Monday, July 22, 2019

Highway of Eternity by Clifford D. Simak

All over the (space-time) map
Award-winning and critically acclaimed science fiction author Clifford D. Simak’s final novel, Highway of Eternity, was originally published in 1986. Since publisher Open Road Media recently began rereleasing Simak’s works in ebook form, I have reviewed over 20 of his books and given many of them five-star ratings. Simak is easily one of my favorite science fiction writers of all time, and one subject in which he particularly excels is time travel. Therefore I had high hopes for Highway of Eternity, but unfortunately it is not one of his better novels. While the book contains some good ideas, it may contain too many, for few if any are developed to the point where they amount to much more than mere foggy notions.

The weirdness starts right out of the gate, as the reader is immediately introduced to two characters with unusual powers. Boone has the ability to inexplicably “step around a corner,” which is his rather inadequate way of describing the fact that when he feels threatened he somehow involuntarily transports himself to a realm seemingly outside of time and space as we know it. His friend Corcoran, on the other hand, at times experiences the power to see things that normal humans cannot see, such as beings or object that are invisibly present but out of phase with our own time-space. In the course of investigating a mysterious disappearance, these two stumble upon a family of revolutionary refugees from mankind’s future who dwell in an 18th century English manor house that has been removed to an isolated bubble outside of time and space. The cast thus enlarges to about eight or nine main characters, and the rest of the novel follows their diverse travels through time and space as they flee persecution from a foe that threatens the end of humanity as we know it. Over the course of their space-time peregrinations, they encounter everything from saber-toothed tigers to sentient robots to various races of aliens.

As one might surmise from that description, there isn’t a great deal of rhyme or reason to the goings-on here. It is as if Simak merely came up with a bunch of “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” moments and then lumped them all into one book. The robots and aliens are barely described, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, and the same could be said for most of the novel’s scientific concepts. Six or seven different methods of space and/or time travel are presented over the course of the story, and they are all so vaguely defined as to border on the magical, making this more of a fantasy novel than anything firmly rooted within the science fiction genre. Though Simak, as he often does, addresses deep philosophical issues of mankind’s purpose and future, the prose is often written with a deliberate simplicity that evokes the feel of young adult literature. The dialogue frequently consists of rapid exchanges of vague phrases of five words or less, a stylistic choice that annoys more than it enlightens. It is as if Simak was after some sort of fairy-tale feel to his prose that garishly clashes with the speculative sci-fi subject matter at hand.

Highway of Eternity is by no means a terrible novel, and those who enjoy Simak’s writing will still find patches to admire and enjoy amidst this hodgepodge quilt of meandering plotlines and partially developed concepts. Those wishing he had gone out on a high note, however, are likely to find this a disappointing swan song.
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Friday, July 19, 2019

Presidential Mission by Upton Sinclair

Lanny Budd’s North African interlude
Presidential Mission is the eighth book in Upton Sinclair’s 11-novel Lanny Budd series, not to be confused with the similarly titled fifth book in the series, Presidential Agent. Published in 1947, Presidential Mission is set amidst the events of World War II from 1942 to 1943. As established earlier in the series, Lanny is a wealthy French-born son of American parents who uses his career as an art dealer to gather intelligence for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Pretending to be a Nazi sympathizer, he is able to strike up acquaintances with high-level Germans including Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Rudolf Hess, as well as other powerful personages in Europe and America. Lanny’s globetrotting occupation and access to world leaders offers Sinclair the opportunity to provide a detailed look at historical events of the twentieth century, as told through his leftist perspective as an outspoken American socialist.

Presidential Mission opens at the point when the United States has decided to enter the war in Europe, but they have yet to make a decision as to where to land their troops. FDR sends Lanny to North Africa to gather intelligence, gauge the response of the locals to an American invasion, and recruit sympathetic anti-Nazi agents to work with the OSS (the precursor to the CIA). France controls most of North Africa, but France itself is occupied by the Nazis, and it is unclear to what extent the French armed forces will greet the U.S. troops as friend or foe. Lanny travels extensively in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, pretending to shop for Islamic mosaics while spying for FDR and forming alliances to support an Allied invasion.

As always, the intricacy with which Sinclair plots the events of World War II is impressive, and the way he works Lanny into the proceedings is ingenious. Lanny’s seemingly unlimited access to FDR strains realism, however, as does the fact that he only reports to the President in person. This causes Lanny to repeatedly trod a triangle from Washington to Vichy France to North Africa and back again. The novel treads water like this rather tediously for two-thirds of its length. From there, however, the pace picks up considerably and veers off into a totally different direction about which the less said the better, to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that the final third of the novel is a considerable improvement over what comes before.

Thankfully, Sinclair devotes very few pages in this novel to Lanny’s annoying hobby: séances, mediums, and talking to the dead. Unlike in other novels of the series, the supernatural plays no important part in the plot of Presidential Mission. The main fault of this novel, and of the series in general, is that for an espionage narrative it lacks any real sense of danger. Because the plot is so firmly tied to historical events, the outcome of Lanny’s efforts is rarely ever in question. We know how the war is going to end. We know Lanny is going to survive until the 11th book. He almost never fails at any mission he undertakes, because to do so would be to alter the course of history, which would defeat Sinclair’s purpose for the series, to provide a leftist history of the war. As a result, though Lanny is integrally involved in major historical events, his contribution to those events feels largely inconsequential. By the end of Presidential Mission, even Lanny himself admits that the intelligence he gathered really wasn’t all that crucial to the war effort.

Though this novel does have its faults, it does succeed as an eye-opening alternative perspective on world history. The Lanny Budd novels often fall short of perfection, and Presidential Mission is certainly not the best book of the bunch (so far that would probably be A World to Win), but the series as a whole is undoubtedly a monumental achievement.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Innovative and inspiring, if a bit grueling
Though the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas got its fair share of bad reviews, I rather liked it, so when the 2004 novel by David Mitchell came up as a Kindle Daily Deal, I snatched it up. By the time I got around to reading it, a couple of years had passed since I had seen the film, so I had forgotten the details of the plot, and the novel was by no means predictable. Cloud Atlas is a truly unique reading experience, primarily due to its unusual structure. The book consists of six intertwined stories that take place in six different time periods, from the nineteenth century to a post-apocalyptic future. These narratives are nested within one another, arranged in an ABCDEFEDCBA pattern. The links between the stories are varied and often fleeting. The protagonist of one story might read a book or enjoy a work of art created by his or her predecessor in an earlier narrative. One repeated but only briefly mentioned symbol hints at reincarnation, but that concept is never overtly explored.

Because two of the book’s six narratives take place in the future, Cloud Atlas is classified as a science fiction novel, but it certainly doesn’t read like one. In the mid-nineteenth century, American lawyer Adam Ewing takes passage on a ship through the Chatham Islands near New Zealand, where he witnesses British colonialism and the enslavement of the Indigenous population. In 1931, Robert Frobisher, a young man hoping to carve out a career as a composer, takes up residence in the Belgian home of an established mentor and becomes intimately involved in his host family’s personal lives. In a mystery novel set in 1970s California, journalist Luisa Rey investigates corruption at a nuclear power plant. In present-day Britain, aging publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself, through a series of comical circumstances, imprisoned in a home for the elderly. In a dystopian Korea of the future, Sonmi-451, a clone manufactured for the food service industry, begins to awaken to her own humanity. On one of the Hawaiian islands, centuries in the future, a man named Zachry and his fellow survivors in a post-apocalyptic society struggle to eke out a peaceful agrarian existence while suffering the attacks of a warlike, cannibalistic tribe.

No matter the time period, Mitchell proves himself an author of rare talent and eloquence. The problem with Cloud Atlas is that each of the six narratives overstays its welcome. The book is not six connected short stories but rather six complete novellas. Once you enter each world, you might be stuck there for an hour and a half of reading. This is too long for even the better of the narratives (the future scenes and the mystery novel), and can prove quite tedious in the case of the book’s worst entries (the stories of Timothy Cavendish and Robert Frobisher). In Mitchell’s world, almost every narrator is a veritable James Joyce of thesaurus-wringing verbosity. Overall, however, the impressive achievement of the whole outweighs the faults of its parts. If there is a point to all this interconnection, it lies in the fact that each of the six protagonists is struggling in his or her own way to achieve personal freedom and social justice. Thus, as a whole Cloud Atlas amounts to an epic centuries-long affirmation of the human spirit that leaves the reader astonished and inspired.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Monsters Unleashed Prelude by Stan Lee, et al.

Old monsters gooooood! New monsters baaaaaad!
Before the incredible Hulk, the Thing, or the Man-Thing made their first appearances in the Marvel Comics universe, there were Grottu, Gorgilla, Groot, Goom, and Googam. Prior to the Silver Age superhero explosion, creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby filled the pages of titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense with stories of giant monsters terrorizing humanity. In 2017, Marvel paid tribute to its monster-comics heritage with Monsters Unleashed, a crossover event in which Marvel heroes clashed with a variety of creatures, including some resurrected from those early Lee and Kirby stories. The trade paperback Monsters Unleashed Prelude was published as a companion volume to this event. The first half of the book reprints 13 of those classic Lee and Kirby monster tales of the 1950s and early ‘60s. The second half of the book reruns five issues of monster-related comics from 2015 and 2016. All art is reproduced in full color.

Since comic books like Tales to Astonish were anthology titles, the Lee and Kirby stories generally run about seven pages, or fourteen pages for a two-parter. The stories adhere to a common formula, but with enough variation to keep them interesting. Each monster is either the result of a science experiment gone wrong or an alien visitor set on conquering Earth. Some of the creatures are dumb brutes, but most are highly intelligent and have some way of communicating with English speakers either through telepathy or quick study. After each monster makes his entrance and reveals his fearsome name (e.g. Rommbu, Vandoom, Orrgo, etc.), he will then show off his destructive power for three or four pages. At this time it was prohibited, or at least highly frowned upon, to show anyone getting killed in a comic book, so you won’t find these monsters tearing up big cities like Godzilla. Instead, they are always in rural locations with few people around, and they mostly scare rather than hurt. In the end, one clever fellow, usually a scientist by trade, discovers some ingenious method of outsmarting the monster, neutralizing its power and defeating it. The stories tend to blend into one another after awhile, but the main attraction here is Kirby’s visionary art.

The comics reprinted in the second half of the book include Fearless Defenders #8 and Marvel Zombies #1, which give the reader an introduction to monster hunter Elsa Bloodstone. Next is Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur #1, a recent retread of an old Jack Kirby creation. Rounding out the volume is Totally Awesome Hulk issues #2 and #3, which feature another powerful lady monster hunter named Lady Hellbender. Presumably these issues were chosen because these characters would feature prominently in the Monsters Unleashed crossover. At times the flashy art is appealing, particularly Frank Cho’s work on Totally Awesome Hulk. The writing, however, barely amounts to stories, and the scripts consist of choppy dialogue that rarely includes a complete sentence. In many ways, these random issues demonstrate how far Marvel has fallen from the glory days of the Silver Age.

It was my interest in classic comics that led me to read this volume, so not surprisingly I much prefer the vintage selections to the book’s contemporary latter half. A comprehensive volume reprinting old Kirby monster comics would easily be at least a four-star read, but this volume is severely hampered by its inferior latter half.
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Monday, July 8, 2019

An Introduction to Metaphysics by Henri Bergson

A foggy on-ramp to Bergson’s thought
Henri Bergson
French philosopher Henri Bergson won the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature. I was looking for the easiest way to get a handle on his philosophy, and it seemed An Introduction to Metaphysics would be a good place to start. This book is really just a single essay, originally published in a 1903 issue of the French philosophy journal Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale, but it has been published as a stand-alone volume of 80 to 100 pages in at least a couple of English translations. The edition I read was translated by T. E. Hulme. Though the title may sound like a textbook, this is not so much an introduction to metaphysics as it is an introduction to Bergson’s own philosophical thought, and it really has more to do with epistemology than metaphysics. Though Bergson may have intended this as an introduction to his philosophy, it is certainly no primer, and can make for tough going for the general reader.

Bergson begins by asserting that there are only two ways in which we can say that we know a thing. The first is analytical, in which we experience something either directly or indirectly through sense experience. This knowledge is relative according to our perspective at a given moment in time. The second way of knowing something is intuitive, by experiencing it from within, in the absolute. Bergson’s example of this is the way we each experience our own self or personality. Bergson considers the analytical method to be the domain of science, which measures and analyzes phenomena from various perspectives and then draws conclusions from the parts to the whole. He argues that intuition, on the other hand, should be the domain of philosophy. One must first ponder the absolute, then applicable conclusions can be drawn from the whole to the parts.

The fundamental difference between analysis and intuition is duration. Science and mathematics reduce reality to symbols that describe conditions at a precise moment or multiple moments in time. Intuition, however, takes into consideration the inherent movement in all things. The universe is in a constant state of flux; everything is in a state of becoming, not being. We cannot really know a thing by studying isolated instances of its existence, no matter how numerous or varied the perspectives, but only by experiencing its inward mobility as a fluid spectrum rather than as a series of sequential states. Bergson insists that this intuitional mode of thought is necessary to productively practice metaphysical philosophy, and he cites it as the impetus for moments of genius throughout the history of science and philosophy. The example of experiencing one’s own consciousness, however, is really the only tangible example he offers of this method of experience, and he doesn’t really provide any guidance on how to reach this desired state of thought. Presumably he will make that the subject of later and longer works.

By propounding an absolute world beyond the reach of empiricism, Bergson’s philosophy, as described here, sounds like a modern updating of Plato’s idealism, with perhaps a dash of Chinese Taoism thrown in. While both of those traditions may have some merit, Bergson’s updated take is off-putting. Over the course of this brief book, he takes many digs at rationalism, empiricism, and science, which doesn’t sit well with my own personal philosophical views. His writing is often vague and obscure, to the point where at times it seems deliberately so. Though An Introduction to Metaphysics may amount to under a hundred pages in length, it feels like a thousand. I think I’ll stick with Bertrand Russell.
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Friday, July 5, 2019

Jenny by Sigrid Undset

Norwegian meet-the-parents nightmare
Winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, Norwegian author Sigrid Undset is best known for her trilogy about medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter, which I have not yet read. I have an interest in the works of some of Undset’s contemporaries in Scandinavian literature and wanted to give one of her books a try. I settled on her 1911 novel Jenny simply because it was the easiest to get my hands on in English.

I must admit when I first started reading Jenny I absolutely hated it. The novel opens on a group of five Norwegian friends, all artists, who are living, studying, and working in Rome. These five annoying bohemian hipsters engage in extensive inane conversations on topics like buying jewelry, but mostly they verbosely psychoanalyze themselves and each other. Like a throwback to so many Victorian-era novels of all nations, the very mention of an ancient Roman bridge or fountain is supposed to lend depth to these tedious proceedings. Despite the fact that this is a novel about artists, very little of it is actually about art. Helge Gram, who has just arrived in Rome, is the naive, just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck newcomer to this social circle. He falls in love with another member of the group, Jenny Winge, and somehow convinces her to fall in love with him.

The novel improves considerably once the characters return to Norway. After their engagement, Jenny goes to meet Helge’s family at their home. She soon learns that Helge has a very domineering mother, of whom the rest of the family lives in fear, although if anyone should point that out Helge immediately rises to his mother’s defense. Helge’s father is a more sympathetic sort, and he also at one time harbored artistic inclinations, so on the basis of that common ground Jenny begins to spend time with him. Mr. Gram requests that Jenny not tell Mrs. Gram about their meetings, which really puts Jenny in an odd position of having to keep secrets from her future mother-in-law. The disturbing dynamic between Mr. Gram, Mrs. Gram, and Helge inspires second thoughts about her engagement as Jenny is repeatedly asked to construct a web of lies to tiptoe around each family member’s delicate feelings. This is just the beginning, however, as this uncomfortable meet-the-parents scenario escalates to unforeseen repercussions that challenge credibility.

As the story progresses, the reader becomes more intimately familiar with Jenny and more engaged in the life of this well-drawn character. Unfortunately, she is the only likeable character in a book where almost everyone is at least annoying and some are downright creepy. The story eventually morphs into a feminist narrative, examining gender roles and a woman’s right to live independently and determine her own fate, whether financial, romantic, or sexual. One wants to like the book for this reason, but it just gets so bogged down with overly lengthy philosophical discussions about love. The feminist subject matter deserves a more realistic telling, but the characters are too busy behaving like tragic heroes in an opera. Undset should be commended for handling touchy subject matter that was no doubt controversial for 1911, but the way it is handled will likely fail to satisfy the readers of a century later.

Given that much of Jenny is concerned with issues of womanhood, it is probable that a female reader might get more out of this novel than this male reader did. Ultimately the book delivers some quite memorable scenes, but the memories it leaves aren’t exactly fond ones.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Secret of the Caves by Franklin W. Dixon

Spies and saboteurs in Bayport
The seventh book in the Hardy Boys series, The Secret of the Caves, was originally published in 1929 but totally rewritten and republished in 1965. It is this later version that I am reviewing here.

The federal government is building a radar station on the coast near Bayport. A series of mysterious accidents at the site have caused officials to fear sabotage, so they call in renowned detective Fenton Hardy to investigate. Meanwhile, a teenage girl shows up at the Hardy home seeking a detective to find her older brother, a college professor who has gone missing. With Mr. Hardy busy on another case, his sons Frank and Joe offer to take the young lady’s case. As if that weren’t enough action for one book, the Hardy Boys’ chum Chet Morton has got himself a new metal detector and is dying to explore some seaside caves in hopes of uncovering buried treasure, even though there have been rumors of strange lights and shots fired in the area. Frank, Joe, Chet, and Biff Hooper take a camping trip to the caves, which leads to a spooky adventure.

Early in the book, when the possibility of sabotage is being discussed, a “foreign power” is alluded to but never named outright. Given the time period at which this later version of the novel was published, one can’t help but see this as a manifestation of Cold War paranoia and assume this foreign power is a stand-in for the Russians. It is never stated explicitly, however, and most of the bad guys who feature in the book are either French or American. To its credit, this novel has more memorable villains than many of the other books in the series. Another good thing about this story is that the female characters play a larger role than usual. At one point, Frank and Joe enlist their girlfriends Callie and Iola for some undercover work. Elsewhere, the boys’ lives are saved by a fisherman’s wife. Even Aunt Gertrude contributes to the plot as her request for the boys to buy her a spinning wheel leads to an important break in the case.

The Secret of the Caves is a perfectly fine but not exceptional entry in the Hardy Boys series. I read this with my son, and he enjoyed it well enough, but it seemed to inspire fewer thrills or laughs in him than some of the others, like The House on the Cliff or The Missing Chums. This mystery lives up to typical Hardy Boys expectations but does not exceed them.
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