Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Stars, Like Dust By Isaac Asimov

The Stars, Like Dust
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1951

Biron Farrill is a student on Earth, completing his college studies when he detects a bomb in his dorm room. He escapes, but is whisked away after a professor informs him that his father, a political dissident, has been murdered by the Tyranni who rule many star systems.

He is sent to Rhodia, one of Tyran’s conquered planets, to learn about a plot to overthrow Tyranni rule. He is betrayed by the Director of Rhodia and is forced to flee with the Director’s daughter, Artemisia and her uncle Gilbert. They travel to the planet Lingane to meet with dissidents there.

There, they meet the Autarch of Lingane (who is revealed to be Sander Jonti, the man who sent Farrill to Rhodia from Earth), who seems to possess knowledge of a rebellion world. With him and his followers, the group travel to the heart of the Horsehead Nebula — they believe that for any rebellion world to exist and not be known to the Tyranni, it must be located in a place like the Horsehead Nebula.

The Tyranni spaceship stolen by Farrill is being tracked by a fleet of Tyranni vessels led by Simok Aratap, the Tyrannian Commissioner. With him is the Director, who is shown to be nervous about his daughter's and brother's well-being. They keep themselves at a distance for fear of Farrill discovering them until Farrill lands on one planet in the heart of the nebula.

The Autarch believes that the planet is the rebellion world. However, there is no sign of life anywhere. When the Autarch and Farrill leave the spaceship to apparently set up a radio transmitter, Farrill faces the Autarch and accuses him of getting his father killed at the hands of the Tyranni. The Autarch affirms the accusation, to which Farrill adds that the Autarch feared his father's growing reputation. That is why he arranged Farrill's father's death.

In a fight, Farrill subdues the Autarch with help from the Autarch's aide, Tedor Rizzet, who reveals that he is ashamed of the Autarch for killing a great man like Farrill's father. Later, as Farrill and Rizzet try to explain everything to the rest of the crew they picked up from Lingane, the Tyranni fleet arrives and takes them prisoner. Aratap interrogates Farrill, Artemisia, Gillbret and Rizzet in order to ascertain the coordinates of the rebellion world but they do not know where it is. However, the Autarch reveals the coordinates to Aratap. Rizzet kills the Autarch with a blaster in anger.

While Aratap interrogates Farrill, Gillbret manages to escape to the engine room of the spaceship and short the hyperatomics. Farrill, realising the danger, manages to contact Aratap. The engines are repaired, but Gillbret is injured and later dies.

The space jump is made with the coordinates given to them by the late Autarch. However, they find a planetless system consisting only of a white-dwarf star. Aratap lets Farrill and the others go, believing that there is no rebellion world. Aratap makes it clear that he will never to be chosen as Director. Biron and Artemisia are allowed to marry.

It is eventually revealed that there is indeed a rebellion in the making, located on Rhodia itself. The Director is its leader; he deliberately took on the persona of a nervous and timid old man to throw off suspicion from himself and his planet.

It is further revealed that the Director, who possesses a collection of ancient documents, has searched for, and found, a document that will help a future empire-yet-to-be (likely Trantor) govern the galaxy. This document is ultimately revealed to be the United States Constitution.

The Stars, Like Dust works
on a level not achieved by The Currents of Space or Pebble in the Sky. It does not try to be a complex spy thriller told in less than 200 pages. Nor does it get weighed down in heavy politics or distracting and ineffective subplots. The Stars, Like Dust is pure space opera loaded with shootouts, space trips, mysterious planets, and evil bad guys.

This is not, in and of itself, the definition of good science fiction. Subplots, intrigue, complex schemes and thick character development are all ingredients of great general fiction and genre fiction. But when an author tries and fails to effectively incorporate these elements into the story, the result is drudgery for the reader. When an author tries, and succeeds to tell a simple, but exciting, story, that’s reading gold.

This is not to say The Stars, Like Dust was a great story telling achievement. It had a couple serious flaws. The first was the introduction of a mysterious document Biron was supposed to secretly obtain on Earth that was so powerful it would help foment revolution. This is the book’s only subplot and mercifully, Asimov dismisses his own foolishness until near the end when the characters have an, “oh yeah, what about that?” moment.

That document is, of course, the U.S. Constitution. While I am as reverent of the Constitution and its principles as anyone, I hate to see it inserted into science fiction. I can’t help but remember William Shatner’s melodramatic reading of the Preamble in the Star Trek episode, The Omega Glory. That is a painful memory. This subplot didn’t need to be there.

Of course, there is also the dated sexism in the story. Biron’s love interest, Artemisia, is the consummate female lead in these pulp era science fiction stories. She is a bystander. She is a passive narrative voice. She has no active role. Today’s readers are a little more demanding of their heroines.

Asimov’s early works deliver for me just what I want them to: good stories that are well-paced and well told. Writers who cut their teeth on pulp magazines work hard to economize words and tell stories that move to economize on space. Asimov, like Bradbury, Matheson, Dick, and the other greats who emerged from this format, rank among the great story tellers and I love them!

Although it was the third written, The Stars, Like Dust is the first in the chronology of the Galactic Empire series that lies between Asimov's Robots series and Foundation series. It takes place centuries before the rise of Trantor as the rulers of the galaxy. The beauty of the Galactic Empire series is, it need not be read in chronological order by story or by publication date. The novels each stand on their own.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Stir of Echoes By Richard Matheson

A Stir of Echoes
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 1958

Tom Wallace is a workaday, blue collar joe in 1950s suburbia. He has a lovely wife, a little boy, and a baby on the way. One evening, he attends a neighborhood party and brings along his oddball brother in law. Everything changes for him and his neighbors.

Tom, his wife, Anne, and her brother, Phil, attend a party held at their next door neighbor’s house. They attend to oblige them, but dread it because they throw dreadfully boring parties. Phil, a Berkley psych major, decides to inject some excitement into the party by hypnotizing someone. All turn down his offer until Tom agrees. Phil puts him under.

Everyone has a good laugh at Tom’s antics under hypnosis. Tom and Anne go home that night and Tom is unable to sleep. He goes to the kitchen and finds there a woman, dressed in black. Tom and Anne are discomfited by the specter and her frequent appearances put a strain on their marriage.

Tom begins to sense the feelings of people around him and eventually can read their thoughts. He learns of the amorous desires of one of his female neighbors for him. He also learns that his best buddy is cheating on his pregnant wife.

Slowly, Tom and Anne’s life and the lives of their neighbors descend into chaos. Husbands and wives try to kill each other. Tom predicts disasters and death. All the while, the specter of the woman in black demands Tom’s attention. He needs to identify her and find out what it is she wants.

With a little sleuthing and use of his new abilities, Tom learns that the woman is his next door neighbor – and landlord’s – sister in law who moved away with nary a goodbye to her neighbors. Tom figures out that she was murdered and he’s confident that he knows who killed her. But at just the wrong moment, his enhanced intuition fails him and the murderer turns out to be the unlikeliest of the suburbanites.

I love the works of Richard Matheson – his print work and his screenwork. The man is nothing short of brilliant and was a pioneer in the art of small screen writing and teleplays. With that said, A Stir of Echoes left me a little disappointed.

One thing that every reader of Richard Matheson knows is that you are going to get sparse prose. Matheson was an old pulp writer and pulp writers had to economize on words to get as much story as possible into as few words as he could manage. This takes real talent and few – if any – were as good at economizing words as Matheson. In A Stir of Echoes, he could have used a few more words.

There were too many characters and none of them were developed adequately. Matheson is not a writer of character studies, but his books and stories usually give you a well developed main character that the reader can root for. Not so in this book. Tom is sympathetic, but not someone I really rooted for. Both his virtues and character flaws were underplayed. He was flat.

The periphery characters came and went as was necessary for the story, but also were lifeless. A rogue babysitter kidnaps their child for no apparent reason. His amorous neighbor is amorous, but we don’t know why. His landlord doesn’t like him, but we don’t know why. The ghost should have been chilling, sympathetic, ominous, or something. She was little more than a device for the story.

What did stand out as good in A Stir of Echoes was the mystery and the two plot twists that came near the end. I’m not a reader of mysteries, but enjoy them when they are part of a good ghost story or other story of the supernatural. Matheson had me thinking, analyzing and guessing up until the end, and then blue all of my predictions out of the water with a well-developed and plausible twist. Even when he falls short on character development, count on Matheson to come through with a solid plot.

The subtext of A Stir of Echoes was not hard to discern, given the time it was written. Suburbs of the 1950s were seen as idyllic where nice white people worked at a factory, paid their bills, and led nice, white people lives free from strife and misfortune. Matheson showed that every neighborhood has some sort of dark undercurrent. That those days and places of Ozzie and Harriet were not always as idyllic as portrayed or as Baby Boomers remember them.

A Stir of Echoes
was made into a movie in 1999 starring Kevin Bacon. This is a rare case of the movie being superior to the book. The movie better developed its characters and the script made the ghost story and the underlying murder much more ominous and creepy.

This book is a must read for any fan of Richard Matheson because, by virtue of the movie and its standing with fans of horror cinema, it is one of his better known and more popular titles. However, fans of the movie are going to be disappointed in the one dimensional prose and flat characters.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keeping Faith: The Memoirs of Jimmy Carter By Jimmy Carter

Keeping Faith: The Memoirs of Jimmy Carter
By Jimmy Carter
Copyright 1982

Jimmy Carter is a prodigious memoirist, writing several autobiographical accounts of his life. Keeping Faith is a memoir of his presidency and opens not at the beginning of his presidency, but on its final day.

Carter chooses an unusual format to recall his presidential years. Traditionally, presidents move in chronological order, starting at the beginning and moving through the issues and crises as they presented themselves. Instead, Carter takes one issue at a time and provides narrative and commentary on them.

I didn’t think this particular format worked. It made for dry reading. When you read the memoirs of former presidents like Nixon, Ford, and Clinton, you get to know those men through their thoughts, their expressed frustrations, and their expressed ideals. Carter’s approach has him saying, “I proposed this. Congress did this. I said that and he said this.” It is all very dry and the man who is Jimmy Carter remains an enigma.

Jimmy Carter had a brutal presidency and one not known for great achievements. The Camp David Accords stand as perhaps the one reach for greatness that Carter made and as perhaps one of the great diplomatic achievements of the twentieth century. Shamefully, Carter’s retelling of the events make it almost impossible to appreciate the accords for what they were.

Carter was known as a detail man. He micromanaged every facet of his administration. In telling the story of the Camp David Accords, Carter spares no detail, no matter how mundane. My eyes glazed over as I read blow by blow accounts of meetings between the parties. There were way too many details and not nearly enough analysis. Almost half of the book deals with Camp David and there was certainly much more going on in the four years of the Carter administration.

Carter does not reveal much about the relationships he had with his close advisors. He does discuss Bert Lance and that relationship in great detail because Lance’s scandal was a tremendous blow to the administration that placed a premium on honesty. But Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, was a colorful character who was prone to saying and doing the wrong thing. Carter provides no insight into what it was like to work with Jordan. We scarcely get to know his closest advisors with the exception of Zbigniew Brzezinski who was National Security Advisor and Cyrus Vance who was his first secretary of state.

Carter also gives very short shrift to his domestic agenda and relations with Congress. To read Carter’s memoirs, one would believe that Carter had warm relations with Tip O’Neill and Robert Byrd. It was quite the contrary. Carter enjoyed four years of Democratic rule in both chambers of Congress, but could not get a domestic agenda passed. This was because he did not and would not understand how Congress worked. This was in an age when the prerogatives of the legislature meant more to its members than party loyalty. Carter never got that and, in writing his memoirs, it appears he still doesn’t understand why he met with so much resistance from his party.

Carter had to feel some angst over the state of the economy during the latter half of his presidency. It was certainly in shambles. Unemployment was double digits, interest rates were sky-high, and inflation was out of control. Add to it an energy shortage and you have the makings of an economic calamity. Carter does not comment on this at all. He does discuss his efforts at passing an energy program, but provides scant detail as to what this program was. Nor does he provide any analysis as to why it failed to pass. The economy, as bad as it was, is barely mentioned.

Where Carter is at his best in writing about his years in the White House is in describing the events that led up to the Iranian hostage crisis and measures he took to secure their release. The book opens with his very last minute efforts to push through the transfer of funds to Iran to secure their release. In later chapters, he describes the American relationship with Iran and the Shah and how it deteriorated. The conflict between diplomats, the military, and security officials that followed the fall of the Shah is fascinating and Carter tells it well.

Here, Carter does make the reader sympathize with him. He was clearly anguished by the plight of the hostages and spared no effort in trying to secure their safe release. He also clearly describes the abortive military effort to rescue the hostages and how it failed. This failure was unfairly laid at the feet of Carter by the American public and led to a rapid deterioration of his approval. Carter does not complain and in retrospect, it was quite unfair. I respect the man for having made the bold attempt at rescue.

What I was looking forward to the most was a narrative about the Crisis of Confidence speech – or the “Malaise Speech” as it is commonly known. Not before or since has a national presidential address been so poorly conceived and delivered and I was curious to see how Carter would defend it.

He chose not to defend it. In his telling, it was all a grand success. The reality was much different. When he cancelled his scheduled address to the nation on energy and retreated to Camp David, he created an air of crisis where none existed. That is not necessarily bad. A manufactured crisis can serve a president well. But when you start inviting poets and ministers to advise you as Carter did during his retreat, you appear to be a leader full of self-doubt. When you are the president, you can admit error. But you can never admit to a lack of self-confidence. That is how it appeared to the nation.

Then the speech itself was delivered. It resonated well as a call to action. Then, pundits and opponents began to parse it. Upon closer examination, Carter seemed to be blaming the American people for the state of woe in the country. He accepted no responsibility. He made no exclamation of meeting the challenges facing the nation. Ronald Reagan used its text to malign Carter as a man out of touch with his country. The crisis of confidence was not in themselves, Reagan said. The crisis of confidence was in the man in the White House.

Carter’s bitterness toward Reagan seeps into his memoir. While this is a natural human emotion, it is not statesmanlike and Carter comes off looking somewhat petty. Reagan was considerate to Carter as the outgoing president and Carter refuses to acknowledge this.

Carter does express a great deal of warmth for Gerald Ford and, on several occasions, talks about the support Ford lent him as president. He also seems to hold Richard Nixon in high regard, discussing his advice in foreign affairs and the long trip the two took together to the Begin funeral.

The Carter presidency is soon due an unbiased and thorough examination by scholars as passions fade about the man and his presidency. They will soon begin that dispassionate analysis that we are now getting of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. A president’s memoirs lend themselves to this process. But Carter’s offer scant information to historians that’s not already available. Historians look to memoirs for a man’s passions, prejudices, anguish, and pride. Carter leaves little for historians to work with in this dry tome.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Queen of Bedlam By Robert McCammon

The Queen of Bedlam
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 2007

Three years after Matthew Corbett freed the falsely accused witch of the Fount Royal settlement in the Carolina colony, Matthew Corbett has relocated to New York City. He is a clerk to a distinguished magistrate and a young man about town. He is also a bitter, angry young man bent on revenge against Eben Ausley, the evil head of the orphanage where he grew up.

As Matthew stalks Ausley through the streets of New York, cataloging in his mind Ausley’s comings and goings and gambling losses, he stumbles into a murder mystery. A serial killer is working the streets of New York and his nom de guerre is The Masker. He has already killed a doctor and, as Matthew stalks his quarry through the streets, he comes across a second murder – that of a local merchant who was well respected in town.

Loving a good mystery and always determined to see justice done, Matthew devotes his spare time to the solving of the Masker murders. He comes to the attention of a local businesswoman who runs a “problem solver” agency – private investigators. Matthew is hired as a junior associate of the Herrald Agency and put into rigorous training in fighting and self defense.

He also comes to the attention of the widow of the businessman who was murdered. She offers him ten shillings to find her husband’s killer. Matthew gives up clerking and turns to private sleuthing.

His first official case for the Herrald Agency is to visit a nearby asylum where an elderly woman is housed. She is incommunicative, but is kept in regal comfort by a mysterious benefactor. In talking to her, Matthew quickly establishes a link between the Masker murders and the mysterious Queen of Bedlam.

The case takes a stranger turn when Aubrey himself is the victim of a Masker murder with Matthew in pursuit. He stalks the murderer to the home of a local lawyer and acquaintance. The lawyer, dubious of Matthew’s suspicions, allows him to search the home. He finds nothing.

As the case evolves, Matthew soon unravels underhanded and unethical business practices in the New World spanning between New York and Philadelphia. In doing so, he comes to the attention of a mysterious, villainous criminal empire headed by a faceless Dr. Fell. He and the daughter of a local printer are taken prisoner by Dr. Fell’s men and are confronted with the prospect of becoming quarry in a hunt carried out by young orphans brandishing daggers. In the end, and unlikely alliance of good and corrupt comes together to save the day and Matthew escapes. He returns to New York to unmask the Masker and solve the crime.

He returns to the Bedlam asylum for one final meeting with the Queen. He brings with him the answer to her mysterious question and ties up all the ends. He looks forward to advancing in the Herrald Agency and moving on to new adventures while avoiding the mysterious Dr. Fell who now has it in for him.

I enjoyed McCammon’s second installment of the Matthew Corbett series every bit as much as I did the first. As I stated in my review of Speaks the Nightbird, I am not a fan of mysteries. Nor am I much of a fan of historical fiction. But I am a fan of Corbett and a huge fan of Mr. McCammon.

I don’t read enough mystery fiction to be an expert on how they should be written. I have read enough to recognize telegraphed clues, obvious suspects, thin red herrings, and ex deus machina and how it ruins the book. The reader is not going to find that in the Corbett series.

Just like Speaks the Nightbird, McCammon keeps the reader thinking. The red herrings are well disguised and not discerned easily. The clues are well disguised and cleverly contrived. There are several mysteries within the mystery and more than a few subplots which McCammon brings together delightfully at the end. If McCammon keeps writing mysteries, I’ll certainly keep reading them.

Recurring characters can be a mixed bag for writers. Too often, they become like the Hardy Boys. Same people who never change solving the same mysteries with different venues and different clues. Corbett evolves under McCammon’s treatment. He’s no longer the naïve youth just a few years out of the orphanage. He’s older and angry to a large degree. His anger directed at Eban Aubley serves to make him a human and plausible character rather than a caricature hero dedicated to truth, justice and the American way.

McCammon does not let that bitterness and anger undermine what we like about Corbett which is his dogged determination to do what is right. The problem of Aubrey is sorted out nicely to lend itself to the mystery, resolve the reader’s – and Matthew’s -- desire for justice for the fiend, and to leave Matthew’s hands clean.

Corbett gets a sidekick of sorts in The Queen of Bedlam that promises to add future dimensions to new Corbett adventures. Hudson Greathouse, a senior partner at the Herrald Agency, is Matthew’s superior and trainer and sometimes antagonist. He’s the opposite of Matthew in that he’s surly, a brawler, and cocksure. The addition of Greathouse increases the awareness of Matthew’s shortcomings and enhances his strengths. The partnering lent itself well to Matthew’s development in The Queen of Bedlam and promises to make the next book in the adventures of Matthew Corbett, Mister Slaughter, more interesting as it promises Matthew’s further development.

As Stephen King once said, people are much more interesting than monsters. In the hands of a lesser writer, Matthew Corbett could be the same character confronting a new monster each week on the same station. That would be boring. With McCammon at the helm, Matthew Corbett promises to be an evolving character meeting new and different situations. That is a promising prospect for his fans.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Girl Next Door By Jack Ketchum

The Girl Next Door
By Jack Ketchum
Copyright 1989

David is a preteen boy living in suburbia. He has his friends in the neighborhood and they do the things preteen boys do. His parents are in a loveless marriage and it bothers him. He does his best to endure.

His next door neighbors are his best friends. Donnie and Ralph are not quite as sophisticated in their thinking, but are good guys. Their mother, Ruth, is the ultimate cool mom. She lets the boys drink in her home and keeps their secrets.

One day, David discovers Meg – Ruth’s niece. She and her sister, Susan, have come to live with their Aunt Ruth after their parents were killed in a car accident. Susan is left disabled by the accident. But Meg is pretty and David is immediately smitten with her.

Ruth, however, is not. She takes an instant dislike to Meg and what she sees as Meg’s rebelliousness. The confrontations start out as shouting, then slapping. Soon, things turn much more violent and ugly.

Meg is locked in the basement. Donnie and Ralph take turns hitting her. She is strung up, made to stand on her toes. All of this is done under Ruth’s direction. Meg is starved, forced to eat feces, and urinated upon in her basement dungeon. David observes passively. He is disturbed by his passivity and even participates to a limited degree. He notes that Ruth is becoming increasingly unstable. The more unstable Ruth becomes, the worse it gets for Meg.

Soon, other neighborhood kids join the abuse as it spirals deeper into madness. The phrase, “I fuck, fuck me,” is burned into her stomach. She is molested and eventually raped by the boys. Susan is made to watch. Ruth promises Meg that any misbehavior on her part will result in Susan having to endure her torture. Susan eventually falls into a near catatonic state as her sister is tortured and raped. Eventually, Ruth burns her clitoris with a hot iron to destroy in Meg any sexual desire, having branded her a slut.

Finally, David can take no more. He remembers those early feelings of desire he felt for Meg and resolves to rescue her. His plans go awry and his friends and Ruth turn on him, imprisoning him as well. Finally, the final confrontation ensues and David extracts a measure of justice for poor Ruth.

The Girl Next Door was a singular reading experience for me. I read it in one sitting, unable to put the book down. Ketchum’s ability to tell a story and compel the reader to move forward despite being horrified is unmatched in my reading experience.

The story opens with such innocence -- similar to Stephen King's The Body and Apt Pupil. A preteen boy with a troubled homelife finds a pretty girl and falls for her. He thinks about her constantly. He falls in love for the first time.

The neighborhood kids are just as wholesome at first. They play rough games. Some of them are a little scary, but in a fun way. They are enjoying the springtime of life.

So, when events fly downhill to the depths that Ketchum descends, it's all the more shocking.

It may sound like torture porn. It may sound as if it is cheap whacking material for the sexually depraved. The Girl Next Door is none of that. Ketchum finds just the right words to horrify. The action unfolds in a spellbindingly compelling manner. But his prose is not cheap. There are no cheap thrills in this book. Every horror, every action lends itself to the dread the reader feels. And just when it seems the horror is going to reach an unspeakable level of depravity, Ketchum’s first person narrative backs off in an incredibly imaginative way.

Ketchum leaves his reader emotionally exhausted. There is no happy ending. David, the narrator, is left permanently scarred by what he witnessed and by his passivity, allowed to happen. There is no recovery for him. There is no moving on.

And there is no moving on for the reader. I don’t think a sane person can say the enjoyed the experience of reading The Girl Next Door. However, one can appreciate the fact that they’ve read something entirely unique. They can appreciate that they’ve read a masterfully told story. They can appreciate that they made it to the end because reading this book will leave you feeling different about what you read in the future.

The Girl Next Door
is not for casual fans of horror. Reading this book without having digested many of the works of Stephen King, Robert Bloch, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe or Dennis Etchison would be like getting on the biggest, baddest roller coaster at the amusement park without having ever ridden the bumper cars. One must be used to the shocks, the violence, and the depravity that is an important part of modern horror to venture into Ketchum’s masterwork. One must know what else is out there before they can measure The Girl Next Door against it because, while better horror books have been written, none have been so gripping.

The story is loosely based on the real life story of Sylvia Likens who was tortured to death by her aunt and neighborhood children in Indianapolis in 1965. Ketchum changes up quite a few things to make the story original, but the striking similarity is there. When you know that a real life teenage girl had to endure such tortures, it makes the book even more horrific.

For true fans and connoisseurs of horror, The Girl Next Door is a must read. It will leave you emotionally exhausted, doubting the morality of your fellow man, and completely worn out. However, this is all worth it to read such a masterfully crafted story so compellingly told. Jack Ketchum is a master of the craft with few peers.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Pebble in the Sky By Isaac Asimov

Pebble in the Sky
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1950

Joseph Schwartz is a retired Jewish tailor living in New York City. He enjoys is humdrum life in the Big Apple of the 1940s. One day, while taking a walk, he is hit by an errant experimental beam and is catapulted into a world that is totally alien to him.

He finds a farm with a house made of plastic. He can not speak the language the couple there speak, but they take him in as a farm hand. Harboring unregistered people in this time on Earth is a crime and the farmer grows nervous. So, he takes him to a local scientist, Dr. Affret Shrekt, who subjects him to an experimental beam that is supposed to enhance his intelligence.

Meanwhile, an anthropologist from the Galactic Empire, Dr. Bel Arvardan is visiting earth to study earthmen. Earthmen are regarded as the lowest form of life in the empire. Their planet is mostly radioactive. They are uncultured, unsophisticated, and contribute little to the empire in general.

However, there is a theory that all life in the thousands of planets that comprise the Trantorian Empire originated from Earth (as we know from the Robot series). Arvardan is on Earth to explore that theory.

Schwartz soon develops extraordinary intelligence and eventually super abilities to read minds. Using these abilities, he learns of a plot by Earth’s leadership to spread a deadly virus throughout the galaxy – a virus harmless to earthmen, but deadly to the inhabitants of other planets. He enlists Shekt, Shekt’s daughter, Pola, and Arvardan in an effort to thwart the plot.

The group is captured by earth’s leadership and drugged. While they are held prisoner, Schwartz’s abilities continue to grow and he is eventually able to dominate the leader of the earth’s forces. He convinces a pilot to bomb the installation in St. Louis where the biological weapons are housed, saving the Empire.

Pebble in the Sky
is one of Asimov’s earliest efforts and therefore one of his most simplistic. The simplicity did not detract from the reading enjoyment. Instead, it enhanced it and made it superior to the second novel in the series, The Currents of Space which was too complex without corresponding character development.

It starts out quite weak. Perhaps that stems from being technologically dated. But the beam that sends Schwartz thousands of years into the future read like a third grade attempt at science fiction. From that point on, Pebble in the Sky had all the charm of a Golden Age Sci-Fi novel with a fast pace, linear plot, and predictable characters. That is not what people usually look for in a good novel. But, when reading Sci-Fi from this era, it is refreshing to read something so light and enjoyable.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Speaks the Nightbird By Robert McCammon

Speaks the Nightbird
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 2002

Matthew Corbett, raised in a New York orphanage, is now the clerk for magistrate Isaac Woodward. The year is 1699 and the two are en route to the Carolina colony settlement of Fount Royal to oversee the trial of Rachel Howarth – accused of witchcraft and the murder of her husband and the local minister.

The two are waylaid on their way by an unscrupulous innkeeper, but eventually arrive in the colony, sans all of their worldly possessions. The rainy weather has afflicted Woodward with a cold that gets progressively worse. Woodward resolves that the trial will go forward despite his ill health.

Matthew makes a grievous error before the trial begins that costs him dearly. He enters a barn belonging to the blacksmith to investigate. He finds some strange objects secluded in a bag buried in the hay. Before he can ascertain what they are, he is caught and sentenced to three days in jail and three lashes.

At the order of the settlement founder, he is jailed alongside of Rachel Howarth and is immediately smitten with the dusky woman of Portuguese descent. She is polite and occasionally looks to Matthew for emotional support, but obviously does not return his affection.

As Matthew is imprisoned and colony officials press for the trial to move forward, the trial is held in the jail itself so that Matthew may continue his sentence. Witnesses to Rachel’s witchcraft are brought in one by one. They describe seeing sexual congress with demons and Satan himself. Yet, there are no witnesses to the murders themselves. Matthew is convinced she is guilty of neither crime and is determined to prove her innocence – much to the chagrin of the locals.

The inhabitants of Fount Royal want Howart executed and the sooner the better. Her presence and fear of her has caused many to leave the colony. They blame her evil for the ongoing rain that has blighted many crops. Unexplained fires take the schoolhouse and uninhabited homes. The sooner Rachel Howarth is burned at the stake the better as far as the people of Fount Royal are concerned.

Matthew is eventually released and receives his three lashes. As Woodward becomes bedridden with his malady, Matthew commences with his investigation. He learns about the strange residents of Fount Royal – the Oxford educated school master with a bum knee, the blacksmith with a strong affection for his horse, the master of Fount Royal and Matthew’s host who is determined to see Howarth burn, the ratcatcher with a taste for ancient literature, a settlement clerk with a strong grudge against his employer. Also in town are a group of “maskers” or actors who are to deliver a performance of morality tales to lift the spirits of the townspeople and a preacher who has his own proposal to “save” Rachel.

Clues abound. There is the theft of a Spanish gold coin taken from the waylaying innkeeper. Turtles with Spanish coins in their bellies. Mysterious deliveries of buckets of incendiaries in the night. Matthew struggles to put it all together.

Matthew encounters many red herrings in his investigation, but eventually discovers who is behind the two murders, the framing of Rachel, and their motives involving secluded pirate treasure. But he can’t prove any of them to the magistrate. With his health ebbing, Woodward signs Rachel’s death warrant. Matthew becomes desperate.

He decides to take her from her prison and flee to the Florida country. Being Portuguese, he is hopeful that she can find sanctuary among the Spanish. With the help of a couple slaves, he spirits her away and they head south into the swamp. As they make their way toward Florida, Matthew is attacked by a bear. He is badly injured but manages to kill the bear. They are rescued by some friendly Indians and in their camp, Matthew finds the final piece of the puzzle that will allow him to return to Fount Royal and prove Rachel’s innocence.

They return to find Fount Royal nearly empty. The continued bad luck and the escape of the witch have driven people away. Working with his host, Matthew is able to assemble all of the suspects in one room and one by one, eliminate them until the real murderer is proven.

Rachel is set free and decides to stay in Fount Royal for a while. Magistrate Woodward struggles valiantly against his illness – and against 17th century curatives, but eventually succumbs. Before he dies, Woodward gives to Matthew the name of a magistrate in New York who will provide him with employment.

The book ends as Matthew leaves Fount Royal and the Carolina colony behind, a little richer in money and having loved a woman who could not return that love. He heads for New York for new employment and thoughts of visiting vengeance upon the master of the orphanage where he grew up.

Speaks the Nightbird was Robert McCammon’s triumphant return to publishing. While the book reestablished the author after nearly 10 years of silence, it was also the book that derailed his career.

Like all writers do, McCammon grew in his skill at crafting stories and matured. Behind him were B-movie pastiches and other horrors. He had written a beautiful coming of age story in Boy’s Life, a fantastic chase thriller with Mine, and a quarky thriller with Gone South. He was clearly moving away from the horror genre and determined not to get pigeon-holed as a horror writer.

His publisher was unhappy when he delivered Speaks the Nightbird – a historical fiction murder mystery. They wanted another horror story they could market with McCammon’s name which had increased in value with horror readers. McCammon, discouraged, withdrew the manuscript and retired from writing.

Almost 10 years later, he submitted to Speaks the Nightbird to a small publishing house in Alabama. They took a risk on the voluminous book and published it. In doing so, they released to the public another McCammon masterpiece.

For someone who did not write mysteries, McCammon’s first effort was absolutely brilliant! There are no easy solutions to the crimes in Speaks the Nightbird. The red herrings are all plausible. Like classic murder mysteries, everybody and nobody had a motive. The young lady who was framed was tragic. Young Matthew’s love for her pure. It all worked quite well together as McCammon weaved his tale.

The inhabitants of Fount Royal are all quarky and bizarre in their own way, but never silly. Nobody is over the top in their behavior and all conform to the social norms of the period. As Matthew encounters them again and again, the characters and suspects become more richly developed and more mysterious. I do not ordinarily enjoy murder mysteries, but when the characters are as well developed as these, it is impossible not to enjoy the story.

To dismiss Speaks the Nightbird as just a murder mystery is to give it short shrift. It functions as a wonderful piece of historical fiction. It is a wonderful character study of Matthew. Many subplots are working underneath the murder mystery and, while not all are directly related to the mystery itself, they serve to enrich the plot and make the book more engaging.

My only complaint about Speaks the Nightbird is a small one. The resolution of the murder is a trite device. Gathering all the suspects in a room and cross examining them is too much like the mass produced Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes, Perry Mason mysteries. A better device could have been employed. Having said that, McCammon does make the best use possible of the cliché. He has you guessing right up until the resolution.

Speaks the Nightbird is an absolute triumph for a brilliant author who would defy convention and publishing house dictates. McCammon would not be confined to horror. There is nothing wrong – and very much that is right – with writing horror for a living. But McCammon obviously felt he’d mined the genre for all he could. He had to go where his muse took him and it took him to Matthew Corbett’s world – a world he would revisit again and again with great success.

Since it was published in 2002, Speaks the Nightbird and its hero, Matthew Corbett have generated sequels that fans find equally thrilling and satisfying. The Queen of Bedlam, Mister Slaughter, and later novels all feature the young law clerk. It is not unusual for an older writer to become attached to a hero such as Corbett and decide to see where the writing takes him. Stephen King has latched onto Detective Bill Hodges in the waning days of his career. Dean Koontz has his Odd Thomas and the characters of Frankenstein to explore. None of them are as good or deep as Matthew Corbett.

Speaks the Nightbird is a fantastic genre blend. Well researched, it is a fantastic historical fiction novel. Well plotted with excellent characters, it makes a fine murder mystery. With its notions of witchcraft and demons, it will appeal to fans of horror. Kudos Mr. McCammon on one of the finest novels of the 21st century so far.