Saturday, September 4, 2010

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad


What a difference ten years makes.

The Time Dissolver was written by Jerry Sohl, an underappreciated author who is primarily known today as a side note about Twilight Zone screenwriters, one of the names that crops up after Serling, Matheson, Beaumont and Johnson.

This is sad for me. When someone is great at their work, they should be remembered for it. Jerry Sohl could be wonderful. The Time Dissolver is not wonderful, but it is above average. Unfortunately, it’s above average science fiction of the 1950s.

In the 1950s, science fiction was arguably the most upbeat, positive style of writing. While material geared toward young adults was unsurprisingly hopeful and light, most stories being written for adults were similarly oriented. The difference was the complexity of the plots, the writing styles, and the depth of characterization. Ultimately, good would still win the day and the hero would get the girl in nearly all of the work of that time. Darkness was starting to creep into science fiction, but it remained at the fringes.

In The Time Dissolver, Sohl creates a wonderful scenario for generating anxiety and even horror: a man wakes up next to a woman he doesn’t recognize, and shortly comes to realize that he has somehow lost eleven years of his life. He went to sleep one night and woke up more than a decade later in a different city and state, with a different name.

This is a great hook for a story, and Sohl has a reasonable hypothesis based on science of the day to explain the situation when the time comes for the reveal. But remember: this is 1957. The hero is a model of self-reliance who would make Heinlein’s protagonists proud. Without dealing too much with messy emotions or distracting theories, he does his best at verifying his sanity, then pursues his past as well as any trained detective might. It’s a satisfying story well told, but at no point does the reader worry about anyone in the story or confront existential points of dread.

THE KILLER THING by Kate Wilhelm

The Killer Thing was written in 1967, one decade after The Time Dissolver.

Following the successful growth of the New Wave of science fiction, Kate Wilhelm was able to let loose with a novel far darker than Sohl’s. Dystopias were selling, anti-establishment novels were selling, and authors were being encouraged by the success of others to produce work which spoke about the baser attributes of humanity.

Wilhelm did an excellent job at producing a story in this format which still works today. By avoiding the obvious temptation to parallel an anti-war story to the Vietnamese conflict or to parallel negatives about imperialism with the anti-Westernization movement of the day, she managed to keep the story focus broader and consistently timely. Ultimately, it is a characterization piece, and there is where it both succeeds and fails most. The main character is shallow, not through any real fault of his own but because of his upbringing and the disincentives he has faced throughout his life to develop or hone his humanity. Wilhelm explores this with an adept hand.

Despite this, the ending seemed arranged; not forced, but structured with the realization that only with this exact type of character could the “perfect” ending be achieved. Also, Wilhelm made the soldier atypical in an effort to give some sense of association to the reader, but in so doing made his representation in the story unusual enough to diminish the strength of the tale.

Overall, two better-than-average short novels each representing their time period nicely.

Four stars out of five for both as science fiction; as psychological horror, four stars out of five for The Killer Thing and one out of five for The Time Dissolver.

FERAL by Berton Roueche

If this book gets reissued, I want it to be retitled “Nom nom nom.” I think the Lolcat sites are getting to me. I know I had enough time to read this book and still breeze through pages of I Can Haz Cheezburger with the two hours scheduled.

Feral runs to 123 pages in the paperback version. Of that, at least five pages are lost to large chapter separations. The result is a book that feels like half of the manuscript was accidentally left out of the final publication.

The decision was almost certainly an artistic one, and there are times when it works. Shortly after the reader hears about a person attacked by a cat and the toxic reaction she suffers due to bacteria in the bite, the action shifts forward to another key scene and as a reasonable aside we learn that the character died as a result of the bite. For every time it works, however, there are many where the result is simply a loss of any character or plot development. The most obvious example of this comes when the couple is boxed in their house with hordes of cats outside, some trying to find ways inside. In the original story of The Birds, a similar situation was presented to memorable effect. In Feral, the story jumps from the characters realizing they’re trapped and calling for help to a half hour later when help arrives… completely ignoring the chance to spend a half hour with these trapped people as claws work free shingles and shred the wooden edges of windows and doors.

It is an enjoyable diversion, but unlike many books which feel padded, this one desperately calls for the addition of a hundred pages or so.

Three stars out of five.


Finishing Touches is a brilliantly written novel about…


Honestly, I had a hard time figuring out how I’d rate this book. The writing was evocative and engaging, drawing me into the mind of Dr. Tom Sutherland and making me interested in his life. The story built slowly but methodically, and it progresses logically.

The effectiveness of the book hinges upon two aspects: how much the reader can identify with the mind of Dr. Sutherland, and how well the novel stays with the reader afterward. I can honestly say that, while I didn’t agree with the decisions the doctor makes, I can understand how someone in those situations might rationally pursue the same courses of action. That alone is enough to produce a lingering disturbance which, I imagine, was one of the hoped-for effects by the writer.

The failure of the book, where there is failure, comes from the dust jacket. It teases the reader with just enough knowledge to encourage an expectation of nightmarish brutality; while there is violence in the story, it is violence which is overshadowed today by the butcher’s shop sadism of the modern torture porn and which was overshadowed back then by the rise of splatter punk.

Still, that is a minor concern in a story which is ultimately about the failures of absolute adoration. Or about the frailty of man. Or about the loss of self which may accompany the loss of personal history.

I’m still not sure what the novel was about, or at least not sure which of the multiple themes the author might have been trying to portray most prominently. I do know, however, that I liked it.

Five stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad