Monthly Archives: April 1997

The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad

Timescape, 1972 (1982 reprint), 256 pages, US$3.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-44212-0

Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream has attracted its share of controversy in the twenty-five years since its original publication. And for good reasons: You see, The Iron Dream‘s nothing more that a repackaging of “Lord of the Swastika: Adolph Hitler’s best Science-Fiction Novel!”

Interested, yet?

Spinrad takes one premise and runs with it: What if Hitler, instead of staying in Germany and taking control of the Nazis, had emigrated to America and become an pulp-SF author? What kind of novel could have been written by Hitler?

So we get Lord of the Swastika: A 240-page epic in which perfect-hero Feric Jaggar goes from a humble exile to becoming Master of the World. The plot is straight power fantasy stuff: The introduction of a good-but-powerless hero, his acquisition of a mighty weapon, his rapid ascension to the throne, etc… This is pulpish stuff at its most extreme, consciously pastiched by Spinrad: The intent is to ridiculize the Nazi mystique, and he goes at it with big guns. The prose is suitably bombastic:

“The victory of Lumb had buoyed the spirits of the Helder race, while the realization that it was only a matter of time before the Dominators would once more unleash their ghastly minions against sacred human soil moved them to incredible feats of fanatic self-sacrifice and unprecedented energy.” (Page 168)

I started smirking on page one, and chuckling on page two.

The novel’s afterword is a delight in itself: written in tedious academic jargon, it makes most of the points I wished to enumerate in this review: The obvious phallic symbolism, the ridiculously repetitive imagery, the absence/irrelevance of female characters, the Dom/Jew analogy, the classic heroic fantasy structure, etc… At the same time, the afterword presents a nice little piece of irony in its picture of the alternate world in which Lord of the Swastika was written. Even without WW2, history isn’t necessarily better…

This book can, and should be read on many levels: As a ridiculous send-up of power fantasy, as a warning of the appeal of totalitarism, as an alternate history, as self-conscious macho trip and -my favourite- as an insidious satire of Science-Fiction itself.

Because frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Feric Jaggar. He might be a mysoginistic, racist, totalitarian bastard, but nothing stands in his way. Realistic heroes might have flaws, but flawless heroes are far more fun. And there lies the lesson of The Iron Dream, as banal as it is: Power fantasies are amusing, as long as they remain fantasies. It’s when they ooze into the Real World that people start to be hurt.

It’s frightening to see how easily I, as a reader, was seduced by the omnipotence of heroes like Feric Jaggar. There’s a solid lesson there about the appeal of SF, and how even bad fiction can start re-writing your brain without your permission. Other pulp-era SF stories may have been more benign in intention, but an awful lot of them relied on the same levers than Spinrad’s straight-faced satire.

As a powerful but one-note gotcha!, The Iron Dream doesn’t get my highest commendation… but it’s certainly a classic SF novel for none-too-obvious reasons.

Triumph, Ben Bova

Tor, 1993, 253 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-52063-7

Are alternate-history tales true science-fiction?

Even though I admit this isn’t a sexier subject as “Fantasy and SF” or even “Verne vs Wells” or “Is media SF hopeless?”, it’s still a subject that hasn’t been solved to anyone’s satisfaction. Ben Bova’s Triumph is unlikely to shed any new light on the matter.

While SF often asks ‘What if?’ by projecting its conclusion in the future, alternate histories ask the same question, but by focusing on the other direction: The past. What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Atom Bomb would have been developed by the Nazis first? What if Leonardo da Vinci had been named King of France? Alternate history tries to examine the possible pasts/presents that would have resulted by changes in our history.

And this is, revealing the punch early, where Bova’s Triumph falters. What if Churchill plotted to assassinate Stalin? What if -sorry for the spoiler- he succeeded?

Bova tantalizes, but delivers only partly. Since the novel restricts itself to the April 1945 time-frame, we never get a sense of Big Changes. In many ways, Bova’s novel is not alternate enough.

But it is remarkably historic. A lot of research has been poured in this work, and it shows. I especially liked the characterisation of Churchill, as unrealistic as it was. It seems that everyone in Bova’s novel is far more prophetic than they should reasonably be, an artefact of a 1993 novel about 1945 people. A lot of cameos from a lot of subsequently famous persons makes this an interesting, if increasingly unlikely read.

It’s moderately entertaining, especially for the WWII buff. Despite the ho-hum battle scenes the book moves quickly, an impression confirmed by the relatively low number of pages.

Like most Bova novels, this isn’t anything ground-breaking, nor especially spectacular. However, Bova delivers the merchandise in a professional, almost routine way. Worth the library loan if you’re interested in this kind of stuff.

Society of the Mind, Eric L. Harry

Harper Collins, 1996, 504 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017694-6

Rarely has an author made such an impressive debut on the techno-thriller field than Eric L. Harry with Arc Light. That first novel started with World War III… and then went on to bigger things. It was a better Clancy than most Clancy. And now, Harry goes on to write a better Crichton than Crichton.

Everyone knows the kind of story Crichton writes: Jurassic Park, RUNAWAY, Sphere, The Andromeda Strain. The kind of novel where the first half’s a walkthrough and the other half’s a non-stop race against time, death and technology run amok.

When Society of the Mind begins, a brilliant psychologist (Laura Aldridge) is brought to the private high-tech island of a multi-billionaire. Her goal, we finally get to discover, is to psychoanalyse a computer’s mind. But as the first two-third of the novel is spent “ooh-ing and “aaah-ing over bleeding-edge computers, AIs, robots and the handsome billionaire, it’s no bet to bet what’s going to happen: Before long, Laura and her billionaire will be trading kisses with each others and bullets with robots and computers gone crazy. That’s what eventually happens… but not quite in the stereotypical manner.

Harry has a real talent. Arc Light was a good story enhanced by good scenes and adequate characters. Similarly, Society of the Mind is the traditional cautious techno-thriller, but done with considerably more forethought than Crichton.

[This is where I tell the reader that Eric L. Harry has his own Web site at http://www.eharry.com/ and that on this site, you can find such fascinating information as:

  • Harry never had any intention to begin writing. Arc Light was begun because (I am not making this up!) he needed to have something to print with his new printer.
  • The first draft of Society of the Mind, a 500+ pages thriller, was written in six weeks, as an aside during the redaction of his next techno-thriller. Wow.]

It’s borderline science-fiction/techno-thriller. In E-Mail, Harry confirmed that he thought about marketing the novel as straight SF, but didn’t. Good call: Society of the Mind has the SF gadgets, but the TT “attitude” that gadgets can -and do- kill people whether we want it or not. I found the approximate date of the story (around 2000) to be ridiculously optimistic, but one never quite know…

Arc Light remains a better book, I think, but Society of the Mind doesn’t disappoint. Most of the ideas presented here are familiar to anyone versed in the latest Wired/socio-technical literature, but they’re presented quite entertainingly. However, Harry still have problems with closing down his books (The first half is usually more fun. Here, I thought most of the robotic wars could have been compressed in half the pages) and providing a satisfying finale. Even though the last few lines of this novel are a kicker.

Society of the Mind is now out in paperback and it’s a worthwhile buy. You’ll get decent entertainment value for your money, as well as more than a few thought-provoking issues. Encourage your friends to take a look at it; I know I will.

Volcano (1997)

(In theaters, April 1997) A volcano pops up in Los Angeles, a disaster movie ensues. Decent entertainment, but a better title for it should have been Lava, given that the actual volcano is never really “fought”. I thought the final “big” sequence seriously lacked any kind of clear suspense, but the remainder of the movie is okay. Points given for a self-aware treatment of the “saved pet animal” problem, points removed for trying to put messages in the script. Tommy Lee Jones is a credible lead, and Anne Heche… sigh… [Insert weak joke here about her relationship to Ellen Degeneres] Notice the structural similarity between Volcano and classical hard-SF “problem” stories: A problem, a competent hero (engineer!), high stakes, ingenious solution by hero, etc… As a book, more would have been expected (such a dealing with the other lava flows), but as a movie… I remain pleased.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Robert A. Heinlein

Ace/Putnam, 1987, 416 pages, C$20.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-13267-8

(Or: To sail beyond the boundaries of adequate editing…)

Even in a field as smart as Science-Fiction, Robert A. Heinlein stands tall intellectually. His influence is enormous enough that we should probably dedicate the whole field of SF to him and move on to other matters. He’s the man who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land yet he’s also the man who gave us Starship Troopers. Beyond my personal liking for the man’s work, he has attracted a tremendously fanatical following—even now.

Yet all fans, and most critics, consider that Heinlein’s career suffered immensely during his later years. Following a severe period of bad health in the beginning of the Seventies, Heinlein’s latter novel, they say, are overindulging, under-edited, sex-obsessed and more concerned (in the words of Alexei Panshin) about “opinions as facts”. Heinlein’s opinions.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset was Heinlein’s last published novel before his death in 1987. How does it measure up to his other works?

Not very well. TSBtS is the autobiography of Maureen Johnson, the mother of Heinlein’s favourite literary alter-ego, Lazarus Long. Her history is also the history of Heinlein’s famous “Future History” cycle. This novel chronicles her life, from her birth in 1882 onward.

The first thing one must accept about this book is that it’s all about sex. From Maureen’s Electra complex to her first boyfriend to complex “family” affairs to her rescue of her father (and subsequent elopement, we presume), this is where Heinlein Says to his readers “Listen up; I have a fascination with It and I thing everyone who’s prude is seriously pucked-up.”

Mix in some philosophy on the Downfall of American Society (Such uncultured barbarians we all are nowadays!), Good Wars, Bad Presidents… The only good persons here are Maureen, her father and her son Lazarus Long. Everyone else is an idiot, a puppet or inconsequential. The Encyclopedia of SF‘s is right when is says that “in praising one family over everything else, Heinlein has cheapened everything else.” The final nail in the coffin is that, for a novel that’s entirely cantered around sex, the sex scenes are lousy. Can’t have everything, I guess…

Still, despite these considerable flaws, TSBtS manages to entertain considerably. Always readable, Heinlein’s style is distinctive and pleasant. Never mind that the no-nonsense, street-smart monologue of Maureen could have been generated from the same place that Richard Ames’ narration (In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls) came from…. it’s still loads of fun. Then there’s Maureen/Heinlein’s obsession with cats- (Okay, so I lied: TSBtS isn’t all about sex. There’s a cat in there too. But you get my meaning.)

Yet, the prose may be light, but the meaning is sombre, even bitter. Heinlein is more concerned about preaching than amusement. Maureen makes explicit speeches about such subject as religion, government and other things… which brings us to the touchy subject of editing.

A competent editor could have looped off a good hundred pages. I’m still not sure if this would have been an improvement, or at least not a dramatic improvement like a good editing of I Will Fear No Evil.

Even then, this is Heinlein’s Last Novel. Treasure it, burn it or tolerate it… There will be no more things like this.

Se7en (1995)

(On VHS, April 1997) One of the most satisfying movies in ages: The script is great, the dialogue crackles, the visual style is dark and distinctive and the ending… perfect, just perfect. Plus, the premise: A serial killer is killing according to the seven deadly sins. Is the police going to be able to stop him before his seventh victim? I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to see this movie. I rally to all the positive opinions surrounding this film. See it.

Monolith (1993)

(On TV, April 1997) Bad and stupid SF thriller, starring then-unknown Bill Paxton and Lindsay Cromwell (“Who?” “The blonde psychologist in Op-Center!” “Ah!”). The setup is intriguing (a female Russian scientist shoots a young boy) but the script quickly dissolves in a series of routine “alien cover-up” scenes. So routine that the plot seems to have been forgotten in the writer’s head. Remarkable mostly for the total absence of monoliths in the movie, despite the title. The conclusion is brain-damagingly stupid. Avoid.

Liar Liar (1997)

(In theaters, April 1997) Jim Carrey is great as a lawyer unable to lie during a full day. Never mind the ambiguous script, the disappointing finale and the sugar-coated messages, this is one of the best comedies of the year. I don’t think that Carrey is the ultimate comedian, but he has charm, and the movie would be much poorer without him. There are more than a few good jokes other than Carrey’s antics, which probably accounts for the movie’s long-running success.

Kôkaku Kidôtai [Ghost In The Shell] (1995)

(On VHS, April 1997) Great anime movie, based on an equally superb manga. It’s far from being perfect (variable quality of animation, a lot of overlong scenes, classic “anime” annoyances) but it’s the best -and the smartest!- SF movie I’ve seen in a while. The plot is something between Nikita and Blade Runner: Female killer android searches for her identity. This movie passes my criteria for good media SF: I could imagine reading this as a short story.

The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1995, 520 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-105648-0

Ah, new bookstores… For the average bibliophile, few things are as pleasant in life than discovering a new bookstore. In the Ottawa area, we’ve been lucky lately (despite the closing of the House of Speculative Fiction): Both a downtown mega-bookstore (Chapters) and a new SF bookstore (Basilisk Dreams Books) have opened in the last six months or so.

But this isn’t a review of a bookstore… To make a long and potentially boring story short, let’s just say that my first trip to resulted in the purchase of a long-awaited book: The Time Ships. Curiously enough, this particular edition isn’t supposed to be published in Canada… Indeed, the jacket copy lists only one (American) price. Bad move from Harper Prism, or restrictive rights agreements?

Still, you can’t keep an SF reader away from a good book. My reasons to be curious about The Time Ships were diverse: It was a 1996 Hugo Nominee. It wasn’t available at the library. It wasn’t available at any other bookstore. AND, it’s the first “approved” sequel to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Now, understand that I’m no particular fan of Wells. His prose style was fine for the turn of the century, but today… it’s a bit full of cobwebs. But even then, one cannot help to admire the legacy left by a few novels and shorter stories. Wells tackled on themes as invisibility, time-travel and alien invasions a full century before INDEPENDENCE DAY… with considerably more intelligence. But that’s another essay.

The Time Ships picks up where Wells’ story ended: The Time Traveller resolves to go back to the Eloi/Morlock world. Of course, things aren’t that simple, and five hundred pages of various adventures follow. We get far-future extrapolation, an alternate history, a robinsonade and another far-future big-canvas scenario. To say more would be a spoiler.

The book is told “a la Wells”, which is to say, using a pseudo-Victorian style. I wasn’t too enthused about that, but I was surprised at how readable the whole book was. This, incidentally, also makes The Time Ships surprisingly accessible to any reader unfamiliar with science-fiction: The complicated concepts of alternate worlds, time-travel, etc… are explained to them as they are explained to our time-travelling (Victorian) hero. We sometimes get the false impression that this is a book Wells could have written himself.

But Baxter did write the book, and should be deservedly proud of it: He tackles on big subjects here and succeeds more than he fails. I felt the book was more interesting when he veered off Wells’ ideas than when he followed the first book’s story, but that’s a highly subjective opinion.

The Hugo nomination for this book was warranted. Whether it should have won is another matter entirely, which I won’t discuss here… But this is still a superior read: Grab it, read it. Baxter is now on my “to catch up on!” list.