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.