Triple Review: Classic Pulp Science Fiction

When I think of classic science fiction, my mind turns to the greats such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and the immortal Philip K. Dick. For this week’s blog, I’m reviewing three of these eternal legends. However, there’s a slight twist. These reviews are for lesser known works by these writers. As an added bonus, all three were written during the Golden Age of the 1950’s. Please enjoy all the nerdy goodness in this triple review!

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17. Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham

Before I started my book-blogging adventures, I fell in love with Wyndham’s outstanding The Day of the Triffids. While Out of the Deeps doesn’t quite hit the same high note, I still found it to be an enjoyable sci-fi romp involving mysterious invaders from the deep sea.

The novel describes escalating phases of an alien invasion as seen through they eyes of  journalist Mike Watson. During his honeymoon with his new wife and fellow co-reporter Phyllis, he witnesses five glowing balls falling from outer space into the sea. Most of humanity barely notices the aliens, and those that do have various speculations such as possible involvement by Russia. When a British submarine sent to investigate is destroyed, Britain responds with a nuclear weapon. This attack triggers a series of attacks by the aliens on various ships and outlying islands. The war escalates when the invaders melt the polar ice caps. As a result, the world is sent into global collapse with millions perishing. These events occur through escalating phases over the course of the novel.

Originally titled The Kraken Wakes, this novel follows some very familiar themes from early fifties British science fiction: a human apocalypse, the unknown motive of the alien invaders, and your “Johnny Everyman” style of narrator who is more an observer of events than an actual hero. There’s even an eccentric scientist who knows what is happening, but is basically labeled a crackpot by the authorities. The most interesting character of the book for me was Phyllis, as it was nice to see an intelligent female character who mostly serves to keep her husband in check. Another aspect of the book that fascinated me was the calm demeanor of the main characters in the book. Despite the oncoming apocalypse, everyone seems to remain quite subdued and focused. Count on the English to handle a crisis without going into panic mode!

Playing on ideas straight from the much stronger Day of the Triffids, this one is still an interesting book worth reading if you are a John Wyndham fan. While less action and more dialogue, some of the scenes are very  suspenseful. I think one of the most terrifying aspects of this novel is that we never get an idea as to the reasons why Earth is being invaded. Also, we never really get a good look at the alien creatures who require the high pressure of the depths of the ocean to survive. Wyndham writes intelligent fiction, but does generate some chilling moments. This was a nice slice of 1950’s sci-fi to begin my tour.

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John Wyndham (1903-1969) Photo: Paper Lion Ltd

18. Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Our next stop takes us to the man responsible for such great novels as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. This is one of Heinlein’s early novels before he became a household name. While Double Star lacks the grandeur and polish of his more famous works, this one is still a fun read that is full of action and comedy in equal measure.

Lawrence Smith, also known as “The Great Lorenzo” is a brilliant but now hard on his luck actor who gets an opportunity for the role of a lifetime. A master of impersonations, Smith is asked to double for one of the most prominent politicians in the galaxy. John Joseph Bonforte has been kidnapped right before a ceremony that could help in uniting the Human and Martian races. Although apprehensive at taking on such a dangerous role, the pride of The Great Lorenzo prevents him from turning the offer down.

Heinlein is a master of crafting a fun, yet campy universe. In such a short novel, we get a fully sketched interplanetary society, in which the United States still exists as a sovereign state, in cooperation with a galactic Empire. The Martians are an interesting race with their own culture, although not as fully described as they could be in my opinion. While the plot of the double is nothing new to fiction, Heinlein still manages to craft an intriguing if not implausible piece of fiction. Although initially I didn’t care for the main character, I ended up finding Smith to be quite charming. The book does tend to decline in the second half with less action and more political discussion, but I still found a lot to enjoy with this one. If you end up enjoying Double Star, then I highly recommend another early Heinlein called Orphans of the SkyHe may be over the top at times, but Heinlein always guarantees a memorable journey.

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) Photo: Donatoart.com

19. Third from the Sun by Richard Matheson

During my first year as a book blogger, I reviewed I Am Legend and Hell House. I discovered Matheson to not only be a master of science fiction, but horror as well. He is one of those writers that can make you afraid of the dark again. This collection Third From the Sun contains 13 short works that demonstrate the full range of this author’s powers. While every short story collection has its highs and lows, as this one does, I still found myself enjoying it immenseley.

Some of the best tales in this collection are the shortest pieces. The opening number “Born of Man and Woman” is written from the perspective of a young child who is imprisoned by his “parents” in a cellar. We discover that the child is different as he bleeds green blood and looks different than the other children. For a simple story, Matheson manages to evoke a lot of emotion and create a rather chilling ending.

There are more traditional sci-fi stories to be found here such as “Third from the Sun” and “Lover When You’re Near Me.” However, Matheson manages to infuse these stories with a strong sense of unease that demonstrates his proficiency with the horror genre. One of my favorites in this collection is “Mad House,” which I consider more horror than sci-fi. A failing writer begins having several accidents in his house the angrier he becomes. While this premise may sound ridiculous, it builds to quite a gruesome climax.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so may funny stories as well. “SRL Ad” is an epistolary story about an alien from Venus who posts an ad in an Earth newspaper seeking a boyfriend. When a college student responds to the ad as a joke, a comedy of errors occurs as the Venusian decides to pay him a visit. “To Fit the Crime” is a fun comedic tale of a mean-spirited poet who mistreats his family all the way to his death bed. Let’s just say his “afterlife” is quite fitting indeed.

My two favorite stories involve time travel. How can you not be intrigued when one of the stories is titled “F—“? The F-word in this case is the word food. A time traveler from the present arrives in the far future where food and drink is taken intravenously.  Much to his confusion, the food in his time machine is confiscated and he is threatened with jail.  It was interesting to see how food was a dirty and sexualized concept in this story. “The Traveller” is a much different yet equally fascinating time travel tale where a professor goes back in time and watches the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  While merely instructed to observe and not interfere, the man is moved through watching Christ’s suffering on the cross. It was an oddly inspirational way to end this mixed bag of a collection.

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Richard Matheson (1926-2013) Photo: The Irish Times

These three books were fun, and I already plan to do another triple feature again this year! I recommend reading the best from these authors before plunging into some of their other works. If you’re a true sci-fi fanatic like myself, then you will have quite a huge selection.

“I suppose a book is still a book, even if no one but the author and his wife reads it.”-Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham

 

Have you read either of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

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16. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Several moments of this novel captivated me, but there is a particular scene in which our protagonist laments a terrible loss, stating that “it has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded.” Oscar Wilde’s only novel expounds on the ideas of aestheticism, or “art for art’s sake.” As Wilde states in the preface, the idea is “to reveal art and conceal the artist.” How then do we classify The Picture of Dorian Gray? Is it a morality tale on the dangers of corruption? Perhaps it is an allegory to forbidden passions. Another option is that it is simply a science fiction/fantasy story about a magical painting that grants a young man’s wish. I have actually been meaning to read this one for ages, particularly since fellow book blogger Adam at Roof Beam Reader wrote a fascinating series examining Dorian Gray, In Theory. After finishing it, I regret not having read it sooner as it has become a solid favorite worth several rereads.

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Although this novel is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of humor, specifically the words spoken by the character of Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton. An unapologetic hedonist, Lord Henry is quite comfortable with himself and some of his dialogue had me laughing out loud. However, he also serves a more sinister purpose to this tragedy than mere comic relief. As the proverbial serpent to temptation, Lord Henry is the catalyst that leads Dorian from a path of innocence to one where he desires pleasures of the flesh and a lifestyle of pure decadence. On the opposing end, we have artist Basil Hallward who clearly is in love with the innocent Dorian and is fearful of Lord Henry’s corrupting influence. There’s a foreboding air from the beginning, as Basil declares he will never exhibit it, saying: “There is too much of myself in the thing … I am afraid that I have shown with it the secret of my own soul.”

Then we have Dorian who demonstrates that bad boys will always be the more interesting characters in literature. While many would characterize him as narcissistic, I felt a measure of empathy towards him in the beginning. As the serpent (Harry) has enlightened Dorian to the passage of time and the inevitable loss of his youthful appearance, Dorian whispers an unholy prayer that his portrait should age and bear the scars of his misdeeds. His wish is granted, allowing him to maintain the appearance of youth and innocence while the painting suffers for his life of pleasures. Once he realizes that the picture is changing with the destruction of his soul, Dorian hides the picture away where it continues to age and decay with every misdeed.

I love the allusions that Wilde places in this novel, not only to mythology but to the Bible as well. In addition to the initial scene in the garden where Dorian’s “awakening” begins, I viewed a later scene in the theater of Dorian’s love interest Sybil as representing “Hell” with its downcast and decadent players. Practically every scene of this work is brimming with philosophical arguments for the way we should live our lives.

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”

The eradication of consequences allows Dorian to indulge in any decadent desire he wishes. Although we are never given specifics to all of his activities, perhaps the work is stronger as we can only imagine. While initially his path is one of pure hedonism, Dorian quickly becomes someone who is dangerous, a fire that consumes and destroys all that stands in his way.

Near the end, Dorian attempts to change his ways through a small act of kindness towards a woman he chose not to deflower. To his dismay, our protagonist learns that his one small act is not enough to change his ultimate and tragic fate. He had the wrong idea. The removal of a conscious led to a failure to understand that being a good person takes time and effort. This one charitable act, if one can even call it that, was performed under selfish reasons as Dorian was trying to save himself. In order to free himself from a lifetime of debauchery, Dorian would have to walk a selfless path that seemed impossible.

Although Wilde did make a name for himself as a playwright, his solo work as a novelist represents the best qualities that this author gave to the world. He is a master of prose, creating dialogue that is intelligent and extremely witty. As I mentioned, it is one that can be studied under a number of different lenses. However, it is a novel that can be enjoyed for its own sake as it is exciting, moving, and at times filled with horror. There is a lot of love in this work, and every sentence serves a purpose.

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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): An artist that marched to the beat of his own drummer.

Underneath all of this, there is passion in the material. Oscar Wilde was unfortunately condemned as a criminal for not being allowed to live on his terms. In reading his sparkling dialogue, it seems as though the witticism of Lord Henry served as the voice of the artist himself. One of my favorite comedic lines would have to be “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”  Wilde’s unique sense of humour is present throughout the story, even during the more horrific scenes. There is a beautiful balance that takes place in the story, clearly showing the author’s experiences as a playwright. The three primary players each bore an aspect of the writer’s soul, with Hallward reflecting Wilde’s misunderstood love and Dorian as the fire in his soul.

Though a product of the Victorian age, this exceptional novel has a very modern feel. I don’t only mean that readers today can easily relate to the story, but that the sensibilities are so perfectly fitted to our time: humorous, sarcastic, tragic, and conflicted. This work is a true feast for the senses.

After having an opportunity to learn more about Oscar Wilde and his extraordinary life, I admit to feeling a kinship for this man that was able to be this shining light in a society that perhaps closed its eyes too many times. While The Picture of Dorian Gray is about someone who continues to slowly destroy his soul through his actions, we are left breathless by the novel’s inherent beauty. As with the title character who remains eternally young and pleasing to the eyes, we simply cannot look away.

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

 

This book counts towards three of my challenges for the year: as a “classic tragedy” for the Back to the Classics Challenge, as a novel by an author from Ireland for the European Reading Challenge, and as my spin book for the Classics Club. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

15. ‘Long Quiet Highway’ by Natalie Goldberg

In the introduction of her book Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, Natalie Goldberg discusses the “marathon monks” of Mount Hiei in Japan. These Buddhist monks take running to an all new level, covering nearly twenty-five miles each night over some of the most treacherous slopes imaginable. After running over a thousand miles over a period of seven years, they go on a nine-day fast of food, water, and sleep. Taking themselves to the edge of death, these monks suddenly find themselves reawakened to all the experiences that life has to offer. They aren’t engaging in such practices to die but to live. Goldberg argues that the practice of writing is just as hard but can reap the same benefits. We write in order to wake up to the world around us.

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Longtime followers of my blog know that I consider Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones to be required reading for any aspiring writer. Dispensing essential wisdom in the form of common sense practices, it is one of the finest books on the craft I have ever encountered. While I found invaluable writing advice in Long Quiet Highway as well, I consider it to be a much more personal reflection on Goldberg’s life. She explores her relationship with mentor Katagiri Roshi while spending years studying Zen Buddhism. These moments with her mentor are both humorous and touching. Through becoming awake to the world, Goldberg was able to develop her strengths as a writer.

Goldberg’s first “awakening” occurred in her high school classroom when her teacher Mr. Clemente turned off the lights and instructed his students just to “listen to the rain.” That one moment followed Goldberg throughout her life. While attending graduate school in New Mexico, Goldberg taught an unruly classroom of elementary students. One day, she felt her heart open and achieved a wonderful victory in her classroom. Following getting married and relocating to Minneapolis, Goldberg would meet the man who would have the greatest impact on her life. Through his teachings, Katagiri Roshi taught her that writing could take her as far as Zen if she was able to open herself up to it. Goldberg spends a significant amount of the book exploring her experiences with learning Zen and how that sent her down her path of writing in her bare-bones style.

“Americans see writing as a way to break through their own inertia and become awake, to connect with their deepest selves.”

As a therapist, I spend my day helping others to connect to the larger world within themselves. Over the years I’ve discovered that while helping others connect to the deepest levels of their beings, I’ve also been able to reach deeper within myself. I’m fascinated with the art of mindfulness to connect to the larger world. Every little detail is important in its own way, and mindfulness allows us to pay attention more to the outside world because we are understanding ourselves better. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how writing is a similar practice in that we can connect to our deepest selves. However, it won’t happen overnight. There is no quick prescription for being a good writer. It takes years of self-reflection to be able to enter into those deepest reaches of the soul.

“The more deeply we can allow ourselves to sink into the darkness of our own selves, the more we can settle into the mind of being a writer.”

Writing is truly a spiritual practice. It is also a lonely one. I think the most important lesson I took from this book is that we have to make peace with failure. As Goldberg says, we have to be alright with being dumb. Mistakes are going to happen, and if we let those failures keep us from writing, then we learn nothing. We have to be prepared to work through the muck of our lives in order to connect it to the page. Goldberg herself explores many of her life’s trials, such as divorce and also watching the decline of someone she loves. During these times, writing became a way to help process these events. Through this spiritual act of writing, we open our hearts and minds and begin to fully connect with our inner beings. We can finally wake up.

“Every moment is enormous, and it is all we have.”

I read this book for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. You can track my progress by clicking here.

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge 2019

Every year Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. The idea is to read books written by or about Alcott and her family throughout the month of June. This is my third year participating in the challenge, and I can promise a fun and educational experience. I’ve learned so much about her, particularly that she accomplished so much more beyond writing Little Women (an unbelievable achievement on its own).

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Over the years, I’ve written several posts on the fabulous Ms. Alcott. Click on the links below to read further:

I was worried about how much I can achieve this year among all my other challenges. Rather than make a firm commitment, here are some options I’m considering:

  • Read Little Men (seems fitting since I read Little Women last year plus it’s on my Classics Club list)
  • Read Alternative Alcott (I have this awesome collection of several of her writings that would be another fun read)
  • Watch and review a film or television version of Little Women
  • Read Under the Lilacs (another of her children’s books)

This list may change based on my progress and overall mood, but I will definitely read Little Men. Stay tuned for some Alcott-themed posts in June!

 

What books by Louisa May Alcott have you read or want to read? Let me know with a comment below!

 

 

14. ‘Letters from Pemberley’ by Jane Dawkins

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is one of the finest writers to ever wield a pen. A further truth is that this world is inundated with continuations of her most celebrated works. I typically have major reservations reading a work in the expanded Austenverse. Fortunately, Letters from Pemberley: The First Year was a lovely expansion to Pride and PrejudiceI was immediately placed at ease in the introduction by author Jane Dawkins where she refers to this work as “an old-fashioned patchwork quilt” rather than an actual sequel. Written as a series of letters by Elizabeth Bennet to her sister Jane, she expounds on her first year as new Mrs. Darcy and mistress of Pemberley. The result is a fun read that serves as a love letter to the legacy Jane Austen left behind.

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Over the course of one year, Elizabeth writes to her dear sister about the various triumphs and challenges that come with her new role at Pemberley. From her relationship with her husband to her growing friendship with her new sister-in-law Georgiana, these letters reflect the uncertainty and anxieties that happen to all of us managing major life transitions. I thought it was a smart decision that Ms. Dawkins only wrote in Elizabeth’s voice. We never read sister Jane’s responses, and I think this one-sided story creates a more intimate exploration into the character of Elizabeth. I also thought this style served as a great homage to the epistolary style for which Austen originally wrote some of her works, including her first version of Pride and Prejudice. 

Reading this novel felt like a reunion of some old friends. I found the futures for characters such as Kitty Bennet, Mr. Bennet, and Colonel Fitzwilliam very delightful! In addition to some tried and true favorites, Elizabeth describes some new acquaintances from neighboring estates, many of which are sly references to Austen characters from some of her other novels. A fun game would be to see how many you can spot over the course of reading.

It had to have been a particularly difficult challenge in trying to capture the voices and atmosphere of Austen’s original work. However, I found that this author did a wonderful job of accomplishing this feat. My hope is that I come across the sequel, More Letters from Pemberley, at some point in the near future. This book is a rare treat for the true Austen aficionados.

“Perfect felicity is not the property of mortals and no one has the right to expect uninterrupted happiness.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.