Tau Zero – Poul Anderson – Book Review

As a much younger person I collected the Asimov non-fiction books and reviews of his books and short stories, he was quoted in one of them as rating this book, Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, as being excellent, not least because its science was up-to-date and the best known at that point.  That’s always stuck with me but I’d never found the book until it turned up in the SF Masterworks list of publications in 2006.

The idea is simple, if you have a ship that accelerates for half your journey, what happens if you then can’t stop it and decelerate at the halfway point?  The answer, as posited in this book, is that you will get nearer and nearer to the speed of light until you finally reach Tau Zero, Tau being the rate that time is dilated for external observers.   Without spoiling too much, the crew of 50, half male, half female, have to deal with a future of either dying instantaneously if they hit a star (or lots of dust) or continuing an eternal journey.

I really like this book, its dark, psychological and tense.  The main character “Charles Reymont” is the constable, reponsible for keeping order both during the journey and while they are setting up the new colony.  When this falls apart and the project is abandoned while they try to find a solution to the problems they have, he becomes the only stable, positive influence on the rest of the crew.

Naturally, with this being a Poul Anderson book, the majority of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, they turn up, have their scene and then wander off again.  Reymont himself suffers his own stress while helping others out and a couple of the female crew help him along.  This is a relatively adult book for 1960s sci-fi, there are bedroom scenes, infidelity, arguments and (soft) violence, its not Barbarella or Alien, but its not a Lucky Starr kids book either.

The reason for this book though is the science, Anderson drops out of the story a number of times to explain the nut and bolts of the Bussard Drive (I guess todays version would be the Ion Drive, low power but continuous drive), time dilation and how the ship is dealing with stresses it was never designed for.  If you liked the Appendices in Lord Of The RIngs as much as the book, or get excited by the technical details of your new phone, this will be a book you will appreciate.  It’s hard science fiction at its’ best, nice and techy and doesnt end up with a superhero saving the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stand On Zanzibar – John Brunner – Book Review

I have to say, I don’t love this book.  I try to put things in context with the sci-fi books, when and where it was written, norms at the time, etc. etc. etc.  but I just don’t get this one.

If you’d like a more positive review, the excellent Extra Credits Youtube channel has a good one.  You can see it here – The Extra Credits Youtube review

For myself, the characters are hard work, unlikeable, idiotic and the author seems to want it that way.  I don’t get why I am meant to want to follow these people on their journey through the book.  The structure is interesting and a lot has been made of this, breaking down the book into chapters with four different styles.

Context – Short notes from newpapers etc  illustrating the social mores of the time.

Continuity – the main story happens in these chapters

Tracking With Close-ups – scene setting not related to the main story but mainly involving characters we have met,

The Happening World – Disjointed examples of the world being built.

I am not sure where this book goes wrong for me, I normally like to have to work while reading, but I struggle to get through this.  The “Hipcrime Vocab” references don’t seem as clever as the author thinks they are, and that the reader is meant to treat with awe.  When I didn’t buy into that, I think the character who wrote it (Chad C. Mulligan) holds less interest.  He is a commentator, not someone who is going to make things change.  Every time he (as opposed to his quotes) turns up in a scene, I am just left thinking how much I dislike and distrust him.  Maybe, when it was written, it was remarkable, but I am evidently soured on “clever” snarky comments made by people with a a pulpit.

The plot is interesting as well, worldwide overpopulation, corporate scheming, benevolent intentions all build a world that is fairly recognisable today, not a bad trick for a book written in 1968 and set in 2010.  However, we are meant to side with the “baddies”, commiserate with the evil influencers and dislike the public being affected by the dystopic world.

The two main characters, Donald Hogan and Norman House, sharing an apartment due to general overcrowding despite being successful in their roles and taking pains not to annoy each other as much as possible, are as disjointed as everything else.  They both stumble into situations they dont understand and cause death and mayhem as a result.  This seems to be OK.

Ive tried to get on with this book and it could be my fault that I dislike it intensely, I just do.  I give it a try every couple of years, I know there is something in there, Im just not getting it.  Nothing seems to develop fully and that may be the point of the book, I am really not sure.  Having just read it for probably the fifth time, I still dont care about the outcome (no spoilers), the characters, the future or whether there is a solution to the central problem.

Please, let me know if I really have missed the point.  It is bugging me.

 

 

The War Of The Worlds – H G Wells – Book Review

The War Of The Worlds - H G Wells - Book Review

This is, of course, an old chestnut and there are a lot of reviews of this book, so I am not going to do a full write-up, just a personal note on what it means to me.  The photo at the head of this article is the inside cover of my 1960 Heinemann/New Windmill Edition and I can not count the times I have thumbed through it over the years.

It is one of the books that people think they’ve read, or haven’t bothered to read as there are many many many adaptations; 2 films from 1953 and 2005, the amazingly effective radio show, the musical versions and a TV series, plus a massive amount of pop-culture references.  The reality is, of course, very different.  Written in 1895 and published in 1897 as a magazine serial, the book is a sparse, haunting, fatalistic account of the invasion.

The War Of The Worlds - H G Wells - Book Review
The War Of The Worlds – H G Wells – Book Review

I believe you have to take into account the time a book was written, this was late Victorian England, twenty years before the First World War, life expectancy was 48 in the UK, the motor car was only 10 years old, Britannia’s empire stretched across the globe and the English in particular had optimism about continuing good times ahead.  Against this background, Wells’ book takes a dark look at the futility of fighting the more technically advanced Martians.

So, the language is archaic to the modern reader, the references are out of date, but the story really is timeless.  When the first cylinders land, the initial reaction is curiosity and not fear, after all Woking and Chobham are Middle -England, prosperous areas.  People have time to have a look and see what’s happening.  “It seemed so safe and tranquil“, which of course does not continue for long.  I love that an “enterprising sweet-stuff dealer in the Chobham Road had sent up his son with a barrow-load of green apples and ginger-beer“.  Today, this would be a hot-dog van, mobile bar and, before long, social media selfies.  This is insular, the newspaper comes out that evening, already out of date.

The later adaptations do get the futility part of the situation right, which is just as well as its really the point of the book.  When the first Martian attacks the crowd surrounding the pit by using the “heat ray”, which gets its own introductory chapter, our narrator says simply “Had that death swept through a full circle, it must inevitably have slain me in my surprise“.  The point I am trying, inexpertly, to make is that to the modern reader, the language flows beautifully and almost meanders across the story.  Measure this against the popular adaptations, even the radio show and it is glacial in progressing the story.  The entire book is only 55,000 words, just beautifully crafted.  Most popular Science Fiction has fast language, excitement or awe on every page, this one really does not.

Instead, fear.  It cycles through curiosity, analysis, futility and finishes with bewilderment.  Take a moment and read (or re-read) this book, I said at the start of this ramble that I would say what this book means to me and here it is.  Context.  Great Science Fiction reflects the times, especially its insecurities.  I love the old 1930’s to 1950s Golden Age Science Fiction where the future was exciting, the 1970s where external threats were on people’s minds, the 1980s were positive again, and so on.  War of the Worlds is the earliest Sci-Fi I have come across that starts in that frame.  England had it all in 1895, empire, technology, unrivalled military strength and above all, complacency.

The idea of this proud nation being defenceless against superior forces must have been shocking at the time and that’s what I get from it.  Horse drawn artillery being applauded by crowds lining the streets turns into complete destruction of the same by the end of the day.  That must have been revolutionary, shocking to a public used to winning.  Measure this against the impact the first viewing of Alien or Independence Day, or the first reading of the Martian Chronicles or the Dangerous Visions anthology and it fits right in.

Its relevant today, while the original is set in home-counties England, it is fitting that the adaptations are set  largely in the USA, the current superpower questioning its supremacy.  Thats where we are…

You can buy this book on amazon at

Philip K Dick – A Scanner Darkly – Book Review

Philip K Dick - A Scanner Darkly - Cover

Verdict – This is genuinely a really affecting book, read it in as close to one hit as you can.  Highly recommended.

I admit it, I put off reading Philip K Dick books for many many years due to thinking he was a pulp writer.  I was wrong.  A Scanner Darkly relates the darkness surrounding drug addiction, hopelessness and focus that Dick experienced in his young-adulthood.  He was an amphetamine addict for many years, although he maintains that this was the first novel he wrote while not on something.

His was a life of turmoil, 5 marriages, 5 divorces, periods of homelessness, depression, paranoia, suicide attempts (once crashing a car on purpose with a wife as a passenger), plus delusions.  The work that comes out of this is, to say the least, unstable.

You can buy this book at amazon from this link.  I have added some links at the end of this page to more information about the author and the book.



A Scanner Darkly is wonderful, an immersive look at life as an addict of Substance D (otherwise known as Death), and large portions of the book are devoted to Bob Arctur’s search for new supplies of tabs.  Substance D is incredibly addictive and over time, overuse will damage the link between the two halves of the brain.  We follow Bob’s journey through slowly succumbing to this impairment, knowing its happening, but being addicted and unable to stop.  There are some heartbreaking sections where friends and acquaintances succumb along the way, plus of course, we can see Bob’s descent as it happens.

Alongside this, Bob is also an undercover policeman (Fred), running surveillance on both himself and his housemates.  There are several routes through which this conflict manifests itself.  His superiors take precautions about limiting his addiction, although he never does receive any actual help, as they need him to be an addict to protect his cover.

With this being a Philip K Dick novel, there are of course various background themes that complicate and confuse the people in the narrative.  As a policeman, Fred has a clinical view of the house and his actions in it.  As his brain deteriorates, he becomes less able to identify himself as being on both sides of the surveillance cameras.  There are a cast of people who pass through the house during the book and while Bob the addict genuinely reacts to events as they happen, the policeman watching the same events manages to come up with unrelated interpretations based on the same information.

Where this book wins for me is the speed with which Bob and Fred part ways and the believable mental processes both go through during their decline.  It is bleak and funny, harsh and loving, life and death, often in the same page.  There are monologues recounting the effects of addiction and an Afterword/Author’s Note listing real people that Dick lost during his early 1960s/70s addiction.

I love this book, Dick predicts entire communities ravaged by addiction and takes the opportunity to explain, although not excuse, the same addiction.  He makes it seem like a logical place to be, assuming Substance D is a choice that its OK to make.

The film adaptation in 2006 is either loved or hated, but very much worth a look.  A lot of the criticism of it is that it doesn’t make a lot of sense, which if the reviewer has not read the book, is probably right.  The sense of dislocation, paranoia, bleakness faithfully comes across and the rotoscoping (look it up, great effect) shows off the down-played, flat colour performances of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder, plus other celebrities in cameos.  It’s a page by page performance of the book with a great cast and while it lost money, you can tell its a labour of love by the Director, Richard Linklater.

More information about Philip K Dick can be found here, and the Wikipedia entry for the book here.

Stanislaw Lem – The Star Diaries – Book Review

Star Diaries Cover

Verdict – Buy this book, love this book!

The stories in this anthology follow the adventures of “Ijon Tichy”, the Penguin Modern Classics version is a translation by Michael Kandel.  The translator deserves a mention as there are a lot of mnemonics, puns and poems etc., which must have made the job a challenge.  It’s carried out with charm, humour and, as far as can be seen, a genuine affection for the character.

If you’re concerned about taking the leap to an author you’ve never heard of, Lem also wrote (among other crackers) Solaris, the George Clooney version of the film in 2002 being the third try to get it on film.  He is noted as being the most successful  Polish writer with 22 million books sold, plus many plaudits, awards and adaptations.  Links to lists of these will be below.  He grew up in occupied Poland (first Germany, then Russia) and it was only after 1956 and the “Polish Thaw” that he was able to publish work without it going through the Russian censors and having anything satirical or politically dubious removed.

The result is a joy to read, 12 short stories which were written over 20 years starting in 1954.  Lem’s stories are funny, unexpected, farcical, painful and twisted, although in a very clean, naïve, 1950s sci-fi kind of way.  No character is uncouth in the “Star Diaries” worlds, physics is pretty much ignored and the solutions to the silly situations “Ijon Tichy” finds himself in are often farcical, lateral thinking events.  There are times the story gets distracted by silliness, not for long, then it zips back to normality.  This gives the book a genuine free-wheeling feel, its not a treadmill and its not signposted as to where the individual tales will go.

The stories are Ijon’s recollections of his adventures, first hand, direct and with the kind of roaming sentences that you would expect from a grandfather talking to a child.  Lots of diversions, irrelevant details, reasons and internal conversations are detailed.  I keep thinking it feels like Sherlock Holmes with a sense of humour, or perhaps Olaf Stapledon’s “Star Maker” with a lot more fun.  Either way, not many short story anthologies actually make me chuckle out loud as often as this does.

You can get this book at Amazon on this page

In the order of the book, the short stories are:

The Seventh Voyage
After his ship is damaged, Ijon falls into an area of “time vortices”, after each vortex is hit, different versions of him from a day or so in the future appear to help or hinder the repairs.  It gets complicated.  Arguments ensue.

The Eighth Voyage
Ijon is Earth’s delegate  to the United Planets, will he find something nice to say about his own species so we can join?

The Eleventh Voyage
Ijon goes undercover to solve the mystery of what has happened on a planet where a mad ships computer has set up a robot based human-hating colony.

The Twelfth Voyage
Ijon is lent a “time dilator”, lands on a planet and with it turned on, watches the local people evolve in a few days, not always the way he’d like.

The Thirteenth Voyage
Ijon goes in search of Mr OH, known for solving entire civilisations problems.  While visiting places who have been “helped” by Mr OH, Ijon discovers the long term effects.

The Fourteenth Voyage
Ijon visits a planet to go hunting “squamp”, without knowing anything about the prey or the people there.

The Twentieth Voyage
A future Ijon returns and forces the current Ijon to become head of an organisation “fixing” history.  It does not go well.

The Twentieth Voyage
After being rescued from wild furniture by the Demolition Friars, Ijon experiences life in a secret order.

The Twenty Second Voyage
Having left his pen-knife on a planet by accident, Ijon realises he doesn’t recognise which one.  He goes hunting.

The Twenty Third Voyage
Ijon visits a tiny world where the people have themselves temporarily disintegrated overnight to save space.

The Twenty Fifth Voyage
Ijon visits several planets while trying to catch up with a friend, missing him each time but turning the trip into a tour.

The Twenty Eighth Voyage
During an endlessly long voyage, Ijon recounts his family history and questions whether they (or he) exists.  Indeed, is he moving at all?

You can find more information about the author and the book on these links.
Stanislaw Lem – Wikipedia
The Star Diaries – Wikipedia

How Arrogant! Some Random Bloke Doing Book Reviews! Cheek!

My thoughts exactly, what do I know about reviewing books!  Not a lot, but then who does?  I’m thinking I’ll give an opinion, have a look at what other people have said, say what its like and whether I’ve had fun reading it.  For the record, I get very excited about books, pretty much exclusively older Science Fiction, although I’ll mix in some odds and sods too.

It’ll take a while between instalments as I don’t get time to read as much as I’d like.  I’m keen to have a “reason” to read though, a lot of the time I’ll love a book (or hate one) and nobody else I speak to has heard of it.  Not a lot of room for strenuous debate there!  Also, as I read the same books repeatedly, it would be good to have a reason to put some more thought into the content rather than just wading through them.  A bit of thought and organisation, that’ll make a nice change!

As per the picture above, I am currently smitten with Stanislaw Lem, writer of “Solaris” and many others.  I will probably start with him as I’m in the middle of “Star Diaries” and the Voyages of Ijon Tichy, again.