Sunday, August 22, 2010

Read any decent books lately?

Overall I would rate it a C+, OK, not great. As a result, we will not destroy your planet. But neither will we provide you with our recipe for immortality.
Lrrr, Futurama

Normally when I get a book out of the library, I either tear through it or decide it's not worth my time and return it only partially read. "Skirmish," a collection of stories by Clifford Simak, was one of those exceptions. I finished it, but found parts of it slow going. When Simak's prose is good, he really immerses you in the setting. When it's not, it has an awkward, repetitive feel. Also, a lot of the stories cover the same themes, which makes the book feel repetitive if you read it too rapidly. I guess if I were using the Siskel and Ebert scale, it would get one thumb up.

There's some nice stories here, but a lot of them feel dated. While Simak is a science fiction author, they don't feel dated in the same way that Arthur Clarke's 2001 feels off (space stations around Jupiter and frequent flights to the moon did not happen nine years ago). No, many of these feel like period pieces. I could give you the copyright date for this collection of short stories, but it's probably more effective to tell you that the 320-page hardcover cost $6.95.

Here's an example of what I mean by period pieces. This is from "The Big Front Yard," which won a Hugo award in 1959. Hiram, a repairman, has been asked to fix an old television, and tells the owner it might be more expensive than replacing it. Here's what she responds:

"That's just what Henry said," Abbie told him, tartly. "Henry wants to get one of the color sets. But I won't part with this one. It's not just TV, you know. It's a combination with radio and a record player and the wood and style are just right for the other furniture, and, besides --"

I remember when they made TV sets with built in VCRs, but a built in radio or phonograph? That's just weird.

In another story, "The Autumn Land," a character takes photographs of something, because "the camera saw what it saw and could not lie about it; it did not fantasize, it did not rationalize." Anyone who's retouched a digital photo knows how quaint that belief is today.

I really liked "The Autumn Land" though. It felt like it would have made a perfect episode of The Twilight Zone. A man who's lost his job and started driving to Chicago in hopes of finding a better career winds up staying in an idyllic little community where it's always a nice fall day, and the few neighbors are warm and friendly, even if they don't ever learn your name....

Another story, "The Ghost of a Model T," also had a Twilight Zone feel, though the "shocking ending" was pretty obvious after the second page.

Another interesting story is "Good Night, Mr. James," which feels like something Philip K. Dick might have written. A man finds himself on an unfamiliar street, and can remember nothing. He soon recalls he has to kill a dangerous alien whose existence threatens the world. And then, in the middle of the story, it suddenly becomes about questions of identity and individuality.

Sadly, if you want to read Simak's books and can't find them at your library, you're going to need a Kindle (or maybe some other E-reader) or a deep wallet.

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For those looking for more accessible books, here are two relatively new ones I took out at the same time as Skirmish: Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, by Kage Bakes, and The Caryatids, by Bruce Stirling.

Black Projects is a collection of short stories about The Company, a 24th century business which sends immortal cyborgs back in time to get valuables -- lost treasures, extinct plants and animals, etc. It's exciting and pretty humorous. While some are straightforward stories of robots from the future trying to pass themselves off as humans to find valuables, there are several which are only tangentially related to this. This is the second book by Baker I've read this year (who passed away in January), and she's very easy to read. I'll just warn you that there is a liberal political slant in her work (though it's silly enough I'm not sure how much she intended it). The 24th century is a dystopia where the government monitors people's health so closely that sugar and coffee are illegal substances, and Shakespeare (or at least the computer recording of his personality) is prohibited from reciting any lines from his own plays, because people might be offended by the customs or language.

The Caryatids is set in an apocalyptic world where pollution, radiation, global warming, and a host of other issues are slowly destroying the world. It follows the clones of an evil European dictator (who is now living on a space station, where she can't be tried for her crimes against humanity). Each of the clones has gone on to leave very different lives. One is rebuilding a devastated island in her homeland. One has become a Hollywood star. And a third has become a heroine of the Chinese people, in a world where China is the last nation and the rest of the globe is run by corporations. My largest complaint about this book is that a lot of issues I had when reading it -- some surprisingly stilted dialog, the attitudes everyone had to some bit characters -- got resolved only in the last few pages, and possibly a bit glibly.