Thursday, January 28, 2010

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

From KEW's 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels:
#13 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
Mankind is stricken blind and carnivorous ambulatory plants run amok. Reminiscent of Vampires Overhead and one of the finest world catastrophe novels. Filmed as The Day of the Triffids.

First published in 1951, John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids is one of those books which lives up to its reputation. The plot is quite simple: a new species of plant has been created inside Russia (we are never told how). The plant can grow to ten feet in height and thrives in just about every environment. Its primary use is in the production of high-grade industrial lubricants, but it has many other uses as well. However the plant, known as a “triffid", has the ability to walk for short distances at low speed. And they are deadly: each Triffid comes equipped with a ten foot stinging lash which can kill. The plants are also carnivorous. Since they breed so readily and produce such useful items, the plant begins to appear all over the world. Some people even keep them tethered and docked in their garden.
One night the earth enters a meteorite field which lights up the sky with a brilliant glow. All over the word people walk out of doors to witness the bight display. A party mood prevails. And the next morning, when everyone who has watched the celestial light display wakens, they are totally blind. Now humanity is in chaos and has lost the one advantage it has against the triffids.
The narrator of the novel is William Mason, a man who has made his living working with triffids. When the catastrophe struck, he'd been in the hospital with bandaged eyes from a near-miss by a triffid lash. The bandages on his eyes prevent him from seeing the meteorite display. Thus, when he wakes up the next morning, he's one of the few people left with vision. Since this was supposed to be the day his bandages were removed anyway, Mason pulls them off, when no one at the hospital answers his call for help.
He staggers into a word gone mad. Sightless people are groping around everywhere, desperate for help and food. Mason eventually rescues a women named Josella Playton and together they locate the last few people in London who still posses vision. Part of the book is a debate over triage: how do you decide who is to live when food and medical supplies are running out and help is not on the way.
Maser and Josella become separated early in the novel. He spends most of it trying to find out where she's gone. Along the way he rescues a four-year-old girl named Susan from a triffid attack and takes her along. Eventually he's reunited with Josella and they decide to hold up in a remote farm house with several other people who survived the downfall of civilization. They are forced to learn how to farm since supplies are becoming harder and harder to locate. They're also forced to build a fence around the farm to keep the triffids out. All the while they wait and hope other people have survived the disaster.
The triffids dominate the book. They start out as a nuisance and rapidly become self-aware monsters. Any sort of human movement will attract a triffid and any human enclosure becomes besieged by them. And the plants learn; whatever method is used to exterminate the triffids soon becomes ineffectual.
Day of the Triffids has been filmed at least three times.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Makers by Cory Doctrow

Makers is a fascinating book by novelist Cory Doctrow about the future of desktop manufacturing. Known for his previous novel, Little Brother, and many other works of fiction, Doctorow has written an optimistic book about the near future. It contains a memorable cast of characters.

The book begins with a press conference called by Landon Kettlewell, a corporate CEO who has
hit upon a great idea: send financiers off into the hinterlands of America searching for
creative and visionary business types. Duplicating the microloan strategy used in SE Asia, "Kettlebelly" soon has creative people producing all Kinds of neat stuff Most of the "new work" is cataloged by reporter Suzanne Church, who has left her regular newspaper job to start blogging about it.

The scene changes to Florida where Lester and Perry, two buddies since boyhood are making
all kinds of contraptions out of waste parts and usable junk. With the help of New Work money,
Les and Perry create a series of household appliances which make them internationally famous.
But as all good things need to reach a conclusion, the money behind new work runs out, leaving
countless inventors destitute. Lester and Perry return to their warehouse of wonders and go back to making their own creations. The parallels to the Dot-com crash are obvious.
(Makers is set in the near future) Years later, after returning from covering Russia, Suzanne hears about a theme ride Perry and Lester have constructed in an abandoned Walmart. The ride showcases the best of the New Work productions and is a big hit with the former people behind the movement. Those who attend the exhibit help to make it better by leaving comments with an electronic device.

The ride becomes so popular that other rides begin open up all over the country. This
phenomena soon draws the attention of Sammy, a young turk executive at Disney. Sammy shot
up the corporate food change because he was able to turn Disney World's fantasyland into a Gothic theme park He's got plans for transforming it again and does not need a group of renegade theme ride operators to steal his thunder....

My major complaint with Makers is the vagueness describing the technology.One of the problems in setting a science fiction novel in the near future is in adapting
current techno trends a few years down the road. For instance, the 3D duplicators are described as using some sort of goop, but where comes the feedstock? Also, the auto industry is supposedly dead, but many of the characters Seem to have no trouble
finding a car.

Still a good book and I can only hope it will inspire backyard inventors.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Burn Witch Burn (1932) by A Merritt

#9-"Best known for his lost-race fantasy novels, this time Merritt is equally brilliant at modern horror, in tale of murderous dolls animated by the souls of their human counterparts. Filmed as The Devil Doll."
-KEW, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels.

Abraham Merritt (1884-1943) was one of the highest paid writers of his day. Although many of his novels remain in print, much of what he has written is unread. Merritt wrote in a verbose form, not at all popular today with our short attention spans. I tried reading The Metal Monster years ago and never made it past the first few chapters. He was a great inspiration to many of the pulp writers.
Burn Witch Burn starts out sudden, but slow. Dr. Lowell is a distinguished physician working in New York City who suddenly has a new patient dumped on him. The patient, a confident of gangster Julian Ricori, is brought to him for treatment. The man, named Thomas Peters, is in a cataleptic state brought on by what appears to be fright. The man has been scared so bad he's in shock. The gangster chief offers any help, any sum of money to find out what caused this to happen.
Puzzled, Dr. Lowell attempts to diagnosis the man's condition by standard medical procedure. But he can't figure out what has brought on the state. When Peters does die, all he can find is a tiny puncture wound, but no sign of poison.
Eventually, the trail leads back to a doll shop not far from Dr. Lowell's hospital. After searching the records, he finds a number of similar deaths have occurred over the past few months which all lead back to the shop. Soon he finds the owner of the doll shop, Madame Mandilip, to be making very realistic dolls. And some of them resemble the murder victims.
The book starts to really take-off when Dr. Lowell realizes he may be dealing with something evil that is outside his experience or training. Although he continually brings up the concept of hypnosis (a popular excuse for many things before WW2), events occur in the novel which have no basis in normal reality. To Dr. Lowell's credit, he understands there may be a set of laws at work outside his knowledge base.
Burn Witch becomes seriously creepy in it's depiction of the animated dolls. Each one is unleashed to carry out an assassination, although we never know why the "witch" of the title is up to. We even see them "punished" for not carrying out the witch's orders.
I dare anyone to read this book and look at a doll store again the same way.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Black Corridor (1969) by Michael Moorcock

#8- The Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock.
"As civilization plunges toward destruction, a few people escape in a starship bearing mankind's last hope. The rest in suspend animation, one man remains awake to pilot the ship. Moorcock has never been better."
-KEW, The Thirteen Best Science Fiction Horror Novels

A strange and short little book, Black Corridor is one of the best examples I can find of New Wave science fiction. Although the late writer Thomas Disch dismissed a lot of the New Wave as the triumph of style over substance, this particular school of SF literature did blow the cobwebs out of the older forms, obsessed with aliens and blasters. And the New Wave writers actually talked about sex, something difficult to find in much SF before 1964.
Written with his wife Hilary Bailer, Moorcock's novel concerns the trials of Ryan, a British businessman who has managed to place his family and himself on the sole starship to leave Earth. Ryan is the only person awake for the journey to a planet in another solar system which may be habitable. The other crew members, mostly his family and relatives, are in suspended animation for the duration of the trip. But Ryan is starting to have problems with the isolation and loneliness. He's beginning to hallucinate. He's also having nightmares about the Earth they left behind.
And the Earth left behind is not a pretty place. Ryan had been a successful toy manufacturer there, but shortly before the events in the novel, Earth began going insane. Mass paranoia began breaking out everywhere, infecting the population at large. Large rallies take place in the streets by a group called The Patriots, who want all aliens forced out of the country. By aliens, the Patriots mean the non-English kind, but some of them believe nonhuman aliens are in our midst. Eventually the world breaks down into a variety of mini-states, with different parts of England bombing each other.
Considering when the book was published, the terrestrial portions of The Black Corridor seem to reflect the current racial tensions which raged through parts of England at the time. Immigrants from the Caribbean were appearing n substantial numbers. Racial riots broke out in several major cities. Politician Enoch Powell had already made his infamous "Rivers Of Blood" speech. I can't help but wonder if these parts were penned in reaction.
Much of the book is also written in a stream-of-consciousness format. Ryan isn't sure if he's back on Earth or if he's having another nightmare. Many of the pages are written in typographical art, which can be a little bit confusing if you're used to everything being created with a word processor.
An interesting little book from the list.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Death Guard (1939) by Philip George Chadwick

"A future history, supposedly written in the 1970's, detailing the destruction of civilization through global war after Britain develops a synthetic life-form into the perfect soldier. Bleakly anti-war, this novel was published on the eve of Britain's entry into World War II; rumor has it the edition was pulped. Only a handful of copies are known to have survived."
-KEW, 13 Best Science Fiction Horror Novels.

Grim and depressing, The Death Guard is one of those books which originated between the world wars of the 20th century. The author was a prominent Fabian Socialist who was active on the lecture circuit. There is even a rumor that it was one of H. G. Wells favourite books. The edition I was able to obtain was the 1992 ROC reprint. More rumors surround the books scarcity until the reprint: some say it was banned by the British government; others claim the publisher was bombed during a German air raid. There's even a notion the author died in combat during WWII, but my edition of the book claimed he lived till 1955.
Death Guard is the story of a renegade biochemist who hits on the idea of artificial life. A discharged soldier after the end of WWI, he hooks up with a large manufacturer and begins experimenting. His goal is to create the perfect soldier: a being who lives to kill the enemy. Such a creature would make any nation invincible, so goes his reasoning, because no one would dare attack. Thus, Britain will be safe from any future wars.
The book is told from the viewpoint of Gregory Beldite, the grandson of the industrialist who has sponsored the development of the Death Guard. He relates the first experiments by Gobel, the scientist who creates the life-form, to the eventual near destruction of Britain. Since Beldite opts to work in the production end of the process, he is able to recount the human cost of creating these things. We see the "Brothers", as they are known, start in fermentation trays, born as "pugs" and finally nursed into 7 ft. killing machines. The Guard is designed to fight with a metal spear and kill any moving object other than it's own kind. It's not quite an animal, although it resembles a biped, which has disastrous consequences in the latter half of the novel.
The main criticism of the book is the racism on display in the first third. Needing a private facility to create his perfect soldier, Gobel has the Beldite company build a compound in the Belgian Congo. The warm weather is perfect for his research. He's also provided with an endless supply of uneducated locals who know better than to ask questions about what they are doing. But rather than attack the exploitation of the African workers, Chadwick depicts them in the most vile, bigoted manner imaginable. The "N" word is constantly being used to depict these people and great lengths are taken to show them as a superstitious lot easily manipulated. Granted this book was written in the 1930's when such attitudes were routine in the West, but that doesn't excuse it. Even the 1992 introduction to the book, by British SF writer Brian Aldiss, describes this as "the most damaging aspect of the novel".
Death Guard heats up when a training cadre of the Brothers accidentally slaughter a village in the Congo. The world suddenly discovers the British government paying for the production of a super soldier in clear violation of disarmament pacts (which seem to be in force). The combined Continental European powers send a detachment of soldiers to shut down the research facility in the Congo, but the force is wiped out. By this stage, the company responsible for the creation of the Brothers has already relocated most of it's spawn to Britain. Threats begin flowing across the channel and war is imminent.
A lot of next section of the novel is given over to Beldite's observations as a supervisor in his grandfather's factory where the Brothers are being processed. There's a particular gruesome scene where an office worker is gutted by one of the creatures when, for sport, the plant decides to turn a Brother named "Bloody Omega" loose on a cow. The author may have shown his own sympathies by making a pacifist one of the major characters in this section.
When war comes, it shrieks down on Britain from the sky. Chadwick did have a bit of foresight in showing how air warfare would change the nature of combat. Although the Death Guard repels the Continentals' landing, the landscape is devastated by dive bombers, which the author terms "bomb-pluggers". Chadwick envisioned small bombers attacking the ground from a flying mother ship.
Across Britain, workers are in revolt and the country continues to be blasted from the air. Famine is everywhere. The Brothers are a lethal force against the enemy, but they have to be destroyed immediately after deployment. They cannot distinguish human friend from foe, so the army has to deploy tanks in the rear of every Guard detachment. The Brothers who survive the engagement are blasted apart from the rear. And starvation brings about the worst thing imaginable: spores. Since the Brothers are more plant than animal, they reproduce as they decompose. Soon, the battlefields are covered with tiny Death Guards, who will grow up to be stunted, but still deadly, adults.
And then Beldite learns of the British government's plans to launch Death Guard into Europe.....
The Death Guard is not a short book; my copy runs close to 400 pages. It's frighting and not easy to put down. If not for it's incidental racism, the book would probably have a larger following.
Finally, here is the blurb from KEW on the back cover:

"The Death Guard is a true "lost classic"...a terrifying novel if science fiction horror. It remains at the top of the ranks of all end-of-the-world novels written before or since. Read it, and you'll understand why the few who have read it in the past have not let it be forgotten."