WAY STATION by Clifford D. Simak

A 1963 sci fi novel about ALIENS!   Yea, aliens. I love sci fi that has aliens in it.  A lovely, almost gentle story about a Civil War soldier who is approached by a representative of an alien culture to use his rural farmhouse as a way station for alien travelers.  It seems that galactically speaking, folks have been touristing and sightseeing around the galaxy by some nifty form of teleportation, and in order to reach the farther areas, the system needs booster stations.

Enoch Wallace agrees, (well, fudge, wouldn’t you?), and the aliens transform his home into a way station, the same on the outside, but totally transformed inside.  While in the building, Enoch does not age.  He only ages when he goes outside.  He does not farm, nor have any animal stock, and goes out once a day to collect the mail and pass a few words with his friend the mail carrier.  Of course, as the townspeople age and die, Enoch remains the same age, but somehow in this pastoral community, it is just accepted, and life goes on.

Enoch is constantly receiving visitors inside from the galaxy, strange and most of them not at all human like.  They stay a day or so and often bring him gifts, bizarre  objects whose meaning usually eludes him.  He keeps them in a storage area in the now almost limitless basement.

It is now a hundred years since the way station was established.  Enoch has been keeping a map or timeline or analysis based on an alien mathematical system of how close the earth may be to another war.  He predicted the two World Wars, and now it seems the earth is moving toward a final, totally destructive war which will annihilate humanity.

The book uses this premise to examine the idea of cooperation, war, the tendency of sentient beings everywhere to  be combative and at odds with each other.  The seemingly mutually cooperative galaxy civilizations are now starting to have problems and the traveling system is in jeopardy of  being dismantled, at least this branch of it, and the way station being closed down.

Other than a  transportation system that obviously kills the transportee and assembles a duplicate at the end point, which surely is an example of spooky action at a distance, hahaha, the futuristic technology is fun, the aliens are great, and ya gotta love gadgets that do stuff that is totally meaningless to the recipient.  Yeah, kind of like me and a smart phone.  I can totally relate.

 

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MY BRILLIAN CAREER by Miles Franklin

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin was born in 1879 in rural Australia. My Brilliant Career, her first novel, was published to much excitement and acclaim. She moved to Sydney where she became involved in feminist and literary circles and then onto the USA in 1907.  She used Miles Franklin as her pen name because she felt she would have a better chance of getting her work published.

My Brilliant Career is the story of Sybylla, a headstrong young girl growing up in late 1800/early 20th century Australia. Sybylla rejects the opportunity to marry a wealthy young man in order to maintain her independence. As a consequence she must take a job as a governess to a local family to which her father is indebted.

It is written as though an autobiography, and may possibly be partially so.  It gives us a fascinating look into turn of the (last) century outback Australia, the mores, customs and daily life then.  Sybylla’s family is well off, her father a clever horse breeder and trader, the owner of several large spreads, and they lived happily on a remote farm. but after having gotten the notion into his head that he could do even better if they lived near a large town, he moved his family off Sybylla’s girlhood home to a place that suffered drought after drought, his fortunes failed, he became penurious and a drunkard.

Sybylla is a feisty soul, and a torment to her mother.  Her grandmother writes to say they could use some help back at the old place and sends for Sybylla, where she is once again happy.  But eventually her mother writes to say the father is at the bottom of his affairs, and had borrowed money from an old childhood friend and could not even pay the interest, but the friend said if Sybylla came as a governess to his home for his kids, they would call the debt squared.

Sybylla goes very unwillingly to this family, also in a remote area, to find them a squalid, dirty, ignorant and uneducated bunch.  The filth, and squalor absolutely destroy her, and she falls desperately ill, at which point she is sent back home, much to her relief.

During this time, she has the opportunity to marry a wealthy, handsome neighbor of her family’s old farm, but turns him down because she does not love him.  She is determined never to marry, but to be an independent person, but nevertheless, although she achieves this independence, she is not really happy, and talks about how her dreams have become nothing but daily drudgework.  She sarcastically refers often to her ‘brilliant career’ as a writer having melted into obscurity.

I loved the book for its window into that 1900 world of Australia.

THE SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD by Bill Cronin

A story of a blocked writer who after some sessions with his long-term therapist, believes that his troubles all stem from a secret kept by his mother and father, of a half-sister he never knew he had until his teens, when she called his mother asking for help and to live with them.

He has been a successful writer, with 25 books to his credit, but has fallen into a depression of such magnitude that he can’t write, and has alienated his long-suffering wife to the point where she moves out and files for divorce, his agent and publisher are threatening legal action if he doesn’t finish the second of a trilogy for which he has already been paid over a million dollars in an advance, and the only reason he didn’t kill him self with a gun where he pulled over on the highway was because a police officer interrupted him.

His mother died many years ago of cancer, he hasn’t seen or heard from his half-sister in 17 years,  and his father is an asshat of the first water, having always denigrated his writing and saying that writing would make him crazy.

So he goes on a quest to learn the family secret by finding the one still living sister of his mother, and locating his half-sister.

Not a bad story, not terribly original, but definitely well told.  There is a second in what is apparently  a series in what is called the Jack McNamara Chronicles, the next one about another sister of his mother.

CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Once again we enter Márquez’ surreal world of (probably) Colombia, in a much earlier time.  As the official plot description tells us, a man returns to the town where a baffling murder took place 27 years earlier, determined to get to the bottom of the story. Just hours after marrying the beautiful Angela Vicario, everyone agrees, Bayardo San Roman returned his bride in disgrace to her parents because she was not a virgin. Her distraught family forced her to name her first lover; and her twin brothers announced their intention to murder Santiago Nasar for dishonoring their sister.

Yet if everyone knew the murder was going to happen, why did no one intervene to stop it? The more that is learned, the less is understood, and as the story races to its inexplicable conclusion, an entire society–not just a pair of murderers—is put on trial.

It becomes apparent that the brothers really do not want to commit this murder;  they just want to announce it, thereby satisfying the honor requirements of the situation.  So they tell everybody they see that they are going to murder the dude.  But nobody tells the intended victim, each thinking that the brothers will not actually do the dastardly deed.

Not as much magical realism in this tale, but it still has that flavor of being just one note off.

I confess I found this book a bit tedious, not as compelling as his other books which I have read, maybe because there were no really surprising twists to the tale.

 

SPACEMAN OF BOHEMIA by Jaroslav Kalfar

In this sort-of-in-the-present sci fi offering, Bohemia, (actually Czechoslovakia), has a space program, and chooses scientist Jakub Procházka to man a one-person probe to collect dust from the mysterious Chopra cloud.  It is a four month trip out and four months back, and as he sits alone in the ship, he discovers that the vessel is what we in the Philadelpia/New York area would call a ‘price job’, a cut rate, low budget effort financed primarily by corporations.

As he confronts his thoughts, we learn about his boyhood, his parents and grandparents.  His father was a communist informer when the Soviets took over Czechoslovakia, going so far as to be head of a secret torturing operation.  For this, in the aftermath of the war, his family is now vilified and reviled.

Jakub falls in love with the lovely Lenka, they marry, and are distressed to find they cannot conceive.  This seems to start a crack in the marriage which gets ignored in the excitement of Jakub going into space.  Once launched, they have a daily video call.  After a number of these, she stops coming to the mission headquarters for the calls, and Jakub is left frantic, wondering why and whether she has left him.

Into this appears a creature in his space ship, a scritching, a noise, which eventually appears. It is a spider.  He thinks it is a hallucination born of his solitude, possibly an early sign of his going mad,  but it is not in fact a hallucination.  It is in fact an alien, who speaks to Jakub in his head.  It is the last of its kind, searching for a place to end.  It develops a passion for Nutella, and over the months, they two become fast friends.

Just a couple of quotes from this cerebral musing on life, death, and the necessity of keeping on keeping on.

This is what elements do.  They leap into darkness until something else catches hold of them.  Energy has no consciousness.  Force plots no schemes.  Things crash into one another, form alliances until physics rips them apart and send them in opposite directions.

And

She wondered why so many things in the universe were circles. Planets and stardust and atoms.

Finally,

I had traveled through space, I had seen truths unparalleled, but still, in this Earthly life, I had barely seen anything at all.  Something rests in the mortal soul, hungry to feel anything and everything in its own boundless depths.   As boundless and ever-expanding as the universe itself.

An unexpected kind of sci fi tale, less action, more pondering, but compelling nonetheless.

THE NEON PALM OF MADAME MELANÇON By Will Clarke

New Orleans, the Big Weird, where anything is possible.  Duke Melancon is an attorney for a huge oil drilling corporation.  Sadly, oh so sadly, the current drilling project in the Gulf off of New Orleans punched a huge hole in the Gulf floor, and now gallons of crude are pouring into the waters from the mishap.  Duke is called back from his office in Houston to New Orleans to help manage the crisis.

Duke Melançon is the seventh son of a seventh son of the New Orleans Melançons, a woo woo family whose matriarch is a palm reader, fortune teller, and all around weird person.  In fact, all six brothers and his sole sister are all around weird persons, as well, colorful, wonky, flamflammers, charlatans, ersatz musicians, and part of that strange soup that is New Orleans.

NOLA attracts bat-shit crazy like no other.  “Bring me your alcoholic, your schizophrenic, your hedonistic masses yearning to run naked and cack-smeared down cobblestone streets,” New Orleans seems to say to the world.  And the world answers.  The town is full of people who wear purple veils and talk to invisible guardian angels; people who disguise themselves in elaborate Greek god costumes for Mardi Gras, but who also write long, tedious diaries about the Illuminati and how half-lizards lurk behind every world leader; people who will unabashedly tell you that they are the vampire Lestat or the Pirate Jean Lafitte;  people who have gone to great lengths to look exactly like Mark Twain, Blaze Star, and even Kurt Vonnegut.

Duke’s mother chases a stray cat out of her kitchen one night and then simply disappears.  While putting up posters looking for her, Duke meets a guy who claims to be Kurt Vonnegut.

‘Technically, I am a strange loop,’ he says.  ‘A mathematical string of code, a precise algorithm that was built from the writings, photos, recordings, interviews, and diaries of Kurt Vonnegut and put into this extraordinary machine.’

We learn about the Great Unseen Hand, the creator of all.

The Unseen Hand is the artificial intelligence that once served humankind, but will seek to restrain you.  It first it will keep you in zoos and toy with you, entertain you, and then, eventually, it will seek to sterilize and eradicate you.  The Great Unseen Hand will awaken.  It will exponentially surpass human intelligence, and it will become the operating system that controls everything and, eventually, everyone.

Well, gee.

Duke keeps receiving messages that he has got to stop his corporation from destroying the world and work toward,  oh, phooey I don’t really know.  But it is a compelling and goofy read, and in the end, it is about . . .

. . . time travel.

So, gentle readers, get your timey-wimey on, and enjoy this almost indescribable caper.

 

STAR ISLAND by Carl Hiaasen

South Beach neighborhood of Miami, Florida.  Home of the crazies, celebrities, celebrity wannabes, paparazzi, happening nightspots and celebrity-chef eateries, chain stores and indie fashion shops, well-preserved art deco architecture, outdoor cafes  and museums such as  the Wolfsonian-FIU, with its collection of modern art and objects.

Twenty-two year old Cherry Pie, a celebrity pop singer known not for her terrible singing ability but famous for being famous, ever since she was 14.  Cherry Pie, formerly Cheryl, is on a fast track for that great stage in the sky, by way of drugs, alcohol, sex and rock n’ roll.  It has surprised all who know her that she hasn’t bitten the big one yet.

Stage mother and manager Mom keeps on the payroll a look alike named Annie for those times when Cherry Pie has to be rushed out of a trashed hotel room to the emergency room due to chemical and/or alcoholic excesses, because the paparazzi are relentless sharks, with the mags paying the most for naughty pics, pics of trashed, wasted celebs, stars gone to the bad.

This is the story of a paparazzi, of the ditzy druggy celebrity and her body double, her maimed body guard with a weed wacker for an arm prosthesis, and the former governor of Florida, a sweet Viet Nam vet who spends only a few days in office when he realizes that the greed and corruption will make him crazy, and one day just disappears.   He now lives in the swamps of Marathon Key, and pops up occasionally to right environmental wrongs.  One wrong he righted was the punishment of a developer who clear cut all the mangos from an area he wanted to develop.  The nutty ex-governor kidnaps him and diapers a stinging sea creature to his privates.  That took care of him, that’s for sure!

I am coming to learn that Hiaasen’s books are about moral outrage, real estate schemers, financiers and others who are laying waste to Florida in the name of “progress,” about the superficial celebrity culture of the day, and above all, a weird kind of humor.

My first Hiaasen book was Double Whammy, which you can read about here.