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teleportation and telepaths, the rich have become a hipster elite, showing off their wealth by using outmoded and and outdated methods of transportation like cars and trains.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