Sunday, August 30, 2015

Peaceable Kingdom By Jack Ketchum

Peaceable Kingdom
By Jack Ketchum
Copyright 2001

Ketchum introduces this collection of short stories with a short dissertation on the nature of short stories. Primarily a horror writer, Ketchum says the short form offers the writer the chance to move about between ideas and genres without being attached to the subject matter for six months to a year. He promises this collection will include his standard horror fare along with a romance, a western, and some mainstream stuff.

The Rifle
A single mother finds an old rifle and ammunition in her son’s closet. The boy apparently stole it from his grandfather. He has been in trouble before for various petty offenses and is difficult and unruly at home. She decides to lay down the law with him and confront him at his clubhouse in the woods. There, she discovers her son’s true nature.

This story was a rather chilling portrait of a sociopath and a more chilling portrait of a family member of a sociopath who chooses to deal with her problem offspring. My introduction to Jack Ketchum is off to a fantastic start.

The Box
On a commuter train, a man’s young son asks a passenger to see what he has hidden in a gift box. After seeing what is squirreled away inside, the boy refuses to eat. Soon, he shares the secret with his sisters who also stop eating. As his son lays dying of starvation, the man takes to the rails to find the man and his mysterious box.

Absolutely brilliant storytelling. Ketchum employs an effective ambiguous end and his total lack of explanation is chilling.

The Box won the Bram Stoker Award in 1994 for best short story.

Mail Order
A wealthy New Yorker recluse orders from a porno magazine what he hopes will be a real, honest to goodness snuff film. He receives the package and inserts the tape. As the action unfolds, he’s struck by how much the woman victim looks like a former girlfriend – a former girlfriend he remembers well. He watches the end of the tape to its unsatisfying conclusion and puts it away. A week later, he has a chance encounter with that girl from his past. They decide to have dinner and rehash old times. She has done quite well for herself and the man finds himself attracted to her. She invites him up to her hotel penthouse where he finds himself the guest of honor at the making of a snuff film.

The telling was excellent. The description of the events in the pseudo-snuff film were intense. The twist was somewhat expected, but effectively deployed. However, the ending deserved just a bit more to ratchet up the horror. An enjoyable story nonetheless.

Train robbers sit while one of their own lay dying from a bullet wound in the head. They tell tales of bad luck and misfortune. The topper is the tale of Little Dick West who his doomed to lose many a gunfight.

I’m not much of a fan of westerns and this story was a western although it could have been set just about any time or anywhere. There was no real payoff at the end that I suppose was supposed to be chilling.

The Haunt
A Florida strip club is haunted by the spirit of a dead artist. The owner and a couple of his employees contact the spirit via Ouija board. After learning that he is compelled to act when summoned, they decide to make him part of the act – with disastrous consequences.

This was a pretty straightforward poltergeist story that was well told and generally entertaining.

Megan’s Law
A father learns that a convicted rapist has moved into his neighborhood just a few doors down. The story is told from the perspective of the father and the rapist.

Pretty pedestrian storytelling until you get to the twist. Then it gets good. . .very good.

If Memory Serves
A psychiatrist listens to the tale of repressed memories of rape and sodomy from the multiple personalities of a middle-aged woman. The woman recounts in ugly, graphic detail the acts performed on her person as a young child by her parents and neighbors who were part of a satanic cult. The psychiatrist gets a surprise at the end of the session.

This tale is violent and graphic. I don’t mind that if it is done with purpose and effect. The twist that was the story’s payoff didn’t make it worth the violence. Besides, tales of satanic rituals are so 1980s.

Father and Son
A father and his adult son live together after the father’s wife dies. One night, dad goes to the bathroom with tragic consequences.

This story moves quickly and has an ambiguous ending. It might be best termed experimental.

The Business
A middle-aged man envies his older brother who is much more successful in business and has a pretty fiancé. He plots his brother’s murder and his fiancé will be collateral damage. But an unpredicted turn of events fouls up the plan.

I have really enjoyed most of the stories in this volume. However, this one reads like a college comp class submission. It is not badly written. It just comes up short in character development and/or plot.

Mother and Daughter
A man recounts his youth when his father left him, his mom, and his sister to fend for themselves. Mom responded by covering up all the mirrors in their home which doubled as a bed and breakfast from which the family earned their living. His sister was angry because, being a teenage girl, she liked to look at herself. With the passage of time, the son moves onto college while his older sister remains behind to help mom run the bed and breakfast.

This tale is far superior to father and son because it develops strong sympathy for the sister who sacrifices her health and life to care for her mother. Not my type of story, but I enjoyed in nonetheless. Being new to Jack Ketchum, I am pleased to see he is multidimensional.

When the Penny Drops
A man loses his wallet in Greece. It is returned to his hotel with a mysterious note telling him to return the favor to someone someday. Years later, he loses a ring at a bar. It is returned to the bartender with the same cryptic note. When his wife is shot and killed as an innocent bystander, he feels the desire to return the favor.

The writing in this story was so rich and textured with brilliant character development. I thought for sure it was going to be a feel good story. But the end is anything but feel good.

Rabid Squirrels in Love
A former addict and mental patient recalls how she met the love of her life while working at a mental hospital. Her beau, an orderly at the hospital, has a taste for violence. She reflects on their relationship and his peculiar hobbies.

This story was a cheap shot not well executed. While the story was mildly engaging, the “twist” such as it was with its in your face shot at the pro-life movement was under par for even a high school short fiction submission. Politics aside, it was poorly executed.

A squirrel hunter wounds a squirrel and brings it home. His children nurse it back to health and it becomes the family pet, living in the house and going out during the day. The boy of the family wonders where his pet goes during the day. He finds out with tragic results.

This read like something published in Yankee magazine. Its pace is leisurely. The story is heartwarming and the narrator tells it well. The end is predictable enough, but the superb narrative makes up for it.

A pair of fraternal twins develops a bond beyond what normal twins have after their father is killed en coitus by a jealous husband. They move to Manhattan and live together as a couple while owning a restaurant. When the dead rise, the happy days are over.

It’s not a zombie story. The walking dead are only a prop to tell a story of tragic and taboo love in one of the most forlorn narratives I’ve ever read. Fantastic!

Amid the Walking Wounded
A man develops a severe nose bleed and is taken to the hospital. He is treated and released, but is soon forced to go back. Life passes by and he is confined to his hospital bed as an observer.

This story was atmospheric, but the plot petered out as the atmosphere developed. It needed more plot.

The Great San Diego Sleazy Bimbo Massacre
A woman conspires with her next door neighbor to murder her husband. They agree to split the insurance, but have trouble agreeing on the manner of murder. They try several poison attempts and fake accidents. One night, they decide to bludgeon him to death. It all goes according to plan until the 911 call.

I really enjoyed this story, but was put off by the ending. It just stopped -- like there was more to tell but Ketchum ran out of paper. A completely unsatisfying end.

The Holding Cell
A man is put into a holding cell after he is arrested for DUI. He notes the comings and goings of the various inmates between bouts of sleep. He’s allowed to call his ex-wife and arrange for bail. Then, he and another con notice there is something bizarre about this holding cell.

Ketchum knows how to write compelling prose. But once again, I’m disappointed by the ending. The twist was pretty evident as well.

The Work
An author hires a hit man to kill her as she killed one of the characters in her novel. It is a particularly brutal murder, but she hopes to find in death the fame that eluded her in life.

Here we get a little dose of that Jack Ketchum violence. But as with several stories in the book, it lacked a satisfactory resolution.

The Best
A condom full of DNA can be a scorned woman’s best friend.

Another unsatisfying short story. Many of Ketchum’s short stories are just a series of events that evoke no emotion.

A woman scorned seeks out and murders her former lover’s lovers. Eventually, she finds a woman who is her match physically and mentally. She learns some hard truths about herself and her former lover.

Wow! This story was a fantastic mix of softcore erotica and implied violence. It makes up for the last woman scorned story.

The Exit at Toledo Blade Boulevard
The tale of four vehicles and their occupants traveling Interstate 75 near Sarasota, Florida. Three of them will encounter one whose driver has a deathwish.

This story was a group of short character studies woven into a plot that – unlike I-75 – goes nowhere.

Chain Letter

A chain letter becomes the source of all religion and faith in the land. Receive the letter, you can take responsibility for the sins of all those whose name appears above yours on the letter. Or, you may pass on the responsibility for their sins and yours by forwarding the letter to someone.

A quite chilling, atmospheric tale. There was enough plot to make it interesting, but the atmosphere was incredible. Love the perspective switch as well. It worked wonderfully.

One afternoon, many years ago, a stoner couple contemplates the pros and cons of living forever. As life moves on and they confront their own mortality, the cons weigh heavy on the man’s mind as his wife battles cancer.

I honestly did not see the end coming. Ketchum did not tip his hand at all and the twist was as realistic as it was shocking. I had to reread the last sentence just to make sure I got it right.

A woman whose child was snatched from her car and gone forever decides this is the year she is going to put out candy for Halloween. She is disappointed when no kids show up, knowing that she is shunned in the neighborhood. Finally, three kids show up and leave her with a haunting remark.

Making the reader feel sorry for a woman whose child was stolen from her is shooting fish in a barrel for an author with any skill. Yet, Ketchum walks that fine line between sorrow and lugubriousness.

Closing Time
In the wake of 9/11, an armed robber preys on bars in Manhattan. An advertising artist laments a breakup with his mistress. His mistress, a bartender, struggles to get over their broken relationship. The lives collide.

This was a near perfect story with wonderful character development and a plot that was well paced and kept you guessing. The unusual manner of telling was reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino.

The Rose
A man takes his “girlfriend” who is a girl he has abducted years earlier, to get a tattoo of a rose on her shoulder blade. Some time later, when they make love, he learns the truth of the cliché “every rose has its thorns.”

This was a creepy, lurid tale effectively written.

The Turning
A man of wealth and means walks across Midtown Manhattan pondering what will happen when the unwashed masses inhabiting the city all become vampires.

This mildly dystopian story is an undisguised metaphor for the class struggle. It was well written and served its purpose.

To Suit the Crime
Two men discuss the nature of crime and punishment in a future society where judges are free to mete out sentences tailored to make the criminal suffer the same pain and fate as their victim.

Just a bit of splatterpunk here. Not my cup of tea, but it is well written and intriguing.

Lines: or Like Franco, Elvis is Still Dead
A tourist picks up a local woman in a bar. They wind up on a beach, making out, when they witness a murder by shotgun. The woman calls the police and the man ends up bewildered by the turn the case takes.

The story moved along nicely with good first person narration. However, like several in this collection, the story had an unsatisfactory resolution.

The Visitor
As a zombie crisis unfolds in the land, a man and elderly man’s wife is bitten and infected. She dies in a hospital and the old man visits with those who take her place, one after another as the crisis gets worse.

A different spin on the over-done zombie subgenre. While not outstanding, the story and its main character have their charm.

A woman, who is pursuing her ex-husband in the courts, is confronted by a large snake in her back yard. The snake seems to take a personal interest in her and makes her life miserable.

The metaphor is made crystal clear from the title and the last paragraph. The story would be especially tense for those who fear snakes. Even for us who harbor no phobias of slithering serpents, the story was a lot of fun.

A group of barflies learn of a strange ritual occurring nightly in a nearby forest. Creatures, great and small, predator and prey, have united around a fire. Each night, the animals’ rituals grow in complexity and intensity and the men and women gathered fear that massive change is in the air.

Like too many stories in this volume, the story starts with a really interesting premise that Ketchum fails to see through. I loved the characters and the writing. But the story just stopped without a satisfying conclusion.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Watchers By Dean Koontz

By Dean Koontz
Copyright 1987

Writing fiction from an animal’s point of view is a tricky proposition for an author. It is difficult to do well and easy to do badly and very easy to do very badly. Assigning the human capacity to think and reason is the biggest pitfall. Some have done it well like Stephen King did with Cujo. Koontz does it quite well in Watchers.

Travis Cornell is a former Delta Force unit alienated from life and the human race by a series of tragic events in his life. One day while hiking alone, he finds a stray dog running along a desert trail. The dog warns Travis that he is in danger and Travis and the dog flee the desert.

Travis soon learns that this is no ordinary Golden Retriever. This dog is special and the government is taking a strong interest in finding it.

Nora Devon has lived a sheltered life, hardly ever venturing into public. Repressed by her aunt that raised her, Nora gets nervous at the prospect of any human contact. After servicing her television, a television repairman starts to harass Nora, calling her and making suggestive comments and tormenting her. Nora lives her life in fear.

Vince Nasco is a Mafia hitman who delights in killing. He believes he is able to absorb the life force of those he kills and is striving for immortality. He is hired by the Soviets to kill scientists associated with Banodyne Laboratories – the lab that created the Golden Retriever named Einstein by his new master, Travis.

The lab also created another intelligent animal. While Einstein is an exceptionally intelligent, faithful, loyal dog, the creature known as The Outsider is a ruthless killing machine. The Outsider is loose as well, slaughtering people and animals across southern California with one goal – to find Einstein and kill him.

One day, while walking with Travis in a park, Einstein saves Nora from her stalker and Travis and Nora are drawn together. They both fall in love with Einstein and learn to communicate with him to unlock his secrets.

While slaughtering Banodyne scientists, Vince learns of Einstein and his wondrous abilities. Determined to find the dog, capture him, and sell him to the highest bidder, Vince also pursues the dog across southern California.

Travis and Nora fall in love and are married. When they return from their honeymoon, they find their home destroyed and Travis’s landlord dead at the hands of the other. They flee, assume false identities and move to northern California to flee from the federal government who is tracking both the Outsider and Einstein in hopes of capturing them.

Vince and the Outsider converge on the Cornell home at the same time and Travis, Nora, and Einstein are forced to fight for their lives against a sadistic mass murderer and a genetically engineered killing machine.

Watchers launched the career of Dean Koontz who had many books in print, but remained under the radar of most readers. Upon its publication, Koontz became a national bestseller of books and developed into a novel machine, publishing two – sometimes three novels a year for more than 30 years.

Too often, Dean Koontz is lazy with his character development. He often relies on a template character of the overachiever who overcome great childhood obstacles but is lonely in life. Watchers is different and that is part of what makes it special. When Koontz opens his book, Travis comes across as gruff, even callous. But as his relationship with Einstein and Nora develops, Koontz peals the onion to reveal a former Delta Force killer who is a broken human being on the mend.

Nora has a wonderful character arc. Koontz introduces her as a mouse of a woman. But she is no caricature. Early on Koontz reveals her as a complex woman. As she confronts her tormentor and develops a relationship with Travis and Einstein, she evolves nicely into a strong woman capable of violence to protect home and family.

Koontz’s treatment of the Outsider is masterful. As with his heroes, Koontz is capable of laziness with his villains and monsters as well and they often emerge as Snidely Whiplash like characters. The Outsider is a genetically engineered mutant bred for no purpose but killing. That would have been enough to sustain the plot. But Koontz makes the effort to make the Outsider tragic and almost sympathetic. This extra touch added tremendously to my enjoyment of Watchers.

Kudos to Koontz for writing an intelligent animal that didn’t want to make me gag. He did not write form Einstein’s point of view which helped by not having us read the dog’s thoughts and internal dialogue even though Einstein was capable of thinking, reasoning, and even reading. Einstein’s abilities are revealed slowly to the reader (and to Travis). This helps develop Einstein. While his abilities are fixed at the beginning of the story, the slow reveal makes it more plausible. As I stated, this is easy to do badly. Koontz did it masterfully and made Einstein as loveable as Old Yeller.

Watchers is well plotted with a masterful ebb and flow of story and character development scenes. The term page turner is used too often in rating and reviewing books, but Watchers was a compelling read. Never did I feel a scene was wasted. Every paragraph lent itself to the story.

The book is not without some small shortcomings. Koontz really works hard at developing the personal relationship between the county sheriff and the federal agent. He did it well and the reader felt the bond between the two and felt empathy for each. But both got short shrift from Koontz. The sheriff disappeared from the story without any resolution other than a final conversation in the final chapter of the book. The federal agent has an epiphany about the direction of his life (a writing cheat as egregious as ex deus machina) and falls away from the story until the final chapter where he serves no purpose other than to bring the story to a close. These characters deserved something better.

Vince’s aversion to sexual behavior is put out there before the reader, but never explained. Vince received enough character development to make him an effective antagonist. But deeper exploration of this facet of his personality which seemed important to Koontz since he brought it up so many times, would have made Vince a stronger character.

I would have enjoyed just a chapter or two – perhaps a prologue from the Outsider’s point of view. He was such a fascinating antagonist that just a taste of his interior dialogue would have been welcomed. Too much would have weakened the character and Koontz was careful to avoid that. But it would have been nice to know just a little more about this emotionally complex creature.

Koontz is always hit or miss with me. I love some of his better books like Watchers, Phantoms, Strangers, Night Chills and The Bad Place while absolutely loathing some of his later work like Cold Fire, Winter Moon, and Seize the Night I could not suffer through.

Watchers was a delight to read and ranks with Koontz’s best work. Great characters and a well told story always makes for a good book. Watchers is a damn good book.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Night Boat By Robert R. McCammon

The Night Boat
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1980

The Night Boat
is one of his early novels (third published, second written) that Robert McCammon had pulled from publication later in his career. His claim was that his earlier novels (including Baal, Bethany’s Sin, and They Thirst) were him learning the craft of reading and did not reflect his best work.
This was a rash decision by McCammon. While These books are never going to compete with his great works like Swan Song and Speaks the Night Bird, they are not bad books. Some are better than others, but all are entertaining.

That said, The Night Boat is probably the least of these books.

Diver David Moore is diving on a Caribbean wreck when he spots a giant craft covered by sand on an underwater ledge off the coast of a small Caribbean island. He accidentally releases the derelict Nazi sub with an old depth charge, unleashing the undying fury of the evil inhabitants waiting in the depths.

The sub surfaces and is towed to a nearby shipyard where it is secured. David Moore and the island constable board her and see the horrible inhabitants come to life. Soon, the island is overrun by zombie Nazis with two goals: to feast on human flesh and to secure the supplies necessary to launch their sub and continue their mission to sink ships.

After slaughtering a number of island inhabitants, the zombies return to the shipyard where they install their new batteries, refuel their craft, and set sail for the shipping lanes.

One man, and old Carib who was injured in a Nazi attack on the island’s shipyard, vows revenge. He takes David Moore and a marine archeologist to see with him to stop the Nazis before they can resume their mission.

The Night Boat is entertaining reading with a plot that seldom lags. However, it suffers from a linear plot and lack of character development.

David Moore is developed adequately. We know his family drowned and he’s left New England and the banking system to operate a hotel in the Caribbean and forget his life. His backstory defines him and makes him a sympathetic character.

He’s the only one who gets any meaningful development.

Kip, the island constable, gets a little backstory. But he’s never made sympathetic. McCammon tries by revealing Kip’s fears and insecurities. That is usually a good device to develop a character. However, for Kip to be properly developed and emerge a true hero, he must offset those fears and insecurities with strong action. Kip ends up being a bystander to the climax.

A romance between Moore and the marine archeologist would have provided more heft to the climax when the couple are in danger. Instead, David is purely hands off, preferring to remember his dead family. The relationship between the man and woman thrown into the danger of being attacked by zombies and then pursuing a zombie Nazi sub in a brewing hurricane should have been more than platonic.

The man who emerges as the hero of the story – the old Carib – was a textbook example of ex deus machina. He did not emerge in the story until he was needed near the end. McCammon is a much better writer and that and could have come up with a way and reason for Kip or even Moore to emerge as the hero. Instead, McCammon invented a new character to serve as the tool of resolution.

Most importantly, McCammon never really develops his zombies. We know they are intelligent since they are able to repair their sub. We know they are evil since they are driven to destroy ships and life. We know that they are terrifying because they dine on human flesh. But, given their intelligence, the reader deserves to know something behind their motivation. Such development would have augmented their evil and the terror they created.

There was a like to like about this story. McCammon really shows his horror chops in writing gore. None of the gore of the zombie attacks is gratuitous and all serves to show the cold hearted viciousness of these monsters. While not quite splatterpunk, the horror scenes are quite graphic.

McCammon develops his setting quite nicely. Most of us know the Caribbean islands as the tourist mecca with beautiful beaches and shops. McCammon reveals the real culture of the indigenous people of the Caribbean on an island where people work for a living. He develops their culture, their language and their superstitions to help drive his story.

The Night Boat was indeed a book by a writer still honing his craft. The book that followed (in order of writing) Bethany’s Sin, was much better in exploring motivations and character development. When he got to his fourth book, he was willing to take on horror on a large scale in They Thirst.

Despite being the work of a learning author, The Night Boat was fun. It was an original take on the zombie trope decades before zombies became the rage in horror. That alone would make it stand out if a more mature McCammon had written it today. The story works nicely and is an easy read.

McCammon has never written a bad book. A couple like The Night Boat and Mystery Walk stand as average, but not bad. The Night Boat is not a bad book, but might be McCammon’s most average.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Finders Keepers By Stephen King

Finders Keepers
By Stephen King
Copyright 2015

Stephen King introduces us to retired detective “Ret Det” Bill Hodges in Mr. Mercedes. The book ends in a cliff hanger and the reader is left wanting to know the fate of the book’s villain. Now comes book two in the Hodges trilogy, Finders Keepers. This from Stephen

"Wake up genius." So begins King’s instantly riveting story about a vengeful reader. The genius is John Rothstein, an iconic author who created a famous character, Jimmy Gold, but who hasn’t published a book for decades. Morris Bellamy is livid, not just because Rothstein has stopped providing books, but because the nonconformist Jimmy Gold has sold out for a career in advertising. Morris kills Rothstein and empties his safe of cash, yes, but the real treasure is a trove of notebooks containing at least one more Gold novel.

Morris hides the money and the notebooks, and then he is locked away for another crime. Decades later, a boy named Pete Saubers finds the treasure, and now it is Pete and his family that Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson must rescue from the ever-more deranged and vengeful Morris when he’s released from prison after thirty-five years."

I must say that I enjoyed Finders Keepers much, much more than I enjoyed Mr. Mercedes. Gone is Bill Hodges lugubrious self pity which morphs into grief. Almost gone is the caricature of a black character known as Jerome. Finders Keepers develops new characters who are much more interesting and real while keeping Hodges, Jerome, and Holly Gibney moving right along.

There is not much new in the way of development for the old characters except we find out that Holly is now fighting the mental illness that constrained her for so many years. Hodges is quite successful as a private detective and enjoying life. Jerome has moved onto college (thank God) and isn’t in the book much. When he’s in the book, he does very little of the jive talkin’ that irritated the hell out of me in Mr. Mercedes.

I love the villain who is a well read, philosophical born of an intellectual and middle class family who is just a no good loser. No caricature there. He’s well spoken, but morally depraved. While other criminals kill for money, he kills for literature. I love it!

Mr. Mercedes
got way too bogged down in Hodges emotions. The story was slow to get going and slowed down too frequently. That is not the case with Finders Keepers. The story is lively paced. Even the character backstories that sometimes slow King’s stories are rich. The trip through Morris Bellamy’s life makes his character and is interesting to read. The verbose King pares down the prose in Finders Keepers to tell a sleek, well-honed story.

But what of Brady Hartsfield – the brain damaged killer who uses and upscale motorcar to mow down the unemployed and downtrodden? King hasn’t forgotten him and neither has Bill Hodges. He’s still very much on Hodges’ mind and Bill visits him in the hospital weekly. While Brady plays the slobbering gork bit quite well, King leads us to believe it is very much an act. Brady Hartsfield is very much aware of what is going on around him and maybe has developed some new abilities after being hit with a sock full of ball bearings.

My chief complaint about this book is that it does not advance the overall story at all other than give us hints about Brady Hartsfield’s condition. Finders Keepers could be read as a stand alone novel and enjoyed by those who’ve never read Mr. Mercedes. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But King left us with the impression at the end of Mr. Mercedes that the story was going to be Bill Hodges and the gang versus the evil force of Brady Hartsfield. That story is not advanced one iota.

That criticism aside, Stephen King reminds us that there is much more to him than monsters and things that terrify us. There is nothing supernatural about the story in Finders Keepers. It’s entirely mainstream. A friend of mine who teaches English told me he found King horror stories to all be based on the same formula. However, when King left the genre and told a mainstream tale like he did in Misery, Different Seasons, and others, he was at his best. I don't agree with that assessment, but King can and does write strong mainstream fiction.

I’m quite certain that I would not count Finders Keepers as one of his best and would not put it in the same league as Misery and Different Seasons which were both absolutely brilliant. It is, however, a very good book that King fans will love and those who do not read King on a regular basis will enjoy.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Caves of Steel By Isaac Asimov

Caves of Steel
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1953

Caves of Steel
is the first novel (preceded by the short story collection, I, Robot) in Asimov’s Robots collection. The book represents an early example of genre blending where science fiction meets whodunit.

Roj Nemmenuh Sarton, a Spacer Ambassador who lives in Spacetown, the Spacer outpost just outside New York City is dead, having been murdered and his body badly disfigured. Elijah Baley, a New York City police detective is given the responsibility by his boss to find the murderer lest the tenuous relationship between the inhabitants of Spacetown and the outlying colonies take a turn for the worse.

To assist him, Baley is provided with a robot, R. Daneel Olivaw. Daneel so closely resembles a human that he is indistinguishable. He was created in the likeness of Sarton by Sarton himself, who was working to overcome Earth residents’ bigotry and restrictions on robots.

Asimov takes us through a few twists and turns in his futuristic murder mystery. Baley develops one theory and then another, disproving each eventually. He comes to suspect his own wife may be complicit. He moves through the underground of a New York City counter culture known as Medievalists who would have mankind start anew on another world. Eventually, Baley looks closer to home and, with Daneel’s help, finds his murderer.

What I love most about Asimov is his taut, tight prose that wastes nary a word in moving the story along at a quick pace. Asimov, a protégé of the pulp editors of the 1940s and 1950s, perfected his trade writing for magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction where readers did not want a lot of flowery language or five syllable adjectives. They wanted plot. They wanted action. And Asimov delivered.

It was not hard to figure out early on who the murderer was in Caves of Steel. This was not because of poor writing or plotting. Asimov just didn’t offer us a lot of suspects. He did give us a couple red herrings, but they were summarily dismissed with no ambiguity. This did not weaken the book because, just as with Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, the murder mystery was secondary to the characters and their relationship.

As he did in the short story collection, I, Robot, Asimov explores man vs. machine and what constitutes life. Philip K. Dick explored a similar theme in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. But there, robots and humans were dedicated enemies and killed each other. In Asimov’s telling, robots are loathed, but serve as second class citizens on earth. Although Asimov alludes to it, we are never taken off world. But we know that the people there are more sophisticated and their attitudes toward robots is similarly sophisticate and not nearly as bigoted. Asimov leaves the reader believing greater interdependence is in store for humans and robots.

One hobby of even casual readers of Golden Age Science Fiction is to gauge the writer’s prescience about his future – our present. Some of those writers apparently put great effort into trying to be accurate even if they would not live to see their forecasts played out. I didn’t get the sense in any Asimov that he strived for this in a technological sense. His vision of the future as presented in Caves of Steel is not far removed from race relations in the South in 1953. So, I don’t think he was striving to be a seer here either. He did envision robots taking the place of humans in mechanical occupations such as welders and other manual labor tasks twenty years before it came to pass. While they are not robots per se, the computer has replaced many a file clerk and researcher in the police departments since the 1950s.

The murder mystery is a vehicle through which Asimov establishes the relationship between Baley and Daneel. It appears that they will soon be heading off world, perhaps in the company of Medievalists, fulfilling the late Dr. Sarton’s desire that more men leave the overcrowded conditions on Earth and move out into the planets.

To sci-fi fans, this book has no apparent weaknesses. It’s tight, fast paced, and well written. To the mystery fan – and my book club was anticipating mystery – this book leaves a little to be desired. While fashioned as a whodunit, it provides few suspects, few clues and few red herrings to challenge fans of that genre.

Caves of Steel is one of the great sci-fi works of the twentieth century and is recognized by those who do not normally read science fiction. Taught in literature classes at the high school and college level, the book has been read by millions outside of those dedicated readers of the genre. This is because Asimov was one of America’s great writers and Caves of Steel was one of his great works.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate
By Robert Caro
Copyright 2003

Historian Robert Caro continues his extensive and detailed chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life in his third volume, Master of the Senate. Caro examines 12 years of Lyndon Johnson’s life as he rose from a freshman senator whose legitimacy was in question to possibly the most powerful majority leader in history.

Caro opens his tome with a detailed history of the Senate; how its power ebbed and flowed in comparison to the executive branch and the lower chamber. Designed by the founders to be the world’s greatest deliberative body, it often rose to the occasion in the first 90 years of the republic. Soon after the Civil War, it was where good ideas went to die. Its power and influence waxed in the wake of World War I, but stood in the way of American foreign policy in the run up to World War II. By the time of Lyndon Johnson’s arrival in 1949, it was again a body of old men and little action.

The position of majority leader is relatively new in American politics. It is not a constitutional office like the Speaker of the House. It is purely political and its powers dictated by the rules of the senate. Caro documents the creation of this unofficial leadership position and how it ate alive its first holders.

With meticulous – sometimes too meticulous – detail, Caro describes the two seminal events in Lyndon Johnson’s senate career that put him in the national spotlight and set the stage for his unlikely rise to power in a legislative body where seniority is everything.

Leland Olds was a liberal’s liberal and head of the Federal Power Commission. An ardent New Dealer, Olds had frequently squared off with the oil and power companies who brokered Texas politics. Beholden to these interests, Johnson did their bidding in what many thought would be a routine confirmation hearing for another term for Olds.

Olds never saw the trap Johnson had laid for him as chairman of the subcommittee hearing his testimony. Johnson’s staff researched Olds’ youthful political affiliations and writings. Through this material, they were able to imply – without direct accusation – that Olds was a communist. When Olds tried to defend himself before the subcommittee, Johnson restricted his ability to testify and limited documents he could submit in his defense. With the New Dealer out at the Federal Energy Commission, the oil barons of the South were eager to finance Johnson’s political forays.

The other headlining event that defined Lyndon Johnson before the nation was the hearings before the Subcommittee on Preparedness. The committee was examining the U.S. military’s ability to wage war in Korea. Johnson and his allies on the committee ignored the rather limited scope of the United Nations’ police action and instead raised shrill alarm about how we were going into war without the full power of the nation’s military might behind us. With memories of World War II and a severe lack of preparedness, the public was alarmed. Johnson’s shrieks of alarm landed him on the front pages of several national news magazines and the New York Times.

As he did in the first two volumes of his Johnson biography, Path to Power and Means of Ascent, Caro diverges from this subject matter to present a thumbnail biography of important figures in Johnson’s rise to power. This volume documents the life of Richard Russell and looks extensively at his abortive run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1956. Lyndon Johnson avidly supported Russell’s presidential ambitions knowing full well that the country would never support such an ardent segregationist for president. Russell’s efforts fell short, but he never forgot Johnson’s support. It became Russell's goal to see Lyndon Johnson elected president.

From his college days, Johnson was able to be all things to all people. To liberals, he was one of them. The conservatives, he was in their camp. The northern liberals of the Democratic Party like Hubert Humphrey supported him. The Southern Caucus counted him as one of their own. One would think he would have to declare some sort of allegiance to run for Senate Majority Leader. Instead, he would broker the unlikeliest of compromise between the two warring factions, courting Humphrey and letting Russell reassure the Southerners. Johnson was elected Senate Majority leader in 1954 after Democrats reclaimed the majority.

One of the many good ideas that had routinely died in the Senate since post-Reconstruction was civil rights bills. Congress had not passed one since 1875 although many had been proposed by the executive branch and several had been passed by the House. Every time such legislation made its way to the Senate, the Southern Caucus killed it through filibuster. Then came the Brownwell Bill which eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Through several chapters, Caro describes the give and take and the brokering between northern liberals, southern conservatives, disinterested westerners, and Midwest Republicans. He gave everybody something they wanted. He cut from the bill the most onerous sections to appease Southerners. He delivered dams and other capital projects to Westerners. He promised liberals he and they would build upon this legally small, but politically monumental achievement. He showed Midwest Republicans how they might benefit with their growing black constituency. While the negotiations were tedious -- as was some of Caro’s narrative – Johnson managed to deliver on the first civil rights legislation in almost 90 years.

Caro promises an extensive examination of Johnson’s run for the presidency in 1960 in the next volume. However, he does chronicle some of what happened after Johnson’s ascendency to the vice presidency in 1961 and the man’s desperate move to hold onto power in the Senate.

When the Senate Democratic Caucus met in December 1960, Johnson convinced presumptive incoming majority leader Mike Mansfield to place his name into nomination to be chairman – an unprecedented move. The position was traditionally that of the majority leader. Democrats who had been foot soldiers and pawns in Johnson’s political machinations for nearly a decade balked. Some protested based on constitutional principles of separation of powers. Others balked simply because they were tired of Johnson pushing them around. Eventually, Johnson asked Mansfield to withdraw the nomination and Mansfield was elected.

Johnson spent the early days of his vice presidency in the Democratic cloak room. But those senators with whom he had been so intimate, who sought his advice and support, and whom he had harassed and cajoled, were now merely cordial. No longer were they clubby. Johnson was no longer a member of the club.

Caro certainly uses a lot of pages to cover just a few years of Lyndon Johnson’s career. But there is enough material on the history of the Senate and its workings and procedures to create a stand alone book.

This book should be required reading material for every U.S. Senator currently holding office and for those aspiring to the club of 100. They can look in the mirror and see themselves as those who are failing to uphold the once lofty reputation of that institution as the world’s greatest deliberating body. The Senate in the 1940s and 1950s before Johnson took over as majority leader was where great ideas went to die. ‘Tis so again today.

What makes Caro’s long tomes about this one man so interesting and engaging is his story telling ability. Some of that got lost in this book. While I understand what a monumental achievement it was to pass a civil rights act in 1957, my eyes sometimes glazed over during Caro’s microscopic examination of the legislative process. Yes, it does illustrate Johnson’s ability to wheel and deal, to cajole, to persuade. But chapter after chapter on the subject was a bit much.

Another element that got lost in this book was Caro’s ability to humanize this historical icon. The first two volumes told tales of Johnson’s personal life, of his relationships with friends, aides, and his wife. There was some of that in this book, but not nearly enough. There was too much focus on the legislative processes in the Senate.

Despite these minor weaknesses, Caro’s third volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson is still compelling reading and illustrate this man’s striking ability to obtain and wield power with effectiveness. I look forward to the fourth volume where Caro will examine Johnson’s activities in the least powerful constitutional office in the U.S. government: the office of vice president.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania By Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Copyright 2015

Erik Larson once again visits the darker side of history in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. As he did with serial killer H.H. Holmes in Devil in the White City, Larson examines this watershed moment in world history from many points of view.

There was President Woodrow Wilson who was trying hard to keep America out of the Great War in Europe. Lusitania Captain William Thomas Turner was confident that his vessel could outrun any U-boat on the seas. U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger enjoyed hunting enemy vessels and raising litters of dogs below decks of his craft. Winston Churchill, who oversaw the operations of the British Admiralty’s Room 40 where German radio transmissions were decoded. And there were the various passengers from different walks of life – some of whom survived and some who did not.

Larson introduces to the Lusitania as she sits in berth 54 at the Cunard docks on the Hudson River in New York. There, she took on her passengers and cargo. She was delayed for almost two hours while Captain Turner provided a tour to VIPs.

Larson provides a brief history of the Lusitania and details of her construction – including the coal bins built into the hull of the ship. She was the fastest ship in the Cunard fleet but, due to war rationing, was not allowed to run with all her boilers lit in order to save coal.

The R.M.S. Lusitania set sail from New York on May 4, 1915, en route to her date with history three days later. She made 23 knots across the Atlantic. Captain Turner was aware German U-boats patrolled the coast of Great Britain, but was confident in his vessel’s ability to outrun them. One thousand two hundred and twenty-two passengers were aboard and 696 crewmen. In the cargo holds, along with tons of coal to feed the ship’s boilers, were small caliber rounds destined for the British war machine.

Larson then gives us backstories on the many passengers aboard the Lusitania. The rich and middle class and just a few poor were aboard. Each of those men, women and children would become a story of bravery, heroism, or tragedy in just a few days.

Meanwhile, Walther Schwieger’s U-Boat 20 was patrolling off the coast of Ireland. He’d sunk some smaller ships and was on his way home, low on fuel. The British Admiralty in Room 40, using the German code they had broken, was aware of Shwieger’s presence off the coast. They were also aware that the Lusitania would soon be sailing through those waters. Room 40’s commanding officer, Winston Churchill, decided to keep the information to himself.

On May 7, the Lusitania met her destiny. Schwieger could scarcely believe his luck when the large ship appeared in his periscope. Schwieger launched his torpedo which struck the Lusitania on her starboard bow. Shortly thereafter, a second explosion rocked the ship. She started going down by the head.

The crew immediately set about launching lifeboats. But the ship’s list made it all but impossible to get them launched. Making the situation worse, many of the men who would have helped with the launching of the boats were below deck at the time of the explosion and were killed instantly.

The Lusitania sunk in just 18 minutes, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. A distress call brought local boats to the scene to pluck survivors out of the cold water. Many lives were saved because of those efforts. Meanwhile, Schwieger and his crew steamed for home.

1191 people died when the Lusitania went down. 128 of those lost were Americans. Woodrow Wilson, who had tried so hard to maintain America’s neutrality in the great war in Europe, had to take notice. While the sinking of the Lusitania did not bring America into the war, it made it much easier later, when the XYZ Telegram was discovered, for Wilson to request and receive, a declaration of war against Germany.

Erik Larson has a penchant for telling dark tales out of history and without embellishment of the facts, make them read like horror novels. Dead Wake is just a bit different. It’s a bit more history and a little less drama. Fans of his work are probably not going to like it as much as his earlier works which were much darker. However, fans of great sea disasters and naval warfare are going to rejoice in the first mainstream telling of this important tragedy in the history of naval warfare.

Larson’s books tell stories from many independent points of view that are seemingly unrelated to the central plot. He employs that device in Dead Wake as well, but to less effectiveness. Particularly the chapters dealing with Woodrow Wilson and his grief following the death of his wife and his courtship of Edith Galt were not effective in building the drama or telling the story. The book would have been better if that had been left out.

What did work well was the character sketches of the passengers who lived and died aboard the Lusitania and the biographical sketch of Captain Walker. While the lore of the legendary Titanic has made many of those lost in her sinking common names in history, very few know of those lost on the Lusitania. Granted, the Lusitania did not carry the social glitterati that was aboard the Titanic, but those lives and their stories need to be told for a full appreciation of the tragedy.

Larson’s narrative as he describes the sinking of the Lusitania is as fast paced as the events that unfolded. Titanic biographers have two hours of material with which to develop their narratives. Tales of heroism, nobility, and cowardice have time to develop. With just 18 minutes to work with, Larson grabs the reader and has him turning pages at a fever pitch.

The reader can’t read the book and not see how the British admirality was complicit in the sinking of the Lusitania. Larson does not reach that conclusion himself, but lets the reader get there on his own. Churchill knew the chances were good that U-boat 20 would encounter the Lusitania. Knowing that U-boat captains prized tonnage over all other measures of success, he knew no U-boat captain could resist sinking the Lusitania. He also knew many American and British civilians were aboard. The British admiralty issued no warnings. Churchill made sure he was out of the country when the event took place. They let events unfold hoping the outrage would bring America into the war.

Much speculation has surrounded what was in the Lusitania cargo holds and what caused that second explosion. It is common knowledge that the Lusitania was indeed ferrying war materiel to the British despite American protests that we were entirely neutral. But there was nothing in those munitions that would have triggered an explosion of the magnitude described. Many have speculated it was coal dust detonated by the torpedo. Coal was stored in a space between the ships outer and inner hull. Larson seems to poo poo that theory. His belief was that the explosion was a hot boiler hit by cold water.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is not the most authoritative or insightful book written on the subject of the Lusitania. However, it is the most accessible and its sales will introduce mainstream readers to the story of that ill fated Cunard liner, its passengers, and its brave captain. Books, plays and movies in great number have been dedicated to the telling of the story of the Titanic and her fate. Finally, the Lusitania will sail from the pages of history texts to the mainstream where the general public can learn of her and the tragedy of her final voyage.