Saturday, November 26, 2016

Dune By Frank Herbert

By Frank Herbert
Copyright 1965

In Dune, Frank Herbert spins a complex tale of interstellar spying, treachery, mysticism, and military science fiction. He does a wonderful job of blending the genres.

Melange – or “Spice” -- grows on but one planet in the universe. Arrakis is the center of commerce for the Landsraad – the families that rule the universe. The emperor Shaddam IV grants House Atreides and its Duke, Leto, the planet. Fearing Leto’s popularity among the Landsraad, Shaddam hopes that a feud between Atreides and the House Harkonnen will spell the end of Leto’s power.

The Atreides move to Arrakis. Leto brings with him his concubine, Lady Jessica – a Bene Gesserit, and his teenaged son Paul. The Bene Gesserits are an order of witches who use their disciplined and trained minds to exert control of themselves and others. Paul is also a Bene Gesserit. Jessica was ordered by her order to give birth to a daughter. But Jessica chose to conceive a son as an heir for Leto.

On Arrakis, the Atreides are able to thwart initial Harkonnen traps and complications while simultaneously, through Leto's Swordmaster Duncan Idaho, building trust with the mysterious desert Fremen, with whom they hope to ally. However, the Atreides are ultimately unable to withstand a devastating Harkonnen attack, supported by the Emperor's fearsome, virtually invincible Sardaukar troops disguised as Harkonnen troops and made possible by a traitor within House Atreides itself, the Suk doctor Wellington Yueh. House Atreides is scattered, and of its principal retainers, Mentat Thufir Hawat is taken by the Baron Harkonnen and eventually provides his reluctant services whilst formulating a plan to undermine the Baron; the troubadour-soldier Gurney Halleck escapes with the aid of smugglers, whom he joins; and Duncan Idaho is killed defending Paul and Jessica. Per his bargain, Yueh delivers a captive Leto to the Baron, but double-crosses the Harkonnens by ensuring that Paul and Jessica escape. He also provides Leto with a poison-gas capsule in the form of a false tooth, which Yueh instructs a drugged Leto to use to simultaneously commit suicide and assassinate Harkonnen. The Baron kills Yueh, and Leto dies in his failed attempt on the Baron's life, though the Baron's twisted Mentat Piter De Vries dies with him. Paul and Jessica flee into the deep desert, escaping the Harkonnens by following instructions laid out in advance by the traitor Yueh. They successfully navigate through a sandstorm, a seemingly impossible task that leaves the Baron convinced that both of them are dead.

Jessica's Bene Gesserit abilities and Paul's developing skills help them join a band of Fremen. Paul and his mother quickly learn Fremen ways while teaching the Fremen what they call the "weirding way", or the Bene Gesserit method of fighting. Jessica becomes a Reverend Mother, ingesting the poisonous Water of Life while pregnant with her second child; this unborn daughter Alia is subjected to the same ordeal, acquiring the full abilities of a Reverend Mother before even being born. Paul takes a Fremen lover, Chani, with whom he fathers a son. Two years pass, and Paul increasingly recognizes the strength of the Fremen fighting force and their potential to overtake even the "unstoppable" Sardaukar and win back Arrakis. The spice diet of the Fremen and his own developing mental powers cause Paul's prescience to increase dramatically, allowing his foresight of future "paths" of possible events. Regarded by the Fremen as their prophesied messiah, Paul grows in influence and begins a jihad against Harkonnen rule of the planet under his new Fremen name, Muad'Dib. However, Paul becomes aware through his prescience that, if he is not careful, the Fremen will extend that jihad against all the known universe, which Paul describes as a humanity-spanning subconscious effort to avoid genetic stagnation.

Both the Emperor and the Baron Harkonnen show increasing concern at the fervor of religious fanaticism shown on Arrakis for this "Muad'Dib", not guessing that this leader is the presumed-dead Paul. Harkonnen plots to send his nephew and heir-presumptive Feyd-Rautha as a replacement for his more brutish nephew Glossu Rabban — who is in charge of the planet — with the hope of gaining the respect of the population. However, the Emperor is highly suspicious of the Baron and sends spies to watch his movements.[verification needed] Hawat explains the Emperor's suspicions: the Sardaukar, all but invincible in battle, are trained on the prison planet Salusa Secundus, whose inhospitable conditions allow only the best to survive. Arrakis serves as a similar crucible, and the Emperor fears that the Baron could recruit from it a fighting force to rival his Sardaukar, just as House Atreides had intended before their destruction.

Paul is reunited with Gurney. Completely loyal to the Atreides, Gurney is convinced that Jessica is the traitor who caused the House's downfall, and nearly kills her before being stopped by Paul. Disturbed that his prescience had not predicted this possibility, Paul decides to take the Water of Life, an act which will either confirm his status as the Kwisatz Haderach or kill him. After three weeks in a near-death state, Paul emerges with his powers refined and focused; he is able to see past, present, and future at will, down both male and female lines. Looking into space, he sees that the Emperor and the Harkonnens have amassed a huge armada to invade the planet and regain control. Paul also realizes that his ability to destroy all spice production on Arrakis using the Water of Life is his means of seizing control of it.

In an Imperial attack on a Fremen settlement, Paul and Chani's infant son Leto II is killed and the four-year-old Alia is captured by Sardaukar. She is brought to the planet's capital Arrakeen, where the Baron Harkonnen is attempting to thwart the Fremen jihad under the close watch of the Emperor. The Emperor is surprised at Alia's defiance of his power and her confidence in her brother, whom she reveals to be Paul Atreides. At that moment, under cover of a gigantic sandstorm, Paul and his army of Fremen attack the city riding sandworms; Alia assassinates the Baron and escapes during the confusion. Paul defeats the Sardaukar and confronts the Emperor, threatening to destroy the spice, thereby ending space travel and crippling both Imperial power and the Bene Gesserit in one blow. The new Baron Harkonnen, Feyd-Rautha, challenges Paul to a knife duel to the death in a final attempt to stop his overthrow, but is defeated despite an attempt at treachery. Realizing that Paul is capable of doing all he has threatened, the Emperor is forced to abdicate and to promise his daughter Princess Irulan in marriage to Paul. Paul ascends the throne, his control of Arrakis and the spice establishing a new kind of power over the Empire that will change the face of the known universe. But in spite of his power, Paul discovers that he will not be able to stop the jihad in his visions. His legendary state among the Fremen has grown beyond his power to control it.

Frank Herbert’s Dune ranks as one of the most heralded – if not the most heralded – science fiction novel of all time. It won the Hugo in 1966 as well as the Nebula for best novel in 1966. It certainly deserves the accolades heaped upon it.

Herbert masterfully crafts a wonderful universe full of political and business intrigue. He develops a mystical theology based in witchcraft. He takes these old story tropes of political intrigue, magic and mysticism, combines them with superb storytelling with plenty of well crafted battle scenes and delivers a novel that is an incredibly fulfilling reading experience.

I am not an historian of science fiction literature. I am a fan of the great pulp writers who elevated the craft. Guys like Asimov, Matheson, Dick, Heinlein, and Bradbury are my favorite authors to read. It seems to me that, prior to Dune, most sci-fi story telling lacked this multi-dimensional storytelling. Yes, there was plenty of political intrigue and skullduggery in Asimov’s Foundation, which predates Dune. Many sci-fi writers dabbled in mysticism in their stories and novels. But none ever developed – in my reading experience – the complexity that Herbert achieves with Dune.

The novel – like most novels – was not without its shortcomings. My chief criticism is Paul’s seamless development from spoiled prince to legendary Muad’Dib. Such a change in status would be unsettling. The death of his father, the seeming betrayal of his closest ally, the displacement from a castle to a desert would be disconcerting. Finding out that you are a living legend might also be somewhat emotional. Not to Paul.

He simply rolls with the punches and is seemingly devoid of any self-analysis, any crisis of confidence, any sense of displacement. This really robs the reader of emotional attachment to the story’s hero. Paul, while a heroic figure, is not particularly sympathetic. The people he leads – oppressed for time immemorial – are certainly sympathetic. His worried mother. His displaced wife. His tragic girlfriend all invoke sympathy. But not the heroic Paul. I would have liked to care about Paul a lot more.

It’s almost impossible to miss the influence of Herbert’s Dune upon George Lucas in his development of the Star Wars universe. Like Herbert, Lucas places a great deal of emphasis on the development of a fictional theology and making it an integral part of his story. Lucas’ theology of the Force and an order of knights known as the Jedi is completely different than the witchcraft of the Bene Gesserit. But it appears Herbert provided the blueprint for how to develop theology within science fiction.

Dune is not only a must-read for even the casual fan of American science fiction. It is a must-read for students of contemporary American literature. It certainly ranks among the great American novels of the 20th century.

Dune has inspired two movie adaptations. David Lynch directed a rather erratic adaptation in 1981 starring Kyle Maclachlan and Sting. In 2000, the SyFy network adapted it for a more complex miniseries which incorporated bits from subsequent novels to more fully develop the political intrigue.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes Dragonlance Tales, Vol. 2

Kender, Gully Dwarves, and Gnomes
Dragonlance Tales, Vol. 2
Copyright 1987

Snowsong by Nancy Varian Berberick
Tanis, Sturm, Flint, and Tasslehoff are returning from a mission when they are snowbound on a mountain. They find a meager shelter and Tanis and Sturm go out to hunt firewood. They get lost and are attacked by wolves. Meanwhile, Tas annoys Flint to no end trying to coax music from an old recorder given to him. Suddenly, Tas “finds the music” in the recorder and his song calls to the creatures stuck in the storm and invites them to the refuge. Tanis and Sturm, who have given up and are resigned to dying, hear the song as well.

I do not ordinarily like characters like Tasslehoff Burrfoot. I generally like my fantasy fiction heavy and without the comic relief. Tas is an exception. I love the character Weiss and Hickman created and the light comedy he brings to their tales. Berberick captures the Weiss and Hickman characters and humor wonderfully and tells a serious tale with light, comedic breaks without being silly. I’ve not read any of Berberick’s Dragonlance fiction. But I have to believe it is up to par judging by the way she stayed true to characters not of her making.

The Wizard’s Spectacles by Morris Simon
The elf, Dalamar, who will go on to be Raistlin’s apprentice, flees to a dwarf’s mine to hide from Sylvanesti pursuers. He brings with him a box of scrolls and spectacles made of gems of true seeing. When Dalamar is abducted, the dwarf begins using the glasses to read the scrolls to smite his enemies and impress his friends.

This story worked well. An old gaming cliché is to use the fireball spell for amusement and it was just as tiresome here. But the characters were well developed and the plot moved along nicely.

The Storyteller by Barbara Siegel and Scott Siegel
A story teller is arrested by the local dragon lord for telling stories that bring together humans, kender, and dwarves. He tells his cellmate his story then relates to the reader how the races came together again to rescue him.

Starts out sort of light. Then it develops into your typical fantasy combat tale. But the end made the whole story worthwhile reading. This is one of the best short story entries in the Dragonlance canon.

A Shaggy Dog’s Tale by Danny Peary
Tasslehoff Burfoot tells a group of children about Gorath, a general in the Dragon Lord’s army and his lust for revenge against a woman who escaped slavery and her warrior boyfriend. Gorath confronts them in the clearing and begins his assault. But that assault is interrupted by a shaggy dog with a lust of his own.

A children’s tale told to fictional children is what this is. Children’s tales are usually written with dialogue that contains perfect grammar. This can be – and is – annoying for the adult reader. Not the kind of fantasy fare I enjoy, but a worthwhile tale for children.

Lord Toede’s Disastrous Hunt by Harold Bakst
Lord Toede, former Dragon Lord of Solace goes hunting for game. Instead, a pair of Kender arrange for him to meet a much more fearsome creature.

I continue to admire the way the Dragonlance contributors can keep the Kender entertaining without making them silly. I don’t like silly fantasy.

Definitions of Honor by Richard A. Knaack
A Knight of Solamnia travels to a remote fishing village to lay waste to a Minotaur that is terrifying villagers. He confronts the Minotaur, prepared for battle, when the member of a fierce and proud race instead engages him in a conversation about pride, honor, and dignity and how one achieves them.

Not nearly as boring as perhaps I made it seem. Still, it was a little light on action and quite heavy on philosophy.

Hearth Cat and Winter Wren by Nancy Varian Berberick
A cat and wren inhabit the house of an evil magic user. But they are not what they seem to be. The wren flies off to get help while a caged squirrel ponders his future of escaping and getting eaten by the cat or living out his life in a cage.

The author constructed this story nicely in that we are not led by the nose to the hook. Again, Berberick makes good use of the Dragonlance characters and keeps them true to form. A nicely done story.

Wanna Bet by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Caramon and Tika’s sons – two fighters and a magic user lose a drinking contest to a dwarf. They find themselves shanghaied on a Gnomish ship with the dwarf. He has recruited them to find a lost jewel legendary to the dwarfs. They arrive on the island where the jewel is secreted away and find the natives dispirited by the loss of all their women. They press on to the castle where the jewel is located and find themselves bewitched by its siren song.

This story had wonderful character development. But the story was a bit of a cliché and the climax fairly predictable. The creators of Dragonlance certainly could have contributed a more worthwhile story to the collection.

Into the Heart of the Story
by Michael Williams
A gnome sets the record straight regarding the role and important part the race played in the War of the Lance.

This story was unreadable. Foolish footnotes, lousy poetry. Not worth the effort to read and therefore, I didn’t finish it.

Dagger Flight by Nick O’Donohoe
A enchanted and living dagger provides a different point of view on the attack on Solace and the flight of the companions as they fled Solace. Ostensibly Flint’s dagger, it is evil and longs to be fed blood.

This was the second weakest story in the book. This collection started out strong, but finished just horribly with the last two stories.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Ghost Story By Peter Straub

Ghost Story
By Peter Straub
Copyright 1979

It’s the age of disco -- or at least its waning days. America is held hostage and international tension is at an all-time high. None of this touches the small, upscale village of Millburn, New York which retains the charm of New England in the era of Carter. The Chowder Society – a group of five aging professionals – is the center of the small village’s social scene.

The Chowder Society – Attorney Sears James, Attorney Ricky Hawthorne, Doctor John Jaffre, writer Edward Wanderley, and wealthy playboy Lewis Benedickt – have a favorite activity in which they engage once every two weeks. They share ghost stories.

The story opens with a bit of a prologue of a young man in bed with a young woman in an upstairs hotel room. The man awakens to find himself in bed with a monster. When he tries to escape, he falls from a window to his death.

Flash forward a couple years. The Chowder Society is meeting sans one of their members. Mr. Wanderley has been dead almost a year. He died at a party held in the honor of a young actress being squired by Wandereley as he was ghost writing her biography. The Chowder Society is haunted by a nightmare they all share, but refuse to discuss. Instead, Sears James decides to invite Wanderley’s nephew – the brother of the man in the opening scene – who is an occult writer – to come to town and help the old men explain their dilemma.

Meanwhile, James and Hawthorne need to respond to the complaints of a regular complaining client who lives out on a farm. They arrive with the sheriff and find the man’s livestock all dead. What is strange is that all of the animals have their throats cut, but there is no blood present. The sheriff (an itinerant drunk) points out that the event is not uncommon. He’s learned through various law enforcement conferences that the same events have transpired all over the country in various locations at various times. The farmer promises to be extra vigilant in keeping an eye on his existing livestock to capture the predator.

Later that night, the Chowder Society convenes with bourbon, cigars, and James regales the group with a tale – supposedly true. He talks of his early days of teaching in a small New England town. The town was poor and the accommodations he lived in frugal beyond description. He teaches his charges of all age levels. One day, he notices a boy who is determined to argue whether or not the earth is flat or round. He will not hear reason. His name is Fenny Bate and the other kids shun him. When James asks the boy where he learned this misinformation, he says he heard it from Gregory, presumably his brother.

James takes to the woods to find the shack where the Bates live. He finally finds Fenny and his sister. Off in the distance projecting an air of malevolence, is Gregory. James tries to reason with the kids. But he sees the abject poverty in which they live and realizes the social circumstances of the town and finally gives up. He sees Gregory watching the kids and the school from afar and asks some of the other kids about Gregory. They say that Gregory used to do repairs on the school, but one day, Fenny and his sister pushed over a ladder he was on, killing Gregory.

James decides to keep Fenny and his sister after school to teach them. Gregory shows up and Fenny gets real scared and agitated. Fenny eventually dies there on the spot. He is put in an unmarked grave beside his brother and James is left haunted. He finished out the school year before returning to Milburne.

As scary and creepy as that story was, the members of the Chowder Society know a scarier and creepier story. It was a story they lived together 50 years earlier. James fears it may be the source of all their ills.

As the group grows more wary of the dreams haunting them, they each tell a tale of being haunted or terrified by a supernatural being. Lewis Benedikt’s wife was driven to suicide by something she saw in a hotel room. Wanderley died of an apparent heart attack and the young actress he was squiring disappeared from the face of the earth. Even Don Wanderley – Edward Wanderley’s nephew – has an encounter with a young woman and his brother dies after stealing her away.

After comparing notes, the group notices that their fem fatales all have the same initials: A.M. What worries Don Wanderley – summoned because of his knowledge of the supernatural – is that James and Hawthorne have a new secretary and her name is Alma Mobley.

Finally, after Benedikt dies mysteriously, the town bad boy disappears, and others come up missing or dead, Hawthorne and James decide it is time they told Don Wanderley the story of Eva Galli.

Galli was a young woman who moved to town in the 1920s and immediately charmed the young members of the Chowder Society just as they were starting their professional lives. The boys, sexually immature and naïve, keep the relationship purely platonic, just enjoying her company. She is engaged to a local man. When that man breaks it off, she invites the Society to her home. There, she becomes sexually aggressive with Benedikt who is appalled by her behavior. She bites and slaps him and when they try to restrain her, she falls and hits her head on a brick hearth. She is apparently dead.

The young men panic and decide to borrow a car to get help. Instead, they decide to place Galli’s body in the back seat and submerge it in a local quarry. As they car slips into the depths, Galli sits up and smiles at the boys through the back window. They are stricken with terror.

Now, the horrors of their past – Eva Galli/Anna Mobley and the Bate brothers – have come back to torment and kill them. Mobley reveals to them that the three are part of a race much older than humanity. They are the source of all of mankind’s tales of the supernatural. They are long-lived and they are evil.

As the holidays come and pass, Milburne is snowed in and isolated from the world. The jail is converted into a morgue for the victims of the supernatural terror. James, Hawthorne, Don Wanderley, and a young boy set out to hunt down and kill the creatures once and for all. Eventually, Don Wanderley is left to capture the creature in the form of a young girl and send her to her final reward.

This was a selection of my monthly book club and was recommended by yours truly. I had not read it before and knew it had a stellar reputation among fans of horror fiction. After having read it, I understand why. It generated the most intense and enjoyable discussion my book club has had in its eight year existence.

The characters in this book were wonderful. One can imagine these patrician souls, living their patrician lives, and enjoying their patrician luxuries. Sears James – whose very name screams patrician – is particularly well developed. He is the group skeptic, to patrician and set in the logic of his elder years to believe what is happening to him despite his experience with the Bate family.

The creatures – Mobley and the Bate brothers – were fascinating. Straub told Stephen King that he read all of the old American masters like Lovecraft, Poe, and Hawthorne before writing Ghost Story. In his creatures, he combines all the tropes of haunting into one creature and provides a rationale for their existence. Then he hints a Lovecraft’s Old Ones – an evil race older than mankind itself.

One of the important elements of horror fiction is isolation. Isolation can take many forms. It can be emotional, geographical, or racial. In Ghost Story, Straub employs the oft-used trope of the snowstorm to cut off the town from civilization. Then, he ramps it up just a bit more. As more and more people die in the town, the citizens isolate themselves from each other. There is no authority. The sheriff – a drunken halfwit – is a non-factor. The Chowder Society is very much on its own in confronting Mobley and her minions.

Straub throws the reader for a loop by starting his story at the end with the prologue. Several members of our group were thrown by Straub’s prologue. Some remarked that the first few chapters seemed to remotely detached from the prologue that the story was not making sense to them. Ghost Story does require some patience to read. It builds slowly then races forward. It all eventually makes sense and makes the whole reading experience of this novel worthwhile.

In our discussion of the creature, one member pointed out that perhaps the initials of the women the creature used were all A.M. He added that it might be Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. Little nuances like this made the book such a fascinating club story.

There is a subtext in Ghost Story. Although is a resident of England, Straub is very much an American writer. Remember when this novel was written and published. The 1970s were winding down. It was a decade of social and political upheaval in the United States. There was a longing to return to “traditional values.” In a Rockwellian America, what is more wholesome and American than small town New England?

Straub deconstructs this myth. Behind the scenes of this portrait of small town America is a Peyton Place. There is drunkenness, corruption, and lots and lots of adultery. What better place for evil to show its face than a location putting up the façade of wholesomeness?

In his review of all things horror – Danse Macabre – Stephen King puts Ghost Story in the pantheon of great modern horror novels. He made this claim in 1981. Twenty-five years later, this statement holds true. Unlike much of the horror written in the 1970s, Ghost Story stands the test of time. It is timeless. The language is timeless. The evil is timeless. The characters are timeless. The setting is timeless. This story works in Colonial New England and it works in 2016 America.

Ghost Story is ranked number 15 in the Goodreads poll of great horror novels. That puts in some distinguished company like King’s master works The Shining and IT. It closely resembles another of King’s most heralded work, Salem’s Lot. I found it to be superior. King was in your face with his cynicism regarding small town America. Straub is much more subtle. Also missing from Salem’s Lot was a sense of isolation. Like any good horror novel, Ghost Story made the reader feel just a wee bit claustrophobic.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Gone South By Robert R. McCammon

Gone South
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1992

Dan Lambert is a Vietnam veteran living in rural Louisiana and fallen on hard times. Behind on his work truck payments, he struggles to find day work to make ends meet. The days are hard on him because he has a brain tumor – the result of exposure to Agent Orange.

One day, he goes to the bank to appeal to the loan officer to get an extension on his payments because he’s two payments behind. The old loan officer he used to deal with is gone and a new guy is there. The new guy is unyielding. Dan blows up – or goes south in the parlance of the Vietnam vet – and tears up the office. A security guard approaches and the loan officer pulls out a gun. Dan takes the gun and shoots the loan officer in the neck. Having killed him, Dan flees.

He takes off in his truck and drives into the country to hide. He eventually finds a remote camp with cabins where he can stay. He makes arrangements with his ex-wife to see his son just one more time before he becomes a permanent fugitive for the rest of his short life.

Meanwhile, the bank has put out a $15,000 reward on Dan Lambert and a bounty hunter decides to put his best man on the trail. Flint Murtaugh is an itinerant gambler in debt and needing a bounty. His boss puts him onto Lambert, but insists he take on a partner to train the new guy. Murtaugh is not happy, but not in any position to argue.

Murtaugh arrives at a shabby hotel to meet his new partner. The man who answers the door is a malodorous, fat slob who bears a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley. When he speaks, he sounds just like the King. He introduces himself as Pelvis Eisley and he has a little dog that goes everywhere with him. His boss made it clear that if he wanted this collar, Eisley was going to go along.

Dan has held up at a remote resort camp in the swamp that has seen better days. He is going to wait it out there until night when he plans to slip into town and call his ex-wife, hoping to arrange one last meeting with his son. He goes in and makes the call and the wife agrees to slip her police protection detail and meet him at a park.

They meet and Dan starts talking with his son. However, Murtaugh and Eisley show up, planning to take Dan – who has developed a reputation as a cold blooded killer after the husband of the couple who kept the camp was found murdered. (He was killed by his own wife). A scuffle ensues and while his ex-wife tangles with Murtaugh and his “little brother” who is nothing more than a third arm that protrudes from his chest and explores its surroundings at will. Dan wrestles away Murtaugh’s gun, unloads it, and flees, throwing it away. He gets in his car and tears off, almost hitting Eisley and his little dog.

Dan flees through the night and arrives at a truck stop in the wee hours of the morning. While having his coffee, he notices a young couple having an intense argument. The young girl is beautiful except for a large, wine stain birthmark that covers almost half her face. When her ride ditches her, the waitress suggests that Dan take the girl down the road since they are headed the same direction.

Dan is reluctant to take on passengers, considering that law enforcement will be prone to pointing guns at him eventually. Arden Halliday is insistent that she ride south with Dan so that she might enter the swamps and locate the legendary Bright Girl who has the power to remove the unsightly blemish from Arden’s otherwise beautiful face. Nearly exhausted, Dan relents.

Murtaugh and Eisley are forced to stake out a remote cabin owned by a friend of Lambert – The only lead they have. They sit for hours and Eisley talks incessantly, driving Murtaugh crazy. Eisley eats and drinks junk food constantly and his dog constantly yips as Eisley fawns all over it. Murtaugh has had it and decides to move. They go into town to use the bathrooms and get something to drink.

While there, Murtaugh notices a group of strong men unloading alligator they have poached from the swamps. He does not pay them much attention until they attack him in the bathroom, convinced that he is working with a rival drug dealer. Murtaugh is about to experience some severe indignity before dying when Eisley breaks into the room and takes care of the men assaulting Murtaugh. They escape to return to their perch to watch the cabin.

Finally, in the wee hours of the night, Dan and Arden pass them there. Murtaugh switches on the lights and the pursuit is on. They fly out the gravel roads at high speeds and eventually, Dan’s car goes off a bridge and into the water. Dan and Arden escape underwater while Murtaugh and Eisley search the wreckage.

Dan Lambert and Arden float far downstream and find a small encampment where there are boats. They take a boat and head for an offshore oil rig a few miles out in the swamp. There, they are treated halfway decently and Arden gets some leads as to where she can find the Bright Girl. She is eager to pursue them while Dan is eager to get out of the country.

Soon after their arrival, Murtaugh and Eisley show up for their quarry. Dan is allowed to eat his last meal before Murtaugh shackles him. While everyone is eating, the local leathernecks are hassling Eisley for an Elvis number. Instead, he sits at the piano and plays wonderfully a mix of classical music fused with jazz and creole. The audience – including Murtaugh and Lambert are blown away by his talent.With the arrest affected and the tension ramped down, they all try to convince Eisley that he has a real future in music – much better than he has in private investigation and bounty hunting.

The next morning, the whole group is taken by the drug runners Murtaugh had encountered earlier and taken to a private island to be disposed of. A firefight ensues on that island and Danny and Arden escape to a charity hospital. Murtaugh and Eisley also escape, pondering a new pursuit in the music industry. Arden will serve as THE bright girl for this hospital and Dan will serve out his days as a maintnenance man before his sickness can take him.

According to Mr. McCammon, Gone South was written during a very dark period in his life. Much of that darkness is reflected in the characters. Dan, an otherwise good guy, is a legitimate fugitive from justice for killing someone. Dan is a veteran who served his country faithfully. He’s not the villain. He got cancer from his government dumping toxic chemicals on him while he was waging war.

Arden is a victim seemingly as without hope as Dan. Her surface beauty cursed by an unfortunate birthmark. Her hope rests with a seemingly impossible cure provided by a shaman. That’s all she has to hang on to.

Murtaugh is tragic as well, with that odd appendage growing from his chest and a youth lived in freak shows. More tragic for him is having to suffer the irritating companionship of Pelvis Eisley. If you’ve ever been trapped in a car for hour upon hour with a person who just irritates the hell out of you with everything they say and do, you feel sorry for Murtaugh. Murtaugh’s motivations do not make him a villain. He’s doing a job.

Eisley is not a villain because, despite his annoying personality and bizarre countenance, he is a good guy trying to learn a new trade to support himself. He has no ill will toward Dan. We find out that he is in fact a talented musician who hides talent behind a bizarre stage show.

Like we do in all McCammon stories, we get exceptionally complex characters who are good and evil, tragic and heroic, all at the same time. Managing characters like this is a real challenge for even an exceptional writer. To manage the characters and keep the plot going is a real challenge.

This novel resembles Mine in that it is a chase story. The pace isn’t nearly as frantic. But the characters are a lot broader and deeper.

The darkness of McCammon’s mood shows in that neither of the main characters really get what it was they were after. They get a resolution that will bring them some satisfaction. But Dan is never going to get escape or redemption. Arden is never going to get her surface beauty ruined by a freak birth defect. Not a happy or satisfying ending.

McCammon has never written a bad book that I’ve read and I’ve read all but the very latest. Going South is probably ranks in the lesser of his works. It has not the great gravitas of Swan Song. It lacks the frantic energy of Mine. It lacks the spooky element of They Thirst.

That said, McCammon tells a nifty story outside of the genre of horror. That was his goal. He wanted to show his chops as a writer at a time when his publisher was demanding horror and his southern contemporaries were demanding he write about the southern experience. Other than weather and geography, there was nothing in Gone South that was about the Southern experience. Other than the vague allusions to the witch living in the swamp who could heal Arden’s birthmark, there were no supernatural allusions.

It would be approximately 10 years before McCammon would publish again. This time, he’d eschew both traditional settings and the southern experience to tell a tale of historical fiction. That voluminous tome, Speaks the Nightbird, brought him back and perhaps assuaged some of those old feelings of anger and professional jealousy of horror writers who were able to break out into more traditional writing. God knows McCullough has the writing chops to go head to head with any writer in America today.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Robot Visions By Isaac Asimov

Robot Visions
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1990

Introduction: The Robot Chronicles

Asimov chronicles the development of the robot as an instrument, then its development within his own imagination that led him create his well received series on the subject. Asimov lists the stories in this volume, one by one, and gives a little background on each and when and where it was published. He also documents how he created the Three Laws of Robotics and the term, Robotics, which has become generally accepted as the term used to describe the study of robots.

Robot Visions (First published in this volume)
A team of scientists sends a robot forward in time to advise them on the state of humanity so that they might take corrective action on foreseen problems. He returns to tell them humanity is doing just fine. But, there are no robots in the future.

This was sort of a dull story to start off with. The first person narrative worked well and served the twist at the end. But I was hoping for something more riveting to open things.

Too Bad
A roboticist who pioneered the creation of microbots has cancer. His only hope for survival is his creation, Mike. Mike will shrink to go inside his body and cut out the cancer. There is a risk that Mike may re-expand and kill the roboticist. The day of the operation comes and it is a success. However, it is less than successful for Mike who must obey the first law of robots.

This is another of the modern stories in this volume that seem to lack the charm of Asimov’s earlier writing. There are no questions about bigotry, right and wrong, and the complexities of the Three Laws. The ending is a bit abrupt and perhaps the story picks up elsewhere in the volume.

Robbie (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction 1940)
Robbie and his playmate play all day together. Robbie is a robot and his playmate a young girl. While the girl’s dad likes Robbie, mom doesn’t think it appropriate. One day, the girl comes home to find her robot has been replaced by a dog. The dad sets out to find Robbie before he is scrapped.

One has to go back to the old Asimov to find the humanity in his robot stories. This one is light in emotion and told in a dry, but effective, 3rd person narrative. But it works just fine and would have made a fine tale for the old pulp magazine in which it was published.

Liar! (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A robot comes off the manufacturing line who can read people’s minds. It is troublesome to the team – including Dr. Calvin – who has to work with him. Each member of the team harbors ambitions and goals and can’t help but ask the robot about them. The robot, obeying the First Law, tells them what they want to hear. In the end, it is Dr. Calvin who constructs a statement that either answer will conflict with the First Law. The robot goes catatonic.

Another good exploration of the Three Laws of Robotics which is quite helpful in the later Robots novels when philosophical debate regarding the laws is the intellectual crux upon which the stories turn. This was a superb story, representative of the time in which it was written.

(First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A crew if two men have been assigned to re-establish the mining operations on Mercury. They take with them a robot assistant named Speedy (SPD) who will be able to move about the hot surface and gather the materials they need to maintain the solar cells. Then the cells start failing, finding those materials becomes a matter of paramount of importance. Using older vintage robots to venture onto Mercury’s surface to find their wayward robot. They find him intoxicated. Apparently, the way the orders were provided caused a conflict between the second and third laws that causes intoxication in robots. With time running out, they are able to get the robot righted and producing the necessary materials to get the mining operation back in business.

Another fine examination of the vagueries of the Three Laws. This time, when orders are given, priorities must be verbalized properly to give the robot the right law with which to act upon. When the second and third laws get into conflict, only the risk of life of a human will make the first law override the first two and get the robot working again.

Evidence (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
Politicians dual over the possibility of one of them being a robot on the sly. The man refuses to publicly violate one of the three rules to prove he is not a robot. After the election, Dr. Calvin figures it all out.

This rather long tale could have been shorter. It still works as one of the better examinations of the Three Laws of robotics.

Little Lost Robot
(First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
A series of robots are constructed with positronic brains that do not include the first law of robotics. They are used in off-planet mining operations. After being ordered to “lose himself” by one of his bosses, a robot deliberately hides and will not allow himself to be found. Dr. Calvin travels to the planet and uses her knowledge of robots to locate the wayward robot.

Another examination of the Three Laws and how they interact with each other. Most of the Robots short stories operate along these lines and Asimov continues to fascinate with his exploration of his own creation.

The Evitable Conflict (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction)
Dr. Calvin and Stephen Byerley examine the role of robots in the world economy and the fallibility of robots when fed data by fallible humans.

Just as boring as it sounds. This story read like a law brief or a government report. I’m guessing the readers of Astounding Science Fiction weren’t astounded by this one.

Feminine Intuition

A robot and one of the world’s leading roboticists are lost when a meteorite hits the aircraft in which they are traveling. The robot is the first of its kind – an intuitive robot designed to be a free thinker to help astronomers find habitable planets outside the solar system. The folks at U.S. Robotics call in the now retired Dr. Susan Calvin to help ascertain what remarkable disclosure this robot might have made before her imminent destruction.

This is one of the few stories that spends little time pondering the complexities of the Three Laws that I enjoyed. It examines sexism in the workplace as well as providing a nifty little mystery toward the end.

Bicentennial Man
Andrew Martin is a unique positronic robot in that he has a creative instinct nurtured by his owners. Over the years, he develops human qualities of reasoning and learning. He aspires to become human and enlists his family’s law firm’s aid in doing so. He replaces his robotic body with an artificial human body and eventually his positronic brain with a cellular brain that will slowly deteriorate as the human brain does in his quest.

Asimov has spun many an interesting tale and I enjoy his stories a great deal. However, this story was not so much interesting as beautiful. Asimov is able to evoke great emotion with cold, detached prose, mimicking how a robot might tell a story. He explores issues of slavery and bigotry while never becoming preachy or forcing his subtext. The end was stunningly touching. Asimov’s best story in my opinion.

Bicentennial Man was made into a movie of the same name in 1999.

Two boys disassemble a computerized storyteller and enhance its vocabulary with modern terms to enhance its ability. Then one boy describes a strange type of storytelling involving written symbols that appear on paper. They set off for the library to find some of these compilations of symbols.

This story had just the faintest touch of dystopia. But not quite enough to make it interesting.

A scientist discovers how to employ lasers to enhance the ability to conduct EEGs. When they employ the technology, they discover not only a form of telepathy and that their super computer is capable of independent thought.

This story was a prime example of the type of science fiction I hate. It’s laced with a lot of science and just a little bit of fiction. It was science fiction for engineers and doctors.

Segregationist (First appeared in Abbotempo 4 1968)
A surgeon argues with a potential heart replacement candidate about what kind of heart he should get. The surgeon insists that a plastic heart would be best. The candidate insists on a metal heart. Later, the surgical team argues over whether or not robots should receive plastic parts and humans should receive metal parts. The case is made for and against mongrelization

As a short story, this was too brief and completely lacking in any plot. The subtext is about mixing of races and race mongrelization. The subtext is dealt with effectively. But there wasn’t much story in this short story.

Mirror Image (First published in Analog Science Fiction 1972)
Detective Baley is contacted by his old partner, R. Daneel, to solve a mystery regarding two mathematicians and stolen intellectual property. One scientist presented his idea to the other before a major conference. The other scientist stole the idea and presented it as his own. The exchange was done in the presence of two robots belonging to the scientists. Baley must puzzle through the testimony of the two robots and the Three Laws to determine who the thief really is.

I love robot stories featuring Baley and Daneel. This one, again, involves the intuitive Baley working his way through the complexities of the Three Laws. It is not action oriented. But the logic is intriguing.

Lenny (First appeared in Infinity Science Fiction 1958)
A child who is part of a tour of the robot factory plays with a computer keyboard and alters the encoding of a robot’s mind while in production. That robot emerges with the mind of a small child. Dr. Calvin is obsessed with the robot and whether or not a robot can learn new competencies. Meanwhile, company officials worry that the public on Earth will be alarmed by a robot who can learn.

This story harkens back to the feel of the original robot stories found in I, Robot. This is not just because of the inclusion of those original characters like Dr. Calvin. It also examines what can go wrong in creating intelligent beings and the exploration of the Three Laws.

Galley Slave (First appeared in Astounding Science Fiction 1957)
U.S. Robots is sued when a robot they leased to a university for proofreading manuscripts alters a professor’s manuscript and ruins his reputation. The Three Laws are examined in court while Dr. Susan Calvin develops a strategy to trip up the lying professor.

Good, old school Asimov examining the complexities of his Three Laws.

Christmas Without Rodney

A middle-aged couple decides to give their robot Christmas off. Their son and daughter-in-law are coming to visit with their grandson and a robot of their own. When the obnoxious grandson ticks off the grandfather, the kids leave in a snit. The man is happy to see them go. But he is alarmed when his robot remarks that he wishes there were no Three Laws of Robotics.

This story could serve as a precursor to robots growing independent and refusing to be obedient. It was well written with an ambiguous ending that lent itself to so much more in the future.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Punish the Sinners By John Saul

Punish the Sinners
By John Saul
Copyright 1978

Like most John Saul novels, Punish the Sinners opens with a prologue that provides clues to the conflict to come. A young boy is playing in his parents’ room when he hears his parents coming. He hides in the closet. As his parents are making love, his sister enters the room and inexplicably murders them with an axe.

Flash forward more than 30 years and Peter Balsam, former aspirant to the priesthood, is invited to teach psychology at St. Francis Xavier High School in Neilsville, Washington. His old friend from seminary, Monsignor Peter Vernon, is principal and wants his old friend to join them.

As they talk during the school year, Balsam notices that his old friend has become rigid and judgmental over the years. He has an affinity for the saints who were Inquisitors – specifically, St. Peter Martyr. He has a group of priests who meet regularly in his office. They call themselves the Society of St. Peter Martyr.

Balsam settles into his teaching job and Neilsville. He meets a divorcee and starts a relationship with her, much to the consternation to the predominately Catholic populace of Neilsville. His classes are going well until one young student attempts suicide.

When more girls kill themselves or try to do so, parents and staff start to focus their blame and ire on Peter Balsam, suspecting that his psychology class is undermining Catholic theology taught in the church. Peter Vernon presses him to join the Society.

Finally, Balsam agrees. At the first meeting, the other priests question him aggressively about his belief in church doctrine, much like the inquisitors of old. At a subsequent meeting, he passes out and has no memory of what has transpired. At Margo’s urging, he wears a tape recorder to this meeting. Balsam and Margo listen to the tape and hear with horror sounds of sexual ecstasy from the priests and from Peter.

As Peter Balsam presses his investigation of the suicides, he becomes convinced that Peter Vernon and the Society of St. Peter Martyr are using mind control to push these girls – all part of the same clique – to commit suicide. The local psychologist dismisses Peter’s suspicions. He’s inclined to believe that Neilvsville is afflicted with a suicide contagion.

Peter Balsam’s stress level is out of control and he can no longer sleep or eat, believing that he is the only person who knows the truth behind the suicides. Meanwhile, Peter Vernon tells him that he is the reincarnation of St. Peter Martyr himself and that Balsam is the reincarnation of the saint who killed him. Their battle to the death is inevitable.

Peter resolves to get to the bottom of Peter Vernon’s obsession and the plot to kill the girls of St. Xavier. He sneaks into Vernon’s office one night and starts reading the contents of Vernon’s file cabinet. He finds newspaper clippings that describe the “modern-day Lizzie Borden” who slaughtered her parents whilst her little brother watched. Peter Vernon was that little boy.

Vernon bursts into the room and catches Balsam by surprise. He murders Balsam there in that study and makes it look like suicide. Peter Balsam is buried in unconsecrated ground in an unmarked grave. His grave is repeatedly desecrated and vandalized by townspeople who believe Balsam responsible for the suicides that afflicted Neilsville. Saul leaves us with the fact that, once a year, a young girl commits suicide on Balsam’s grave.

While not being exceptionally well written, Punish the Sinners stands apart in the John Saul canon.

Most John Saul novels are simply stories. They have no subtext or social commentary. Punish The Sinners examines the conflict between traditional Catholic Church doctrine versus a more contemporary view. This is the only novel where Saul examines any subject of any consequence.

Saul’s views are quite clear on the subject. The strong beliefs and unyielding passion of Peter Vernon were certainly cast in the role of evil. Balsam’s more humane and contemporary views were heroic. Saul is also clear on who he thought was winning. Evil triumphed good in Punish the Sinners. This is also unique in Saul’s canon when good always triumphs over evil.

What is more remarkable about this novel is its presience. This conflict would not come to the fore until a couple decades after Punish the Sinners was written. Also addressed on the periphery of the novel is sexual deviance which became the defining issue for Catholics in the 2000s.

Another issue in the book not typically discussed in decent company in the 1970s was teen suicide. Peter and the hospital psychologist debate the phenomenon of suicide contagion. The suicide contagion is the idea that when one teen commits suicide, other teens get caught up in the romantic notion of suicide and kill themselves. In a more modern era where teen suicide is addressed openly as a social affliction, suicide contagion and how it works is an issue of public discussion.

This social and religious debate and subtext is unique in Saul’s canon. Also unusual is the fact that Punish the Sinners is not a particularly well plotted or well written.

Saul’s books are all plot driven. He plots carefully and seldom leaves holes or gaps. He provides great twists that are believable and well conceived. Punish the Sinners has several gaping plot holes that detract from an otherwise dark and riveting novel.

We never learn just how it is that the Society of St. Peter Martyr and Peter Vernon are able to engage in such dominating mind control? It all takes place out of sight of the reader. What was the motivation? The reader learns in the twist that Peter Vernon was that little boy who witnessed his parents’ murder when Saul leads us to believe through most of the novel it was Balsam. But nothing in the text shows us how that hatred of young girls grows and festers. The hate is just there. More development of the malice would have improved this novel immensely.

I have read Saul’s entire library. I have enjoyed all his novels to varying degrees. However, I look at many Saul novels sitting on my bookshelf and have no recollection of the characters or the plot. They don’t stick with me. This book has stuck with me over the years because it is so dark and does provide that social commentary and subtext.

John Saul is regarded as a good horror writer among those who read horror. But he is never mentioned in the same voice as the greats of the genre. One wonders how his stature might have been different had he continued to provide subtext and social commentary in his novels.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Test of the Twins By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

The Test of the Twins
Vol. 3 of Dragonlance Legends
By Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Copyright 1986

The third volume of the Dragonlance Legends trilogy opens with Tasslehoff Burfoot and Caramon Majere landing in the future of Krynn after they attempted to travel back to their own time. It is a bleak future where the world is barren ash and all is dead. They find Caramon’s wife’s grave and Caramon’s grave. They learn that Raistlin was successful in drawing the Dark Queen into their world and defeating her. The cost was life on Krynn.

They resolve to travel back to their own time and prevent Raistlin’s success. In their own time, they find a world preparing once again for war. This time the aggressor is Kitiara, Caramon and Raistlin’s half sister who, with her Draconian henchmen and dragons, is traveling to the city of Palanthas in a flying citadel to attack the High Clerists Tower.

Raistlin and Crysannia are in the Abyss. Raistlin is tormented by magical illusions – scenes of great pain from his life. Crysannia also witnesses these torments and tries to protect Raistlin. The attacks turn to her and she is blinded and crippled with injury. Raistlin is able to free himself and moves toward his goal of confronting the Dark Queen, leaving Crysannia behind to fend for herself.

Tanis is in Palanthas, helping the Knights of Solomnia and the other defenders of the city prepare for battle. Caramon and Tasslehoff arrive there with a book given to them by the historian, Astinus, that shows that Tanis dies in the battle. Caramon and Tanis go to the Clerists Tower to aid in the defense. Tasslehoff decides to board the flying citadel to take over. There, he enlists the aid of a gully dwarf and seizes control.

Tanis and Caramon, accompanied by Tas, take control of the citadel. They then discover from the book that Dalamar is prevented from stopping Raistlin when he is killed by Kitiara. Kitiara gets into the Tower and injures Dalamar, who lethally wounded her. Caramon and Tanis soon arrive. Dalamar is too weak to battle Raistlin. Caramon enters the Abyss, as he is the only one who can stop Raistlin. Soth comes to claim Kitiara's body. Raistlin encounters Caramon and is told of his inevitable failure; he gives the Staff of Magius to Caramon that he might close the Portal and stop Takhisis. Raistlin is attacked by the Queen, but he is said to fall into a dreamless sleep, protected from her. Caramon comes out and closes the Portal, having retrieved Crysania, who is still alive.

The battle for Palanthas is won by the people of Palanthas at the cost of most of their city. Crysania, now back to health but blind, becomes head of the church of Paladine. Dalamar seals the laboratory where the Portal is for all time. Caramon goes to his wife, Tika, and they are overjoyed to be reunited. Tasslehoff finds a spot on the map he's never been to and teleports off with the aid of the magical time traveling device.

The Test of the Twins involves several timelines, settings, and characters and weaves a complex tale. In it, we can see the full maturity of Weiss and Hickman as storytellers.

The third book in the trilogy is a textbook example of how a third installment should read. It was all fast paced, with the first two volumes leading to a volume long climax where all of the plot lines converge. No new characters are introduced. No new subplots are brought in. All of the events, subplots, and plot are brought to fruition and neatly wrapped up with nothing left unresolved.

My chief criticism of this book specifically was it felt a little rushed. In the first two installments, the plot slowed occasionally to allow contemplation and introspection by the characters. In the third installment, there was little of that. Of the three books, this one read most like an installment of the first trilogy.

What made Legends better than Chronicles was Weiss and Hickman’s dedication to developing their characters beyond Dungeons and Dragons action heroes. Just a little more introspection and contemplation – especially at the end of the book as the action was winding down – would have been a nice cap on a wonderful trilogy.

Nobody is ever going to confuse any of the Dragonlance novels with Lord of the Rings or the Thomas Covenant series at the pantheon of great fantasy fiction. However, they are great fun to read. They are well plotted and have great characters. No fan of fantasy should look down his nose at these wonderful books.