Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online

Authors: John Grant

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Reference, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #History & Criticism, #Criticism & Theory

Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews (3 page)

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No such luck.

I am of course utterly misguided in every single criticism of
Hopscotch
I have dared to whisper in this review, and I can present you with the proof. On the back of the book's dust jacket a number of sf's brightest luminaries flatly contradict me. In the interests of fair play I would like to cite their cover-quotes so that you may compare them with the points I have made above and see where I have gone astray in my reasoning.

"Cracking good – swift, sure storytelling, with more plot twists than a snake and twice the bite." – Gregory Benford

"A rousing tale that charges hard into territory where nobody has gone before, this one may be the most original book of the year." – Jack McDevitt

"Colorful, inventive, and intriguing, it's idea-driven sf at its best, and a pleasure to read." – Allen Steele

"Kevin J. Anderson has done it again! Great setting, intriguing characters, and a fascinating idea make
Hopscotch
his best book yet." – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

—Infinity Plus

The Verificationist

by Donald Antrim

Vintage, 179 pages, paperback, 2000

In what is really more a long short story than a novel, psychoanalyst Tom leads a group of his colleagues to a Pancake House for a social evening. During a fairly grim evening of "enjoyment", Tom, who is more in need of treatment than any of his clients could be, misbehaves childishly just once too often, and to stop his activities a colleague lifts him up in a bear hug. Squeezed thus, Tom undergoes an out-of-the-body experience (OOBE) that persists for the rest of the book. It is left moot as to whether the OOBE has any objective reality; it may perhaps be only a hallucination – but, if so, it's a hallucination that apparently comes to be shared by some other members of the cast, who eventually join him in his flights both in and outside the Pancake House.

As Tom swirls about the prose does likewise, treating us to a portrait of various aspects of his existence, all of which seem to be not just on the point of disintegration but perpetually so.

The state of his marriage is fragile, due as much to his juvenility as to his frequent infidelities. He is never quite able to acknowledge that the support of his wife Jane – who comes across as a complete saint (and martyr?) – is all that is keeping him as much on the tracks as he is. He believes he loves her, but seems incapable of comprehending what love actually is, certainly the full love that Jane offers him.

His sanity is likewise frail: his mind is full of impressive-seeming psychoanalytic theories that crumble apart into meaninglessness on a moment's examination. (It is one of the other characters who solemnly pronounces, "Maybe sexual hunger should be described as the terror in love at the beginning of death", but it could as well have been Tom.) The same goes for the program that is his pride and joy, the Young Women of Strength; it seems to have no real purpose except his own motives, which remain shrouded but, in light of his omnidirectional and almost infantile lusts, must be suspect.

By the end of the book, then, we are fully persuaded that Tom's existence lacks all meaning, that it is sustained only by an intellectual artifice that is itself in imminent danger of collapse. Whether this is particularly enlightening is another matter altogether; it is very tempting to suggest
The Verificationist
shares the same unnecessariness that is its primary subject matter.

Nevertheless, there are some bright turns of wit along the way – I more than once laughed out loud ("... for Rebecca must have known it was not likely that I would appreciate competition for her attention, especially from a charming drunk like Sherwin, who, regardless of his stated inclination to dodge the pains and sorrows of love, would waste no time getting his hands all over her tits") – and there is a sort of cumulative growth of the true feeling of fantasy while Tom's OOBE, initially a solo effort, progressively complexifies as further people join in.

There is also a great amount of sex in the book – real, imagined and sought – as befits a tale set largely within the mind of a psychoanalyst. Tom's fellow analysts seem (unless he's misperceiving them) to be possessed of the urges of rabbits, with the same lack of selectivity. Much more interesting are his own relationships – with his wife, where the intensity of feeling is too great for him to comprehend, and, although unconsummated, with the pretty young waitress of the Pancake House, Rebecca, who is the first to join him in the quasi-liberation of the OOBE. Tom's feelings towards Rebecca become a quagmire as he struggles between lust and responsibility.

Although it has several points of interest, in the end
The Verificationist
must be deemed a slight work – but one that passes the time entertainingly enough.

—Infinity Plus

It's Been a Good Life

by Isaac Asimov

Edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov

Prometheus, 309 pages + 8 pages b/w photographs, hardback, 2002

Culled largely from Asimov's three volumes of autobiography but with the addition of such items as extracts from letters to his wife Janet (who compiled and annotated this volume),
It's Been a Good Life
is a sort of
Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!
portrait, delivered in bite-sized chunks, of the major Golden Age science-fiction writer, proselytizing rationalist, prolific popularizer of science, and author of lay introductions to a whole host of subjects from the Bible to the works of Shakespeare. It offers a thoroughly entertaining fast read, complete with a complement of good jokes and revealingly funny anecdotes. More importantly, it introduces us to the company of a thoroughly engaging man; by its end one wishes one could have had Asimov as a friend, even if the friendship might on occasion have been an argumentative one. That is, really,
more
than one can expect from a straightforwardly biographical or autobiographical work – just as
Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!
achieved a more intimate introduction to Feynman the human being than did James Gleick's eminently worthwhile, highly readable, very comprehensive Feynman biography
Genius
.

Asimov, as we discover, never lost his fannishness. In part this may have been loyalty: decades later, he still expresses a fannish love for John W. Campbell Jr and his meetings with the man, even though at the time he abhorred much that Campbell stood for and the abhorrence increased as time went on. And, well towards the end of his life, Asimov still displays a fannish awe in his accounts of his encounters with the famous – fairly frequent encounters, because by this time he was a living legend in his own right. This is no fault in a person, of course – fannishness is, after all, nothing if not an expression of an overall enthusiasm for life, experience and discovery that we would all wish to cultivate in ourselves – but it came as a great surprise (to this reviewer at least) quite how much it seems to have influenced Asimov.

And there was a downside to it. It is quite manifest that he was a genius – even without the inarguable evidence of his extremely high IQ, no one could have produced such an astonishing number of books on such a wide diversity of subjects without being a polymath of such a high order as to be indistinguishable from genius. Yet, while reading
It's Been a Good Life
, more and more one gets the creeping feeling that somehow all this genius was
wasted
. His early science fiction was brilliantly entertaining and of course did a tremendous amount to mould the modern form of the genre, yet at no time can one put a hand on one's heart and say that it was
challenging
; it made no attempt to alter the reader's worldview. Again, his countless works of nonfiction, while astonishingly impressive
in toto
are far less so when examined individually; perhaps most useful of all of them was
Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
, yet even this, as anyone who has ever made much use of it will attest, has to be cross-checked against other and more reliable sources before its data can be accepted and its occasionally oversimplified interpretations trusted.

Perhaps what's really the case is that the price anyone pays for being a generalist is a superficiality of comprehension of at least some of the subjects within one's designated scope. The scope of Asimov's generalism was truly astonishing, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that he tended to be a bit sloppy on the detail, whether factual or conceptual.

There is, however, I think a little more to it in Asimov's instance than that. His otherwise admirable anti-elitism affected his writing as well. Take this comment:

Of course, it helps if you don't try to be too literary in your writing. If you try to turn out a prose poem, that takes time ... I have therefore deliberately cultivated a very plain style, even a colloquial one, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong. Of course, some critics, with crania that are more bone than mind, interpret this as my having "no style." If anyone thinks, however, that it is easy to write with absolute clarity and no frills, I recommend that he try it.

This simplified style became more pronounced in his fiction as the years went by; reading his later novels, from
Foundation's Edge
(1982) onwards, time and again one desperately wishes he
would
put a little more of that unnecessary floridity into his style, because by then what had once been a laudable transparency had descended to pedestrianism. But, more significantly, his urge towards written clarity seemed to affect not just his prose style but also the content of what he wrote. The truth of the matter is that in some areas of knowledge, notably but not exclusively the sciences, a full understanding
cannot
be presented to the lay reader in terms that he or she will comprehend. Scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies have made an excellent fist of conveying at least a partial understanding of very abstruse ideas to the lay reader who's prepared to work at it; but many potential readers give up by about page 3 because unwilling to put in the necessary cerebral effort. Very few would have the same difficulty with an Asimov popularization – which is to his credit – but at the same time you don't get nuttin for free: you may come away from an Asimov popularization
thinking
you've gained a good understanding of the subject, but the chances are that the "clarity" you've so much appreciated will in fact have misled you entirely. Just as crystal-clear writing can obscure the reader's vision of the scene, so can crystal-clear explanation obscure understanding of ... well, of what in fact is
not
being explained, even though writer and reader may think it is.

All of that said, this is as charming a book as Asimov obviously was so charming a man. And it is very much an
Isaac
Asimov book rather than a Janet Jeppson Asimov book; his widow is to be commended for having made that so. In other aspects, however, her editorial hand is less assured; the editorial apparatus tends to be rather sloppily written, and she should not have been satisfied with such shoddy proofreading and indexing. For example, in the Bibliography we are told on page 190 alone not only that Asimov published a 1950 story collection called
I, Robert
but that the collaborations with Robert Silverberg (
Nightfall
,
The Ugly Little Boy
,
Forward the Foundation
and
The Positronic Man
) were solo efforts. That sort of error, presumably perpetrated throughout, is appalling in what purports to be a definitive bibliography of the author.

But it's the anecdotes, often deliciously self-deprecating, that remain in the mind. Some of these concern Asimov's loudly trumpeted rationalism, which brought him little popularity in the Bible-blinded USA of the late 20th century (he was named Humanist of the Year in 1984 by the American Humanist Association, and by the time of his death was still serving as President of that organization); others concern sf, and writing, and science, and publishing. All are of course personal tales, but the truly personal ones – those involving family and close friends – are perhaps the most affecting. Let me summarize the feel of this excellent book by quoting one:

After my parents sold the candy story [
sic
: "store" is meant], my mother decided to go to night school and learn how to write. She knew, of course, how to write Yiddish perfectly and Russian just as perfectly, but neither used the Latin script. She had to learn that to write English.

She learned quickly and in a very short time was able to send me short letters in painstakingly formed English writing. One of the teachers at the night school finally nerved himself to ask The Question (as the Asimov family referred to it).

"Pardon me, Mrs. Asimov," he said, stopping her in the hall. "Are you by any chance a relation of Isaac Asimov?"

My mother, who was four feet, ten inches tall, drew herself up to her full height and said, proudly, "Yes. He is my dear son."

"Aha," said the teacher, "no wonder you are such a good writer."

"I beg your pardon," said my mother, freezingly. "No wonder
he
is such a good writer."

—Infinity Plus

The Lost

by Jonathan Aycliffe

HarperCollins, 176 pages, hardback, 1996

Aycliffe is better known as Daniel Easterman, who might be regarded as an author of the thinking person's fat airport bestseller. (Neither name is the author's real one.)
The Lost
is the fifth in the series of shorter novels he has released under the Aycliffe pseudonym. In earlier books – like
Naomi's Room
,
Whispers in the Dark
and
The Vanishment
– he seemed intent on recreating the atmosphere of M.R. James for the 1990s; these were exceptionally spooky ghost stories, and their aficionados generally read them in a single terrified sitting ... which probably ended at three in the morning.

The Lost
is a bit different, since it relates less to M.R. James than to Bram Stoker. The style is epistolary, very much as was Stoker's
Dracula
, although much more readably so. It is revealed to us that none of the characters is quite (or at all) whom the others thinks s/he is.

Young Michael Feraru, a Briton of Romanian descent, believes that, after the anti-Communist revolution in Romania, he can reclaim the property his family abandoned as they fled the country in the wake of WWII. Sure enough, he discovers on going there that he is really Count Mihai Vlahuta and that he owns the remote and vast Castel Vlaicu (Vlaicu Castle). En route to the castle he falls in love with his Romanian lawyer, Liliana Popescu, little realizing that she has not fallen in love with him but just enjoys having sex. When they arrive at the castle they discover it to be tenanted by two people, mother and son, whom they assume to be caretakers, still there after all these years. But the "caretakers" prove likewise to be of Vlahuta stock, and the mother knows the terrible secret of the castle and of the Vlahuta family – that their dead never truly die, but continue to exist as soul-eaters (
strigoï
) ...

The most fascinating part of this sometimes confused book (there are occult events back in England which go unexplained) is the way in which Aycliffe studies the changing personality of his central character, who evolves from a simple prep-school master to become a quite ruthless Romanian aristocrat. There are many scarinesses but also a sense of pathos as we watch him head towards his spiritual doom. Unusually, this is a book which might have benefited from being a little bit longer: its pared-downness makes it exceptionally readable, but there is a certain lack of the depth of feeling present in the earlier Aycliffe novels. Nevertheless,
The Lost
is recommended.

—Samhain

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