  • The humans’ attempts to survive on Tundra 37.
  • The explanation of how this ship got in the air in the first place.
  • One seer’s love story.
  • The story of the seers’ relationship with each other on Old Earth.
  • How Old Earth went to hell.
  • Vira being telekinetic and hiding it.
  • An “evil entity” on board the ship.
  • The mysterious orb.
  • The mysterious beacon.
  • The Gemme/Lieutenant/Luna love triangle (wtf is with the love triangles in romance novels?!)

Basically, the problem is, you can either tell the story of the Seers’ lives or the story of the colonist’s lives on Tundra 37.  You can’t really do both.  It’s confusing and jarring and seriously that orb/beacon thing was totally unnecessary for either one.  This is honestly an understandable problem.  Authors sometimes get too much going at once.  But how it made it through editing and to publication in this format is beyond me.  Could it be a typical outerspace, clean romance?  (There is no sex).  Sure!  Is it the way it is now?  Hell no!  How it is now is a confusing mess that’s simply exhausting to read.  Not what your typical romance reader is looking for or, really, any reader for that matter.  Definitely give this one a pass. 

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Paradise 21

Movie Review: Matilda (1996)

January 20, 2010 14 comments

Summary:
Matilda has the unfortunate luck of being a smart kid born to not only stupid, but annoying and neglectful, parents.  They leave her alone for extended periods of time at a young age, time she fills by reading books from the public library.  When she’s six and a half, her father finally sends her to a private school with a bully of a principal.  However, her sweet teacher tells her she’s special, and Matilda’s mind stretches to be even more powerful than she ever thought it could.

Review:
This movie sounds serious, but it’s actually quite funny.  Danny DeVito directs and acts–both as the narrator and Matilda’s father.  Rhea Perlman, known like DeVito for comedic roles, plays Matilda’s mother.  Matilda’s telekinetic abilities are played mainly for laughs, and she tends to use them in a child-like manner.

Matilda’s parents aren’t mean to their daughter on purpose; they  just don’t understand her.  They think it’s fun to watch terrible game shows on tv, and are offended when she says she’d rather read Moby Dick.  Matilda doesn’t hate them, but she also knows she doesn’t belong.

The message of the movie really is that family is what you make of it, not what you’re born into.  Matilda could have dumbed herself down to fit in with her family, but she doesn’t.  Her parents could have insisted that she belongs with them, but they don’t.  Sometimes people are born into the right family; sometimes they’re not, and there’s nothing wrong with fixing that.

If you want some giggles and a heartwarming message that doesn’t have a love interest for once, give Matilda a shot.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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