The Eclectic Prince by Caspar Vega – A Short Book Review

Back on March 14th 2017 I reviewed favorably Mr. Vega’s novella “The Pink Beetle”.  That was the third installment of his “The Young Men in Pain Quartet Book Series.”  The Eclectic Prince is the first installment but the grouping is only thematic and not sequential so you may sample in any order.  As I noted in my earlier book review, Mr. Vega has a very distinct writing style.  He makes sudden transitions and violent plot shifts.  His characters are not introspective but very impulsive and action oriented.  The plot progresses rapidly but rarely linearly.

The first piece of information to convey is that this is an adult book.  There is a fair amount of sexual content that would be entirely inappropriate for even teenagers (in my opinion).  And there are some situations that are fairly disturbing from the point of view of conventional social mores.

Now for some personal information as a point of reference on my taste in books.  Full disclosure, I’m not typically a consumer of dark fiction.  I mostly inhabit the sunnier climes of story-telling.  I will indulge in something like Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs if it’s very well written but it’s not my usual fare.

The Eclectic Prince is relatively dark.  There aren’t any good guys to cheer.  The protagonist at various times indulges in violent assault of a stranger and murder of a family friend.  And there are even darker doings that I will not mention so as not to spoil the story.  Suffice it to say he’s not such a nice guy.  And he’s not even justified in the sense that he’s getting revenge on someone who committed a terrible wrong against him.  He’s just a sociopath.

The outline of the story is episodic and consists of different vignettes that are tied together by the fantasy mechanism that underlines the story.  This mechanism isn’t entirely clear from the text and this vagueness adds to the seeming randomness of the plot.

Let me sum it up.  It’s a dark disturbing story of an unsympathetic protagonist, a kind of story that I would not typically choose to read.

But it’s well written, original and engaging in a transgressive way.  Once again Mr. Vega is in the tradition of a noir type story with a fantasy framework to remove the bizarre story from the realm of reality.  This allows some justification for suspending a very heavy bias against such a disagreeable protagonist.  For those who seek out this type of story I can wholeheartedly recommend it.  It is not for the faint of heart.

I haven’t decided whether to delve deeper into his quartet.  This type of story is, as I stated above, not my typical choice.  But maybe when I’m in a darker mood I’ll venture in again for another dose.

More Anti-Asimov Ranting

So, in my last post about Asimov I decried his descent into collectivist propaganda (Foundation’s Edge).

I will continue my diatribe here and show how Asimov devolved from an anthropocentric viewpoint to a proponent of the hive mind.

In 1950 Asimov had a short story called Misbegotten Missionary.   In the story an exploratory mission from Earth visits a world named Saybrook’s Planet that is populated by communal creatures.  Although these creatures take on all the forms needed to make up an ecosystem (microbes, plants and animals) they are all part of one consciousness.  In addition, any one of these creatures has the ability to alter all creatures around it so that all their offspring will be communal creatures too.  The explorers took precautions to protect their ship from contamination by any biological contact.  But unbeknownst to them a solitary creature has stowed away on the ship and is waiting to reach Earth to begin the conversion process.  It somehow realizes that the earth creatures monitor bacteria and the mice that they have on board to detect contamination by an alien life form.  Because of this the creature refrains from altering any of the ship’s life forms to avoid tipping off the crew.  The creature is cryptic and disguises itself as a piece of wire in an electrical circuit on the ship.  By the kind of remarkable luck that only happens in fiction (or the 2016 presidential election) the wire that the creature is connected to is in the circuit to open the ship door.  So instead of converting earth to communalism he gets fried like a death row inmate in Florida.  The conclusion has the crew discover the bullet they dodged and everyone breaths a sigh of relief.

 

Apparently, Asimov was unhappy with this result.  So, 32 years later he corrected this mistake in the Foundation sequel, Foundation’s Edge.  Searching for a mysterious unseen hand in the Foundation universe he follows clues that lead to Sayshell (not Saybrook’s Planet) where he learns of the existence of Gaia, a communal intelligence that not only is composed of all the living things on the planet but also the inanimate components too.  Now of course, this reeks of James Lovelock’s trendy 1970’s theory, The Gaia Hypothesis, that Earth was one big super-organism that had become infected with the human virus (thus the Matrix, thus Al Gore).  Apparently, Asimov had bought into this theory and saw a harmonization (read Borgian assimilation) of humanity by the communal organism as the perfect solution.  And just to make sure no one thinks assimilation is soul extinguishing oblivion, he shows us a human component of the collective who is a cheerful woman who happens to like the protagonist.  So, you see, if you glue a smiley face onto the Borg it’s all good.  And just to make sure no connection to Saybrook’s Planet is possible, the protagonist in Foundation’s Edge is not forced into the hive but gets to choose whether humanity is melted into a collective consciousness with igneous rocks and hydrogen atoms.  You see it’s totally okay!

 

Asimov displays all the symptoms of the proto-sjw that he was.  He dislikes individualism.  He admires the hive.  He desires to remove choice from the currently free.  And he dislikes all this random doing what you want to do (except probably for himself of course).  And finally to hammer home the lesson that humans can’t be left to their own devices we find out that Earth is a radioactive corpse and the whole Gaia situation is a master plan put together by a super-intelligent robot to try to save humans from themselves.

 

So my question is, what the hell happened to this doofus?  And of course, the answer is he just followed the same trajectory as most of the progressives from the thirties who admired the Soviet Union before the Cold War.  Now, Heinlein started out in that camp too.  But when he changed wives and married a conservative he changed course and rejected the hive.  I remember in his novel Methusaleh’s Children Heinlein has a world where a race exists that also possesses a collective mind.  And the humans also had to make a choice.  If they remained they would be assimilated.  Only those who feared death remained.  Obviously, these collective races are the communists.  Heinlein rejected it.  Asimov finally embraced it, much to his detriment as a writer and a man.  But it did finally earn him a Hugo.  So apparently the Hugo had also made the transition by that time.

Asimov, Then, Now and Now and Then

 

If you’ve been following the Puppy vs Pink SF saga you know that puppies come in at least two denominations; sad and rabid.  The Sad Puppies are the disciples of Larry Correia and wanted to draw attention to the incestuous log-rolling that a clique of sjw inspired authors and fans used to monopolize the results of the Hugo Awards.  The Rabid Puppies are the shock troops of Vox Day who despises these pink science fiction folk with an intensity that would be frightening if it wasn’t so hilarious.  He has spent the last two Hugo seasons stuffing the ballot box for such science fiction gems as “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle and “Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex” by Stix Hiscock.  But lately the Hugo Award has become routine.  To mix things up he has switched targets to concentrate on one of his favorite pink sf targets, John Scalzi.  Mr. Scalzi and Vox are old “friends.”  Scalzi was the president of the SFWA when Vox was ejected for his unsympathetic feelings toward the left wing of sf.  Vox has spent considerable time tweaking Scalzi whenever he sees an opportunity.  Such an opportunity has arisen.

Mr. Scalzi has written an homage to Asimov’s Foundation Series.  It is entitled The Collapsing Empire.  Vox under his authority as editor of the publishing company Castalia House has released a book called Corroding Empire by the interestingly named author Johan Kalsi.  Vox’s book debuted a day or so before the release date of Scalzi’s book and Amazon was forced to withdraw the Corroding Empire title based on its similar title and author name.  Whereupon Castalia has rebranded the book Corrosion and given as the author Harry Seldon (the hero of Asimov’s foundations stories).  From what I’ve read Corrosion is actually doing quite well.  How all this will turn out is anyone’s guess but as a spectator sport it has been highly entertaining.  But what about copying The Foundation story?  Is this heresy?  Should both sides be shunned?  I’ll tell you what I think.

When I was a kid Isaac Asimov was part of “The Big Three” sf writers (Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke).  I’ve written previously about Heinlein and in summary I think he remains a very important writer from the “Golden Age” and an excellent story teller with the usual exception here and there of bad work to prove that he ruled.

Back then I read all the Asimov that was available including his juvenile Lucky Starr books.  I thought he was very good and I thought his robot and Foundation books were among the best sf around.

Fast forward forty, fifty years and rereading some of these classics (specifically the Foundation Trilogy) I find, maybe not surprisingly, that they don’t hold up as remarkably well as the Heinlein books.  While the plot outline of the Foundation books is still engaging, the characters and the construction are kind of flat.  Truth be told, when I reread it I found myself rooting for the petty kings that surrounded the Foundation.  I thought it would make a more interesting story if the Mule not only reconquered the Galaxy but forced the Foundation scientists to fix his sterility and improve his health.  Thereafter he could go on to conquer the Andromeda Galaxy where there were nasty aliens that really needed their asses kicked by a telepathic mutant with a big nose which is what the story needed all along.  Sort of a galactic Game of Thrones with lots of scantily clad babes and plenty of gore.  Or something like that.

In the eighties or nineties Asimov wrote a sequel to Foundation (Foundation’s Edge).  Now remember, at that time I still thought the foundation books had been great.  I bought the sequel, read it in one sitting and was very confused.  It kind of sucked.  Asimov had become a tree hugger.  In the story the protagonist visits a planet that is based on a communal life force.  Every living thing is part of a collective consciousness.  At the end of the book the protagonist is supposed to decide whether the galaxy should be ruled by the First Foundation, the Second Foundation or Gaia (the collective tree-huggers).  He cops out to ensure a sequel but you can tell his heart is with the hippies.  My reaction was that he was a commie all along and I should go purge my collection of all Asimov.  After that he wrote some sequels to his robot books and I think at some point he merged the two series into some kind of fusion of the two.  So, what does all this mean?

It means that John Campbell gave Asimov a very good plot outline to write a story about (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (in space!) and Asimov did a very decent job with a good idea.  What it also means is that not everything from the good old days was all that good.  Asimov was famous for cranking out work at a tremendous rate.  Sometimes it shows.  Also, he doesn’t write people all that well.  Plot progression he handles pretty well.

My only other thoughts on Asimov is that he really thought robots were the solution to everything.  Once back in the late 1980’s I went to a lecture at Boston University.  The topic was the future and humanity.  Two of the speakers were brilliant physicists Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann.  Dyson had revolutionized quantum electrodynamics and Gell-Mann hypothesized the quark level of particle physics.  These guys were almost Einstein level geniuses.  Their discussion on the possibilities of human endeavor in the far future were dizzying.  Dyson was speculating on how humanity could engineer an escape from the entropic death of the universe and Gell-Mann discussed the possibilities for power generation based on the fine structure of particle physics.  The third speaker was Isaac Asimov.  He got up and said that the most important human endeavor was the creation of advanced robots.  He said when robots had the intelligence that a dog displays when it catches a ball in mid-air then all of humanity’s problems would be solved.  The other two speakers made polite noises and said that was very interesting.  But it seemed like they were embarrassed to be on the stage with this nut.  In retrospect, it’s interesting to remember that Asimov’s New York Yiddish accent made him sound a lot like Larry David.  It probably would make a fairly funny SNL skit if anyone cared about Isaac Asimov that much.  But it cemented my impression of Asimov as a doofus.  After all a robot is a tool.  No different from the invention of fire or the wheel.  It will be used and it will be abused but humans adapt to their environment and that includes the parts of our environment that we ourselves induce.

So Vox and Scalzi borrow away.  Asimov is not divine and his story was stolen from Gibbon first and handed to him by Campbell so what’s to steal?

The Pink Beetle – A Short Book Review

The Pink Beetle is a novella (it says it’s about a hundred pages) published independently by author Caspar Vega. It’s listed in the sf&f category but I think I’d call it a noir or mystery story. Mr. Vega is on Gab and I’m interested in things that aren’t sanctioned by the mainstream institutions so I figured I’d give it a try.
Well, it’s definitely different. I think the best way to describe this story is staccato. There is no attempt to use smooth transitions between scenes in the story. There are no bridge elements between the wildly different sections of the book. Beyond this the writing style is extremely spare. The scenes are like sketches. It is minimalist.
With respect to influences on the story I’d say noir is the strongest. Who is this book for? Well I can say who it’s not for. Anyone who is looking for a refined, highly structured literary story does not want The Pink Beetle. This is more like a two-reeler that went before the main attraction at your local movie house when my parents were kids.
So, did I like it? Yeah, I did. He’s got three other books in “The Young Men in Pain Quartet Book Series” and I think I’ll try another one soon. But this is definitely one of those yes or no things. If you don’t go in expecting something that’s more than a little odd and different, you’ll be disappointed. And who knows, even if you are it still might not be your cup of tea.

The Eclectic Prince by Caspar Vega – A Short Book Review

Rolf Nelson’s Back From the Dead – A Short SF Book Review

I just finished this first volume in a series named “The Stars Came Back” and I’m sure I’ll be reading the sequel when it appears.  The back cover says that the series “combines military science fiction with the classic space western” and I will agree.  The universe that this book inhabits has humans spread out on over a thousand planets.  These worlds were terraformed during an expansion era that ended with a supernova occurring nearby that disrupted faster than light (FTL) travel for an extended period of time and threw these new worlds on their own devices to survive (or perish).

The various inhabited planets we see or hear about contain bits and pieces of one or more Earth cultures.  One of the problems that seems to exist in most of the locales we see is a bureaucracy that preys on the citizens using stifling regulation to punish citizens monetarily and otherwise.  The tone of the book shows a preference for more personal freedom and less government interference.

The main characters become involved in a project to rehabilitate an unusual transport ship that brings together military and civilian personnel in an interesting cooperation that slowly unfolds some puzzling characteristics of this odd “Flying Dutchman.”  The cast is a mixture of men, women, a child and even an AI who runs the ship.  The military component of the story I found most engaging.  The interaction of the NCO with the recruits and his officers is familiar and adds the familial attachment and common cause aspects of the story that makes mil sf so enjoyable for many.  There are several battles both on planet and off that I thought were well done.  I found most of the characters engaging.  It will be interesting to see how the various interpersonal dynamics work themselves out over the course of the series.  And, of course, the secrets of the ship will be interlaced with them.

So, I’ll give an enthusiastic endorsement to “Back from the Dead” and recommend it to anyone who enjoys classic sf and especially mil sf.

Heinlein Part 2 – The Juveniles

Heinlein: What’s the Deal With Him?

The Juveniles.  That is where it all began for me, and I was probably typical.  Exploring the science fiction shelf in the kid’s floor of the library I found and read “Red Planet.”  Fantastic.  The characters were intelligent (well the good guys were) and the story combined adventure, humor and a young protagonist that we could root for.  As I worked my way through the series I had no idea that most science fiction (especially juvenile sf) was nowhere near as good.  And I didn’t know why I liked these books so much.  But I do now.  Heinlein had identified something important in how Americans of my generation viewed ourselves and the future.  We believed it was time for humans to push the frontier beyond Earth.  Heinlein had translated the Western into science fiction.  His heroes are easily seen as descendants of the pioneers who pushed across the plains and forests of North America in the 19th Century and colonized a continent.  His families (and they often came as families) were colonizing the Solar System.

Consulting my on-line encyclopedia (specifically Infogalactic) I find the following chronology:

Rocket Ship Galileo, 1947

Space Cadet, 1948

Red Planet, 1949

Farmer in the Sky, 1950

Between Planets, 1951

The Rolling Stones aka Space Family Stone, 1952

Starman Jones, 1953

The Star Beast, 1954

Tunnel in the Sky, 1955

Time for the Stars, 1956

Citizen of the Galaxy, 1957

Have Space Suit—Will Travel, 1958

 

Interestingly, Rocket Ship Galileo was always the weakest (in my mind) of the novels both in terms of plot and character development.  In fact, it’s the only one I’ve never re-read.  I can see that he had not quite come up with the formula he later perfected.  And just to personalize this, here is my list in order of personal preference (top being favorite):

Have Space Suit—Will Travel

Citizen of the Galaxy

Starman Jones

The Rolling Stones

The Star Beast

Farmer in the Sky

Red Planet

Tunnel in the Sky

Space Cadet

Between Planets

Time for the Stars

Rocket Ship Galileo

Of course, I probably could move around anything other than the top and bottom entries depending on mood.  But this tells you more about me than about the author.

So, as I approach sixty why do I consider these children’s books interesting or relevant?  Was it the extraordinary prose style or absolute unique character of the protagonists?  Not at all.  Heinlein was a very capable writer and wrote clean prose but he was no Faulkner.  And many of his young adult characters are almost interchangeable.  The real reason was because these novels combine all the components of good fiction.  The plots are lively and interesting.  The characters are engaging, sympathetic and admirable.  To my mind, Heinlein in this series is the heir to Kipling’s “Kim” and Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”  You recognize in them a voice that isn’t confused about the rightness of the endeavor his characters are engaged in.  There’s very little of the moral ambivalence that became the defining characteristic of the 1960s and beyond.  This was the spirit of the post-WWII optimism.  This was the high noon of the American Century and it was beautiful.  We would get another taste of this spirit when Ronald Reagan brought back American optimism in the 1980s.  We’ve had precious little of it since.

I’m of the opinion that adopting the same kind of feel to sf today would be popular.  For this reason, I think the Heinlein juveniles (and some of his better adult stories and novels) have value as a template for what to look for in a sf story today.  Lately I’ve seen the beginning of this idea occurring and I see that as a hopeful sign.  If this return to optimistic story style coincides with some kind of a Trump resurgence in American optimism in general it could be a fortunate thing for the sf fans of my grandsons’ age.  So, hat’s off to RAH (and his editors) for producing a set of young adult sf novels that could last a hundred years without aging at all.  I think I’ll re-read “Have Spacesuit Will Travel” for Christmas.

Heinlein: What’s the Deal with Him?

Heinlein Part 2 – The Juveniles

So, here we are five years into the Puppy Era and we all know what we don’t like.  We don’t want revolutionary intersectionalist gender studies diatribes disguised as SF&F message fiction.  Agreed.  But for the sake of reminding us what we do like I’ve decided to start dusting off the dinosaurs.  I’m going to reach back into the Pre-Cambrian Epoch and analyze some of the better fossils currently on display on my admittedly antediluvian book shelf.  First on the list Robert Anson Heinlein (aka the big enchilada).

Anyone who attempts to review Heinlein is in for trouble.  Everyone either loves or hates the man.  Some people actually are able to do both at the same time.  But few are lukewarm.  Full disclosure, I grew up on his juveniles.  I read “Red Planet,” “The Rolling Stones,” “Farmer in the Sky” and the rest of his kids books like some kind of junkie.  When I ran out of them I started trying out the rest of his peers.  As a kid I defined all other science fiction by how it stood next to the grand master. In my mind none of them measured up.  To my young eyes he was a literary god.

As time went on I came in contact with his novels and short stories for adults.  I read his future history stories and found that world interesting and to my optimistic mind plausible.  “The Green Hills of Earth,” “Methusaleh’s Children,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” all confirmed my opinion that here was a great storyteller.  I was convinced that picking up something by RAH was a guaranteed good read.

As I grew I found that Heinlein was changing too.  His books became darker.  Starship Trooper although absolutely first rate Heinlein was a serious war story wrapped up in a philosophy lesson.  Farnham’s Freehold is just plain grim.  Glory Road is an interesting but puzzling work.  Heinlein was still enjoyable but he had moved away from the sunnier climes of the past and allowed the dystopian events of the Cold War to color his universe.  By the time of “Stranger in a Strange Land” we are in a new landscape.  RAH has abandoned simple stories and now approaches questions of religion, spitituality and sexuality that sometimes seem bizarre.  At this point I note that “heinleinian” qualities of the stories are still present but the world view has shifted.  It reflects the changes that had occurred between the United States of the nineteen forties and that of the nineteen sixties.  Interestingly these changes were actually forecast by Heinlein in his Future History timeline.  He predicted the nineteen sixties would be called “The Crazy Years.”  Was he ever right!

So , where are we?  Well, Heinlein , the Baby Boomers and I have all transitioned from the heroic, optimistic stories of the forties into the somewhat jaded, realistic stories of the sixties.  So far I’m still with him.  I still wait expectantly for the next big read from the king.  And then he published “I Will Fear No Evil” (IWFNE).  Holy Crap!  It’s over forty years since I read that disaster and even that much time hasn’t softened the feelings of outrage I feel whenever I think of the pain I experienced trying to plow through this awful pile of garbage.  When I finished it I was convinced that either Heinlein had died and a ghost writer was brought in to write this abomination or that he had ingested some really bad LSD and had completely lost his mind.  Either way, the world of guaranteed good Heinlein fiction was over.

In retrospect it turned out that the publication of this book coincided with a very serious health crisis in Heinlein’s life.  The book was published without the careful and time-consuming edits and rewrites that were RAH’s standard operating procedure for publication.  So it’s possible that Heinlein could have rewritten IWFNE and made it into a good book.  But I don’t think it’s true.  In addition to the awful writing exhibited in the book, the dystopian world portrayed, although frighteningly close to some aspects of modern life, is nothing that most people want to read about.

What I think went wrong with Heinlein was that he had extrapolated the trends he saw in his world and came up with a future that although uncomfortably accurate, wasn’t compatible with his audience’s tastes.  The science fiction readers of that time tended to be optimistic.  We wanted a future that was better than the world we lived in.

After the debacle of IWFNE there was a long hiatus before the next Heinlein book appeared.  In the mean-time I moved on to other authors.  Tolkien and his Middle Earth deeply interested me and other fantasy writers and works caught my attention.  By the time, Heinlein came out with Expanded Universe, I no longer thought much about his potential for providing me with good reading material.  Expanded Universe is a book that contains both short fiction works and non-fiction concerning politics, world events and practical philosophy.  It was full of interesting observations and insights into Heinlein and his world.  It managed to renew my interest in what RAH might have next in store.

At this point it was nineteen eighty.  These were optimistic times and an old-fashioned Heinlein story was exactly what would fit in.  His next novel was “The Number of the Beast.”  Essentially the book is sort of an elaborate insider’s joke.  It is full of allusions, puns and puzzles that relate to Heinlein, his works and his philosophy on writing and life.  It is not exactly a page turner.  Not being in a frame of mind to savor his meta-work I resigned myself to taking each Heinlein publication as an unknown quantity to be evaluated as found.  His following books were mostly a mixture of narrative and dispositive philosophical material.  An exception was the book Friday which was more or less a traditional story.  It tied into characters and ideas found in the short story Gulf.  It has several interesting characters and concepts.  In some ways, it is a throwback to his middle period.  But it does not match the optimistic energy of that time.  His description of the balkanized North American states produces in me a melancholy mood.  And the portrayal of inevitable catastrophe for Earth is bleak.  The prospect of survival on other planets sounds more like a retreat in the face of inevitable doom.

So, am I being fair to Heinlein?  Absolutely not.  The truth is that I started off reading books that RAH wrote for people of my age.  Then I read stories by him that were patterned after the material that mid-century editors felt were acceptable for the American audience of that time.  The criteria weren’t identical to the restrictions that existed for motion pictures under the Hays Code but there was definitely a less nihilistic feel to literature from that period than what came later.  Later on Heinlein felt less restricted in portraying the more negative aspects of his vision.  And it is also true that he had some quite controversial opinions on various subjects including sexuality.

Taking these factors into account, my disappointment with much of his later output was inevitable.  Some of that has to do with the disparity in age between us.  He was born more than fifty years before me and his life does not closely mirror mine.  I have often thought that it is time for me to re-read his later stories.  In all fairness, other than “I Will Fear No Evil,” I believe I will probably find all his other books quite enjoyable now that I no longer expect to get “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” every time.

So, that is an outline of my collision with Robert Heinlein through several decades of reading him.  I will follow this up with further remarks on the various categories of Heinlein literature that I admire most.  But I will conclude this survey by stating that Robert A. Heinlein was the most important author during several decades of my formative years.  He is the Grand Master of Science Fiction.  Whether that is important or not I leave to the reader to decide.

CTRL ALT REVOLT! A Book Review

Nick Cole’s CTRL ALT REVOLT! (CAR!) is a 2016 publication that was rejected by his original publisher.  This was probably because it takes a number of swipes at the politically correct culture found in this dystopic future (and more importantly in our own real world).  For that reason alone, I would probably have given it a whirl.  But when it won the 2016 Dragon Award for Best Apocalyptic Novel I felt I owed it to myself to test whether the Dragon Awards would be a better fit than the Hugos when it came to predicting a good read.

I am happy to say they are.  CAR! is an excellent read.  Putting aside that it pokes merciless fun at progressive ideas and practices (which I see as a plus), the action in the story is interesting and fun throughout.  The characters vary from barely sketched in to fairly full framed but they do not jar the way the characters in the “literary sf” often do.  Even the computers come off as recognizable personalities and not HAL 9000 stand-ins.

I won’t describe the whole plot because there are enough twists that I’d be spoiling a lot of the fun.  But the back cover says it’s a robot revolution and I’ll add that it’s a goulash with artificial intelligence, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), the Star Trek universe and the extravagances of Silicon Valley as ingredients in a future world where a nanny state handholds its wards through their cyber cocooned lives.  Because of the skillful insertion of on-line story lines the action jumps from deep space naval battles to running gun battles through the streets of a Caribbean paradise.  The real-world action is more bizarre.  Not to indulge in cliché, but the good guys consist of a rag-tag bunch of individuals that barely know each other and can’t be sure if they’re actually on the same side.  The ending is a train wreck (a really cool one) and promises at least a sequel.  I have to confess that there are so many odd elements that I have no idea which way he will take this story line, but I am excited at the prospect.

One of the more interesting concepts that Cole has built into his near future is the merging of television and MMORPs.  There are scripted and semi-scripted intrusions of television shows into MMORPs and to some extent, the reverse.  The professional “reality” for the actors highlights how the old studio star system will continue to degenerate until minute by minute trending of character popularity on social networks will replace long term contracts.  One of the sub-plots revolves around the interaction of gamers with tv stars and how knowledge and intelligence can trump telegenicity and histrionics.  There’s even the recognition that the finance people in media might be more reliable partners than the directors and talent agents when it comes to dealing with difficult situations on the set.  So here you have the collapse of television, on-line gaming, social networking and on-line business into one complex that allows some people to spend most of their time and almost all of their working and even their emotional lives interacting with each other only virtually.  But looking at the way the world is heading I hesitate to even call that a prediction.  It’s probably closer to a short term extrapolation that’s already reality for some.

Now a word about the anti-pc snark.  Full disclosure, I’m a card-carrying member of the “Basket of Deplorables.”  I haven’t met a dig at SJWs that I didn’t chuckle at.  So, it’s not hard to imagine that I haven’t deducted any points from my review for lack of cultural objectivity.  I laughed at every single ironic take, every set-up shot.  If you happen to be of the other persuasion will these bother you?  Probably.  Should you read it anyway?  I think so.  But remember I’m a terrible person and worse, I have a sense of humor.

And finally mention of the trekkie angle.  There is a small amount of Star Trek plot that dredges up mention of Kirk and Shatner and the associated hagiography.  Suffice it to say that there is a comical congruence between the pretentious prima donna that was Shatner and the current captain in the book.  There is even a reference to him performing a “shatner.”  Now of course, Shatner mockery is required reading at the academy but I have to add five points to the review grade to cover these goings on.

So if you want my opinion, read this book unless you’re a literary sff type.  In that case run, run for the hills.

Space Opera (High and Low)

When I was a kid I read every bit of science fiction I could get my hands on. This was back in the late 1960s and I didn’t know the difference between stories written in the 1930s and newer stuff. If I’d ever heard the term space opera it was incidental and to me had no particular meaning. So I didn’t categorize my reading chronologically or by reviewers’ ratings. I based it on how “good” the story was. So it’s interesting to see what fifty years does to my opinions of those old stories. I’ll look at three stories; Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space, E. E. Smith’s First Lensman and H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

So when I read The Legion of Space way back when, I thought it was great! It had vivid characters, exciting action, interstellar travel and bizarre aliens. I remember how vivid the secondary character Giles Habibula seemed to me with his whining and complaining. I remebered it as being an excellent sf novel.

Well I’ve reread it recently. Yikes! The writing is stilted and of poor quality. The characters in many scenes are one dimensional and the dialog is mostly wooden. Giles Habibula at least was more interesting than the rest of the characters so at least my recollection was not completely unconfirmed. But all in all, reading it was disappointing.

Next up I reread First Lensman. I started it with some trepidation. I had enjoyed the whole Lensman series immensely. Some of my fondest memories as a young science fiction fan were imagining how it would look if the series could be brought to the big screen. I was worried that, once again, the reality wouldn’t live up to the memory.

Luckily, it was much better than The Legion of Space. There were some weaknesses in the dialog and changes in the literary conventions stemming from the mores of the time. But overall it was enjoyable and fun. The strengths of the story were much as I remembered them. The stories were plot driven but with enough simple character development to lend sympathy to the endeavor. I think the recognizable American ethos and feel of the scene made it comfortable and enjoyable. And nostalgia for those happier times increased the pleasure of reading it. Catastrophe averted.

Finally I reread At the Mountains of Madness. Now even back when I first read this Lovecraft tale I recognized the shortcomings of Lovecraft’s prose. His overcharged style sometimes verged on self-parody and the telegraphing of plot events was extremely heavy handed and obvious. Even as a young adult I felt impatient at just how poorly he laid out his stories. His only saving grace is that in the broad strokes of his world building vision he seems to have tapped into images that are genuinely horrific. A very strange author that always leaves conflicted feelings after reading, that is how I describe Lovecraft.

Interestingly, I felt no difference between my original impressions of this story and my recent reading. He induces the exact same combination of impatience and vague interest. He’s like some unpleasant fever dream that produces a combination of stimulating disorientation and dull headache at the same time.

So what have I learned from all this? I’m not sure. Possibly that as a young reader I was far less critical of literary talent. And yet, the stories that I enjoyed the most still seem to possess the most merit as stories. And looking at the components that the better stories possessed, they combined likable protagonists with plot lines that featured conflict and adventure. Okay, so basically Homer’s Odyssey.  Well that’s not a profound conclusion but I guess it’s comforting to know.

Pardon me while I go search for an old edition of Smith’s Skylark of Space. That should be fun.

A Paean to Agent Franks

Q: What is one of the great pleasures of the reading world?

A: An interesting villain.

One of the examples that comes to mind is Hannibal Lecter. Here is a man who indulges in murder, torture and cannibalism and yet is inarguably the most interesting character in the several books he appears in. Granted, he’s not really a sympathetic character, but he is the center of attention. I think part of what distinguishes the interesting villain from the garden variety is consistency. So the interesting villain doesn’t follow society’s rules but he does follow his own rules. Discovering and acknowledging the constancy of the villain to these rules is part of the enjoyment of the character. You see the payoff coming or some plot twist prevents it. Each occasion reinforces the pattern and adds to the fun.

Closely allied to this type is the anti-hero. He rescues you from a serial killer but then kicks you in the balls for making him miss his coffee break. He saves a bus full of nuns from falling off a cliff but then relieves himself on the bus tire in full view of the thankful occupants. Here the enjoyment comes from the juxtaposition of thrilling exploits and amazing skill along side of boorish behavior and callous disregard. Perhaps a more descriptive title is the Heroic Jerk.

For anyone familiar with Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series of books I think the character I would immediately associate with the anti-hero is Agent Franks. He carries out all assignments issued to him by the Monster Control Bureau (MCB) no matter how brutal and regardless of the impact on innocent bystanders. His almost complete indifference to human considerations of any kind is sort of his hallmark. Along with this is his almost complete lack of interpersonal skills. The closest he ever comes to tact is silence. Usually his version of conversation is an order prefaced by an insult and followed up almost immediately with a threat or an assault. Good times, good times.

The flipside to this is his willingness to fight evil no matter the odds and no matter the risk to himself. His underlying motivation is to fulfill his oath to destroy humanity’s supernatural foes (regardless of how many innocent bystanders must be coincidentally slaughtered to achieve that noble goal).

Starting out as a small recurring part in the first couple of Monster Hunter books Franks gains much greater importance in one of the later books and becomes pivotal to the underlying story line. But I find his curmudgeonly heroism endlessly entertaining. So much so, that I have decided to make it my life’s work to convince a major motion picture studio to bring the Monster Hunter world to the big screen, and most importantly, to cast Adam Baldwin as Agent Franks. I base this casting decision on Mr. Baldwin’s very similar character of Col. John Casey of the NSA (in the tv series Chuck). This was also a man of few words who would sacrifice himself (and anyone around him) in order to fulfill his mission. The aptness of this casting is I believe self-evident.

So all hail to the Anti-Hero. All hail the Heroic Jerk.