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The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexlusive focus is on literary/mainsteam fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional Sundays.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.


I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak

Published by Open Road Media on October 20, 2015

Collecting stories that span four decades, this volume offers a worthy introduction to Clifford Simak’s short fiction. The stories are representative of the subjects that animated much of Simak’s fiction during his long career, including robots, mutants, and time travel. The real treat for Simak fans, however, is the previously unpublished “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Way Up in the Air,” a story that Simak wrote for inclusion in Harlan Ellison’s never-to-be-published The Last Dangerous Visions. Of course, the story’s title makes a playful allusion to Ellison’s own work. The story is about a prideful man who discovers and lays claim to a planet, only to be remade in the image of … something other than a man. Simak’s dark take on what it means to be human is one of the volume’s highlights.

Robots are the central characters in “I Am Crying All Inside,” which draws a distinction between folk (who drink moonshine and stand in the shade when it’s hot) and people (who don’t). Those with wealth and power have gone into space, leaving behind the obsolete folk and people. The story plays with the theme of human dependence on robots which, in science fiction, always leads to a bad end. (Personally, sitting around and drinking moonshine while robots do all the work seems like a pretty good life to me.) If it had included dogs, the story could easily have been wedged into City, the novel that Simak formed from a series of related stories.

Intergalactic traders (a mixture of humans and robots) plan to cash in on a contract for tubers from which an important drug can be extracted, but the natives on the planet where the tubers are grow have become unexpectedly reluctant to part with their crops. Could the drunken alien they found picnicking on the planet have something to do with their reticence? In the tradition of science fiction tales that extoll the virtues of competition, “Installment Plan” suggests that the competitive nature of humans will always give them an edge, even when their alien competitors cheat.

Robots also appear in “Ogre” (in the form of an annoyingly meticulous bookkeeper), but the story is about alien plant life and the addictive music made by trees. Like “Installment Plan,” “Ogre” involves greedy humans underestimating insidious aliens.

“All the Traps of Earth” is about a robot who has been in operation for longer than the law allows (another subject Simak wove into the City stories). It addresses several of Simak’s favorite themes: the right to be yourself, to define your own identity (albeit in the context of a robot); the nature of justice; whether a robot can have a soul; and the benefits of living a simple, useful life, meeting the needs of others while satisfying the need for companionship. Like many robot stories, “All the Traps of Earth” can easily be understood as a metaphor for intolerance of anyone who is different from the norm. But the story also involves evolution, another of Simak’s recurring topics, this time in the form of evolving robots. It is my favorite story in the volume.

“Small Deer” is a time travel story that explains the extinction of the dinosaur -- a fate that might soon be visited upon smaller inhabitants of Earth. A longer time travel story, “Gleaners,” provides a lighthearted view of the bureaucratic turmoil involved in visiting the past.

“Madness from Mars,” a story about the discovery of intelligent life on Mars, is more dated and less successful than the other stories, but it remains an interesting take on the choices (and excuses) humans will make to cover up a disaster.

“The Call from Beyond” mixes science fiction (primarily space travel and gene manipulation) with horror. A mutant flees to Pluto to escape persecution and discovers that Earth is not the only dangerous place to live. The story echoes some of the themes Simak explored in Ring Around the Sun.

For a change of pace and a seemingly odd choice for the volume, “Gunsmoke Interlude” is a western, one of many (according to the editorial notes) that Simak wrote during the middle years of the twentieth century. A good story is a good story, regardless of genre, and this one, about a gunslinger who makes a hard decision, is one of the better stories in the anthology.



Quicksand by Steve Toltz

First published in Australia in 2015; published by Simon & Schuster on September 15, 2015

Liam Wilder is a writer. At least, that’s his ambition. Aldo Benjamin, fresh out of prison, is Liam’s unwilling muse. Liam thinks that a book about Aldo will be a best-seller as well as a needed eye-opener for Aldo.

To help the reader understand all of this, Liam flashes back to discuss his life, his marriage, his failures, his career in law enforcement, Aldo’s life, Aldo’s failures (which are many), Aldo’s mental health issues (also many), Aldo’s ideas and opinions and theories (which spew forth in energetic bursts), Aldo’s marriage to Stella, Aldo’s unfortunate reaction to an unfortunate situation involving Stella, Aldo’s relationship with his mother Leila (who suffers the sins of her son), and more. Much more.

Aldo has a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, a gift he exercises throughout the course of the novel, inevitably leading to misfortunes of his own making. He might be better off dead but that, too, is something he can’t quite manage to get right. At the same time, the novel is a testament to perseverance, most clearly expressed in Aldo’s attempts to surf when he is physically incapable of doing so.

I would complain that the plot goes off track early and often if the plot actually followed a track. This is an episodic novel, each episode representing a highlight (or lowlight) of Aldo’s life. One portion of the novel is presented in the form of a police interrogation, with Liam questioning Aldo about a crime he possibly committed. Another portion consists of a transcript of Aldo’s trial. The story is engaging but overwhelming, to the extent that I was only able to absorb it in small doses.

Readers looking for likable characters might be put off by Quicksand. Aldo isn’t necessarily unlikable, but he’s far from admirable. Liam has identified himself as a tragic failure (certainly a failure as a novelist and not much of a cop) which isn’t an attractive quality. Startling prose, offbeat humor, and meaningful (if underdeveloped) themes are reasons to spend time with fictional characters you wouldn’t invite to a party.

The comedy is dark but amusing. I’m not sure why anyone would put up with Aldo (and most people don’t), but his enduring and unlikely friendship with Liam is probably the story’s point. Liam sees something of value in Aldo that the reader occasionally glimpses -- something more than sharp wit -- that allows their friendship to survive. Aldo might be a walking catastrophe, but even a catastrophe deserves a friend. Anyone who has maintained a friendship with someone who has been rejected by the vast bulk of humanity will likely appreciate Quicksand.



Night and the Enemy by Harlan Ellison

First published in 1987; revised edition published by Dover on November 18, 2015

Over the years, Harlan Ellison wrote several stories about the Earth-Kyba War. Five of those were eventually adapted to graphic format with artist Ken Steacey. A couple appeared, or were slated to appear, in magazines. All five were published as Night and the Enemy in 1987. The Dover edition (2015) adds new introductions by Ellison and Steacey and includes the story “The Few, the Proud” which was not in the original edition.

“Run for the Stars” first appeared in 1957. A drug addict who is forced to run or die at the hands of the Kyben might be Earth’s last best hope of preparing for a Kyben attack. The addict discovers himself as he runs, finds courage he did not know he possessed. As he explains in the introduction, Ellison wrote the original version of this story in his early days, when he was banging out stories as quickly as he could to keep food on the table. That explains why the prose has a first draft quality, but with Ellison it is the gut-punch power of the story that matters.

“Life Hutch” is a vivid account of a man who steers his disabled ship to a planet with a life hutch, only to be attacked and nearly killed by a dysfunctional robot. The story first appeared in 1956. Again, the prose is a little rough but the intensity is pure Ellison. There is almost no dialog in “Life Hutch” so this is more an illustrated story than a graphic adaptation.

“Untouchable Adolescents” (1957) is a “first contact” story with a planet whose inhabitants have already had an unfortunate contact with the Kyben. The kindly humans want to save the alien planet, which is about to crumble apart, but the aliens, having experienced “help” from the Kyben, aren’t interested. “Trojan Hearse” (1956) is a very short story about a Kyben attempt to invade Earth. These are both mildly interesting stories, but weaker than the others in the collection.

“Sleeping Dogs” (1964) is one of the volume’s highlights. Probably influenced by Vietnam, the story concerns the destruction of innocents in blind devotion to a cause. This is a subtler, more nuanced view of the Earth-Kyber war than the earlier stories portray. Not only is it one of the volume’s best stories, it is one of the most successful graphic adaptations of Ellison’s original text.

Another highlight, “The Few, the Proud” (1989), did not appear in the original edition of Night and the Enemy. It is an unillustrated addition to the 2015 edition. The story is basically a monologue, the statement of a man who is about to be sentenced for desertion, after being sold on the glory of military service, only to realize that killers aren’t heroes. No matter the cause for which they kill, no matter how hatefully the enemy is portrayed, they are still nothing more than killers.

This is a volume that Ellison fans will want to acquire, but any fan of graphic storytelling should also enjoy it.



Zero World by Jason M. Hough

Published by Del Rey on August 18, 2015

My reaction to Zero World is much like my reaction to Jason Hough's Dire Earth novels. I thought the trilogy told a fun action-adventure story that lacked depth and strong characters. I also thought the novels seemed padded and could have been condensed into a tighter, stronger, single novel.

So it is with Zero World. The novel sets up a sequel. It seems longer than it needs to be. The characters are bland and the story isn’t thought-provoking. But as an action-adventure novel, it is fun, easy reading with a couple of surprising moments.

Peter Caswell is an assassin. His memory is wiped after each assassination, so he starts fresh every time. He has 206 kills as the novel starts (a statistic he knows only because of a little trick he plays with beer bottles).

Peter is sent through something like a wormhole to track down Alia Valix, who is making mischief on an Earthlike planet called Garta where people conveniently speak English. Hot on the trail of her mischief is ace reporter Melni Tavan, who seems to be the Lois Lane of the planet Garta although she may not be what she seems.

In fact, none of the major characters, including Peter, his boss, and Alia are necessarily the people they appear to be. Hence the surprising moments. In addition to some interesting plot twists, the story moves with a good pace despite the apparent padding. I suspect that, after reading the sequel, I will again think that the same ground could have been covered in a single novel, but I enjoyed this one despite its wordiness.



Death by Water by Kenzaburo Oe

Published in Japan in 2009; published in translation by Grove Atlantic on October 6, 2015

Most of Death by Water is comprised of conversations among artistic intellectuals. Reading it is like pulling a sled up a snow-covered hill, exalting at reaching the top, enjoying the speedy ride down the other side, wandering for a while, and then trudging up the next hill. There are times when the novel is fun and times when it is rewarding, but most of it is tough sledding.

At the novel’s center is the novelist Kogito Choko, the alter ego of Kenzaburo Oe, but Choko is the least intellectual (or perhaps the least chatty) of the characters. His sister and other admirers spend most of their time dissecting Choko’s work or, more often, his life. My impression was that the characters love hearing themselves talk, even when they don’t have much to say -- which I suppose makes the characters realistic, if not particularly interesting.

The novel begins with Choko’s preparation to write the story of his father’s drowning. Since Choko cannot rely on his own memory, which he has either suppressed or is unable to distinguish from his dreams, he needs access to a red leather trunk that, he believes, contains the story of his father’s life. His mother has instructed Choko’s sister Asa to give Choko the trunk ten years after his mother’s death. His mother lives to the age of 95, making Choko a senior citizen before he can claim the trunk. Returning to his childhood home to do so, he consents to being interviewed by The Caveman Group, an acting troupe that wants to incorporate the interviews into stage adaptations of Choko’s work. That setup enables many of the conversations with Choko that drive the novel.

The core of the story is promising. Choko plans to write about his father through the prism of the “Death by Water” section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” As Choko discusses his past and his writing with members of The Caveman Group, we learn about Choko as both a person and an artist. We also learn about the process of making art from the perspective of a craftsman who uses art to reflect himself.

The best segments of Death by Water involve Choko’s attempt to understand his recurring dream about his father’s disappearance in a small boat. According to Asa, Choko’s dim memories of his father and of the flood in which he drowned have been conflated with Choko’s childhood fantasies, which include an imaginary friend named Kogii who is young Choko’s exact duplicate. Choko also wants to view his father as brave and heroic, although he portrayed his father in quite a different way in one of his novels. Choko is unprepared for the reality of his father’s political extremism -- a reality from which Choko’s mother wanted to shelter him. Unfortunately, anticipation of learning the truth about Choko’s father’s death builds and then wanes as the story gets sidetracked by endless conversations concerning the details of Choko’s life, including his inability to make a connection with his developmentally disabled son.

I had difficulty developing the same keen interest in Choko's life that the characters have. No incident in Choko's life and no sentence in his writing seems too trivial to dissect at length. I also had difficulty caring about the acting troupe’s artistic achievements, which mainly consist of having audience members throw stuffed dogs at actors who are performing dramatic readings of Choko’s work.

Key themes in Death by Water include folklore and myth in world and Japanese history, the nationalist movement in post-World War II Japan, the relationship between aging and attachment to (or detachment from) an era, and whether an aging writer (or any other artist) whose best works are thought to be behind him might still be capable of producing something memorable. Rebirth might be the most important theme, as explored through the discussions of folklore and of Japan and as applied to the life of Choko. At least to me, those themes are more intellectually interesting than emotionally engaging.

The novel might be more meaningful to someone with greater interest in Japan’s uneven transition from “traditional/imperial” to “modern/democratic.” It may be more enjoyable to someone who has more patience than I possess. It is a serious novel, to be sure, but I found it to be more self-important than elevating. If Oe wonders why Japanese readers are turning to modern writers instead of, well, to novels like this one, perhaps it is because they do not want to undertake all the uphill climbs that Oe, despite his sincerity and perceptive analysis of modern Japan, forces them to endure.