Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Classic sci-fi book reviews: Bradbury, Simak, and Zelazny

I read a lot of classic sci-fi growing up: Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. "Doc" Smith, Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, and so on. But there are a lot of big names that I've neglected, so when Audible ran one of their sales recently, I took the opportunity to download a few classics by authors I hadn't read much.

Enjoy three quickie reviews and a whole bunch of trippy 1960s covers!

The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury


Amazon: Average: 4.1. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average: 4.07. Mode: 4 stars.

That The Illustrated Man has remained in print since being published in 1951 is fair testimony to the universal appeal of Ray Bradbury's work. Only his second collection (the first was Dark Carnival, later reworked into The October Country), it is a marvelous, if mostly dark, quilt of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In an ingenious framework to open and close the book, Bradbury presents himself as a nameless narrator who meets the Illustrated Man--a wanderer whose entire body is a living canvas of exotic tattoos. What's even more remarkable, and increasingly disturbing, is that the illustrations are themselves magically alive, and each proceeds to unfold its own story, such as "The Veldt," wherein rowdy children take a game of virtual reality way over the edge. Or "Kaleidoscope," a heartbreaking portrait of stranded astronauts about to reenter our atmosphere--without the benefit of a spaceship. Or "Zero Hour," in which invading aliens have discovered a most logical ally--our own children. Even though most were written in the 1940s and 1950s, these 18 classic stories will be just as chillingly effective 50 years from now.

Of the three, this short story collection from Ray Bradbury probably impressed me the least. Bradbury's fiction has always been a bit dark and more oriented towards social change and how people react to it than pure science fiction, and that's evidenced in this collection. The sci-fi is very fifties -- rocket men and rocket ships and Martians and magical techno-gimcrackery. (I can totally imagine Bradbury saying "gimcrackery!" while he rails against television.)

The title refers to a traveler on the road who is cursed with tattoos covering his entire body which come alive and tell stories to onlookers, but aside from this thin central narrative spun between the stories, there isn't much of a unifying theme. (Of course, in the 1950s, a guy covered with tattoos could make a living as a circus freak; today we think, "Yeah, he's covered with tattoos -- so what?")

The eighteen stories in this collection ranged from mediocre to mildly creepy/entertaining, but they were all pretty dated. "The Veldt," about the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time in virtual reality, comes closest to being a prediction of the future with something to say even in the 21st century. On the other hand, "The Other Foot," about a future Mars that has been settled by blacks after all the white people on Earth blew themselves up, is one of those "role reversal what-if?" tales that might have been edgy when it was published in 1951, but today reads as simple and trite.

The Illustrated Man is not a bad way to spend a few hours if you want to read some classic Bradbury, but none of these stories really left a lasting impression on me.

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak


Amazon: Average: 4.3. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average: 3.94. Mode: 4 stars.

Clifford Simak was raised in Wisconsin, and his science fiction combines galactic scope with nostalgia for the old American Midwest. Way Station (1963) is a fine example of this unlikely mix, and probably his best novel--it won him a Hugo award.

Its hero Enoch Wallace first appears as a mystery man: an impossibly young-looking Civil War veteran, 124 years old and still living in his parents' remote Wisconsin farmhouse. Nowadays this building has a glittering, Tardis-like interior, ever since Wallace was recruited by aliens as stationmaster on a minor branch line--not a railway, but Galactic Central's network of matter transmitters carrying passengers between the stars. Earth isn't ready for this secret, and countryman Wallace's best friends are extraterrestrials and ghostly simulations.

When the CIA investigates his reclusive lifestyle, it accidentally stirs up an interstellar diplomatic crisis. Wallace's job, and his place in the countryside he loves, are suddenly threatened. So are his hopes for persuading Galactic Central to step in and halt our accelerating slide towards nuclear war. (The Cuban missile crisis was then recent history.)

All the story threads converge neatly: the rustic lynch mob, the galactics, the CIA, the unhappy ghosts, the local deaf-and-dumb girl who can charm warts and heal butterflies, and the bizarre virtual-reality rifle range built for Wallace by an alien construction team. There are painful losses, victories, and a final note of lonely hope. It's a book of great charm--old-fashioned SF, but timeless rather than dated.

I had never read anything by Clifford D. Simak before. I found this story pleasant and fun, but another one that showed its age. A Hugo winner in 1964, the interstellar union of extraterrestrials who are waiting for Earth to become civilized enough to join them wasn't a new idea then, but it wasn't a thoroughly worn out one either. Only a few years later came Star Trek.

Despite the multitude of aliens and the advanced technology, Way Station is set entirely around Enoch Wallace's home in rural Wisconsin. The story presents a hopeful view of Earth's future, and one in which the CIA somehow manages not to completely freak out like we know they would in reality if they discovered that some dude in the backwoods was talking to aliens.

This is sci-fi comfort food; I enjoyed it, but it didn't wow me.

This Immortal, by Roger Zelazny


Amazon: Average: 4.2. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average: 3.88. Mode: 4 stars.

Conrad Nomikos has a long, rich personal history that he's rather not talk about. And, as Arts Commissioner, he's been giving a job he'd rather not do. Escorting an alien grandee on a guided tour of the shattered remains of Earth is not something he relishes- especially when it is apparent that this places him at the center high-level intrigue that has some bearing on the future of Earth itself.

Of the three books, I enjoyed this one the most. Roger Zelazny was a gifted author -- not that Bradbury and Simak aren't, but Zelazny had a special talent, and this story had a mythic feel to it, like most of Zelazny's work. It won the Hugo in 1966, and unlike the previous two books, this one could have been written today.

Following a nuclear war, Earth is a sparsely-inhabited tourist resort for green-skinned Vegans. It's covered with radioactive hot spots where dwell mutants who look like monsters of yore. Conrad Nomikos is an immortal, possibly even a demigod -- his exact nature is never explained. He's forced to escort and protect a Vegan tourist that an Earthling terrorist group wants dead.

Colorful writing, sharp dialog, brilliant fight scenes, and a lot of questions that remain unanswered in the end. This one I'd recommend, especially if you like Zelazny's later work, like the Amber series.
Tags: audiobooks, books, ray bradbury, reviews, science fiction

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