Friday, March 31, 2023

The Coal War by Upton Sinclair

Too many facts, not enough feeling
The Coal War
is Upton Sinclair’s sequel to his 1917 novel King Coal. The Coal War was also ready for publication in 1917, but Sinclair couldn’t find a publisher who wanted to print it. After his death, the manuscript was retrieved from his archives of papers, and the book was finally published in 1976. The Coal War is a historical novel based on the Colorado coal miner strikes of 1913 and 1914, including the Ludlow Massacre. Sinclair based many of the events in the book on the testimonies of miners and their families during the inquiry following the massacre. He changed the names of all the people and places, however, so not even the state of Colorado is mentioned.

In King Coal, Hal Warner, a college graduate and son of a millionaire, decides to work as a coal miner as a sort of sociological experiment. All his life he has lived off the sweat of his father’s laborers, and now he wishes to see how laborers live. Appalled by the miners’ working and living conditions, he soon becomes a labor organizer working to unionize the miners. Much class conflict ensues between the workers and the mine-owning oligarchs and their minions, which brings us to The Coal War. In this sequel, the miners go on strike. The mine managers bring in scab workers, which leads to violent altercations. The governor calls in the state militia to keep the peace, but the militia soon turns out to be essentially mercenaries working for the mine owners. Hal’s participation in the conflict escalates from encouraging the miners in their strike efforts to leading them into armed battle.

The main problem with The Coal War is the same fault that plagued its predecessor: the fact that Sinclair views the events through an upper-class protagonist, rather than through the eyes of the workers themselves, as he did so well in The Jungle. The Coal War is slightly more palatable than King Coal simply because Hal isn’t slumming it in the mines any more. Rather, he adopts the more realistic role of a well-intentioned reformer, which is more believable for his character. What’s not credible, however, is the stark good-vs.-evil contrast between the saintly strikers and their draconian antagonists. For example, the militia men are all rapists, while the miners wouldn’t even dream of premarital kissing. After reading enough Sinclair books, one gets the idea that the author was a pretty straight-laced fellow himself, which reflects upon the heroes of his books, who are hampered by a gentlemanly Victorian propriety long after the end of the Victorian era. Writers like Jack London or Emile Zola lent more realism to their labor novels by acknowledging that shades of gray existed on both sides of the class conflict.

Sinclair no doubt based the violent incidents and tyrannical cruelty depicted in this book on real-life persecution suffered by strikers in Colorado. The problem is he catalogs way too many instances, to the point where the book reads like a desensitizing laundry list of atrocities. Just a few of such incidents, imbued with some emotional power and pathos, would have been far more effective, as demonstrated by Zola’s Germinal or Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Sinclair also writes about the woes of the miners with an odd tone of flippancy and sarcastic humor, as if to say “Wouldn’t you know it? Isn’t that just like those oligarchs!” The effect is similar to listening to late-night talk show hosts make jokes about the Trump administration while Mexican babies are locked in jail or insurrectionists are storming the Capitol. To his credit, Sinclair does manage to deliver an education on American labor history in The Coal War, but it’s a rather misconceived and tone-deaf vehicle for imparting this history lesson.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Maigret and the Loner by Georges Simenon

A gripping mystery despite the déjà vu
Belgian author Georges Simenon published 103 mysteries in his Inspector Maigret series—75 novels and 28 short stories. The novel Maigret and the Loner, originally published as Maigret et l’homme tout seul, is the third-from-the-last escapade of the Parisian police superintendent. The novel was published in 1971, and the story takes place in 1965. Though this installment comes late in Simenon’s career, he certainly hadn’t lost any of his storytelling skills. Maigret and the Loner is a gripping mystery from start to finish. It does, however, bear some striking similarities to an earlier novel in the Maigret series.

A vagrant is found murdered in a condemned building, where he had apparently been squatting for quite some time. The room is littered with a collection of useless junk that the man has amassed like a pack rat. The victim appears to have been shot in his sleep. Maigret is mystified by the motive, and also by the dead man’s appearance. Though dressed in the rags of a beggar, his face, hair, and hands have the appearance of a healthy elderly gentleman. This incongruity piques Maigret’s curiosity. Before he can catch the killer, Maigret must first establish the identity of the victim and determine what possible reason anyone could have for murdering this penniless loner.

Prior to reading Maigret and the Loner, the last Maigret novel I read was Maigret and the Bum (Maigret et le clochard, published in 1963). In both novels, Maigret investigates the murder of a homeless man. In both cases, the victim in question was neither born poor nor forced by destitution into vagrancy. Rather, both murdered tramps were successful middle-class men who left their wives and children and voluntarily chose homelessness as a lifestyle. Whether the Bum or the Loner, over the course of hunting down the killer Maigret must uncover the reason why decades earlier these men made this unusual life choice. This makes for a compelling story in both books. It still seems odd, however, that Simenon wrote two Maigret novels with this same premise. Of course, if you only read one, it’s not an issue. Having read both, I consider them both very good Maigret mysteries.

There is one plot element in Maigret and the Loner that bothered me as unrealistic. Maigret receives a tip from an anonymous caller that proves to be the clue that cracks the case. That in itself is not unusual; Maigret points out that police detectives often receive anonymous phone tips when conducting investigations. Upon receiving the call, however, Maigret quickly makes a pretty big leap in deduction to nailing down a suspect. It’s more like a leap of faith, actually, or a demonstration of extra sensory perception. That felt unrealistic compared to the rest of the novel and compared to Simenon’s work in general. On the other hand, the reader never does discover who made the anonymous call, which rings true to real life but seems oddly incomplete for a mystery story.

In the Maigret series, Simenon excels at writing police procedurals populated by characters of great psychological depth. Even an average Maigret mystery is better than most books by other authors in the genre, and Maigret and the Loner is a far better than average Maigret book. Despite a few reservations stated above, I was hooked from the first page and riveted until the very end.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The End of the World: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

Hit-and-miss mix of old and new sci-fi
Published in 2010, The End of the World is an anthology volume of science fiction short stories, all of which present variations on the subject of the apocalypse, armageddon, the extinction of humanity, or the ultimate destruction of the Earth. The oldest of these stories is from 1944, the newest from 2007, but most were originally published from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. All of the selections were previously published in magazines or earlier anthologies. The book was edited by Martin H. Greenberg, a professional anthologist, and Grand Master of Science Fiction Robert Silverberg provides a brief introduction to the volume.

The nineteen stories in the book are divided into thematic sections, such as Bang or Whimper (the actual event of destruction), The Last Man (lone survivors), Life After the End (postapocalyptic societies), Dark, Distant Futures (dystopian horrors), and Witnesses to the End of the World (time travel to the apocalypse). A few of these stories make you wonder what they’re doing in an apocalyptic volume, like Lucius Shepard’s “Salvador,” which is just a war story with some sci-fi touches in which the world does not end. A lot of the authors here, particularly the more recent writers, aim for originality and cleverness or take a comical approach to the subject. What’s missing from most of this collection is some of that earnest horror and dread that earlier sci-fi writers instilled into their apocalyptic visions. The end of the world should be epic, but too often the selections here concentrate on small, quirky stories amid the general devastation. Silverberg discusses the history of apocalyptic fiction in his introduction, referencing such works as Camille Flammarion’s Omega, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Jules Verne’s The Eternal Adam, M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, and Garrett P. Serviss’s The Second Deluge. Reading some of the less impressive stories in this volume makes one long for those grandiose catastrophic speculations from a bygone era.

That’s not to say there isn’t some good or even great fiction in this volume. Every anthology is a grab bag with its own bad apples and gems. Among the latter category are Rick Hautala’s “The Hum,” which is quite chilling, though the ending ventures a little too far into fantasy. Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” is a gripping tale of a heavy metal band leading mankind in mass hysteria towards armageddon. Lester del Rey’s “Kindness” is a poignant glimpse into man’s evolutionary future. George R. R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame delivers a very suspenseful and crafty tale, “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels,” told from the point of view of a postapocalyptic mutant. Arthur C. Clarke’s “If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . .,” a story of a boy living in a domed-in colony on an uninhabitable world, deals one of the book’s better surprise endings.

Editor Greenberg saves the two best stories for last. Silverberg’s selection, “When We Went to See the End of the World” is a wryly humorous tale of several shallow couples at a party bragging about their time-travel vacations to witness the end of life on Earth. Poul Anderson, another reliable veteran, contributes “Flight to Forever,” a good ol’ sci-fi adventure yarn about two scientists lost in time, complete with a space opera and a corny romance, but nonetheless containing some serious and thoughtful ideas on mankind’s dismal future.

I’ve mostly concentrated on the positives here. The good entries are worth a read, but there’s plenty of mediocre fare here as well. I bought a copy from a Kindle Daily Deal, so I felt like I got my money’s worth, but a few of the stories really didn’t feel like they were worth my time.

Stories in this collection

“The Hum” by Rick Hautala
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
“We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” by Neil Gaiman
“The Big Flash” by Norman Spinrad
“Kindness” by Lester del Rey
“The Underweller” by William F. Nolan
“Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny
“To the Storming Gulf” by Gregory Benford
“The Feast of Saint Janis” by Michael Swanwick
“The Wheel” by John Wyndham
“Jody After the War” by Edward Bryant
“Salvage” by Orson Scott Card
“By Fools Like Me” by Nancy Kress
“The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley
“Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R. R. Martin
“If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth . . .” by Arthur C. Clarke
“Afterward” by John Helfers
“When We Went to See the End of the World” by Robert Silverberg
“Flight to Forever” by Poul Anderson

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Essential Fantastic Four Volume 8 by Roy Thomas, et al.

Gradually descending into mediocrity
Reproducing classic Marvel Comics from July 1975 to June 1977, Essential Fantastic Four Volume 8 reprints issues 160 to 183 of the Fantastic Four magazine, as well as a three-issue crossover running through Fantastic Four Annual #11, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #1, and Marvel Two-in-One #20. (Marvel Two-in-One was a solo title for The Thing, who would team up with other heroes in each issue, similar to Spider-Man’s Marvel Team-Up title.) These three issues comprise one of the most fun adventures in the volume, as it involves the FF traveling back in time to World War II and collaborating with The Invaders and The Liberty Legion to fight Nazi supervillains. Overall, however, I found the quality of these comics to be a decline from Essential Fantastic Four Volume 7.

All the stories in this volume were written by Roy Thomas except for the last two issues in the book. Thomas was also the editor of his own stories since he replaced Stan Lee as editor-in-chief when Lee became publisher and president of the company in 1972. Thomas has the great foundation of characters and worlds built by Lee and Jack Kirby to work with, but in the mid-70s there was definitely an effort made by Marvel to break away from classic Marvel and try new things. A few of these experiments were successful, but more often than not they just resulted in the introduction of forgettable villains. Familiar tropes still abound, however. In the Fantastic Four title, the writers always seem to be looking for ways to get the FF members to fight each other. Here Thomas accomplishes that with parallel universes and a “Counter-Earth,” so there are at least two versions of each member of the FF family.

Under Thomas’s pen, the Fantastic Four title feels like it’s starting to become a parody of itself. In issue #176, the FF visits the Marvel Comics offices, where they interact with Stan, Roy, Jack, and the rest of the staff. The Impossible Man, a villain from Fantastic Four #11, comes back to hang out with the team for about twenty issues and provide comic relief straight out of a children’s cartoon. The incurable Thing, as he has done so many times, loses his powers to become human Ben Grimm again. Luke Cage, Power Man, takes over for a couple issues, but then Reed builds Ben a Thing suit that he can wear that’s just as good as the real Thing. Even Thomas seems to realize what a bad idea this is. After a while Ben seems to wear the suit 24 hours a day, and it just isn’t mentioned anymore.

One good thing about this run of issues is that the Invisible Girl (as she was called at the time) is back as an active part of the team. She finds new, stronger ways to use her powers, and often plays an important part in defeating the villains, unlike the damsel-in-distress role she previously played. At times she gets to team up with guest stars Thundra and Tigra, and there is occasionally some overt feminism written into the proceedings.

George Perez drew the majority of the art, but his issues are frequently interspersed with those by Rich Buckler, Ron Wilson, and John and Sal Buscema. In my opinion, Perez is the weakest artist of the bunch, but he’s still pretty good. Jack Kirby is still drawing many of the covers. At this time, however, Marvel started to move away from Kirby’s bombastic style and settle into a more prosaic—perhaps intended to be realistic—style of art. The Buscemas, however, still bring some of their classic Kirby-imitating glory. There is much to enjoy in these 1970s issues of the Fantastic Four, but one gets a sense of the title descending into a mediocrity that wouldn’t be alleviated until John Byrne took over the title with issue #232.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir

Observations among the trees of California
Scottish-American naturalist John Muir’s memoir My First Summer in the Sierra was published in 1911. In chronicling the events of Muir’s life, chronologically, this book comes after The Story of My Boyhood and Youth and A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, but the books were not published in that order. At the end of A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Muir traveled by ship to California, which is where this memoir begins. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Muir takes a job as an assistant shepherd with a Mr. Delaney, who owns a flock of about two thousand sheep. Guiding this flock to high-altitude pasture lands gives Muir the opportunity to satisfy his longing to immerse himself in the California wilderness. The events Muir recounts occurred from June to September 1869 and were presumably transcribed from his diaries, as the prose takes the form of dated entries. During this first summer in the Sierra, Muir makes his first trip to Yosemite Valley, a country with which he would forever be identified.

Before arriving in Yosemite, however, Muir spends a lot of time examining and discussing trees. Seeing many of the California species for the first time, Muir describes each species he encounters as if he has stumbled upon a rare treasure. The first half of My First Summer in the Sierra often reads like a field guide, but with Muir’s verbal descriptions of leaves, seeds, cones, and bark in lieu of pictures. (The original edition did feature some landscape photographs and drawings by Muir, but those illustrations aren’t necessarily included in later editions.) Some discussion is also given to the mammals and birds of the region, with Muir providing his impressions of each species he encountered. Bears, in particular, were a constant nuisance to the shepherds. When Muir gets to Yosemite the tone of the book changes to less microcosmic observations of wildlife and more grandiose descriptions of mountain peaks and sweeping vistas.

Personally, I found this book less interesting than other books I’ve read by Muir, including those aforementioned. Though Muir does give some insight into the life of a California shepherd, there’s less of an autobiographical narrative to this book, and it reads more like a sketchbook of impressions. Muir’s writing is similar to that of Henry David Thoreau in that it combines natural observation with philosophical musings, but Thoreau went more heavy on the philosophy while Muir doubles down on the nature. Most of the text of My First Summer in the Sierra is Muir’s empirical observations of plants and animals, interspersed with occasional paeanic comments about the glory of the gods. The contemplative passages in this book feel shallower than those in some of Muir’s other books, and as far as the natural details go, I think I would prefer to just read a field guide to understand the uniqueness of each tree species.

I’m sure any frequent visitor to Yosemite National Park, however, would love this book as a literary record and tribute to a beloved landscape. No doubt many a home in Northern California bears a copy on its shelves. Those who have never been to Yosemite, however, may have a hard time getting the gist of the landscape from the way Muir flits around from topic to topic. Muir is one of our nation’s greatest nature writers, and My First Summer in the Sierra is certainly a fine piece of nature writing; I just think he’s done better.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Scientifica Historica by Brian Clegg

Beautifully illustrated history of science books
Scientific Historica
, published in 2019, is an illustrated history of science books from ancient times to the present. It highlights important and influential science books written and published all over the world. At 8" x 9.5
", filled with color images, this is a sort of mini-coffee-table volume that celebrates the history of science publishing. The author Brian Clegg is a science writer himself, best known for his book A Brief History of Infinity, published in 2003.

Even if you never actually read this book, the images alone are worth the cover price. This book reproduces covers and pages from hundreds of historic volumes. Book collectors and graphic designers will find the visuals fascinating, since the selection of images in Scientifica Historica inevitably presents a historical overview of book design, scientific illustration, and information graphics. The history begins with clay tablets and hand-copied manuscripts before moving into the age of printing. The mathematical diagrams of Euclid’s Elements, the functional planetary charts of Peter Bienewitz’s Astronomicum Caesareum, the chemical hieroglyphics of John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy, and the botanical and zoological etchings of many a 19th-century naturalist are both a visual and intellectual joy to behold. The illustrations get somewhat less impressive as the narrative moves into the late twentieth century, at which point the glory days of scientific illustrations, diagrams, and maps seem to have passed, and the images presented are book covers only.

While the illustrations are very interesting to look through, the writing is often pretty dry. This isn’t really a history of science, after all, but rather a history of science writing. Clegg discusses such matters as how English replaced Latin as the dominant lingua franca of science, or how the field of science writing gradually moved from specialized treatises for highly educated readers to more popular science books for the general reading public. Some of the books discussed are included because they were very important in the history of science, like Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Others, like Audubon’s Birds of America or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, are highlighted because they achieved a level of popularity that allowed them to successfully bring science education to the masses.

Scientifica Historica is a well-conceived study of its subject that manages to be both comprehensive and concise. Although the text isn’t always exciting reading, Clegg does describe the contents of each historic volume well enough for the reader to decide whether he or she would like to read the book in question. An appendix lists the 150 major books discussed in the text (though additional books are mentioned briefly), providing an impressive reading list for those interested in the history of science. About two-thirds of those texts are old enough to be in the public domain, and so free downloadable copies should exist online. For any reader with more than a passing interest in the history of science or the history of the book, browsing through this attractive volume certainly inspires one to seek out and read some of these landmark scientific works of the past. 
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Out of Their Minds by Clifford D. Simak

Possibly Simak’s worst
I’m in the process of reading my way through Clifford D. Simak’s complete works. With only a handful of novels left, I come to Out of Their Minds, published in 1970. Though I consider myself a diehard Simak fan, I found little to like in this book. In fact, thinking back over the course of his body of work, I can’t recall another book of his that I liked less than this one. From Chapter 1, I found the story boring and silly, and it never improved over the entire length of the novel.

The narrator, Horton Smith, is a minor celebrity due to his career as a radio and television personality. He is taking a break from that career, however, in order to author a book. In hopes of finding the peace and quiet to devote himself to writing, Smith returns to his hometown of Pilot Knob after a long time away. Like many a small town in Simak’s works, Pilot Knob is a slice of rural Americana inhabited by salt-of-the-earth people with conservative family values. Smith expects the town will have changed some during his years of absence, but he is unprepared for what he encounters when he arrives. On a country road outside of town, his car is run off the road by a charging triceratops. Though some farmers residing nearby welcome him into their home, offering him food and shelter, he inexplicably wakes up in a cave full of rattlesnakes. This is but the beginning of a chain of strange phenomena and dangerous situations that seem to arise out of nowhere to threaten Smith’s life.

The title has a double meaning. The phrase Out of Their Minds could refer to persons who are insane, but in this case it primarily pertains to characters and events from people’s imaginations that manifest themselves in physical reality, literally arising out of their minds. Smith believes there is a parallel world of beings who have sprung from mankind’s imagination and developed independent consciousness and sentience. Usually these beings remain hidden in the shadows, leaving their existence a matter of speculation. When a real-world human finds out that they actually exist, however, as Smith does when tipped off by a dying colleague, these beings from the world of imagination try to kill the aware individual in order to protect their concealment.

That sounds like a whimsical premise that might offer ample opportunity for some fantastical Twilight Zone plots, but Simak tries to justify these beings of pure thought using Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is a poorly thought-out and ridiculous excuse for the author to indulge in whatever strikes his fancy. Anything goes in Out of Their Minds—cartoon characters, the aforementioned dinosaur, and beings from mythical, religious, and historical folklore all come to life. The lack of rules makes for a nonsensical and meandering story that despite the no-holds-barred abandonment of reality is nonetheless quite boring. There is a Civil War scene in this novel for no other reason than Simak seems to have thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a Civil War scene?” Perhaps, but not in this novel, where it clearly doesn’t belong in the same story with gnomes, demons, and dinosaurs.

Simak was a talented and visionary writer in both science fiction and fantasy literature, and he received critical acclaim and awards for his writing in both genres. In my opinion, however, his sci-fi is far superior to his fantasy, and Out of Their Minds isn’t even good fantasy. Though I haven’t quite finished all his books, when all is read and done I suspect that this novel will probably end up being my least favorite of his works.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.