Thursday, February 4, 2016

Headhunters By Joe Nesbo

By Joe Nesbo
Copyright 2011

Roger Brown is king of the headhunters in Sweden. When the major corporations of northern Europe need to find a new CEO, it is Brown they come to.

Brown makes good money, but he’s living beyond his means. His wife, whom he cherishes, owns an art gallery that is bleeding money. To make ends meet, Roger Brown moonlights as an art thief.

One evening, at a showing at his wife’s gallery, his wife introduces him to Clas Greve. Greve is retired military and a corporate leader par excellence. He will fill two roles in Roger Brown’s life. He will be a perfect fit as the new CEO of Brown’s latest client – a technology company specializing in global positioning, and he will serve as a source of Brown’s latest score as an art thief.

Brown learns that Greve owns an original piece painted by the master, Peter Paul Reubens – a painting that’s been missing since World War II. With the assistance of his security hacker, Brown breaks into Greve’s apartment and snags the painting. While there, a cell phone rings from under the bed. Brown grabs the phone and immediately recognizes it. His reality has been shattered.

The next morning, he goes to get into his car and finds his security expert has been poisoned with a needle trap on the driver’s seat – a needle trap exactly like the one Clas Greve described in one of his war stories. Brown flees his home and his wife, fearing that Greve is onto him and wants to kill him.

From then on, Brown and Greve play a game of cat and mouse through the Swedish countryside and through its cities until they meet for their final confrontation and a scheming Brown pulls out all the stops to free himself of Greve and all his past crimes. In doing so, he learns Clas Greve's true motive for trying to kill him.

This was another selection of my book, scotch, and cigar club. It comes on the heels of another Swedish thriller, The Girl In the Spider’s Web. The fourth in the Millennium series based on Stieg Larrson’s characters wasn’t a great book. But it was a masterpiece compared to Nesbo’s offering.

The biggest weakness of Nesbo’s book was, he just couldn’t figure out what he wanted it to be. It started out as if it were going to be corporate espionage. Then it turned into a caper. Then it was a chase story full of action and adventure. Then it became a techno-thriller. Yes, a good story can incorporate some or all of these elements and be great. But, to be great, the elements must be developed. Just as a segment of the story would become interesting, Nesbo switched gears on the reader.

Nesbo develops Brown quite well and Greve adequately. None of the other central players got the development they needed or deserved to make the story more interesting. Brown’s life is centered around his wife. Yet, she is developed not at all. That devotion, such as it was, would have given Nesbo’s twist so much more impact.

Speaking of twists, Nesbo had a great idea for a twist, but executed so poorly the reader feels cheated. When you write a twist, you give the reader a clue without the reader knowing he’s been given that clue. Then, when the twist is revealed, it should obvious – painfully obvious – to the reader, that he missed the significance of that clue. Nesbo cheats. He gives no clue. He just springs a twist on the reader because it’s easy.

Headhunters inspired a 2011 film of the same name. With a 7.6 star rating on, it is apparently held in high regard by those who saw it. I can see the book working as a film since the various story components Nesbo failed to develop to their fullest don’t require nearly as much development in a screenplay. I have not seen the movie.

I can not recommend Headhunters. I thought so little of it that I would encourage people to see the movie, sight unseen, rather than encourage them to read this dud of a book.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor By Dennis Hale

Shipwrecked: Reflections of the Sole Survivor
By Dennis Hale
Copyright 2007

Neither Dennis Hale nor Daniel J. Morrell are household names. But to those who ply their trade in the Great Lakes shipping industry, both names are legendary. One died and one survived.

On the morning of November 28, 1966, Dennis Hale boarded the ore freighter, SS Daniel J. Morrell and sailed into history. That morning, the freighter departed Erie, PA, upbound for Minnesota to pick up a load of iron ore. Upbound with her was the SS Edward Y. Townsend.

That evening, the Morrell and the Townsend were caught in a storm. Running behind the Morrell, the Townsend sought shelter in the St. Claire River. The Morrell continued north to seek the lee of mainland Michigan in Thunder Bay.

Dennis Hale had finished his watch and was asleep in his bunk at about 2:00 AM when he heard a loud bang and the books fell from the bookshelf in his berth. Hale donned his skivvies and a pea coat and headed up on deck.

When he arrived, he noticed he could not see the ship’s stern. It was gone. The Morrell had broken in half in the storm. He and three fellow sailors gathered near a life raft, believing the boats had already been launched. They waited for the bow to sink. Before he disappeared, the Morrell’s master shouted to Hale and his colleagues that he did not have time to get a distress call out before power failed.

The ship’s bow sank and Hale was thrown from the life raft. He swam for it and his friends pulled him aboard. They thought they had sited a ship coming for them, but it was the Morrell’s aft section, still moving under power. They began to wait for rescue, believing the Townsend or another ship was in the area. The water temperature was 44 degrees. The air temperature was 36 degrees with wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour.

As night wore into day, the four men fought to stay on the raft as they went through troughs and peaks of waves up to 35 feet tall. One by one, Hale’s fellow sailors died of exposure. Finally, in the evening of November 29, Hale’s raft grounded itself about 100 yards from shore off the Michigan coast.

Hale struggled to stay alive as the last of his colleagues died. He fired signal flairs and listened for human activity on the beach. He heard none and nobody came looking for him. He slipped in and out of sleep and at one point, had an out of body experience that would later prove to be transformational for Hale.

Finally, on the afternoon of November 30, Dennis Hale was picked up by a Coast Guard helicopter dispatched to look for survivors from the Daniel J. Morrell. Hale was the only one found. He had been in the water for more than 36 hours.

Hale would spend more than a year recovering physically from the hypothermia and the frostbite. It would take almost a lifetime to recover from the mental anguish of surviving where his friends and colleagues had not.

After years of alcohol and drug abuse and failed marriages, Hale started speaking publicly about his ordeal. This he found much more therapeutic than visits to psychologists. In 2004, he accompanied divers and underwater photographers to the site of the Morrell’s bow where they filmed a documentary.

Dennis Hale would die of cancer five years after the publication of his autobiography. By all accounts, he died a happy and content man.

Between episodes of his harrowing ordeal of confronting the untender mercies of Lake Huron during the legendary gales of November, Hale tells of his life as a child. His mother died right after he was born. He went to live with an unloving aunt and sadistic cousin who moved Dennis from Ashtabula, Ohio to Los Angeles when he was in junior high.

From that point on, Dennis Hale was often in trouble. He ran away and hitchhiked back to Ohio. He then ran away and hitchhiked back to Los Angeles. When LA cops put him on a bus for Ohio, he got off and hitchhiked back to LA. Finally, as a young man, Hale found his chosen occupation as a watchman aboard the Daniel J. Morrell.

For a layman with not even a complete high school education, Hale writes quite well. We know this because the book lacks editorial polish. There are a few grammar errors and some syntax that makes one groan. While the manuscript probably saw the hand of an editor once, not a great deal of time was invested in it.

Hale tries to make his entire life story interesting, but it really isn’t. I do not mean to disparage the man. But nothing in his tale gives us a glimpse into life in 1950s northeastern Ohio or Los Angeles. There is nothing in his life that influenced his choice to become a sailor on the Great Lakes. It is simply a narrative tool to break up the meat of his story into smaller chunks.

Ultimately, Hale’s tale is inspiring. It is one of bravery, healing, and redemption mixed with not just a little bit of luck. Since I first heard the story of the Daniel J. Morrell almost 20 years ago, I’ve wanted to learn more about the ship’s loan survivor. It is a tale that rivals that of the legendary crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the lore of the Great Lakes.

Hale’s book is a compelling read. A little more editorial polish with perhaps some editorial coaching during the writing process would have made it better. Still, it was well worth the time and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Dangerous Visions 2 Edited by Harlan Ellison

Dangerous Visions 2
Edited by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1969

New Introduction
After the successful publication of the Dangerous Visions anthology in hardback in 1967, the anthology was broken up into three paperback volumes. In volume 2 of this cycle, Ellison writes a new introduction to describe the impact the anthology has had on the publishing industry and the effect it has had on writing science fiction. He also takes a moment to excerpt a couple letters written to him and to discuss the censorship efforts directed at the anthology.

The Man who Went to the Moon – Twice by Howard Rodman
A little boy caught in a hot air balloon returns to terra firma claiming he has traveled to the moon. He is an instant celebrity and visited by many dignitaries. Decades later, as an old man, he repeats the accomplishment. This time, he is dismissed as an old quack and people care very little for his accomplishment.

Rodman would have us reflect on technological marvels and accomplishments and how they cease to be marvels and become parts of ordinary life with the passage of time. Rodman’s writing has a Twain tone to it in the beginning, then takes on a much more morose tone of perhaps Bierce at the end. A worthwhile entry in Ellison’s groundbreaking anthology.

Faith of Our Fathers by Philip K. Dick
Many years after the Vietnam war, the communists have won and taken over the United States and other parts of the world. A low level party official is provided an opportunity for advancement within the party. But one evening, he takes some snuff provided by a street vendor and has his eyes opened to the nature of his government and its leader.

Philip K. Dick was well known for his use of psychedelics. Here, he explores the oft-reported religious experience many LSD users experience and how it might be useful in discerning the nature of God, the government, and religion. The end of this story left a little to be desired. But, like many Dick stories, leaves you pondering its meaning while providing a worthwhile narrative.

The Jigsaw Man by Larry Niven
A condemned prisoner escapes death row in a society that harvests organs from those executed. He strikes back at society by destroying an organ donation center. When he is captured and tried, the prosecution doesn’t even bother introducing those charges. They have other charges that are easier to convict him on.

Maybe it rang ominous in 1966. Today it’s just shrill and alarmist. One of the few tales in this anthology completely destroyed by the passage of time.

Gonna Roll the Bones
by Fritz Leiber
A man enters a casino in Hades to gamble with a demon. They dice for the man’s soul.

I so wanted to like this story because Leiber is a legend and I’ve not read him before. But this story, which Leiber admitted was an oft-told tale, was overwritten with long, run-on sentences and needless alliteration. It would appear many disagree with me since this story won both the Hugo and Nebula Award for best novella.

Lord Randy, My Son
by Joe L. Hensley
A middle-aged lawyer deals with day to day life with his mentally challenged (autistic?) son. His son, Randy has the ability to mete out justice to the wicked and conjure kindness from the misunderstood. But all his father can see is the disability.

Autism is not quite the mystery today it was in the 1960s. It may have been quite revolutionary (dangerous) to assign special powers or savant skills to the mentally challenged. Today, it’s an old trope. Nonetheless, Hensley writes an effectively moody story that hits all the right emotional chords to achieve his goal.

Eutopia by Poul Anderson
In an alternative world, a cultural researcher flees a land after seducing the child of its ruler. He is pursued into a neighboring land and the leader of that land agrees to give him refuge and transport him home. When he arrives in his homeland of Eutopia, he complains to his boss of the crude and barbaric behavior of other lands. But it is revealed that our hero has engaged in some of the most verboten behavior himself.

I didn’t see the twist coming and I didn’t see that Anderson provided many clues. His lyrical prose made this story sometimes difficult to read, but he paced it well and with the last sentence demonstrated why this story was indeed a dangerous vision.

Incident in Moderan by David R. Bunch
A war is fought for the sake of war. A cease fire is declared to allow an enemy to repair his weaponry and defenses so that hate of the enemy can continue to feed the war. But the enemy mistakes it as an earnest cease fire to allow them to honor their dead.

The subtext of the futility of war and the need for a propaganda machine to feed hatred of the enemy is not subtle. The story is well paced and just the right length to make it enjoyable without repeatedly ramming the subtext home.

The Escaping by David R. Bunch
A being performs a daily stunt for those who watch him perform. One day, while folding air, he thumbs his nose at his audience and escapes in his space egg.

I just hate when sci-fi becomes literary garbage. That is what this is. David Bunch got two stories in this most famous anthology and the second one a stream of words marching across the page in search of an idea or a plot.

The Doll-House by James Cross
A man and his family are living well beyond their means and robbing Peter to pay Paul, waiting for the inevitable crash. The man appeals to his wife’s uncle who he believes is wealthy. Instead of giving him money, the uncle provides a doll house inhabited by a tiny prognosticator. He uses it to build wealth until it once again comes crashing down around him.

This is a retelling of that timeless classic about the goose who laid the golden eggs. Cross gives the tale just enough twists to make it worth reading. One of the best in the book so far.

Sex and/or Mr. Morrison by Carol Ermshwiller
A petite creature secludes herself in the boarding house room of her obese neighbor and watches him undress, fascinated by human nakedness.

Not as lurid as it sounds, nor as interesting – and not because it is not lurid.

Shall the Dust Praise Thee by Damon Knight
The Christian God comes to Earth to judge mankind and finds that they have annihilated themselves in war. Man’s final plea is etched upon a stone in Britain: “Where were you?”

Difficult prose sometimes concealed what was an interesting story about God written by an atheist.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Mystery Walk By Robert R. McCammon

Mystery Walk
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1983

The Mystery Walk, the voyage through life to determine your place and purpose, is something we all undertake. For Billy Creekmore, it is something more for he is gifted with the power to help distressed souls pass into the afterlife. He must learn how to use his gift.

Billy learns early in life that he is something special. A fire rips through the home of one of his friends when he is a young kid. He learns that his friend and his whole family were murdered by the father. Billy is drawn to the home to discover his friend’s body, secreted away under a coal pile in the basement. His friend’s soul begs him to let people know where he is.

Billy lives in rural Hawthorne, Alabama with his devoutly Christian father and a mother who is a Choctaw Indian. His mother and grandmother before him are gifted with this power and have found ways to use it. His father hates it and hates that his son has it. But, he loves his wife and son the best he can.

Billy will not be without adversaries on his Mystery Walk. There is Little Wayne Falconer, the son and heir apparent to the south’s most popular tent evangelist who hates the Creekmore’s and the powers he regards as evil. There is also a serpent-like apparition that haunts Billy and inspires others to evil – including the father of his friend who murdered his family.

Wayne Falconer has his own Mystery Walk to undertake. He is the same age as Billy and his father has brought him into his ministry. As a young child, Wayne brought back from death his beloved dog my laying hands on him. Convinced that his son has the healing gift, JJ Falconer takes Wayne on the road to heal the faithful.

But Wayne has his doubts. One evening the Falconer Crusade stops in Hawthorne and the Creekmore family attends. Billy and his mother see Little Wayne Falconer healing the sick. Billy and his mother notice the black clouds that portend death hover over the sick who approach Falconer and do not dissipate when Wayne “heals” them. Billy’s mother stands up and protests and the Creekmore family is thrown out of the revival. This is when the Creekmore family shows up on JJ Falconer’s radar and his need to destroy them develops.

The story then follows Billy and Wayne through their lives into their teens. Billy is called upon by the owner of a local saw mill to dispel the spirit of a man who died horribly in an accident with a saw. He does the task. But instead of earning the appreciation of the owner and community, Billy earns scorn and derision from the local Christians. Meanwhile, Wayne finds himself increasingly the star attraction of his father’s growing ministry.

Both desire something resembling a normal life and both make a single effort that shows how that will be impossible. Billy attends a high school dance at his local school where he is shunned. At a bonfire, someone has stuffed hundreds of fireworks in the stack of wood. It explodes and some kids are killed; others are badly injured. Billy, who is injured goes to the hospital where he and his family are shunned. The Falconers show up and are greeted with pleas from the parents to have Wayne heal their injured children. Ramona Creekmore intervenes and asks Wayne, “Son, do you even know what you’re doing?” The Creekmores are run out of the hospital.

Wayne attends a party one evening where teenagers are drinking and paryting. He meets a girl who is obviously desperate to have sex with him. Wayne battles between his natural lust and his acquired faith with his faith ultimately winning. When he spurns the girl, she gets upset and mocks him. He picks up a stick and strikes her in the head. She falls into the water and disappears.

One evening, shortly after the fireworks incident, things come to a head in Hawthorne for the Creekmores. The Ku Klux Klan – of whom Billy’s father is a member – shows up and tells John Creekmore that he is still welcome to stay in Hawthorne, but his wife and son would have to leave. A fight ensues and several Klansmen and Billy’s father are injured. The Klan flees.

But things will never be the same for the Creekmore family. John Creekmore has suffered brain injury and is mentally reduced. Income on their farm has all but ceased. Opportunity presents itself in the form of a carnival operator who offers Billy a job in his “Death Show.” He will pay Billy well and Billy will be able to send money home from the road.

Wayne’s life is also dramatically changed when his father suffers a heart attack and dies. Wayne, still in his teens, is now the head of a multi-million dollar television and multi-media evangelical operation. Unable to cope, he tries to heal his father’s death at the funeral home unsuccessfully. Later, he is visited by his father’s spirit (actually the serpent shape changer of Billy’s nightmares) who encourages Wayne to take calmative drugs and to take the advice of the men who helped JJ.

While out with the carnival, Billy encounters the shape shifter who has taken the shape of a dilapidated carnival ride that has injured many. A couple carnival workers are drawn irresistibly to this ride. One of them is the carnival’s snake handler who lusts for the women with whom Billy has fallen in love with. He tries to kill Billy’s girlfriend with a poisonous snake and is nearly successful. Billy finds the man and shoots him. He then finds the man who owns the mysterious ride and challenges him to a ride. Billy gets on and finds the souls of those injured and killed while riding it, setting them free, defeating the shape changer who leaves.

Billy returns home after his father dies. His mother encourages him to visit an institute in Chicago that investigates paranormal activity. Billy travels to Chicago and moves into the institute. After intensive study, the institute’s head says she believes Billy has powers, but that she cannot document them and therefore Billy is of no use to her. He must leave.

As Billy is preparing to leave, there is a horrible fire at a Chicago flop house that kills several residents. He travels to the worst part of Chicago’s south side to the hotel and invites the terrified souls still trapped in the hotel to come into him and set themselves free. As the ghosts rush at Billy, there is a television news crew nearby to capture the whole event on camera.

Meanwhile, Wayne has attracted the attention of a west coast gangster who a major germophobe who is an organized crime head. The man is eager to gain control of one of the ministry’s record studios. But it also wants to gain control of Wayne’s healing powers to help the hypochondriac mobster. Wayne’s daddy comes to him in his sleep and tells him he must trust help these people who will help Wayne build a new ministry in California and Mexico.

Wayne becomes quite comfortable living in the California mansion. Meanwhile, his associates are worried about the fate of the ministry that is suffering from inattention. One of Wayne’s associates leaves in disgust. The other is subjected to a test where his throat is cut and Wayne is forced to use his power to save him.

The mobster, now convinced that Wayne can keep him safe from disease and injury asks Wayne what it is he wants in exchange. Wayne says he wants the Creekmore woman and her son dead. Romona, now old and living alone, is taken out easily. But one day, one of JJ’s old associates brings to California with him Wayne’s mother who tells him that Wayne was not really JJ’s son. JJ was unable to sire a child of his own and purchased one from a man in Hawthorne. Billy knows that Wayne is that other boy.

Billy is kidnapped and taken to Mexico where he meets Wayne Falconer once again. While on a plane trip back from Mexico, the evil being takes over Wayne’s body and forces the plane to crash. Wayne, Billy, and the evil gangster survive. The evil shapeshifter takes over the gangster’s body and pursues them across the desert. They are able to escape it and the ultimate showdown between good, evil, and the misused finally convenes.
In another step in his maturity as a writer, McCammon takes on theology, modern religion and prejudice and a character with grey motives and ideas.

McCammon does an excellent job in developing his protagonist and antagonist early. We learn that Billy Creekmore is a good person with nothing more than a desire to do what his right with the gift he’s been provided. Wayne Falconer is confused about his self-discovery because he feels ill-used and is unsure of himself. McCammon sets these two characters up to be used by a stronger power in his evil machinations.

However, that never quite develops. While McCammon does quite well at taking the respective boys on their Mystery Walks and letting them discover things about themselves, the shapeshifter’s nature and motivations are never revealed. We know not why he desires to manipulate these two boys. We don’t even know who he is.

It would have been easy for McCammon to make Christianity itself the tool of evil. It would have also been cheap. McCammon doesn’t do that. The goodness of Christianity McCammon sees can be found in Billy’s father. Billy and Romona’s powers are repugnant to him as a Christian. But he never quits loving them and never quits supporting them. He is a weak man at times. But his faith never devolves into a tool of evil.

Wayne Falconer’s doubt also shows that it was not Christianity itself McCammon was putting on trial in this novel. Wayne is riddled with doubt about the faith healing he is supposed to be doing. He questions in his own mind his dad’s hatred for the Creekmores.

Billy and Wayne are presented as adversaries throughout the book while they are leading separate lives. McCammon gives us sufficient information to know how this rivalry developed and was perpetuated. He also gave us enough information as to why the two ought to come together to fight the evil shape changer. Unfortunately, that evil being was just too much of an enigma with seemingly no motivation other than to be the evil thing to be fought. Greater development of the shapechanger would have made this a much better book.

Robert McCammon’s prose alone make this an enjoyable book to read. McCammon can write phrases, sentences and paragraphs that grab the reader. He writes words that inspire the reader to want to read more. He is a gifted writer.

But when all the words have been read and the story is done, the reader is left feeling that he read a good story, but a story that could have been better had he put forth just a little more effort in defining the evil menace of his story.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Girl in the Spider’s Web By David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web
By David Lagercrantz
Copyright 2015

It was believed by many that the Lisbeth Salander novels had died with their author, Stieg Larsson despite the fact that Larsson left behind an outline for a fourth novel. Eschewing Larsson’s outline, author David Lagercrantz took it upon himself to write a fourth installment.

Magazine publisher David Bloomqvist is up against it again. Falling readership may mean a corporate takeover of his magazine and his removal from the editorial board. He is provided an opportunity for his next major scoop when he is contacted by a computer hacker with a story about the country’s most well know computer genius, Franz Balder. Bloomqvist is initially not particularly excited about the story until he learns of Lisbeth Sander’s involvement.

Bloomqvist contacts Balder who is, in fact, desperate to talk about computer and corporate espionage and his latest project. As Bloomqvist is arriving at the Balder home, Balder is shot in the head by a would-be assassin and his laptop stolen. Balder’s autistic son, of whom he has just taken custody, is the only witness.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth Sander is at her old hobby of hacking. Desperately depressed, she is searching for someone from her past, leading her to an underground hacking group known as The Spiders. While toying with the Spiders, she hacks into an NSA computer, putting herself on their radar.

Balder’s son, Augustus, is placed in a private hospital where he is to receive therapy for his autism. Bloomqvist is in contact with his family and is eager to follow up on some remarkable drawings the child has made of the murder. Meanwhile, Balder’s assassin, having left a witness behind, is eager to snuff out the kid. As the boy is about to be transferred to another facility, an attempt is made on his life. But Salander, having learned of a the attempt on the boy’s life in advance, rescues him in the nick of time. She spirits him away and with Bloomqvuist's assistance, hides him from authorities, his family, and his enemies.

Bloomqvist digs deeper into Balder’s past associations and finds out that The Spiders were part of the team who stole Balder’s research into quantum intelligence. Also complicit in the espionage was the NSA.

As the NSA is investigating the intrusion into their most cryptic systems, their lead investigator is inexplicably pulled off the case. Angry, he takes vacation and travels to Sweden to pursue Salander. He meets Bloomqvist whom he hopes can put him in touch with her. He tells Bloomqvist that the name WASP keeps coming up in his investigation and he links it to The Avengers comic book series and the superhero, Janet Van Dyne who founded the Avengers and the Spider Society. Their arch enemy was the Sisterhood of the Wasp.

Salander is holed up with the boy in a remote cabin. She nurses a bullet wound and is intrigued by the child’s mathematical ability. She hopes that his factoring of prime numbers might be able to assist her in her computer hacking efforts to track down The Spiders.

One evening, while walking home, Bloomqvist is approached by an exceptionally attractive young woman who attempts to seduce him. He sees through the ruse and manages to ditch her. He then talks to Salander’s former guardian who recognizes the woman as Salander’s twin sister. The sisters did not get along well as youngsters and Salander’s sister often goaded other kids to torment Salander. Camilla noticed Salander’s love for The Avengers comics and styled herself and her friends after Janet Van Dyne’s nemesis, the the Spider Society. Camilla is the brains behind the Spiders.

Eventually, the assassins catch up with Salander and August and they are forced to flee. Bloomqvist, taking the NSA investigator to meet Salander, come upon the scene. Salander has disposed of the assassins. August has drawn a picture of the man who killed his father and it is used to convict him.

Salander helps the NSA secure their network and, with her own method and means, helps August’s mother out of an abusive relationship. The story of U.S. government partnership in industrial espionage and computer hacking restores Bloomqvist’s position in his own organization. Meanwhile, Camilla and The Spiders escape justice.

I’ll give Lagercrantz and A for plot. The story is exciting. It is fast paced and the action impeccably written to allow the mind’s eye to watch it unfold like a movie.

I also admire the amount of effort and research that must have gone into writing the story. His knowledge of artificial intelligence, corporate espionage, and computer hacking make the story much more enjoyable as he lays it out in non-technical terms that allow the layman to enjoy the story.

Where he fails – and fails miserably – is in his character development. First, he introduces all of his characters up front. In the early part of the book, the reader is introduced to so many new characters and so many government agencies it is difficult for even the most perceptive reader to keep track of who is who and who works for who.

Lagercrantz employs a middle school character development device with too many of his characters. After the first paragraph introducing them, he follows up with a physical description and a biographical sketch. They teach you in high school creative writing to show, not tell. Given his ability to plot and write action, one must assume that he was just being lazy.

Worst of all, he destroyed the existing characters of Michael Bloomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. What made these characters – and any really good characters – great was their flaws. Flaws in major characters reflect humanity. Characters without flaws are superheroes. Superheroes are fine for comic books. They represent poor writing in mainstream fiction.

Bloomqvist – whose chief flaw is his amoral pursuit of women – suddenly and inexplicably develops a conscience about such things. Salander, who is unable to control her temper and her actions when she loses her temper, is suddenly given to forgiveness and second chances when dealing with August’s abusive step-father. This change in modus operandi is not explained.

Perhaps most silly is the injection of superheroes into the story of Michael Bloomqvist and Lisbeth Salander. At the novels ending, the reader could not help but think that Lisbeth would be squaring off with her sister in each and every novel, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Lagercrantz was true to the vision of Steig Larsson in plotting this latest installment of Larsson’s anti-heroes. But in doing so, he destroyed the anti-heroes and made them superheroes. They have been reduced from action/adventure/espionage novels into comic books.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Dangerous Visions 1 Edited by Harlan Ellison

Dangerous Visions 1
Edited by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1967

Foreword 1: The Second Revolution by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov, one of the masters of sci-fi, describes the evolution of the genre. Before the 1940s, sci-fi was mostly westerns disguised with ships instead of horses and blasters instead of pistols. This changed, according to Asimov, under the leadership of John W. Campbell who edited Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. Campbell demanded that science and plot be ingredients of the story.

A second revolution came about in the 1960s after Sputnik was launched in 1958. This was led by author and editor Frederick Pohl who edited Galaxy Science Fiction. Under Pohl’s dominance of the genre, science fiction became edgier and more willing to engage in controversy, politics, and sex. It is from this new, edgier material that Harlan Ellison has drawn to create this volume while including some of the old masters like Fritz Leiber.

Foreword 2: Harlan and I by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov relates how he met Harlan Ellison at a WorldCon in 1959 when Asimov was already a legend within the genre and Ellison was an up and comer and how Ellison put Asimov in his place. Once Asimov got full revenge, the two became good friends.

Introduction: Thirty-Two Soothsayers by Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison introduces his book by stating that these stories are all new and most are authored by new and up and coming writers such as Samuel R. Delany. What each story has in common is it is edgy. It is dangerous. Many contain sex which was a taboo in the sci-fi literature of the day.

Ellison takes time to rage at both those who insist that science fiction isn’t really literature and those who point to bad science fiction (he cites Planet of the Apes) as an example of how science fiction can be literature. According to Ellison, sometimes a story can just be a story without a message or socially relevant subtext.

Evensong by Lester del Rey
A being flees from an interplanetary group called the Usurpers. They have detection traps laid on every planet. When the being arrives on the Usurpers’ home planet that they have abandoned, he thinks he may have escaped them. He is wrong.

Deep questions about man’s place in the universe and the cosmos explored in blissfully short, but meaningful style in what del Ray says is pure allegory. Short on plot, but thick with meaning. Great story.

Flies by Robert Silverberg
Aliens take the remnants of a man from a spaceship explosion and rebuild him. They give him the ability to feel the emotions of others and transmit them back to the aliens so they can study humanity. But they accidentLly remove from the man HIS humanity.

I’ve not read a great deal of Silverberg, so I don’t have a standard of comparison to his other work. I suspect many stories in this book are going to be dark and Silverberg’s story is dark and cold and the main character devoid of humanity.

The Day After the Day the Martians Came by Frederick Pohl
Reporters gather in a cheap hotel in Florida to cover the return of a Mars probe that is bringing back some Martians. The hotel manager is forced to listen as the reporters trade stupid jokes about the Martians.

Thin on plot, this story is a commentary on racial jokes and how any race or nationality can be inserted into the punchline to made fun of. Not so thinly veiled, the metaphor was painfully obvious and bludgeoned home with the subtlety of a ball peen hammer to the forehead.

Riders of the Purple Wage by Philip Jose Farmer
In a future where everybody is guaranteed a wage and the state manages the daily lives of the people, artists are kings and critics their agents. Chib is an artist who desperately needs to win an art show to receive a grant. If he does not receive the grant, he will be forced by the government to relocate. His great great grandfather, who is hiding in his apartment as a fugitive from justice, offers advice.

In the postscript, Farmer says this is an appeal for liberalism in politics and society. I saw it more as a pitch for conservatism. I wanted so much to like this story. But the stream of consciousness writing style was frustrating. I hate reading James Joyce and I hated reading this.

The Malley System
by Miriam Allen deFord
In the future, the most horrific criminals must relive their crimes over and over again on a daily basis as a means of therapy. The therapy is found to be effective with most criminals, but its founder meets an unfortunate end.

This story is brutal by sci-fi standards. Brilliantly written by an author who spent many years crossing over between sci-fi and crime, it works on a few different levels.

A Toy for Juliette by Robert Bloch
In a future world, A teenage girl is delivered toys in the form of people. She seduces them and then sadistically murders them. Grandfather is getting ready to deliver her latest toy and she waits with anticipation.

I’ve not read enough Robert Bloch for my taste because I really enjoy everything I read by him. This story reflects a beautiful mastery of a man who knows his craft. A little bit of sex, a little bit of violence, and a whole lot of anticipation make this story a joy to read.

The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World
by Harlan Ellison
Jack the Ripper, torn from his environment of London’s East End circa 1888, now exists in the world as it is in 3077. Having killed Juliette from the Bloch story, Jack becomes a surrogate for emotions for Juliette’s grandfather. He finds there is greater evil in the world than his own.

Bloch and Ellison together is hard to top. Bloch providing the inspiration and Ellison providing the prose that changes styles from Bloch to Robert Louis Stevenson to Lord Dunsany all in the same story. Splatterpunk before there was splatterpunk.

The Night that All Time Broke Out by Brian W. Aldiss
A couple living in the country has just had Time Gas lines installed in their house. This gas allows them to adjust their place in time to assure they are always in a happy time. However, there is a major leak somewhere which interrupts the flow. They investigate the source with tragic consequences.

Clever bit of writing on Aldiss’ part and a thoroughly enjoyable story. There is no particular dangerous vision here. Perhaps I’m just too far removed from the date of publication to ascertain what made this story cutting edge.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Robots of Dawn By Isaac Asimov

Robots of Dawn
Book Four of Robots
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1983

After a nearly 30 year hiatus, Isaac Asimov resumed writing his Robots novels and picked up the story of Plainclothesman Elijah Baley and his sidekick, Robot Daneel Olivaw.

Baley has returned to Earth from Solaria and, with his son, is learning to overcome his agoraphobia by spending time outside in Earth’s atmosphere. As he is practicing the fine art of gardening, a message arrives. He reports to his superior who tells him he has been summoned to the Spacer world of Aurora.

He learns that Daneel’s creator, Han Fastolfe, has been accused of destroying a robot, Jander Panell. Panell was a humanform robot identical to Daneel. Jander was destroyed by someone who was an expert with robots and Fastolfe is Aurora’s foremost expert. Baley is to clear Fastolfe’s name if at all possible.

It is important that Fastolfe be cleared because he leads a faction of spacers that favors allowing Earth to colonize other planets. This excites Baley because he is eager for the people of Earth, who are second class citizens in the galaxy, to branch out to new worlds of his own.

When he arrives on Auroroa, he finds his old friend, Gladia Delmare whom he first met as the widow of the murder victim on Solaria. She has immigrated to Aurora after finding Solaria’s culture of little, if any, human intervention too confining. While Fastolfe was Jander’s owner, he stayed with Gladia. Gladia reveals that she and Jander had a sexual relationship and that she regarded him as her husband which is a major violation of Auroran mores.

Baley, Daneel, and Robot Giskard Reventlov – a conventional robot owned by Fastolfe – travel to the Auroran Robotics Institute to talk to Fastolfe’s estranged daughter, Vasilia, who is an expert in robotics in her own right. Vasilia believes her father guilty, saying that he had the expertise and possibly the motive. Fastolfe was completely and totally dedicated to the creation and study of humanform robots – even to the point where he used his own daughter in his experiments.

Vasilia’s statement indicates another possible suspect in Santirix Gremionis, a hair dresser who works on the Robotics Institute grounds. Satirix was first infatuated with Vasilia. But, desiring him to leave her alone, Vasilia introduced him to Gladia to whom she bore a resemblance. Satirix developed an infatuation with Gladia and offered himself to her several times sexually and was rebuffed. Baley comes to believe that jealousy could be a strong motive.

After questioning Satirix, Baley comes to understand that he lacks the expertise in robots, but he is clearly infatuated with Gladia. He did not know of the sexual relationship.

Baley’s final interview of the day is Kelden Amadiro. Baley is not hopeful because, besides Fastolfe, Amadiro is the foremost expert in robotics on Aurora and not even he has the understanding of the humanform robot to have scrambled Jander’s brain the way he did.

Baley finds Amadiro to be exceptionally arrogant and condescending. Amadiro is the leader of the faction that would reserve new worlds to the spacers and confine inferior earthmen to their home planet. His aim is to create humanform robots to go ahead to new worlds and construct societies that are ready made for spacers to move into. But, so far, he has not created a humanform robot. Amadiro has motive to kill Jander. He would want to sabotage Fastolfe politically so that his movement would be discredited. He would want to discredit Fastolfe professionally as well.

Amadiro makes it clear that he resents the questions and resents Baley’s presence on Aurora. He plans to appeal to Aurora’s commissioner who oversees the government. He wants Baley’s investigation ended and Baley removed from the Aurora immediately. Still, Amadiro is eager for Baley, Daneel, and Giskard to tour his facility. Baley begs off and heads for home.

Enroute home, the vehicle in which the trio is traveling experiences mechanical failure and breaks down during a severe electrical storm. Giskard, who is piloting the vehicle, suspects it is sabotage. The storm out in the open causes Baley to have a panic attack. But it dawns on him the sabotage occurred at the institute and the reason for the sabotage was so Daneel – the world’s only remaining human form robot could be captured. He orders Giskard and Daneel to flee into the storm to avoid capture.

Baley wakes up in Gladia’s home, having been rescued by Giskard and Gladia. Daneel is safe within Gladia’s home as well. Baley recuperates and prepares for his confrontation with Amadiro before the planet’s commissioner.

The day after Baley’s recovery, the commissioner convenes a hearing to hear evidence in Amadiro’s claim of slander against Baley for implying and directly accusing him of being the saboteur and killer of the robot Jander. While the commissioner is disposed against Baley because Baley is an earthman, Baley is able to make his case against Amadiro. Fastolfe’s reputation is restored and Amadiro’s is damaged. The situation is hopeful for the future of earthmen’s expansion into space.

As Baley is preparing to leave, he is paid a visit by Giskard whom he has come to regard with almost as much affection as he has for Daneel. There has been a problem niggling at the back of Baley’s mind since his arrival on Aurora. After talking with Giskard, he learns that Giskard is telepathic and able to alter the thoughts of men and robots – albeit within the Three Laws of Robotics.

Baley bids goodbye to Gladia, telling her that she and Santirix Gremionis should marry and set a precedent and example for the people of Aurora to end the culture of sexual promiscuity and create a culture of mutual respect between marital partners.

Well, the difference in the cultures of when Asimov started the Robots series and when he resumed it is quite apparent. Sex is alluded to in the 1950s era stories and the allusion is quite veiled. In this 1983 story, Baley and Gladia have a quite unabashed discussion of sex, orgasms, sex toys, and sex positions. Such a thing would have been scandalous in the 1950s when the genre was enjoyed primarily by pre-adolescent and adolescent boys.

Another major difference which is most likely a product of a different decade is the length. With the young audience of the 1950s, science fiction books were much shorter. Also, given that Asimov was a working pulp writer when the first Robots novels were published, he wrote shorter stories out of habit. Pulp editors demanded lean prose because column inches were money. The quicker you moved your story along, the better

In the 1980s, Asimov was no longer operating under those culturally imposed restrictions. Readers of science fiction were older and more sophisticated. There was room allowed for solid character development, subplots, and descriptive passages.

As a mystery, This Robot book reads pretty much as all the others. One suspect after another is interviewed. There is one red herring and the reveal is made in a dramatic disclosure in a group setting. It is all pretty elementary stuff. The identity of the criminal was quite evident and secondary – perhaps by design. It was the mystery of Baley’s dream and Giskard’s relationship to it that was the big surprise.

As science fiction, it functions on a higher level. The robots as characters are developed more than ever before as is the relationship between Daneel and Baley. The plans for planetary expansion and the coming competition between Earth and her spacer rivals is developed and set up for the sequel, Robots and Empire. The Robots of Dawn is a much better science fiction novel than it is a mystery.

While I love Asimov as a writer and a highly creative person, I enjoy the shorter works more. Asimov was famous for his lean prose in his early days and I think it worked well for him. The early Robots novels and the early Foundation novels are more highly regarded than their later works. Writing taut, well paced stories is a challenge and Asimov rose to it like few could. While I enjoyed this book and am hoping to enjoy the sequel, I feel like something got lost in the intervening 30 years.