Monday, July 31, 2017

The Shrinking Man

Here's another science fiction classic I've missed over the years and recently caught up with. I'd avoided it because of the 1950s film version (which added the word "incredible" to the title), because, as a child, I thought it was dated and silly. Truth is, the film isn't that bad, and the book is much better. Where the author, Richard Matheson (who also wrote I am Legend, which has been filmed three times), could have delved into a semi-comic tale akin to an adult version of The Littles, he instead gave us a dark, psychological masterpiece, a terrifying and often sad glimpse into the mind of a man who is literally shrinking down to nothing at the rate of a seventh of an inch per day. We start with action, as the tiny hero, already an inch tall and trapped in his basement (no one upstairs knows he is at home), struggles to navigate his huge environment, find food, make clothing, and do something about the "giant" spider that stalks him each day. As he deals with these challenges, we get flashback sections that show our hero discovering his condition, his mental unraveling in the face of it, and the decline of his relationship with his wife and daughter. His wife attempts to be supportive, but his little girl doesn't understand. Little by little, his life falls apart until he manages to support the family by selling his story. This gives his wife some financial stability, which eases our hero somewhat. Nevertheless, their marriage unravels, and our hero has to come to terms with his new reality. The book jumps back and forth in time rather seamlessly, with chapter-titles indicating the height of the hero in a given section. Like The Odyssey or Star Wars, The Shrinking Man wisely starts off with the punchline and then goes back to show its development. In the end, obviously, our hero can only shrink so much. Or can he? On the brink of thinking he'd shrink out of existence, he realizes there is a vast inner space - both physical and psychological - that has never been explored. Without giving it away, the ending is satisfying, if not exactly a fairy tale wrap-up. What makes this book great isn't the gimmick - a shrinking man - but the spellbinding exploration of just how a man might handle such an experience, and what it might teach him about courage and about his sense of self-worth. Definitely a page-turner.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Sweet Jane...

I wish I was born earlier, or you were born later, or that James Keach didn't exist. This is a rare pic from right before she did Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, I think. You usually only see her in good-girl outfits. What a beautiful person. I've had a crush on her since Live and Let Die. Arguably the best Bond girl, and certainly the best Sinbad girl.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Agamemnon

The Agamemnon - the classic ancient Greek play by Aeschylus - is another one that has missed my list over the years. While I'm catching up on all the classic sf novels I've missed (see last few posts), I've also been starting to read some of the Greek plays. They invented drama, after all. Over the past year I've scoured all those Greek writers I'm supposed to have read - Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Hesiod - and several explorations of Greek myths, the best by Robert Graves. At any rate, I'm glad I read all that first, because I would not have understood a lot of the clever references in The Agamemnon. This story concerns the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War. He's been gone 10 years, along with most of the other Greek heroes. Many of them have been blown off-course on the way home, but not Agamemnon. He has a different fate waiting. Before the war, he was persuaded to sacrifice his daughter to achieve favorable winds for the fleet. His wife, Clytemnestra, harbored a grudge over this (natural enough). While Agamemnon was gone, she started an affair with his cousin, whose father had been driven out by Agamemnon's dad. When the watchman sees signal-fires announcing the fall of Troy, the entire city is excited about Agamemnon's return. The Chorus of the play (the old men of Argos) explain what the war was about, and why it was stupid to fight one over the return of a wayward cheating wife. They go on to condemn Helen for causing so many deaths. Clytemnestra comes out to greet her husband, but he is cold to her. He's brought home Cassandra, a prize of war, a prophetess who no one believes. Clytemnestra tries to trick her husband into walking on a purple carpet - he says that's the sin of pride and he won't do it, lest the gods get jealous. She brow-beats him into it, and he enters his palace. Clytemnestra orders Cassandra to come in, but is ignored. Cassandra then prophecies Agamemnon's death and her own, but of course, no one believes her. Eventually, knowing she can't escape her fate, she goes into the palace also. Soon enough - too soon, really - the people outside hear the screams of Agamemnon, who has been killed with an axe in the bath by his wife and her lover. They kill Cassandra, too. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus  display the corpses and are utterly unrepentant, justifying themselves on various pretexts. The chorus of old men then dolefully reminds Clytemnestra that her oldest son with Agamemnon, Orestes, is on his way back to Argos, and will surely bring revenge with him. The tale is continued in The Libation Bearers and The Eumenedes, which I have not yet read. Apparently Aeschylus had all these plays performed one after the other in Athens. They say you've really gotta read all three for The Agamemnon to achieve the best impact. At any rate, I knew most of this story already, so for me the interesting part was one of the themes - that blood vendettas never end. The House of Atreus, from which Agamemnon comes, is haunted by crime and violence and murder. It's also a cautionary tale because at the very beginning of this story, Agamemnon has fame, fortune, power - the world is his oyster. And yet it all comes crashing down in less than a page. None of us stay on top for long. Especially when we sacrifice our daughters. Clytemnestra comes off as a cold, callous, unfeeling woman in this play, but let's not forget her victim killed her own daughter 10 years before. It is Clytemnestra's grief turns that turns her to homicide. She's not the first. At any rate, I'll share the other two books of the play-cycle when I finish them.  

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Long Tomorrow

Unlike the other classic science fiction books in this series of posts, I have read the Long Tomorrow before. It's been awhile. Leigh Brackett is by far my favorite writer of the "Sword & Planet" genre. Here, she turns to a post-apocalypse tale that is equally beautiful and haunting. Published in 1955, it was a timely exploration of post-nuclear-holocaust society. Two generations after a nuclear war, the survivors have come to blame technology for the world's destruction. The Constitution is amended to ensure that no cities will ever develop again, placing limits on population per square mile. Religious sects who did without technology before the holocaust - namely, the Mennonites - make the adjustment easily and come to wield great power. Len and Esau, two young Mennonite boys, witness a religious mob stone a man to death because they believe he is from Bartorstown - a secret place where technology still reigns. Len is thoughtful and resents his small world. The boys eventually steal an old radio and some textbooks and learn that Bartorstown is real. Fleeing punishment, they join a man from Bartorstown who keeps his eye out for them as they travel. First they come to the town of Refuge, only to find tragedy there when a local man wants to build a structure that will defy the population ban. Fleeing there by river, Len and Esau - and Esau's newly pregnant girlfriend - continue their long quest to find Bartorstown. Do they find it? Yes. Is it everything they thought it would be? No. Esau, not as deep a thinker as Len, adjusts easily. But once there, Len begins to doubt. He meets a girl named Joan who, having lived her whole life in Bartorstown, wants to get away. Len's paradise is Joan's prison. This is one of the central themes of the novel - that "elsewhere" always seems better. In the end, Len must make a decision - not so much about whether to stay or go, but about what kind of a man he is going to be. I won't spoil any more surprises, because the book does have some great twists and turns. The whole thing is also suffused with a sense of love and loss - that Tolkienesque idea that something is beautiful because it won't last - and with Brackett's low-key but poetic prose. This is my favorite post-apocalypse novel, right up there with Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney. Part epic western, part speculative future story, The Long Tomorrow is definitely one of the finest science fiction books of the 20th century.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

More Than Human

As I continue to explore those classic science fiction novels I've not read, I have to stop right here and say I think I've found a new favorite. Theodore Sturgeon was admired by Philip K. Dick and I can see why. More Than Human (written in the 1950s) is an incredible tale of a "next step" in human evolution. Sturgeon focuses on a half-dozen people with special abilities (telepathy, telekinesis and so on), almost all of whom are social rejects and misfits. An "idiot" named Lone is the default father-figure for this weird group, all of whom are children except him. In many ways Lone is the hero of the story, but there is not much actual heroism in this tale as we'd normally define it. What makes this such a great story is the way the characters realize and come to terms with the fact that they are different, and how they slowly realize they must work together. Each of them, in fact, is part of an overall being, a sort of hive-human that requires more than one body. This new step in evolution is called Homo Gestalt. Sturgeon tells this story with quiet wit, deep emotion, and gives it almost the feel of a modern fantasy or fairy tale. It's told in three novellas all smashed together - The Fabulous Idiot, Baby is Three, and Morality. The final book deals with the key question - what is "morality" for Homo Gestalt, as opposed to Homo Sapiens? What social structures and behaviors are rendered moot by possession of a collective intelligence, shared with other beings? It's not a question that can be answered simply, and Sturgeon doesn't try. Lest this all seem like so much philosophical nonsense, I should say the story reads easily and abounds with emotional impact. I don't think you can go wrong with this one. Even if you're not generally a science fiction person, this is one classic that definitely can be appreciated outside its own genre.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Space Merchants

I'm catching up on those classic science fiction novels I've always heard of but never read. To start, I tackled The Space Merchants, by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Written in 1952, it posits a future where America is dominated by advertising agencies and consumer culture. Senators are from corporations, not States. Rebel conservationists fight back against this setup, but they are demonized as terrorists (and some are). Our hero is an advertising copywriter, and he's at the top of society. Venus has just been deemed suitable for colonization. Our hero's corporation manages to snag the rights to colonize the planet, despite its inhospitable nature. But a secret cabal is working against him, and he finds himself shanghaied, with a change of identity and no way home. Only then does he realize that he's caught between the political and ideological forces of consumerism and conservation, and a satirical future-thriller results. I won't say more than that. I will say that I read the book in almost one sitting. It doesn't really seem dated, even with the idea that we could possibly live on Venus (the authors admit much terraforming would be required - in fact, our hero writes misleading advertising copy to get folks to go there). It's a fun read, with overtones of both Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Easy to see why this one is a classic.