Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Heritage of Stars by Clifford D. Simak

Searching for hope in a post-technological future
Celebrated science fiction writer Clifford D. Simak’s novel A Heritage of Stars was originally published in 1977. In 2015 it became available in e-book format from Open Road Media, along with many other Simak works. Simak is a master sci-fi visionary whose career spanned over half a century. A Heritage of Stars displays the high level of speculative creativity and quality storytelling indicative of Simak’s body of work, but still it’s not one of his most successful efforts.

The story takes place about two thousand years in the future. Earth is now a post-apocalyptic world in which mankind has reverted to barbarism. About 1500 years prior to the events of the story, humanity began to feel an intense hatred toward the technology they had created and the problems it had fostered—massive unemployment, depleted natural resources, environmental pollution, and oppressive, ungainly social, economic, and political systems. In a fit of worldwide rage, humans rebelled against their technology and destroyed it, along with most of the recorded knowledge of their machines and how they functioned. Thus, mankind reverted back to a primitive existence of nomadic hunting, subsistence farming, and tribal warfare. One bastion of civilization still holds out—the former University of Minnesota, where a band of peaceful citizens mostly practices potato farming but still maintains a respect for literacy. Thomas Cushing, one of the university’s inhabitants, comes across a millennium-old history that mentions a Place of Going to the Stars, suspected to be a launching pad for interstellar travel. Restless and curious, Cushing decides to leave the safety of the university, head west, and seek out this mythical site.

The novel starts out as a pretty good post-apocalyptic wilderness adventure, reminiscent of Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague. The saga of a lone explorer striking out into an unknown and dangerous world is always a compelling one. As the novel proceeds, however, it begins to veer further and further into the realm of fantasy. Though Simak tackles hard science concepts, the plot begins to follow the familiar fantasy formula that’s been used in everything from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings. Cushing picks up a band of misfits, each of which has a special power, and together they make a pilgrimage to a lost city, encountering scary monsters along the way. A Heritage of Stars deals with a number of recurring Simak themes, including intelligent plants, robots struggling to find their place in the world, and mankind’s relationship to those robots. The way in which Simak treats these topics in this novel, however, feels less scientifically sound and more poetically imaginative. Even the very premise upon which the plot is built, the revolt against technology, seems too unrealistic the way he’s handled it here.

I recently read I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume 1 and found it to be an excellent collection of short stories and novellas. Simak is truly a master of the short form narrative. This longer work, however, feels like a short story that’s been drawn out far too long. Even though it overstays its welcome, the ending feels half-baked, as if left open for a sequel that would never come. Despite my complaints, this is not a bad book. I was engaged by Cushing’s journey and eager to see its resolution. However, A Heritage of Stars is merely an OK book by a great author. Compared to Simak’s other works, it’s nothing special, but compared to 90% of the science fiction out there, it still holds up pretty well.
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Friday, July 1, 2016

Fantômas by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre

More clever than smart
Although far from a household name these days, Fantômas was all the rage 100 years ago, and he enjoyed popularity in books, movies, and comics for most of the 20th century. Created by French authors Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the character’s debut, simply title Fantômas, was published in 1911. Fantômas is a legendary criminal and a master of disguise. He seems to be patterned after Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief created by Maurice Leblanc a few years earlier. However, Fantômas ups the ante in sheer sinisterness. Like his predecessor, Fantômas is an expert thief, but unlike Lupin, he is also a brutal murderer. He kills not only for personal gain, but also because he enjoys it. No one is sure what Fantômas looks like or what alias or persona he will assume next. In this first book, even his very existence is in doubt.

One true believer is Inspector Juve, a police detective tasked with solving a string of murders and thefts that may or may not have been committed by this mysterious villain. Inspector Juve has kept track of Fantômas’s exploits over the years, but never before has he gotten so close to capturing this elusive killer. Juve is the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, but the authors jump around to different members of the ensemble cast in each chapter. In a typical murder mystery, the author provides his audience with clues, challenging the astute reader to figure out the puzzle. Allain and Souvestre, on the other hand, frustratingly conceal the clues from you as well. Because the reader doesn’t spend a lot of time with Juve, he’s always showing up armed with knowledge the reader couldn’t possibly have foreseen. A typical chapter in the book opens with a pair or more of unfamiliar characters. They engage in a protracted dialogue in which very little is revealed, then at the end of the chapter you find out one or two of them were so-and-so in disguise. There are three or four masters of disguise in the book—some good, some bad. Another oft-used tactic is to refer to a character simply as “a man” and then after 20 minutes of reading you find out that man was Juve or some other previously introduced character. Games such as these get annoying after a while, and the plot defies belief more times than is pardonable. It’s so easy to fool someone with a disguise in this book, you’d think they were wearing the laser-cut latex masks from Mission Impossible.

Despite all the confusion and obfuscation, the story ends up pretty much just how you would expect. When Juve points out the guilty party, it’s no shock. You’d think that after all the twists and turns Allain and Souvestre would want to wrap it up with a surprise ending, but no. Over the course of the book, the authors craft an intricate web of relationships between the disparate cast of characters, but the ultimate revelation of the guilty part is anticlimactic. The novel then ends with an incredibly convenient contrivance that leaves the door open for a sequel.

Given the international popularity of Fantômas, I expected more. Perhaps this sort of thing plays better on film, because I found the debut novel quite disappointing. It’s entertaining at first, but by the end I was glad to be done with it. Fantômas and I may cross paths again someday, but for now I think I’ll go back to Arsène Lupin.
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