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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman

"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman - Harlan Ellison, Rick Berry In a future where humanity has become obsessed with timekeeping and punctuality, a single mysterious figure tries to make a change, by wasting everybody's time.

Try reading that in a deep movie trailer voice.

“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman is a whimsical and satirical dystopian short story that won both the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1965. In this future we have become so obsessed with punctuality that tardiness has become a crime and the duration of your tardiness will be deducted from your lifespan. This law is implemented by installing a device in everyone, this device is controlled by a “cardioplate” which can turn off a person’s heart if his allotted lifetime runs out. The people’s lifetimes are governed by “The Master Timekeeper”, also called “The Ticktockman”, but never to his face. The Harlequin is a superhero of sorts whose only powers are his imagination and defiance. His acts of rebellion are silly public stunts that throw people off their work schedule and cause the unthinkable: delays.

“The System had been seven minutes worth of disrupted. It was a tiny matter, one hardly worthy of note, but in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.”

The theme of the story is not exactly subtle as Ellison clearly indicates it in the text:

“We no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves of the schedule, worshippers of the sun's passing, bound into a life predicated on restrictions because the system will not function if we don't keep the schedule tight.”

This is a terrific little story, the prose is wonderfully stylized, surreal and whimsical. I don’t know how relevant the theme is today, certainly I am late for work every day and I tend to get away with it!

Note: You can read this story for free online, just Google* the title. I don't want to post a download link when I am not sure of the story's copyright status.

* I am not sure what would happen if you were to Bing it!


Weaveworld - Clive Barker Weaveworld is one of the very few books that I can claim to enjoy from the first page to the last, all 700+ pages of it. Even the introduction is great, normally I skim through lengthy intros to get to the story, but Clive Barker puts his heart and soul into this one, including this beautiful passage about the genre fiction:

“I have been, I think, altogether disparaging about the ‘escapist’ elements of the genre, emphasizing its powers to address social, moral and even philosophical issues at the expense of celebrating its dreamier virtues. I took this position out of a genuine desire to defend a fictional form I love from accusations of triviality and triteness, but my zeal led me astray. Yes, fantastic fiction can be intricately woven into the texture of our daily lives, addressing important issues in fabulist form. But it also serves to release us for a time from the definitions that confine our daily selves; to unplug us from a world that wounds and disappoints us, allowing us to venture into places of magic and transformation.”

As a lifelong devotee of SF/F/H fiction, I sometimes have the same doubts about preferring this type of fiction above all others but the above passage really puts it in perspective for me.

Weaveworld is about another dimension called “The Fugue” which has been transformed into a carpet in order to hide from an unstoppable creature called “The Scourge”. The residents of the Fugue are called the “Seerkind”, a race with magical abilities who view mankind with disdain and refer to humans as “cuckoos”. The Fugue in carpet form works a little like suspended animation or dehydrated food in which places, animals and most of the Seerkind are woven in as patterns on the carpet; to be reconstituted by an appointed guardian when the world is safe. The storyline concerns two human protagonists who become involved with the Fugue and the Seerkind and their struggle against powerful enemies who are trying to destroy both.

I first read Weaveworld around fifteen years ago and certain elements and scenes have stuck with me through all these years. It is a dark fantasy with several horrifying scenes — definitely not for the faint of heart — and scenes of surreal beauty. The most memorable element of the book for me is the magical jacket worn by Shadwell, the main human antagonist of the book, the lining of the jacket is able to enslave anyone who look at it by showing their heart's desire and allowing them to delve into it and obtain that very thing.


The central characters are very well written and believable, the antagonists are suitably warped, formidable and devious. In spite of its considerable length Weaveworld still manages to move at a fair clip. Something bizarre is always happening on almost every page and boredom never sets in. There is also more artistry in his prose than you would find in most genre books. The best thing about this book is that it is wonderful escapism, this book can sweep you away from a dull rainy day, or a slow day at the office. If you are a fan of Neil Gaiman’s [b: American Gods|4407|American Gods (American Gods, #1)|Neil Gaiman|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1258417001s/4407.jpg|1970226] this book is likely to be right up your alley, though it is much more horrific, packed to the gills with horrible slimy, sticky, drippy – not to mention horny – monstrosities.

With an average rating of 4.13 Weaveworld is generally very well liked. However, all books have their share of negative reviews and while I respect opinions contrary to my own, I take exception to one review that says this book “is lacking”. The trouble is the reviewer does not say what it is that the book is lacking. Is “lacking” an adjective now? In any case I don’t think it lacks anything and I heartily recommend it.

Cover art for the 25th anniversary edition of Weaveworld by Richard A. Kirk (click on image for larger size).

Note: I have to admit Clive Barker's books are generally very hard to review, they tend to be densely plotted and the settings and storylines are always so goddam outré. This is particularly true of Weaveworld, I really struggled to write this review. I normally make notes when I read a novel so I will have some material ready to put in my review, but with this book I was so engrossed that I hardly paused to make any notes at all; just a sentence or two.

The Great Dune Trilogy

The Great Dune Trilogy - Frank Herbert A lot of people only read the first book, including people who seldom read sci-fi and people who only read just this one sci-fi book. The other two books are definitely worthwhile, especially the third volume (I have not read anything subsequent to the third book). If you are interested these are my reviews:

1. Dune
2. Dune Messiah
3. Children of Dune

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Vladimir Nabokov, Dan Chaon, Robert Louis Stevenson “I have become a monster! I must find a place where I can hide! That’s it! I shall call myself…” DUN-DUN-DUUUUN!!!
“Mr. Where-I-can!”

The above is paraphrased from a “Morecambe & Wise” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sketch, they don’t often make me laugh, but this one is gold!

Not so much "The Strange Case" as the "Overly Familiar Case". The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of those stories that practically everybody knows so few people bother to read the original text. The original [b: Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1381512375s/18490.jpg|4836639] and [b: Dracula|17245|Dracula|Bram Stoker|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1387151694s/17245.jpg|3165724] are also often neglected by readers for the same reason. This is a shame because these are great books and well worth reading, ([b: Frankenstein|18490|Frankenstein|Mary Shelley|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1381512375s/18490.jpg|4836639] is particularly beautifully written).

Clearly the inspiration for “Dr. Banner and Mr. Hulk”, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is, first and foremost, a damn fine horror story. If you ignore the fact that you already know all the plot points and just immerse yourself into Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderfully atmospheric setting and prose. Imagine walking around a foggy London street in Victorian times, whistling some spooky tune, and suddenly — DUN-DUN-DUUUUN!!! — Mr. Hyde comes out of nowhere and whacks you on the head.

The theme of the duality of human nature is not exactly vague since it takes on a such a physical manifestation. However, Stevenson leaves you to draw your own conclusion of whether Jekyll’s theory is valid. The story is also an allegory and a cautionary tale for inebriation (or getting wasted), and yielding to temptation in general. “Just one more pint” and you may find yourself whacking people in foggy London.

Interestingly Dr. Jekyll is not as good a guy as many people may assume. The text clearly indicates that he is always up for a wild time, painting the town red, visiting houses of ill repute, and doing some serious S&M*. Besides, no decent gentleman is going to deliberately — and repeatedly — take drugs that turn him into a psychopath.

Anyway, do give The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a read, it may be old hat, but it never goes out of fashion. Try it on for size!

Art by "MB-CG".

* Not to be confused with M&S which is Marks & Spencer, where you can be fairly sure of non-mayhem.

Cool quote:
"Will you be wise? will you be guided? will you suffer me to take this glass in my hand and to go forth from your house without further parley? or has the greed of curiosity too much command of you?"

Non-quote from the book: “Don’t make me angry, you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!”

There are several audiobook versions of this book on Librivox, I chose the one read by David Barnes, as he sounds suitably English. The narration is a little bit of a monotone, but nice and clearly read, and it's free so I can't complain. Thank you Mr. Barnes!

I Have No Mouth

I Have No Mouth - Harlan Ellison It is a terrible mistake to assume that everybody else will love — or at least like — your favorite things, whatever you consider to be an all-time great. This is the most important lesson I have taken away from I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. I recommended this story to a smart and discerning friend, foolishly expecting her to at least be impressed with it. After she has finished it I was mortified to be informed that she actually hated it! As I value her opinion on literary matters greatly it makes me doubt my own taste and judgment. Still, at the end of the day if you love something you have to stick to your guns, don't you? In cases like this there is no better explanation than that we can't all like the same things.

I haven't read this story for years, so I decided to reread it expressly for the purpose of writing this review, it only takes about 30 minutes to read after all. I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a an extremely bleak post-apocalypse and dystopian story. In the future depicted in this story, mankind is ruled by a demented and extremely cruel A.I. overlord. Mankind, in this case, consists of just five people; one girl and four men, imprisoned underground within the mega-computer itself. The rest of humanity have already been wiped out by the crazed AI, the cause of its insanity is best left unrevealed here. The five humans are saved by the AI for its sadistic amusement, to assuage its craving for revenge against mankind for a perceived mortal offense. The five humans are tortured, debased and humiliated daily. They are also kept alive and made practically immortal to prolong their suffering indefinitely.

This is a horrifying and disturbing story. My friend mentioned that the prose is leaden and I suppose it may be, but I find that Harlan Ellison's narrative packs a real punch. The ending is particularly creepy and unforgettable. I don't know what it says about me that I am in awe of such a nasty story, I just love stories that have a strong psychological or emotional impact. It also raises the issue of our over-reliance on technology, a theme it shares with E.M. Forster’s [b: The Machine Stops|4711854|The Machine Stops |E.M. Forster|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347943820s/4711854.jpg|4776249], a much more gentle apocalypse. There is also the matter of allowing our creation to go out of control for the sake of our greed or lust for power.

If you want to read this classic sci-fi story online just Google the title. You will probably find it in a few seconds. I doubt it is in the public domain so I'd better not post a link.

At the risk of recommending something you will hate, I highly recommend this story. I never learn!

Note: I'm just reviewing the one story, not the entire anthology in this book. I don't have the book!

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling “Welcome to the jungle
We've got fun 'n' games
We got everything you want
Honey, we know the names”

The opening poem of The Jungle Book: “Now Rann the Kite brings home the night” etc. is much more elegant than Axl Rose’s effort, but I feel it would be much nicer for you to read it in the context of the book.

Now if you are looking for a review from someone with an in-depth knowledge of Rudyard Kipling’s works you had better look elsewhere. My Kipling-fu is so feeble I did not even know The Jungle Book was an anthology, not a novel about a badass little boy who blazed a trail for Tarzan. It didn’t even occur to me to read this book until I saw the trailer for the new 2015 movie a few days ago.

I’m just going to run through the list of the stories then:

1. Mowgli's Brothers
This surprised me, it’s basically the entire story of Mowgli as I know it from the movies (animated and live action). I wonder if Shere Khan is the inspiration for Chaka Khan? (cue eye rolls). If you only read one story from this book (what a silly notion) read this one.

2. Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack
Nice poem, all the poems in this book are nice.

3. Kaa's Hunting
This goes back up the timeline from the conclusion of “Mowgli's Brothers”, it features Mowgli being kidnaped by monkeys. At no point does Mowgli say “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!”, Kipling was not into pop culture references (I am). Any way, Mowgli is chiefly aided by Kaa the python and his very particular set of skills.
“Trust in me”.
"but I didn't expect a Spanish Inquisition!"

4. Road-Song of the Bandar-Log
Nice poem

5. “Tiger! Tiger!”
Mowgli has a rematch with Shere Khan and finds human society not to his liking, the beds especially (I don’t blame him).

6. Mowgli's Song
Great song, especially the guitar solo.

7. The White Seal
Kotick the white seal is like the Columbus among seals. Very good story. Especially when Kotick decides he has had enough of the ignorant seals and their jibes then proceeds to hand their asses to them. They did not know he has been working out with some marathon swimming.

8. Lukannon
“A sort of very sad seal National Anthem”. Thank you Literaturepage.com

9. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”
Laugh at his silly name at your own peril Rikki-tikki-tavi is one badass mofo of a mongoose. I guess he could be the prototype for Ninja Turtles, K9*, Hong Kong Phooey and other superhero animals.

10. Darzee's Chant
Darzee is a tailorbird from Rikki-tikki-tavi’s story with a penchant of breaking into songs at the most inappropriate moment. After Rikki-tikki-tavi is allowed to knock himself out with full blown hero worship through this song.

11. Toomai of the Elephants
An Indian boy takes a clandestine ride on an elephant’s back and witnesses a huge herd of elephants performing “We Will Rock You”.
“You got blood on yo' face
You big disgrace
Wavin' your trunk all over the place”

12. Shiv and the Grasshopper
“The song that Toomai's mother sang to the baby”

13. Her Majesty's Servants
Ah! Oh dear! For me this story is like throwing an eel at a marble wall, it just won’t stick. I listened** to it twice and I still can’t remember what it’s about. Somethihg to do with a bunch of animals nattering about something completely devoid of interest.

14. Parade Song of the Camp Animals
Related to the previous story. No thanks.

That’s it then, I enjoyed most of the stories, poems and song, except number 13 and 14 as mentioned above.

Definitely recommended, especially the first story, which is a bear necessity.

* Hey Cecily, I managed to sneak one in!

** Librivox Audiobook, very nicely read/performed by Phil Chenevert. Thank you!

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility  - Jane Austen Sense and Sensibility is a lot like a Fast & Furious movie, except there are no supercar races, gun fights, fist fights, robbery, and scantily clad girls. Come to think of it Sense and Sensibility is nothing like a Fast & Furious movie. I just had no idea how to start off the review.

Actually Sense and Sensibility is (seriously now) a lot like [b: Pride and Prejudice|1885|Pride and Prejudice|Jane Austen|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320399351s/1885.jpg|3060926]. What with the sisters, one stoic and worldly, one a little wild, impulsive and naive, not to mention the youngest one who is the Maggie Simpson* of the family and does not have much to do. Then we have the nice but immediately friendzoned gentlemen, the handsome cad and the twittering mom with the dollar GBP sign popping up in her eyes when considering her daughters’ matrimonial prospects.

In all fairness to Ms. Austen, the two books are not that similar, Sense and Sensibility is her debut novel and she later used some of the same elements to write her magnum opus (“Pride” that is). The book is entirely focussed on the two Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne and their felicitous relationships with men. This is not the kind of book you should put through the Bechdel test because the ladies herein very seldom talk about anything else except the men in their lives. Still, you never have to wonder what the ladies in this book do in their spare time because all their time seems to be spare time, [a: Thomas Hardy|15905|Thomas Hardy|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1429946281p2/15905.jpg]’s heroines seem to have much harder and more productive lives. Still, I don’t want to put too much of a negative spin on Sense and Sensibility because it is a pleasure to read in spite of its flaws and low stakes.

Jane Austen is brilliant at writing silly, twittering, meddling women who actually mean well but never stop talking except when they are listening through the door and completely misunderstanding the snatches of conversation they could hear. Mrs. Jennings, a friend of the family, is my favorite character in the book, she can always be relied upon to hilariously bark up the wrong tree. Curiously characterization is both a strength and a weakness of this book. The “good guys”, namely Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, are awfully dull, semi-zombified gentlemen. Whereas Willoughby the cad is lively and always game for a laugh. Sir John Dashwood, who is somewhat of an antagonist, is not so lively but he is hilariously tactless and shallow. Our two heroines are both too nice and are no match for the almost-femme fatale Lucy Steele.

Jane Austen is at her best when she is skewering people in polite society and terribly inhibited gents:
“The nature of her commendation, in the present case, however, happened to be particularly ill-suited to the feelings of two thirds of her auditors, and was so very unexhilarating to Edward, that he very soon got up to go away”

Unexhilarating! LOL! Then there is this bit which is worthy of a high five:

“she did not really like them at all. Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading, she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but THAT did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.”

I started reading Jane Austen to find out what the fuss is about, why do the studios keep adapting her works for films and TV? Initially I did not get it, her storylines always seem inconsequential to me but I have always liked her beautiful prose so I keep coming back to read more. With Sense and Sensibility it finally clicked for me. The snark! Beneath the Victorian politeness and sense of decorium Ms. Austen was a fabulously snarky lady. Having come to this conclusion I am practically ready to join the rank of the Janeites. I already have a bonnet, with several bees in it.

* and her name is Maggie Dashwood! (sort of)
It’s kind of a shame that the multiple Oscars winning 1995 film adaptation cast the excellent Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant as the nice but awfully boring gentlemen. Emma Thompson is spot on as the super competent Elinor Dashwood though, and Kate Winslet is always worth the admission price.

GR's Sense and Sensibility Quotes page is full of pithy lines, I think it misrepresents the books as something overly earnest or serious. Sense and Sensibility is, for me, a hoot.

Special thanks to the fabulous Ms. Karen Savage for her gracious and beautiful narration of the free Librivox audiobook edition of Sense and Sensibility. She could narrate a laundry list and I'd be happy to listen to it.

And He Built a Crooked House

And He Built a Crooked House - Robert A. Heinlein One of my all-time favorite short stories. And He Built a Crooked House is about a house built in the shape of a tesseract:
When the architect of the house, the owner of the house and his wife go to have a look around they find that an earthquake from the previous day has caused parts of the house to be folded into the fourth dimension; leaving only one room visible and accessible. Unwisely they enter the house and major dimensional weirdness ensues.

The warping of space and dimensions remind me of M. C. Escher’s drawings, “Relativity” in particular:
image The story is humorous in tone and quite mind blowing. I cannot tell you any more without spoiling the story; I can, however, make a link to an awesome demo of this crooked house.

If you would like to read this story online just google the title, I am not sure what the copyright status of this (1941) story is so I won’t put in a link.

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood I don't read a lot of lit fic, I'm just not wired for it I suppose. Margaret Atwood is a rare exception though, because she often wanders into my sci-fi neighborhood and generally does a splendid job of it so I wanted to check out her lit fic which I imagine is like a day job for her. I chose The Blind Assassin because it won the prestigious Man Booker Prize (Man! Booker Prize!) for the year 2000 so I thought I’d go for that (not that I have ever read any of the past winners).

The Blind Assassin basically concerns Iris Chase and her sister Laura. Their mother died when they were still kids, they are mainly taken care of by their maid/nanny Reenie, their industrialist father being quite useless in the paternal department. After WWII, the father’s business fails and Iris is coerced into marrying a thoroughly unpleasant and untrustworthy but rich businessman named Richard Griffen. Things go from bad to completely pear-shaped for poor Iris and her sis.

My apologies to Ms. Atwood (and Cecily) if the above brief synopsis makes the book sounds like a load of crap. It is hard to synopsize because it is so densely plotted and once you are familiar with the characters everything they do is of some interest, even the most mundane activities like going to the doughnut shop or the toilet. Having said that, none of the characters is particularly likeable. It is a cliché in GR book reviews for the reviewer to complain that none of the characters are likeable, but, in this case, I am not complaining, they don’t need to be likeable if they are interesting. All the characters are vividly drawn, some are even grotesque, and it is fascinating to see what they get up to.

I haven’t even mentioned “the sci-fi bits” yet. They are parts of an improvised and orally narrated story made up “on demand” by an unnamed clandestine lover who is himself a fictional character within the “reality” of the novel. I love sci-fi, but I have to admit the sci-fi bits (they are not even whole chapters) in this book don’t do anything for me, Oryx and Crake Atwood gave a shoutout to Twisted Sister, in The Blind Assassin she mentions Judas Priest a couple of times. This leads me to the conclusion that Margaret Atwood is a headbanger. Awesome!

The Island of Dr. Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau - H.G. Wells “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?"
“Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
“Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”
"You gotta fight for your right to paaaaarty!"

Sorry for a spoiler so early on but yes, The Beastie Boys are to be found on the unnamed – but titular – Island of Dr. Moreau. Sort of.

Interestingly The Island of Dr. Moreau begins with a brief introduction by "Charles Edward Prendick" – nephew of the novel’s protagonist Edward Prendick – explaining the background of his uncle’s first hand account of his shipwreck and the uncle's records of the time he spent on this mysterious island. From then on the first person narrative is switched to the original Edward Prendick and Charles is never heard from again. So basically what we have here is a precursor to the “found footage” trope often used in modern movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity etc. As a literary device this it seems to have gone out of fashion, nowadays we even get first person narratives written in the present tense which does not make sense when you think about it, but makes perfect sense if you just accept it as the author’s chosen narrative technique.

Basically Edward Prendick is shipwrecked, rescued by an associate of Dr. Moreau and taken to a mysterious island where he finds a bunch of man-beasts living there. How did they come to be? Well, there is a scientist living there, the creatures worship him, and he is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, so all that should be fairly indicative! Prendick spends about a year on this island until one day “the fit hits the shan”. That is all the synopsis you need I think.

This book is what I would call “sci-fi horror”, it is probably Wells’ most horrific book, with all the vivisections, gore and violence. In my previous reviews of H.G. Wells’ books I mentioned that he pioneered at least three standard sci-fi tropes: time traveling, alien invasion and genetic engineering. That last one is a reference to The Island of Dr. Moreau of course, but back then I have not reread this book yet and I forgot an important detail. There is no genetic engineering in this book! Animals are turned into imitations of men by Dr. Moreau through the process of vivisection, chemical injections, blood transfusion and brain surgery. It is a little like cutting and pasting in word processing I think. If “Frankensteining” was a verb you can probably apply it to mad Moreau’s process. I find the science in this book is less convincing than Wells’ [b: The War of The Worlds|8909|The War of the Worlds|H.G. Wells|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320391644s/8909.jpg|3194841], [b: The Time Machine|2493|The Time Machine|H.G. Wells|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327942880s/2493.jpg|3234863] and [b:The Invisible Man|17184|The Invisible Man|H.G. Wells|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388639080s/17184.jpg|1326579]. It is hard to believe Moreau is able to create intelligence or sentience through brain surgery and his technique of replacing and grafting limbs to animals seems more likely to make a mess than an anthropomorphized creature able to run around. The pain he depicts is convincing and disturbing though.

Characterization is a little thin in this book, the human characters are fairly two dimensional, even Doc Moreau is your standard issue cranky and obsessive mad scientist. That said some of the “manimals” are quite adorable, like the dog-man who is loyal to Prendick to the last and a little sloth-like creature that Wells describes as repulsive but still sounds pretty cute to me. Wells is clearly against men playing God, slicing and dicing animals just to see what happen. All in the name of science and progress of course, morals can get in the backseat and keep quiet. This short novel is very fast paced; if you are inattentive for a few seconds you are likely to miss some important plot points. That should not be much of an issue though as there is never a dull moment in the book.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is well worth a read of course, H.G. Wells always is.

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells “A method by which it would be possible, without changing any other property of matter—except, in some instances colours—to lower the refractive index of a substance, solid or liquid, to that of air—so far as all practical purposes are concerned.”

“You make the glass invisible by putting it into a liquid of nearly the same refractive index; a transparent thing becomes invisible if it is put in any medium of almost the same refractive index. And if you will consider only a second, you will see also that the powder of glass might be made to vanish in air, if its refractive index could be made the same as that of air; for then there would be no refraction or reflection as the light passed from glass to air.”

H.G. Wells is not merely the forefather of science fiction, he is also the forefather of hard science fiction. I think he explains his science and pseudoscience better than most of today’s sci-fi authors.

One thing that bothers me about the concept of an invisible man in general is that they seem to be considered as more of an unstoppable threat than they need to be. If I can go a little off tangent for a sec, the idea occurred to me while I was watching The Hollow Man. While the psychopathic invisible man goes on a rampage, everybody is whirling around trying to protect themselves. When the invisible man is coming at them why does it not occur to any of them to render him visible by throwing – say – a bucket of paint, a bag of flour, ink or even a goddam cup of coffee over him or his general direction? Even Wells does not consider this line of defense even though he does deal with the issue a little in this passage:

“I could not go abroad in snow—it would settle on me and expose me. Rain, too, would make me a watery outline, a glistening surface of a man—a bubble. And fog—I should be like a fainter bubble in a fog, a surface, a greasy glimmer of humanity.”

Unfortunately Wells does not do anything with this observation; no wonder Mr. Invis (his name is actually “Griffin”) runs rings around the hapless cops and everybody else. The smartest “good guy” in the book suggests everybody in the country locking their food away to starve him out, sniffer dogs, powdered glass and whatnot when all they is to do some literal mud slinging. If he is coming to the house scatter lots of flour or sand all over the floor etc. The fact that nobody makes an effort to render him visible in some way seriously weakens the book for me; after all science fiction is all about exploration of ideas and possibilities, taking things to their logical conclusion*. The way the invisible man is finally dealt with is not very impressive.

The Invisible Man is one of Wells’ less epic works I think, but many of the negative GR reviews I have read seem to ignore the fact that Wells imagined the concept in 1897! It is easy to dismiss such a commonplace sci-fi /fantasy trope today but Wells pioneered it along with other sci-fi staples like alien invasion, time traveling and genetic engineering. He may not have invented all these concepts himself but he was (probably) the first to use them in fiction. Seriously, do not badmouth H.G. Wells.

How about themes, motifs and subtexts then eh? I have pondered long and hard and I conclude that summer is the best season for invisibility. So if you are going to go for an extreme transparency makeover do it in summer or you will catch your death! I am also concerned about Griffin’s invisible cat which remains at large. Actually one interesting theme is how adaptable the British public seems to be about “weird shit going down” such as the advent of an invisible man. They are all happy to lock up their food and find ways of depriving him of his sleep etc. Making him visible is probably not cricket.

In any case – despite its logical flaw – The Invisible Man is a lot of fun, definitely worth a read, and it won’t take up much of your time.

The original title of the book is “The Invisible Man: A Grotesque Romance”. Obviously the word “romance” here is not referring to holding hands and red roses, the older meaning of “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.” seems to apply. As for “grotesque”, Griffin (Mr. Invis) would not seem grotesque by today’s standard, “badass” would probably be a more contemporary adjective.

* I am also a little uncomfortable with the idea of Griffin running about au naturale, penduluming outrageously. I think he should wear a little thong at least, surely most people won't notice a little thong floating about.

I listened to the free Librivox audiobook of The Invisible Man very nicely read by Ms. Cate Barratt. Thank you!

A Study in Emerald

A Study in Emerald - Neil Gaiman Neil Gaiman’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche and Cthulhu mythos mashup is certainly weird, but I am not so sure about wonderful. It is available as a free PDF download so there is no reason not to give it a shot. The PDF file is cleverly formatted to look like a Victorian newspaper with amusing ads placed by Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and other Victorian SF characters. Gaiman is doing a sort of literary sleight of hand here, leading the reader up the garden path. Set in an alternate Victorian England where mankind (or may be just the British?) has been subjugated by the Great Old Ones for centuries. Nothing and nobody is what they seem and he only shows his hands by the end of the story.

It is an interesting and imaginative story but not really as much fun as I was expecting. The Cthulhu side of it is not at all scary though there are some creepy descriptions (the same could be said for most of Lovecraft’s stories I think). I don’t think that this is Gaiman at his best, and I wonder how it won the Hugo Award in 2004. As always this is just my opinion and as the story is available for free download I would not discourage anybody from reading it. Certainly it is not bad. Neil Gaiman does not do “bad”.

Surface Detail

Surface Detail - Iain M. Banks Iain M. Banks was taken away from us too soon. He was a genius of prose, structure, characterization and all kinds of SFnal ideas (by all accounts his mainstream fiction – published under the name of Iain Banks and [b: Altered Carbon|40445|Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)|Richard K. Morgan|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1387128955s/40445.jpg|2095852] should find a lot to enjoy in this book. If [b: Redshirts|13055592|Redshirts|John Scalzi|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348617890s/13055592.jpg|18130445] or [b: The Martian|18007564|The Martian|Andy Weir|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1413706054s/18007564.jpg|21825181] represent your preferred flavor of sci-fi this book may not suit you. Beside great characters, ideas, humour, prose and dialogue, Banks is also brilliant with nomenclatures, the very long ship names and drone names are awesome yet subtly meaningful.

If I have one complaint it would be that the pace sags a little after the half-way point of the book, especially as one character is negotiating to buy a top of the line spaceship. However, the novel’s pace soon picks up again, in fact one confrontation scene between a protagonist and her arch enemy almost had me jump out of my seat. Surface Detail is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys Banks’ Culture series books, I am not sure it is the best entry point into the series, [b: The Player of Games|18630|The Player of Games (Culture, #2)|Iain M. Banks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1386922873s/18630.jpg|1494157] would be better for that I think. I already bought [b: Look to Windward|12016|Look to Windward (Culture, #7)|Iain M. Banks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1288930978s/12016.jpg|124371] so I am looking forward to that.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes -  Arthur Conan Doyle After “reading” lengthy audiobooks like [b: Vanity Fair|5797|Vanity Fair|William Makepeace Thackeray|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344386439s/5797.jpg|1057468] I just wanted to read/listen-to something short. Then I saw the movie The Imitation Game (highly recommended) and I thought “Of course! Sherlock!”

I suspect reviewing an anthology by listing all the stories and commenting on each of them is probably inelegant and amateurish, but I never said I was a pro. So the game is afoot! Let the jollification begin:

A Scandal in Bohemia - Irene Adler is not Holmes girlfriend OK? stop shipping "Sherene" already! (sorry for this bout of Tumblrism). One of the best known SH stories ever, one with a great twist. Irene Adler is simply awesome. She is possibly the inspiration for Catwoman. Without spoiling anything I can tell you that she was never in any danger of being beheaded in the Middle East. Actually Holmes probably fancies her a bit, mostly for her brain.

The Red-Headed League - Holmes vs The Deadly Gingers! This is “a three pipes problem” according to Holmes. This story is subtly funny in places, Holmes and Watson even have a good laugh at his dimwitted client's expense.

A Case of Identity - One of the more comfy cases which Holmes can solve from his armchair. Funny thing about this story is that while it is good, when I looked at the title of the story a couple days later in the Contents page I had no idea what it is about. It's just too elementary. Note to self: This one is about a missing fiancé who leaves his nice but dim bride at the altar, he is not what he seems...

The Boscombe Valley Mystery - Murder (al)most foul. Number of pipes not specified, probably not more than four as the case involves a bit of traveling. Holmes says something surprisingly religious here: “You are yourself aware that you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes."

The Five Orange Pips - A bit of an epic fail for Sherlock, it's a great story and Holmes did solve the case but the conclusion of the case is not one of his shining moments. If you receive five orange pips in the post you may as well kill yourself because even Holmes can’t help you (though he will avenge you which is not much of a consolation)

The Man with the Twisted Lip
Holmes vs a master of disguise! Great story with a surprisingly sweet ending. Holmes solves this one by “sitting upon five pillows and consuming an ounce of shag.” LOL! Mr. Holmes you are too many for me.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
In which Holmes wouldn't say boo to a goose. Underneath the cold exterior he can be quite kindly and forgiving to newbie criminals. It's a gem!

The Adventure of the Speckled Band - Holmes assists a Stoner in a most serpentine tale! This is the most thrilling and sinister story so far in the book. Definitely a favorite.

The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb - Another case where Holmes does not have to do a lot of work. The poor engineer and his ex-thumb though. The climax is quite thrilling, you can almost feel the ceiling closing in.

The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor The titular Noble Bachelor turns out to be an upper class twit. Doyle is doing a bit of a social satire with this story I think. A relatively inconsequential story but still a lot of fun. The wedding scene reminds me of the movie The Graduate a little bit.

The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
A tale of thievery and familial trust issues. Holmes can be quite paternal and sentimental when he chooses to be, though here he does that stuff "off screen".

The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
“They're creepy and they're kooky,
Mysterious and spooky,
They're all together ooky”

It’s Holmes vs The Addams Family! Well, not quite but it’s not too far off. Marvelous story, featuring Violet Hunter, a resourceful and competent young lady, who is almost as awesome as Irene Adler. If Irene is Catwoman, Violet is surely Batgirl.

No Shit Sherlock* - Holmes battles his deadliest enemy, constipation! Dr. Watson to the rescue with a suppository.

Every story in this book (except that last one about constipation) is a gem. Gems come in different sizes of course, but the entire collection is definitely a treasure. Holmes is probably my favorite fictional character of all time. His intellect is practically of superhero proportion, he is also wonderfully inscrutable yet caring and staunch defender of the less well to do. Watson is an extremely important support for Holmes, his courage and loyalty to Holmes saves the sleuth’s bacon on many occasions. He is also definitely not an idiot as portrayed in some dramatization. He can be quite quick witted and observant, and of course he is our trusty narrator.

Of course it takes an actual genius to create such a vivid and convincing fictional genius. From the reader’s point of view it may seem easy to think up a crime and then retroactively create clues that will lead Holmes to solving them, but when you read these stories Holmes’ problem solving just seem so organic and natural. His reading of people’s background from observing the minutiae of their appearance is mind boggling even though we know the author create the observations to fit the characters’ appearance. The ingenious part is that Doyle makes it all so believable, and he writes with such wit, style and elegance.

If you never read any Sherlock Holmes before shame on you! I recommend starting with this collection, then go on to the novels and other collections.
* OK, I totally made this one up!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Librivox audiobook read – nay performed – by David Clarke. Awesome job Mr. Clarke!

Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne,  Brian W. Aldiss, Michael Glencross More like five days for me really, though even that is too long for a 250 pages book. Well, it’s an audiobook and I only listened to it while commuting to work.

Yes, that is a silly intro but what I meant is that while listening to the book I often felt transported along with Phileas Fogg and crew. This is my first Jules Verne book, normally I prefer to read books in the original language they are written in because with translated books there is always an added layer between the translator and the original text. Still, if I avoid reading translated novels altogether I would have missed out on some great literature. This edition from Librivox* was translated by George Makepeace Towle, obviously I don’t know how accurate the translation is but the prose is very readable and the narrative entertaining.

I was immediately taken by the chummy tone of the narrative. Even though noting much happen in the first chapter I enjoyed Verne’s description of Phileas Fogg, a rather eccentric and enigmatic English gentleman; “exactitude personified” as Verne (or Towle?) puts it. The amusingly unflappable Fogg has a great foil in Passepartout (sounds like “passport two” in the audio). Passepartout is Fogg’s butler and sidekick, not so much Robin (as in Batman), or Jeeves, as Sancho Panza from [b: Don Quixote|3836|Don Quixote|Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1364958765s/3836.jpg|121842], he is bumbling, loyal and extremely likable; his IQ seems to go up and down as the plot dictates though.

The basic plot of Around the World in Eighty Days is very simple, the novel tells the story of Phileas Fogg’s attempt to travel the world in no more than 80 days for a bet. He is accompanied by Passepartout, along the way they pick up a couple of characters to form an entourage and they go through several hair-raising adventures. The book is pretty much a romp from beginning to end, necessarily moving at breakneck speed as time is obviously limited and the page count is quite modest.

One thing that surprises me is that Verne, a French author chooses an Englishman for his hero and Passepartout, a Frenchman, as his bumbling sidekick. Was Jules Verne an Anglophile? Let me know in the comments please. Of the other main characters, the Indian girl Aouda, who Fogg and Passepartout rescue from some zealot villains, seems to have very little in the way of agency. Then we have a Scotland Yard detective named Fix who is incredibly single-minded in his pursuit of Phileas Fogg (I keep imagining a musical adaptation of this book where he sings “I will try to Fix you”), I like him. Coming back to Fogg himself, he starts off being interestingly enigmatic and unflappable but by the end of the book seems like a one note character.

“As for Phileas Fogg, it seemed just as if the typhoon were a part of his programme”

That quote sums him up nicely. So Passepartout remains the novel’s best character for me.

Not much left for me to say really Around the World in Eighty Days is a hoot and I recommend it. I will certainly read [b: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea|7085072|Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas|Jules Verne|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1345387258s/7085072.jpg|41366562], [b: Journey to the Center of the Earth|32829|Journey to the Center of the Earth (Extraordinary Voyages, #3)|Jules Verne|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1389754903s/32829.jpg|1924715] and beyond. [a: Jules Verne|696805|Jules Verne|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1322911579p2/696805.jpg] is my kind of guy!


* Audiobook from Librivox, entertainingly read by Ralph Snelson, thank you!

My thanks to Lyn, an excellent GR friend and reviewer, whose review prompted me to read this book.

Little Fuzzy

Little Fuzzy - H. Beam Piper I remember loving this when I first read it as a teen, rereading it decades later I can see why I loved it then and why I am a little less keen on it now. The “Fuzzy” aliens are very cute, as shown on the various book covers, or if you visualize them from [a: H. Beam Piper|128647|H. Beam Piper|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1335650823p2/128647.jpg]’s descriptions. They look cute and the act cute, they must be one of sci-fi’s most charming alien species. My teen self was indeed very charmed, my current self was reminded to make an appointment for my annual dental checkup.

Even with all the cuteness overload Little Fuzzy only reads like a children’s book half the time, the other half is a more mature exploration of the meaning of sapience* and a theme of understanding and compassion toward less civilized, sophisticated or educated folks. I enjoy both the juvenile and the mature facets of the book though I have to confess I do find much of it too calculatedly cute, especially with names like Pappy Jack (nickname for Jack Holloway) for the main character, Goldilocks, Cinderella, Ko-Ko etc. for the aliens. I find the aliens too cute and too anthropomorphized to be believable, for example they think of humans as “the Big Ones” who are mostly good and want to live with them for comfort and protection. A lot of humans are of course very keen on them on account of their extreme cuteness, the situation just seems too pat and overly idealistic to me.

The theme of “what is sapience?” is – for me – the best aspect of this book. It starts with a simplistic definition of “anything that talks and build a fire” to more rigorous tests of language, communication, problem solving, social interaction etc. Here is an example passage:

“It isn’t communication, it’s symbolization. You simply can’t think sapiently except in verbal symbols. Try it. Not something like changing the spools on a recorder or field-stripping a pistol; they’re just learned tricks. I mean ideas.”

I like how Little Fuzzy developed into a courtroom drama where the aliens’ sapient status is at stake. The arguments are very interesting though the antagonists who oppose to recognizing the Fuzzies as sapient never become much of a threat. The human characters are all forgettable including Jack Holloway himself. The Fuzzies are of course very well-conceived and vividly described, though too deliberately cute for my taste.

The Fuzzies are likely to be the inspiration for the Ewoks in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (an observation made in many other reviews of this book). The plotline also remind me a little of the Athsheans from Ursula Le Guin’s excellent and more serious [b: The Word for World Is Forest|276767|The Word for World is Forest (Hainish Cycle #6)|Ursula K. Le Guin|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1283091038s/276767.jpg|3256815], though Little Fuzzy predates Le Guin’s book by many years.

The most obvious book inspired by Little Fuzzy is of course John Scalzi’s popular “reboot” [b: Fuzzy Nation|9647532|Fuzzy Nation|John Scalzi|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1316132345s/9647532.jpg|18280046]. I have not read [b: Fuzzy Nation|9647532|Fuzzy Nation|John Scalzi|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1316132345s/9647532.jpg|18280046] but in general reviews tend to be very positive, the book is a commercial success, and having read some of his other novels I believe he probably did a very good job. My only reservation is that I don’t like the idea of rebooting books, I think we have enough of that sort of thing in movies and I hope it does not become a trend for authors.

In any case Little Fuzzy is something of a minor classic and I highly recommend it to the young and old alike. It is also in the public domain so you can legally grab a free e-book from Project Gutenberg, or a free audio book from Librivox (quite nicely read actually).


* For some reason [a: H. Beam Piper|128647|H. Beam Piper|https://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1335650823p2/128647.jpg] prefers "sapience/sapient" over the more common "sentience/sentient" often used in science fiction. If I understand correctly “sentience” is more related to responses to or consciousness of sense impressions, whereas “sapience” places more emphasis on the ability to think, and to reason. If this is wrong please enlighten me in the comments.