A Mixed Bag of Masterworks

Wednesday 12th June: Since the last time I wrote about books I have finished another six, three enjoyable and three not. All were part of the SF Masterworks line, showing that not everybody thinks that a “classic” is just that.

The ones I didn’t enjoy were:

Cities In Flight
(James Blish, 1955 – 1962) which collects his Okies stories based around the inventions of the Spindizzy, an anti-gravity device which allows whole cities to be used as spaceships, and an anti-aging drug which bestows near-immortality on at least some of the citizens of these cities. Although undoubtedly full of ideas, I found most of this collection to be very dull and had little feeling for any of the characters. The first story, dealing with the inventions, and the last, dealing with the death by entropy of the universe, were the best but, overall it was a hard read.

Last and First Men
and Star Maker (Olaf Stapledon, 1930 and 1937) are the two best-known novels by the author who influenced Arthur C. Clarke. The first is written as a history of the future (with no actual characters), charting human evolution over billions of years and numerous distinct races of mankind. The second tells the history of the universe from the perspective of one man whose consciousness journeys through it. Both, again, are full of ideas, some of them wonderful, some brilliant and you can see echoes of them throughout a great deal of more modern SF. However, to be honest, I found the writing syle of both to be turgid, dense and practically inpenetrable. Also, one or two bits just didn’t work for me – for example, one section of Last and First Men deals with a time when, after a literally global catastrophe, mankind is reduced to what is essentially a handful of individuals and yet still manages to survive. Surely that wouldn’t be possible, would it?
Onto the three I did enjoy:
The Rediscovery of Man (Cordwainer Smith, various dates) collects a number of the author’s Instrumentality stories. I have thought for a long time that the short story form is, perhaps, the perfect form for SF but I don’t actually own that many collections. On the basis of this one, I should own more. The stories are all set in what starts out as a sterile, unfeeling universe into which the ruling Instrumentality reintroduce chance and unhappiness.
Smith writes in a wonderful style. Apparently some of the stories are written in a Chinese style (Smith was God-son to Sun Yat-sen and worked in China). I’m not sure what that means but the stories do read a lot more easily than others from the same era. My personal favourite is The Dead Lady of Clown Town, which tells of the origin of the emancipation of the animal-based underpeople, but there is barely a duff entry in the whole book. Interestingly, for me, there is also an introduction/biography of Smith and a brief introduction to each of the stories, giving a context to each one.
The Stars My Destination (Alfred Bester, 1956). I wasn’t looking forward to reading this as I had vague memories of reading a graphic novel (or illustrated novel) version a few years back and finding it very hard going. On the basis of reading this version, though, I should take time to search out the other. This was a very satisfying read, even taking into account the fact that the main character is thorughly unlikeable.
The story is that of uneducated merchant spaceman Gully Foyle who, at the start of the book, is the only survivor of an attack on his ship and is left unrescued by a passing ship. Surviving against all odds, he sets out to find out who gave the order to pass him and gain his revenge on them.
The book contains blackmail, rape, violence, imprisonment, teleportation, telesending, plot-twists, ultimate weapons, intra-system war and much, much more, ending with Foyle almost being the saviour of mankind’s future. All that in about 250 pages.
The Demolished Man (Alfred Bester, 1953) is the first ever winner of the Hugo award and is, if anything, better than The Stars My Destination. It is, essentially, a police procedural, set in a future in which telepathy is common. The question of how to plan and get away with murder in such a future is explored.
The story opens with a nightmare in which Ben Reich, company owner, is haunted by a faceless man. Reich’s company is in danger from another, more successful company so Reich offer’s the other owner D’Courtney, a merger which is apparently refused. In order to save his company, Reich then sets out to murder his rival. The first section of the book deals with the planning and execution of the murder while the second covers the police investigation into it. Reich himself is not telepathic while the policeman in charge of the investigation, Lincoln Powell is and, therefore, should have the advantage. How will Reich avoid Demolition, the punishment for the crime of murder? Well, as you would expect, he doesn’t but it is the nature of Demolition (ending the book with another nightmare scenario), how it is achieved and the various plot-twists that make the ending enjoyable.
Another interesting thing about the book is the inclusion of graphical representations of conversations between Espers, showing how they have learned to manage their thoughts for smoother communication than that of the chaotic speech used by the masses.
Overall, these three books more than make up for the disappointment of the other three.
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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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