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Friday, February 7, 2014

Red Wine Book Reviews: Review for Fearful Symmetry

Red Wine Book Reviews: Review for Fearful Symmetry: Fearful Symmetry by Edward McKeown Synopsis   "Having survived the nightmare world of Enshar, Robert Fenaday abandons privateer...
Many thanks to Keira Kroft for her insightful review

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Beyond by Jack and Jean Sutton (Putnam 1967) 

This is one of the first science fiction books that I read and a copy of it has traveled with me through life for decades to be periodically re-read. 

The word for this book is, evocative.  The book opens with a Captain Cromwell of the smuggler Cosmic Wind landing on the exile colony of Engo.  That world, soaked in the ghastly glow of its orange moon, holds a steadily decreasing population of miserable telepaths, condemned there by the Federation on behalf of a galaxy of those who fear the rape of their private thoughts by those with such powers.  Engo is the loneliest place in the Milky Way, on the edge of the great galactic gulf to the Andromeda Galaxy.  No other stars light the storm-tossed night sky of Engo, with its giant, weeping, Agora trees and sighing stands of Bulla glass on the edges of its black water rivers.  Engo is a sigh of despair, an unshed tear and the stage for the battle for humanities soul.
Cptain Cromwell, while the initial POV character, is only a secondary character at best.  Yet the old man, dreaming of his past youth as he walks on Engo’s surface heading to rendezvous with Simon the only telepath he ever sees in the crude log cabin town, is a vividly drawn character.  You believe that he has spaced the stars in his aging tramp freighter for a lifetime, his ship, his crew and himself all winding down in the same slow way, likely to pass on in space when some critical failure overtakes the small starship.  His reverie is interrupted when he sees slender, sickly boy with a big yellow dog, playing in a field.  He is captivated by the scene, until the dog leaps into the air and is suspended high above the boy.  The boy is revealed as a Beyond, someone with powers beyond telepathy.  Something dreaded by the Federation.  The Captain flees the scene and Engo.  But his bad luck persists and he is arrested, drunk and garrulous about what he saw sometime later.

Enter Alek Selby, investigator for the Social Administration Arm of the Federation, one arm of the galactic government controlling (read hunting and suppressing) telepaths.  He is called to a meeting with his superiors, Hallam Vogel, psymaster and Director Smithson only to find the saturnine executor of the dreaded Dept 404, Phillip Wig and his hacthetmen: Jonman and Conrad there.  All three of the Dept 404  men missed their calling in Hitler’s SS and are the archetypes of those who declare others to be non-people to be hunted down for the good of the state.  And that is what proceeds here.  If a Beyond exists on Engo, then exile does not suffice, a ten-year old boy’s murder is casually discussed in a fashion that chills the blood.  The rational is the fear that the “Mutant Underground” under its own Scarlet Pimpernel, Mr. Olaf, will spirit the Beyond back into the Federation.

There is little doubt of the target, few children have been sent to Engo, David Gant slender, highly intelligent and telepathic is the only choice.  The only other boy Johnny Sloan had only a small degree of power, was short, stocky and not bright.

Vogel and Smithson seek to moderate the judgment by sending Selby, in the Cromwell’s Cosmic Wind to investigate, and as a counterbalance to Wig’s own investigation.  Selby knows it is a helpless gesture, he has no power over the executor but he goes and finds himself on dying Engo in the company of the smugglers.  But Selby bears his own dreadful secret, which he has buried so long that he does not consciously acknowledge it.  Selby bears the telepath taint, ignored and suppressed so long it barely functions.  He is a transmitter.  One who can project thoughts and impression on others so strongly he can delude them.

Once on Engo he quickly meets the ancient Simon, then Lora Gant, the sister of the boy Cromwell saw, David Gant.  But it seems the mystery is ended before begun as David, frail even before the Engo, has fallen to a fever.  Selby knows Wig will not be stopped by this, the executor needs a Beyond and he will create one for his political gain.  Selby, his sympathies engaged by the exiles, seeks to shield David’s young friend, Johnny Sloan.  But there is something odd about Johnny, he is not as Vogel described.  While he is physically David, his intelligence and mental power are far above what the records show.

But it is Johnny’s sister Lora who instantly captures Selby’s attention.  The brave girl revealed herself to SoC Ad so she could accompany her little brother into exile.  Selby cannot deny his heritage after meeting her and the fear and dread of what he is fails before the need to be who he is.  Selby is no longer the observer, he has become a partisan.  Just in time for Wig and his Dept 404 team to arrive on a regular naval vessel.  The Navy men see the 404 men as fanatics, and do not care for their company but they will do their duty as Wig’s men scour the village.

The first mystery is that the town is empty of all save Simon and shows little sign of having been lived in.  The cemetery is revealed as a sham, where have the telepaths been going?  The only fly in Wig’s ointment is that Johnny is in fact dead, one of the few recent occupants of the cemetery.  Over Selby’s protestations, Wig pursues David, claiming that he is somehow the Beyond Cromwell saw.

So begins the cat and mouse dance of the parties, the telepaths, led by the mysterious David and the beautiful Lora, Selby and the Federation military under Wig.  Somehow the telepaths are escaping.  Is it the mutant underground with Olaf?  Or is something greater going on?  All parties and points converge on a midnight gathering in a darkened field where Beyond powers will war with conventional weapons in a showdown that will leave you gasping.

 A comment on the cover:  What drew me in and held me was the classic cover.  On it in beautiful, lurid colors is a giant orange moon.  Under its glare flies a spaceship straight out of the old Aurora model catalogs, something reminiscent of the fighter planes of the early Cold War and Verner Von Braun.  I believe it to be the Cosmic Wind, as it doesn’t match the limited description of the government ship.  On the surface below the ship, men in helmets chase a man and woman, doubtless Selby and Lora, dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Jetson.  The sensibility of the cover is compelling, it is pulp imagery.  It is evocative and the image will stay with you as it lures you to sad Engo and a disgraceful chapter in human evolution.  Go, there is more hope at the end then you will expect.

Pros:  The visual nature of the writing, vital, persuasive and colorful.  More than any world that I have read about, I feel that I have trod Engo’s muddy streets, turned my collar against the water falling from the weeping trees, shivered in the darkness as I stared for enemies, including the dreadful Groat, a beast that Sherlock Holmes might dread more than his own adversary, the fearsome Hound of the Baskervilles.

I have seen Lora’s brown hair blow in the chill wind, seen her pale face drawn and concerned for her brother.  Cromwell’s aged ship and crew are old friends, with their old chessboard, howling engines and conversations that have been held so long and so often by men who know each other so well that they assume the form of ritual.

 And Wig, he was my introduction to corporate and government evil, mouthing the words of high purpose for low intent.  I have seen Phillip Wig stalk the world all my life, he is a common type in history and even day-to-day.  Governments and corporations are filled with such as they gravitate to power of any sort. 

 The best compliment I can give to characters is that I believe that existed before I opened the page and after I close the book.  That’s how I feel about these

Cons- Very few.  Selby could be a more interesting character, his awakening to what he is , feels a bit too seamless and quick.  I would have liked to see more confusion and difficulty in it.

Wig while a fully realized villain is none-the-less just a villain.  There is a valid point that human nature is not compatible with telepathy.  We are not our thoughts and cannot control them beyond a point.  Try not thinking about a pink elephant.  We are entitled to the privacy of our skulls to work out those thoughts and feelings we cannot defend.  Telepathy makes you live naked in the worst sense.  In many respects that fact is glossed over.  Telepathy and Beyond powers could be the insidious end of Homo sapiens as we were for the preceding species: Home Erectus and Neanderthal.  We may well have not fought them, or exterminated them but we sealed their doom by existing, by out-competing them for mates and resources and going beyond where they could go, leaving them to wither on the vine.  A Phillip Wig who believed he was saving humanity from extinguishment might have been a more interesting character and possible elevated this from YA to a full adult piece.  Yet the world is full of people from the Nazi’s to the Khymer Rouger who acted on Wig’s ambitions with far less reason so that may not be correct.

Still one thing that elevates the villain Magneto in the X-men series is the nagging sensation that he is correct and the Xavier is a foolish idealist.  There is no example for a benign replacement or coexistence, even between cultures, much less between species.  He may merely be a realist looking at the world as it is.  And isn’t that far more frightening?

From Wikipedia

Sutton was born on July 25, 1913, in Los Angeles, California. He began work at fourteen as an office boy in the editorial department of the Los Angeles Examiner, where both he and his father worked for many years. He was a staff photographer and writer with International News Photos from 1937 to 1940.

Sutton was in the United States Marine Corps from 1932 through 1936 and reenlisted at the outset of World War II, serving with the 2nd Marine Division in the South and Central Pacific areas. His novel The River owes much to his experience on Guadalcanal. He married Eugenia Geneva Hensen on February 1, 1941, and they had two children: Christopher and Gale.

Sutton did not immediately turn to writing after the war, but worked in a number of jobs, including as an assistant to San Diego Mayor Harley Knox. After receiving his Master's degree in experimental psychology at San Diego State University, he worked as a research engineer in human factors engineering in the aerospace industry. He then worked in editorial public relations for General Dynamics, an experience he used when writing his novel The Missile Lords a few years later. As a human factors engineer working for Convair, he explored man's adaptation to machines and established his business as an editorial consultant to industry. Several years later he returned to writing.

Sutton began publishing fiction in 1958. Throughout his writing career he remained a free-lance editorial consultant to aerospace industries and published articles in related professional magazines. He published 23 novels in more than 10 languages, including a number of science fiction, war, political, and juvenile books. In one of his interviews he said that writing came naturally to him. He wrote that his greatest interest had always been people and the settings in which they function. As a writer, he focused on subjects related to his earlier work – space, astronautics, war, newspapers – and on science fiction. Among his books about space exploration are Bombs in Orbit (1959), Spacehive (1960) and Apollo at Go (1963).

Jean Sutton helped edit fifteen of her husband's novels, starting with his first fiction book First on the Moon (1958). They first collaborated as coauthors on the juvenile book The Beyond (1968). They published some juvenile books as coauthors, including The River, The Programmed Man, Lord of the Stars and others. Two of them, The Beyond and The Programmed Man,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In addition to my love of science-fiction and fantasy, I am a mystery fan.  The two genres seem to have started together with Edgar Alan Poe, and while some of Sherlock Holmes mysteries seem to have a touch of the fantastic about them (The Devil’s Foot) it was more in his Professor Challenger that Arthur Conan Doyle cut loose and explored speculative fiction in his Lost World.  Still Mystery and SF seem like natural bookmates to me and usually are found that way in bookstores.

Today I am reviewing Donna Leon’s Inspector Brunetti mystery, The Girl of His Dreams.  For those who do not know this series, it is about the Venetian police (that’s Venice, Italy, not Venice, California, or Venus) in the person of the middle-aged and married Guido Brunetti, a Commissario of Police (equivalent of a Detective Lieutenant, I believe, of the NYPD.)  Brunetti is a thoughtful man, up from the working-class with a better than usual education and an appreciation of the classics.  He is married to the rather volatile Paola, a college professor fond of Henry James and has a boy and a girl.

Like most portrayals of Italian policemen, he is saddled with an incompetent, political chief (or Questura) Patta.  Brunetti seems as completely cynical about government, law and the prospects for changing anything as his fellow Venetians.  Yet at his core, Brunetti is an idealist He tilts at the windmills of the politically connected who run Venice and step on the law with apparent impunity.  He is a humanist, believing in the dignity of the individual person.  And so he fights his world-weary battles with bureaucracy and crime, aided by his big, bearish sergeant Vianelli and the every handy and delicately beautiful computer whiz, Signorina Elettra, Patta’s secretary who runs the police department  as if it was her private possession, all in Patta’s clueless name.

But let me not miss the central and most compelling character of the Brunetti series, Venice herself.  If you have not been there, you may not quite understand, but Venice is like no place on Earth.  When I stepped out of the dim brown train station into Venice proper with its exploding colors, exotic architecture and canals full of boats of all descriptions, I was a changed man.  I had come face to face with Beauty in the manifestation of a city.  I lost my heart to Venice and have not gotten it back, nor do I look to.  Never mind the throngs of tourist (was I not one?) who came from across the globe to worship at the feet of this goddess, or the other small details (everything in Venice is small, I had to open the shower doors to raise my arms) that moment of revelation is what every movie director dreams of being able to pull off.

So Venice is as, Rudy Maxa said, decadent and dreaming of her vast, past glories, and through her narrow streets (calles) and along the murky canals stalks Brunetti.  In this adventure he is called to a scene where a 12 years old girl’s body has been pulled from a canal.  She is one of the Roma, a gypsy, despised as troublemakers and petty thieves in Italy.  On her corpse are a watch and a wedding ring.  The burglary the child committed was not reported.  Italians avoid all contact with their impotent police force save for the middle crimes.  For the lesser crimes, it is not worth it and nothing will happen.  For the great crimes, those of the Mafia or wealthy, nothing dares happen.  The Mafia, in these books, is referred to as it were another branch of government, a great power and it is untroubled by the police who seem to exist to war with the middle branch of working class crime.  The Guarda Di Finanaza battles the Mafia to the extent anyone does and the regular police rarely, in Brunetti’s world, seem to encounter them.

Still occasionally one of the rich and powerful who move through the same waters as the Mafia stumbles and falls into Brunetti’s sights and on these he shows no mercy, pursuing them with dogged determination regardless of the threat to his career.

Brunetti wishes to know if the child, who no one has reported missing, or is looking for, was pushed or if she fell escaping the homeowners.  He knows she would not have been alone so someone knows.  This leads him into the closeted and dark world of the Roma, persecuted for many decades and nearly exterminated by the Nazis.  They do not trust the police, yet he is able to wheedle out some leads.

Spoiler Alert (Stop here, skip the italics and read on and you will be safe)

Yet in this book, too much reality leaks in.  Brunetti pursues his investigation originally with the tacit acceptance of his superior Patta, which is reversed when Patta learns that the burglarized family is connected by an engagement to the son of the minister who oversees the police.  This then becomes like some of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, where Brunetti like Holmes, learns what is going on, unravels the mystery but does not, as a protagonist, bring the culprits to justice.  He does not have the evidence.  This is all too realistic a scenario and in a long series like this, completely forgivable.  Like Doyle, Donna Leon realizes her hero cannot win all the time.  Sometimes he must settle for knowing.  Yes as with those Holmes stories, it leaves a vaguely unsatisfied feeling, this is not the Hound of the Baskervilles, but more the Black Hand, where the Hero is more witness to crime than avenger of it.

Okay back on the record.   I enjoyed this book as you would any visit with an old friend, whose quirks and habits charm you.  You long to walk with them to the brioche stand and have a glass grappa, to stand in the Venetian sun and dream of ancient empire.  For those who wish to enter this series, do not start here though, this book, in my view, requires that your relationship with Brunetti already exist.  Start with Aqua Alta or Death in a Strange Land.  Get to know Brunetti and Venice first and then read this.

A few notes on the TV series as seen on PBS.   Talk of your multi-cultural experiences!  Donna Leon, an American who has lived all over, does not trust the Italian governments she writes so scathingly of and will not employ an Italian company to film these mysteries.  The Donna Leon mysteries are filmed in Venice, but with an all German cast and crew.  Even Brunetti is played by a German Uwe Kockisch. Even for Germans, this cast looks GERMAN, particularly his wife Paola.  So you read the subtitles of what the Germans, playing Italians, say.  It can be jarring initially.  However if this is all the price I must pay to see my beloved Venice, I will pay it happily.
Venice Canal Painting by Schelly Keefer