The Bookshelf

I’m Going to Have to Live Forever

I’ve lately been revisiting Larry Niven’s Ringworld, a science fiction novel I first read back in high school, or perhaps even middle school. My understanding at the time was that it was considered one of the great classics of the genre, but now, thirty-some years later, I rarely encounter any mention of it. That baffles me, a bit, but I suppose it speaks to the impermanence of everything, including prestige. That’s an idea that’s been very hard for me to accept even as it’s become more and more obvious to me. When I was younger, I naively believed that so many of the things I loved were timeless and would never go out of fashion or become irrelevant to the generations that would follow mine. I believed it as much as I believed the sun would come up tomorrow. Well, time has proven me wrong; in the past 30 years, just about every bit of art or media I ever loved has been remade, deconstructed, found lacking, or just plain forgotten. Even tangible things like cars no longer carry the same importance to young people that they did to my generation, and certainly to our parents. But that’s probably a full post in itself, and I’m here to talk about Ringworld.

It’s been interesting to discover what I remember and don’t remember about this book. For example, I very clearly recalled the opening scene, in which our protagonist, Louis Wu, tries to prolong his 200th birthday by using teleportation to jump around the globe, keeping one hour ahead of midnight for as long as possible. I remembered the alien race known as “puppeteers,” something like two-headed ostriches whose entire species are congenital cowards who are obsessed with absolute safety. I also remembered that the puppeteers moved their entire homeworld and several supporting satellites through space, rather than building spaceships, and that their idea of a weapon is something called a “tasp,” which stimulates the pleasure center of the target’s brain to render them passive and harmless, essentially an orgasm gun.

But there was one passage early on in the book that truly startled me. It’s brief, only a single paragraph, and I had no memory of it. Not a line, not a word, has stayed with me over the years, at least not in my conscious memory. But the meaning of this paragraph is so close to my thinking and to things I’ve actually said over the years, that I wonder if maybe it did stick in my unconscious all those years ago. Maybe it’s been lurking there for three decades, influencing my feelings. Or maybe it’s just coincidental, and it stands out to me now because it mirrors a thought and a feeling that I long ago came to of my own accord. The endless mystery of literature, I suppose… does it influence us or does it resonate with us because it strikes a chord that already exists?

Anyhow, here’s the passage that I’ve been mulling over for several days:

Long ago, Louis Wu had stood at the void edge of Mount Lookitthat. The Long Fall River, on that world, ends in the tallest waterfall in known space. Louis’s eyes had followed it down as far as they could penetrate the void mist. The featureless white of the void itself had grasped at his mind, and Louis Wu, half hypnotized, had sworn to live forever. How else could he see all there was to see?

How many times have I thought that there simply isn’t enough time in a scant human lifespan to do and see everything there is to do and see? That’s the fundamental appeal to me of stories about immortal beings, like Highlander or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles… the ability to see and do and be many different things. My bucket list is as long as my leg, travel destinations primarily, places and things I want to see… and the list only seems to get longer over time, not shorter, in spite of my not-inconsiderable efforts to check items off. I’ll be 50 years old in only two months… not yet old, there’s still time, but I’m considerably down the road. Far enough to see that the road is limited. And how am I going to be able to see all there is to see when the end of the road is just down there a-ways?

Heavy thoughts from an old science fiction novel on a hot summer afternoon…

spacer

Heinlein on Whether It Could Happen Here

As for … the idea that we could lose our freedom by succumbing to a wave of religious hysteria, I am sorry to say that I consider it possible. I hope that it is not probable. But there is a latent deep strain of religious fanaticism in this, our culture; it is rooted in our history and it has broken out many times in the past.

“It is with us now; there has been a sharp rise in strongly evangelical sects in this country in recent years, some of which hold beliefs theocratic in the extreme, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, and anti-libertarian.

“It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics. This is equally true whether the faith is Communism or Holy-Rollerism; indeed it is the bounden duty of the faithful to do so. The custodians of the True Faith cannot logically admit tolerance of heresy to be a virtue.

“Nevertheless this business of legislating religious beliefs into law has never been more than sporadically successful in this country — Sunday closing laws here and there, birth control legislation in spots, the Prohibition experiment, temporary enclaves of theocracy such as Voliva’s Zion, Smith’s Nauvoo, and a few others. The country is split up into such a variety of faiths and sects that a degree of uneasy tolerance now exists from expedient compromise; the minorities constitute a majority of opposition against each other.

“Could it be otherwise here? Could any one sect obtain a working majority at the polls and take over the country? Perhaps not — but a combination of a dynamic evangelist, television, enough money, and modern techniques of advertising and propaganda might make Billy Sunday’s efforts look like a corner store compared to Sears Roebuck.

“Throw in a Depression for good measure, promise a material heaven here on earth, add a dash of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Negrosim, and a good large dose of anti-“furriners” in general and anti-intellectuals here at home, and the result might be something quite frightening — particularly when one recalls that our voting system is such that a minority distributed as pluralities in enough states can constitute a working majority in Washington.”

— Robert A. Heinlein,
“Concerning Stories Never Written” (the afterword to Revolt in 2100)

It is worth noting that Heinlein wrote those words in the 1950s. And also that in his “Future History” cycle of science fiction stories, which includes Revolt in 2100, he pegged the late 20th century and much of the 21st as “The Crazy Years” when America becomes a puritanical theocracy, and spaceflight and other technological and scientific advancement all but ceases.  With today’s Supreme Court decision not to put a stop to partisan gerrymandering, anti-abortion and “freedom of religion” laws springing up all over the place, Mitch McConnell’s heavy-handed and nakedly obvious power plays, and of course a president who has made it plain he’d rather rule as a dictator than govern as an elected official bound by rules and procedure, I fear we are living through the early phase of The Crazy Years right now…

spacer

Nice Bit of Writing

Nothing much to say here, I just liked something I read during my morning commute. One of the most common scenes in any Star Wars-related novel is, of course, an enemy fighter getting pasted by the Millennium Falcon‘s mighty quad-mounted laser turrets. I’ve read countless variations on that theme over the years, and I imagine it’s an immense challenge for a writer to find some way of making it fresh and interesting. But I thought this particular instance was done with a lot of panache:

The enemy wriggled off the hook once more, but this one made an error, too: he got sore. Veering in a wide, angry, predictable loop, he came back to have his vengeance. Instead, he got four parallel pulsed beams of raw fusion-reactor output straight in the helmet visor.

And exploded, showering space with incandescent atoms.

That’s from Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon by L. Neil Smith… kudos, sir!

 

spacer

Ow, Quit It…

My recent joyful reaction to the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story not only reinvigorated my attitude about the whole damn Star Wars franchise, it also inspired me to revisit the original early adventures of Han and Lando: the Han Solo novels by Brian Daley, and the Lando Calrissian adventures by L. Neil Smith.

The Daley books are old favorites of mine, as I’ve surely mentioned before. I’ve read them many, many times, especially the first two — Han Solo at Star’s End and Han Solo’s Revenge. The Lando books, on the other hand… I’m not sure I even got around to reading all three of them back in the day. I want to say I only got through the first two in the trilogy, and I’m certain I’ve never gone back to them in all the decades since. And looking back now, I can’t really say why. I have a vague memory of thinking they didn’t feel very much like Star Wars to me, as if they were pre-existing works that the author had simply retrofitted with new character names. But I think it’s far more likely that it was simply bad timing. They were published the same summer that Return of the Jedi was first released in theaters, 1983, and it really felt back then as if the whole thing was just… over. Factor in my age at the time — I was thirteen going on fourteen — and I think there’s  a good chance I was simply ready to turn my attention to, shall we say, other things. (I’m talking about girls, if that’s not obvious.)

It’s a bit of a shame, really, as I find I’m enjoying the Lando books perfectly well this time around. They’re as “Star Wars-y” as any of the other tie-in novels I’ve read, and I can easily visualize Donald Glover — the young Lando we see in the Solo movie — having these adventures a couple years prior to the events of that film. (It probably helps that Glover’s Lando explicitly references a couple things from these books during the movie, a deliberate Easter egg for old-school fans like myself.) There is, however, one aspect of these books that’s bringing me down a bit, and that’s L. Neil Smith’s tendency to insert really awful jokes based on 20th century Earthly consumer goods. In the first volume, Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, there’s a throwaway line about “Lyme’s rose juice,” which would’ve gone right over my head when I was 13 but now instantly clicks as a play on the Rose’s lime juice I use to make cocktails with. I know, right? As bad as that is, though, Smith tops it in the second book, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon.

The Flamewind is a natural phenomenon in the star system Lando is visiting in this book, an effect caused by the local solar wind interacting with magnetic fields to fill the space between the system’s worlds with brilliant colors, something like the aurora borealis here on Earth. Neat idea… but tell me this doesn’t make you want to groan:

Outside, a braid of raspberry red, lemon yellow, and orange orange twisted through the heavens, across a constellation locals called the Silly Rabbit.

Now, maybe that doesn’t mean anything to Millennials and Gen-Zs, but for we Xers who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and all the junk food that was advertised in between them…

Silly Rabbit indeed. Sigh.

 

spacer

A Couple of Sunday Afternoon Book Reviews

The Earhart BetrayalThe Earhart Betrayal by James Stewart Thayer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the enduring ideas about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is the notion that her attempted around-the-world flight was a cover for some sort of covert activity… that she was a spy, essentially, and that she did not die in the ocean or on some lonely speck of land somewhere, but was in fact captured by the Japanese. That idea forms the basis for this novel, a nifty thriller set in post-war Singapore. An American intelligence operative and his wife arrive to investigate evidence that Earhart died in a nearby POW camp. But what ought to be a simple milk run turns out to be the entry into something much bigger and more dangerous. The couple quickly find themselves mired in the intrigue surrounding a priceless jade elephant stolen during the war and now sought by several powerful individuals, while long-simmering ethnic tensions threaten to boil over. The sense of place is particularly well done; the sweaty, oppressive environment is practically a character on it own. In addition, the human characters are all colorful, the action brutal, and the revelations unexpected, and underlying all of it is a plausible explanation for one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… what really happened to Amelia Earhart? An excellent summertime hammock read.

View all my reviews

The Girl, the Gold Watch & EverythingThe Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A recent conversation about TV movies of the ’70s reminded me of this story, which I recall as a pleasantly cute film starring Robert Hays and Pam Dawber of Mork & Mindy fame. That conversation sent me questing for the original novel. Like the movie, the book is pleasantly cute: the story of a nebbishy young man named Kirby whose eccentric uncle dies and leaves him a mysterious gold watch and a big mess of trouble. It seems this watch has the ability to stop time for whoever is holding it, which was the secret behind the uncle’s unlikely success in life, and now there are unscrupulous people who want that power for themselves. In the wrong hands, the watch could unleash chaos on the world. Can Kirby uncover the secrets of the watch, outsmart the bad guys, and discover the self-confidence his uncle believed he has within him?

Written in 1962, the book is unquestionably a product of the Mad Men era, with all the pros and cons you might imagine. The recurring theme of Kirby’s sexual inadequacy, his inability to get laid and the suggestion that he’s not a real man because he doesn’t know how to score, is rather jarring to modern sensibilities, while his love interest Bonnie wouldn’t feel out of place in an Austin Powers movie. (She’s a groovy babe, you see.) Yes, this is a sexist book, but it’s made palatable by the fact that Kirby is more hapless than predatory, and the female characters are in fact the competent ones, the ones with the power to make things happen. It’s also presented in a lighthearted, broadly humorous style that’s difficult to dislike. Ultimately, if you can look past its dated elements, it’s a harmless bit of fun from another time.

And now I want to see that TV movie again…

View all my reviews

spacer

Book Review: The Poseidon Adventure

The Poseidon AdventureThe Poseidon Adventure by Paul Gallico
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I suspect this potboiler would’ve been entirely forgotten by now if not for the classic 1972 disaster movie it inspired.

While the film followed the book’s plot fairly closely — the screenplay shuffles around a few major events and pares away some characters — the two properties are very different in tone. Gallico presents us with a group of unlikable characters who are all, to one degree or another, the last person with whom you’d want to be trapped in a life-and-death struggle. It isn’t merely a case of these people being flawed and having to find their individual strengths or rise above their weaknesses, which is how the movie presented them. These people are genuine jerks, in particular the vacationing police detective Rogo (played by Ernest Borgnine in the movie) and even the ostensible hero, the Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie). Scott is an especially frustrating character because the reader never fully learns what it is that’s driving him. There are some hints, things that the movie expanded upon, but on the page he remains a cypher. As for Rogo, he has some redeeming, humanizing moments toward the end, but it comes across as too little, too late, especially as those moments are counteracted by one sneering comment he makes in the final pages.

In addition to the obnoxiousness of the characters, the book fairly drips with anti-Semitism, misogyny (lots of “don’t worry your pretty little head” types of attitudes), and homophobia. Possibly this simply reflects the attitudes of the time — it was first published in 1969, the year I was born — but it’s difficult going for the modern reader.

As for the writing, well, Gallico’s style is serviceable at best. There are occasional glimmers of poetry, nice images here and there, but there’s also a whole lot of clunky prose and info-dumps in between them. And the dialog is incredibly stilted.

And yet, I have to confess that the book held my interest. It was a genuine pageturner infused throughout with an authentic tension and claustrophobic feeling, as well as a sense of relief when our survivors are rescued at the end, followed by a sadness at their realization that they’ll likely never see each other again. For that emotional response alone, I’m giving the book a positive rating. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s worth a look to see where the film came from.

But believe me, this is the rare case where the movie was better than the book.

View all my reviews

spacer

Book Review: Ghost Story

Ghost StoryGhost Story by Peter Straub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.

Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.

View all my reviews

spacer

Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

View all my reviews

spacer

Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

View all my reviews

spacer

Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

View all my reviews

Save

spacer