Monday, December 24, 2018

#128: Dr. Bloodmoney, #32: Gateway

Dr. Bloodmoney:

"We're very close, all the time, to death. But then was it so much better before? Cancer-producing insecticides, smog that poisoned whole cities, freeways and airline hadn't been so safe then; it hadn't been an easy life. One had to hop aside both then and now."
" 'There's no value in such stuff,' Stroud said, with irritation. 'We need useful science, not academic hot air.' He felt personally let down; Mr. Barnes had not told him about that, about his interest in mere theory. 'Psychology doesn't dig any septic tanks.' "
"One can never be really sure, and that's what makes life a problem, don't you agree?"
Assume the crazy people--the outcast freaks and the ranting weirdos--are on to something. It's a strategy that will get you pretty far if you're reading a Philip K. Dick novel, and it sure works for Dr. Bloodmoney.
Dr. Bloodmoney tells the story of a large cast of characters (quite large, even, for a PKD novel) who go about their daily lives in a post-apocalyptic Northern California, circa 1988. Published in 1964, the novel taps into fears at the time that a nuclear holocaust could be just a minute away. These fears, we know from biographical information, were very much on Dick's mind.
In the novel we get a short build up, and then the bombs drop. It's perhaps one of PKD's more focused narratives, despite the sizable cast of characters. We get to the point quicker than in some of his novels. And as usual, it seems that this novel was written in a bit of a rush. However, this doesn't detract from the overall intensity of the novel, and indeed may even add to it. For reference: it's more polished than say, The Penultimate Truth or The Game-Players of Titan, but less so than Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
As is typical for a post-apocalyptic novel, we get a sense of the early days after the bombs drop: the depths that people plumb to survive, the horrible mutations, the stark destruction. After seven years or so, society is slowly rebuilding itself, and human creativity and ingenuity are showcased.
Now, for the unique PKD touches: there is a wonderfully creepy character named Hoppy Harrington, a man with no arms or legs who drives around in a mechanical cart he controls with his brain. He's been an outcast for all his life, but E-Day (Emergency Day, when the bombs dropped) represented a turning point in his life. With his burgeoning psychic powers, he now holds more power than ever before, and he's hungry to get ahead in this brave new world. Then there's Doctor Bluthgeld (German for Bloodmoney), a nuclear physicist responsible for an earlier disaster in 1972 who believes that he controlled the Doomsday bombs with his mind. In a normal SF novel, we'd dismiss Bluthgeld as a dazed eccentric, a nut. In a PKD novel, things are a bit different. Then there's Edie Keller, a seven year old girl who speaks of an invisible brother she has, whom everyone dismisses as a fanciful child. There's her mother, Bonny, who may or may not have minor mind-reading abilities (this is how I read the situation with Mr. Austurias, at least). And there's Walt Dangerfield, a disc jockey stuck in a satellite, orbiting Earth forever, beaming down radio transmissions of music and commentary, for his own amusement and the amusement of the survivors down on Earth.The more mundane characters are quite interesting as well, from Andrew Gill the cigarette and alcohol salesman, to Stuart McConchie, the electronic vermin trap salesman.
Most of the novel focuses on the community of West Marin, California, where Hoppy has set down roots as a handy man. But as we soon learn, the power begins to go to his head. There's a great build-up, filled with mystery and horror, in the novel's second half. Hoppy is one of PKD's more frightening villains, a truly unlikeable, creepy presence. Yet, at the novel's inception, he is a pathetic figure, timid and pitiable, bullied for no good reason. The way PKD navigates this evolution is quite well-done, and Hoppy is easily the most interesting character in the novel, despite his repulsiveness for much of the latter half.
As the plot streamlines towards the end, and we home in on the real climax of the piece, we get one of PKD's more satisfying conclusions, one that echoes Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon to a great degree.
As always, I'd like to conclude a review of a PKD novel by briefly describing a few of my favorite scenes. Vivid, charged individual scenes are often my takeaways from a novelist whose plotting is often all over the place (although, I stress, not here). The initial, visceral panic once the bombing begins is very well-done, especially Bluthgeld's unfazed, psychotic reaction to it. Getting inside the mind of a psychotic person is unsurprisingly, one of PKD's specialties. Also of note are the eerie death of Jack Tree and the scene in which Bill Keller and Hoppy "meet" for the first time--a tremendously dark and disturbing moment that shows PKD can do horror exceptionally well.
Indeed, the unsettling characters (particularly the trio of Bill, Hoppy, and Bluthgeld), along with the impressive world-building are what make this novel so good. I devoured it in the span of a few days, and found myself immediately ready, upon finishing, to declare it one of the finest examples of post-apocalyptic fiction I have encountered, and one of the finer novels in PKD's stunning oeuvre.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

#130: Pavane, #162: Inverted World


"A death was more than an ending; it was like pulling a thread from a richly patterned cloth."
"This God they prattle on about, where's His justice, where's His compassion? Does it please Him to see dying people hounded in His name, does He snigger at His bumbling priests, is He satisfied when men drop dead chopping stone out for His temples, twisted little God dying tepid-faced on a cross..."
"It's a terrible thing, being afraid. It's like an illness; like wanting to fall down, and not being able to faint. You see you never get used to it. You live with it and live with it and every day it's worse; and one day it's the worst of all."
Unless we've decided to label all alternate history stories as science fiction, Pavane (and several other exemplars of alternate history that I have encountered) might be better classified as fantasy, rather than SF. It's a collection of six loosely interconnected short stories, or "Measures" (plus an introduction and a coda) featuring, among other things: vaguely pagan phantasmagoria, medieval-style castles, a months-long siege, starving and miserable peasants, and an over-bearing Roman Catholic Church that has banned electricity and the internal combustion engine. Absent from the narrative are the spaceships or time machines of traditional SF (although there are some veiled allusions to waves in space-time that may in fact just be for atmosphere). Certainly, one could make an argument that if all dystopian fiction is SF, Pavane qualifies, for there are significant dystopian elements. But enough splitting hairs over genre.
Pavane is set in a world in which the Spanish Armada was never defeated and Queen Elizabeth I of England was killed by an assassin. The Protestant Reformation also never happens, and as a result the Catholic Church continues to hold sway over Europe, including England, or "Angle-land". Roberts' anti-Catholic bias is fairly clear here, aside from a brief acknowledgement (I think) of the Church's role in fostering scientific discovery. However, throughout Pavane, it's clear that this discovery is not really shared with the world, for its greater benefit. The Catholic Church of Pavane is domineering and brutal, although with a few good eggs here and there.
The opening two stories set the stage and provide some context about the world we are thrust into. From the start, it was clear to me that Roberts' strength is his terrific descriptive language. The man finds a way to breath life into images that would make any aspiring writer sit up straight and start jotting notes. His style is dark, atmospheric, and evocative, and that is surely not doing it full justice--Roberts' way with words is nearly unparalleled in the SF I've come across in the past decade or so. (Extra points for the fact that Pavane reminded me of His Dark Materials, my favorite fantasy series of all time, for its evocative style, excellent world-building and featuring of an all-powerful Church ruling a steampunk-ish alternate England from afar.)
Measure One is a simple, but effective story that introduces us to the locomotives of the world--a recurring presence in later stories as well. It packs an emotional gut punch for anyone who has ever experienced romantic rejection, and Roberts digs into this relatable brand of psychic pain with sensitivity.
Measure Two introduces us to the semaphores, messaging towers that allow for quick communication in a world where electricity is banned and automobiles are operating at very primitive levels. It's part coming-of-age tale, part world-building, and part Stapledonian phantasmagoria. Again, Roberts' keen sense of imagery and metaphor truly sets this work apart.
Measure Three switches things up a bit--it's a strange, unsettling tale about the Inquisition and rebellion. This one was good in a different way from the first two, but exceedingly dark and much stranger. The title character, Brother John, is one of the more vividly drawn characters in the book, and his transformation left me uneasy and confused. Measure Three has the feel of an ancient epic, not a short story written in the twentieth century. I didn't quite know totally what to make of it, and I think that is sort of the point.
Measures Four and Five represented a rough patch in the book for me. Both stories were melancholy and mysterious, centering on female characters who seem to share several traits, one such trait being that they were largely uninteresting to me. Measure Four helps continue the story of the Strange family, and link them to the Lords of Purbeck at Corfe Gate, as well as add to the mystery of the Fairies who always seem to be at work behind the scenes--but it does little else. There seems to be too much hazy dream sequence material, and often, not enough solid story (particularly dialogue) to latch on to. This description also applies, in spades, to Measure Five, which flitted from hazy description to vague snippet of dialogue in a way that I suppose was meant to be impressionistic, but just ended up being annoying and disconnecting.
Luckily, Measure Six, the best story of the bunch, brings things back into the realm of traditional narrative. It's a masterfully woven story that keeps you turning the pages, with Roberts' trademark mystery and fantastical elements thrown in as spice. Unlike other stories, the heat never becomes too much, though. In Measure Six, we get a dramatic stand-off, some fantastic characters in Sir John and Eleanor (who rival the stoic, strong Jesse Strange from Measure One and Brother John as the stand-out characters of the entire piece), and some deftly executed leaps in time for exposition's sake. The book closes with an ambiguous and not-terribly-necessary Coda, which is a nice little vignette nonetheless.
Pavane is recommended with a few reservations--as far as alternate history goes, I'd rank the phenomenal Bring the Jubilee slightly higher, if only for the slight bumps in the middle as far as Pavane is concerned. If we're talking sheer technical skill and/or descriptive acumen alone, Pavane can stand with the best, not only of SF, but in terms of the broad world of literature that I have thus far encountered.

Inverted World:


Monday, August 22, 2016

#188: The Game-Players of Titan, #12: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Game-Players of Titan:

"Wives, Schilling thought. More of a problem than an asset. The economic aspect of our lives should never have been melded hopelessly with the sexual; it makes things too complex."
" 'Did you have a psychotic episode tonight?'
   'Not by a long shot. I had a moment of absolute truth.' "
"But greed not so bad; it's the prime motivating pressure of the self-system. Psychologically speaking."
Being a long-time Philip K. Dick fan, I tend to feel at home when I crack open a new PKD novel to read. Granted, that home is usually a place of drug-addled, psychedelic confusion, but of course, if you've read a few PKD novels, you already know that. The Game-Players of Titan does not deviate radically from the rather wide-ranging set of tropes that PKD usually writes about --yes, there are drugs; yes, there are mysterious aliens; yes, psychosis figures heavily into the plot; yes, there is a vindictive and somewhat nasty female character involved. And, as always, PKD casts us into a truly original story in order to explore his usual themes.
This time around, as is often the case, we find ourselves on a near-future Earth (sometime around the 2100s) where things have changed dramatically. Earth has lost a war with the inhabitants of Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and is now, more or less, occupied territory. The vast majority of Earth's inhabitants have apparently been rendered sterile by radiation from a weapon used by the Red Chinese many decades ago. As a result, only a few million people remain on Earth, and the population is not being replenished. The "vugs" --the Titanian race that defeated Earth a while back, who appear in the form of amorphous blobs-- make appearances here and there, but for the most part, it seems that the defeated Earthlings are left to their own devices. What many of them do is play a game called Bluff, a board game that, as its name suggests, involves bluffing your opponents effectively in order to win the most loot. At stake in these games are entire towns, large amounts of money, and spouses.
At the novel's inception, PKD drops us in on Pete Garden, who was just lost Berkeley, California and his wife Freya in a game of Bluff. Pete is very much a typical PKD protagonist (and, I suspect, very much like PKD himself). He's not a bad guy, but he's a mess, mentally. He's suicidal, he's on a ton of pills, and he seems to lack direction in life. His luck doesn't change when, soon after his big loss, Pete finds out that Jerome Luckman --one of the best and luckiest Bluff players in the U.S-- comes to join his cohort. Into all of this, PKD sprinkles talking, sentient cars (which are generally nastier than the taxi cab in PKD's Now Wait for Last Year), telepaths, pre-cogs, and a character with psychokinesis. Then, a murder occurs, an instance of mass amnesia conveniently crops up, and we're off to the races.
In the first two-thirds or so of the novel, The Game-Players of Titan reads like a more rushed version of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Murder mystery is a sub-genre that fits PKD's skill set very well, and I think the great use of suspense and all-around craziness we find here (and in Flow My Tears) confirms this fact. Once again, PKD keeps us guessing --but if one has read enough PKD, one knows that none of one's guesses are likely to be totally correct. His knack for making the reader paranoid about every character (including, and especially, the lens character), even paranoid about the nature of reality itself, is once again on display here. Furthermore PKD's world building --quick and casually done, yet complex and full of minor clues and hints as to what's really going on-- is, as always, a joy to behold. PKD often gets done in the first 50 pages what most writers fail to do in an entire book: create a quirky, detailed world that feels real, yet somehow wrong, plastic, fake, at the same time.
As I mentioned, this novel certainly feels rushed, and for this reason, I don't think it makes it to the upper echelon of PKD works. There are some repetitive moments that make this novel feel very much like a hastily written first draft (which many of PKD's novels are), as well as some awkward, clunky lines and sentences. Some scenes feel rushed, even given the already-frantic pace of the novel. In addition, (although this is to be expected to some degree in PKD novels) things get overwhelmingly twisted and confusing at a few points, as the characters are buffeted by the forces of drugs, aliens, and psychic power. Overall, there are some points where PKD could have given us a bit more clarity, while still maintaining a certain sense of disorientation in his readers. This is very much a personal judgment call, though, so I wouldn't be surprised to have a different opinion the next time I read this book.
One part of this novel that especially stood out to me was the way that psychosis so clearly becomes an avenue to a certain kind of truth and a certain kind of good. When Pete Garden figures out how to beat the Titanians at their own game, near the novel's conclusion, I said to myself, "This is the most PKD solution to a problem that you'll ever encounter." Mental illness's close relation to telepathy in this novel is simply vintage PKD. I also enjoyed the hints at Lacanian/ Hegellian philosophies of self-formation in some of the more psychedelic scenes in the novel. As always, PKD shows that he is well-versed in philosophy, and isn't just throwing together a bunch of random ideas that pop into his head...although it might seem that way sometimes.
I enjoyed The Game-Players of Titan, and I think it's a worthwhile read, but I'm not sure it has enough depth to be comparable to the best of PKD's work. There's an enigmatic, somewhat frustrating open-ended conclusion (unlike Flow My Tears, which, as I've said, seemly like a more fully formed version of this novel) and we don't really get enough explanation of what actually happened. For example, the two factions of Titanians could have been explained a bit better. I also think that Nats Katz and the characters in Pretty Blue Fox could have been sketched out a little more; Joe Schilling, Freya, the McClains and Pete seemed to be the only characters with real depth. All this considered, I still had fun reading this novel. It's quick, it's jarring, and it's darkly humorous; and I think it's certainly worth taking a look at.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

"Someone had once said that you could be terrified in space, but you could not be worried there. It was perfectly true."
"The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be."
"Any man who had ever worked in a hardened missile site would have felt at home in Clavius. Here on the Moon were the same arts and hardware of underground living, and of protection against a hostile environment; but here they had been turned to the purposes of peace. After ten thousand years, Man had at last found something as exciting as war. Unfortunately, not all nations had yet realized that fact."
I've often heard 2001: A Space Odyssey cited as the movie that reinvented what it meant to be a sci-fi movie. Without this landmark film, some have argued, we would not have Star Wars or Blade Runner. Indeed, the jump that one makes when one watches 2001 right after a typical 1950's sci-fi B-movie is immense. The superb sense of mystery, the ground-breaking special effects, the rightly famous score all do their parts to produce a film that was like nothing 1960s movie-goers had ever seen before... and frankly, I could go on and on about how much I like the film. Of course, the film isn't for everyone, but I've long counted myself a fan. Going into my first read of the novel, I had heard the same thing from several sources --the novel rides the film's coattails to a certain degree. Let's be clear: this is certainly true. But I also want to be clear in stressing that this is still a worthwhile read in its own right --even if, and actually especially if, you have seen and enjoyed the film.
The plot of the novel is essentially identical to that of the film. We open on a prehistorical scene: man-apes struggle to survive, a mysterious alien monolith appears out of nowhere, and things start to change. I actually thought that the novel treated this episode slightly better than the film --here we want a bit of explanation as to what is going on, and we actually get a decent amount of it. The monolith seems to be the reason for Man's consciousness. In a move that David Brin seems to have imitated in his Uplift novels, the aliens (through their monolith device) toy with the minds of the man-apes and get them thinking bigger, using tools, et cetera. In essence, they are setting them up on the path to the stars.
The next episode occurs three million years in the future --around the year 2001, or perhaps a bit before. Mankind has set up a few permanent settlements on the Moon, and, we soon find out, just discovered a mysterious monolith buried beneath its surface. No one seems to know its purpose, but everyone seems to agree that this monolith is the product of nonhuman intelligence. Next, we shift to an important ship's quest to the moons of Saturn, seemingly a few months after the revelation on the Moon, where we meet David Bowman, the infamous HAL 9000, and a few other crew members. I won't spoil too much of the main plot of the novel beyond saying that here, I think the movie's mystery perhaps works better than the novel's occasional over-explanation (I'm particularly thinking of Dave's psychedelic journey in this case). Of course, the visual medium might have the intrinsic advantage over the page in displaying such a strange journey, but I can't help but thinking that Clarke could have laid off a bit of the explanation on the final part of Dave's journey...And there's also the distinct possibility that seeing the film first has biased me in this way. To be sure, it's still a fun ride, and we still can't quite call the ending a true "conclusion", just as in the film.
Furthermore, I'd like to note that there was a certain Platonic flavor to the evolution, or biological ascent, that Clarke describes the monolith-makers undergoing. It's surreal and mysterious, yet fascinating to read about --a description I could apply to much of this novel and the film that it is based on. And while we are on the topic of comparison, I found the concluding sections of this novel to be very much in tune with Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, both in theme and content. Clarke was an admirer of Stapledon's, and I think that he did quite well in following in the old master's footsteps here. 2001:A Space Odyssey doesn't quite reach the level of grandeur that Star Maker does, but then again, very few, if any, works of science fiction do.
Overall, I thought that Clarke shined throughout this quick, fun (and often funny), thought-provoking read. He tells us in his Introduction that Stanley Kubrick wanted a "theme of mythic grandeur" for this story, and I think both film and novel fulfill this description with gusto. 2001: A Space Odyssey shows us that there is nothing as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the vastness of space, and also that there is nothing as horrible as being totally alone in it, surrounded by its silence and its emptiness. Yet this story also encourages its exploration, perhaps the only way to conquer these potential horrors, and certainly a cure for some deep and un-extinguishable drive found within the hearts of Men.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

#19: Hyperion, #203: Life, the Universe, and Everything


"I understand now the need for faith --pure, blind, fly-in-the-face-of-reason faith --as a small life preserver in the wild and endless sea of a universe ruled by unfeeling laws and totally indifferent to the small, reasoning beings that inhabit it."
"Belief in one's identity as a poet or writer prior to the acid test of publication is as naive and harmless as the youthful belief in one's immortality...and the inevitable disillusionment is just as painful."
" 'I'm going to ask you a question I've asked about a million times since I was two. Do you believe in God?' Sol had not smiled. He had no choice but to give her the answer he had given her a million times. 'I'm waiting to.' " 
"She had always felt that the essence of human experience lay not primarily in the peak experiences, the wedding days and triumphs which stood out in the memory likes dates circled in red on old calendars, but, rather, in the unself-conscious flow of little things --the weekend afternoon with each member of the family engaged in his or her own pursuit, their crossings and connections casual, dialogues imminently forgettable, but the sum of such hours creating a synergy which was important and eternal."
It's impossible to say that Dan Simmons doesn't shoot for the moon. The first novel I read by him, Ilium, was a science fiction retelling of one of western literature's most beloved works, The Iliad. He knocked it out of the park --I was engrossed with the complex and rich plot, and flew through its dense 800 pages as quickly as I have any other book of such length. With Hyperion, the second Simmons novel I have read, he takes on another monumental work in western literature: The Canterbury Tales. The analogy here is a bit more loose; characters from the Tales don't show up in Hyperion by name, but still, the basic plot structure remains --a group of pilgrims is traveling together, and they share their stories with one another. This time, however, we're in the 28th century, mankind has colonized several hundred worlds, and an ominous and powerful creature known as the Shrike haunts every story that is told. Each pilgrim is traveling to Hyperion as the galaxy is on the brink of war to confront the deadly Shrike in some way.
From the beginning, Simmons' world-building is rich and highly detailed. As in Ilium, I was impressed over and over again with his prodigious, Stapledonian imagination. The guy is quite simply a volcano of beautiful, original, creative SF ideas and it's often a joy to behold. I might go so far as to say that at times it can be too much at times; Simmons creates worlds that are so detailed that we get distracted from the main plot at times... his tangents and off-hand details are too interesting sometimes and we're left wanting, begging, to know more.
Simmons' powerful imagination (and impressive technical skill) is on display in each of the six tales that the pilgrims tell. The fact that each has its own impressive cast of characters serves to make Hyperion astoundingly full of great and interesting personalities; even for a 500 page novel. We start with the Priest's Tale, a deep, mysterious, and highly disturbing story that reminded me a bit of the British television show, The Prisoner, with the sense of dread and paranoia that it produces. I'll admit, after finishing this first tale, I was so impressed that I asked myself, How the hell will Simmons top this one? We're supposed to choose our favorite tale, I think, but how will he manage to beat this one? (More to come on this in a moment...)
Next up was the Soldier's Tale, an ultra-violent, tense story told with hallucinatory intensity. It took a while to get going, given how we're thrown into a strange plot-line and forced to figure out what's going on, but this one was quite well-done as well.
After this is the Poet's Tale, which is told in an often-humorous, highly engaging, first-person voice. It's peppered with literary references, and it's arguably the most "literary" of the tales. Martin Silenus, the poet, is one of my favorite characters in the novel, a true artist's artist, an unapologetic truth-teller, and a man with an intriguing relationship with the deadly Shrike. We never learn more about this particular facet in Hyperion, but there are several sequels, so I hope to read more about this relationship in the future. It was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me, given the murderous, chaotic ways of the Shrike.
The Scholar's Tale is a more moving, personal story. It focuses on a scholar and his wife after a strange accident befalls their daughter. As she is studying the Time Tombs on the world of Hyperion (supposedly the lair of the Shrike), Rachel Weintraub falls unconscious and begins aging backwards. Each day, she loses another day of memory; another day of aging. Taking care of her becomes increasing tough for her parents, who grow older as their daughter grows younger. This one isn't as flashy as the ones before it, but it delivers a real emotional depth, and it showcases Simmons's versatility wonderfully.
Next is the Detective's Tale, which somehow manages to up the ante again, revealing bigger stakes in play for the entire pilgrimage. This one reminded me quite a bit of Ilium in the way it incorporates figures from the Western Canon of literature in an incredibly creative and weird way. Although I wasn't particularly fond of its narrator at the beginning, she grew on me as this complex story progressed.
Finally, we have the Consul's Tale, which jumps around in time, but manages to stay quite coherent throughout. For most of the Tale, we don't actually know who the protagonist is, but when the story concludes, we have a big answer to a question that has been lingering throughout the novel. Like the Detective's Tale, there is romance and intrigue here, and once again, Simmons manages it all with a deft hand.
The novel concludes on a frustrating cliffhanger, which I supposed is my one, half-assed complaint about it. What I can say is that it made me excited to read The Fall of Hyperion in the near future, so I suppose it isn't really a "complaint", per se... I just think novels should have a bit more closure than this, even if they are a part of a series.
The overall verdict on Hyperion is that it is an incredible book, with a seeming universe packed into 500 pages. Certain tales (the Priest's and the Poet's) outshine others (the Consul's and the Soldier's) for me, but all of them have their merits. There is a reason why a major publishing imprint is now named after this novel --Dan Simmon's imagination and impressive technical skill are both on display here and together they confirm his status as one of the best SF authors alive.

Life, the Universe, and Everything:

"...there's nothing that depresses me more than seeing a planet being destroyed. Except possibly still being on it when it happens."
"Numbers written on restaurant checks within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe."
" 'But unless we determine to take action,' said the old man querulously, as if struggling against something deeply insouciant in his nature, 'then we shall all be destroyed; we shall all die. Surely we care about that?' 'Not enough to get killed over it,' said Ford."
It's weird to think that a book with a somewhat concrete plot could be viewed as an anomaly within a series. But nevertheless, this was the resounding, lasting impression that I got from Life, The Universe, and Everything. Sure, we get a lot of the usual Adams off-the-wall insanity and digression in this one, but we also get a more traditional central plot-line that lends more structure to the novel than either of its predecessors.
Life, the Universe, and Everything opens up about five years after The Restaurant at the End of the Universe ended, with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect still strained in a prehistoric wilderness, bored and miserable. As is common in the Hitchhiker's Trilogy, things do not remain grounded in the same place for too long after the novel opens. Time travel comes back into play, mysterious, long-forgotten objects pop into existence with regularity, and eventually Ford and Arthur find themselves guests on the ship Bistromath, an interstellar cruiser that operates not on traditional math, but on the sort of garbled, nonsensical math that one finds on a restaurant bills. Due to this, it can shoot across the greatest distances of time and space with ease, or even travel into other dimensions.
Ford and Arthur soon learn from the pilot of Bistromath, Slartibartfast, that an old galactic menace has resurfaced. Long ago, the pleasant, but utterly xenophobic people of Krikkit terrorized the Universe, destroying everything that did not come from their planet. After a long battle, the Krikkiters were locked away from the rest of the Universe in an impenetrable Slo-Time envelope. The key to the envelope was destroyed and its fragments were dispersed across the space time continuum. However, a team of Krikkit's robot fighters has resurfaced recently, and they are quickly finding pieces of the key and rebuilding it. No one seems to be able to stop them.
While the quest to stop the robots from rebuilding the key is the main preoccupation of Arthur, Ford, and Slartibartfast throughout the novel, there are also plenty of hilarious digressions. Whereas these digressions took up the bulk of the previous two novels, Adams seems a bit more focused more here. While this made for more enjoyable reading on a very basic level (you actually have something unified to follow for more than 20 pages!), this one was not quite as uproariously funny as the first two books in the series for the same reason.
In the end it comes down to personal preference: if you want funnier books that you might not always understand (and rightly so, by my estimation!), you'll enjoy the first two novels in the series more. But if you want a novel with more of a fleshed out, sustained plot, you'll enjoy this one the most. I read the Hitchhiker's Trilogy for the laughs, rather than the nifty plotlines, so my own preference was for the first two.
However, I must stress, this book is still extremely funny. Just because it might not measure up to the standards of the first two is in no way an indictment of the novel as a whole. The Bistromath concept was great, but my favorite concept in the entire novel may have been the four-generation-long party in the sky. The idea that sets up the scene, as well as the execution of the scene itself had me laughing out loud quite a bit. Arthur Dent's confrontation with Agrajag is also clever, funny, and puzzling all at once. I think you could use those three adjectives to describe everything I've read by Adams, in fact.
While the conclusion of the novel was a bit abrupt, I've come to expect this from the series. Adams isn't one for consistent, satisfying endings, but if you've made it this far, you've learned to accept it. For anyone who enjoyed the first two books in the series, I would certainly recommend taking a look at this one as well, because despite some of my observations, it really isn't radically different from the first two books in the series. Here, there are more laughs to be had, more mayhem to witness, and more paradoxical, puzzling little tidbits to annoy, amuse, and confuse you. Like the others, it's nothing short of a hoot.

Friday, June 17, 2016

#113: I Am Legend, #201: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I Am Legend:

"After a while...even the deepest sorrow faltered, even the most penetrating despair lost its scalpel edge. The flagellant's curse, he thought, to grow inured even to the whip."
"The world's gone mad, he thought. The dead walk about and I think nothing of it. The return of corpses has become trivial in import. How quickly one accepts the incredible if only one sees it enough!
"...was he just stupid? Too unimaginative to destroy himself? Why hadn't he done it in the beginning, when he was in the very depths? What had impelled him to enclose the house, install a freezer, a generator, an electric stove, a water tank, build a hothouse, a workbench, burn down the houses on each side of his, collect records and books and mountains of canned supplies...even put a fancy mural on the wall? Was the life force something more than words, a tangible, mind-controlling potency? Was nature somehow, in him, maintaining its spark against its own encroachments?"
Talk about grim. I Am Legend is an excellent short novel and really the only thing holding it back from being part of the twenty or so best SF novels I have ever read is the fact that it is so brutally and relentlessly dark and pessimistic. Of course, this is Matheson's aim --but for me, it was too much at times.
Reading I Am Legend was an interesting experience for a pure SF fan like myself because it fits very comfortably into both the horror and SF genres. Works like Solaris and The Martian Chronicles can be eerie and creepy, but no other SF novel I have read thus far is as acutely disturbing as this one was. Matheson achieves this affect not with startling attacks (which tend to work much better in films than books), but with a creeping, unrelenting sense of dread that continues throughout the whole book. The novel begins with a window into the life of one Robert Neville, the last healthy man alive on Earth. We quickly learn that the world has been ravished by a plague that renders its victims (living and dead) bloodthirsty vampires. They only come out at night, they abhor garlic, they can be destroyed by a stake through the heart, and most of them react negatively to the sight of the cross. For some reason, Neville is unaffected. And so he must spend his days preparing his house for the nightly vampire attacks, stringing garlic around the premises, so they can't get too close, boarding up the windows, and often disposing of bloodless bodies left in his yard by the vampires (who often turn on one another).
After some intense encounters between Neville and his legion of foes, we get an expectedly depressing backstory, detailing how the protagonist lost his wife and daughter; how he slowly watched the world fall apart. Later, Neville begins to accumulate scientific knowledge with the hope of finding out how the plague works, and potentially how it can be defeated. But throughout it all, the tone remains bleak. Even if Neville finds out exactly what causes the plague, the novel seems to imply, just what can this one man do? He barely ekes out an existence as it is. The anti-vampire measures he takes at the time seem to have little effect on increasing his quality of life: although he manages to destroy many sleeping vampires during the daytime, there are always many more to show up on his block come nightfall.
As the novel's climax and conclusion come around, things become more complex, as a new group of humans is introduced that could signal a hopeful future for planet Earth, or death for the last "normal person" on Earth, or both (you'll have to read it to find out!). Here is maybe the only ray of hope in the novel. The word "hope" here might be a stretch, considering the nature of this new group, and how they operate.
The aspect of this novel that worked the most for me was the way Matheson depicted moments of intense emotion. His way of blending outer and inner description is keenly observant and highly impressive. He's also got a talent for heart-pounding, suspenseful action sequences. I certainly would not have minded a few more, just as I would have liked the book to be a bit longer than 170 pages!
The main place where this brevity hurts the story a bit is the conclusion --it came too quickly for me, and although it certainly fit the disturbing tone of the novel as a whole, I can't help but saying I really wanted it to end differently.
I Am Legend was nonetheless a very worthwhile read. Shockingly desolate and nihilistic for a novel written in the 1950's, you could convince me that this novel deserves a place amongst the top 10 horror novels of all time --I don't read much horror, but this one definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do (disturb and even depress the reader). The fact that I was not 100% on board with what it sets out to do is definitely a matter of personal preference. What is perhaps less of a personal judgment is that I Am Legend is an extremely well written piece, a gothic novel to stand on the shelves with the best of a genre meant to horrify and unsettle.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

"...if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion."
"It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them in inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination."
"...anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job."
There's no adequate explanation as to why I waited this long to read the sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I've long thought that it is one of the funniest books of all time, and certainly the funniest SF novel that I have ever read. I guess I might explain this gulf of time with my fear that any sequel could not come close to the original. I am more than happy to report that I was wrong --The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is delightful.
If you liked the first novel in the sequence, I feel confident in guaranteeing you'll enjoy this one as well. The two are very similar --there isn't much of a solid cohesive plot in either one. But in both cases, neither would be as non-stop hilarious if there was a concrete plot. Simply put, this novel continues to follow the adventures of former Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox, Martin the paranoid android, Ford Prefect (researcher for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and sole survivors of Earth, Trillian and Arthur Dent. Zaphod is on a quest to find the mysterious "most important person in the Universe", while Ford and Arthur are more concerned with finding out the question to the Ultimate Answer of Life, The Universe, and Everything...they have already learned that the answer is "42".
These two plot threads are a very loose connective tissue that holds the book somewhat together, but the real pleasure of reading this one comes not from suspenseful plotting and exciting climaxes, but from the myriad wacky side adventures that occur along the way. Adams is also a master at the short, funny, and often poignant digression (see the beginning of Chapter 10, as well as Chapters 15 and 19) --and you don't mind a break in the action when the results are this uproarious, clever, and original.
I'll especially single out Chapter 15, a section on the grammar rules of time travel, as one of my favorite parts of the book. For English nerds like myself, this section is a hoot.
One might say that Adams strength is in minor details; just as he seems to enjoy digressions more than main plot lines, he also seems to take extra delight in creating memorable minor characters. One of my favorites was the Captain of the Golgafrinchan ship, a relentlessly relaxed, unceasingly positive leader who seems more apt to spend an afternoon lounging in the bath than ever making an executive decision. I also loved the brief glimpse we got of the most important man in the universe, who had a certain phenomenologist or Taoist vibe to him that served to both amuse and provoke thought. I might add that these one-note (but hilarious) minor characters reminded me a lot of Shakespeare's Barnardine from Measure for Measure.
And as far an impressive, big SF ideas go, Adams puts a lot of "serious" SF writers to shame with his lively imagination. One need look no further than the restaurant of the title; it certainly was not what I was expecting! Here, and in Book One, Adams impishly defies expectations again and again, even to the point where he'll take the plot to a completely nonsensical place.
While I'm not sure that this book was a 100% match for the original, quality-wise, it is at least 90% there. Like its predecessor, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe is endlessly quotable, and more fun than 99% of books out there. Sometimes the dialogue is groan-inducing, but much more often it is extremely clever, and in either instance, it is always a load of fun. I'd recommend this novel (and this series, so far) to SF fans, those who liked the movie Airplane!, and/or anyone who likes a good laugh, really.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

#161: Lest Darkness Fall, #144: The Penultimate Truth

Lest Darkness Fall:

"Padway feared a mob of religious enthusiasts more than anything on earth, no doubt because their mental processes were so utterly alien to his own."
"He reflected that there was this good in Christianity: By its concepts of the Millennium and Judgment Day it accustomed people to looking forward in a way that the older religions did not, and so prepared their minds for the conceptions of organic evolution and scientific progress."
L. Sprague De Camp's Lest Darkness Fall is often categorized as an alternate-history novel, and it sort of is one. I feel more compelled to call it a time-travel/alternate-history, because it seems to share more with a novel like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court than it does with The Man in the High Castle, or Bring the Jubilee. That's because we don't see the consequences of a change in history throughout the action of the novel; rather, we see the changes themselves being instituted by a savvy, educated time traveler named Martin Padway.
Padway is a PhD student visiting Rome around the 1930s, when he is inexplicably transported to the sixth century A.D. (perhaps by a supernatural thunderstorm?) After gathering in his surroundings and accepting his new reality, Padway begins to focus on a concrete mission: preventing the advent of the Dark Ages. In other words, making sure that Darkness does not Fall. Padway goes about his mission in several remarkable ways, "inventing" the printing press and starting his own newspaper, revolutionizing contemporary systems of warfare, and introducing Arabic numerals to the Italo-Gothic world amongst many other things. The big concern turns out to be stopping the invading forces of the Byzantine Empire, and Padway takes a central role in making sure that the Byzantines do not win in this "branch" of historical time.
In his various political, economic, legal, and militaristic meddlings, Padway is certainly kept busy with some colorful characters and humorous situations. One pleasant surprise in this novel was the light, often funny tone that it often takes. It's certainly a ray of light in an otherwise dark genre --at least in this respect. It's also an easier, quicker read than most classic SF out there, as de Camp manages to convey the hectic pace of Padway's new life quite well.
I might even proffer the statement that de Camp's prose is too quick and cursory. Often, I felt I was reading a utilitarian, business-like summary of Padway's adventures in sixth-century Rome, instead of a rich novel. There were conversations and relationships that deserved more space to germinate --we'll often get an interesting exchange that seems cut short and we're onto the next segment before it seems like it the conversation had reached a fraction of its potential.
Nonetheless, this matter-of-fact style made it possible for de Camp to economically include plenty of  information about the world of the sixth-century. This makes Lest Darkness Fall the kind of book that should awaken some enthusiasm for Roman history in the reader (it definitely did for me!). For this reason, I would recommend it to a high school class learning about ancient Rome --especially one that needs a break from dry, old textbooks.
All in all, Lest Darkness Fall was a good amount of fun, with a distinct 1930s tone to it that provoked a smile from this reader as often as its intentional attempts at humor did. As compared to more "serious classics" of the genre, like Bring the Jubilee and The Time Machine, this one probably isn't as profound or erudite, but it still managed to keep me interested and entertained (and I think entertainment value is where it beats out some of the established greats of the genre, rather than profundity). With its "young-adult fiction" style and the way it doesn't take itself too seriously, this novel is an appropriate choice for some light summer reading for SF and fantasy fans alike.

The Penultimate Truth:

"Ye shall know the truth...and by this thou shalt enslave."
"As a major component in his makeup...every world leader has had some fictional aspect. Especially during the last century. And of course in Roman times. What, for instance, was Nero really like? We don't know. They didn't know. And the same is true about Claudius. Was Claudius an idiot or a great, even saintly man? And the prophets, the religious..."
" 'necessary'...A favorite word...of those driven by a yearning for power. The only necessity was an internal one, that of fulfilling their drives."
Just when I thought Philip K. Dick had written a fairly straightforward, "traditional" SF story, he threw me another brilliant, convoluted, mind-bending curveball. Halfway through The Penultimate Truth, I was taken from the realm of Childhood's End and Dune, into a fractured story-scape with parallels to PKD's own Ubik and The Simulacra. In the interests of writing a spoiler-free review, I won't go into specifics too much here, but I will say that, after having read 10-12 PKD books thus far, there was a point in this novel where I put it down and said to myself, "Damn, Philip K. Dick, you've done it again."
The plot of The Penultimate Truth concerns itself with a near-future Earth, recovering from a nuclear war that ended thirteen years ago. Only no one ever told this fact to the hundreds of millions of people still hiding out in subterranean "ant-hills", who are led to believe that the war is still going on above their heads. An elite few live on the surface, feeding propaganda to the "tankers", all while reaping the fruits of the tankers' labors: robots that are supposedly manufactured for the war effort, in actuality, become personal servants for the ones aboveground. One tanker, Nicholas St. James, is forced, by dire circumstances within his ant-hill, to make a trip to the surface. His journey and subsequent discovery of the big lie make up just one small facet of the plot. We also get the perspectives of many above-grounders, including the most powerful handful, who are all jockeying for further power. We meet a propagandist, Joseph Adams, who seems to have some doubts about his job. And, as one might expect in a PKD novel, The Penultimate Truth touches upon themes of paranoia, depression, corruption, totalitarianism, anti-war sentiment, and falsehood. Really, the only thing missing is drugs!
Falsehood is especially central in this one. In Time Out of Joint, PKD explores the notion that someone's entire reality is a fabrication; a lie. Here, we get something very similar, on an even bigger level. In addition, PKD sprinkles in a lot of lying, misdirection and uncertainty throughout the'll start to feel like a tanker yourself, wondering just what the hell is going on.
As with most PKD novels, I feel inclined to point out a few specific touches that I especially enjoyed. While you can make legitimate complaints about the stylistic unevenness of his work, I don't think anyone can deny that PKD's brilliant imagination was impressive. Excellent scenes like the robot-committed murder of a sleeping man confirm this, in my view. This specific scene is grippingly suspenseful, and yet pitch-black humorous at the same time.
Another excellent touch comes in the form of Stanton Brose --the monstrous villain of the piece-- whose introduction makes him seem inhuman and mechanical, yet utterly repulsive (also see: Palmer Eldritch from PKD's Three Stigmata). David Lantano's programmed speech in Chapter 8 is yet another gem that I thoroughly enjoyed.
An admitted PKD-fanatic, I very much savored reading this enjoyably complex novel for the first time. The premise is one of PKD's stronger ones, although the writing seems a bit more rushed and sloppy than usual --with run-on sentences by the bunches providing an occasional annoyance. Easily read as an indictment of the class system, this novel is yet another one to add to the list of PKD works with anti-establishment undertones. It's also another novel to add to the list of his novels that are simply really good. To be frank, I'm not sure that I can say I've read a single novel of his that doesn't make that list.

Monday, April 18, 2016

#55: A Journey to the Center of the Earth, #125: Man Plus

A Journey to the Center of the Earth:

"...silence increased day by day. I believe it even infected us. External forces have real effects on the brain. Whoever shuts himself up between four walls soon loses the power to bring words and ideas together. How many prisoners in solitary confinement become idiots, if not mad, for lack of exercise for their thinking faculty!"
"Science, my boy, is built on errors, but errors which it's good to commit because they gradually lead to the truth."
If you're making a "Best of Sci-Fi" list that truly encompasses the history of the genre, you'd be a fool to leave out the work of Jules Verne. No one can deny that his influence on SF is tremendous --you might even call him the world's first science fiction writer --the guy who paved the way for Wells and Stapledon; as well as Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov after them. With all this out of the way now, I must say I tend to find Verne a bit underwhelming, with my modern sensibilities. I'm sure he seem much more exciting and innovative in his day, but as I've read his novels, I've found myself wanting more, indeed, even expecting more from such a pioneer.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fairly typical adventurous exploration story. I am sometimes wary of these kinds of novels because there is usually no concrete antagonist --the author has to purely rely on the invocation of a sense of wonder and perilous situations that come with exploration of the unknown to keep our attention. Admittedly, I enjoy a well-characterized antagonist more than almost anything in fiction; the awful Mrs. Coulter makes Lyra even more heroic and likable in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series; Vladimir Harkonnen does something similar with Paul Atreides in Dune. But Verne's Journey deals with this issue in a fairly clever way. The "antagonist" could be the treacherous caverns beneath the Earth, sure --but it could also be Professor Lidenbrock, the uncle of our narrator, who commences this dangerous mission with haste and apparent disregard for the lives of his nephew, his hired hand, or himself. Axel, the hesitant narrator, deals with his uncle's unbridled enthusiasm with exasperation, disbelief and resignation, in turns, throughout the novel, and it can be both entertaining and charming --that is, when we are not so wrapped up in the story that we too are angry with the professor!
The meat of the plot follows Axel, Professor Lidenbrock, and their hired hand, Hans, in their attempt to journey to the center of the Earth. It starts off quite fast-paced and easy to tear through in its first few dozen pages. A problem arises, it is soon solved, and we move on. The eccentric professor is easily the best sketched-out character, and the most fun. He is portrayed as a force of nature by the impressionable Axel, and he certainly seems to deserve it. After these beginning sections, the pace slows down somewhat. Things are still being done, and Axel and the Professor are certainly getting somewhere in their mission, but too much time is spent "above ground", so to speak. The journey from Germany to Iceland (where the passage into the Earth is located) takes up a lot of pages, even though Axel does not delve into too much detail concerning each stop along the way. If I were Verne's editor, I would have suggested cutting a few pages here and there from these more mundane sections.
The actual journey inside the Earth is more exciting, treacherous, and intriguing. The wonders that the group encounters when they begin to really get deep into the Earth's crust are the most enjoyable parts of the novel. I only wish Verne had spent more time here, than in the sections above ground, and those spent in comparatively dull corridors of rock. More encounters with prehistoric-type monsters (there were much fewer than I was expecting) would have really made the novel come alive in its final third. Regardless, there were still some very interesting ideas (the sea under the world, the bone graveyard, and the creatures that we do encounter) that I really enjoyed. After a brief time spent among these wonders, Verne rushes the ending a bit, although things do end, more or less, wrapped up.While I never really got tremendously bogged down in any one section (partly because the novel was only 232 pages), pacing issues were my main gripe with this novel. However, I did enjoy it for the most part, especially the air of dry humor we get in interactions between Axel and the Professor.
Another part that did not bother me so much, but which might irk the more Hard-SF-inclined among us, is the science in this novel. Yes, we must allow for the fact that it was written in the 1800's, but a lot of the science in this novel struck me (not exactly an expert scientist), as extremely suspect and just plain bad. Take that as you will... To end my review, though, I think it's appropriate to turn from the moderate negatives we find in the particulars of this book, to its broader appeal.
This novel is worth the read simply for its significance to the genre. If you're somewhat of an amateur SF historian, like myself, you simply cannot get by unless you have read some Verne: this one and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, specifically. So while it comes across a bit dated at times, I have no trouble predicting that this book will continue to be read by many for centuries to come.

Man Plus:

"What the astronauts represented was a dream. The dream was priceless to the Man in the Street, especially if it was a dank, stinking Calcutta street where families slept on the sidewalk and roused themselves at dawn to queue for the one free bowl of food. It was a gritty, grimy world, and space gave it a little bit of beauty and excitement. Not much, but better than none at all."
"...scientists' estimates of 'reality' changed from year to year... In the 'reality' of scientific opinion, life on Mars had been born and died a dozen times."
"...he was still sane. The way to keep sane was to keep from worrying. The way to keep from worrying was to think of other things."
Man Plus is one of those novels that's on the cusp of breaking from "pretty good" to "great" territory --but it cannot quite complete the leap, and it's hard to pinpoint exactly why. I had a similar experience with the only other Pohl novel I have read thus far (Jem), although I did end up preferring Man Plus to Jem. Maybe it's the length (only 187 pages), or maybe it's the relatively abrupt conclusion (spoiler alert: only the last 40 or so pages are actually spent on Mars), but I felt that Man Plus just needed a bit more tweaking to be a really outstanding work of science fiction.
Don't get me wrong, though Man Plus is a very clever and enjoyable read. The gist of the plot is this: Roger Torroway, a retired astronaut, is preparing to go to Mars. But his methods of preparation are not quite what one would expect. Torroway's fleshy body is essentially dismantled and replaced with a system of mechanical parts --more sturdy skin, senses, and reflexes that will ensure his survival on Mars without any other equipment. Enmeshed within his cyborg body there are a few paltry organic parts remaining (his brain is the main one), but the vast majority of his physical body has become metal and plastic. We follow Roger as he goes through training and mechanical tweaks in a secret lab on Earth. The project is very important  --President of the United States is very much involved-- because it seems that human life on Earth is in danger of going extinct thanks to international tensions, diseases, and tremendous poverty. Computer projections have suggested that the end is near, and Torroway could be the last hope for humanity's survival. But how will this impotent cyborg reproduce once humanity is wiped out on Earth?, one might ask. Pohl never directly answers this question, but it seems that only nations are working on similar cyborg projects, while we also hear that Roger has had some sperm frozen.
Indeed, the main concern of the novel isn't so much in the far-off future. Pohl makes things much more immediate than that. I've heard the pace of this novel described as "frenetic", and there's still some truth in that, but I would prefer to call it briskly and enjoyably fast-paced. Frankly, I've read many books paced even faster. All things considered, I think the sense of urgency throughout the novel is a boon, as the reader is caught up in the rush to make Roger Mars-ready... before things are too late.
And, to be fair, there are some nice breaks in these urgent episodes, to focus on Roger's psychological profile --how he reacts to being physically cut off from his wife, how he reacts to being made less than (or more than?) human, and how he reacts to physically looking like a monster. Pohl did a nice job here, but I think he could have delved deeper and spend more time giving us longer chunks of inner monologue from Roger. This kind of deliberate dehumanization provides a lot of food for thought on the philosophical level, and it would have been nice to get some more "meat" here.
At the novel's conclusion, when Roger and a small crew of "normal" Earthmen reach Mars, we have a few episodes that, while interesting, are a bit underwhelming in the greater scheme of things. More time of Mars would have been really cool! Nevertheless, there's a decent amount of drama and action here to help bring things to a quick close. In the final chapter (only about 3 pages), there's a nice reveal of the mysterious first person "we" who crops up sparingly throughout the novel. It helps add some "oomph" to an ending that was otherwise a bit lacking in that territory.
Reading this review so far, I notice that I have been somewhat harsh in an overarching way (I would still recommend this book and I still found myself enjoying it much of the time)...but I think all of my complaints have legitimacy to them. So I'll balance these with a bit of praise to end things: Pohl's matter-of-fact style is very readable, relatable, and fun. His grasp on interpersonal relationships strikes me as above-average in a genre that sometimes yields stiff, unrealistic characters. With an intriguing blend of cynicism and optimism, Man Plus could be classified as an interplanetary Alas, Babylon of sorts (a novel which I enjoyed quite a bit)...
...if only Pohl had fleshed some parts out a little more!