Wednesday, October 24, 2012

American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958 #review

Title: American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-1958
Editor: Gary K Wolfe
Authors: Alfred Bester, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Robert A Heinlen, and Fritz Leiber
Publisher: Library of America, 2012
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Double Star by Robert A Heinlen
Laurence, or “the great Lorenzo” might not admit it to himself, but he’s a washed-up has-been of an actor not quite succeeding at eking out a living. That is, until he runs into a potential employer who isn’t quite whom he appears to be. Soon Lorenzo is studying for the greatest role he’s likely ever to play, and the stakes have become far higher than he expected. Heinlen explores the notions of the self in double star, and how one person quite literally becomes another. This is a story of personal alchemy, and the psychological changes the protagonist undergoes are far more vast than the ones that are merely skin-deep. Double Star is best described as a futuristic political thriller, and delivers a satisfying close leaving me with much to mull over.

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
This is yet another novel that I’ve heard much about that I’m glad I’ve had an opportunity to read. At the end of the day I’m a bit torn how I feel about the story, and need a bit more time to reflect on how everything fits together. Gully Foyle behaves more as an anti-hero rather than protagonist, though readers can’t help but cheer for his efforts, I’m sure. He comes across a bit as an imp of the perverse, upsetting the cosmic apple cart in the process. He begins his journey at the bottom—a victim—but by the time the story draws to a close he takes on almost godlike proportions. Bester envisions an almost dystopian future, and the concept of jaunting is certainly a fascinating one with far-reaching implications. This story touches on a lot of sociological issues, and makes me think a lot of Ayn Rand’s fiction for some reason. The telling itself leaves me a bit cold, however, as we’re experiencing the world through an omniscient third-person viewpoint. This might, however, be my contemporary tastes coming into play, however. At an rate, The Stars My Destination is a powerful story that will stay with me for a long time.

A Case of Conscience by James Blish
In this novel, Blish answers the question of “What if there were sentient life on another planet?” A thoroughly uncomfortable story that reprises the disastrous consequences of the Spanish conquest of South America, A Case of Conscience examines the repercussions of human contact on the planet of Lithia. All four scientists who numbered among the initial contact expedition to Lithia are changed. Our primary character is a Jesuit priest and scientist, Father Ruez-Sanchez, and the very basis of his faith is called into question by the inhabitants of Lithia, who possess absolutely no faith as a reason for moral guidance. A gift given to him by a well-meaning Lithian in turn has unintended consequences. At a glance, this story pokes at reason vs. faith, but at heart remains a cautionary tale about the dangers of subjective thinking. The world-building of Lithia is hauntingly beautiful, a kind of savage Garden of Eden. This is, as always, a difficult story to read, and one that can definitely lead to lively discussions.

Who? By Algis Budrys
This is another story that’s fascinating to read in the aftermath of the Cold War. Lucas Martino was a genius scientist working on a top-secret project near the enemy lines when things went awry, and he was horribly injured in the resultant explosion. This was exactly the gap the Soviets were looking for, and they picked him up, and patched him up. The only complication for him was that he was almost unidentifiable—much of him had become mechanical. Now he became a bone of contention between the two sides. The Soviet colonel Azarin doesn’t want to let Martino return. What I appreciate about how this story is written is Budrys understands how to use the different viewpoint characters with their unreliable viewpoints to the best effect to create tension. Right up until the last, we are never entirely sure just *who* the mostly mechanical man is.

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber 
The last of the novels included in this collection, The Big Time is also my least favourite. To be honest, I struggled to keep up with the cast of characters, terms and settings. I also suspect the fault lies with the reader and not so much the author. That being said, Leiber does a fascinating job of mashing up different eras with his characters, and leaves me guessing the whole time with regard to what’s actually going on. For some bizarre reason, I’m reminded of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange in the telling. Still, there is something enigmatic about The Big Time that I enjoyed, and I’m glad I read it.

I’ll be honest, I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up these novels on their own. When I was a kid I read *a lot* of SF. I didn’t always *get* what I was reading (as in the cultural/historical contexts) but was nonetheless utterly fascinated by the imaginations of these classic authors. So, I’ll admit that the idea to have five classic novels lumped together offered the incentive for me to bite, and consider reading these novels in clump to gain some sort of comparative perspective.

On a very shallow level, I find it fascinating to see authors try to envision future technology. Now, many decades since these novels were published, things have turned out very differently. Small details, such as *how* we communicate, and how we store and retrieve information—I don’t think many could conceive of these possibilities back then, and it shows.

Sociologically speaking, there was so much emphasis on the implied threat of the Cold War, of capitalism vs. communism. Now, in our post-modern world, it’s more the War on Terror that seems to have captured mankind’s fixation. With Soviets out of the picture, we look with a wary eye toward China.

What is also apparent to me, as both editor and reader, is how our language usage has shifted, especially when employing point of view within genre fiction. For that very reason, I did find some of these stories a bit more challenging than others.

Another point of difference is how women are portrayed in SF. For some reason the discrimination didn’t bother me as much when I was a teen exploring classic SF for the first time. But now, the lack of three-dimensional female characters bothered me.

My final verdict: if you’re a serious collector of genre fiction, or are looking to get stuck into a decent collection as a first intro, you can’t do wrong with this selection. There’s a strong cross-section, memorable characters and thought-provoking stories. I appreciated the ride very much and am glad I invested the time in the reading. I might not have gelled with each author’s style as much, but sometimes there are reads that are important as snapshots of a particular zeitgeist, and this anthology says a lot about the hopes and dreams of the 1950s.

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