Monday, October 3, 2016

The Slayer of Souls, Robert W. Chambers

The Slayer of Souls(1920) is the second book of Robert W. Chambers' that I have read. It is available for free at Gutenberg.org and Feedbooks.com. The edition I am reading is from Feedbooks. The difference between the two is generally that the transcriptions on Gutenberg.org are better than that of Feedbooks.com. On the other hand, the Feedbooks edition has a preface. After having read it all, I highly recommend reading the Gutenberg edition, as the Feedbooks edition has so many errors in it. They don't often obscure much, but it's like listening to a great album with a lot of scratches on it. Sometimes I had to stop and look around to figure out what should have been written in Feedbooks' edition.

First, the preface: Included is a criticism of legendary writer H. P. Lovecraft's, in which is excerpted, "Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans - equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them." The preface also includes a criticism from Frederic Taber Cooper, which reads, "So much of Chambers's work exasperates, because we feel that he might so easily have made it better." Regarding Lovecraft: I have only read a few things of Lovecraft's stories, "At the Mountain of Madness" and "The Alchemist". So, perhaps I'm missing something. However, I see his work as significantly inferior to that of Chambers'.

Take The Slayer of Souls which I am reading as an example: the descriptions are vivid. There is good dialogue, which is something which feels so lacking in Lovecraft's writing. Further, in the types of literary exposition, there is what is called 'show' and 'tell.' Lovecraft's two stories I have to go by is mostly 'tell' with some 'show,' whereas Chambers' is skillfully described.

The story could occupy several genres: fantasy, speculative fiction (according to Wikipedia), weird fiction, and horror. In this world which is set in the real world is an older one with magic set in the period just after world war one.

The main character, Nan-Yang Maru, aka Tressa Norne, has a great deal of this magical power. She was forged in magical China where demons are worshiped. She is a very powerful female hero, which is considerably rare. In fact, I cannot recollect any books that I have read prior to 1920 or even around that period where women are the heroes and main characters in this kind of fiction. For this reason alone Chambers has invoked a great deal of respect from me.

From the beginning, Chambers gives a taste of her power as she faces her most powerful nemesis: Sanang. Sanang breaks into her room on a boat headed to San Francisco from China, using psychokinetic powers, "(She) saw the double locked door opposite the foot of her bed slowly opening of its own accord." She holds a pistol at him. She uses some of her magical power and throws at him a yellow snake which terrifies him.

The first attempt at her assassination comes from a tough character, Gutchly Kan. He plots her dath, deriding Sanag's love for her and his fear. But Gutchlug instead is killed by one of her snakes, sent psychically from below his own room.

Senang and his surviving assassins are refereed to as Yezidees, and the demon they worship is Erlik.

When Tressa Norne finds herself in the US, she is unable to provide for herself. She tries to become a magician to entertain. But rather than using the typical setups of a magical show, she uses real magic instead. However, this does not amuse the audience, and she cannot make a living. There is no family for her, and she is extremely vulnerable.

Physically, she is described as boyish, her breasts being 'undecided.'

To survive, she is prepared to sell herself as a prostitute. But this is implied and never explicitly said. She is given an alternative: work for the US government for 3x what she was receiving before as a magician. Of course she agrees, despite knowing that by doing so she violates her promise to never reveal the inner workings of the Chinese assassins' guild, the Yezidees.

She was brought to China by her father. But, it would prove fatal to her father when the Yazidees "took Yian in 1910, threw him into a well in his own compound and filled it up with imperial troops" when she was 13. Some years later, her mother is killed, and she is forced to become a temple sorceress.

Her biggest problem is that she believes her soul is already dead. As soon as her body dies, she dies with it. For this reason, she will do anything to survive, as long as she can. The man she meets that recruits her is Victor Cleves, who ends up marrying her to save her reputation. A couple living together unmarried, apparently, would harm her reputation. She consents. As time goes on, however, it becomes clear that they are quickly falling in love with one another. Perhaps it is this love which helps her overcome the sorcerer-assassins.

Tressa is a remarkable character: horribly weak in some ways, and in others, perhaps, the most powerful person in the world. She defeats one after another of those who would kill her and subvert America into communism, but sees herself as completely unworthy of Cleves.

The prose is often poetic. It is well written, even romantic at times. I am very impressed with this novel and highly recommend it. I can't help but wonder if Chambers' harsh critics were jealous of his obvious talent.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Geek Mafia, Rick Dakan

Geek Mafia (2006) is a book by Rick Dakan. It is available for free on feedbooks.com.

The setting is a decade ago. Computers at that time had reached maturity. High speed Internet was in its infancy. There is a mafia in San Jose, California, whose mission is to steal using the tools at their disposal: technology of the day, via hacking and other methods.

The main character, Paul Reynolds, was fired from a company whose existence was his brainchild and creation. The company, getting close to making his brainchild into a successful game is on the verge of making serious money, and choose that moment to force him out. As such, he's been made by a group of hackers who decide to con the company and himself out of a big payout.

It succeeds, and they manage to squeeze $850,000 out of the company through blackmail and extortion. That might have been enough for Paul to live on for a long time. But he's gotten a taste for Chloe, and Chloe has gotten a taste for Paul. He loves the life that she brings him into.

However, Raff, one of her crew, feels betrayed by the fact that Chloe falls for Paul and she attempts to let him off with his money (although perhaps this was inadvertent, as is later revealed by some failure to track Paul as he found a place to stash it). He tries to join the crew and helps orchestrate a few cons, the last of which makes him wanted by the FBI. It was a set up from the inside which unravels the last and nearly costs him his life.

The narration is pretty decent for a free modern novel. Rick Dakan has skill. The novel is hindered, however, by many mistakes which could have been corrected by a decent proofreader. The worst mistake was one chapter that ended abruptly and reprinted previous chapters. It did not usually detract too much from the story. However, it would have been much better without all of the mistakes.

Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley

Mary Shelly is a pioneer and legendary writer. Some argue that she wrote the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein. Her father was a famous writer, as was her husband. However, I think it likely that she is today the most famous of them, and her work is seminal to the great genre that is science fiction. She wrote at a time when women often used pen names to hide their femininity. I think this made her something of a feminist.

A common theme among many science fiction stories is the idea that too much science is a bad thing. While in fiction she may be the first to describe the consequences of too much science, certainly there are many real life examples in history where a scientist has suffered for his science. “... if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the emperor of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.” However, I would lay the blame of this at the feet of religious intolerance rather than the pursuit of science. I think, rather, that science is a vehicle for significant change, and change frightens most people.

Consequence of too much study: “Every night I was oppressed by a slow fever, and I became nervous to a most painful degree; the fall of a leaf startled me, and I shunned my fellow creatures as if I had been guilty of a crime.”

A part of the narrative includes a description of superficial prejudice, which will come up several times throughout the book. For instance, “No mortal could support the horror of that countenance.”

The mad laughter of the mad scientist, “...he saw a wildness in my eyes for which he could not account, and my loud unrestrained, heartless laughter frightened and astonished him.” I can't help but wonder if Victor Frankenstein was the first mad scientist. What a brilliant invention of character Shelley created! I don't know how those critics could not recognize her genius.

The monster with no name observes a family and becomes a member without their knowledge. Through observation and study in less than a year he has aquired the ability to read, speak, and even write. One of the books which he reads is Milton's Paradise Lost, which is quite an advanced piece of literature.

He eventually seeks them to know him. But they fear him because of his appearance. He runs away and finds Frankenstein's village. He meets and kills the younger brother and frames a close servant (like family... but a kind of slave, too) who is later tried, found guilty, and then executed for his crime.

The monster demands of Victor that he build a female like him that he might love her. On the brinkin of doing so, Victor realizes that creating a female may as likely result in a new terror. Further, and more importantly, they may be able to procreate, creating a race of monsters. This is something he refuses to allow regardless of the consequences that the monster can bring about in his life.

In the beginning of the novel, the monster is only good in his thoughts. It is only through the treatment from others who judge him by his appearance that anger, rage, and the desire to do evil overtake him. Of course, his supernatural strength, intelligence, and iron will, which make him dangerous. Imagine the maturity of a toddler in the body of a creature with super human strength and intelligence. The monster's revenge is completed against his wife on their day of marriage (Victor expected the monster to kill him, not his new wife). His father dies soon after from grief.

Let the cursed and hellish monster drink deep of agony; let him feel the despair that now torments me.” Victor says this at the burial grounds of his beloved. However, it was the monster's wish to share his agony with his creator, to which end he succeeded. Perhaps, though, the monster can never know the pain of losing loved ones since he never knew love.

Victor pursues the monster. The monster could have turned around and killed Victor, I am sure. However, this hunt is more than that: it is a torment for Victor rather than the monster. The monster writes in a note left for Victor, “Come on, my enemy; we have yet to wrestle for our lives, but many hard and miserable hours must you endure until that period shall arrive.”

Had Victor spent time with his creation in kindness, perhaps he would still have had everything. To Victor's credit, as he lays on his death bed aboard the ship, he owns to what he should have done to avoid the tragedies, “In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being... but... my duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention...”

In the finale of the book, Frankenstein's monster mourns his creator's death and seeks forgiveness before leaving.

Ultimately, this is a story about prejudice. Evil came not from his heart, but rather the misfortune of Frankenstein's monster's hideous artifice. What he created outwardly ugly was inwardly beautiful until perverted by the outwardly beautiful, but inwardly superficial prejudice.

The monster could have been a great man due to his super human abilities. However, he was unfortunate in being unable to find anyone.

This book is necessary reading, I think, for anyone interested in science fiction. It is hard to believe I have waited so long to finally get around to it. But, to be fair, the sentimentality of much of it is a little wearying. I read around a bit online to see what others thought of this book.

Wikipedia quotes Brian Aldiss who wrote, “(Frankenstein) should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character 'makes a deliberate decision' and 'turns to modern experiments in the laboratory' to achieve fantastic results.'”

Regardless of her amazing achievements in this seminal work of literature, the British critic wrote, “The writer of it is , we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Few authoresses, to use the word of the critic, at that time, would dare to use their own names. Often, they chose male pen names in order to find an audience which did not judge based on the gender of the writer. For this reason, I think that Shelley is also worthy of outstanding merit for being a feminist well ahead of her time. She was the daughter and wife of two very famous writers of her time. However, while those of us deep into literary study or reading may recognize their names, Mary Shelley's character, Frankenstein, and the basic outline of that narrative, is globally well known nearly two centuries after she wrote it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland is a utopian novel written by a feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). Gilman was a feminist writer. I think she was a pioneer in the realm of feminism, and needs to be remembered with a great deal of respect for that reason. This is supposed to be #2 of a trilogy. Unfortunately, Gutenberg.org does not have the first or third of the series. Fortunately, they might not be necessary, as the story is fairly well contained. I did not feel like I missed anything in the beginning, but I found myself wanting more at the end. I felt like there was an untold story, and apparently there is, and I cannot have it it would appear. Herland can be found here at Gutenberg.org.

I have already read Gilman's famous short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," which was decent, and somewhat comparable to the weird fiction that one might expect from Franz Kafka (a favorite short story writer of mine, so that is a compliment). This story is not really at that level, in my opinion, but is important as a voice for the rights and value of women. I didn't fly through this story. It had its moments, but it was largely a dull piece, like other true Utopian works (as opposed to Utopias formulated into Dystopias). It has a few serious flaws, which I will get to later. For now, these are my impressions as I read through the story.

The story's setting is contemporary to Gilman's era of the early 20th century. Technology is in its infancy. Somewhere in the world there is an island of isolated women. There is little connection between the Amazonian women of Greek legend and the women of Herland. They are warriors, and tough, despite the fact that they do not have any kind of competition.

Three men set out in search of the mythical society which has swallowed a few men who have sought it out. Later, however, it becomes clear that their expedition is the first to actually reach these women, and that whatever men there were before simply did not make it to the culture.

They are isolated by geography. They are surrounded by insurmountable mountains, on a plateau high above a jungle where a primitive culture thrives. They have lived excluded from the rest of the world for about 2,000 years. While Amazonian women would kidnap their men to have babies, and treated them like slaves, there are no men in this society at all. They are able to reproduce asexually, and when they give birth they have baby girls, and no baby boys.

When the three men get to the plateau via an airplane, they cannot believe that the area is populated exclusively by women. Women cannot build heavy or complicated things, goes the sentiment. However, when they walk into the village, thinking that they will have no problem dominating the women whom they preconceived would be as submissive as the women of their own societies, are easily overpowered by powerful women and imprisoned.

One might expect terrible treatment in the prison that they are put in. However, they are treated more like naughty children, and guests. They are well fed and treated very well at every turn. The narrator writes, "...we were free of the garden, but not wholly alone in it. There was always a string of those uncomfortably strong women sitting about..."

There are three male characters, each a representative of a degree of common males: there's the one who loves and worships women, the centrist, and the ego-macho-male. It is Terry who cannot seem to understand that women can or should be powerful. The prison in which they are held, he says, "This thing is a regular fortress--and no women built it, I can tell you that."


One of the chief objections I have to the story is the racism which appears in a few sections of the novel. This race of women is referred to as Aryan, and that is an explanation as to why there is little or no criminality within this female race. This is the reason why it is a strong and intelligent race.

The contrasts between the two societies are not as important as the points that Gilman makes about how women are viewed and treated then, and much of the criticism remains valid a century later. Women who work are viewed in a negative light. Those who do work, earn a fraction of what men do. About a third of women are working poor according to the narrator. Jeff, the most sympathetic and supportive of women mentions that poorer women tend to have more children, and that they live harder lives. This also remains true today.

Sexuality here is also brought up. In the old days (and in some cultures today), husbands have the right to 'master' their wives. That is a roundabout way of saying that they may rape their wives. The three men end up marrying their three women, but none of them are able to engage in sex. Terry attempts to rape his wife, and consequently, gets banned from the country.

But this brings up the other major point that I take issue with of this novel: the asexuality of this race. These women do not have sex. It is not just about not having sex with men, they also do not seem to masturbate or have sex with the other women. There is no sex at all. Perhaps the hymen itself is broken when they give birth, I wonder. This virginity of all sexuality is a serious point that is missed or avoided by Gilman and is a deep flaw in the book. Did she believe that she would tarnish the reputation of her fictitious race? Perhaps this is the case, and it would have tarnished in those closed minds of her own day (and our day). Certainly, in women's prisons, women engage in sexual activity with each other. There is a clitoris which gives women pleasure.

There are some other minor issues with the culture or race: there is no real opposition. There is nothing to fight for or to survive which is not overcome. There is no power struggle. Everything is appointed and accepted. But, these things are not as important as the statements about how women deserve better in the cultures in which they exist with men. That is the main message of this story, and makes the book worth reading. Come on Gutenberg, et al! Please publish the next story, With Her in Ourland.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Security, Poul William Anderson

This is the last story of Poul William Anderson's that I downloaded from feedbooks.com. There are a few more that I didn't download yet. So there are two more to come. Poul William Anderson (1926-2001) is a brilliant science fiction writer, worthy of the acclaims and accolades that have been given to him. "Security" is another short story, well worth downloading and reading. It is available at feedbooks.com.

This short fiction has political elements that are similar to "Industrial Revolution," whose review can be found in the link provided.

America has become a tyrannical power which no longer holds to democratic elections. Those who disagree with the state are often taken into custody and never seen again. Subversive talk is treason, and being accused of treason is the same as being given a death sentence.

Dr. Lancaster is a brilliant physicist who doesn't realize the predicament that his culture is in, or the loss of individual freedoms. He is one of the masses who believes that what the government does is right and necessary.

There are rebels, and they need a good physicist who can help them develop weapons that can be made cheaply while being better than their contemporaries. They manage to trick Dr. Lancaster into believing that he is being brought out into space to develop some technology which will give the rebels this edge: a kind of way to store a great deal of energy. A super battery, in effect, which can be used for powering weapons and vehicles in a revolutionary way.

By the time he has succeeded in his project, he has begun to appreciate the community of the research lab. He isn't under constant threat of security. He doesn't have to worry about saying the wrong thing. He feels free (though I don't think that's how rebellions really work. Usually they're just a different form of tyranny). This is something that catches in him. When he returns to earth, he cannot help but start to see through government hypocrisy, the fake manufactured news, and the seed of doubt begins to grow. However, he is still content to continue on.

While he was gone to that space station where the research was taking place (why not on earth in a bunker... maybe the process required something that the vacuum of space has that a bunker doesn't. I'm not entirely certain.), a double was placed for him so that no one would know he had been abducted. This would have worked, but the project manager, Berg, had ratted on him. The government picks him up, tortures him, trying to get him to give up the secrets. At the end of the torture, he's come to realize that he's covering for the rebels, and he's still ready to die with the secrets. Berg, however, arranges to have him rescued. It was a kind of test, and he wanted him back to continue doing his work.

The story was quite enjoyable. Poul William Anderson is a really good writer who has something interesting to say, something to think about in his stories.

Eventually, someone rats on him

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Man Who Came Early, Poul William Anderson

"The Man Who Came Early" (1956) is a short story by Poul William Anderson.

"The Man Who Came Early" is one of those stories within a story. The narrator tells the story to a priest about a strange young man who came to Iceland before 1,000 AD. Somehow, he was struck by lightning which sent him from the then modern world to the very old world where Vikings were one of the great European powers.

This story is extremely well told. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend taking the time to read it. I read it from start to finish without putting it down. The style has a real charm and rhythm to it which shows how skilled Anderson can be.

Many people might suppose that by having many skills and knowledge from a modern time that they might flourish in an age a thousand years gone. However, this story does a good job at repudiating such a belief.

The young man, "Sergeant Gerald Roberts of the United States Army base on Iceland" is an engineer working for the US army. Therefore, he feels he can be an important contributor to his host (who is also the narrator of the story). However, the tools are very primitive: a hammer, a forge, and little else. He is unable to do much with these tools. He then tries to reinvent the sailboat, but it does not fit the requirements.

As time goes on, he and his host increasingly feel his worthlessness to the house and community. But it does not stop Helgi, the narrator's daughter, from falling in love with him. Another was in love with her, which sets up the fight. With an axe, and little such battle experience, he cannot win the battle. He resorts to using his firearm, which causes more problems. The family of the slain wants revenge, and he loses his host's graciousness as a result.

The family of the slain man go after him until he runs out of bullets. He then puts on a fight with the sword that they respect, but he ultimately cannot withstand their attacks and dies.

I think the premise of a modern man in an old world is a good one. Though, it is not the first effort to do so, it is well done. I definitely recommend reading it.


Industrial Revolution, Poul William Anderson

"Industrial Revolution" is a novella by the acclaimed science fiction author, Poul Anderson (1926-2001). It is available for free at www.feedbooks.com.

This novella is the story of how a corporate fledgling enterprise invested in an asteroid mining outfit. The group are referred to as 'asterites' without the capital A. Not sure why that is if they are a distinct people. The group was a part, or even the root of, the revolution. I suppose this is a nod to the Red Scare that America was undergoing in its efforts to undermine communist movements within the US.

On earth, America is going through a socialist revolution where the party in power is demanding that the government or the people ought to own everything. That includes an outfit that invested in a mining operation within Jupiter's orbit.

A naval vessel is sent out to deceive the group into thinking that a nuclear warhead was accidentally released and put the entire operation at risk. However, Blade (the protagonist) sees through the deception and jury rigs some devices to fight back. He succeeds, and the spirit of capitalism is saved.

A few things that short circuit a few points: first, when Blade threatens the captain of the vessel with his defenses, he claims that the hull of the navy vessel cannot withstand the explosion of Jupiter gas (which is supposed to be combustible. Though, of course, I don't see how that is possible) and that it doesn't have sufficient defenses against the improvised weapons. What kind of navy vessel is this that cannot defend itself against the equivalent of a bunch of rowboats? In any case, the ruse works. The mining operators are able to maintain their hold on the outfit.

This novella isn't as good as the last pieces of Anderson's that I read. I don't recommend it. But it is short.