Category Archives: sci-fi

“I am Legend” by Richard Matheson

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, I had never heard of Richard Matheson before tackling “I am Legend” for the 501 Books list. So I was impressed to find Stephen King quoted on the back cover as saying that Matheson was a major influence on his writing.

The more sci-fi I read for this list, the more I realise that there were a handful of writers in the 1950s who created the genre as we  know it today, and sure enough this book, first published in 1954, is amongst that list. You could assume that it would feel dated given all the changes in technology since that time, but this is a classic vampire/bio-hazard tale and in fact it feels distinctly modern. I haven’t seen the 2007 film based on the novel starring Will Smith, but I’ve been told it’s only loosely based on the book.

At a mere 178 pages long, the story, told with very few characters and a limited setting, paints a scary portrait of life for the hero Robert Neville. He’s the last man on Earth thanks to a plague which has turned everybody else into a vampire. His isolation and grief (his wife and daughter succumbed to the disease) are brilliantly protrayed and far from being dismal to read he has a strong sense of humour holding him together. I enjoyed when he, near hysterics, called for a policeman when he parked his car illegally in the deserted city where he lives.

He lives in the daytime only, patrolling in search of the undead to kill them. At night he’s the prey, so he barricades himself in his home and tries to ignore them and avoid insanity, drunkeness, and despair. As Matheson writes; “imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death”.

When his solitary existance and quest for an explanation or cure for the disease is interrupted by first a dog and then a woman, Neville has to face tougher challenges.

The writing is excellent, the plotline intriquing and compelling. I’d recommend this book for any sci-fi or fantasy fan as well as anyone who likes a thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed it and am putting it in my Best of The Books category.

(read April 2012)

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“The Demolished Man” by Alfred Bester

I was working my way through the B’s in my local library and came across this sci-fi novel, published in 1953, and with the honourable pedigree of winning the first ever Hugo Award.

The story is simple and set in the 24th century on Earth. Ben Reich, businessman, wants to kill his rival, but how, given that the police have telepathic powers and can read his mind?

I don’t read 1950s literature often, which is one reason why I’m enjoying the 501 book challenge. I loved his opening line “Explosion! Concussion! The vault doors burst open.” If I pulled that opening now, I would be shot down both for using all those exclamation points (two of several on the page), and even worse, it’s a dream sequence. One of many throughout the book which show the main character’s mind unravelling.

I also loved Bester’s use of textual patterns to signify multi-way telepathic communication. It reminded me of poetry where the poem resembles a picture on the page. It showed me the complexity of telepathic society. He calls telepathic people “peepers”. They work in jobs, for mankind’s betterment, like police (to prevent crimes), analysts (to help heal the mind), human resources (to filter out the wrong candidates).

Bester’s character names were a joyful throwback to Dickens’ habit of making them meaningful. So we have Church (a low-life peeper), Reich (the villain), Marie Beaumont (a voluptuous woman, think translation), and three secretaries called Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Now Reich may seem ok now, but I think that less than a decade after the fall of the third Reich, his naming must have been significant to contempory readers.

World War II and the years preceding it heavily influence this book. I laughed aloud when one famous line from the film “Casablanca” cropped up as “Then it’s every peeper for himself. Here’s thinking at you, Linc.” The murder method eventually selected by Reich is old house party game, sardines, and the entire murder sequence has an Agatha Christie style to it. There’s murder with an impossible weapon, many witnesses but restricted location, and a classy, conflicted telepathic detective, Powell, trying to trap the wrong-doer. As a long-time Christie fan, I was surprised to find her influence in a sci-fi novel, but it works remarkably well there.

The only weak point I found, and it was hardly Bester’s fault he couldn’t tell the future, was the explanation of some future technologies which have been out-stripped by actual modern technology in the real world. For example, Powell lacks a laptop so he has his three secretaries to carry his information in their brains. There’s a global newspaper called “The Hour” with 24 editions daily. Internet news sites or Sky News anyone? They do have an advanced AI computer to assess if criminal cases have merit before they go to trial. But he outputs to a paper tape via a mechanical typewriter.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes, definitely, even for a sci-fi novice. It’s unusual, well-written, and while some passages are dated thanks to modern technology, the underlying theme of the human mind is as fresh as ever.

(read 2010)


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“I, Robot” by Issac Asimov

I’ve finally read another book on the 501 list. I have, in fact, been slowly making my way through “Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer as well, but I tend to read verse very slowly, so I’m not ready to review it yet. I looked up all the books with author names beginning with A in my local library and they only had one, Asimov. I am starting to realise that I may have to buy more of these books than I had hoped. A fair few appear to be out of print too, which isn’t going to make my task any easier.

However, I was delighted to have Asimov to read as I’ve had him recommended to me several times by various sci-fi readers and this was to be my first of his works. It was a good introduction to his work, I think. Apparently there was a movie made of this book recently with Will Smith. But having read the book and the movie summary I’d say it was more an “inspired by” rather than “movie of the book”.

To the book then. Well, it’s structured rather cleverly, as a collection of short stories, all about robots and their interactions with humans around the years 2020-2050. The stories were originally published individually in the 1940s and Asimov did an intelligent job of tying them together as the reminiscences of a robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, at the end of her long career in the field. In his vision of the future world, robots exist to work for humans and their brains all obey the three laws of robotics, all of which are designed to ensure that the robots won’t rebel against their masters.

Inevitably the stories deal with robots who rebel or don’t fit in their specified niches as humans might wish. There’s a robot who is loved by a little girl, one who gets religion and decides that a power generator is god, another which reads human minds with brilliant consequences, and, wonderfully, one which passes as human and yet still doesn’t rule the world. I don’t read a huge amount of science-fiction, but whenever I do, I am always struck by how the best science-fiction uses the trappings of warp-drives, robots, and far-away galaxies to examine the human condition. Many of the most intense looks at motivations, desires, and conflicts seem to be in sci-fi rather than contemporary literature, in my experience. Asimov, certainly led the way on this, along with Philip K. Dick.

So, would I recommend this book? Yes. If you’re a sci-fi fan I bet you’ve already read it. If not, well, it might be a good introduction to the genre, and at a mere 249 pages, one you could easily try. But I do think that Asimov has fallen foul of what I call the Paul Henry Syndrome. Paul Henry was an Irish artist who painted exquisite, seemingly simple, oil paintings of Irish peasants around 1900. Have a look at his work – does it seem like a cliche? Something you’ve since a millions times on posters and postcards and aunty’s walls? Yep, that because everybody copied him. They didn’t do it as well, of course, but the world was flooded with twee pictures of thatched white-washed cottages and peasants labouring over the potato-beds. As a result the original work is de-valued by the sheer intensity of the imitation.

Read Asimov, and you’re going to think of Star-Trek storylines, Dr. Who ideas, and various ethical dilemmas explored in a million copy-cat stories since his originals in the 1940s. Sadly, his imitators, have cheapened his concepts. But he still writes them brilliantly and is worth exploration.

(read March 2010)

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