the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘satire


SAM_2429The Case Against Tomorrow (collection) by Frederik Pohl

Printed in 1957, stories originally published between 1954 – 1956

Where I got it: bought used

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America in the 1950s – WWII had ended but Korea and the Cold War were ramping up, the American economy was booming, with more production, more consumerism, more home ownership, more children entering school, and a new concept called “suburbia”. Public schools became integrated, racial tensions and national anxieties soared, McCarthyism was born.  It was a time of changes. Frederick Pohl observed and satirized everything around him – society, consumerism, politics, hubris,  and conservative views on race and class.  His matter of fact writing style feels like Vonnegut at times, and chillingly like Shirley Jackson at other times. Not every story in The Case Against Tomorrow is satire, but in my opinion most of them are.

Here are my thoughts on the 6 stories included in this thin little volume.

The Midas Plague (1954) –  Morey Fry has just married his beautiful bride, and at first everything is blissful, as is often the case with young love. They certainly aren’t rich, but they work as hard as they can and dutifully get their quota book stamped and inspected for their clothing and food and furniture.  But how much veal and expensive liquor and fancy clothes and opera tickets can two people possibly go through?  As the robots tirelessly work to efficiently build and manufacture as many consumer goods as they can, the consumers must work just as tirelessly to use all these consumer goods. It’s a closed system, after all. Wealth means escape from the system, thus a poorer family is required to eat more three course meals, use up more luxury goods,  go through more pairs of shoes, have a larger house that’s filled with yet more furniture.  And when Morey accidentally comes up with a solution, will he be labeled traitor or hero? A highly entertaining and eye opening satire of consumerism and an unchecked manufacturing industry.  The longest and best story in the collection.

The Census Takers  (1955) – this is one way to solve an overpopulation issue.  Cities can only handle so many people, so when a count is taken the overage must be handled.  And there is no escaping the census. Told through the eyes of our narrator, who passes judgement on large families (and everybody else), and convinces one patriarch to make the ultimate sacrifice to save his children. So obsessed with counting, overing, and handling, the supervisors and enumerators are blinded to what’s happening right under their eyes. Satirical and creepy!

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Vintage SF badgeThe Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006) was known for his works in science fiction, satire, and philosophy.  His writing style is detailed, subtle and literary, making translations a challenge.  I got into a great discussion on twitter with Joachim Boaz about the Lem translations. Apparently much of his work was translated to French and then translated to English, doubling the chances of wit and puns being lost in translation. By sheer luck, the copy of The Cyberiad that I read was translated directly from the original Polish by the amazing Michael Kandel. I’ve got to wonder if crappy translation is directly responsible for my mixed luck with Lem titles I’ve read in the past. Note to self:  seek out the Kandel translations!

Cyberiad

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem

published in 1965, first English translation available 1974

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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Subtitled “fables for the cybernetic age”, many of the short stories in The Cyberiad have a bedtime story fairy tale feel to them.  Featuring quests and adventures and demanding royals  and hermits and pirates and even the phrase “once upon a time”, alongside literary devices such as alliteration, punny phrases and nested tales, I quickly became desperate for a nerdy 8 year old to whom I could read these out loud to.

The series of stories follows the robotic constructors Trurl and Klapaucius.  The two friends build amazing machines either for their own amusement or to help (for vast sums of money, of course) people on other planets.  As with many parable style fairy tales, the machines and prophecies never quite work as intended, and on more than one occasion Trurl and Klapaucius are forced to destroy their creations and/or escape their insatiable clients. Most of the Sallys (as in To Sally Forth) are 10 pages or less, making the whole of The Cyberiad easy to digest in small portions, if you’re able to put it down, that is (which I wasn’t, and devoured this dense little package of amazing in just a few days).

Since Trurl and Klapaucius (and nearly every other character we meet) are robots, and can’t die or experience physical pain, there is a surprising amount of violence – people getting kicked and repeatedly beaten up or thrown off or into things. Since no one ever gets hurt, it’s humorous, not unlike an old style Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Beyond the hysterical and madcap adventures and Klapaucius egging Trurl on every step of the way, the writing is absolutely brilliant, with a level of literary humor and intelligent wordplay that is absolutely off the charts. Imagine if Charlie Stross and Terry Pratchett rewrote a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, and then ratchet the whole thing up a bit more.

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Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

written in 1952

where I got it: owned

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Ever read a book that takes place in the future?  of course, we all have, and we love them. How much manual labor do you see in those books? Probably not very much. Robots or machines do all the hard work so humans are available to have adventures and experience fun plot devices. Sure, people work, but not fifty hours a week at a saw mill or light bulb factory or textile factory. In the future, everything is automated.

But how did we get there?

In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut couldn’t have known what the future would bring. he couldn’t have known how labor unions would protest over robots in auto plants, that humanity would automate everything we possibly could and glorify automation, calling it  Freedom, in our science fiction. All he knew in 1952 was how fascinating it was to see a punch-card programmed machine cut highly detailed parts for a jet engine. And I imagine he thought to himself “how far can I take this?”

Taking place perhaps ten to twenty years in the future, Player Piano imagines a world in which everything is automated. Dr. Paul Proteus is the manager of the Ilium Works, a factory that includes acres upon acres of machines and motors and pistons and belts, but employs less than a hundred people, most of whom simply watch the machines to make sure they don’t break down.  Dr. Proteus’s star is rising in society, he’s all lined up for a promotion, and yet, he yearns to escape the system.

When his old friend Ed Finnerty arrives, Paul thinks Ed may be able to help him.  Ed knows something, but he’s useless and vague, and would rather get drunk on the poor side of town than have an actual useful conversation with Paul. The factory is split by the river: on one side lies the Illium Works factory and the wealthy people involved with it, and on the otherside live everyone else. If you can prove that a machine can’t do a job better than you can, your employment destiny lies with the army, or the government run Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps.  No matter how you choose to interpret that, it’s a shit gig, and alcoholism and suicide is rampant.

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Yesterday I posted a review of Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed. Let’s learn a little more about this fascinating man.

Anthony Burgess (1917-1993, birth name John Burgess Wilson) was an English literature teacher throughout the 1940s, and worked for the British Colonial Service in the 1950’s, travelling to Malaysia and Brunei.   Although gainfully employed during his travels, he often wrote short novels that were openly quite critical of the regimes he was living under. Some books never saw publication due to libel suits.

This multitalented author, linguist, critic, satirist and musician,  is considered one of Britain’s greatest contemporary writers.

In the United States, we mostly know Anthony Burgess because of the movie A Clockwork Orange. A cult classic, if you’ve seen the movie, I highly recommend the book. It’s much easier to swallow than the movie, and is an amazing read. Famous for his biting satire of contemporary society, Burgess was always more proud of his works of philosophical literature, literary criticism, and his music. Talented in linguistics as well, Burgess was fluent in French and German at a young age, and during his time overseas he taught himself Malay, and Farsi. You can see his love for languages while experiences the strange slang in A Clockwork Orange.
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The Fuller Memorandum (a Laundry Novel), by Charles Stross

where I got it: purchased new

why I read it: enjoyed the previous Laundry novel, The Jennifer Morgue

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Bob Howard has a problem. it’s that he’s too good at his job. The office manager leaves him alone; his boss, Angleton, is sending him on special errands; and his wife, Mo, has started bringing work home with her. When you’re a computational demonologist, none of those can be good things.  You see, Bob works for the ultra secret British government agency called The Laundry.  Think James Bond meets Torchwood, but instead of fighting the Russians and aliens, they’re fighting the Russians and unthinkable Cthonic soul sucking horrors from another dimension. When the end comes, make sure you’re armed with a shotgun (same goes for when playing Arkham Horror, btw).

Although The Fuller Memorandum is mostly action, usually involving Bob getting the crap kicked out of him, it was the slower parts that were some of my favorites. Things like getting to know more (perhaps too much) about the mysterious Angleton.  What Mo actually does with that bone white violin (she needs her own book. period). How to jailbreak an iphone in three easy steps (step one, allow a professional hacker into your house). How to handle Russian zombies and drunken cultists, and what the British secret service really thinks about Americans.  And Bob Howard, accidental computational demonologist, armed with a jailbroken unauthorized iphone running illegal apps, better solve all these problems before his soul gets sucked out by cultists who’ve awoken something far more evil than they were expecting. The slower bits might have been all interesting, but the crazy action bits? Totally over the top frakin’ awesome.

If you’re grinning, you can skip the next paragraph, however if you’re a bit confused, quit skipping around and stop feeling bad.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.