Thursday, 14 June 2018

Book: 'The Seedling Stars' (1957) by James Blish

Suppose, for a moment, that the consensus view on moving out into the stars was a little wonky, and had been manipulated by vested interests bent on making money through one specific methodology. (Where have we heard something like that before?) Suppose that there were another ultimately cheaper but more contentious strategy for populating less than suitable worlds by something other than terraforming. What if we changed the people instead of the planets, and then left them to proliferate on their own, seedlings of new adapted humanities across the galaxy? How does that sound? Pretty weird? Yes!

'The Seedling Stars' is a fix-up of three connected short stories and an abbreviated epilogue, concerning the origins of adaptation and some case examples of adapted people on other worlds. It's an amazing work of great scope, while still being remarkably adventurous in its construction. It's important to do both: to be both an enjoyable story and one which pushes at interesting ideas. Blish has such a track record with 'Cities In Flight' and 'A Case Of Conscience', and this does not disappoint that tradition, adding in a discussion of how much humans can be adapted before they stop being humans. Oh, and of course, the continued prejudices of humanity. Racial differences will be of little import when there are gilled amphiboid humans, hairy tree-dwelling humans, and cold-blooded humans who run on entirely different kinds of blood to exist on the Moon or the moons of Jupiter!

Why think small when you can adapt humans to other worlds instead of other worlds to humans? There could giants as well as people only an inch tall. There could be water dwellers and people who live on clouds, tree climbers in addition to hole diggers, and even people who live in the gaps between dimensions and in black holes. Would it be the right thing to do, though? In 2018, that answer is still just as fuzzy as it has ever been.

There are three stories: 'The Seeding Program', 'The Thing In The Attic', and 'Surface Tension', the last of which is the most famous and involves a crashed spaceship seeding a puddle with some adapted people based on the genetic material of the doomed and few remaining crewmembers. They're the most alien people of the three sets considered, being less than an inch tall, sporulating and therefore hibernating in shells during the Winter, dwelling in the water, and having lost all of their heritage in the process. For them, life is all about beating down the natural predators, and eventually reaching and exploring the other 'worlds' of different puddles in the neighbourhood. Space to them is air and less filtered sunshine. It's fascinating, but I prefer 'The Thing In The Attic', with it's tree people and a band of un-Orthodox exiles rediscovering life on the surface. Finally, the first story is much closer to being an origin tale for the set, revolving around yet another dystopian future Earth, but it has its moments.

Toss the coin. Shall we change planets or ourselves?


Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Literary Reflection, XI

It's once again time to take a ramble through the recently read novels that don't quite warrant a special post all of their own. Never fear, for Groucho is here, as are John Dickson Carr and Tony Hawks? There really has been a lot of reading this year so far, proving that even pneumonia had a good side.

'Groucho Marx, Secret Agent' (2002) by Ron Goulart

This, the fifth entry out of six, is definitely the best story so far in the Groucho mysteries. It all hangs together, Groucho's lines are lovely, and we have both Nazi spies and the sleaze of Hollywood to uncover over the course of the slight narrative. It's not quite so slight this time, though. Why does this one work better? Perhaps it's the espionage aspect? Or the backdrop of series narrator Frank Denby's imminent fatherhood? Or the increased distance from the heyday of the Marx Brothers movies, when it becomes more likely that Groucho would have time to do all these things? Or maybe Goulart hit a rich vein of form? I would like to hope that the final entry in the series will be the best of the lot, but we will have to wait and see...

'Groucho Marx, King Of The Jungle' (2005) by RonGoulart

... what happens. Sadly, after 'Groucho Marx, Secret Agent', this last instalment reverts to being a bit of a letdown. It's a patchy series overall, but there's a sense of melancholy underlying 'Groucho Marx, King Of The Jungle', as times are definitely a'changing. This time, the very imminently parental Frank Denby and fading movie star Groucho are caught up in the death of the death of the star currently playing the mighty Ty-Gor, King Of The Jungle. We get all the usual twists, all the rambling about chatting to the usual sources of information, and a general sense of things getting serious as the war in Europe rumbles on and our protagonist duo even dig up a mouldering corpse. Not the best, but at least we got a little more pseudo-Groucho in our reading lives.

'The Nine Wrong Answers' (1952) by John Dickson Carr

So far in my sporadic munching through Carr, I've either been highly pleased or mildly satisfied. This definitely falls into the latter category. It's an extremely clever thriller, with a great novelty of including nine footnoted explanations throughout the narrative of why the theory you have probably just developed is wrong, and then a culmination at the end in which the nine RIGHT answers are revealed in a confrontation with the villain of the piece. It all makes sense, but it's not a spectacular read, just a  very good one. The book's protagonist Bill is talked into impersonating a reluctant heir to a fortune for a few months, until the malignant benefactor has finally deceased, for a healthy fee. There are implied dangers, and before not very long, the heir is dead and Bill is locked into a duel of mortal intrigue. Just what exactly is going on? And are you quick enough (quicker than me) for the footnotes to actually be relevent to your reading experience?

'Round Ireland With A Fridge' (1998) by Tony Hawks

This is a semi-legendary travel log and a mock inspirational story about the famous hitch-hiking journey of Tony Hawks around Ireland, with a fridge. It was a small fridge, on a little trolley, but it was still a fridge. It's definitely funny, but it doesn't quite cast the shadow that its depicted legend does. On the other hand, Tony Hawks is a very funny writer, and does the material justice. It just feels like it could have been... a grander read somehow, but that's wrong. It's the story, or part of it, that really happened. It was real life. There was a fridge, there were innumerable pub stints, several bawdy interludes in the internal monologue, and magnifcent runs of generosity from the Irish people and British and other ex-patriates involved too. It's good, but just a bit too sweary for me. I like them cleaner. Hawks' 'One Hit Wonderland' fits the bill better, but it never would have been written without this one, nor would Danny Wallace's 'Yes Man'. Where do I stand now? Confused.


Monday, 28 May 2018

Book: 'The Stainless Steel Rat' (1961) by Harry Harrison

A fix-up in the grand old sense of the term, in that this is a re-edited merger of the two earlier published shorter stories (in 1957 and 1960), which launched the venerable 'Stainless Steel Rat' series. This is pretty good fare, but there are some grammatical errors and fudges that weaken the narrative more than they should. However, the use of a recruited ex-criminal as the anti-hero protagonist of the novel is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. When did ambivalent heroes first come into use?

Apparently, in the far future everything has become so structured, law-abiding, and homogenised that only the hardiest of society's few remaining deviants, the toughest and most slippery, the 'stainless steel rats', can survive for long. What would happen, however, if a crook (Slippery Jim DiGriz, perhaps) were captured by the Special Corps of the galactic police, and discovered that it was staffed almost entirely by recruited former criminals?

As it turns out, what happens is that Jim jumps into the Corps, and almost immediately jumps out again, after his failed first mission and an encounter with a homicidal genius lady confidence trickster and would-be dictator called Angelina. On the run from the law, and on a quest to hunt down his lady nemesis and also unfortunate love interest, Jim goes through several ordeals before reaching the end of his current story.

There are some unusual moments in the mix here, including an unusual interlude when Jim takes a chemical cocktail in order to think like the mentally imbalanced Angelina and almost goes off the deep end. Of course, with our modern narrative savvy, we know that Jim's exile from the Special might not be as lengthy as he thinks.

Overall, 'The Stainless Steel Rat' is a pretty good read which doesn't quite sustain its length. Does it inspire continued reading through the series? Maybe, if the following volumes are easy to find. This one is almost a classic, but not quite.


Sunday, 27 May 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Yellow Scarf Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x17, Produced 1x16)

Vito Scotti! India! A one-on-one contest of wits with THRUSH! Women!

It's time for an always welcome Napoleon-rich episode, with not an Ilya in sight, and Vaughn pulls it off again. He doesn't have as much to work with as usual, but it still works, partly because of some excellent guest casting, and also due to an unexpected trip to India. Yes, it's time to go international again over there in UNCLE land. (It's also time to makeup some actors to look Indian, but there are two genuine actresses, so they definitely made an effort.)

In 'The Yellow Scarf Affair', a prototype decoding device that has been restolen from THRUSH by our friendly UNCLE is unwittingly restolen again by a mysterious third party. It wasn't just restolen though, for the plane it was travelling on was crashed and the passengers murdered. Could it be a Thuggee plot?

The trail of this prototype, concealed as it is within an explosive typewriter case, leads Solo and an air stewardess ultimately into the lair of her secretly Thuggee father, and only being rescued accidentally and unwillingly by the interference of a THRUSH agent who has been tangling with Solo throughout the whole plot. It all works very well, especially the THRUSH complications, which rhymes with some of the great THRUSH interferences of previous stories. It's a man this time, so none of the sauciness recurs, but it's nice to have a stylish anti-Solo wandering around. We also get a brief appearance from Madge Blake as a genial UNCLE courier and Vito Scotti, the all purpose character actor!

This is a solid example of the great first season of UNCLE, with yet more realistically super-beautiful women, a great escape from a Thuggee temple, and humorous interactions with the despicable THRUSH. Who exactly is the mastermind behind THRUSH, anyway? We know that it's a person, from the information given in previous episodes. The joy here is that this is a show which can be both serious and humorous. What a wonder that would have been in 1964!


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Book: 'The Roaring Trumpet' (1941) by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt

It's fascinating to find out that this was first written (as a shorter story) in 1940. This is perhaps the first real prototype 'man travels to another world' story, if you throw away 'A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court' and the 'John Carter' novels. Okay, so it's not the first, but it does predate a second favourite example, 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' by Poul Anderson, by almost fifteen years, which is impressive. However, out of all the stories mentioned, 'The Roaring Trumpet' features a protagonist who chooses to travel between the worlds, which is an important distinction. Yes, he ended up in a different world to the one he planned, but it was an expedition instead of an accident, and what an expedition! The central conceit is that we are capable of experiencing and receiving far more sensations than those of our own universe, and that it is entirely possible to travel between the universes by re-tuning our consciousnesses to receive the impulses from those worlds... Yes, it is interdimensional travel by self-hypnosis, or so it seems!

'The Roaring Trumpet' kicks off the 'Harold Shea' or 'Enchanter' sequence, which is a great achievement. This, and the following story, 'The Mathematics Of Magic' are the extended versions of the original magazine stories. Every story is in some ways a parody of or a homage to a notable mythology. This time, we get Shea visiting Norse mythology, on the very eve of Ragnarok, and it's lovely indeed. We get encounters with the Norse gods, species aplenty, snow, snow, and more snow, and lots of interaction between the modern man Harold and the natives. Wonderful prose, warm characterization, a novel premise, and a good dose of verisimilitude holding it all together. Is it a parody, though, as people suggest? The interior of the story doesn't think so.

It's always nice to visit the Norse legends, isn't it? Much more warm and comforting than wandering off to the Greek or Arabian tales... Maybe that's because we have a more censored version of the Norse stories in the public consciousness, or a lack of awareness of specifics? Perhaps it's the secret inner Scandinavian which lurks in the core of all us British coldlanders.

'The Roaring Trumpet' could well appeal for it's comparative innocence, despite not really being all that pure. It's written in a simple and appealing way. Now, will 'The Mathematics Of Magic' live up to its standard?


Monday, 23 April 2018

A Long Story, Or A Short One

The Quirky Muffin has been on partial suspension due to a series of serious and idiotic complications. At the beginning of the year, I feel sick with a chest infection, and recovered, before falling sick again. Some chance remarks passed on by the people at large invented the notion of a twelve week virus, and so I set myself to wait it out. However, I stayed sick, and got worse and worse. Six or seven weeks in, the first visit to the doctor occurred, in which all the misinformation led to nothing conclusive, and then after that x-rays, before it finally became clear that it was a very well developed chest infection indeed. The final result, after lots of anti-biotics and three months elapsed, is that things are approaching normal once again here. Yes, there is still some pain from the cough-inflicted damage, but it will be repaired. A diet rich in anti-inflammatories is proving very useful indeed... Roll on, cocoa, oranges, olive oil, almonds, broccoli, ginger and more. There are ways to do things.

It's nice to not feel exhausted, or scared of going to bed, any more. Very nice indeed.

Oh, and it's Snooker World Championship time again! Many more interesting long and short stories.


PS If someone says 'broncoscopy', don't expect anything pleasant!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Television: 'The Man From UNCLE: The Finny Foot Affair' (1964) (Aired 1x10, Produced 1x15)

Baby Kurt Russell. Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong. The lovely silent opening. The Napoleon centred episode. He missed out on that mother! Waverley calms him down at the end. Marc Daniels. An explanation of the 'Finny Foot' title. Living dangerously in powdered chemical land. That wonderful and traitorous hound. Where would we be without caves?

This is a very impressive affair, immediately from the silent opening as Napoleon and Ilya investigate and ultimately incinerate a dead Scottish village in containment suits. It's a visual stunner. Then, we get the best of cases, a Napoleon-centric episode and a great guest star in the form of the little tiny Kurt Russell of 1964! Not only Kurt Russell, but also Leonard 'The Kraw' Strong, whose legendary role in 'Get Smart' has forever ruined his earlier appearance here. He could have been doing anything, even acting out the best villain in all of screen history, but all you will think of is the Kraw. Anyway, with that put aside, this episode is studded with interesting and unusual moments.

At one point, a scientist doing a post-mortem on a dead seal stops to explain the 'finny foot' of the title in reference to the taxonomical name of the specimen, and it works! He just does it, theoretically to the UNCLE crew via the closed circuit television. Kurt Russell's Christopher endlessly tries to matchmake his temporary guardian Napoleon with his beautiful widowed mother, which is sweet, and there's a potent sense of innocence mixed in with all the intrigue. It's a remarkable achievement when the problem being investigated is so deeply serious: a chemical which causes accelerated ageing, which thankfully is only shown as a pre-established result during the introduction. Napoleon is rather cavalier with the 'dried out' powdered chemical when it's found, though.

Russell is very good as Christopher, but the real guest star of the episode was a lovely and cuddly dog, who sadly leads the enemy agents also in pursuit of the chemical directly to Napoleon and the lad, and to the rusted drum that housed it. What a cute dog! And what a cute little moment, when Napoleon solved the riddle of the ring and the statue. It's a lovely episode, with a nicely characterised ending, when Christopher decides Napoleon is too busy to be his dad, and leaves with his actually attractive mother, while Mr Waverley wisely leads the dumbstruck Napoleon away before he does something he would regret.

Mr Waverley is wise. Never doubt it.


Next time: 'The Yellow Scarf Affair' (If it's interesting or good!)