Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Haunted By Chuck Palahniuk

By Chuck Palahniuk
Copyright 2005

Guinea Pigs
A writer reveals how he and others were lured to what they believed to be a writers’ retreat only to become lab rats in a madman’s experiment.

A relatively short introduction that reveals just enough to portend suspense.

Chapter 1
A bus cruises around town and picks up participants for the writers’ conference. The driver is dubbed Saint Gut-Free because he’s so skinny despite a proclivity for junk food. There is a poem about Saint Gut-Free titled, Landmarks and a short story by Saint Gut-Free titled, Guts, which explains why he is so skinny despite his intake of food.

Guts is supposedly Palahniuk’s most famous story. I’m not real familiar with his work, so I’ll take the author’s word for it. I usually just skim poetry, not liking it much as a literary form. So, I’ll let other readers reach conclusions about that. However, I read Guts with intense interest. According to the author, people have passed out during live readings of Guts. It’s pretty graphic. However, if an author can make graphic and gross serve a purpose in an otherwise good story, more power to him. Palahniuk makes it work quite nicely and Guts was an entertaining read.

Chapter 2
More attendees of the workshop board the bus as it makes its way through town. One new passenger is Mother Nature.

Under Cover: A Poem About Mother Nature

This poem describes how Mother Nature tried to become a nun to lay low for an unknown reason. She, however, failed the aptitude test and the drug test.

Poems are poems and I don’t know how to evaluate poems. This one was easy to read and grasp the meaning of this untrained poem reader. So that’s a plus.

Foot Work
Mother Nature is a foot massager trained in the science of reflexology. She is barely making a living at it. She runs into an old friend from school who gets her into what amounts to foot massage prostitution. She makes good money. But she and her friend off their pimp and Mother Nature has to go on the lamb with the Russian mob hunting her.

This was another strange tale of sexual deviancy. Well told and well paced, the story was a delightful read. It is told in an odd, second person narrative, but Palahniuk makes it work.

Chapter 3
It is the residents’ first week at the retreat and they find the accommodations not to their liking. The building is dusty and moldy with windows bricked up. The food is all freeze-dried. They complain. Some ask to leave. Mr. Whittier says that they are using excuses – the same excuses that kept them from writing in the outside world. Miss America suspects she is pregnant and wants to see a doctor. Mr. Whittier will not relent.

Product Improvements: A Poem About Miss America
The poem describes Miss America as a commodity that she, herself, is trying to broker and sell. She constantly looks at herself to find what is wrong and improve it.

This poem is a bit more amateurish in my untrained opinion. The model as a commodity is an old, trite, metaphor. While it is true, Palahniuk could have been more creative in his use of it.

Green Room: A Short Story by Miss America
With a prompt from Mr. Whittier, Miss America composes a story about how she met her boyfriend. The fictional her is a pitch lady, selling an exercise machine she invented herself. She is touring the country, doing local television news programs. In the green room, she meets a man hawking investment programs. He gives her advice on how to be a successful pitch person and she falls in love with him.

The story is not exciting, but passable. I can state from having worked in the newsroom that not every person, position, and movement in a broadcast has a bit of lingo to describe it. I suspect that Palahniuk has over-researched his subject just a bit here.

Chapter 4
Miss America pulls the fire alarms in the building in an attempt to gain her release from the group. Mr. Whittier reminds the group of that legendary meeting of amateur writers that took place at Villa Diodati that led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. We learn that Lady Baglady is quite refined and cultured, belying her appearance.

The staccato pace of Palahniuk’s story narrative is starting to wear a little thin. The “this happened and this happened,” style of writing where events seemingly have no connection is effective when used sparingly. Otherwise, it is like an over-spiced meal.

Lady Baglady and her husband are wealthy socialites jetsetting to be seen at the most important fundraisers and most opulent settings. To cure the boredom of belonging to the leisure class, they take to the streets to pretend they are homeless. While huddling in a doorway, they witness the murder of a wealthy Brazilian socialite. Soon, Lady Baglady’s husband is murdered and homeless people across the city are being killed as the killers look for Lady Baglady to off the other witness.

This story was silly and the smashmouth subtext as pleasant as a punch in the face. It was painful to read.

Chapter 5
Mr. Whittier recounts for the group the account of the time that Mary Shelley spent with her friend, Lord Byron, and others at Villa Diodoti and how that time inspired not only Frankenstein, but the creation of the modern vampire in John Polidori’s book, The Vampyre. The narrator recounts how the group met at a coffee house after responding to a advertisement and how many – the smart ones – left the coffee house without signing up. However, Reverend Godless botched the wiring to the fire alarms with the help of the Missing Link and Countess Foresight stuck the tines of plastic forks in the locks. Most are not ready to leave. Lady Baglady finally breaks down and the man with the tape recorder constantly running – the Earl of Slander – is there to document the reactions of those present.

Swan Song
The Earl of Slander is a freelance journalist. One day his dog is poisoned and he must take it to the vet. He discovers that his vet is a former child star of a famous television show. He left Hollywood to go to college and care for animals. The Earl pitches an editor on the story. But the editor says people don’t want stories about former child stars who make good. They want stories about former child stars wallowing in misery and degradation. The Earl decides to make his story rather than just write it.

This was a much better story than Slumming. Plausible, it has no absurd metaphor or subtext. Well paced with believable characters, it works on every level. One might think it just a little too cynical in its depiction of journalists. But it’s not all that far removed from reality.

Chapter Six
Several of the residents vandalize the food they don’t like, dramatically reducing the overall amount of the food. Mr. Whittier eats too much turkey and has severe abdominal cramps and the narrator dreams of him dying in some dramatic fashion and how it will play out in the television miniseries he is contemplating. However, Mr. Whittier survives and is put to bed.

Dog Years
Brandon Whittier is a resident of a rest home. His body is old, shriveled, and nearly used up. Yet he listens to rap and rock and roll and enjoys video games. Though he has the body of an old man, he is quite young. He is the victim of a horrible genetic disease known as progeria. It causes the cells of the body to age nearly seven times faster, making old people out of young people. He tells a soccer mom nurse that he is 18 and doesn’t want to die a virgin. She takes sympathy and has sex with him. He then confesses that he is just 13 years old and blackmails her for cash lest he turn her in for rape of a minor. We learn that Brandon Whittier has done this over and over again.

Interesting how Palahniuk chose to approach the writing style of this story. There is no dialogue. The sentence structure is staccato, but much different than the staccato style I complained about earlier. In Dog Years, he makes frequent use of sentence fragments. At some points, he deliberately breaks sentences in half to make them fragments. But he makes it work. Palahniuk is a clever writer.

Chapter Seven
The writers in residence at the theater awaken to find their food rancid and spoiling. Mr. Whittier lays dying in his bed. The heat and hot water are out, due to the Duke of Vandals destroying the gas lines.

The Duke of Vandals is convicted of defacing public property after he affixes a mailing label with his artwork painted on it to a public wall. He is not making much money and is bitter about other artists who have achieved great fame. He is offered an opportunity for promotion and showing at first class art galleries. All he has to do is kill another artist who is devaluing the value of his work by flooding the market. Soon, he becomes a tool for art investors who want to increase the value of their holdings.

The story narrative was much better than the short story which had no major flaws, but was not particularly engaging or interesting.

Chapter 8
Mrs. Clark waxes philosophic on the youthful desire for disaster to slow down life.

Post Production
Tess Clark and her husband shoot a porno movie of themselves, convinced that they will sell it on the Internet and get rich. They want to finance a child. It all goes wrong when they see themselves on camera.

This story lacked any real depth or analysis besides banal philosophizing. Why were they so appalled by their own images on the video screen? We get a little foreshadowing of the Tess Clark character in that we find out the daughter they were working to have will die tragically.

Chapter 9
The Theater residents begin to cut off fingers and toes and feeding them to the cat. The reasoning is, the more scarred a person is, the more prominently they will be portrayed in the drama that is surely to be written about them after they gain their release.

Director Denial is a social worker in a police precinct. Her secretary is responsible for ordering supplies for the precinct. When two anatomically correct sex dolls of children are mistakenly ordered, the detectives in the precinct start using the dolls to pleasure themselves. Cora takes upon herself to save the children from them.

This story is confusing in that it is hard to separate Cora Marshall from Director Denial. It is also rather offensive to detectives to assume that they’d all be perverts. But it was told and well paced.

Chapter 10
The residents plan to move Mr. Whittier’s body to the cellar. They also try to dispose of the spoiling food by flushing it down the toilet. When the toilets clog, they lose one more fixture of civilization. The spoiled food begins to take on an aroma.

Reverend Godless is a former military man now working as a drag queen. Part of his schtick is to allow people to punch him in exchange for money. He and his friends are raising money for a holy war – against religion.

This was a limp, lifeless, useless story that didn’t even have the endearing quality of silliness.

Chapter 11
The residents begin to collect lightbulbs from an artificial tree.

Matchmaker falls for a woman who decides she wants a better looking man with a larger penis. He hires a male prostitute to woo her and eventually dump her. He then reenters her life, hoping to catch her on the rebound.

Like all of the stories in this volume, there is a high degree of absurdity. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes it does not. It does not in this story.

Chapter 12
The residents find the Duke of Vandals murdered. His head is crushed and his hands are clutching the exercise machine promoted by Miss America. The residents accuse Tess Clark of the murder. They also realize that one partner with whom they would have to share the royalties of their story has been eliminated.

The Nightmare Box

Tess Clark’s daughter, Cassandra shaves off her eyebrows and packs a suitcase. She then sits naked in the living room, semi-catatonic. Clark recounts how her daughter attended a gallery opening and looked into a mysterious box dubbed the Nightmare Box. It had destroyed the lives of others before, and now apparently has destroyed Cassandra’s mind as she disappears from the apartment where she lives.

This is the best story, by far, in this book so far. This story actually made for compelling reading. I was intrigued by the mysterious box and what it revealed. This is the sort of story I expected from a writer of Palahniuk’s reputation.

Chapter 13

When the toilet, furnace, and other amenities start working again, the residents vandalize them to make their story more dramatic. Director Denial cuts off all of her toes and half of her fingers to ramp up the drama.

Civil Twilight
Sister Vigilante moves about the night of the city, using a bowling ball to kill people at random? Her reasoning? Crime goes down when a serial killer is on the loose. She’s doing her civic duty.

This story, like the last one, is dark without being silly. It is a bit abstract which makes the reader pay close attention to the prose. Another worthy entry in this collection.

Chapter 14
Comrade Snarky is dead. She apparently died of natural causes. Chef Assassin warms up his carving knives and goes to work carving the choice cuts from her body for the residents to dine on.

Product Placement

Chef Assassin writes a letter to the president of a knife company, praising them for their superior product. He uses them for cooking and for carving up unfriendly food critics. He promises not to reveal that he uses their product to kill in exchange for a large cash bribe. He awaits their reply.

A short short story. Nonetheless, it works with a nice twist coming at the end.

Chapter 15
The residents microwave and eat Cora the Cat.

Agent Tattletale is committing insurance fraud, faking a severe injury, when he is nearly caught by a private investigator. He kills the private investigator and enrolls in a correspondence course to become a private investigator himself to spy on other people who are faking disabilities.

This story works because it is plausible. Private investigators are often employed to find people faking disability claims.

Chapter 16
Miss America apologizes for killing the cat. She is afraid that she has contracted a bacterial infection from the cat scratches. Her water breaks and she heads for her room.

The Missing Link is a Chewlah Indian out on a date with a graduate student who is doing her dissertation on sasquatches and associated phenomena. She believes that a recent plane crash was caused by a 13 year old Chewlah Indian girl who transformed – as if a werewolf – aboard the plane and caused the crash. She relates her theory to Missing Link who tells her the girl in question was his sister.

I like this story and it is a worthy entry into the lore of the werewolf. Palahniuk weaves the sasquatch legend the werewolf legend together quite nicely. If it’s been done before, I’ve never read it.

Chapter 18
Mrs. Clark comforts Miss America as she goes into labor. She tells Miss America that being a mother is an important role, but is painful. Miss Clark goes on to tell Miss America that her daughter, Cassandra was at one of Mr. Whittier’s writer retreats when she disappeared.

Poster Child
The missing Cassandra is found wandering naked along a highway. She has missing digits and has been sodomized with a piece of wood. She will not tell her mother or police about her attackers. She said she mutilated herself.

This story lacked the poignancy it could have had. It lacked the punch it could have had. The story lacked.

Chapter 19
Miss America’s labor continues and the Countess Foresight presides as midwife. Miss America is afraid Countess Foresight is going to take her baby. Chef Assassin prepares to cook another meal of the freshest meat.

Something’s Got to Give

The Countess Foresight has the gift of touching objects and knowing the truth about the object’s history. She enters an antique shop where she finds what might be a really incredible relic – the preserved fetus of Marilyn Monroe’s miscarriage. She finds it’s a fake and murders the shopkeeper. Many years later, she is on parole with an ankle bracelet attached to her.

This story was graphic and ugly – both the story narrative portion and the short story. Palahniuk achieves a high level of creepiness with his use of implied gore.

Chapter 20
Miss America’s baby is dead and is eaten. The residents inform Miss America they are keeping her alive to be the next course.

Hot Potting
Miss Leroy is a bartender at a second rate lodge in ski country where hot springs and geysers are common. Also common is people being boiled alive when they accidently stumble into these hot springs. One night, Miss Leroy hears a coworker screaming outside. She goes out into a snowstorm to find him nearly boiled alive. She sits with him in that snowstorm as he slowly dies. She develops frostbite that causes her to lose her lips.

The graphic telling of this tale works well once again. It is grueling, yet compelling and a little scientific explanation makes it even better.

Chapter 21
Miss America has died, having bled out. Mrs. Clark completes the sad tale of her daughter.

Tess Clark’s daughter no longer really functions after having returned. Tess decides it’s time to end Cassandra’s life rather than let her go on living her pained existence.

Read like the conclusion of a longer story – which it was. It was not a complete story.

Chapter 22
Miss America is dead and is eaten. Tess Clark is dead, having been murdered in her room. The Matchmaker cuts off his penis and promptly bleeds to death. The Missing Link tries to eat it and chokes to death. The residents believe they hear potential rescuers working on the lock.

Evil Spirits

Miss Sneezy is an inmate in a government operated hospital for people who are highly infectious – but unafflicted – with deadly diseases. They are a threat to all who come into contact with them. She’s a 22 year old virgin and a new resident is being brought in who is reputed to be a well endowed male. She contemplates losing her virginity and perhaps getting pregnant.

The story narrative was just over-the-top nonsense to offend the senses while adding nothing to what little story there is in this collection of stories supposedly adding up to a story. Evil Spirits, however, has a great deal of charm. I wish there had been more of it and it had gone farther.

Chapter 23
Mr. Whittier returns to tell the residents that he faked his death and has been watching them all with hidden cameras. He says this group behaved much the way the previous group had, falling in love with their pain and embracing it. He tells Miss Sneezy that, if she wants to be loved, he will love her. He tells the residents that the door is unlocked and they are free to go.

Venus is Heaven. That riff on the title of the Ray Bradbury classic describes Mr. Whittier’s story of what happens after a manned space exploration discovers dead souls on Venus living the party life. A family piles into their car parked in the garage and turns on the motor, waiting to die. Dying – or Emigrating – is encouraged by the government to kill off the human race so that no souls are called back and they can all live the party life through eternity.

The narrative story was an unimaginative climax. The short story was brilliant! Shades of Logan’s Run, The Martian Chronicles, and I am Legend are mixed in to make the story creepy with the tongue brushing ever so lightly against the cheek.

Chapter 24
Mr. Whittier and Miss Sneezy depart the theater. Angry that their odyssey is over and not enough people have died, Mother Nature attacks Miss Sneezy outside the theater with a knife and kills her. With Mr. Whittier outside, protesting, she and St. Gut Free lock the door and jam the knife into it. The residents ponder how their story will be written.

This was my first experience with Palahniuk and it was awful! I realize I was reading something that was a bit experimental, so I will not let it dissuade me from reading Palahniuk in the future.

This book features so much gratuitous gore that I’m surprised blood did not flow from the pages. Sometimes, it was employed effectively such as in Guts. In other places, it was beyond gratuitous and was used perhaps to distract the reader from the fact that the story – especially the main story – lacked any real depth.

Many of the short stories were quite entertaining and engaging. But Slumming was the most foolish piece of drivel I’ve read since I quit reading newspaper comics. It was almost bad enough to stop me from finishing the book.

The mains story was pretentious and pointless. These people were supposed to be writers. I guess Palahniuk made them writers because they had to be something. Nothing in the story had anything to do about the suffering of the artist or writer, which I assumed was going to be the prevailing theme. Instead, there was no prevailing theme.

Characters were assigned a motivation that belied any semblance of reality. The self-mutilation, cannibalism, and violence were all vain attempts to disgust the reader. Palahniuk’s use of them were like the maker of a teen thriller putting in gotcha scene after gotcha scene. I expected much better from Chuck Palahniuk.

If you are a Palahniuk fan, read Haunting if you must. If you’re not a fan, avoid it at all costs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Stinger By Robert R. McCammon

By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1988

Inferno, Texas is a western Texas town on hard times and nearly dead. The copper mine has played out and people are leaving. The remaining inhabitants, already isolated by geography, are going to find themselves cut off from the rest of the world.

A small spaceship crashes in Inferno and its lone occupant takes possession of the body of a six year old girl. Little Stevie Hammond is now Daufin, an alien fugitive from a faraway planet.

Shortly after Daufin’s arrival, another ship arrives. It lands at a large automotive chop shop at the edge of town. Daufin tells the Hammonds and the military men who have arrived in Inferno that the ship is inhabited by Stinger, a bounty hunter from space pursuing her.

One night, a riot breaks out at a local arcade when the white gang and the Hispanic gang who war constantly in Inferno decide to fight. Stinger makes his presence known, destroying many of the buildings and houses in Inferno. He starts taking possession of many of the town’s inhabitants, asking about Daufin’s location. To keep his quarry from fleeing, Stinger places a force field around the town.

Daufin tells the people of Inferno that Stinger will take her and he and his race will return to take over Earth and imprison its residents. As various creatures move through Inferno, killing and destroying in pursuit of his quarry, Daufin, joined by Stevie’s parents, an Air Force Colonel, and the town drunk, use Stinger’s own underground tunnels to make their way to his ship where he controls his minions. Meanwhile, the leaders of the two warring gangs join forces to see to the safety of the town’s residents.

After capturing a couple Inferno residents, Stinger decides to return to his home planet with them as his bounty instead, promising to return to take over the planet. Daufin and her group race against time to get to the ship and destroy Stinger so that Daufin can return Stevie Hammond’s body to her and use the ship to get home.

I’ve seen it written in a couple reviews that the story contained in Stinger is very much like a B-movie. I wholeheartedly concur with this analysis. It has the charm of a B-movie with stereotypical – yet endearing characters. It has the simple, moralistic story of a B-movie. It has space aliens and the race against time to save humanity. The only thing missing is the grainy photography and the horrible audio.

The characters in Stinger are indeed one dimensional and each fits the stereotype of the roll they are supposed to play. The town drunk is a tragic figure who finds redemption. The gang leaders are actually intelligent, caring individuals who play the roles society has dictated for them. The Air Force Colonel is efficient and a natural leader. The sheriff is a fat coward. There is not one character in Stinger that is remarkable or outside the norm.

The plot is just as straight forward as one would expect from an 1:15 minute movie. There is the subplot of the gang rivalry and McCammon feints at other subplots such as the old widow whose husband has hidden a fortune somewhere in the town, the sinister chop shop owner who dominates the local economy, and a few others. But none are really developed and are woven in only to introduce peripheral characters.

With one dimensional characters and a one dimensional story, Stinger is still a charming novel. How? McCammon is a great storyteller. While coming in at almost 600 pages, it certainly could have been shorter. But McCammon keeps the action moving and, with the whole story unfolding over a 24 hour period, there are just a few slow moments. It moves just like a B-grade, 1950s sci-fi flick.

My chief criticism of Stinger is, McCammon did not take full advantage of the force field and the feeling of claustrophobia – than feeling of isolation – that is so effectively employed by great horror writers. Yes, the force field is there and McCammon provides a wonderful description of it. There is some action involving the force field when it first arrives. But McCammon never really uses it to create a mood of confinement. This would have added another dimension to the novel.

This was my first reading of Stinger since Stephen King published Under the Dome. McCammon is often compared to King – sometimes unfairly – by reviewers including me. When reviewing McCammon, the reviewer will often look to a comparable King work for comparison. In this instance, McCammon was first, but King did it better. King uses his dome to create that feeling of isolation and confinement. That is the prevailing theme in Under the Dome. I wish McCammon had given us just a little more of this mood.

Stinger is what I call a Gummy Bear novel. There’s not much there that is intellectually nutritious and you certainly would not want to confine yourself to a steady diet of books Like Stinger. But, every once in a while, when you find a tasty one, there’s no sin in indulging your literary sweet tooth and enjoying it for what it is. Stinger is a fun book.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power
By Robert Caro
Copyright 2012

Robert Caro’s most excellent biography of Lyndon Johnson moves forward with volume four of what is expected to be a five volume series. In The Passage of Power, Caro examines Johnson’s vice presidential years and his advancement to the ultimate office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Before he was elected vice president, Johnson aspired to be president. But he was hesitant to seek the office, perhaps fearing loss and humiliation. When he entered the race for delegates, he was too late and he miscalculated. He relied on senators who he thought could control their states’ delegations. Kennedy relied on governors who actually exercised more influence.

When they went to the convention in 1960, Johnson was way behind in declared delegates, but still in position to challenge Kennedy. But Kennedy’s money, stellar organization, and natural charm won out. Much to the consternation of brother Bobby Kennedy, JFK asked Johnson to be his running mate. The move was less about uniting the party and more about winning the south, especially delegate-rich Texas.

Johnson campaigned almost exclusively in the South. It was during the campaign that Kennedy’s team of Harvard-educated advisors started making fun of Johnson and his lack of education and sophistication. “Cornpone” was the nickname the assigned to him. The nickname would stick through the Kennedy administration.

It was Johnson’s knack for “finding” votes that secured Texas for Kennedy and along with “found” votes in Illinois, this secured the election for Kennedy and Johnson. If Johnson was hoping for some significant role in the Kennedy administration, he was to be disappointed.

Kennedy kept Johnson at arm’s length. According to Caro, this was to keep Johnson from consolidating power. Caro has noted through his biography Johnson’s ability to find power where others can’t or don’t. The astute Kennedy was aware of this ability. Many thought that Johnson may have been helpful in advancing legislation given his knack for advancing the legislative process. But Kennedy feared that Johnson would be able to control the Kennedy legislative agenda. Kennedy would not even accept advice from Johnson.

Caro details wonderfully the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy response to it. Kennedy’s advisors were split among hawks and those who wanted a more measured approach. Early on, Johnson was part of the debate and came down on the side of the hawks. But Bobby saw to it that Johnson was marginalized and eventually shut out of the debate.

Caro also details meticulously the relationship between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. This was a relationship of mutual hatred. Johnson had made some negative remarks about Joe Kennedy during the campaign and Bobby – ever loyal to family – never forgot. As one Kennedy loyalist was to say, “When Bobby Kennedy hated you, you stayed hated.” Johnson made a few efforts at reconciliation, but Bobby wasn’t having it. Bobby openly demonstrated his contempt for Johnson in cabinet meetings and in remarks to associates.

As Johnson became more and more marginalized, he became sullen and withdrawn. Reporters who once sought him out for insight into beltway shenanigans no longer called. At cabinet meetings, he seldom offered opinions or advice. He was a miserable man, stripped of power and trappings.

Of course, all of that changed on November 22, 1963. Caro again shows his brilliant writing chops as he describes the drama and trauma of those events and the days that followed. The Johnsons accompanied the Kennedys to the hospital after the shooting. Johnson was squirreled away in a small conference room with just a couple aides when he found out that Kennedy had died and he was the new president.

Caro provides blow by blow, vivid descriptions of what went on aboard Air Force One immediately following the assassination. Johnson, now in full control, orchestrating his swearing in, insisting that it happen there and now to assure continuity of government. As they took off, Johnson pleaded with Kennedy men to stay on with the new administration to help that continuity. While he got no hard commitments, most eventually did stay on.

Back In DC, Johnson set up his temporary headquarters in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House with just limited space. It should have been chaos, but the old Lyndon Johnson, who was always so firmly in control when crisis hit, managed his team and saw to it that the transition of power went smoothly. One cannot help but admire him for the job he did in those frightening days following the assassination.

Johnson prepared to address Congress. He knew John Kennedy was now a martyr for the causes he supported and Johnson was determined to see them through while putting his own stamp on the presidency. His address is perhaps one of the finest ever delivered by a president in the House chamber. His words were reassuring. His determination strong. His reverence of JFK immense. The nation and the world was much more confident after Johnson’s address.

Johnson and his team went right to work on advancing the two key pieces of the Kennedy legislative agenda. Those were cuts in corporate tax rates to spur economic growth and a civil rights bill with much more substance than any passed previously. Those old skills as a legislator were still there and Johnson went right to work on advising Congress how to get them dislodged from committee and on the floor of the Senate in the right order to assure a chance at passage.

His adversary early on was the venerable Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia who was holding up the tax bill. A budget hawk, Byrd insisted on a federal budget of less than $100 billion. The proposed budget put forward by Kennedy was $104 billion. Johnson agreed to Byrd’s demands and Byrd responded by moving the tax bill forward.

In the House, the civil rights bill was held up in the Rules Committee. Speaker John McCormack was unable to force its release. Johnson organized a coalition of liberal Democrats and Midwestern Republicans to start a discharge petition that would overrule the Rules Committee chairman. Rather than face the humiliation of being overruled, the Rules Committee sent the bill to the full House.

The book ends as the fight for these two bills is about to commence in the full bodies of Congress. Johnson is enjoying remarkably high approval ratings. He is calm, confident, and happy. The Republicans are about to nominate the abrasive Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as their standard bearer in 1964. Johnson is confident that he will secure the nomination, but the specter of Bobby Kennedy is still out there, perhaps waiting to steal it from him.

What is remarkable about this book is the transformation of Caro from a Johnson detractor into a Johnson admirer. Through the first three volumes of the series, Caro points out Johnson’s pettiness, arrogance, abusiveness, and overall hubris. That is absent in this volume. Here, Caro has nothing but praise for Johnson and his conduct.

While many dismiss a five volume work on the life of Lyndon Johnson as perhaps overkill – boring overkill, they are really missing out. While Caro chronicles the ups and downs of Johnson’s life and career, he also brings to life decades of American political history and drama. There is nothing dull about the story of this president whom history has yet to render its final verdict. He and Richard Nixon were the two most involved men in the postwar era of governance with their entire lives intertwined with that of the nation.

One point of historical contention that Caro addresses is the possible involvement of Lyndon Johnson in Kennedy’s assassination. Several historians are marginal ability have put forth this theory. With this biography establishing Caro as the foremost authority on the life of Lyndon Johnson, when he says he can find no evidence of such conspiracy, we can take it as accepted fact.

The Passage of Power
is the result of meticulous research by one of the world’s most adept historians. It is the product of an historian who also has a flare for the dramatic in bringing the drama of world events to life. While one might criticize Caro for getting just a little too bogged down in legislative machinations, one cannot dismiss his narrative voice which resembles that of a gifted storyteller. The Passage of Power is one of the best presidential biographies you’ll ever read.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Dark Force Rising By Timothy Zahn

Dark Force Rising
By Timothy Zahn
Copyright 1992

Timothy Zahn’s 1991 Star Wars sequel, Heir to the Empire was a huge hit at a time when Star Wars nostalgia was not yet vogue. He followed up in 1992 with the sequel, Dark Force Rising and picked up right where the previous book left off.

As Heir to the Empire closed, Admiral Ackbar was under arrest for treason. Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando spread out across the galaxy to find evidence to exonerate him. First, Leia decides to undertake a diplomatic mission to Honoghr to meet with the Noghri who have pledged their allegiance to the Empire because of the earlier aid of Darth Vader when their planet was devastated.

Meanwhile, smuggler Talon Karrde has learned the location of the legendary Katana Fleet – a fleet of more than 200 dreadnought ships created by the Old Republic and lost when the crew was infected with a disease that drove them insane. The fleet, which is highly automated through a central control ship, is a valuable prize sought by both the Empire and the Alliance and could tilt the balance of power if found.

Han and Lando learn of the Katana fleet when they encounter Senator Bel Ilbis, a former Old Republic official who split from the Rebel Alliance after disagreements with Mon Mothma and has been waging his own independent war against the Empire. He is flying three of the dreadnoughts. Han, Lando, and Ben Ilbis’s people set out to capture the Katana fleet.

Mara Jade is captured by Admiral Thrawn who is also seeking the Katana fleet. She presents herself as the Emperor’s Hand and a loyal member of the Empire. Thrawn enlists her to meet with Talon Karrde and ascertain the location of the Katana fleet. She finds Karrde, but Thrawn betrays her and takes Karrde prisoner. He learns the location of the Katana fleet and sets out to get there before the Alliance.

Luke goes to Jomark to meet with the Jedi Master, Joruus C’baoth. C’baoth wants to train Luke and is eager to bring Leia and her unborn twins to Jomark as well. Luke becomes C’baoth’s pupil, but finds the old Jedi master full of darkness and prone to treating people harshly. While Luke is training, Mara Jade arrives to plead for Luke’s help in rescuing Talon Karrde from Admiral Thrawn. C’baoth tries to keep them both there, but Luke and Mara effect escape.

Leia and Chewbacca are pinned down on Honoghr when Thrawn shows up looking for her to turn her over to C’baoth in exchange for his assistance. She learns that the droids assigned to restore the planet’s environment are making little progress and are actually spying on the Noghri. When Thrawn departs, she and Chewbacca are allowed to leave, but there are no promises of future diplomatic relations. She returns to Coruscant to fight on behalf of Admiral Ackbar.

Luke and Mara are able to effect Karrde’s escape from the Imperial star destroyer and the three head for the Katana fleet. On Coruscant, Leia debates Ackbar’s political nemesis, Counselor Fey’lya who tries to downplay the importance of capturing the Katana fleet. When Leia heads an independent mission and takes off for the Katana coordinates, Fey’lya leads a competing mission.

Han and Lando, with Bel Ilbis, are also heading to the Katana fleet. All of the groups arrive nearly at the same time. Luke, Lando, and Han are aboard the Katana flagship and find it deserted except for maintenance droids. When the Imperials arrive, they board the ship and a shootout ensues.

Leia and Fey’lya arrive and Fey’lya orders Luke, Han, Mara, and Lando placed under arrest. When Leia protests, he pulls a blaster on her and orders her arrest as well. Meanwhile, the Empire is deploying its fighters to engage the rebels and take the fleet. Leia is able to expose Fey’lya as a traitor and unite Bel Ilbis’s rebels with the alliance. But it is too late. Thrawn makes off with all but 15 of the dreadnoughts.

Mara Jade is nearly killed in the battle, but ejects from her ship at the last second. Luke and Han, still aboard the flagship, note with dread that all of the Imperial troops are the same person. Admiral Thrawn has located and used the Emperor’s cloning device and is building an army and crew to man his new ships.

Having dispensed with the need to deploy every tagline, catch phrase, and clever gimmick from the original moves, Zahn moves forward with what amounts to a pretty good piece of militaristic science fiction in Dark Force Rising.

Unlike Heir to the Empire, Zahn is able to stay true to the characters established and developed by George Lucas without using those trite catch phrases that made portions of Heir to the Empire a bore to read. Each main character acts as you would expect them too while undergoing further development at Zahn’s hand. While it is less important now with three prequels and a sequel out, in the mid-1990s, it was heartening to see these old friends again and watch them become deeper and richer.

New characters also undergo further development. Karrde comes across much less shrewd and much more wise. Mara Jade, who sometimes appeared to be a caricature of hatred in the first book, is revealed as much more emotionally complex and smarter than she appeared earlier. The major new edition in this book, Senator Bel Ilbis, promises to be an interesting character as well as it looks as if he will be a major player in book three.

The book evolves much as the movies did. Characters are constantly on the move from place to place. Luck – or the Force depending on your point of view – plays a major part in their success. There is quite a bit of ex deus machina, but we’re not talking about Bradbury or Asimov here. It is space opera in the tradition of the Saturday matinee with lucky breaks and cliffhangers abound.

The major drawback – or attraction if you are so inclined – is The Thrawn Trilogy and Star Wars in general is science fiction junk food. There is nothing intellectually nourishing here. The language is simple. While there are many subplots, there are few twists or hidden motivations. In other words, its true to George Lucas’s vision.

Zahn’s vision of the post-rebellion galaxy comes to a head in book three titled, The Last Command. Admiral Thrawn, with his new fleet and clone crew, will launch what he hopes will be the decisive offensive in his effort to wipe out the nascent New Republic.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shock III By Richard Matheson

Shock III
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 1966

Girl of My Dreams
An extortionist uses his girlfriend’s precognition to extort money from the loved ones of people who are going to die. For the right sum, the man will provide the time and location of the accident so it can be avoided. But the man is getting tired of the weepy girl and is going to make a break from her after one last job.

Typical Matheson prose – tight and taut. Does anybody know better than Matheson how to pace a story and develop a character with fewer words? I love the guy!

‘Tis the Season to be Jelly

A family contemplates and discusses the marriage of one of their own in a world where their bodies are breaking down and deteriorating because of nuclear fallout.

This story was lackluster. Sometimes, writing phonetically and in a hillbilly patois is effective. Matheson misses the mark in this attempt – and misses it badly.

A scientist travels ahead in time 500 years in a time machine, promising his wife he will return in time for dinner. When he gets there, he is told he is of that time and cannot return. But his wife can be brought forward for a limited time. He struggles to return anyway.

This is the kind of story that makes me love science fiction. No fancy literary props. No hidden message or subtext. Just a well told story full of action and emotion. Matheson is the king!

The Jazz Machine
A black jazz musician learns that a white guy in his audience has developed a machine that can take the music of a jazz musician and put words to describe the emotions behind it. The musician is disturbed and appalled.

I liked the clipped narrative and dialogue in this story. It was way too heavy on the phonetic dialogue for my tastes. Matheson’s love of jazz is clearly reflected in this story.

The Disinheritors
A married couple drives off into the woods to have a picnic. After a large meal, she wants to walk. He wants to take a nap. She wanders off and finds herself living out the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Part of her disbelieves she is actually living a fairy tale. Another part of her seems to be ordering her to live the fairy tale.

This story had the feel of a young reader story. It was told like a story teller would tell a story to children – without dialogue and a steady rhythm of “this happened, then this happened, then she thought this.” The twist had a childlike feel and the last sentence was the capper that screamed for ages eight and up.

Slaughter House
A pair of fussy brothers move into a house haunted by the evil spirit of the former resident whose picture hangs over the mantle. Each in his own turn falls for the lusty succubus and turns on the other. The story is revealed through a manuscript mailed to a newspaper.

It’s interesting how Matheson can take all the worn out haunted house tropes and weave them into a story that is interesting and compelling reading. The main characters are brothers, but one can’t help but feel the homosexual overtones in the narrative. The two brothers react to each other’s feelings and emotions like lovers.

Shock Wave
A church organist tries to convince the lay leader that something is wrong with their immense pipe organ. It seems the organ does not want to be replaced and when it goes, it intends to take a few people with it.

How can you not love a haunted organ story? It’s not as tongue in cheek as the description might make it seem.

When the Walker Sleeps
A space hero must defeat aliens who threaten his planet’s power supply and defend a young, pretty nurse who is to see to his health.

Sound like a science fiction cliché? It is supposed to be. Matheson twists it in the end quite effectively. Most of the story is told in a second person narrative, which can make reading it difficult and the prose unwieldy. Again, all is revealed in the twist.

Witch War
Pre-adolescent girls with the powers of telekinesis are deployed as weapons in a war. They engage the enemy with no sense of right or wrong, sympathy, or empathy.

Today, the story would be considered sexist given the stereotypical dialogue employed by Matheson for the young girls. Perhaps it was social commentary on the amorality of teenagers or perhaps just teenage girls. It was a creepy story given the helplessness of the targets.

First Anniversary
As he celebrates his first anniversary with his wife, a man loses the ability to smell and taste his wife. He is perplexed, frightened, and sad. He sees a doctor who tries to help him psychologically. But one evening at home, he discovers the truth while still trying to convince himself that the problem lies within himself.

This story was not as risqué as it might sound in my summary and has the creepy ending that would have made it suitable juvenilia or comic book fare.

Miss Stardust
A public relations man is brought on board to promote a beauty contest that advertises itself as crowning the most beautiful woman in the universe. But when aliens arrive from other planets demanding their women be exhibited and judged, the whole event becomes complicated.

I am never too pleased when Matheson tries to engage in dark humor. It usually doesn’t work for me and falls flat. In this case, the trope is long worn out and probably was when Matheson wrote this story back in the 1950s. The humor might have worked if his descriptions of his various aliens weren’t so silly.

Full Circle
A newspaper writer is dispatched to attend and review a play put on by Martian performers. As he watches the show, the reporter is intrigued with the actor who plays Rip Van Winkle. He goes backstage to meet him and finds a man full of bitterness and anger at what Earth people have done to his planet and his race.

This story’s subtext was paper thin and time has dated its subversive intent and social commentary. Still, Matheson does capture the raw emotion American blacks must have felt – particularly entertainers – at being good enough to entertain white audiences and not good enough to be societal equals with whites.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
A man riding in a plane notices a creature on the wing determined to damage the aircraft’s engines. He alerts the stewardess, to no avail. The creature hides from everyone but him. Wilson is desperate to alert someone – anyone – as to the creature and the danger he presents.

I’ve always loved the Twilight Zone episode based on this story. Frankly, I enjoy it just a little more than the short story itself. Perhaps that is because I’ve seen the show so many times, any anticipation of the climax has been diminished.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Robots and Empire By Isaac Asimov

Robots and Empire
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1985

Thirty years after embarking upon of the series of books that would define him as one of the grand masters of science fiction, Isaac Asimov completed the Robots series with Robots and Empire. He linked the worlds of R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Rentelov to that of Hari Seldon, the master of the world that will become the basis for his Foundation series.

In writing this bridge novel, he also wrote the finest book in a fantastic series which embodies so much of what makes good science fiction.

It has been 200 years since Elijah Baley died and Earth has since used his example to spread their population beyond Earth to other planets. The “Settlers” have expanded in the universe while the Spacers have become sedentary.

Still living after all these decades is Gladia Delmarre, native of the Spacer world, Solaria and resident of Aurora who was briefly Bailey’s lover. She is still accompanied by robots R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov. Gladia is visited one afternoon by Daneel Giskard Baley, a descendant of Elijah Baley. He informs her that her former home planet of Solaria has mysteriously been abandoned. But somebody or something has been destroying Settler ships that have attempted landing there. Baley wants Gladia to accompany him to Solaria to investigate.

Also still living is Baley’s old nemesis, Kelden Amadiro, who still hates Earth people with a passion. He takes on a new apprentice, Levular Mandamus, who is a descendent of Elijah Baley and Gladia. Together, they aspire to manipulate the Three Laws of Robotics and robots themselves to destroy Earth.

Traveling to Solaria, they find it abandoned save for some robots who are inclined to kill D.G. and his crew. Only Daneel’s intervention saves them. Puzzled as to how and why robots would want to kill humans, D.G., Gladia, and the robots return to Aurora.

While on Aurora, an attempt is made to abduct Daneel by Vasilia Aliena, roboticist and daughter of Daneel’s creator, the late Dr. Hans Fastoff. Daneel uses his telepathy to thwart the attack and the whole group takes off in D.G.’s spaceship. They travel to D.G.’s home planet and later Earth and Gladia emerges as a leader of a movement to prevent war between Spacers and Settlers.

Meanwhile, Mandamus and Amadiro travel to Earth to destroy it and precipitate a war between Settlers and Spacers. They set up shop at Three Mile Island. Daneel and Giskard deduce that plot and travel there to intervene. To stop the evil plan, Giskard uses his telepathy to alter Amadiro’s mind. In the process, he fatally injures himself.

Mandamus says that while Amadiro sought immediate destruction of Earth, he envisioned a slow poisoning of the Earth’s surface with radiation. Believing that just such an occurrence would push man into space and help him grow, Daneel allows Mandamus to proceed with his plan.

As he lays dying, Giskard passes along his telepathic abilities to Daneel, hoping that he will be able to make use of them in promoting peace and the advancement of mankind.

Of all the Robot novels, I liked Robots and Empire the best. It was the only one that was not a detective story.

While the mysteries were interesting and the Baley character fascinating, the lone novel to not include him was much grander and epic in scale and much more a real science fiction novel. It also allowed for more discussion, debate, logical reasoning, analysis of morality, and other philosophical ponderings.

These discussions between Daneel and Giskard usually happened near the end of a chapter and served as an excellent narrative device as well as providing a degree of foreshadowing that made the story flow quite nicely.

For all of the animosity that Mandamus and Amadiro held for Earth and Settlers, motivation could have been fleshed out just a little more. While the events of Robots of Dawn set the stage for Amadiro’s hatred of all things related to Earth, it did not provide enough material to create the raw hatred that leads to a desire to destroy an entire race of people.

Asimov wrote Robots and Empire to serve as a bridge to his Galactic Empire novels which eventually lead to his monumental Foundation series. I had planned on reading Foundation next, having read it many years ago. Instead, I will tackle the Galactic Empire next.

Asimov stands at the pinnacle of science fiction giants and his Robots series is one reason why. Asimov blends just the right combination of science fact, speculative fiction, fantasy, and humanity to weave his tale. Although his robots are creatures of his imagination, they embody a great deal of humanity.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dangerous Visions 3 Edited by Harlan Ellison

Dangerous Visions 3
Edited by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1969

New Introduction by Harlan Ellison
Ellison engages in a bit of self-congratulation in describing the success of the “vivisected” Dangerous Visions, of which this is the third volume. He says that he’s been working on a new volume to be titled Again, Dangerous Visions. He lists the new writers with breathless excitement.

If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister? by Theodore Sturgeon
An explorer is determined to find a secret planet that is shunned by the rest of the universe. When he gets there, he falls in love with one of the natives, but learns the hard way why this planet is shunned by the rest of the universe.

I thought Sturgeon had a perfectly good short story going here until he brought it to an abrupt halt with an argument as to why incest should not be socially taboo. Then it got really boring and not a little repulsive.

What Happened to Auguste Clarot by Larry Eisenberg
A dogged reporter investigates the disappearance of a world renowned French chemist. When he eventually locates the chemist, he learns that he has used his knowledge and expertise to develop an entirely new means of supporting himself.

Some of the stories in this book I have not enjoyed for one reason or another. None of them left me thinking, so what? Until now.

Ersatz by Henry Slesar
A man in a post-apocalyptic war searches for an aid station where he might get some food and sleep. He finally finds one, attended by a man and young woman. He seeks comfort from the woman and gets more than he bargained for.

An absolutely pointless story which had the science fiction angle as something completely gratuitous. The twist is almost as old as sex itself which made for a thoroughly boring read.

Go, Go, Go, said the Bird by Sonya Dorman
In a dystopian society, a woman flees from pursuers who would eat her to stave off famine. As she runs, she reminisces about being a powerful leader in her tribe.

This one had a pretty good twist. And, who can’t help but like a story set in a cannibalistic dystopia?

The Happy Breed by John T. Sladek
In the late 1980s, the world and its population are controlled by a supercomputer that has removed all danger, all risk, and all excitement from life. Slowly, with the help of the computer, the world’s inhabitants regress to a near infantile intelligence and existence.

This is a powerful story that is as pertinent and relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago. As our government and society strive to reduce dangerous behavior, control our diet, and remove danger and risk from our lives, they reduce our humanity.

Encounter with a Hick
by Jonathan Brand
Is God the moral standard of the universe just because he created it? A space hippy encounters and unsophisticated traveler who claims to be all powerful.

The dialogue in this story hurt the eyes to read and the author tried too hard to be controversial and not hard enough to construct a meaningful plot. Dangerous? No. Annoying? Yes.

From the Government Printing Office by Kris Neville
A three year old feels mistreated by his parents who are raising him based on an instruction manual from the government that explains how to raise a future scientist.

This story started out very weak with no seeming rhyme or reason. When it becomes apparent that the storyteller is narrating the scattered thoughts of a three year old, it works.

Land of the Great Horses by R.A. Lafferty
Whatever happened to the homeland of the Romany? It is revealed when that small sliver of earth is returned by the aliens who took it for examination. They claim a new piece of land to study and create a new type of Gypsy.

This one started out very difficult to follow and seemingly without purpose or reason. But, as it gathered steam and the direction the author was headed became clear, it was quite interesting and quite clever.

The Recognition
by J.G. Ballard
A strange circus comes to town and sets up in a remote, desolate part of town. It is operated by a dwarf and an ageless woman. A young man slips in to see the exhibits and finds the cages empty except for a familiar odor. Later, when a few obnoxious sailors stop by, they learn the true nature of the circus and its exhibits.

This story was wonderfully atmospheric, but a little short on plot. Darker than that most famous of haunted circus stories, Something Wicked This Way Comes, it lacks the compelling narrative.

Judas by John Brunner
A man enters a church and asks to speak to God himself. He is recognized as a former priest of this temple. A priest tries to restrain him and he kills him. He then goes to meet God – the God he created and the God he intends to destroy.

I initially thought this was a negative riff on Christianity and the story of Christ’s crucifixion and rebirth. But it seems to be a commentary on man’s reliance upon machinery to carry out daily tasks and man’s increasing dependence upon it.

Test to Destruction by Keith Laumer
A man undergoing interrogation is unknowingly tested by aliens who want to assess mankind’s mental stability. However, he turns the table on them and becomes the ultimate power in the universe.

What intelligent, insightful, and brilliantly written science fiction this story was! Laumer shows that you can

Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad
A self-made billionaire who has never met a challenge he could not conquer learns that he has cancer. The cancer is deemed terminal. He will not accept that answer and sets out to cure or remove his own disease.

This story was written in a different time when most forms of cancer were death sentences. To get a cancer diagnosis instilled terror in the heart. However, Spinrad approaches the subject as a dark comedy and delivers a mildly funny, but exceptionally well-paced story that was a pleasure to read.

Auto-Da-Fe by Roger Zelazny
In the future, matadors will be replaced by mechanadors who do battle not with bulls, but with cars. The best mechanador of them all takes on a host of Buicks, Fords, and Pontiacs.

A surprisingly old sci-fi trope of taking something old and replacing it with something new or fictional works well in Zelazy’s tale.

Aye, and of Gomorrah by Samuel R. Delany
This is a story about Spacers who are eunuchs who work in space to repair satellites and equipment. Felks are the sexually deviant earth inhabitants that lust for Spacers. A spacer encounters a Felk in Instanbul who cannot pay him for his services. But it is not money that he wants.

I thought this was a rather vanilla tale with which to wrap up this anthology. I read with some anticipation to find out what a Spacer and a Felk were. Once I found out about halfway through the story, I lost interest.