The story so far: in this tale of an alternate America, based on a pseudo-memoir written by Philip Roth, anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940, keeping the USA out of the war in its darkest hours and inaugurating a scary time for American Jews, especially 9-year-old Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson).
Feelings about the Lindbergh administration vary through America’s Jewish community. For some, like Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Tuturro) and his new bride Evelyn (Winona Ryder), it’s an opportunity for social climbing and collaboration. To some, like young Sandy Levin (Caleb Malis), Lindbergh is a hero and any concerns to the contrary come from ignorant frightened “ghetto Jews” — like his parents. For some, like Philip’s overbearing Uncle Monty (David Krumholz), business is good; the nation is at peace; there are worse things than President Lindbergh.
Others (young Philip’s parents, played by Morgan Spector and Zoe Kazan, and his cousin Alvin, played by Anthony Boyle) are intent on resisting the tide of anti-Semitism rising in America and the rest of the world. But, tragically, they can’t agree on what should be done and end up fighting with each other as much or more than with the real enemy.
I don’t know, man. It seemed like something that could not possibly fail. A brilliantly weird memoir-novel by one of America’s great writers, a timely subject, the team of writer-producers who created The Wire (one of television’s greatest shows), a gifted cast, high production values, a network known for sponsoring bold and innovative work. And yet…
I’m not here to tell you that it’s a disaster, because it’s not. In every episode so far (see here for my assessment of episode 1, and here for my wise words on episode 2) there has been great stuff. One example: young Philip’s nightmare at the beginning of this week’s episode when all the faces on his precious stamps turn into Hitler. It’s horrible — the thing that must not happen, and yet seems to be happening no matter what anyone does to stop it. In a few seconds, without a word spoken, it expresses what the show (not to mention its source-novel) is about.
I hate putting swastikas in front of people, but it’s more or less unavoidable here
There continues to be a lot to like in this show. (See here for my thoughts on the premiere.) In the last moments of the second episode, the show’s history branched significantly away from ours, as Lindbergh was elected president on his Isolationist platform. But the show remains grounded in a patiently constructed, vivid reality — it’s not one of these awkward historical drams where people rant paragraphs of exposition at each other. This is about recognizable human lives. It’s a big deal when Bess Levin (Zoe Kazan’s character) gets a job for instance. And dad gets mad at the radio a lot — but there’s no question which thing young Philip is more worried about.
And it’s not an unfaithful representation of the book. Storylines are compressed and events are re-ordered to fit the constraints of a six episode series, but there are big stretches of dialogue that come, word for word, from the book. And they work on screen, because Roth (unlike many a novelist) knew how people talk. And, also, because the actors (especially Morgan Spector and Anthony Boyle) sell the lines convincingly. Arguments in TV shows are usually a recipe for boredom. (“WHY WON’T YOU LET ME LOVE YOU?” “I DON’T KNOW HOW!” etc. etc. until the commercial break.) But these work.
I watched the first episode of this show on the day that my Republican governor suppressed a free election, which I’m sure is one of those funny coincidences that we’ll laugh about when we’re trying to explain to the rising generation what an election was.
My feelings about the show are mixed so far. The novel is brilliant, if problematic. People who read a lot of sf/f mocked Roth for claiming to invent a new genre in this book, as if Murray Leinster and Philip K. Dick had never walked the Earth. But Roth’s novel is really different from any other alternate history that I’ve read. It’s a personal memoir of a time which did not exist, yet somehow did. It’s all very particular, filtered through the eyes and ears of a pre-teen boy — the things he hears his father shout at the radio, the appalling particularities of having to share a bedroom with his cousin who lost a leg in the war, trying to run away from home under a goyische surname so that he won’t be deported to Kentucky, etc. It’s sad and weird and funny as the narrative persona reflects on and reacts to the things he “remembers” as a child, some of which the author may actually remember from his actual childhood. This is categorically different from Professor Minott riding off to find death or glory on the shifting sands of parallel histories.
This great virtue of the book doesn’t really transfer to the screen. They have a capable young actor playing young Philip, but it’s much more difficult for movies and TV to pull off that restricted 3rd-person POV that Roth creates so skillfully in prose. The story is bigger on screen, with more voices, but also shallower.
The Deathworld Trilogy, Science Fiction Book Club edition (1974). Cover by Richard Corben
James Nicoll recently reviewed Harry Harrison’s The Deathworld Trilogy on his blog, saying “The Deathworld books haven’t aged badly. They were dire in the 1960s and they are still dire.”
I still have fond memories of the first book in this series (which may or may not be dispelled by a reread). For one thing, it really made a case against hyper-militarism and environmental exploitation. Because it’s Harrison we’re talking about, the case was not subtle, but I think it was effective.
The second novel is a self-righteous, tedious morality play about a self-righteous, tedious character who has the misfortune to partake in a different morality than his self-righteous, tedious creator. The third book is a step up from that, because anything would be. The laziness of the worldbuilding pained me even as a teenager: a cartoony version of Harold Lamb’s version of Mongols, inexplicably transplanted to another planet. On the other hand, I always enjoyed Harold Lamb’s books about Mongols, so…
As Sean McLachlan ably discussed here at Black Gatelast week, there’s an evolving internet storm about a romance writer who discovered, to her surprise, that some of her novels “have plagiarism.” She says it happened without her knowledge; she was working with a ghost-writer on those, and she’s taken them all down. She is the object of much scorn on the internet today, and probably for some time. Indeed, in the future she may have to find a pseudonym under which to publish the fiction she does not write. (Click the image above for details.)
Attendant to that storm, though, is the issue of how much one person can reasonably be expected to write in a month. Some people say “several books” and other people say “are you crazy?” and then terrible things and animated GIFs start to happen.
As it happens, this is the sort of thing about which I have very little knowledge and lots of opinions so HERE IT ALL IS.
This was the cover of the paperback I had as a youth — still my favorite thing that Campbell published under his own name (with The Moon is Hell running a close second).
Campbell’s best stuff is unquestionably the work he published as Don A. Stuart (e.g. “Who Goes There?”, “Twilight,” “The Elder Gods,” etc). And the heroes of this series, Arcot & Morey, are chemically free from any trace of personality.
But the same is not true of their partner Wade, who appears in the first story “Piracy Preferred” (from Amazing Stories, June 1930) as a super-scientist sky pirate, and after he is cured of his criminal tendencies becomes a valuable and prankish member of the team.
The title story in The Black Star Passes (from Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1930), tells the tale of an interstellar war. But the bad guys are not simply ravening bug-beasts from beyond the void, and the story ends without the happy genocide so common in space opera. (“YAY! We have destroyed an entire intelligent species with our superior science knowhow! Too bad they weren’t Civilized, like us!”) In Campbell’s story, the invaders are defeated, but the collective effort involved in the invasion saves their civilization.
The Galaxy in Scale: James Blish’s Cities in Flight
There’s more windup than pitch in Thomas Xavier Ferenczi’s Tor.com column about Blish’s Okieseries. But it’s someone writing about James Blish — not often seen these days.
I can’t exactly agree that these books are overlooked classics. They have a lot of the weaknesses and strengths of magazine sf at midcentury. They’re most interesting for their corrosive pessimism regarding democracy (as it is generally called), and their big-dumb-object sense of wild-eyed adventure. But the different parts of the fixups don’t work very well together; the world-building has inexplicable gaps; one gets tired of the characters out-wiling each other.
And gradually, in spite of all the repetition and confusion, the packrat crowding of irrelevant information, a symmetrical and moving story appears. Out of all the details in the book, some will be for you — not the same ones that hit me, very likely, but they will build up much the same impressive picture. Blish’s scale is the whole galaxy, a view that has to be awe-inspiring if he can only make you see it: and he does, I think, more successfully than any previous writer.
That’s from Damon Knight’s review of the core book in the group, Earthman Come Home. It was probably truer in the 1950s than it is now but, to the extent that it is still true, Cities in Flight is still worth reading.
Much of a Muchness: Phyllis Eisenstein’s Born to Exile
Recently I was reading an editorial in Fantasy Fiction, an old magazine from near the end of the pulp era. This is the kind of thing I’m apt to do, especially when I should be getting some work done, but in this case I was hooked by the title, which was one of Latin’s greatest hits about reading: NON MULTA, SED MULTUM (“not many things, but much of a thing”).
The message of the editorial was that the editor was seeing too many stories that overdid the number of fantastic elements: “Recently a story came in which had everything — ghosts were making a compact with a group of trolls to defeat the Greek gods, now about to retake the world with a bunch of Hebraic letter incantations.”
The editor felt this was bad and stopped reading on the third page. I say it sounds awesome and the editor should have been banished to the outer darkness where there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I’m of the opposite school of fantasy — the “more cowbell” school, you might call it (to allude to another classic). Some people will try to tell you that less is more, but “more cowbell” people insist that only more is more: more miracles, more fireballs, more talking squids in space.
The truth is that neither school is right or wrong; it’s just a question of what works in a given story. The advantage of the non multa, sed multum approach is that it allows the writer to explore the ramifications of a fantastic concept, and maybe work in a character or two, not to mention a more carefully detailed world.
Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen (352 pages, $25, Oct 19, 2010)
Cryoburn shows signs of being the last Vorkosigan novel. At the very least, it marks the end of a very long multi-novel arc in the series. For that reason, among others, it’s not a good place for newcomers to sample the series. For the same reason, longtime readers of the Vorkosigan stories will want to read this book, even if it is less than Bujold’s best work. (It’s still better than most sf writers on their best day.)
Although there’s no reason why Bujold couldn’t write a sequel to Cryoburn, there is some material at the end of the book that harks back to the opening entry in the series, Shards of Honor, and in it we can also hear some darkly deliberate echoes of the first Miles novel, The Warrior’s Apprentice. It’s as if LMB is marking the end of the series with ring composition. If my description seems rather vague, that’s because I’m sparing the spoiler, here. All this stuff is a sort of codicil to the novel, anyway, having nothing to do with the main story– which makes it look that much more like a deliberate signal. (I hope I’m wrong about this.)