Odd John, by Olaf Stapledon

Frequently, tragic novels feature a main character who makes selfish or impractical decisions, leading to a personal disaster of some sort. Along the way, readers are often challenged to decide between their feelings of compassion or contempt toward that character – Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a classic example of this sort of thing.

Even though Olaf Stapledon’s 1935 novel Odd John is also a tale of hubris, the conflict between compassion and contempt takes place within the main character, in how he feels toward us, as contemporary homo sapiens. It is the story of a genetic mutant who becomes aware of his natural superiority, contacts other mutants like him, and attempts to prepare his emerging race of homo superior for the coming end of mankind.

Published the year before the Spanish Civil War and four years before the beginning of World War II, OJ references the inevitable build-up toward a global conflict that will threaten civilization itself. Stapledon (1886-1950), a philosopher who served as a conscientious objector during World War I, was evidently inspired by world events to reject mankind’s assumed place of permanence as the planet’s dominant species. He considered us to have too many natural limitations to grasp the truth about our place within the universe, and invented “odd” John Wainright to tell us so.

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Lewis R. Wolhberg cover for Dover. isfdb.org

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Neanderthal Planet, by Brian Aldiss

The short story collections of Brian Aldiss have been hit-and-miss for me over the years; Who Can Replace a Man? was filled with thought-provoking entries, but Supertoys Last All Summer Long felt like a collection of weak material propped up by one famous story. Other collections I’ve read have fallen somewhere between these two in quality, albeit never lacking in original premises or ideas.

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Avon edition. isfdb.org

Neanderthal Planet (1970) is a compilation of four longer pieces by Aldiss. As with other collections I’ve discussed here, I’ll briefly take on the stories one by one.
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The Girl With the Long Green Heart, by Lawrence Block

Discovering the Hard Case Crime imprint has led me toward the early work of a few widely-known crime authors, including those of Lawrence Block. I’ve found the early Block novels variable in quality, but usually interesting for the characters and plot devices that show up later in his Scudder titles. So far, Borderline has been the worst and Lucky at Cards the best out of the group. The latter book illustrates a grifter’s tricky navigating of a scam he is not really prepared to perpetrate, and this difficulty puts it a mark above an earlier grifter story, Grifter’s Game.

The Girl With the Long Green Heart (1965) is still another grifter story, this time with an ex-convict teaming with an old friend to carry out one last scam. I found it to be both patient in its buildup and efficiently told, with a cast of interesting – if familiar – characters.

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a preview

I’ve been hampered by a virus for the last several days, creating a backlog at work as well as this site. Work comes first, obviously, but soon enough I’ll start catching up on the books shown in the pile here.

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Actually I reviewed the Bruen & Starr book already, and Anarchaos just came in the mail. It is Donald Westlake’s only science fiction novel, so I’m not sure how it will read. I expect to have good things to say about all of the others, however.

 

 

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Bust, by Ken Bruen & Jason Starr

The catalogue of the Hard Case Crime imprint features many titles by famous crime authors, but is also a good source for new and interesting names. This was the case when I picked up Bust, a 2006 title by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, a pair of established but new-to-me writers with a handful of awards and nominations to their credit. Bruen in particular has had success (film adaptations) with his series of mysteries set in Ireland.

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R.B. Farrell cover for Hard Case Crime. hardcasecrime.com

After getting through an SF book full of tired stereotypes and cliches, I have to admit being wary of the way Bust started out. The familiar trappings of a noir novel set in New York City are rolled out in the first few chapters: an unhappy and philandering businessman, a femme fatale with a killer body, and a killing – staged as a burglary – that spins out of control. Once again, the whole drama takes place in New York City. However, these elements set up one of the most unpredictable and wildly entertaining stories of the entire HCC series (so far).

A successful salesman named Max Fisher is hiring an Irish criminal to kill his wife. The hitman talks like a seasoned associate of the NRA, but he’s really a fringe criminal with psychopathic tendencies. He is also the boyfriend – not a cousin’s friend as Max believes – of the woman with whom Max has been having a torrid affair.

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The Trikon Deception, by Ben Bova and Bill Pogue

Ben Bova books are all over the place: second-hand bookstores, libraries, Goodwill among other locations. I haven’t read any Bova titles until now, out of my general avoidance of hard-SF books, or post-1980 books that look they would be hard SF. However, The Trikon Deception (1992) has an intriguing co-author, the astronaut and space mutineer Bill Pogue (1930-2014).

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The crew of Skylab 4. Bill Pogue is on the right. Photo by NASA – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54659

Bill Pogue was part of the final crew aboard the space station Skylab, the first American space station. The demands of their mission, in which every hour of every day was tightly scheduled, were the result of expectations built by previous Skylab crews. The Skylab 4 crew struggled to match the productivity of their predecessors, falling behind schedule and concealing Pogue’s “space sickness” from NASA medical officers. Morale broke after several weeks, and the crew shut off all contact with Ground Control, spending the day watching Earth through the station’s windows. After re-establishing contact and adjusting the workload, the rest of the mission passed without incident. It’s not a dramatic story of labor strife, but it represents the first and only mutiny in the history of space travel.

Bova, of course, has an enormous number of publications to his credit as author and, especially, as editor. Besides TTD, Pogue also has an author credit for the non-fiction How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space?, so I was expecting a decent mutiny and descriptions of bodily functions in zero-G to liven things up.

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The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, by H.G. Wells

A lot of good, even classic, science fiction stories are currently available for free as HTML, PDF or some e-reader format. I decided to feature some of these “freebee” pieces on a semi-regular basis this year. This is the second featured story.

I would guess that most of us who have read SF with any regularity have tried out at least one of the books by H.G. Wells. He is most famous these days for his four “grotesques,” all classics of the genre: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man. He also produced many classic short stories, which have been published in many collections and anthologies over the years.

Beyond these works, he also has several other SF novels that still find their way into print for curious readers: The First Men in the Moon, When the Sleeper Wakes and The Wonderful Visit among them. I thought The Wonderful Visit was a short book made too long by Wells’ desire to satirize rural England, but the other two were entertaining and groundbreaking works in their own respect. The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904) is another novel of this ilk, not one of his major masterpieces but a solid read for those looking for “classic” SF. It was recently reprinted in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series, but by favorite edition features the Lehr artwork.

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Paul Lehr cover for Berkley Medallion. isfdb.org

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