Tag Archives: Science Fiction – General

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Memoirs Found in a Bathtub [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stanisław Lem, trans Michael Kandel and Christine Rose, book 2 in the From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy series.

Lem Memoirs Found in a Bathtub

The twelve-page introduction is more overtly sfnal than the body text of this novel, which is a romp of epistemological ambiguity set in the dystopian Building. From the far-future documentary context of the intro we are led to understand that the Building contains a sort of continuity-of-government American microsociety in an underground site in the Rocky Mountains. And yet the exit from the windowless Building in the memoirs themselves is at the bottom rather than the top (185)–unless that “Gate” is merely a sham or a trap, as it may well be.

The narrator of the memoirs gives neither his name nor his origin. He begins in media res with an effort to “find the right room” (13) which quickly eventuates into his recruitment as an intelligence agent. Once he has achieved this status, the first parts of the book are concerned with his striving to acquire his “instructions,” which he accomplishes in a sort of tentative and temporary fashion. Later passages are more focused on determining the actual authority and allegiances involved with his activities, which tend toward the scripted and ritualistic, implying all manner of codes and betrayals.

I was already reminded of the Kafkaesque British TV series The Prisoner (1967-8) when Major Erms said, “Be seeing you” (58). I guess any intentionality there must be ascribed to the 1973 English translators, since the Polish original was written in 1961. Another comparandum for me was Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Authority.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but I was surprised to find satirical theodicy skirting the edge of nihilism in an anti-fantasy of espionage and authoritarianism. It’s a short book and I would read it again.

“I only know that you told me what they told you to tell me.”

“And you wouldn’t believe me if I denied that, and you shouldn’t, because even if I did, it probably wouldn’t be the truth. Who knows?” (169)

The Man Who Loved Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Man Who Loved Mars [Amazon, Abebooks, Bookshop (New), Local Library] by Lin Carter.

Carter The Man Who Loved Mars

This novel by Lin Carter is the first of his “Mysteries of Mars” stories inspired by the planetary romances of Leigh Brackett. He does nice work with the form here, playing up the political sensibility found in Brackett’s Mars yarns (especially the Eric John Stark ones). The anti-imperialist sentiment is probably more bracing for American readers now — or at least it should be — than it was when Carter wrote the story forty years ago. 

The characters are a little flatter than what I would expect from Brackett, but their motives are still interesting, and the planet is nicely realized. I have read complaints about the deus ex machina conclusion, but it was enjoyable as far as I was concerned, and it was almost necessary in order to make this story, told by the first Earth human to rule Martians as a Martian, more significant than the past events to which the narrator constantly alludes.

The science of the business isn’t really any more believable today than Burroughs’ Barsoom was in the 1960s, but for readers more interested in a good story than a historical forecast, this quick read justifies itself well enough.

Pauline cried out; and as she heard her own vain emphasis, added with a little despairing laugh: “How can I tell you? I only want everything to be as it is—for myself, I mean.” “Change,” said the shape. “I don’t change.” Pauline cried out: “And if it changes, it shall change as it must, and I shall want it as it is then.” She laughed again at the useless attempt to explain.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Williams Descent into Hell cried out vain emphasis despair how can i tell you want everything as it is change as it must want it them useless to explain

Utopia Avenue

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Utopia Avenue [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Mitchell.

Mitchell Utopia Avenue

This review is for my recent and extremely tardy read of a LibraryThing Early Reviewer copy of Utopia Avenue. My explanation–though it’s not an excuse–is that when the book first arrived, it was filched from my TBR pile by my Other Reader. It was the first David Mitchell she had read, and she liked it well enough to read six other novels by him right away. (I think she still hasn’t read Cloud Atlas, although we saw the film together.)

Utopia Avenue is very much of a piece with Mitchell’s universe of psychosotery and atemporals; it may even make connections of plot and character among earlier novels that had previously seemed to be detached from each other. I found it distinctive from my other Mitchell exposure (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks, and Slade House) in having a smaller number of viewpoint characters and keeping them all contemporaneous, with the action (outside of ten pages of epilogue) contained within a very limited timeframe of 1967-8.

The story centers in loose rotation on keyboardist/vocalist Elf Holloway, bassist/vocalist Dean Moss, and lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, the three songwriter members of the English psychedelic rock-folk fusion band Utopia Avenue. Drummer Peter Griffin (oops! a search engine could have saved Mitchell from accidentally evoking a character from a long-running US cartoon!) got a writing credit on one track, and a corresponding viewpoint chapter–as did producer Levon Frankland. The entire book is structured around the band’s three albums, and each chapter is named for a song, focuses on the member who wrote the song, and generally includes the moment of the song’s inspiration. It is an impressive, tightly-built container. (I’ve seen the novel-as-album, chapters-as-tracks conceit done before, notably in Newton’s Wake by Ken MacLeod, but not with this level of rigor.)

Within the container, there is a lot of rich character development and a healthy mix of tragedy and triumph. The sfnal psychosoteric business is pretty much invisible until halfway through the book, and becomes the dominant concern at about the 3/4 mark, which is a pattern I have seen in other work by Mitchell. I didn’t find so much of the authorial and publishing reflexivity he has dropped into other books. Instead, the story is full of delightful and borderline-gratuitous cameos from music and counterculture celebrities of its era. The chapters are long, but they read quickly. There are plenty of sex and drugs, and they are treated with realistic ambivalence, rather than celebratory glee or cautionary horror.

The sort of brother-sister dynamic between Elf and Dean is quite sweet. After the first third of the book, the band of initial strangers–“curated” by the benevolent Levon–have become fast friends. By the novel’s end, they feel like old friends of the reader.

The Blazing World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Blazing World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Margaret Cavendish, illo Rebekka Dunlap, introduction by Brooke Bolander.

Cavendish Dunlap Bolander The Blazing World

This peculiar story was written in the mid-seventeenth century by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It features an unnamed female protagonist who is abducted and then escapes and is transported from her own “Philosophical World” to the “Blazing World” of the title, where she is hospitably received and becomes Empress.

The Blazing World is populated something like the planet Mongo, with bear-men, fox-men, fish-men, bird-men, spider-men, lice-men, and others besides. The Empress consults all of these according to their specialties, regarding natural history, physics, logic, and other “philosophical” topics, and this section of the book gets rather slow–especially with the small type of the Dover Thrift Edition I read. One highlight of this section, on the other hand, is Cavendish’s detailed set of character identifications for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a drame à clef regarding John Dee and Edward Kelly (35). This passage is connected with the Empress’ further ambition “to make a Cabbala” (46).

Turning from her various animal-men subjects to the world of incorporeal spirits, the Empress is next introduced to … the Duchess of Newcastle–that is, her author, with whom she develops a “platonic love.” The Duchess pleads for intervention with Fortune on behalf of her maligned husband the Duke, and this motive accounts for much of the remainder of the first and longer of the story’s two parts.

The second part is livelier on the whole, and involves the Empress receiving news that her home country in the Philosophical World is under threat. So she confers with the Duchess, and they develop and execute an intervention, by which they effect the military and political supremacy of the “King of EFSI,” the Empress’ former sovereign.

An epilogue in Cavendish’s own voice touts her accomplishment in world-creation, and boasts herself superior in that respect to the mere conquerors of great empires such as Alexander and Caesar. She also sets herself above Homer, in giving her characters grounds to resolve their conflicts without fatal violence. She generously extends to her readers the option of becoming her subjects in the Philosophical World, but allows that if they prefer to create their own worlds, they can and should do so.

While the style of The Blazing World is dated, its freedom from later literary conventions often lends it a great deal of charm. Persevering through some of the denser bits is genuinely worthwhile, as the whole text is not that long. It was originally published as a “work of fancy” bound together with her “serious” Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (ix). Her philosophical biases are decidedly modern, and while The Blazing World has been instanced as a forerunner of science fiction, it does hold up as an unusual source of instruction in the magick of cosmopoeia.

Any given man sees only a tiny portion of the total truth, and very often, in fact almost … Weh! steck’ ich in dem Kerker noch? Verfluchtes dumpfes Mauerloch, Wo selbst das liebe Himmelslicht Trüb durch gemalte Scheiben bricht! Beschränkt mit diesem Bücherhauf, Den Würme nagen, Staub bedeckt, Den bis ans hohe. … perpetually, he deliberately deceives himself about that little precious fragment as well. A portion of him turns against him and acts like another person, defeating him from inside. A man inside a man. Which is no man at all.

Philip K Dick, A Scanner Darkly [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Dick A Scanner Darkly man sees tiny portion total truth perpetually deliberately deceives himself defeating from inside man inside man no man at all