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.
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.