The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
Of the books I read I chose to review these three because they are well known representatives of three different eras. From extroverted pulp representing the views of the thirties to the more inward turmoils of the late 60s early 70s. I'll begin with the Williamson.
Jack Williamson likely has the longest career in genre science fiction. Even before I read any of his work I was interested in him due to an interview I saw on the late & sadly forgotten Sci-Fi Buzz. In any event I began reading him years later with his recent work in magazines or anthologies. Though I have read some of his earlier stories before trying this book. I liked those stories for the most part. They seem to have a nice nostalgia to them but with enough of a dark edge that they don't seem saccharine or antiquated. However they in no way prepared me for this book.
This book didn't really seem to strike me as anything except a fairly conventional example of pulp science fiction. Which is odd because it has a very high reputation among many critics, especially those of the British New Wave. Perhaps they caught something that I missed. In any event basically it is about man choosing between two future time lines each represented by some future woman who can contact him. There is the good optimistic idealistic one that appeals to the need for a peaceful glorious future for humanity while the other is more appealing to needs for carnality, pride, and danger. For the times it is fairly explicit that that is her appeal. A long the way you see the progress of the early twentieth century, hear some lectures in surprisingly good though not great Quantum Physics, and kill some ant men real good.
This all might sound like good fun, and in a way it was. Watching history unfold in it was appealing. It gave me a rare chance to see how an S.F. writer viewed the conflicts between the World Wars. The ideas in it about extremely minor changes having great historic significance likely influenced a great many classic stories of the next era. Further it maybe the oldest thing I have read in genre which largely depended on QM. Despite this as a whole I think it would be difficult for modern readers to see this as anything but laughably poor. It is very similar to the kinds of serials from that era that you can some times see on nostalgia shows or parodied in diverse places. It comes complete with lusty warrior queens scheming evil, the battles with ant men, a band of international sidekicks, and more. There is a chance this was intended to be laughable then too, but from what I remember it read more like it was intended to be a fun adventure rather than necessarily a comedy. It did not exactly work there either for me. It all seemed so weird and nonsensical it was difficult for me to relate to. I am tempted to link this just to the era, except that I've read S.F. written from this period I could enjoy. I would relate it to the author, but none of the stories I have read by him were pulpy adventures in this mode.
Next up The Stars My Destination. This book has such a high reputation that I am even more nervous about reviewing it. Intriguingly though the book has been in my family for decades without anyone of them recommending it to me. This was something of a clue, yet in fact I did like it. One thing though that I realized quickly while reading, which in this case helped my appreciation, is that this is also very much a book of its time period. I think some see the fifties as a sterile Utopia, not realizing that in its own way it was also a time of "freaks" & tumult. Indeed from an international perspective, which Bester was no doubt aware, the fifties could be argued to be a more turbulent time of change than the decade that followed it. From revolts in Africa to the increasing harshness of the Iron Curtain. Internally it was the time that saw many of the most significant battles for Civil Rights & de-segregation. Further it was the era of Existential angst, Beatniks, & a rise of experimental writing in general. From that this book makes sense, and is a fit with the dreams as well as anxieties of the era.
Still it did not exactly impress me as much as I maybe had hoped. The main character for me was a disappointment. I had heard for years of Gully Foyle yet mostly he was just a crude and cruel. A single minded opportunists, but more importantly something of a bore. For some reason I never saw what was supposed to be all that interesting about him except the author's occasional efforts to slam into you that you must find him interesting. The scheming tycoon at the heart of The Demolished Man I found much more successful. It is perhaps surprising then that I liked it as well as I did, but the world he inhabits is quite colorful or intriguing. Full of strange religious groups, outlandish forms of entertainment that still seem pretty out there, and intriguing plots.
Just as impressive, from my perspective, was the female characters who I thought were a good counter point to him. Indeed for me the best part of the book involved them. The moments in the cave prison and the harrowing escape were for me the most magical part of the book, largely because the woman Jizbella was so intriguing. I felt at that point the the book deserved its stellar reputation, but as time passed her character soured. She went from seeming adventurous and liberated to more dull or minor. The other main female character was softer to began with so she remained fairly unscathed.
However I found some things awkward. There were some tendencies to be too flamboyant, too baroque, and at times it just seemed to be on the verge of crashing in on its own eccentricity. Also there was an element about Asians that, while acceptable for the times, seems slightly embarrassing or silly now. Indeed judging from other things I have read of that era I am tempted to say that part seemed slightly old fashioned even then. It also was not strictly speaking necessary as the book would have been about the same without it.
On the whole I found it a good example of fifties S.F. with moments of brilliance that it unfortunately was unable to sustain. Not quite equal to The Demolished Man, but worth trying.
Finally we come to Dying Inside. This is a book that is even more about its era. In fact it is explicitly about the times it was written in as it was set in that time. It is something of a memoir by a fictional telepath named Selig who recounts his life as a telepath while that power is fading. Ultimately it is about a life that failed and never lived up to its initial promise. Yet one does not, or in least I did not, feel quite as sad about that as one might. In fact at times the book is quite funny.
For ultimately his failure is his own fault. He is self obsessed to the extreme. He is arrogant, self pitying, and curiously judgmental. He views people with condescension or flat out contempt. He is perhaps liberal minded from his own perspective, but at the same time is clearly bigoted. He takes pleasure in his education and knowledge yet these things have not allowed him to be anything more but a lowly ghost writer of no consequence. He blames his telepathy for many of his problems yet he is terrified of losing it. Nevertheless he realizes grudgingly that other telepaths are more well adjusted than he and so despises them for that.
This gave me an interesting if occasionally difficult job. That being separate what he perceives from what actually is. From his perception he is largely a victim of cruel fate, a society in the midst of collapse, and hateful people. To an extent he recognizes his problems, but he recognizes them in such an over the top manner it almost makes him sound more the victim. However it is clear this is not the reality pretty early on in the book. He is responsible for his failings, while the people around him are largely justified in how they treat him. Indeed at times people offer him kindness which he often spurns or treats with suspicion. In fact what is perhaps most interesting is that his telepathy in many ways does not give him much of a people sense at all.
The other thing that was interesting about the book was that it was a look at that period of history. In this respect it was mostly not different from a mainstream book. In fact this is one of the books that would perhaps fit most comfortably in general literature. Although knowledge of S.F helps it is not strictly speaking necessary. Most of the things about family, failed relationships, social upheaval, and drugs would fit in any book about intellectuals of that time. An exception might be the drugs as his telepathy is quite relevant to his experiences with LSD. However it was interesting in that it did not see that time as some glorious cultural revolution. Instead it is seen as something of a decay even an outright collapse. Interestingly much of the music that is seen as celebrating the late 60s has a similar despairing ambience. That things had failed and either needed to be started over or just abandoned.
So I imagine my opinions are not your own, but hopefully this will whet your curiosity for these books and perhaps shown something of the evolution of the genre during the period.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas R. and Bewildering Stories.