The 1950’s is famous for goofy monster movies in which lizards, spiders, and other critters grow to enormous dimensions after being exposed to radiation and rampage across the landscape, flattening civilization in the process. These classics of scientific paranoia were presaged by a little-known science fiction novel published in 1947: Greener Than You Think, by Ward Moore.
The story begins when a lowlife salesman by the name of Albert Weener meets an ambitious scientist by the name of Josephine Francis and a makeshift workshop in suburban L.A. Francis has developed a new compound that will allow plants to derive nutrition from any substance. Weener decides to demonstrate by spraying it on an ugly patch of lawn in an ugly neighborhood. Within days, the grass on the lawn has grown taller than the surrounding trees and no one is able to cut it. Soon it is destroying buildings and the military is called into to combat the weed. Those familiar with genre conventions can probably guess the rest.
What makes this novel stand out from the crowd is the character development and the sharp, satirical tone. Ward Moore is a keen observer of human nature and he gives us a plethora of unique characters to laugh at. Besides Albert and Jospehine, we get a montage of newspaper writers and editors, military men and their offspring, religious leaders, explorers, servants, and business types. The story is all about the every-growing, devilish grass, but all of the characters respond in different ways. Some seek to make a profit of it, others turn to it for artistic inspiration, and others take a purely scientific approach. Nobody in the story truly understands the magnitude of the situation or really responds appropriately–an astute warning at a time when global warming and national debt loom on the horizon.
The main idea of the book, though, is simply to wring humor from the outlandish characters. Albert Weener manages to land a job as a newspaper columnist, and his adventures in writing and publishing take up a good chunk of the story. He works under an abusive editor named W. R. le ffacase–no typo there–and their personalities rebound off each other to hilarious effect. Moore includes some pointed parodies of writing styles from his time period. Today, it seems amazing that newspaper articles ever included so much flourish. All-in-all, Greener Than You Think is an excellent satiric science fiction novel and well worth a bit of time and money to procure.
(Here is another review of the book for those who are interested.)
5 Novels, as you might guess, contains five novels. My last post dealt with the second one, Slaves of Spiegel. The first one, Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, is very different. To be sure, both deal with teenage boys in working-class New Jersey towns who, along with a close friend, have an adventure with space aliens. That’s where the similarites end, however.
Slaves of Spiegel is really and extended short story built around one funny concept. Alan Mendelsohn is a novel in truth, 250 pages long. It is a coming-of-age story, beginning with cliche of a boy who moves to a new school where he doesn’t fit it, but then befriends the school’s other loner. Things come to a head when, while they’re out of school for different and equally hilarious reasons, they explore a dusty used bookshop downtown and come away with a book that’s supposed to teach them how to read minds. It does … sort of. To say anything more about it would be to deprive you of the pleasure of reading it yourself.
One thing I will note, which puts Alan Mendelsohn at odds with typical science fiction writing. In many science fiction novels, particularly the dumb ones, there’s a character who dispenses perfect wisdom. The most famous and obvious example is the novels of Robert Heinlein. Almost every one has some old dude who lectures the younger characters about politics, philosophy, ethics, history, and so forth, always dispensing wisdom in small and witty bursts. It’s no secret that these characters all represented Heinlein himself, and that he used them to fantasize about having everyone else worship his superior intelligence. Thus no one should be surprised when the younger characters in a Heinlein novel give the elderly dude their complete trust and turn out the better for it. A similar pattern can be seen in lots of other crap novels such as those of Terry Goodkind and Robert Newcomb.
In Alan Mendelsohn there is no elderly character to offer perfect wisdom to the two young protagonists. There are parents, but they are ineffective and get little screen time. Then there’s a parade of other adults, each of them bizarre and slightly suspicious in hiw own way. None of these characters comes onstage stamped with the label “good guy” or “bad guy”. Rather, it’s up to the two boys to figure out who is trustworthy and who isn’t and who lies somewhere in the middle. Just like real life.
I’ve recently returned to an author that I haven’t encountered for quite a while, via this book:
Daniel Manus Pinkwater (Is that a great name for an author or what?) writes nominal children’s books. Like most of today’s children’s books, his are better than typical adults’ books. Pinkwater’s books are all science fiction novels. The main character is nearly always a young boy who has a bizarre adventure with something extremely out-of-the-ordinary. Slaves of Spiegel, the second novel in this collection, is no exception.
It begins on the planet Spiegel, where the race of fat men are holding a junk food feast to celebrate their successful plundering of the universe. They have collected the fattiest, greasiest, and most sugary confections from every planet and galaxy and brought them back to Spiegel to celebrate. But in the middle of the feast, their king Sargon becomes suddenly dissatisfied. Instead of simply hogging potato pancakes, he wants to search the universe for the most satisfying junk food. Thus begins a series of events that will lead to The Magic Moscow, a fast food stand in Hoboken, New Jersey, being abducted along with its chef Steve and his young assistant.
Slaves of Spiegel is a sequel to Fat Men from Space and maintains the wry wit of the first book. It also continues Pinkwater’s fine tradition of sending up science fiction cliches. Science fiction is full of planets or societies serving as wish-fulfillment vehicles, ranging from Heinlein’s libertarian utopias to Clarke’s sorta’ Hindu mystical fulfillment in Childhood’s End to Jack Vance’s nature preserve planet in Araminta Station to scores of others, some of them quite frightening. The planet Spiegel is very much in that tradition, complete with an all-powerful king and a fleet of starships and so forth. But as Pinkwater points out, the wish that most folks spend more time wanting fulfilled is for lots and lots of good-tasting food. Fat Men from Space and Slaves of Spiegel are thus likely to remain timely and relevant for longer than the fantasy utopias of from the supposed greats of sci fi.
For the first twenty-seven days of this project, I didn’t mention Philip K. Dick. Now I’ve mentioned him twice in three days. He is not my favorite author nor even my favorite science fiction author, but he comes close. Besides which, Galactic Pot-Healer is the perfect entry in this category. Dick is very much a cult author. Even among cult members, this novel is not terribly popular, and even the author himself wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. But I love it.
Members of my generation often say “that’s crazy” or “that was random” when reacting to some bit of nonsense. Galactic Pot-Healer is certainly crazy and random, more so than even the author’s other science fiction novels. However, craziness and randomness aren’t good things in themselves. Anyone can throw together a lot of nonsense, but it takes a supreme talent to achieve the uplifting, forward-charging type of nonsense that we might call zaniness, the nonsense that is actually fun and entertaining and then makes you think when you’re least prepared for it.
The book is about Joe Fernwright, a mender of broken ceramics. (Or pot-healer, if you will.) Joe lives in the United States after it falls under communist rule, when unemployment is high, work is scarce, and the government pumps propagandist dreams into people’s heads while they sleep. One day he gets a message in his toilet. The Glimmung needs his help to raise a cathedral from the depths of the ocean on Plowman’s Planet. What is a Glimmung? Well, it is certainly not a giant, one-eyed squid like the one on the cover above. I’ve no idea where they got that image from. A Glimmung is more like an ocean, or little girl, or a couple of concentric hoops. That sort of thing. There’s lots more that takes place in this book, though I’m not quite sure what, exactly.
When I think about surprise endings, I usually think about short stories. I’m willing to put up with ten or twenty pages of writing just to be delighted with a silly twist or surprise at the end. Novels with twist endings are a lot harder to pull off, for several reasons. First of all, few readers would put up with 200 pages just to get a clever ending. The beginning and middle have to be clever too. At the same time, the twist ending can’t contradict anything that happens earlier in the story, nor can it be a radical departure from the style and tone of the beginning and middle sections. Few authors can accomplish so much.
Philip K. Dick is one author who could, and The Game Players of Titan is one novel in which he does. The surprise ending is that…well, obviously I’m not going to tell you that, am I? I can at least tell you the set-up for the ending. It goes like this.
The Game Players of Titan is set on a future earth that’s been devastated by war and conquered by malicious aliens known as Vugs. The Vugs have the ability to shape-shift, read minds, and tell the future. At their command, earth is split into zones of property owned by a handful of human beings, who must compete for property and status in a game of Bluff. (The game itself is quite hilarious and would be mroe than enough to fill a much larger novel by a less talented author.) Mysterious goings-on are afoot, whilethe Vugs have an unknown agenda of their own. In the grand finale, the fate of the entire world rests on a single game of Bluff between the Vugs and humans. Now Bluff, as you would guess, is all about bluffing, so it might seem difficult for the humans to win when, as already mentioned, the Vugs can read minds and tell the future. But, wonder of wonders, the humans do manage to compete, and it’s all done in a logical manner that’s entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen in this science fiction world. And with that, I can say no more.
The Miles Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is the mother of all space operas, complete with spaceships, explosions, interplanetary wars, laser guns, clones, space pirates, smugglers, assassinations, technology, betrayal, space stations, mutants, and all that good stuff. All of the books in the series–fourteen at last count–are worth reading, though some are better than others. They are chiefly notable for dense plotting with unexpected twists, characters so real they practically leap off the page, non-stop action, and an approach that’s sympathetic to all characters while never preachy or heavy-handed.
But with the first half-dozen books being mainly focused on space battles and intrigue, one would not expect Komarr to be a romantic comedy. Yet it is. It is the most dramatic mid-series shifts that I’ve ever seen, from action and adventure and masculine bravado to action and adventure and true love. Yet, at the same time, it is a very good romantic comedy, perhaps the best in print that I’ve ever seen.