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 in 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 enjoyed 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!

Friday, March 4, 2016

#35: Solaris, #132: Nova


"We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is."
"The fate of a single man can be rich with significance, that of a few hundred less so, but the history of thousands and millions of men does not mean anything at all, in any adequate sense of the word.
"We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them."
I have read a staggering amount of science fiction over the years, so I am always excited to dive into an SF work that is like nothing I have ever read before. The experience of reading Solaris was, for me, exciting in this way --but it is also an excellent novel in its own right. Indeed, I have a feeling that even if Solaris was a more run-of-the-mill space opera (which it certainly is not), Lem's erudition and intelligence would have elevated it into the SF pantheon regardless.
The originality of Solaris's central plot device is impressive and essentially unlike anything I've read thus far in SF. On a distant planet, far from Earth, there is a mystery entity that is like nothing mankind has ever encountered. The simplest way to define it would be to call it a "sentient ocean", but this term does not fully capture the weirdness or mystery of the strange living force covering much of the planet Solaris. Even calling it a single "living" thing might be misleading. The ocean certainly displays puzzling phenomena, indicative of some sort of purposiveness...but just what kind of purpose are we talking about? The scientists of Earth have been trying to answer this question for decades, producing no definitive answers. Likewise, they have been unable to establish any sort of meaningful contact with the intelligence inherent in the ocean --it is clear that this being is a completely different sort of "creature" when compared to anything of Earth. As one character states, "The preconceptions of Earth offer no assistance in unraveling the mysteries of Solaris".
In the action of the novel, Kris Kelvin, our narrator and protagonist, is sent to a space station above Solaris. After decades of discovery and enthusiasm, study of Solaris has dried up, simply because the ocean has been so hard to penetrate; so unwilling to give up her secrets. The research station is populated by only a handful of scientists, and it would seem to be a relatively quiet, boring affair. But Kelvin soon finds out that this is not the case. Mysterious, eerie goings-on creep into the narrative. One of the scientists onboard has committed suicide, just before Kelvin arrives. The other two researchers on board are extremely reticent, cautious, and paranoid. They speak with frustrating mysticism, and all we (and Kelvin) are able to discern is that something is very wrong on board the station.
Kelvin gets a dose of this himself when he wakes up one morning to find an uninvited visitor in his room --an ex-lover who committed suicide on Earth many years ago. Shockingly, she seems to be there, in flesh and blood, on the station. As Kelvin and his fellow crew members struggle with similar apparitions, the audience too, must wonder just what exactly is going on. Is the ocean taking painful memories from the crew and resurrecting them in physical form? If so, why? And how will they deal with these new "people," who hold so much significance in their lives, suddenly springing up out of nowhere, exactly as exist in memory? The plot of this short novel revolves mostly around this struggle, with the occasional digression into the field of "Solarist Studies", as Kelvin describes old experiments and expeditions conducted in the early days of the exploration of Solaris. Lem certainly plays with the minds of his characters (and audience!) throughout the novel in a jarring way that seemed almost Philip K. Dick-esque at times.
Solaris is much more a psychological novel than an action-adventure novel, but this never discouraged me --an admitted fan of action in novels, but also a lover of rich, deep, meaningful dialogue. Solaris manages to be page-turning, yet profound, and for me, this is the highest praise. It's thought-provoking to the point of brilliance, while also being thoroughly unpredictable on the level of plot action (which kept me turning the pages). Two-thirds of the way through the novel, I had absolutely no idea how things would conclude.
I also enjoyed the way Lem mixed traditional space-exploration SF with shades of Poe-like horror, suspense, and fantasy. It made for a novel that, especially in its beginning chapters, was haunting in a way that few SF works are. In addition to embracing multiple genres, Solaris also deals with many academic disciplines, both implicitly and explicitly. Fans of hard science, phenomenology, philosophy, psychology (and many more disciplines): there is plenty of material to sink your teeth into here.
Solaris deserves its place in the upper echelon of SF novels, and I might venture that it is slightly underrated. It certainly blows some established classics of exploration (here, I'm thinking of Ringworld) out of the water. The one gripe that I've heard about the novel that might have some merit is the fact that there are some overlong "technical" bits on Solaris Studies --I (not a big Hard SF fan, mind you), found these parts interesting enough, but some may not). Overall, though, this is an excellent, mind-boggling read, with a weighty message at its core: There are some things that Man cannot, and will not, ever understand.


"Real's the start of a million journeys...with your feet stuck in the same place."
"It's something everyone has envisioned --making the rude and thoughtless pay for their thoughtlessness for the rest of their lives. Well, I just happen to have been born powerful enough to do it. I assure you, it feels exactly as good as you might ever have imagined."
"We are drifting, Mouse, you and I, the twins, Tyy and Sebastian, good people all of us --but aimless. Then an obsessed man snatches us up and carries us out here to the edge of everything. And we arrive to find his obsession has imposed order on our aimlessness --or perhaps a more meaningful chaos. What worries me is that I'm so thankful to him. I should be rebelling, trying to assert my own order. But I'm not. I want him to win his infernal race. I want him to win, and until he wins or loses, I can't seriously want anything else for myself."
There's no doubt about it --space opera is a huge hit amongst sci-fi fans, maybe the biggest subgenre in all of science fiction, thanks in part to mega-hits like Star Wars and Star Trek. But my own personal preference slants towards more "grounded", soft SF that deals with characters, planets, and societies in smaller numbers, but with a more penetrating gaze. Luckily for me, Samuel Delany's Nova, long considered a classic of the space opera sub-genre, manages to merge some of soft SF's stress on character study with space opera's trademark feeling of vastness and emphasis on impressive settings.
Nova mostly focuses on the story of Captain Lorq Von Ray, a wealthy, grizzled pilot with connections to the highest political and economic powers in the galaxy. Early on, we follow him in the early days of his rivalry with Prince and Ruby Red from Red Shift, Ltd, a company whose interests have begun to clash with those of his own powerful family's corporation. Prince, especially, is a suitably nasty villain, and Delany establishes this quite well with these early scenes.
Later, in the main story arc, we see Von Ray lead a diverse cast of characters in a race against Prince and Ruby to win a motherlode of illyrion, a mysterious element that helps run their interstellar society (it fuels everything from terraforming projects to the sensory syrynx, a music instrument that uses not only sound, but also smells and light to create a truly multi-sensory symphony). Whoever gets to this motherlode first will certainly put the other group's company out of business. The only catch? Getting to this treasure trove of illyrion means flying one's spacecraft directly into an imploding star! Von Ray has determined, through earlier trials, that a ship can be sucked into a sun's core once nova has commenced, and be trapped in a relative safe zone where illyrion can be harvested. The Reds are hot on his tail, but even they do not realize the full scale of his mission --they are only aware of the prize at its conclusion, and are determined to prevent Lorq from devastating their company with such a prize.
 Von Ray's unmistakable charisma helps him win over several recruits for this dangerous mission: the Mouse, a gypsy wanderer and master musician; Katin, a condescending, but brilliant intellectual who can never seem to stop extrapolating, explaining, or wondering out loud; Lynceos and Idas, a strange pair of twins, one black, and one white; Sebastian, with his strange way of speaking and his vulture-like pets; and Tyy, a Tarot-card reader and skilled pilot. Each has their own story, their own quirks. I might go so far as to say that this colorful cast of characters is Nova's premier strength.
Another strength is the way Delany promulgates a distinct sense of adventure from the novel's inception. Although I thought the plot as a whole could have used more action, this sense of adventure saves Nova from ever really dragging too much. With that said, there were a few sections that could have been trimmed down a bit --at times I found myself becoming quite engaged with the plot and building up momentum in my reading pace, only for that momentum to be halted by an overly long visit to another planet. Being that the novel is only 240 pages, these slower stretches never become overwhelming, but I did feel Delany could have maintained a great sense of excitement throughout the entire novel by cutting them down just a bit.
I also enjoyed how Delany blended fantasy and SF in the scene where Lorq has Tyy do a Tarot reading for him. It managed a kind of mystical tone that you'd expect from Lord of the Rings, rather than a space opera. Another highlight is a revelation at the end. The novel's very last sentence is a great "a-ha" moment, and a wonderfully creative touch on Delany's part.
While space opera is an excellent venue for Delany's fertile imagination (as evidenced by the great scenes featuring the net riders, among others), I still think I enjoyed this novel less than I would have if it featured a similar cast of characters on a single planet, on some other quest. Constant shifts in planetary setting can get a bit too jarring, as it seems not enough time is devoted to fully flesh out and enliven a locale. If a space-opera with shades of Moby-Dick (with the obsessive Von Ray playing Ahab nicely, and his dying star, the white whale) sounds interesting to you, give Nova a look. As for me, with my ambivalence towards space opera, I must conclude that it is a solid, well-written yarn that can be a bit hard to fully get into.

Monday, January 11, 2016

#136: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, #75: The Handmaid's Tale

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said:

"Thank God for the weaknesses built into a vast, complicated, convoluted, planetwide apparatus. Too many people; too many machines."
"Grief causes you to leave yourself. You step outside your narrow little pelt. And you can't feel grief unless you've had love before it --grief is the final outcome of love, because it's love lost."
"Fear...can make you do more wrong than hate or jealousy. If you're afraid you don't commit yourself to life completely; fear makes you always, always hold something back."
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said is both a typical Philip K. Dick novel, and an atypical Philip K. Dick novel. It deals with a lot of his usual themes: altered reality, drugs, police, conspiracies, the meaning of existence, and totalitarianism.
But the way this novel is written is somewhat different from the rest of his work. I have heard that Flow My Tears was one of the few novels that PKD rewrote several times before publishing, in addition to The Man in the High Castle and A Scanner Darkly. I must say that the unusually extensive editing is fairly clear here (at least to a veteran PKD fan like myself). Flow My Tears is definitely one of the most polished PKD works that I have read, and probably one of the most thoughtful ones. And although this polished tone often seems to help the story, I felt that it occasionally hinders it at times, too.
Flow My Tears is the story of Jason Taverner, a famous pop singer and TV star from the near future. PKD quickly characterizes him in the first chapter --he's supremely self-confident and misogynistic, but he's also a seasoned professional when it comes to dealing with fame and the adoring public. One day, Taverner wakes up in an unfamiliar motel room and soon finds out that no one knows who he is anymore. His romantic partner, his agent, and his lawyer seem to have forgotten that they ever knew him. His fanbase has shrunk from thirty million to zero in an instant. Even the databases of the police state that he lives in have no records of his ever having existed. And so Flow My Tears becomes an SF mystery, as Taverner attempts to elude the police, all while trying to find out what the hell exactly happened. Plenty of crazy, reality-bending theories get thrown around, and, as usual, PKD plays with the reader's head a lot...perhaps even more so than in your average PKD novel, which is really saying something. Was Taverner's past life even real? Was he hallucinating one of the two scenarios? If so, which one? And what about Felix Buckman and Herb Maime, the cops who are tracking him? Are drugs involved at all? Do the enclaves of student-prisoners mentioned throughout the novel have anything to do with the whole situation?
As is often the case with PKD, the novel is populated by individuals who are, at turns, crazed, confused, and compassionate. There are some characters (Kathy comes to mind) who say things that the reader simply must "go with", or quickly drive themselves crazy trying to decipher the ramblings. And there are indeed quite a lot of ramblings. Although Flow My Tears is more polished than most PKD work, it is also more talk-y. These conversations tend to be interesting, even fascinating, in their own right, but they often don't add much to the story. With that being said, Chapter 11 is one of the best chapters that I have read in all of SF...and it's a talk between Jason and Ruth about love and grief that isn't a pivotal part of the plot at all, in strictly concrete terms.
Another classic PKD touch is the bizarre humor sprinkled throughout the novel, perhaps more liberally here than in most of his other works. Flow My Tears depicts a scary totalitarian police state, but also humorously depicts the human failings of this supposedly omnipresent structure. The humor is always out of left field, and it always disorients you, as I'm sure PKD intended.
Similar to this, there is a lot of illicit content in this one --again, likely intended simply to raise eyebrows and shock the reader. The relationship between the Buckmans and the short scene featuring Mr. Alien Mufi both come to mind immediately.
In a decidedly un-PKD-ish turn, the conclusion of this novel is, well, actually a conclusion! The cause of Taverner's altered reality is very bizarre, but I quite enjoyed it. It was somewhat reminiscent of the ending of The Man in the High Castle for me, and even more strongly reminiscent of the entirety of Now Wait for Last Year. Furthermore, PKD actually ties up loose ends quite well, giving us an epilogue that satisfies almost every curiosity one could have about about any main character.
Flow My Tears was very well-done overall, and from a literary standpoint, it's PKD at his best. However, I hesitate to put this one in my, say, top three novels of his, simply because it lacks some of the raw, visceral, punch of some of his work. Make no mistake about it, this is a very good book... it just can't compete with the rollercoaster build-up of Ubik or the frantic energy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or the emotional powerhouse that is A Scanner Darkly.

The Handmaid's Tale:

"But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest. Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing."
"I know this can't be right but I think it anyway. Everything they taught at the Red Center, everything I've resisted, comes flooding in. I don't want pain. I don't want to be a dancer, my feet in the air, my head a faceless oblong of white cloth. I don't want to be a doll hung up on the Wall, I don't want to be a wingless angel. I want to keep on living, in any form. I resign my body freely, to the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am abject. I feel, for the first time, their true power."
"Don't let the bastards grind you down. I repeat this to myself but it conveys nothing. You might as well say, Don't let there be air; or, Don't be."
Margaret Atwood doesn't like this novel to be classified as science fiction, and it's a shame, because science fiction needs more authors like her. I am admittedly biased towards her brand of SF --I like literate, contemplative "Soft SF" that focuses on ideas and people rather than the impersonal equations, stiff characters, and mechanical minutiae you often find in Hard SF-space opera (although there are certainly exceptions to this). Atwood certainly touches upon the best aspects of Soft SF in this novel, and that is a big reason why I enjoyed it so much.
The first comparison that comes to mind with Margaret Atwood's style is Ursula K. Le Guin. They are skilled technically, and less focused on action-packed plots. Both writers exhibit beautiful, creative, dream-like methods of description. Although I enjoy Le Guin's SF very much, I might be tempted to say that Atwood edges her out in terms of sheer technical skill. The Handmaid's Tale shows off Atwood's talent, while also making you turn its pages quickly and eagerly. Despite the fact that the first third of the novel was relatively barren of big action, I found myself immediately pulled in, streaming from chapter to chapter without looking up. Atwood combines the page-turner and the "serious novel" into one, and I cannot applaud her more for doing so. It's a difficult task, and I wish authors could pull it off more, because I love it.
The novel tells the story of Offred (Of Fred, that is), a handmaid in the near-future Republic of Gilead, an oppressive theocracy that has taken over a large part of the United States, after a coup. We never learn all the details about this coup, but it seems to have been partly militaristic, partly social. In this Republic, women are strictly relegated to a small group of roles. Offred is a Handmaid --simply a walking womb in the eyes of Gileadan society --tasked with reproducing with her assigned Commander, a higher-up in the social pyramid. Other roles include housekeepers and illicit prostitutes, and not much else. Even the Commander's official wife, who is too old to reproduce, seems to live a pretty miserable existence despite her comparatively high social standing. She is extremely jealous and dismissive of Offred, yet cannot legally do much to get rid of her. The tension in the story comes in Offred's small, tentative breaks with the rules of the system --sometimes with the help of other characters. By the end of the novel, things have gotten very suspenseful, and I assure you that you'll want to know more even after you've finished the book completely.
Atwood seems somewhat dismissive to the genre of SF in her statements, but again, I wish she wouldn't be. The efficient, rich world-building that she shows off here would be a welcome addition to genre SF. And if she can match the infusion of wisdom and deep thought that she has included in The Handmaid's Tale in another SF novel released some time in the future, I would scramble to read it. Atwood even manages to make the episodic, fragmentary plot of this novel work surprisingly well. I usually slow down quite a bit when I read these types of novels, but Atwood managed to keep me interested in an astonishing amount of easy task, I assure you. And although it was a bit nihilistic here and there (which I can sometimes find grating after a while in SF novels), it was also quite the opposite in other places.
The conclusion of the novel was somewhat frustrating, but I have gotten used to this as an SF fan, and particularly as a Philip K. Dick fan. A somewhat dry, but interesting epilogue of "Historical Notes" provides some answers, while also offering some very clever tidbits --take a close look at Wilfred Limpkins, for instance, or the way Atwood sketches the future of the future through small details, or the casual instances of sexism in the speeches. After close examination, maybe this epilogue isn't as dry as it seems afterall...
As you can tell, I quite enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's haunting description of the hanged "snowman" and Offred's revision of the Our Father were two particularly memorable aspects that will stick in my head for a long time. This was a highly recommendable read and one of the most well-written novels that I have encountered in science fiction...and yes, despite Atwood's own words, I'm very much inclined to call this science fiction!