Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore

(Note this was originally posted by me at several other groups, but it seems appropriate. It's also mentioned here on the Reading California Fiction blog.)
Apocalyptic science fiction novels have been around for a long time. H G Wells's War Of The Worlds(1898) was one of the first and still remainspopular. The plot of the book usually involves some Threat To Life On Earth As We Know It which is thwarted by a dashing young scientist. The style remains popular to this day. Both Independence Day(1996) and The Day After Tomorrow(2004) are good examples of this genre in film. Greener Than You Think was Ward Moore's contribution. Known for his other SF novels, such as Bring The Jubilee (1953), Moore considers this threat to humanity: ordinary lawn grass.
In Greener, an amateur chemist named Josephine Spencer Francis formulates a product she calls "the metamorphizer". This compound can cause plant life to take advantage of just about any raw material for growing. Thus, wheat fields could spring forth in the desert and corn could be grown on a highway. She hires a plucky young salesman named Albert Weener to sell the metamorphizer to the agricultural industry. Unfortunately, Weener decides to market the product to suburbanite home owners with bad lawns. When nobody wants to buy it, he sprays it on a pathetic yard near Los Angeles as a demonstration.
The next day he returns to find the sickly lawn a beautiful green. But there is one problem: the home owner's antique lawn mower soon chokes up while cutting the grass and expires. And the grass grows. And grows. and grows....
Soon, the entire city of Los Angeles is covered by the grass as it spreads across the city. Next, the population of California flees as it envelopes the state. Nothing can stop its deadly march and the whole country is soon threatened. The book tends to the melodramatic side, which is it's major weakness.
Moore's style seems reminiscent of the pulp writers of the depression, not very sophisticated, but determined to tell a good yarn. His characters also tend to the one dimensional side, but they are outlandish: the army general who wanted to be a musician and the newspaper editor who continues to write about the grass as its spreads closer.
The book is narrated by Weener, who, by sheer luck and guile, becomes the richest man in the world. One of the book's strong points is how is shown to be totally clueless as to the damage he has and continues to cause. It could be Moore was making a not-so-sutle jibe at the spread of post WW2 suburbia in the USA.
Not a "must-read" book, but definitely worth your time if you can find a reprint, which is what I did. Greener also predicted the controversies over biotechnology and nanotechnology.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Agent of the Unknown (1956) by Margaret S. Clair

And thus we come to an end with the novels of Margaret St. Clair.
Agent of the Unknown was originally published in Startling Stories in 1951. This was an abridged form and the full novel was issued as part of an Ace double book five years later with Philip K. Dick's The World Jones Made. As this novel was written in the midst of her most prolific writing period, it seems the best place to end the series.
Agent begins with Don Haing waking up on the beach. He's hung-over again and desperately in need of a drink. Don's a beach bum, who makes his money finding objects tourists have left in the sand and selling them to anyone who will buy. But this is no regular beach. He's stuck on Fyon, an artificial planetoid created as a resort for the wealthy. Needless to say, the novel takes place in the distant future.
But Don's luck has changed: he's found the most wonderful miniature doll buried in the sand on the beach where he sleeps every night. No bigger than the length of his hand, the doll resemblesthe perfect form of a nude woman. And she's weeping, or at least seems to be weeping. Sure this doll will bring him some cash, Don takes it to his friend Kunitz, who lives in a small house by the beach. Kunitz informs him the doll is priceless; the only other one like it exists in a museum on Earth. Both were made by Vulcan, a master craftsman who lives on the edge of galaxy.
Although Don wants to sell the doll, he discovers he can't. A tourist who tries to take it off him gets an electrical shock. Soon, Don notices that his alcohol craving has disappeared. He takes a job as a short-order cook at a local bar and shows the doll to the bar owner. Once the bar owner sees the doll, he too becomes fascinated with it. It's not long before everyone Don meets wants the doll. Eventually, The SSP, the only organized force in the galaxy, starts sending out agents who are determined to get the doll away from Don at any cost.
St. Clair shows her classics background in this novel. The craftsman who makes the doll is known as Vulcan (Roman god of metal work). One of the villains in the story has the name Mulciber (another title for Vulcan). The prison planetoid where the SSP takes their victims is known as Phelegthon, one of the five underworld rivers in Greek mythology. The final appearance of Vulcan at the novel's conclusion resembles something out of Bulfinch.
One again, the future looks bleak. Most of the people can't read, using "isotypes". After a plague, known as pyrexia, has killed the bulk of humanity, the SSP (Special Serum Purveyance) remains the only government in the galaxy. The SSP controls all scientific research with an iron fist and rigidly hunts down any mutants. Psychotropic drugs keep the population in line. But change is coming.
A solid book with a powerful conclusion.

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) By G K Chesterton

Strange, surreal book by Roman Catholic writer G. K Chesterton. Known mostly for his Father Brown mysteries, Chesterton, was a prolific writer at the turn-of-the-century England.
Thursday concerns secret policeman Gabriel Syme's infiltration of an "anarchist council". Each member of this council has a different code name, one for every day of the week. Syme manages to get himself elected to the post of "Thursday", the British representative. However, it soon turns out that each represenative is also a police agent. Moreover, they've all been recruited by the same unseen figure.
I'm told this is a favorite book of people who've worked in real secret service agencies.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Finishing Touches/ Father Panic's Opera Macabre by Thomas Tessier

Will Errikson at Too Much Horror Fiction turned me onto this book recently. I'd heard a lot about the writings of Thomas Tessier, just never had the opportunity to read anything by him. He seems to consistantly make everyone's "top ten" list.
Originally published in 1986, Finishing Touches was recently republished with another of Tessier's writings, Father Panic's Opera Macabre. Touches is the story of Tom Sutherland, a recent medical school graduate who's slumming in London from an inheritance. One night he runs into Roger Nordhagen, a successful cosmetic surgeon, at a pub. Roger takes a liking to the younger man and begins inviting him to carouse the seedy side of London. Soon, Tom meets Lena, Nordhagen's beautiful assistant and embarks on a wild affair of debauchery. It almost comes to a quick end when Lena arranges an escapade which nearly gets Tom killed. But Tom decides to stick it out and soon finds what Nordhagen's real life work is all about.
At times, Touches reminded me of a shudder pulp from the 1930's. Dr. Roger Nordhagen isn't too far removed from Dr. Rance Mandarin and his "maggots of madness". But Tessier is a very literate writer and can twist a paragraph into a deadly shape. Furthermore, Tessier didn't have any reservations about holding back on the descriptive sex and gore scenes.
Father Panic is a shorter work and seems to be a sketch for a longer novel. Traveling through Italy, a writer named Neil finds an isolated house in the mountains when his car breaks down. He approaches the house for assistance and meets Marisa Panic. She lives there with her extended family. They live in the house in the manner of medieval feudal lords, taking care of their tenant farmers. Although Marisa speaks eloquent English and Italian, she converses in another language with her family and field hands. Neil decides to stay on for a few days when Marisa makes a play for him, and this proves to be the beginning of his undoing. After an erotic opening, the novella suddenly shifts gears and Neil is thrown backwards in time to a genocidal massacre in Croatia during WW2. The book ends all too quick, making me think it was intended to be a much longer piece.
Definitely a good a scary set of reads, but not for those with weak constitutions.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Green Queen (1956) by Margaret St.Clair

Save NowThe Green Queen was Margaret St.Clair's first published novel. Although it was issued in 1956 as part of an Ace double book (paired with Three Thousand Years), the novel first saw publication in 1955 in a shorter form as Mistress of Virdis. It readily falls into her golden age SF period of writing.
A moody book, it opens with the quote: "The one who loved me is dead. And the one who loved power goes on living."
Green Queen takes place in the far future on the planet Viridis. It exists in the same continium as St.Clair's The Games of Neith. Both books reference the migration of the worshipers of Jovis and their battle cry of "Jovis is a first class god!" There's even some reference to the same Chinese furniture in Neith. It would be interesting to know if she was working out some sort of future history.
Two hundred years before the novel begins, Viridis was settled by a man named James Renfrew and his Jovian followers. Later, a man named Jensen attempted to lay-out suburban tract housing all over the planet,but both failed to account for the high level of background radiation. Once the settlers began dying in large numbers, people begin moving to cities which were protected by anti-radiation barriers. As time passed, the populace evolved into two classes: The "uppers", who live in the splendid higher regions of the urban environment, and the "lowers", who exist at the bottom levels, where life is brutal and short. The best any lower can hope for is to be hired as a body-servant and move "up the stairs".
The novel opens with mask-maker Bonnar trying to figure out what sort of rumor to spread in the lowers to keep them in line. He's part of a secret service which creates Veridical Masks (i.e., 3D images) for control of the lowers. He decides on propagating a legend of "The Green Queen", a universal savior who will purify Virdis and lead the populace to salvation. Years before Frank Herbert wrote of the use of messianic figures as propaganda in Dune, Margaret St. Clair was thinking along similar lines.
After using a sorting machine known as an ibim (as usual in St. Clair's novels, technical devices are a given and not explained), Bonnar selects two candidates to play the role of the Green Queen in his latest mask. The first is Leaf Amadeus, an apprentice mask-maker and an immigrant from Earth. The second is Caroline Augliner, an embroiderer. Neither are married.
Bonnar arranges a field trip outside the capitol city of Shalom to examine the ruins of the abandoned settlements with Leaf and a historian named Horvendile. This is the most fascinating part of the book as it gives the reader some insight as to how St. Clair felt about suburbs. Although abandoned for hundreds of years, the tract housing is perfectly preserved. There are even small domes in some of the back yards where the original settlers tried to protect themselves against the radiation. During this trip, Bonnar witnesses Leaf slipping into the role of the Green Queen unconsciously.
Later, the uppers discover Leaf is being hailed as the Green Queen all over the city. Bonnar and his band try to coach the other candidate, Caroline Augliner, in the role of the queen. But nothing goes as planned and soon the entire planet is in the grip of religious fury.
An excellent example of St.Clair's writing from her most productive period.