Friday, January 19, 2018

Hellhounds of the Cosmos by Cilfford D. Simak

Bizarre fantasy of interdimensional warfare
Hellhounds of the Cosmos, a science fiction novella by Clifford D. Simak, was originally published in the June 1932 issue of Astounding Stories magazine. It is among the few Simak works of which the copyright has passed into the public domain, making it available to download free of charge from sites like Amazon and Project Gutenberg. This novella is among the first handful of stories that Simak ever published. He would go on to enjoy a long and prolific writing career and receive much critical acclaim for his work. The quality of his writing is consistently excellent, but it did take him a little time to find his voice, so the stories from his early years are spotty at best. Hellhounds of the Cosmos is far from Simak’s best work, but it still exhibits enough inklings of his mature style to make it an enjoyable read.

Earth is being attacked by mysterious creatures collectively dubbed “The Horror.” Appearing spontaneously at various points around the globe, these beings assume a wide variety of monstrous appearances but are united by their tarry black color. Their sole purpose seems to be to kill humans and feast upon their bodies. Newspaper journalist Henry Woods is assigned to interview a scientist, Dr. Silas White, who claims to have information regarding The Horror. White’s theory is that the creatures are invaders from the fourth dimension, and he proposes to attack the problem at its source. Having developed a machine that will allow third-dimensional humans to travel into the fourth dimension, he organizes an expedition to fight the enemy on its home turf. Seeking the story of the century, Woods volunteers to go along.

I’ve read a lot of Simak’s fiction, and this is truly one of his most bizarre stories ever. He often pushes the envelope with his visionary sci-fi speculations, but this one often veers from scientific logic altogether and enters into a realm of fantasy, similar to the work of sci-fi pioneers William Hope Hodgson (The House on the Borderland) or David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus). In the first half of the book, Simak lays a theoretical foundation for the story, but it’s a pretty preposterous construction. Dr. White proposes that the world we live in, ourselves included, is the result of a process of cosmic reverse evolution through which beings and objects progressively lose dimensions over the course of eons. Thus the third-dimensional world is descended from the fourth, the second from the third, and so on. In the latter half of the novella, when the humans travel to the fourth dimension, the book gets even more ridiculous, achieving epic levels of weirdness. Hellhounds is reminiscent of Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland, which depicts an interaction between beings of the second and third dimensions, but when Simak broadens the idea to the fourth dimension, he abandons geometrical reasoning altogether and just lets his freakiest ideas run free.

Despite the conceptual absurdity of it all, Hellhounds of the Cosmos succeeds because of Simak’s talents as a storyteller. Unlike his story of the same year, “Mutiny on Mercury,” which comes across as an amateurish, pulp-fiction actionfest, Hellhounds is a very engaging read put together by a precociously skilled craftsman. Even if you can’t believe the science behind the narrative, you can’t help but admire Simak for his audacity, and you can’t wait to see where he’ll take the story next. Hellhounds of the Cosmos is not a story to be believed, but it is a story to be remembered.
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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dragon Harvest by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd and the dawn of World War II
Upton Sinclair’s novel Dragon Harvest, first published in 1945, is the sixth book in the Lanny Budd series. The title echoes that of the third book, Dragon’s Teeth, making reference to the old saying about sowing dragon’s teeth, meaning to do something that inadvertently leads to trouble. In this case, the leniency with which European nations have reacted to Nazi aggression has allowed the German military to become extremely powerful. Here Hitler reaps the harvest of those appeasement policies by invading Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The great thing about this series is that Sinclair really explains in detail how and why World War II happened. It is easy for us to look back in hindsight and see Hitler and the Nazis as blatantly evil, but Sinclair shows you how they were viewed at the time and how they were allowed to get away with what they did. Not only was fear of war a factor in the Nazis’ rise to power, but many saw them as saviors from the spread of Russian Bolshevism. The story covers the years 1938 to 1940. Among the events depicted is the Dunkirk evacuation, subject of the recent film by Christopher Nolan which has received so much critical acclaim.

Though this is essentially a spy novel, one thing that keeps this book from being a first-rate political thriller is the fact that there’s no overarching mission that unites the book as a whole. In Dragon’s Teeth, you have Lanny rescuing Jewish friends from the Nazis; in Presidential Agent, you have the mystery of Lanny’s missing wife. Here, however, it’s just Lanny bouncing like a pinball between Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, exchanging information with world leaders, in some cases visiting the same person four or five times over the course of the book. Here the espionage narrative, however, isn’t really the main attraction. What makes these books worth reading is Sinclair’s perspective on history and the educational insight he provides into world events.

As usual, in between all the scenes of political intrigue we get frequent updates on Lanny’s love life. No less than three love interests materialize in this volume. The relationship subplots are a forgivable diversion in these novels, but I didn’t really like the direction in which Sinclair took them in this story. At one point Lanny enlists one of his lady friends into a dangerous missions, while keeping her mostly in the dark about the risks she’s running. Sinclair needs the device in order to move the plot forward, but it doesn’t seem true to the character of Lanny, who usually proves himself ever the selfless gentleman.

Through the first half of the book I was getting ready to call this the best Lanny Budd book ever. The history was fascinating, the drama was engaging, and there was not an instance of paranormal activity whatsoever. Then, at about the halfway point, Sinclair returns to his pet interest in spirit communication and lays it on extremely thick, as if to make up for his self-control earlier in the book. In order to influence Hitler’s decision-making, Lanny comes up with a cockamamie plot involving séances and mediums. Even if you believe someone can talk to the dead, the idea of him actually pulling off the stunt he comes up with here stretches the bounds of believability.

These books always end on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving the fictional narrative feeling unfinished in order to set up the next book. Historically, however, the ending of Dragon Harvest feels more resolved than most, as it ends with the surrender of Paris to the Nazis. The series promises lots more intrigue as the war progresses. Despite all my complaints, reservations, and disappointments, I do enjoy reading these books, and I’m in it for the long haul.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo

About a short story’s worth of plot, very slowly told
The Man Who Laughs, a novel by Victor Hugo, was originally published in 1869 under the French title of L’Homme qui rit. The story begins in 1690 and takes place in England. Hugo starts with a lengthy explanation of a class of criminal known as the Comprachicos, who would kidnap children and sell them into slavery. Sometimes they would alter the physiognomy of the children they captured, surgically or otherwise, giving them a freakish appearance suitable for employment as court jesters, circus performers, and the like (Hugo makes this sound like it was a common thing). As the narrative opens, a band of such Comprachicos is boarding a boat, fleeing England in order to avoid a Comprachico crackdown. Not wishing to get caught with any evidence, they abandon the child they have abducted, leaving him on the shore to die as they make their getaway. This homeless, hungry, poorly dressed child trudges through the snowstorm of a dark January night, eventually stumbling into the caravan of a traveling carnival performer named Ursus, who raises the boy as his own son. The boy grows into a young man named Gwynplaine, and joins his adoptive father in the career of a traveling performer. Gwynplaine’s unique physical appearance makes him particularly qualified to entertain the crowds. When a boy, in the hands of the Comprachicos, they surgically altered his face, leaving him with a startlingly large permanent smile.

Though that’s but the beginning of the story, the verbose telling of these few scenes is lengthy enough to constitute an entire novel in and of itself. By the time you get to this point, you have already endured several protracted, minutely described chapters about a shipwreck. As is often the case with Hugo’s novels, the fictional narrative is interspersed with nonfictional asides which establish the historical context or just give Hugo the opportunity to say whatever he wants to say. When a character gets angry, for instance, you get an essay on anger. Hugo also goes into great detail chronicling the history of England, its peerage, and its laws. As a fan of Hugo’s work, I’m used to these lengthy digressions from previous reads like Ninety-Three and Toilers of the Sea. In his greatest hits, Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables, Hugo’s propensity for rambling is toned down a bit and effectively augments the fictional narrative. In The Man Who Laughs, however, he really takes it too far, to the point where the book is so busily descriptive that nothing much really happens for great lengths of time. When the fiction does take center stage, Hugo often relates the events in a pace that’s slower than real time.

The story culminates in a statement chastising the nobility for its treatment of the lower classes. As in Les Misérables, Hugo expresses a great deal of sympathy for the common man, and he vehemently repudiates the privilege and divine right that comes with noble status. If that’s the message he’s trying to get across, however, why does he spend page after page detailing the intricate structure, titles, trappings, and ceremony of the English peerage? In this book, Hugo positively fetishizes the regalia of royalty, much as a religious fanatic reveres the symbolic ritual of the church.

As a fan of Hugo’s work, I’m usually quite willing to put up with his long-haul approach to storytelling. For most of The Man Who Laughs, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and endure his lengthy asides. Ultimately, however, my patience ran out. The overwrought ending, intended to be moving, just feels like a phoney contrivance and leaves the reader disappointed after all the time and effort taken to get there. Though the characters are memorable, after all is said and done I’m not sure if this book was worth the trouble it took to read it.
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Friday, January 12, 2018

The Missing Chums by Franklin W. Dixon

Wholesome crimefighting fun 
The fourth book in the Hardy Boys mystery series, The Missing Chums, was originally published in 1928 and significantly revised and reissued in 1962. The revised version, written by James Buechler under the series pseudonym of Franklin W. Dixon, is the story that I’m reviewing here. In this adventure, Frank and Joe Hardy are on their way to a costume party when they witness a bank robbery. After giving their statements to the police, they join their friends at the party. The next day they find out that two of their buddies, Chet and Biff, never returned home after the evening’s festivities. While using their sleuthing talents to locate their missing chums, the boys discover important clues to the identities of the bank robbers.

The first thing that stands out about The Missing Chums is the amazing amount of personal freedom that teenagers apparently enjoyed in the early 1960s. Not only do the police allow the Hardy Boys to participate in active investigations, they actually encourage them to do so. In the first chapter, the chief of police sends Frank and Joe on a mission to investigate a series of violent disturbances in the local squatters’ village for hoboes and drifters. Talk about child endangerment! Later, the police deliberately use the boys as bait to catch some crooks. Much of the action of the story takes place on motorboats, which the boys are allowed to take out without permission whenever they wish, and the Hardy parents allow them to stay out all night and chase after criminals. Of course, kids love to read about other kids who live in some dream world where they are allowed to act like adults, which is why this series is so appealing to young readers. Another reminder that the ‘60s were a much simpler and safer era is the attitude taken toward kidnapping. When it is suspected that Chet and Biff may have been abducted, it is just assumed that they are being held for ransom, rather than captured by some creepy psycho who might want to do them harm. Ah, the good old days, when all we had to worry about was ransom.

The plot of The Missing Chums is better than the previous three Hardy Boys books. The story delivers enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, and it was sufficiently suspenseful to keep my young son and I interested up until the very end. Judging from the series so far, the main thing that hinders the Hardy Boys cases from being truly great detective fiction is the fact that the villains are never integral members of the supporting cast (i.e. the butler did it), but rather career criminals who just happen to be plying their craft in the environs of Bayport. This convention serves to reinforce the wholesomeness of the Hardys’ world. In their hometown, a grocer, a teacher, or a pharmacist couldn’t possibly be a criminal. Only an outsider—hoboes, drifters, sailors—born and raised among a lower class of people, could stoop to committing such evil acts as theft or kidnapping (and of course, there are no murders in Bayport). Though the Hardy Boys series was probably originally meant for teenagers in Frank and Joe’s age range, the adolescents of today are unlikely to appreciate the early books because of this antiquatedly hokey view of the world. The Hardys can’t compete with the violent and fantastical excesses of today’s video games, movies, and young adult literature. Younger kids with a less jaded attitude, however, like elementary schoolers, can still find these books exciting and entertaining. My son and I have enjoyed reading them together, and as long as he’s up for it, I’ll be joining the Hardys for book five, Hunting for Hidden Gold.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Lure of the North by Harold Bindloss

Pleasantly predictable
Harold Bindloss was a prolific author of adventure fiction during the first half of the 20th century. Though he was born and died in England, most of his sixty-plus novels are set in Canada, where he lived for some time during the late nineteenth century. Bindloss’s work is an interesting mash-up of the wilderness adventure stories of Jack London and the romantic moral novels of someone like Anthony Trollope. As in London’s novels, Bindloss’s heroes, usually British-born like himself, wander the northern wilds seeking fortune in minerals, timber, or furs. Bindloss, however, takes a much more genteel approach to adventure fiction by tempering the thrill of exploration with the practical needs of civilized society. The daring characters in a Bindloss novel return often to the city to don evening dress for dinner, raise capital for their expeditions, or investigate potential matrimonial interests.

Bindloss’s novel The Lure of the North was published in 1918. In England it was published under the title Agatha’s Fortune, apparently because “the North” means something different in Britain. While most of Bindloss’s Canadian adventures take place in the West, The Lure of the North is set in Ontario and Quebec. Jim Thirlwell is an engineer at a struggling silver mine in northern Ontario. When one of his coworkers drowns in a canoe accident, Thirlwell begins a correspondence with the deceased’s daughter Agatha, a school teacher in Toronto. Before he died, the old man, named Strange, raved about a silver lode he had found in the remote wilds and even brought back a few rock samples to support his story, but because he was an alcoholic no one really believed him. Eventually Thirlwell meets Agatha in person, and she informs him that she intends to go searching for her father’s long lost lode. Though Agatha is a plucky gal, she has little experience in mining or the wilderness. Thirlwell doubts her ability to survive in the wild North, so he agrees to accompany her and lend his expertise to the expedition.

From the brief plot description above, it’s not difficult to tell where this story is going, and it pretty much goes everywhere you’d expect it to. At least it does so, however, in an enjoyable manner. Bindloss crafts a mystery around whether Strange’s death was really an accident, which creates the suspenseful possibility of some danger for the heroes. A businessman from Winnipeg hears the rumors of Strange’s lost silver mine and decides to go after the lode himself, providing a villain for the story. And of course, when a man and a woman cooperate on a quest, there is bound to be some romance. Bindloss tells the story in a very understated manner that doesn’t glamorize the wilderness or over-romanticize the love story. He depicts the landscape in an earthy naturalistic manner that transports the reader into the Canadian North of a century ago, including the environmental mindset of the time, which was mostly concerned with resource extraction, though perhaps with a dash of Ralph Waldo Emerson thrown in. The romantic subplot between the two leads is refreshingly free of emotional impetuosity as they both very practically and properly consider the long-term prospects of a merger.

This is the third book I’ve read by Bindloss, following Northwest! and The Protector, which were both set in far western Canada. The Lure of the North is the best of the three. Though Bindloss’s plots can get somewhat formulaic, this novel is actually a welcome relief from the typically glorified, overly macho gold-hunting narrative. Bindloss may have faded into obscurity over the past century, but his books are still worth reading.
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Monday, January 8, 2018

Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Interesting trivia lacking structure
In his 2011 book Periodic Tales, science journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams delves deeply into the history, science, and lore of the periodic table and the chemical elements catalogued within it. As an avid collector of element samples, Aldersey-Williams applies his acquisitive enthusiasm for the subject to his research, tracking down sundry data on each element with thoroughness and verve. If you are at all fascinated by the fundamental building blocks of matter, this book will certainly teach you much on the subject. Its main fault, however, is that it fails to give any coherent structure to what feels like a collection of miscellaneous tangential anecdotes.

The subtitle of Periodic Tales proclaims it a “Cultural History,” a phrase which in this case seems intended to relinquish the responsibility of being a science book and give Aldersey-Williams license to write whatever he feels like. The contents of the book are arranged very haphazardly, making it feel like a collection of unrelated magazine articles, similar to what you might find in a National Geographic but not quite as engaging. Much of what you’ll read in this book seems like it could be postscripted with the phrase, “. . . but I digress.” When Aldersey-Williams sticks to science history and discusses how the elements were discovered, isolated, or in some cases created, or how they are utilized in industry, the book is really quite fascinating, but when he goes off on the perceived gender of a particular element, an instance where an element is mentioned in a poem, or how a relatively unknown contemporary artist made a sculpture out of some weird metal, interest quickly wanes. At one point he interviews someone who lives in a town that’s mentioned in a Thomas Hardy novel, and he spends two pages talking about this novel, even though it has nothing to do with the elements. What it all adds up to is fuel for some future game of Trivial Pursuit, but even after having just finished the book I find myself struggling to remember much of the details because they weren’t presented in any sort of cohesively organized narrative.

The book is divided into five sections which could not be more arbitrary—Power, Fire, Craft, Beauty, and Earth. Because the author often discusses more than one element in each chapter, he can’t present them in order by atomic number, but couldn’t he at least have arranged them by chemical family? Or why not go with a chronological organization, from ancient alchemy to contemporary nuclear physics? Wouldn’t that have been a better way for the reader to experience the “Cultural History” promised by the subtitle?

Aldersey-Williams is a Brit, and the book appears to have been written for a British audience. That’s not a criticism, just a clarification for American readers, who won’t always get the author’s jokes or pop culture references. That won’t hinder your overall understanding of the text. He conducts most of his research and interviews in Britain, though he does travel elsewhere in the world when the elements lead him there.

For the most part I enjoyed reading Periodic Tales, but the disjointed patchwork approach made it feel like a long haul. If you’re really interested in chemistry and enjoy reading about the history of science you will find much to like here, but there will likely also be moments when you’ll question the relevance of what you’re reading and wonder if it’s worth your time.
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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Combat by Mack Reynolds

ETs in the Kremlin
Science fiction authors have often used the genre to express their political and philosophical views, but few writers have made sci-fi as political as Mack Reynolds. During the Cold War, this prolific author penned dozens of novellas and short stories dealing with political and socio-economic issues, filling the pages of the pulp magazines with anticaptialist propaganda thinly veiled behind adventure and espionage plots set in the near future. One such novella, Combat, was originally published in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact-Fiction magazine. Though this one is more engaging than many of Reynolds’s works, it ultimately suffers from the same fault that marks so many of his stories: too much politics and not enough sci-fi.

Hank Kuran is a U.S. government agent stationed in South America, where his job is to see that American industry competes favorably against that of China and the Soviet Union. His superiors call him away from his post, however, to assign him to a special secret mission to Moscow. Extraterrestrial visitors have landed on Earth, and instead of contacting the Americans, they have chosen to deal with the Soviets instead. Needless to say, the prospect of a Soviet-Alien alliance strikes fear in the heart of the American government. Kuran, who is fluent in Russian, is to pose as a tourist traveling on a package tour of Russia. When his tour group arrives in Moscow, he is to contact the aliens and act as the de facto ambassador for the U.S., opening the interplanetary lines of communication and stating the case for American supremacy over the Soviets.

For most of its length, Combat is a pretty fun spy novel. (The title is meant to be ironic. This is a Cold War after all, so the only warfare is spycraft.) To conceal his identity, Kuran pretends to espouse the views of a typical American businessman with a relentlessly pro-capitalist, American-supremacist attitude. His fellow travelers, who perceive him as an old-school conservative fuddy duddy, are quick to point out the successes and advantages of the Soviet system and rub them in his face. This approach to the story gives Reynolds the opportunity to promote his own socialist views. Throughout the narrative, he continually expresses admiration for the Communist economic system, while conceding that corruption in the Soviet hierarchy has led to totalitarianism and human rights violations. He seems to be advocating the middle ground of a socialist America that is free of capitalism yet retains its Constitutional freedoms.

I don’t have a problem with Reynolds’s political views; in fact I agree with him on some points. I just wish he would have put more effort into the science fiction framework upon which the story is built. I’ve read about a dozen of Reynolds’s works, and it surprises me that the science fiction magazines would even publish some of his stuff, since there’s actually so little sci-fi in it. The extraterrestrials in this story are little more than an afterthought. The ending is lazy and disappointing; almost an absence of an ending, quite frankly. Still, Kuran’s journey to Moscow was a fun ride while it lasted. Reynolds is a good writer when it comes to establishing characters, setting a scene, and building suspense, even if, as in this case, he doesn’t do anything with the suspense he’s built. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to his work. He offers just enough hope that one of his stories will deliver a truly visionary alternate future. Combat is not that story, but it is a moderately fun read for fans of Cold War sci-fi.
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