sexta-feira, novembro 28, 1980

Shoddy SF: "Why Call Them Back from Heaven?" by Clifford D. Simak





(Original Review, 1980-11-28)


In response to a SF fan query about computers that can interpret law, I just finished "Why Call Them Back from Heaven" by Clifford Simak. Although a minor feature of the story, the law of the land dictates the use of jury trials in which the jury is a machine. A couple of paragraphs is devoted to a discussion of how the use of machines has caused lawyers to stick strictly to the letter of the law and objective facts instead of the "sympathy tricks" and other appeals to emotion that are often used in modern day jury trials. (I once saw a TV show where someone sat on a jury for a civil suit and I was amazed by the fact that no one in the courtroom seemed to want the jury to hear the actual FACTS of the case. A lot of mumbo-jumbo about if this or that information was admissible without the jury finding out what the information was. Also, seemed that the lawyers' chief job was to KEEP certain info from becoming known!! And oh the theatrics of the lawyer for the plaintiff!! Truly a thing to behold.) Anyway, this gives me as good as excuse as any to give a mini review of WCTBfH (a book I picked up after reading the name in a friend’s SF list) All in all I thought it was pretty good. It did a better job of describing a possible future world than it did in characterizations. In this sense it reminded me of "The Man in the High Castle" (correct name?) by Philip K. Dick. The world that was described was a very interesting one. In general, I like SF that attempts to be philosophically thought provoking instead of merely portraying a lot of action in an alien environment (space westerns, for example). The greatest shortcoming of the story, in my opinion, is that the reader is asked to believe some rather unbelievable coincidences that just happen to bring the main characters back together at unpredictable times. Also, the ending wraps up all the loose ends in about 2 pages that needed 170 pages to lead up to. All in all, though, NOT RECOMMENDED. I would like to finish this message with a totally unrelated query. Can anyone point me in the direction of "Venus on the Half-shell"? Is this a real book? And if so, who is the author and what is the publishing firm, etc.? I have read just about everything by Kurt Vonnegut and would like to tie up this loose end in my reading.



[2018 EDIT: "Venus on the Halfshell" by Kilgore Trout is a science fiction novel mentioned in several of Vonnegut's novels. At the time that Vonnegut wrote those novels, VotH was simply a prop from his imaginary universes. Since then however, P. J. Farmer wrote a book published as "Venus on the Halfshell" by Kilgore Trout (Farmer’s pseudonym). It follows the descriptions and situations given by Vonnegut quite closely.  It is also part of general series of realizations of "imaginary" books and references being done by Farmer. How I wish I had proper Internet back then…]


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

quarta-feira, novembro 26, 1980

Space Captain Roadstrum: "Space Chantey" by R. A. Lafferty





(Original Review, 1980-11-26)


Another old Ace double that's a favourite is "Space Chantey" by R. A. Lafferty. It's sort of a retelling of "The Odyssey" in sf terms, but in typically crazed Lafferty fashion. Odysseus becomes Space Captain Roadstrum, the land of the lotus eaters becomes a planet where (shades of Tennyson) it is always afternoon, the clashing rocks become an asteroid belt and so on. I think this was the first Lafferty I ever read, and I was taken by the style even if I didn't know what was going on. I remember walking into the corner store, oh, about 1980 or so to buy groceries & checking out the book rack: that's how I found my first RA Lafferty book, “Fourth Mansions”. After that, I would buy any book that had his name on it without even reading the synopsis on the back. He was just that good. I'm looking forward to some great re-reads. It blew my mind like a party balloon. After that book I was lucky to find a second hand copy of “Not to Mention Camels”.

After that: well, I was on a Lafferty hunt that lasted at least a decade. I read all I could find. Not everything was great but it was all Lafferty. Which was and will always be good enough for me. He is much more difficult to read than the likes of Sheckley or Dick, and frankly, apart from the current hardcore readership it is difficult to see his audience expanding much into the mainstream beyond enhanced snob value namedropping.

Off topic, there's a lot of good Jack Vance books that you don't see very often. One of his first was "The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph", a collection of short stories about a genteel, goateed adventurer who consistently outwits his brawny, space-tanned adversaries. I think it was reprinted recently; I recommend it. Mark S. Geston [2018 EDIT: What the hell happened to Geston? I don’t think I read anything more from him ever] doesn't write much and isn't strong on plot, but if you like apocalypses he's your man. "The Lords of the Starship", "In the Mouth of the Dragon" (very hard to find) and "The Siege of Wonder" all contain final battles of one kind or another. "The Siege of Wonder" is probably the best; it concerns a confrontation between the forces of magic and those of science: griffins vs. tanks and the like. His style might be too poetic for some, but I'd pick him as my favourite unknown author.


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


terça-feira, novembro 25, 1980

Galactic-War: "The Fall of Worlds" by Francine Mezo





(Original Review, 1980-11-25)


When you see a pb cover with the author's name in bright red letters over an inch high, and the title letters in white, only a quarter of an inch in height, but you never heard of the writer, it makes you wonder. (The story doesn't read like a translation, nor is there any entry for Mezo in Clute's SF ENCYCLOPEDIA, so this is seemingly not an import.) It looked like something for my SF female protagonists’ collection, so I got it despite one of the most ridiculous cover pictures for that type. It's a fairly straightforward galactic-war story, the first of 2 or more in a series.  It's flawed by what I suspect was excessive editorial deletion of background data. Particularly in the big space battle at the end where you're not quite sure what all those maneuvers are, what they accomplish, or how. Yet, there was still something distinctly intriguing about the story. Partly it may have been the groups of identical clones with conditioned restrictions akin to Asimov's "Laws of Robotic".  Or perhaps it was the clone-protagonist's development toward a sense of being a human person despite those inbred restrictions. The ending is a downer, but with a sharp coruscation of hope.
\My/ hope is that UNLESS SHE BURN, "coming soon by this author" is the sequel, and really does come soon.  Unaccustomedly, I ended up really caring about that heroine.

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]



quinta-feira, novembro 20, 1980

$3-Worth: "Dream Makers" by Charles Platt





(Original Review, 1980-11-20)


Whether you'll like this, $3-worth, probably depends more on your orientation within SF than on its merits. I made my way through it, but sometimes it took some self-prodding. The lack of interest-arousal may have been due to the interviewer's selection of authors, few of which I had any particular prior interest in. Platt being of the British "New Worlds" coterie, the high proportion of his fellow-countrymen is probably expectable. But, the emphasis in selection was too much on the New Wave and psychology-oriented authors for my taste.  (I go along with one of remarks from Silverberg's interview, "We were all trying to use the material of SF and carry it closer to [the literary].  I don't see any reason why that should succeed; it seems almost folly to think that it should, since SF is basically a mass-market category of entertainment and we were trying to make something elitist".)

The authors interviewed are: Asimov, Disch, Sheckley, Vonnegut, Stine, Spinrad, Pohl, Delany, Malzberg, Bryant, Bester, Budrys, Farmer, VanVogt, Dick, Ellison, Bradbury, Herbert, Knight & Wilhelm, Moorcock, Ballard, Tubb, Watson, Brunner, Benford, Silverberg, Aldiss, Kornbluth's associates, and Platt himself.

Giving Platt the benefit of the doubt when he claims not to be sexist, his personal preferences leave him with just the one token woman, and she as an appendage to her husband. Platt says he tried to get more, but LeGuin declined. Too bad he couldn't find any women of the august caliber of Stine (sorry, Roger) or Bryant!

The interviews are accompanied by 2-1/8 x 1-3/4 inch photos, except Platt's own, which is 1/4 in. larger in both dimensions.

[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


quarta-feira, novembro 19, 1980

Flat Cats vs Tribbles: "The Trouble With Tribbles" by David Gerrold





(Original Review, 1980-11-19)


I have always found the similarities between RAH's "Flatcats" in THE ROLLING STONES and Gerrold's "Tribbles" in THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES to be more than just coincidence [2018 EDIT: Incidentally Star Trek writers wrote two episodes based on this same story: "The Trouble with Tribbles" (Star Trek) and "Trials and Tribble-ations" (DS9)]. For the uninitiated, Flatcats look EXACTLY like tribbles, except that they have three tiny eyes in their fur. They purr when stroked in a pleasing manner, and, most importantly, they REPRODUCE like... well, like tribbles. The ROLLING STONES have an interesting time when they bring one aboard their spaceship and then take off on a long trip... it produces 8 little'uns, which in turn quickly produce 8 each... which... Anyone who knows Gerrold, can you find out if he knew about RAH's book... and in any event, if I was RAH I would have screamed bloody murder...[2018 EDIT: Here] Read THE ROLLING STONES instead. It’s much better.


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


segunda-feira, novembro 17, 1980

Flexible Belts: "Cosmos" by Carl Sagan


(My Portuguese Edition)



(Original Review, 1980-11-17)




A lot of talk has been going on about the flaws in Carl Sagan's COSMOS series. These flaws center on either Sagan's unusual speaking style and acting(?) abilities, or the show's contents. I certainly agree that he looks stupid when displaying the "awed" look; however, the complaints about the content of his shows are not justified. Yes, he is short on reasons and long on visual effects, and, yes, he talks as if the viewer did not know the obvious. What we are all forgetting is this: the average person doesn't know what we would consider "obvious". We should realize that Carl Sagan has his work cut out for him making science digestible for the average person. A big gripe is his lack of explanations and providing all information as "given". This is due to the belief that science involves explaining why things are as they are. Certainly, COSMOS ignores this premise, but that doesn't mean it doesn't serve a purpose: a person must be aware of something's existence before he can wonder "why". COSMOS makes the public aware of the existence of the world around us as scientists see it. Once they are aware and wondering, then they will seek to find out "why".

I, too, have found myself increasingly interested in Cosmos, mostly for the conceptual simplicity on things I already understand and, more importantly, some fantastic visual data. I have to mind a nonce when he showed a sequence of shots by Voyager approaching Jupiter, which gave an animation of Jupiter turning in the sky and its moons orbiting it. That was lovely.

I've been only mildly enjoying it, and then I sat thru 2 1/2 hrs of pre- and early Saturn flyby last Tuesday night -- and realized how poorly appreciative of Cosmos I'd been! My favorite so far might have been the Martian one, except for 2 things: wondering if the simulated Valley of the Mariners was accurately proportioned... it didn't \feel/ right; and, the *%#$& sitting beside me who shouted as Sagan's 'ship' went careening down that canyon, "Use the Force, Luke!"

But from the very 1st show, it's been the music which has most impressed me -- so VERY right for what's on the screen that one has to almost consciously attend to it to appreciate how right it is. It's great having knowledgeable BBSers identify it. Just which of the recordings mentioned is the "impressiveness of the starry universe" one, with those gorgeously sonorous piano chords?

It seems that @i(Cosmos) is giving us just enough information to read science fiction. Mr. Sagan has described to us the concept of scooping up interstellar hydrogen into a fusion reaction chamber as a means of fueling an interstellar spacecraft. Such a craft would accelerate toward the destination for half the journey, turn around, and run in reverse the rest of the way. Larry Niven's Known Space was explored this way.

The problem, which neither Carl Sagan nor Larry Niven has approached, is that the ramscoop is "looking the wrong way" to pick up any fuel. Presumably, the reaction chamber must be turned independent of the ramscoop, or something, so that the ramscoop is still looking forward when the engine is running in reverse. Ideas?

The music of one of my favorite synthesizer artists, Vangelis, has been used in several PBS productions: most recently Cosmos (parts from the albums "Albedo 0.39" and "Heaven and Hell") and earlier on Death of a Princess (Albedo 0.39). What puzzles me is that there were no credits given for the music on either of these shows. Does anybody know why that is? I can think of three possibilities:

1) ripoff, 2) Vangelis didn't WANT credit (?), or 3) the music isn't "important" enough to deserve credit (again, ??)

Some thoughts on some later Cosmos episodes: I've come to really enjoy this show, despite Sagan's sometimes infuriating hand gestures (at least his "cosmic awe" of the earlier installments has ebbed). While the technical information is 99% old hat to SF types, Carl has managed to present the historical aspects of science in a way cohesive enough to keep my attention. Names like Kepler, Copernicus, and Democritus haven't meant much to me before; I'd read about them, be suitably impressed for a little while, and promptly forget everything. I think Sagan's visuals and constant tying-together of everything make it easier for the audience to associatively recall the information in the series. And themusic's real good, too.

It's true that Sagan looks dumb when trying to look awed, but what the hell, he's not an actor. The science may not be 100% correct or detailed enough to suit this crowd, but there are masses of people out there that Cosmos is good for. Remember, the goal is to get lots of people to be pro-science, technology, engineering, etc, not to educate them.

This handsome book, Carl Sagan's tenth, was intended as a sort of course syllabus for his current Public Broadcasting Service science series of the same name. With the exquisite sense of timing for which the book industry is famous, Random House officially published it Friday (Oct. 24), just in time for the fifth show in the series. Sagan has become justly famous in a very few years as a popularizer of science, one who is dedicated to raising the consciousness, and the enthusiasm, of the public about the scientific method and what it has given us since mankind's earlier intellectual stirrings. As a practicing scientist with a university institute of his own, who needs all the public financial support he can get, Sagan might be accused of conflict of interest, but we can let that pass.

What Sagan has done in this book, is to review the history of science from the very earliest times and to engage in speculation about where scientific inquiry may lead us in times to come. No one who has read widely in the literature of science will learn much from this book. Isaac Asimov's "Intelligent Man's Guide to Science" comes to mind as a much more comprehensive treatment of the general theme, and on specialized aspects of science history there have been scores of better books, among them Willy Ley's "Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel" and James R. Newman's four- volume anthology, "The World of Mathematics."

The strong point of Sagan's book is precisely the same as the TV version: the graphics. The book is lavishly, one might even say fulsomely, illustrated, largely with frames from the PBS series. But some of the graphics are rather old hat, the artists' conceptions of other worlds being more than vaguely reminiscent of Chesley Bonestell's paintings for Collier's magazine a generation ago that became enshrined in hard covers under the title "Across the Space Frontier."

Sagan, a practicing astronomer, has excellent scientific credentials, and his ability as a writer speaks for itself in the cogent prose of both "Cosmos," the book, and "Cosmos," the TV show. But in some ways I found the book a disappointment. To deal with the planet Mars, for instance, without mentioning Asaph Hall as the discoverer of its two moons, Deimos and Phobos, is simply inexcusable. Similarly, he discusses the scientific method from the ancient Greeks to the present with no mention of William of Ockham, who taught in the 13th century that the simplest explanation of any phenomenon is usually the best one. "Ockham's razor" survives to this day as a test of scientific truth, and its omission from this book is puzzling. Also, I fear Sagan is at times too caught up in his own role in science to remember history as it actually happened. In the foreword, for example, he records that "in the summer and fall of 1976, as a member of the Viking Lander Imaging Flight Team, I was engaged, with a hundred of my scientific colleagues, in the exploration of the planet Mars. For the first time in human history we had landed two vehicles on the surface of another world." In a single sentence, Sagan manages to brush off six manned lunar landings in Project Apollo - all before 1976 - to say nothing of five unmanned Surveyors that had reached "another world" (the moon) eight to 10 years before Viking.

As Sagan clearly indicated in the first episode of the TV "Cosmos," he has a fascination with antiquity that borders on mania and that most science buffs share. No one can question the seriousness of the loss of the Alexandrian Library. But it seems to me that Sagan minimizes (without actually ignoring) the thickness of superstition that overlays ancient science.

I was curious, too, about Sagan's statement, in a discussion of the Pythagorean view of the universe, that "the cube is the simplest example (of the regular solids), having six squares as sides." I am open to correction, but it would seem to me that the tetrahedron, having four equilateral triangles as sides, is at least 25 percent simpler than the cube.

These are perhaps quibbles because, as story-telling, "Cosmos" is well done, as one has come to expect from Carl Sagan. As a topic, it couldn't be bigger; Sagan says at the start of the TV series and in the opening sentence of Chapter 1 of the book, "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be," and this, too, we have come to expect. Sagan by now must be the most famous popularizer of science the world has ever known, and he deserves a good, strong B-plus for effort.

But like a brand-new car with a dent in its fender, this book has its shortcomings. And one should recognize that this is largely recycled material: You've seen the movie; now read the book. The $20 price tag seems hardly justifiable, unless you are looking for something new for the coffee table this fall.
   
Final opinion after having seen the series in its entirety and reading the book from cover to cover:

I found Cosmo's not only dull, but was offended by Sagan’s bombasity. Many of the things that were presented on Cosmo's as FACTS. As per the question of material flexible to loop around in a flat loop versus a typical belt loop. I remember seeing somewhere a luggage moving belt that did just that. It consisted however, of rigid metal plates that overlapped, rather than abutted. When it came time for them to go around a corner, the part of the plate near the inside radius just overlapped more, while the outside portion stayed constant. It would be little tricky to stand on, but I imagine standing on a stretching rubber band would be too.

Firstly, I have not been enlightened as to the "mysteries of the Cosmos." What I have been watching was the way in which Sagan aimed his own feelings about science at the public. He is, I think, doing a damn good job at relating some of the "Romance of Science" to the lay public. I think that I feel some of that same "romance", but Sagan expresses it more clearly than I can. I think that, by relating the basics of science to the public, he is giving them much of the same *spirit* of science that I feel when I read that it is presently believed that the universe has been relatively homogenous for the first 10^-25 seconds of its existence. (From Scientific American - Imagine explaining that in ancient Alexandria). I watch Sagan much more for aesthetic/public-presentation reasons than for learning facts which I get in more depth in school anyway. Secondly, on cetacean intelligence. A few years ago, in Hawaii, a researcher was working on dolphin-human communication using an intermediate language. A lab assistant, after being fired, came and released the dolphins to the ocean. The assistant claimed that he aimed to stop the "slavery" of dolphins, who as intelligent beings, should not be imprisoned. I don't recall what the verdict was, but I heard that "the defense was hopeful".

[2018 EDIT: I remember having conflicted emotions about both the book and the TV show, but I didn’t remember having identified so many glaring omissions and errors in both. I gave 3 stars to both the book and the TV Show…go figure…by reading this review now, everything seemed to be going well at the beginning and then my brain started picking up maladroit stuff; I still can't stop doing it nowadays; that’s why I still like debunking stuff today…lol].


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


domingo, novembro 16, 1980

Walter Mitty: "The Stories of Ray Bradbury" by Ray Bradbury





(Original Review, 1980-11-16)


There are two ways to look at the work of Ray Bradbury. One is to remember how it was: to return to the old friends of youth, when these stories were beautiful, perceptive and spoke of important things. The other is to look at them as they are now: elegant, but a little shallow; obvious; sentimentalized. To do the latter is to deny the child still within us. Not to do it is to deny the child's long struggle to become an adult. What to do? Bradbury peers quizzically out of the jacket photo, and, startlingly, displays a strong resemblance to James Thurber's customary expression. Correlations: Thurber, out of Columbus, Ohio, with his stories of put-upon, soft-spoken, dreaming men preserving few traces of simple goodness in the face of management directives from bulky, sensible women. 

Mother-and-son stories: Bradbury, out of Waukegan and the part of Southern California that's like Waukegan, with his Mars that's like an adolescent boy's room. The parents see the room as cluttered and come barging in to institute reform. The boy sees each object as precious and beautiful, like shells on a beach, though eroded by time and use. Cast there by wind and water, they lie where they ought to be. Move even one, call it ugly, one of them ugly, and the entire beach is ruined.

Parent-and-child stories: There are a hundred of them here, beginning with the 1943 stories that became the early Bradbury books - "The Martian Chronicles," "The Illustrated Man," "Dark Carnival." Uncle Einar, with his leathery wings, his dreadful power, and his affectionate kindness, from the 1946 "Mademoiselle." The Mexican stories, such as "The Next in Line," in which the American tourist wife realized that she has failed to acquire the rights of an adult; that her husband and, more important, great arbitrary managerial forces will pluck her from her own dreams, kill her, wither her and embed her in a catacomb mosaic.

How can we say there's no true art and no force in these stories? When we found them as children, they spoke to the thing parents never visibly grasp, just as Thurber speaks to the same thing: we spend most of our lives as pawns. Thurber's aging men are no longer adult-past it, if they were ever in it; manipulatable [2018 edit: sic; jeez! What a mouthful!] objects. Bradbury's children not only are not yet adult but may, unless they are very resourceful and especially adamant, be pipelined directly into becoming Thurber men or Thurber women trapped into lives in which their own dreams must be subordinated to the task of supervising Thurber men.

And the great horror on whose brink the Bradbury children poise is that the apparent only choice is to bow down and let oneself be arranged or else to become a heedless, insensitive arranger. To give up childhood is to opt for becoming the keeper of a catacomb.

And they are we. Only in part, of course. Life is too various, too flexible, too multifarious for a child to have appraised it all. We are not all advancing toward becoming Walter Mitty, with his errand for puppy biscuit, and Mrs. Mitty, with her errand for keeping Walter Mitty from wandering out into the traffic. Right? Can we all see that?  It's not simplistic, as Bradbury makes it. But when we are a little older, perhaps it will be, again.

There's no one for whom to review this book. Adolescents are not concerned whether Bradbury is an important figure of some importance in "belles lettres." It's evident to them that he is. And he's one of the few who is their friend, and you don't analyze your friends. As for you and me, poised here in the hiatus between the initiatory and the terminal stages of helplessness, each of us works out his or her own appraisals of what's useful and what's not. And those old gaffers over there, whom we love, respect and tend - what does it matter what they think?

Bradbury is an overblown stylist, a sentimentalist whose work is better remembered unre-read. And remembered, and remembered. He is a showy and euphuistic storyteller who is forever making tempests out of zephyrs, who plays on anguishes doomed to be seen for the simple glandular secretions they are, just as soon as the glandular secretions slow down. None of those in power over their own lives will find much to approve of in these stories.

So don't ask me what Bradbury's doing these days. He's beginning to look like James Thurber. He's out there looking for the perfect parent and the perfect child. He's doing whatever we're doing. It's no longer 1943, and we're all engaged in serious business.



[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


sábado, novembro 15, 1980

Battle of the Sexes: "Congo" by Michael Crichton





(Original Review, 1980-11-15)


Here is how Michael Crichton describes Amy, the principal love object in "Congo": "She could be coy, she responded to flattery, she was preoccupied with her appearance, loved make-up, and was very fussy about the collar of the sweaters she wore in the winter." Although she is quite short, Amy weighs 140 pounds. She has a vocabulary of 620 words, which is remarkably good for a gorilla. Karen Ross, the other female in "Congo," is almost six feet tall, attractive but ungainly. She is a mathematical prodigy, brilliant but insensitive, determined to succeed at any cost. Her feminine wiles have been confined to technology. Peter Elliot, a young professor working in the field of primate communication, has taught Amy to talk - not in words, but sign language. His whole life is dominated by Amy. By the time you have read this far in "Congo," you will be wondering how Peter and Karen are going to be brought together, and how this will affect Amy.

Crichton is the Alvin Toffler of suspense fiction, and "Congo" might be described as a romance of technology. Computers and all kinds of electronic equipment are pitted against the primeval, in the form of gorillas, the rain forest of the Congo, and a volcano.

Crichton is also virtuoso of research. He can describe the look and feel of a rain forest as well as the latest safari gadgetry. When Karen and Peter go to the Congo with Amy, their equipment suggests an L. L. Bean catalog of the next century. Readers of suspense novels seem to be willing to absorb any amount of information in the process of being entertained, and Crichton has quite a lot to say about theories of communication, about the information industry and technology, about computers, the warfare of the future, and other such arcane subjects. He also describes a typical Pygmy meal, the current status of cannibalism in Africa, shooting rabbits in a rubber raft and fighting off a murderous attack by hippos. At one point, Amy saves Peter from a male gorilla by treating him as her infant.

"Congo" also includes an ancient city buried in the jungle and guarded by a tribe of "missing links" who talk by sighing and crush intruders' heads between stone spoons. We've come a long way from Tarzan.

It would not be fair to tell you who wins the battle of the sexes. It is enough to say that both Amy and Karen are formidable females. For these and all the usual reasons, "Congo" is very amusing reading, even if, in its originality, Crichton denies us some of the vulgar gratifications of the genre.

The Laws of Thermodynamics: "The Cyberiad Stories" by Stanislaw Lem



(Original Review, 1980)



Some people’s complaint about "The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy" is reminiscent of a friend's complaint about Stanislaw Lem's "Cyberiad: Tales for a Cybernetic Age". He thought it was just a series of disconnected tales that were "everything that sf is ridiculed as being", petty, and demeaning. Then one day I snuck up on him and read him the start of the story on Dragons and Probability, and he burst out laughing.  Then he reread the book and enjoyed it immensely. All this is presented for just two reasons: (1) Maybe my friend was looking for too much or something the book was not intended to be (I found the little I've read of it to be rather humorous), and; (2) This seemed like a splendid opportunity to plug a great book. The only book I know of which makes jokes about the Laws of Thermodynamics, computers, robotics, atomic physics, and still is funny and very philosophical politically (Stanislaw Lem is a Polish author whose works are translated into English brilliantly).

P.S. I should warn that none of the other four books of his I've read have even come close, and most aren't even worth buying (though the intro to "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub" is quite good). If you've been disappointed by his other works, don't let that stop you from reading "Cyberiad".

P.P.S. The story about the electronic bard is probably the best.


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


sexta-feira, novembro 14, 1980

Mythical Beings: "The Circus of Dr. Lao" by Charles G. Finney





(Original Review, 1980-11-14)


Circa 1935(4?) this fantasy involves a circus which visits a hick town in Arizona. The circus is run by a weird little Chinaman and is comprised primarily of mythical beings (Unicorns, Chimeras, Mermaids, etc.). It just has to be a metaphor for SOMETHING -- I wish I could figure out what it is meant to represent [indirect question]. Among one of the more interesting features of Dr. Lao (scratch the "among") is that when he is telling someone off he uses broken English with a Chinese lilt -- however, when he is speaking of his animals or telling an anecdote he uses very clear English. The book also has a rather long complete cast of characters at the end some of which are extremely peripheral to the story and the biographics [2018 edit: sic] accompanying each is very strange -- also very peripheral. I hear that there is a film of the same name (probably of the same topic). The copy that I have has some drawings whose flavour matches the text (like the author/artist has been smoking funny little cigarettes). I would indicate the artist and book publisher but I don't have the copy here.


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


quarta-feira, novembro 12, 1980

From Russia: "The Uncertainty Principle" by Dmitri Bilenkin



(Original Review, 1980-11-12)

This collection of short stories was released with a series called "Best of Soviet SF". It contains 18 stories of very mixed quality. About half of the stories have such a predictable twist at the end it’s almost embarrassing. Unfortunately, the title story, "The Uncertainty Principle" is one of these. Several of the stories, however, are very good. "Intelligence Test" offers an interesting (though implausible) alternative to evolution. "The Man Who Was Present" is a variant of a PSI story. A couple of the stories are funny and clever. "Modernized Hell" has the devil done in by Hell's own bureaucracy. My favourite story is "Time Bank", an innovation that allows you literally to save time (you think "half hour deposit" and disappear for half an hour). All in all, if you can find this book for a couple of escudos in a vintage book SF stack like I did; it’s worth it. Don't be discouraged by the first few stories.


[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]


domingo, novembro 09, 1980

Cardboard SF: "The Devil's Game" by Poul Anderson





(Original Review, 1980-11-09)


THE DEVIL'S GAME of course, is "follow the leader" played by seven people in a South American paradise for a prize of 1 million, tax free dollars. The prize will be split among everyone who lasts through the game. The challenge for each player is to devise tasks which will force the other players out of the game, either through failure to perform the task, refusal to perform the task, or death resulting from the task. The game's sponsor is Sunderland Haverner, a fabulously wealthy man who has come to depend on the whispering voice of Samael. A voice which has helped him amass his fortune, designed the game, and which may be demon, alien, or the product of Haverner's own mind. The point of the game is to observe how each of the following carefully chosen contestants of "this mongrel species called man" evolves in the game: a terrorist revolutionary, a god fearing military subcontractor, a flower child turned housewife, a playboy sportsman, a small time hoodlum, a would be boat-bum, and a mother fighting to save her child who needs enormously expensive, advanced medical care.

At this point it should be obvious that THE DEVIL'S GAME, like Anderson's THE AVATAR, is just another exercise in simply drawn stereotypes mouthing an author's arguments. However, where THE AVATAR incorporated an excellent novelette dealing with Joelle and mind/computer linkage with a universe spanning subway system to divert the reader's attention throughout the rest of the novel, THE DEVIL'S GAME has only the well-drawn characterization of the amoral Haverner to redeem it. The contestants remain cardboard cutouts which relate the story in first person during their turn as leader. Unfortunately, the lack of characterization is crucial because it leaves the novel's resolution implausible, without which Anderson fails to make his ultimate point.

In brief, THE DEVIL'S GAME is a mixture of Monty Hall's LET'S MAKE A DEAL with William Golding's LORD OF THE FLIES. Superficial and disappointing.



[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

sexta-feira, novembro 07, 1980

Everyone Watches the Monitor: "Strange Wine" by Harlan Ellison






(Original Review, 1980-11-07)


I was reading a book by the name of 'Strange Wine' by Harlan Ellison recently. The book is very good, but that is not what I want to talk about. He has an introduction titled "Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself." I would like to tell you a few things from this introduction. According to an HEW study, only 8% of the American population buy books (I wonder what those numbers are in Portugal). Furthermore, only 2% buy more than one book per year. Harlan once said, in front of a university audience, that he had thought up the words that Spock had said in a Star-Trek episode. A student jumped to his feet, with tears in his eyes, screaming that Harlan was a liar. The average American watches between 3-8 hours of TV PER DAY. In some of the lectures he gives at Universities, Harlan found this to be true in University audiences as well. Harlan tells about a friend of his who is a High School media teacher. She had students who would not read books because they were 'not real'. TV was considered real. She had normal 17 year old students who could not tell the difference between a TV dramatization and real life. She found that if she turned a TV monitor on in an unruly classroom, WITH NOTHING BUT SNOW ON THE SCREEN, that the entire class would quiet down and watch the screen. He tells about an experiment where a monitor was set up one side of a lecture hall and the lecturer stood on the other. The monitor carried a picture of the lecturer. Everyone watched the monitor. He tells about a case where a mother was being raped and her 7 year old child walked in. The rapist told the child to go watch TV. The child watched TV for 6 hours while his mother screamed repeatedly. I highly suggest reading the book, or at least the introduction. Perhaps the 'glass teat' is worse than we think.



[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]

quinta-feira, novembro 06, 1980

Super-Time: "Thrice Upon a Time" by James P. Hogan





(Original Review, 1980-11-06)



The most well thought out model of time-travel I have ever seen in a novel was in Hogan's "Thrice Upon a Time". This book ascribes to the "reset" theory of world-lines; if you send a message into the past (no matter travels cross-time in this book but it doesn't seem to be ruled out) that says "kill me, I am about to do something very rude in the present, and I should really be stopped", then the people back then get to act on the information while you wait in the present, with your teeth clenched, for the effects of your message to ripple forward and absolve (dissolve?) you. Time travels at several rates herein. From your point of view you are waiting for the world-line to readjust (a somewhat faster process than normal forward running since only the new ripples have to be worked in). From the point of view of your cohorts in the past, they are living just like they normally would. What bothered me about this model is that it made actions free, with no consequences. For example, X makes a boo-boo that will ultimately destroy the world, and sends a message into the past to warn the earlier version of X not to make that mistake. It turns the whole universe into a big experiment. You don't like the results, you change it before it happened. (Imagine the amusement parks. You can become "torturer for a day" and can even tell yourself about all the fun you had before that version of you gets erased and the normal reality gets reinstated.)

I would add the following wrinkle: Rather than have realities disappear, let them stay around. What I am getting at is a bubble theory of reality. There is a time-line (call it super-time) which numbers all possible moments in the universe. Life progresses from one number to the next just as we are used to. If you go back in time from moment 55 to moment 23 and kill your grandmother, great. She's dead, and a bubble starts moving up from 23 in which you is never born. Meanwhile, up at time 55, your home reality is happily progressing, complete with a confused and guilty you in it who has pre-formed this sickening deed and has returned to find the same old grind. You don't have her inheritance. In fact, the old bag is still hopping around. (The effects don't propagate that way.) This doesn't mean that one bubble can't effect another. You can communicate with the future (or the past) by just setting your transmitter to T+22,000 (or to T-22,000). For as long as you talk, the same guy will be at the other end of the line.

One curious thing about this model is that past becomes a resource which is constantly consumed. The reason is that whenever a bubble gets started, it gradually overwrites each successive moment of super-time. Once overwritten, their old contents are gone, and your precious past has been consumed as though in a fire.

Maybe I should write to Hogan about a new book.  Then again, is he on the net?



[2018 EDIT: This review was written at the time as I was running my own personal BBS server. Much of the language of this and other reviews written in 1980 reflect a very particular kind of language: what I call now in retrospect a “BBS language”.]