Books Read- 203 Books to Read-282 Percent Complete- 41.86%

Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

1985 Nebula Award Nominee- 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' by Barry N. Malzburg

This book could be a prime example that our surrounding and mindset has almost as much to do with our enjoyment of a novel as the content.  'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' has everything that an SF reader should want in a novel, originality, humor, complexity, interesting writing style, but somehow the book comes off as flat.  I'm forced to ask myself if this was just my experience in reading, as I was on vacation and this book followed several other superior novels, or is this the general experience in reading the book?

I never assumed that Sigmund Freud would make for a good protagonist in a novel, and I don't think Malzburg believed that either.  The character of Freud in the book comes off about as well as one would think he would in real life.  His internal monologue and actions are frustrating throughout the novel, kind of what you would expect if Sigmund Freud actually were to go on the sort of space adventure we see here.

You have to applaud Malzburg for originality here, no matter what else you think.  The concept of famous people from the twentieth century somehow ending up on spaceships, no matter the faulty logic involved or the convoluted reasoning behind it, is pretty awesome.  Deserving even more applause is Malzburg's choice of which twentieth century personalities to showcase in his novel.  If I were picking famous people to place on a spaceship I would probably go with Ghengis Khan, or George Patton, making it a military SF novel seems like a logical move.  Even Sir Richard Burton or some other explorer in space would make sense.  Malzburg's idea to resurrect Freud, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickenson deserves some degree of respect.  This is probably the only novel ever published that will feature these three characters on a spaceship.

The actual commentary that Malzburg is trying to make with these characters borders on the profound but is ultimately derailed by the distraction of using real life characters.  Some of the comments the author attempts to make about mental illness and the future of humanity in space are interesting, but when Sigmund Freud shows up complaining about Carl Jung the entire thing goes off the rails and any gravitas the author was attempting to bring turn into a spate of giggles.

Towards the end there is a bit of introspection regarding fame and success, and how close each of these major historical characters perhaps was to being largely forgotten by history.  Freud then trades in his entire fictional life from the book for the real life that we are aware of.  It's an interesting bit of metafiction and kind of a cool question to think about, the random choices in a life that can lead to success or failure.  But, by and large doesn't save the novel from earlier distractions.

This isn't the first book I've reviewed that attempted to take a preposterous premise and treat it seriously.  I think 'The Void Captain's Tale' wins the prize in that regard.  Whereas in Void Captain Norman Spinrad's talent as a writer was able to keep the reader grounded and suspend disbelief (stave off the giggles) for the duration of the novel, in Remaking Malzburg is not quite up to the task of making us take this story seriously the entire time.

Malzburg would have done better to emulate a writing style more like Philip Dick who even in his earlier, less ridiculous work, never seemed to take his writing too seriously and and was never scared to let the originality of his idea overshadow everything else.  Jonathan Lethem's 'Gun, with Occasional Music,' would be a modern idea of this, where the author never demands that we take the novel too seriously, and is therefore able to command our attention through a good story.

Remaking is an interesting novel that gets points for originality.  It's just what the reader should be looking for in a Nebula nominee from the early eighties.  Flawed but original, I'm sure every review for the novel was bound to say 'something new' somewhere in it, which this book definitely is.  Though 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' never really had a chance to win any awards, it was published in the same year as 'Ender's Game' and 'Blood Music' after all, but it's more than deserving of a nomination, and I'm glad it was.  Otherwise it might be totally forgotten by now.

I've been putting off writing reviews for the books I read on vacation.  I just don't really want to write one for 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' because I didn't like it that much, and I want to review China Mieville's work in the order I read it, I think Iron Council would be diminished if you hadn't already finished 'Perdido Street Station' and 'The Scar' before you read it.  I'll write some more reviews here pretty soon.

I started reading 'The Embedding' by Ian Watson.  I didn't make it that far into the book before I picked up something new.  Embedding reminded me a little of 'Babel 17' by Samuel Delany, both books seem to be based on the idea that language can determine thought patterns, and while it's an interesting idea I'm pretty sure it's been disproved.  I don't know why that should affect my enjoyment of the book, and I did really like Babel, but I just couldn't get going on Embedding.

Part of the reason might be that I picked up 'Kiln People' by David Brin.  I do my best to learn as little as I can about the Nebula and Hugo nominees I haven't read yet, it wouldn't do me any good to go spoiling myself, but for some reason I had thought Kiln took place in the same universe as 'Startide Rising.'  It obviously does not, and while 'Startide Rising' is by far Brin's best and most popular work I still really enjoy his 'stand-alone' novels like Kiln and 'Earth.'  These are near future books (set less than a hundred years in the future) that differ quite a bit from what you usually see in SF.  It's a risky proposition for any author to set their story in the near future, there's too much chance that we can actually catch that date and make it seem ridiculous (see the Terminator movies) or that you can be off just enough in what the future will actually be like that it breaks the suspension of disbelief in an otherwise serious and thoughtful story (see the work of John Brunner). 

The standard for SF authors writing in the near future setting is to pick one example from our present day and extrapolate that out to an illogical conclusion and show how it might affect humanity or alter our lives in some way.  This is what Brunner did with his four most famous novels, examining overpopulation in 'Stand on Zanzibar' and racism in 'The Jagged Orbit.'  The problem with this is that one, most people can't do it as well as Brunner did, and two, it's usually a big downer, with authors trying to show how the world will come crashing down and humanity will be all but destroyed. See 'Blood Music' by Greg Bear (though that was still a good book) and 'The Chronoliths' by Robert Charles Wilson.  The difference with Brin is that he seems like the only SF author who is actually optimistic about what's coming, his near future novels always posit a time that is better than the world we are living in now.  He seems to acknowledge that what is around the corner for humanity will not be easy by any means but that humanity will persevere and be better off for it.  It's a refreshing viewpoint you don't see often in SF.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

I just put up a review for Roger Zelazny's 'Jack of Shadows.'  I liked the book but all told it's kind of a minor work by Zelazny that exhibits just enough originality to garner a Hugo Nomination but not enough to win the award outright, especially in a year that saw both 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' and 'The Lathe of Heaven.'  I've read a few of the other nominees but 1972 still seems to have a few books left for me, it seems I still have to read Poul Anderson's 'Byworlder,' never heard of that one.

'Jack of Shadows' was an enjoyable read, but not exactly uplifting.  I liked how it played around with some of the heroic cliches you expect to find in modern Fantasy, but it still kind of creeped me out when our protagonist turned into a despot.  In my review I talk a little about 'Lord of Light,' what I consider to be Zelazny's best work (Also in the recent Oscar winner 'Argo' Ben Affleck was making a fake SF movie based on Lord), and a much more uplifting work than Shadows.

So this is the first review I've written for one of the books I read while on vacation.  Next up I've got quite a bit of work left to do.  To be honest I'll be luck if I don't end up finishing off a book for every review I write.  I've already finished 'Iron Council' by China Mieville and started 'The Embedding' by Ian Watson.  I think maybe I'll review Council next, I haven't written a review for any Mieville yet.

1972 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Jack of Shadows' by Roger Zelazny

I came a little late to Zelazny's writing, probably because it's always at the far end of the bookstore, starting with a Z and all.  I think the first story of his I read, 'Lord of Light,' might end up being one of his best works, always a slightly depressing find when you realize an author's best work might be behind you.  I really loved Lord, and while 'Jack of Shadows' has a lot of good stuff going on it doesn't quite live up.  I read Lord last year and since then have finished 'This Immortal' and 'Isle of the Dead,' which fall into the same category as Jack, pretty good but no 'Lord of Light.'

I mentioned before how a lot of Fantasy novels (and I would classify most of Zelazny as Fantasy rather than SF, though largely I think that's a dumb distinction) inhabit a world that is largely familiar to the reader, and try to inhabit that world with original characters and tell an original story.  Zelazny in general, and 'Jack of Shadows' specifically goes against this.  It is the world itself that is unrecognizable and the characters that come off as familiar, even a little flat as in the case of Jack.  Think of Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire,' Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time,' or even Mieville's 'New Crobuzon' series.  There's nothing so different about the worlds those stories take place in that can't be described in a single sentence (Ice and Fire has really long winters, done), it's the characters and monsters that live in those worlds which makes the stories memorable and separates them from the world we live in. 

On the other hand 'Jack of Shadows' takes place in a world so drastically different from ours that it doesn't even begin to make sense until about fifty pages into a 200 page novel.  This is what I love about Shadows, Zelazny has gone for broke creating this universe, imagining a place where science and magic can both inhabit the same area, and in the place of the planet's core become each other's imagined fear.  This is great stuff.  But, compare the characters of those other series with the characters of Shadows and you'll come up short.  With the exception of Morningstar (probably everyone's favorite character, and the demon in the picture above) all of the characters in the novel are someone we've all encountered before in Fantasy and SF.

Even Jack's incredible powers seem commonplace now.  Though I'm not sure how they might have been viewed in the 1970's, I'm pretty sure I've seen cartoon characters that can transport themselves by shadows.  It's one of the problems of reading older fiction, you can never tell if a given trope is itself a cliche, or the original that all other cliches are based on. 

Aside from Morningstar there is Jack, who fits the mold of revenge seeking loner so neatly that I don't really need to go further into detail for you to understand him.  There is his enemy, the Lord of Bats, really a stock magician whose only shining grace is locking Jack into a 'room without doors,' another interesting piece of world building by Zelazny.  Jack's betrothed Evene is almost an afterthought as far as character development is concerned, though Jack's own manipulation of the character could be considered partly responsible for that.

The one truly great point that Zelazny makes with his characters is to send up the idea of a classic hero.  This is a bit of subversion that still feels original and fresh now forty years later.  The reader begins the novel sympathizing with Jack, we do see him killed on the first page after all.  As Jack continues on with his quest we see him do horrible things, all forgivable and most understandable, but nonetheless still horrible.  He continues on with his quest and maintains reader sympathy until somehow we arrive at an end in which Jack is undoubtedly a terrible person, beyond sympathy, completely friendless but for Morningstar. 

It's only at the end of the novel in which we realize that though Jack is surely the protagonist of this novel he can in no way be called a hero, and might even be the antagonist of the very same book.  Zelazny has a habit of creating antiheroes bound for revenge but he really outdoes himself here, and Jack's not so much bent on revenge as he is on absolute destruction of anyone who has committed the smallest slight against him.  It makes for an interesting read when you arrive at the end of the novel to find that Jack has slowly progressed from lovable antihero to despotic ruler of half a planet, and ultimately to destroyer of an entire civilization.

Normally I dislike books that end on the sort of 'Lady or the Tiger' ending that Zelazny has here, but I didn't mind it in this case.  Zelazny gives us the knowledge we need about the future of Morningstar, freed from his eternal prison by his finally seeing the sunrise, and tells us what we need about Jack's future.  Namely that he is willing to give up being a ruler, and accepts whatever might come in the new world he has created.  Zelazny lets us choose which ending we like, does Morningstar catch him or not?  Ultimately I don't think it matters though, even if Jack lives we have seen how the this world works, and Jack will forever be marred by the actions he took while in possession of the Kolwynia, no one will forgive him and he has affected everyone.  He will be a pariah on both the light and dark sides of the planet.  It does not matter if Jack lives or dies, he's made his choices and will have to live (or die) with them.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I haven't posted anything in a little while.  I was on vacation and didn't have access to the internet.  But, on the bright side while I was on vacation I finished 'Jack of Shadows' by Roger Zelazny, 'Shadrach in the Furnace' by Robert Silverberg, 'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' by Barry N. Malzburg, and I'm almost done with 'Iron Council' by China Mieville.  So I've got a lot of reviews to post here pretty soon, and I also got a tan. 

'Jack of Shadows' wasn't the best Zelazny I've read, though it does some interesting things with character sympathy.  I'll read whatever he wrote based on how much I enjoyed 'Lord of Light' but I haven't found anything else of his yet that lives up to that wonderful novel.  Zelazny seems to be more fantasy based than SF based for most of his work.  In my limited experience (I don't read that much Fantasy) most fantasy seems to build a very familiar world, something the reader is used to, and inhabit that world with new and interesting characters.  Zelazny is almost the exact opposite of this, while his characters can trend toward the one dimensional his worlds are always amazingly original and interesting.  This is especially the case with Shadows.

'Shadrach in the Furnace' is really classic Silverberg.  I've posted a link to his bibliography before and I'll do it again here.  This guy wrote a lot of books, and that bibliography isn't even complete.  His best work seems to be done between 1967 starting with 'Thorns,' and ending with Shadrach in 1977.  Following Shadrach Silverberg had a dry spell in which he published almost nothing for about two years.  Samuel Delany talks about the publishing world of SF in his book of essays 'The Jewel Hinged Jaw,' and he specifically mentions Silverberg as being burnt out after writing two or three full length novels a year for ten years.  It's sad that this had to happen to such a great author, but no one can deny the quality of work he produced in that time span.  In several of those years Silverberg had multiple nominees per year.

'The Remaking of Sigmund Freud' is an experimental novel I would normally associate more with the Nebula Award, but it was nominated for a Hugo instead.  I've had it on my Kindle for several years now but just couldn't get into it.  I finally finished it and it was alright, interesting.  You won't find it at any bookstore these days except a second hand store, and the only place to buy it new is online.  Gollancz is still doing a lot of good work placing out of print SF books online in e-book format.  Their work seems to contain a lot of typographic errors but for availability they just can't be beat.  It's kind of shocking to realize that so many Hugo and Nebula nominees just aren't worth the cost of priniting anymore, but it's nice to see a publishing house putting the effort into making them available online.  I can still find copies of books like this online at but in ten years or so Gollancz might be my only option to find some of this less popular work.

I'm really liking 'Iron Council.'  Mieville has his problems, and the complexity of his work, especially his New Crobuzon work, seems to be dropping off each novel.  'Perdido Street Station' was one of the most complex and original works I've ever read, 'The Scar' was less so but had enough going on that it was still amazing, 'Iron Council' has almost none of that and I could see it being published by a less accomplished author.  I'm not finished yet and maybe the last fifty pages holds some surprise for me we'll see.  If there is some drop off in originality you can't really fault the author anyway, it seemed like he threw thirty years worth of ideas into Perdido, that novel had everything in it.

Anyway, I'll post reviews for these novels as soon as I can, got to get back into the swing of things after vacation.