Sunday, March 4, 2012

TIME CAPSULES classic book reviews by Bill Lindblad

RAVAGE (1943) by Rene Barjavel

It's probably strange to begin a review of one author's book by praising a different author, but much about this book is strange. The review should match.

I miss Damon Knight.

He has rightfully been memorialized in the Grand Master award from the SFWA, which will keep curious readers investigating his work. He was innovative; he founded the SFWA. He was a skillful writer, evident to his readership and also in the memories created by a teleplay of one of his stories (yell "It's a cookbook!" at any convention and it'll be easier to count the people who don't understand the reference.) He was an insightful teacher who co-founded Milford and Clarion and coaxed great works from fledgling writers. He was also a reviewer... but his critical eye and demands on authors differentiated him from most other reviewers. He did not hesitate to say when and how he believed a story failed or suffered, even when the story was written by a friend. He sought greatness.
This book informed me both that he occasionally found it, and that he did not allow his ego to claim undue credit. The book, Ravage, was published in France during the Nazi occupation. (Note: despite the time of its publication, there is no indication I have found that the author sympathized nor collaborated with the Nazis.) It is a devastating condemnation of dependence on technology and displays a pervasive pessimism which drags the reader down to a point where Thomas Ligotti starts to seem upbeat. And it's written by Damon Knight. Or, more accurately, it was translated into English and retitled "Ashes, Ashes" by him, from the original novel by Rene Barjavel. Despite the work that Knight put into the translation, however, his name appears only twice on the finished product: once on the copyright page and once on the title page as translator. Nowhere on the cover is there any hint that a prominent American sf author had a hand in the novel.

This is admirable, because the book is wonderful. It is dark, certainly: the novel centers around a young man and woman from a technological miracle state. Everything can be made, done, experienced... until the electricity stops flowing and complex alloys weaken. Those two events occur simultaneously, and the reader is provided with a view of the complete destruction of society through the eyes of a pair of young lovers. The society posited is surprisingly thoughtful for a 1940s futurist, and the destruction of it seems like a systematic rejection of hope by the author.
It is a bleak book, but it is wonderful. I appreciate Barjavel for writing it, almost certainly pouring feelings generated by the war onto the page; and I thank Damon Knight for bringing it to the attention of American audiences.

Five stars out of five.

SPECIAL FEATURE (1976) by Charles V. DeVet

Ashes, Ashes was a book written in the early 1940s that felt like it had been written in the 1970s. Special Feature is a book from the 1970s that feels like it should have been published in a 1940s pulp magazine.
To harken back to Damon Knight, it has an idiot plot... a story wherein characters make idiotic decisions because were they to do anything else it would negate the need for more story.

It is not a terrible book. It simply does not have enough depth to the story to sustain a full novel and it does not have enough action to carry the reader along for a ride. The story concerns a pair of catlike aliens who come to Earth to mate. The reasons behind their choices are not well developed, but that's because the author was less concerned with the aliens than with the Great Idea driving the story: these aliens are detected and remotely monitored by a television crew, who beam the events to a rapt public.

There are major flaws in the story, although the writing is fairly solid. In this future world, spaceships are common and there is a device capable of viewing and recording anything within a radius of miles (simply by adjusting the beam for length and angle, ignoring any matter it might pass through) but inflation has had no effect on currency (particularly unlikely in 1976, when the book was written) and military security consists of electrified fences that are overhung by branches. There are many such incongruities in the book, and they detract from enjoyment of the novel.
Then there's the advertising. The cover copy of the book shows a panther's face merging into a woman's face and a man being panther-mauled in a dark alley. The writing states "Earth becomes the mating ground for alien beings - as millions watch in terror!" With that type of promotion, any reasonable reader would expect a horrific sf book. Instead the reader gets virtually nothing in the way of horror, with the remaining action and character development aspects being stunted and choppy.

Two stars out of five.

CITY OF THE SINGING FLAME (1981) by Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith is a perpetual rediscovery author, like Manly Wade Wellman and C. L. Moore. His stories are allowed to go out of print for a little while, only to come roaring back in one format or another as the prices rise on the secondary market for the out of print books. There is a simple reason for this. It is that he was magnificent. This fact is demonstrated by these stories which were originally published in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

This Timescape collection gathers thirteen of his stories, providing samples of his most famous settings (Hyperborea, Zothique, Xiccarph, Averoigne) and some of his independent stories as well. Smith enjoyed creating worlds and lands with internal consistencies, with the result that many of his stories in a given setting are related to other tales only by common references of a distant city or ruler. This conceit creates a sensation of a complex populated world without having to worry overmuch about the intricacies. By focusing instead on individuals and their stories he is able to hint at the broader world, in much the same way as reading a handful of random interviews from across a country could provide a general insight into the lives of the populace.

Smith's style is ornate, but not flowery. He constructed his work with an ear toward traditional high fantasy while integrating elements of action-oriented storytelling which were popular in the pulps. The resultant mix elevated his work, and his artistic vision set it apart. He is among the most stylistically copied fantasists, beside such legends as his friend H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance. Unlike them, however, many who emulate Smith don't even realize they're doing it, because they are simply modeling their writing style after the dozens of brilliant writers who used Smith as a significant guide in their own stylistic development. His shade visits modern days in some stories by Harlan Ellison, leaned heavily on the shoulder of Brian McNaughton for The Throne of Bones, and whispers into the ear of Jeff VanderMeer as he sleeps.
The City of the Singing Flame is a perfect Smith sampler: action-filled stories replete with weird creatures, spellcraft, odd flora, strange places... but driven by focusing on the lives of people who, while provided with vastly different experiences and motivations from the reader, are nonetheless going to consistently act in an utterly human, believable way. It is poetry in prose form, with considerable unexpected depth.

Five stars out of five.

--Bill Lindblad