Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction by Damon Knight

In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction by Damon Knight

Trade Paperback, 462 pages

Published November 2014 by Advent Publishers (first published 1956)

One major effect of doing the Dickheads podcast is that I have become much more serious about being a scholar of the genre. While the title of the book suggests that it covers "modern" sci-fi you have to realize that the first edition of this book was published in 1955 and despite editions in 1967 and 2014 the books in the genre it covers is far from modern. This book first got on my radar because I was looking for background info on Editor/Author Tony Boucher (who wrote the introduction)for an upcoming tribute episode. When I saw what this book was I knew I had to read it.

The concept of this book is simple. In the early days of the genre, I am talking the 30s right after Hugo Gernsback coined the term Scientific Fiction that later got shorten to Science Fiction and eventually Sci-fi deep critical analysis of the genre didn't exist. There were short reviews in the Amazing Stories and fanzines of the time but most came off like catalog entries more than thoughtful reviews. Enter Oregon writer Damon Knight whose most famous work is the short story "To Serve Man" which was turned into a Twilight Zone episode with the famous "It's a cookbook!" twist.

While that is the only time Knight's work penetrated the mainstream he was a titan in the genre from the early 40s until his death in 2002. He was the founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), cofounder of the Milford Writer's Workshop with author Judith Merrill and his wife Author Kate Wilham., and co-founder of the Clarion Writers Workshop. While he wrote hundreds of short stories and a dozen novels it is his criticism and non-fiction history of the early New York writers The Futurians (Reviewed here three months ago)that are most exciting to me.

While this book is clearly not a complete history of the early 20th century Science Fiction that is the purpose it will serve at this point. While heavily colored by Knight's very strong opinions, this book taught me of several dozen important works from that era that I had never heard of. Several I am excited to read. These are not just works of standard genre titans, although the works of Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury are all covered. That is great but what excited me more was learning about mainstream novels of the era with speculative elements and titles that came from Russian authors. That is just two examples. Knight has the genre of the era covered in detail. I don't know how else I would have ever heard about We by Eugene Zamiatin which sounds like a Russian 1984, but it predates the Orwell novel having been banned by the Russians in the late 20s.

Some of the highpoints of this book include autobiographical chapters that explain how Knight joined and interacted with famous editors and writers, help to found some of the genre's most famous workshops and his method of writing his own stories. His breakdowns of novels from genre classics to lost novels are brutally honest and times came off too harsh to me. While I agreed with some of his critiques there were moments I found myself shaking my head as he tore classics to shreds. Knight respected Bradbury for example as a writer but thought he was a joke as a science fiction writer. He hated novels like Matheson's I Am Legend and was not a fan of the author who I consider to be one of the best use a typewriter.

His takedown of Van Vogt's World of Null-A (The last book I read before this) is almost as much of a classic as the novel he ripped shreds. Indeed he devotes an entire chapter to the absolute homicide of Van Vogt's novel that becomes a brutally harsh takedown of tropes and themes the author used over and over. This chapter is the best example of what Knight does as a critic. He dissects plot holes, studies what works and doesn't about the characters and clearly was not impressed by the science. This kinda cracked me up because Philip K Dick always listed this novel as one of his biggest influences. Knight is really picking Van Vogt apart for many of the things Dick did constantly, like random plotting, think characters and random directions of the narrative. That said Knight enjoyed PKD's first novel the Solar Lottery as was not as hard on him as some.

"This is architectural plotting, a rare and inhumanly difficult thing; and who in blazes ever expected Dick to turn up as one of the few masters of it." (67 edition)

So Knight devotes entire chapters to Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Fort, Kuttner and Moore, Blish, and Dick. Histories and backgrounds on the editors are there and valuable. Essays about writing workshops, symbolism, using science defining Science Fiction, writing Science Fiction(really great essay!) and how he saw the genre going.

I loved this book. I think as I work through the two dozen titles I added to my good reads 'Want To Read' shelf I think the impact of this book will continue long after I finished it. I think this will be a valuable book that will remain on my shelf for reference. I don't think this is a must-read but for fans of the genre but for scholars or writers serious about the craft this book is pretty goddamn valuable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Review: The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt

The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt

paperback, 272 pages

Published October 2002 by Orb Books (first published 1945)

Retro Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1996)

Some times a book, a film or a band is more important for who they inspired, and I went into this book for that reason. Of course, Van Vogt was a name I had seen on spines on the shelf as a Science Fiction reader/shopper many times but I am sad to say I never read him before this. My original inspiration to buy the book was our Philip K Dick podcast. PKD himself credited Van Vogt as his biggest influence even going as far as to say that his debut novel Solar Lottery was derivative of Null-A. That made me curious. Since then I was invited to be on a panel for the SFF Audio podcast about This book. I will add a link when that is available. Keep in mind it was Van Vogt at a convention that told PKD in the fifties "You ain't gettin' nowhere writing short stories kid." I am sure he didn't sound like Jimmy Cagney or call him kid but I like to believe that he said it that way.

The history of this novel is interesting, it was published in Astounding magazine August through October of 1945, starting the month that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and finishing a month after they surrendered. That means that the Canadian author was writing this novel during the events of World War II and at a time when the events were still in doubt. The novel I read now had been revised in both 1948 and slightly again in 1970 but when the book is filled with Roboplanes and weapons called the Vibrator it is clear that the novel maintains the wonderfully 40s ness at the heart.

It is the story of Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced go sane) who wakes up in his second body on the eve of the Machine Games, this is a lawless month when players compete in various ways to earn a spot living on a Venus colony. That colony you see has grown into The Null-A system - a lawless utopia that sounded like an anarchist activist's idea of post-civil war Spain. The plot is complicated, something as a reader of PKD I am used to. The story on the surface looks to be like The Purge or Hunger Games but it goes into immortals and space opera later. There are wars with Galatic empires, massive AI's and lots of crazy weird elements.

You see the influence in the paranoid 'who and what am I?' nature of Gosseyn. He has died and is not sure who he is and finds out there are more copies of him running around. It was written for Campbell in the 40s so there is a supermen plot, Gosseyn, and his foes wonder if he can keep moving his mind and became immortal. That is not all the novel,, it is a vehicle to explore political ideas that was clearly an influence not just on PKD but the genre as a whole.

Van Vogt has said that the serial version published in 1945 was flawed and that each edition he was more comfortable with. He also admitted during this time he was writing the novel similar to the style to how PKD wrote High Castle. He didn't consult the IChing, but in the same way he let his dreams dictate the direction of the story. This prompted the criticism of author Damon Knight in his critical study of the genre to say that Null- A "abounds in contradictions, misleading clues, and irrelevant action...It is [van Vogt's] habit to introduce a monster, or a gadget, or an extra-terrestrial culture, simply by naming it, without any explanation of its nature."

The World of Null-A is a flawed novel by today's standards but you can't into reading a genre novel that is almost 80 years and not give it a certain amount of leeway. Considering when it is written it is delightfully weird. In many ways, it is all over the place. I think it is important to remember the science fiction novel as we think of it was not nearly as established. For decades still, novels from even giants in the field were still being serialized in magazines.

This is a must-read for true scholars of the field because the influence it had was so intense and deep. Is it a timeless masterpiece? No, but it is a great example of the evolution of the genre. It also has a great ending, fun action, crazy twists and most importantly tons of weird ideas that are made weirder by how out of date it is. Thumbs up from me.

Book Review/ Podcast: Lies Inc. (Unteleported Man) by Philip K Dick

Lies Inc. (Unteleported Man) by Philip K Dick

Paperback, 202 pages

Published March 2004 by Vintage (first published July 1983)

The tortured path this book took to publication should qualify it for a bit of a hall pass. We will get into the path to publication, rejection, re-write, death, ghost re-writes and found re-writes in the Fullerton collection. That said this is really two books that are forced together, each part has interesting points, although the original novella makes more pulpy sense there is fun weird stuff in the bad trip additions. Full podcast coming but with all the Virus stuff not sure when we will record keep your eyes peeled.

Friday, March 20, 2020

TV Review: Man in the High Castle season three.

No heavy spoilers...

I just finished watching Season three of Amazon's adaptation and expansion of Philip K Dick's lone Hugo award-winning novel Man in the High Castle. As a PKD expert, I was watching it slowly and carefully. Really the first season is the only one actually based on the novel, and even though Phil outlined a novel and wrote a few chapters of a sequel the show is not really based on that. Season 2 has a few concepts from Owl in the Daylight (the sequel) it is mostly an expansion of the characters and setting.

I think season three of High Castle is a good slow burn speculative drama but it becomes something very different from the source material. Season 2 had some clumsy sci-fi that is rooted in the choice to change Haawthrone Abensen's stories of the other world from a novel to films. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (novel in the novel) makes internal sense. The films in the show make visual sense but not logical sense. It requires almost a mythical explanation, verses the clearly multi-verse explanation of the novel.

The expansion of the novel on the show becomes a story about resistance to fascism. Of course, I think that is a good theme, but the original point of the novel has been lost. The message PKD most honed in on - was gee whiz look how scary it would be if the bad guys won but the danger of false historical narrative. How much can you really trust the history you are being taught? Does bias itself create false reality?

I think Anti-fascism is a running theme in PKD's fiction, So I don't think this was a bad direction for the show. His anti-nazism took a weird turn in his second novel The World Jones Made. But the novel treated life in the occupied parts of America as a mundane horror. The show expands the horror and cruelty of Nazism to a more realistic level that portrays the horrors of the holocaust. For whatever reason, the Japanese west while authoritarian did reflect the level of horror as the east. I think the survivors of Nanking might have thought the depiction soft.

The natural reaction is to escalate the resistance. Major characters die and some were surprises for me. Rufus Sewell continues to amaze as John Smith, his storyline being the most interesting to me. As the intensity of the drama ramps up so in the science fiction, I suspect season four is going even deeper there.

Overall I like the series and think that it is an important showcase for PKD, my biggest hope for the show is it will continue to spark interest in source material and various works of the author. Ultimately I think the novel is a masterpiece and the show is about as much as we could hope for.

Our Dickheads episode about the novel:

Really cool interview we did with academics about Man in the High Castle:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Book Review: Weirdbook #42 (John Shirley issue) Doug Draa (Editor)

Weirdbook #42 (John Shirley issue)Doug Draa (Editor)

Paperback, 158 pages

Published February 24th 2020 by Wildside Press

I have a couple issues of the weird book over the 42 issues but this is the first one that I took the step of ordering. Before it was always at a convention or buying a copy from one of the authors published inside. This was a must order as soon as it was available. John Shirley is without a doubt my favorite authors who straddle the neutral zone between Sci-fi, horror, bizarro and high literature. You don't get special issues unless your genius is recognized and he had the Bram Stoker and International horror guild awards to prove it.

For me, any amount of praise seems under rating when you consider that Shirley has a Masterpieces in both horror (Wetbones) and Science Fiction (City Come a-Walkin) and arguments could be made for many other titles getting that praise. He is the man William Gibson called Patient Zero and Clive Barker called an adventurer.

So yeah Weirdbook gave him a whole issue and since he wrote it all it would easy to see this as another Shirley collection. No for a couple reasons it is different. First off his collections from Heatseeker, Living Shadows and the award-winning Black Butterflies are incredible.

This special issue has a complete short novel. None of his collections have that. This issue has several poems. The collections don't have that. Five short stories including two I absolutely loved. This is a big deal because since Shirley moved back close to his native Oregon he has been focused mostly on music. His band John Shirley and Screaming Geezers just opened for Blue Oyster Cult in Portland. Exciting as Shirley has contributed lyrics to BOC for years. The point is new Shirley fiction has not been coming out as often as us fans would like.

So how was it? The novel Sword of Atlantis has a Jack Vance. Fritz Leiber's dark fantasy feel, it is really well done but not my favorite style of story. The level of inventiveness on the page makes this novel stand-out.

The highlights for me were the super Lovecraftian style story Broken on the Wheel of Time. It will remind Shirley fans of his collection Lovecraft Alive. Shirley has found the Lovecraft vibe in a major way in the last couple of years. Again it is the inventive weird creative element that makes this story of alien invasion and time travel really work. Told from two different journals this story drips Lovecraft vibe.

There are also two excellent very short stories The Nodding Angel that is very powerful and a sorta Twilight zoney feeling one called "That Ambulance Again" which made me laugh a bit.

This is a must-own for Shirley fans, is it the best introduction to him, Black Butterflies might be a better place to start but read both. I kinda wish the book came with an interview or more information about John but I was super happy with it.

Book Review: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman
Hardcover, 352 pages Published June 2017 by Custom House

This will be a short review as this is not my typical book and I am not sure how useful my thoughts on it will be. I choose to read this book as I am working on a novel right now that has a Syrian refugee as a main character. So this was the first of a couple of books and documentaries I read/watched in order to get a feeling for the conflict and the people. It taught first and foremost that even as a person who follows global political issues I didn't know 1% of what I thought I did. The author Wendy Pearlman is an academic from Northwestern university but she speaks the local languages and has years of studies in the middle east.

Drawn from interviews with over 300 refugees over a four-year span this is a really great way to get a full picture of the conflict and history in the region. Pearlman of course not only had to earn the trust of the people she was interviewing she had to pick and assemble the best and most important stories. Then she had to format them into a solid story. All this was well done. It is clear and concise which is no minor task when you consider that it is one of the most confusing and hard to understand conflicts going on currently. Russia, Kurds, Assad, Isis, Americans, and various homegrown aspects of the conflict. Lots of information to put together and thankfully it is well done.

I wish every conflict had such an easy to digest history. It is helpful. One thing it gave me was increased compassion for the refugees and the terrible position Assad has put them in. It is amazing that that piece of shit is willing to put his whole region in misery just so he had held on to power. The opposite of a leader. Unbelievable that people in the country continue to fight for him.

So yeah I learned many things and I hope it will be reflecting in the finished product of my book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Book Review: Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime by Sean Carroll

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime by Sean Carroll

Hardcover, 368 pages

Published September 2019 by Dutton

This book is not for everyone. Sean Carroll is an author I reviewed before with his epic book about the universe the Big Picture. I feel more deeply connected to this author because I know his voice well. I listen every week to his podcast mindscape that I often describe as Sean Carrol talks to other geniuses. I was familiar with these ideas and the many-worlds theories before not just as a Carroll podcast listener but as a huge Sci-fi nerd and Philip K Dick Podcaster. We have talked about Many-worlds in a pseudo-science 60's way a lot.

I am not going to pretend for one minute that I am able to process more than the basic ideas here. I read this book quickly because whenever math or the Nitty-Gritty of how particles spin. I really enjoyed the history of discovery and how Carroll weaves the methods that the greats in science came to the various theories that make Quantum science. I know this will sound corny but my love for this topic has roots in my favorite childhood horror movie John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness that was the first place that a young me heard of Quantum psychics.

This is primarily an introduction to one of the most debated issues in the study of spacetime, as such I think it is a good introduction but the big bottom line in this review do you enjoy this stuff? I do and still felt the need to skip a few parts. I enjoy Sean Carroll's books because he helps takes universe-spanning Ideas and boils them down.

Separated into three sections, part one is where we get the majority of the history. This part is called Spooky based on the idea that even Einstein in the early days found these issues to be hard to deal with. In this section, Carroll sets up the questions that we are going to ponder. The second part is called Splitting and gets into what it all means. Part three Spacetime is where most of the interesting theories happen.

The most interesting concepts for me were near the end. "It is plausible that the symmetry between space and time that we are familiar with from relativity isn't built into Quantum Gravity." Oh no he didn't? Was there more to the universe than Einstein could see? sure and towards the end Carroll questions if Space is even part of the equation and this tiny level. Another part I enjoyed was one of the last chapters that explained more of the science behind Black holes, as Hawking was quoted in the book Black holes ain't so black.

I enjoyed Carroll's last book more than this one but that could have as much to do with the epic themes of that one. This one was designed to be a purely academic exercise, while the Big Picture dealt with the point where the rubber meets the road between cosmology and philosophy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Book Review: The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman

The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman

Paperback, 368 pages

Published July 2019 by Harper Perennial

I don't know how I never had this book on my radar, but it was the announcement that FX had bought the rights and attached True Detective creator Nik Pizzolatto to run the show. While it is getting a new name "Redeemer" it will star Matthew McConaughy as a far more handsome version of the lead Mark Haines than I had in my head. Not to shabby for a debut novel. I was already interested in those powerful storytellers involved but then I saw that the author was from here in San Diego, but there is more. It takes place here in San Diego, and to put a cherry on my interest The author got his MFA in my freaking hometown at Indiana University. Maybe he and I should catch an IU basketball game together? ha-ha.

Ok, I love noir and I have been in old pulp sci-fi land because of the podcast for months so it seemed to be a good time to get into a so-cal murder mystery. The story of Mark Haines a security guard from the North County San Diego city of Oceanside. It is an interesting place that is better explained in the book than I could possibly do justice here. Mark has a couple mysteries in his life, one is the hitchhiker he took in she seems to be connected to his former church and the other is his co-worker who is murder right next to him.

Oh yeah, that is important Mark is an ex-pastor, ex-dad turned surf bum. He is not an ex-cop or down on his luck detective but he tries hard to be one when these mysteries come into his life. Much of the novel is focused on this reluctant detective that is forced to look at the spiritual path he walked away from. While there were times that it reminded me of two other San Diego surfer mysteries the FX show Terriers and Don Winslow's early novel Dawn Patrol. Since I loved both of those that is not shade but a compliment.

As a San Diegan I liked seeing the city reflected in this character's eyes. That is indeed the real spine of this novel is Mark. ultimately I feel this novel is a character piece. He wasn't happy to walk away from his church, family, and reputation. The mystery is interesting but honestly, I was more interested in how everything affected Mark. The answers were secondary to me, I wanted to know Mark better as I turned pages.

The writing is strong and the characters rich, the locations were detailed and well-drawn through the character lens. If there is a negative to be was the ending well a little drawn out. There was a long time when the character was stuck underground in a bunker, and I thought that went on a little long. I think some will complain about a slow pace but I was drawn in right away. I thought the setting and the characters provided plenty of hooks.

For a book that has a fair bit of religious cynicism, I think the anti-religious aspects were not as thick as I expected. Some reviewers consider this book to be anti-religion I think that it is not preachy myself. Most important it is a California noir with strong characters and Patrick Coleman is a writer to watch!