Tag Archives: review

661. J. G. Ballard’s Coral D

J. G. Ballard and The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D

New Age, New Wave, New Deal — the names never seem to hold up more than a few years. When the New Wave in science fiction became an old wave, it kept its name. That’s too bad, really, because it makes a genuine change in science fiction seem a little silly. Art Noveau suffers from the same illogic, but since the phrase is French, no one notices.

I was there when the New Wave happened but I won’t try to define the movement. It can’t really be done, although Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone will. It was an exceedingly amorphous movement, full of wonderful writing and unbearable crap — pretty much like most movements.

For me as a reader, long before I became a writer, the New Wave just meant that there were wonderful stories available from Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and J. G. Ballard. And in the weird department, Ballard made Ellison and Zelazny look like insurance salesmen.

I’m going to try to untangle Ballard’s The CloudSculptors of Coral D down a few paragraphs, but first let me tell you a couple of things.

I bought Ballard’s complete short stories when it became available, probably ten years ago, but I hadn’t read a single story from it until recently. I remember his work with awe and wonder, but that doesn’t mean memories of joy. His stories crawl around like worms in my subconscious, so I didn’t read them again, even though I normally re-read everything.

I was thinking about those stories one day in 2017, especially the one called Deep End which is steeped in hopelessness about the human condition. A short story popped out of my head and fell onto paper. Since Ballard inspired it, it is grim. If you are interested in a dip into the black pool, click here.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself being challenged by Joachim Boaz. He recently reviewed Thirteen to Centaurus by Ballard. It’s one of Ballard’s works that I had not read, so I decided to do so before I read Boaz’s review.

But before starting that, I decided to re-read something I remembered fondly (but faintly) in order to repair some of the trauma induced by Deep End.

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I normally avoid spoilers, but not this time. I could lay out the events of The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D completely, and it would be like a skeleton compared to a man. The plot is nothing. The words are everything.

Here is what happens. Four men come together in a strange landscape, clearly one which remains after a cataclysm. One is a pilot with a broken leg, one is a dwarf, one is an artist, one is a playboy. Together they become purveyors of a transitory performance art. They sculpt statues out of clouds, flying in gliders, and carving with silver iodide.

Every one of these men is a cripple in one sense or another. The pilot with his broken leg, through whose eyes we see events, is the least crippled of them.

Enter Leonora Chanel, heiress, flawed beauty, and murderess. She surrounds herself with portraits of herself, and she is the most crippled of them all. She hires the men to sculpt her face in the sky, but at another location. When they arrive, the main character says to her . . .

Clouds . . . those are tigers, tigers with wings. We are manicurists of the air, not dragon-tamers.

. . . and we immediately know that not all of the sculptors will survive.

I will leave the rest of the how and why unreported in case you read the story. What we have here is a group of damaged men, in a damaged world, under the spell of a powerful la belle dame sans merci. It could be Burma after WWII, or any of a hundred other places, in any of a dozen movies or novels out of the fifties.

What makes it science fiction, and moving, is not the plot but the descriptions. And what makes the descriptions memorable is as much what is left out as what is said.

Vermillion sands. Towers of coral rising up from the shattered bed of a dead sea. Sonic statues which wail eerily at just the right moment. Gliders, “brilliant painted toys, revolving like lazing birds above Coral D”. Leonora’s jeweled eyes, a phrase repeated almost too often before we find out what it actually means. “Memories, caravels without sails, crossing the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes.” The dwarf, “with a child’s overlit eyes”.

It is all clearly an allegory, but Ballard gives us very few clues as to what it is an allegory of. One character says, “We had entered an inflamed landscape,” and that is a good short description of Coral D and of Ballard as a writer.

The people, actions, and motives are as surreal as the landscape. It seems like a cop-out to say this, but Coral D, like most of Ballard, has to be read. It can’t be conveyed. And when you finish reading, you may still feel frustrated and confused.

But you won’t forget it.

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Now, from the sublime to the absurd.

When I was ten years old, while other kids were reading Spiderman, I was reading Scrooge McDuck. My hyper-religious parents would not allow non-Disney comic books in the house.

In one episode, Scrooge had another get-rich(er) scheme. He outfitted biplanes with bulldozer blades, flew around herding clouds into cubical shapes over farmers’ fields, and seeded them with silver iodide — all for profit. I don’t remember too much more detail, and I have been unable to find a copy anywhere, but I do remember one picture of the rain falling to the exact middle of a wooden fence, since Scrooge McDuck would not let one drop of his rain fall on a field which had not been paid for.

You would have a hard time finding two works more superficially similar and essentially different than McDuck and Coral D. It boggles the mind. Did Ballard read McDuck in his youth and get a picture lodged in his subconscious? Or was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Scrooge McDuck, secretly a fan of weird science fiction?

Either alternative is too strange to contemplate.

660. Methuselah’s Children

I used a quote from Methuselah’s Children about a half a year ago in my diatribe against driverless cars. Taking a glance at Heinlein is always a mistake. I found myself committed to reading the whole novel, even though I’ve read it often enough to nearly memorize the thing.

The problem is, it’s his best work, from the viewpoint of skilled writing and skilled science fiction plotting. That is opposed to boy-meets-girl plotting or western-shoot-em-up plotting, which are completely different skill sets.

Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are Heinlein’s best known works, but I find them both to be second rate. The first hundred pages of Number of the Beast is my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel.

Methuselah’s Children is the best novel he ever wrote, hands down, despite my deep affection for at least a dozen runners-up. An early version came out in Astounding in 1941, and was expanded to the work we now know when it was published in paperback in 1958. Methuselah’s Children is the book Paul Kantner was referencing when Jefferson Starship suggested we all “hijack the starship” in 1970.

Heinlein has his strengths and his weaknesses. I acknowledge the latter, but I won’t catalog them. There are plenty of people who like him less than I do who are more than willing to do that. For my money, Methuselah’s Children is the book in which those weaknesses are least in evidence.

As the book begins, Lazarus Long (his first appearance) and Phyllis Sterling meet, interact, and are sexually aware of each other without letting it get in the way. Long offers advice without trying to run her life. Danger rears its head, and each of them reacts with maturity and grace, respecting each other’s competence. There is very little boy-girl snarkiness.

It’s too bad Heinlein couldn’t pull this off more often.

As everyone knows, Lazarus Long hijacks a starship to save his fellow long-lifers. If you haven’t read Methuselah’s Children or haven’t read it lately, this might seem preposterous, but he manages the task with a lot of help from people in power. The things he actually does are all well within the powers of any competent space pilot. He pulls it off not because he is a superman, but because he is a sneaky bastard.

Once on board, Slipstick Libby invents a space drive which takes them to the stars.

Assembled odd bits of other equipment, looking more like the product of a boy’s workshop than the output of a scientist’s laboratory, the gadget which Libby referred to as a “space drive” underwent Lazarus’s critical examination. Against the polished sophisticated perfection of the control room it looked uncouth, pathetic, ridiculously inadequate.

. . . but it works, and yes, Libby is a superman. Heinlein got away with that by making him a relatively minor character.

On planets they visit along the way they meet the Jockaira and their “Gods”, as well as the “little people”, and find out that humans aren’t the smartest race in our corner of the galaxy. Another writer would have made this a cause for feelings of inferiority, but Lazarus Long is Heinlein in disguise. He doesn’t have a humble bone in his body.

The refugees, armed with all they have learned, return to Earth to fight for their rights. Flags wave, cannons sound, bands march — well, not really, but that is the feeling.

Everything that Heinlein was, is on display here. It’s great fun, but it’s not slapstick. Heinlein keeps a light touch, but his alter ego “takes his soul out and examines it” just often enough to keep matters in perspective.

Heinlein would revisit every idea, many of the characters, and every character-type in subsequent novels. None of them would be so well balanced, nor have so few groaners.

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

*            *            *

Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.

644. Annotated Nostalgia

A few mementos from a well
misspent childhood.

Here is your Christmas list for any young people in your life, assuming that you want to help them to move beyond Star Wars. This also assumes that they can get past the anachronisms that are inevitable in books which are about the future, but were written decades ago.

Some of these are great; others are painful to read if you have adult literary sensibilities, but won’t necessarily be painful for kids.

It is nearly certain that some modern kids will find these intolerably restricted to reality. It’s your call. I’m just providing the list I promised in post 642. And since a simple list would be useless, I am adding annotations.

Tom Swift — Various characters named Tom Swift have been around in multiple incarnations, so let’s sort out their checkered history.

From 1910 through 1941, TS the original made inventions and had adventures that are basically unreadable today. If you want to see for yourself, try kindle.

From 1954 through 1971, Tom Swift Jr., the original TS’s son, did the same thing. These are the ones you are most likely to see. They were my bread and butter before I discovered libraries, but now I find them painful to read, although the inventions themselves are still great.

From 1981 onward, there were fourth, fifth and sixth series, about which I know almost nothing.

Tom Corbett — Tom Corbett Space Cadet never came to the hobby shop where I bought my early books, but I got a copy just a few years ago to give it a try. I couldn’t summon the energy to get very far without the added impetus of nostalgia, but it seemed better written than TS, and the protagonists actually got out into space. You see them occasionally in used book stores. There is an additional tidbit below.

Rip Foster — This is a single book with multiple names and is a forgotten gem. None of the other books on this list come close to its quality. See A Forgotten Classic, which also has details on where to get it.

The Heinlein Juveniles — Between 1947 and 1958 Heinlein wrote a dozen novels which were marketed as juveniles. I read the last ten. They are almost universally praised as the best in SF juveniles; I concur in that judgement. See 311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones.

Here is a double tidbit of trivia. The success of Heinlein’s juvenile Space Cadet helped Joseph Greene turn an unpublished radio script into the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. Greene also later wrote the Dig Allen series, below.

Bullard of the Space Patrol — Copies of this book have been rare. I bought mine during the fifties at a stationary store that also sold a few odd books, but lost it over the years. Once I was an adult, I tried to find a replacement. After ten years I saw one copy in an antique store for a price I couldn’t afford, and ten years after that I found the copy I have now. In terms of quality, BotSP is second only to Rip Foster and ranks above the Heinleins. Although you are unlikely to see a copy in your local used bookstore, you can buy it used or on Kindle at Amazon. Finding lost treasures is much easier in the age of internet.

It isn’t technically a juvenile because of its adult protagonist, but I thought of it as one when I was young. I plan to write a full post on Bullard some time in the future.

Dig Allen — This series of six novels was published between 1959 and 1962. They are well written and well thought out, and I loved them as a kid. However you have to be prepared to accept that the heroes are going to find intelligent life everywhere in our solar system. Check at the very bottom of this post for more information.

Mike Mars — File these under blatant exploitation, but they were still a lot of fun. Published between 1961 and 1964, these books parallel the early manned space program. The premise is that there was a program called Quicksilver, using very young pilots, which did what Mercury did, but sooner and in secret. Anyone who thinks Area 51 houses dead aliens would have to love that.

Veteran SF writer Donald A. Wollheim was hired to knock these out (the first four came out in one year). They have something in common with Tom Swift Jr. in that half of each book is about the mission at hand and half is about chasing saboteurs and other baddies. Book five was my favorite because Mike got to fly the Dyna-Soar just before the real craft was cancelled.

Rocket Man and Starship through Space — If you find either of these, count yourself lucky. I read them in my high school library and have never seen another copy, despite decades of looking. They were written by G. Harry Stein under the pseudonym Lee Correy. They count as two of my all time favorites, despite the brainless ending of STS. See 194. Boys at Work: Lee Correy.

Rick Brant — I lived on Rick Brant when I was young, but it was a series based on then-contemporary cutting edge science, not SF of the future. As a consequence, it is extremely dated. As much as I would love to, I can’t recommend it for most modern kids, and their granddads already know about it. The Rick Brant series and the Rip Foster book were both written by Harold Goodwin under different pseudonyms.

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If you are looking at this post for your own nostalgic reasons, I suggest that you drop in on this Tom Swift info site and wander around. There you will also find a link to a sub-site on Dig Allen. I would go there at once as it may disappear. It doesn’t seem to be current and parts of it are already inaccessible, but it is a treasure trove.

642. The Green Fields of Mars

European Space Agency

First a note on timing. My normal Wednesday post will be pushed forward to Thursday to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

I was a bright kid in a very small school, so sometimes they cut me some slack. In 1964 I was allowed to take both junior and senior English because there wasn’t much left for me to take, and they knew I was such a nerd that all I would do with this unexpected freedom was study harder.

As a result, I took senior English a second time the following year, not because I needed it, but because what else were they going to do with me? That was the year I wrote a long paper on “The Probability of Life on Mars”, based on such things as the advancing and retreating color changes during the Martian year. The scientists speculated on tough, low growing plants; I suggested tall grasses, because the changes persisted despite all those dust storms.

Life was good.

Then NASA sent out all those probes and took all the fun out of the solar system. Suddenly Venus was not a swamp where dinosaurs might lurk and if you wanted to dream of running your feet through alien grasses you had to go on out to planets around other stars.

Now exoplanet research is taking away the nearby stars from the realm of the imagination, and dropping them one by one into the crucible of reality. A pox on all your probes!

There is a reason for this rush of nostalgia. I love science fiction and I have been writing it for decades, but nothing has given me half as much pleasure as the books about space exploration I read when I was young. The good ones, that is. I’m going to provide an annotated list on November 18. It will be too long to append to this post, and the post between will be taken up by the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 12.

For years now, I’ve wanted to write some new space exploration juveniles/YAs, and I have worked out a few possible plots, but nothing seems to work for me. I also don’t see any good ones coming from anyone else. If you know of any, let me know.

I do see a lot of nostalgia. One fellow is writing a series of reimagined Tom Swifts, disguised as fan fiction for legal reasons. I won’t name him in hopes that he will continue to fly under the radar. I tried one and they aren’t bad.

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozios have produced a pair of anthologies of new stories in the old style called Old Mars and Old Venus. John Michael Greer and Zendexor have a similar anthology called Vintage Worlds. I won’t be reading them since I have long since lost my taste for short stories, but I don’t see anything similar in juveniles — except for the one mentioned above which the courts may remove any moment.

Anyway, nostalgia isn’t the path to take. Today’s kids aren’t yesterday’s kids, and nostalgia is for my generation. What we need is juvenile/YA space exploration literature as good as the best of the old, but modern in outlook.

In one sense, it is remarkable that we don’t have a hundred good space exploration juveniles each year. Even the best imaginations of the past could not begin to equal what NASA has actually discovered in the last decades.

Perhaps the best thing to do is evaluate what worked then, that doesn’t seem to work now. These are the things which come to mind.

Most of the older books I loved were written before space exploration was a reality; only a few were written as things were happening. The death of exploration in 1972 has to be part of the problem, since the space shuttle and ISS were basically just politics, not exploration, IMHO.

All of the young protagonists in those old books wanted to become adults in a futuristic world. The need to become an adult — or at least get out from under the thumb of adults — hasn’t gone away, but the futuristic world doesn’t seem as accessible or as exciting as it once did. Dystopia rules the day, but that won’t last. It never does.

Education isn’t helping. Kids now put together robot kits that are no more individualistic than their soda and vinegar volcanoes used to be. What joy is there in that? Robots used to be laughed at, but kids still made them out of cardboard boxes and goldfish bowls. Now they are prepackaged and shoved down kid’s throats in middle school.

In the old stories, there was intelligent life everywhere in the solar system, and it seemed like those young people couldn’t step out of their ships without finding a new or lost race. Now there may be bacteria under a dozen miles of ice.

The old spaceships worked. They got places quickly. They didn’t have to put up with the utter stupidity of trying to explore the solar system in craft depending on burning gasses, essentially no different chemically from your kitchen stove. See post 402. Nuclear Spacecraft.

I’m sure that someone is going to solve this conundrum and there will be good new space exploration juveniles/YAs for another generation. I’m equally sure that they won’t be written by old fogeys. The people who will write them are in their teens and twenties now, and I hope they hurry, because I want to read them.

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My, my, how strange is life. I finished writing this post late afternoon of Oct. 7th. When I turned my computer on the following morning, the new EDGE newsletter was in the inbox. (EDGE published Cyan.) They were advertising a new book, The Rosetta Man by Claire McCague. It appeared to be a juvenile/YA. At least one of the quoted reviews said it had a “well crafted story, amazing hero’s and not one ‘bad’ word or adult activity!”

So I bought it and started in. It isn’t a juvenile/YA because the protagonist is an adult. That is a critical point that was simply assumed in the post above. It is good clean fun; it reminded me in that way of Michael Tierney’s To Rule the Sky. Either of these would be great for kids, but they aren’t juveniles. Perhaps we need a new category. Let’s call it IETCNHAAA, which stands for Innocent Enough to Cause No Heart Attacks Among Adults.

Then again, maybe not.

633. Good Books for Kids

When I was a child, I read as a child,
I thought as a child, I understood as a child:
but when I became thirteen,
I switched to Clarke and Heinlein.

That pretty much screws up 1 Corinthians 13:11. And it isn’t exactly true. When I was a child, i.e. about twelve, plus or minus, I read what was available, and it wasn’t always great. It was primarily science fiction and mysteries, by which I mean Tom Swift, Jr. and the Hardy Boys. You could buy them in a toy and hobby store on the main street of Coffeeville, Kansas, one of the towns we shopped in. There were no bookstores; there were libraries, but I didn’t know that yet.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which ground out novels for kids like Hershey’s grinds out chocolate bars, was actually the best thing that ever happened to rural American youth for most of the twentieth century. I read them, my grandfather read them, and kids were still reading them when the millennium rolled over. They weren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them were terrible, but they were there. For a kid out in the sticks who liked science fiction, the choice wasn’t Tom Swift or something from Arthur C. Clarke. It was Tom Swift or nothing.

When I started going to libraries a couple of years later, my possibilities were expanded, but it was still a small library. I read a lot of things that I would never have touched if more had been available. I read a lot of books meant for adults, but that’s the goal anyway. I also read books way below my level, because they were there.

I recently remembered a book I hadn’t thought about since those days, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Elanor Cameron. I was too old for it when I read it, but I still loved it, so much that I tried to find it again. No luck, but I did get a copy of the sequel.

I couldn’t read it. I could barely read it when I was thirteen, but if I had gotten to it when I was eight, I would have been in love.

That got me to thinking about what makes book a juvenile, as they were called then. The Mushroom Planet books would not have qualified. They were for children. Juveniles were for boys who were anxious to become men.

Of course there were juveniles for girls, but girls and boys were separate species in the fifties, so I can’t report on their books.

Heinlein did a lot of juveniles which I’ve already talked about. (See posts 311 and 513) My real favorite juvenile writer was Andre Norton, and I’ve done a few reviews on her as well. (For science fiction see posts 262 and 263, or others see posts 260 and 261.)

What Heinlein, Norton, and many other juveniles authors had in common was that their characters were not yet adults but were given adult roles by the author. The Heinlein characters were often learning a futuristic trade under an adult. Norton’s characters were often being stranded on an alien planet. Outdoors and with no other kids in sight — she was channelling my childhood.

Today’s young adult books seem to be quite different from yesterday’s juveniles. First, they are targeted for slightly older audience, and second, 2019 isn’t 1959. The audience itself is different.

I can’t imagine a modern kid reading the early Nortons I loved so much. With only slight exaggeration, those Nortons were about a young person alone in a wasteland, trying to survive the dangers of nature, and modern kids live in crowded cities trying to survive the dangers inflicted by the adults around them.

I wouldn’t want to be a modern kid, and I understand why the books of my childhood probably wouldn’t mean much to them.

I taught middle school for twenty-seven years and I tried to keep abreast of what was available for my students, but I’ve been out of that loop for a while. I used to go to every Scholastic book sale to see what was new and good. The answer — damn near nothing. The few good books the kids had to choose from were mostly reprints from way back when.

Those book sales were where I found Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. It’s a wonderful book but it was published in 1943. Later I found A Storm Without Rain by Jan Adkins published in 1983. That’s still almost four decades old. Both were time travel stories of the old style; that is, without a time machine. The kids just went back in time and never understood how it happened.

I also stumbled across a fine steampunk novel, before I really knew anything about steampunk. That would be Airborne by Kenneth Oppel, published 2004. At least we are getting into the right millennium.

Harry Potter? Tried it, couldn’t read it. Twilight and the Hunger Games? Don’t want to, and if you don’t know why, I could never convince you.

Good books for kids are rare. Fortunately they stay around forever.

Why didn’t I mention A Wizard of Earthsea? You can’t pigeonhole it as a juvenile or a young adult book. It’s literature. Buy it for your kids and read it yourself.

615. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last night (August 2nd) I watched American Masters: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was not looking forward to it, since PBS screws up so many of its programs. The advertisements didn’t help. They emphasized that “before Hogwarts there was Earthsea”, as if her work didn’t mean anything until Harry Potter imitated it.

It turned out to be an excellent program, balanced, praising her for her excellence and her importance to other authors like China Miéville and Neil Gaiman, but not suggesting that she single handedly made science fiction and fantasy great again.

I was afraid they would take the path of overreach — PBS tends to do that — but the presentation was closer to flawless as any one of us has a right to expect.

During the first twenty years of Le Guin’s career, I read her novels as they appeared. By the second half of her career, I had moved on to other things. After this presentation, I clearly have some catching up to do.

If Ursula K. Le Guin is someone you have only heard of, or perhaps planned to read someday, you should not miss the opportunity to view this presentation before it disappears back into the PBS vaults.