Saturday, July 10, 2010

What the Dead Men Say

Novella by Philip K. Dick

Originally titled "The Man with the Broken Match", changed to "What the Dead Men Say" by Dick's editor, I'm not sure I really like either title.

Johnny Barefoot is a PR man for recently deceased tycoon Louis Sarapis. The plan is to bring Sarapis back to life by preserving his brain and allowing it to issue public statements and oversee the company for brief intervals every year. This is common procedure in 2075, but Sarapis wants to draw it out as long as possible.

When they're unable to revive Sarapis, his heir and next-of-kin is sent for to take over the company. Kathy has overcome drug addiction, is still a bit crazy, but Johnny finds himself falling in love with her (as predicted by his wife). Johnny must help Kathy run the company, defend it from corporate takeover by St. Cyr (their former attorney, now working for a rival company), come up with press releases for the dead businessman, help failed presidential candidate Alfonse Gam get elected on his second try, and deal with the mysterious transmissions from space that seem to be coming from the brain of Louis Sarapis... despite Sarapis' body being right here on Earth.

And then Johnny's life gets even more weird and complicated. The mystery of Sarapis' voice from space is the driving force of the story, and it's increasing desire to interfere with the election. Eventually we end up with paranoid conspiracies and a section of pretty effective horror writing.

The overall mystery could have been wrapped up a little better, and a few minor plot holes exist, but the story pushes ahead fast enough you hardly notice. Some things I thought were going to be plot holes were actually explained in a surprisingly logically obvious manner, but the ending remains open and I'm unsure whether to assume the lesser or greater evil resolution. Either way, this ends darkly, but I like it.

Not Dick's best work, but pretty good, and I definitely like this more than the only other review I could find did. Johnny has a few different theories through the story, and the best thing about Dick's writing is that I believe each one of them, and then discard them, right along with Johnny. This is his most useful, recurring talent as a writer. 4 out of 5 matchsticks aren't broken; 4 out of 5 PR men have it easier than Johnny Barefoot.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth

Novelette by Roger Zelazny
WINNER: First Ever Nebula Award, 1965

First let me say that I love Zelazny, and I love his writing style. The most pleasurable thing about this story, and much of his work is in how it is written. All the subtle little jokes, the humor, the sarcasm, the repetition of metaphors and the willingness to take them a step farther than most writers would go. Particularly in this era of his writing, Zelazny could write a 10 page essay describing a salad and I'd probably give it a 3/5 on style alone.

But I like this one more than that hypothetical salad story, although the writing is especially good here, even for Zelazny.

Carl Davits is a baitman. This means he is hired to sail around on a ship the size of 10 football fields and bait the ends of a line shot out to catch the sort of thing you need a ship that size to catch. And they have to attach the bait once the line is already in the water, it would snap off otherwise. So he gets triple hazard pay.

The target is a huge reptile called Ichthyform Leviosaurus levianthus, or Ikky for short. The title of the story comes from a description of the biblical Leviathan by the way. And if Davits can overcome his fear, his rabbit-instincts, and his drinking problem, he might be able to redeem all his past failures by being the first to ever catch one.

But the real hazard on this fishing trip is his ex, Jean Luharich, who owns a giant cosmetics company, and the entire expedition. (The use of the monster hunt to sell cosmetics is a pretty funny running theme.) They both remain attracted to each other, but antagonistic and I can't help but wonder if their no doubt explosive breakup was related to the same fear which destroyed the other aspects of Davits' life.

I love the way Carl's attraction to Jean is described throughout. He likes the shape of her knees, her diving suit is tight enough it makes him want to look away... and look back again. I should give an example of one of my favorite descriptions before I wrap this up, so here is a poetic-and-then-backhanded description of Jean:
Hair like the end of the rainbow, eyes like nothing in nature, fine teeth.
And later:
She shook her end of the rainbow.
Anyway, I love the writing, I quite like the character development and setting, and things actually happen in this story. But it isn't Zelazny's best. 4.5 out of 5 baitmen never manage to keep something they catch.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Saucer of Loneliness

Short Story by Theodore Sturgeon

I'm going to keep this short, because the story is all in the writing and in the unknown. But if you haven't read this, do so. I strongly recommend it.

"A Saucer of Loneliness" opens with one of the most beautiful bits of poetic description, and establishes that this is a story about suicide. More specifically, about a woman who tries to kill herself and a guy who won't let her.

Sturgeon's descriptions of the sad, traumatized woman are brilliant. The story of how she is systematically crushed by the cruel stupidity of our society, media, government, and collective personal assholishness is just heartbreaking. This is one of those things that makes you cry, but ends up making you feel much happier. Most sad/uplifting stories aspire to be "A Saucer of Loneliness", but this is the best. Sturgeon is a great writer, and at top form here.

5 out of 5 sea suicides go naked.

The Black Stone

Short Story by Robert E. Howard

An unnamed narrator goes to investigate a huge black monolith in Eastern Europe which supposedly drives people insane. Turns out there is better reason for the stories than he'd thought.

This is obviously a Lovecraft inspired story, Howard even manages to use "cyclopean", plus a well-timed fainting episode. Alliteration is used to nice effect in the descriptions, although it perhaps gets a little overkill toward the end. There are some internal rhymes which I think sound nice here (not bunny rabbit nice, this is horror) and it is a weird but fun thing to notice. Something about the words themselves gives this more of a frantic activeness than the same scene would have were it described by Lovecraft.

Lots of implied stories of other people to be found here: the weird death of Von Junzt after completing his book on cults, the insanity of Justin Geoffrey, the last stand of Count Boris Vladinoff, and the story in the Turkish parchment tube he received just before his death, the narrator's own previous adventure on the Yucatan Peninsula, and the real life history of the region. All these stories are partially told to one degree or another, with large parts left implied. It adds a lot of depth to the more simple story of going to the region and seeing some stuff. A real sense of history that a lot of other "mythos" tales are lacking, despite all the old books and whatnot normally present (you have those here, too).

So the descriptions are pretty good, and this is a story all about description. But the thing that stands out most is that you think you're at the climax, and he is going to faint and everything will be over in the morning. And then the next morning, you find out something else, and that is clearly the climax. And then there is an even bigger reveal... The story tops itself a couple times while maintaining the ever-important sense of surprising-yet-logical. And the ending actually works to be creepy, unlike some stories that have tried a similar final twist.

4 mad poets out of 5.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Sound of Thunder

Most Republished SF Short Story EVER by Ray Bradbury
Available all over the internet and in random anthologies.

Entire premise is summed up by a sign in the second sentence:
The time travel is H.G. Wells style and the safari guides go to some length describing what precautions they take against changing the future. But the emphasis on not leaving the path seems a bit weird, considering that the falling dead dinosaurs are going to kill far more bugs and blades of grass. But that's just Fridge Logic.

In the 58 years since this was published, tons of other stories have played on the same themes and had similar plots. But this was the start of a lot of common time travel tropes, and established the fiction version of the Butterfly Effect years before Chaos Theory existed. So seeing all that together is still neat, and if you ignore the biology the story ages quite well.

The biggest difference though, is that Bradbury wrote a better sounding time travel story than the millions he inspired here. I just love the description in places:
The jungle was high and the jungle was broad and the jungle was the entire world forever and forever. Sounds like music and sounds like flying tents filled the sky, and those were pterodactyls soaring with cavernous gray wings, gigantic bats of delirium and night fever.

Or possibly:
The Monster twitched its jeweler’s hands down to fondle at the men, to twist them in half, to crush them like berries, to cram them into its teeth and its screaming throat.
But the coolest (and oddly still original feeling after all these years) part of the story is that when our adventurers inevitably change things, they find out that they cannot be fixed. This kind of non-wimp ending seems to be rare in all the copycat stories that came after. Since it is the strongest part, I'm not really sure why.

So I loved this story and always have. 5 historically significant butterflies out of 5.

P.S. If this story were published today, I'm sure people would say the awful presidential candidate was a thinly veiled reference to George W. Bush. And if it had been published 20 years ago, they'd have compared him to Reagan. But Ray Bradbury was hating on anti-intellectual politics before it was cool.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me

Happy Birthday to me! (posting this one day in the future so it will be at the bottom of the month). This is also the 100th post for the year of 2010. Which is admittedly far fewer posts than I had hoped to make. I haven't done nearly as much reading or reviewing as I'd like to. Maybe I'll fix that in the back half of the year, but I'm not making any more promises to myself.

Things like the 100th post of the year seem strangely special, so I'd hate to waste it on a particular story that I might not like. Instead, I'm going to have a little flurry of random non-recent stories in the next few posts.

Oh and I hope to catch up on my magazines and podcasts soon, and then try to finish the Lovecraft reviews from at least this book by October. I was thinking that I should spend the month of October on a break from book and magazine reading, and compare a bunch of Lovecraft, Poe, and Dunsany stories to each other. Also, Hugo nominated novels should be reviewed by the end of the month. Anyway, happy half-year to anyone reading this, and happy birthday to me!