Monday, February 25, 2013

Free Science Fiction ebook: "The Memory of Mars" by Raymond F. Jones is a long short story that rises above the space opera of the early 1960s


Imagine this: You first met your wife way back in grade school, in the third grade. You grew up together in a small town. You were high school sweethearts, then married and shared years of a happy life. Your wife is suddenly seriously injured in a car accident. The surgeons in the operating room are shocked to discover that she is not a human being. Inside, they find no heart, lungs, stomach, but a mass of weird green organs -- she's an alien.

Sound like a sizzling scenario for a great science fiction yarn? It is, and RAYMOND F. JONES takes a great idea and leads his readers through a confounding mystery that will have you turning the pages, believe me.

THE MEMORY OF MARS (CLICK TO GET FREE) is an example of early 1960s pulp science fiction that rises above the standard space opera schlock that filled many of these publications, in this case, the December 1961 issue of Amazing Stories.

This story preceded by five years Philip K. Dick's masterful short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Both stories bear a similar premise - a man who is struggling with real or unreal bizarre memories of events that occurred on a vacation to Mars - that may or may not have happened!

In the hands of Philip Dick the story is a bona fide work of genius. In the case of The Memory of Mars and author Raymond Jones, the story is good - but, well it doesn't rise to that exulted level.

Although The Memory of Mars is a terrific piece it falters badly in the denouement. It almost seems like the author realized that he had written himself into a corner by spinning an extremely cunning tale.

Thus, to resolve the mystery of the story - he punts. He opts for a standard plot gimmick - he introduces a new character near the end of the story who conveniently steps in to explain everything. For me, it was a letdown.

Instead of the hero using his intelligence, bravery and cleverness to wrench a solution to his problem through intense action, everything is finally handed to him on a plate. Furthermore, part of the explanation - of how his wife could be an alien and why he has strange memories -- is a science fiction cliché - I won't tell you what it is because I don't want to spoil the ending for you.

Certainly some may disagree with how I feel about the ending, and there is an additional final twist that is wonderful. The Memory of Mars is an example of sci-fi pulp that rises well above the standard of the genre. It's more than worth your time and a read.

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Free science fiction ebook "And Then The Town Took Off" by Richard Wilson is barely entertaining, thin on plot, but may amuse some readers


Sometimes when I read a science fiction novel I think about what Kurt Vonnegut said: “Science fiction is the urinal of literature.”

That's the vibe I got about half-way through AND THEN THE TOWN TOOK OFF by RICHARD WILSON. It was issued as one-side of an Ace Double in 1960. Back then a writer could submit a manuscript that was little more than farcical drivel, get it published, earn a few hundred dollars and gain traction in the writing business.

Richard Wilson did – gain some traction, that is -- he later won one of science fiction’s highest honors, The Nebula Award. He also was nominated for the supreme SF honor, the Hugo.

I bet he didn't get many accolades for this yarn even though it has an intriguing premise: A small town of 3,000 people in Ohio suddenly finds itself uprooted from the earth and levitating high into the earth’s atmosphere.

Yet, this is far from an original idea at the time. James Blish had already published at least two of his “Cities in Flight” novels by the late 1950s, and Wilson seems to have merely commandeered the same idea and played his version for laughs, whereas Blish’s books were hard science fiction – and with a lot of technical scientific speculation to boot.

I’ve already hinted at the major problem with And Then The Town Took Off – there’s a premise, but little in the way of plot. Rather, the novel plays out as a series of zany reactions by the resident of Superior, Ohio, to their extraordinary situation. When it finally comes time to explain how the town was levitated, we don’t even get treated to the thrill of the characters taking action to solve their own mystery. The 'Big Reveal' about why everything is happening is not clever either.

Instead, Wilson resorts to “magical explanations” thinly disguised as elements of science fiction, as in: The aliens did it. They can perform any miracle they want with super advanced science. Wilson and his editors felt no need to make it plausible. Furthermore, the aliens are meddling with earth’s cities for a reason that was already a hackneyed plot device by 1960 – their own planet was destroyed by a nova so they had to going roaming the stars to find a new home.

One positive aspect of the novel is Wilson’s talent at creating vivid, likable characters – something so many writers of today seem to have forgotten. For example, here is how Wilson introduces us to one of two potential love interests he supplies for his main character, Don Cort. He he first encounters her on a passenger train:

“The girl’s hair was a subtle red, but false. When Don had entered the club car he’d seen her hatless head from above and noticed that the hair along the part was dark. Her eyes had been on a book and Don had the opportunity for a brief study of her face. The cheeks were full and untouched by make-up. There were lines at the corners of her mouth which indicated a tendency to arrange her expression into disapproval. The lips were full, like the cheeks, but it was obvious that scarlet lipstick had contrived a mouth a trifle bigger than the one nature had given her.”

That’s pretty good – as is her name – Geneva “Jen” Jarvis.

Since this book is free – and short – I still say it is worth a read, if only for the delightful characters. Also, it gave me that certain happy nostalgic feeling for a simpler time when America was more uniformally prosperous and less complicated -- back when a hack writer could sit down at a battered typewriter, clack out a one-draft space opera and sell it to a decent publisher.

Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates is a magical book that captures the ancient spirit of pagan Saxons, even if it may not be entirely authentic


Over the past couple of years I’ve occasionally seen mention of a book called THE WAY OF WYRD by BRIAN BATES on sites such as Facebook and other online forums. It was one such prompting that motivated me to investigate what this book is about. I was surprised to discover it was published 30 years ago in 1983.

After reading The Way of Wyrd, I can understand its enduring popularity and the fond and even reverential praise it garners from fans.

This is a fictional tale centered on Anglo-Saxon pagan spiritual teachings and mythology. The year is 674 A.D. It tells the story of a Christian monk from England who is sent to some location on the European mainland so that he can study the gods of the Saxons. His purpose is what was always the purpose of Christians of that era – to find out just enough about the ancient pagan systems so that they could wipe it out and displace it with Christianity.

The young monk who gets the assignment is the humble and meek Wat Brand. Shortly after arriving in Saxon territory, he meets a shaman of extraordinary wisdom and power. This Saxon sorcerer, Wulf, immediately agrees to teach brand everything he can about the power of the pagan gods and spirits. The book plays out as a kind of master-student series of lessons in Saxon spirituality.

There is a spectacular amount of magical activity among the blissful natural setting of an unspoiled European forest. This combination of magic couched within skillful descriptions of sparkling rivers, pungent green forests and dramatic mountain landscapes appeals to those of us who long for an increasingly lost, pristine planet -- long before earth was tainted by the pollution and ravages of the Industrial Age.

Either by design or by accident, the author benefits from the aura of J.R.R Tolkien. He chooses to call the land of the Saxons “Middle-Earth” which leverages the magic of The Lord of Rings. It’s true that Tolkien didn’t exactly invent the term Middle Earth, but he might as well have. Tolkien was the first to popularize Middle Earth as a modern description for what the ancients referred to as Midgard, Middenheim, Manaheim, or Middengeard.

Tolkien first encountered the term in 1914 when pouring over rare fragments of centuries old documents. He found this line by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf:

Éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended.

Which translates to:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels / above the middle-earth sent unto men.

Before Tolkien, no one was using Middle Earth as a popular description of pre-Chrisitian Europe, but now it’s fair game for all.

Brian Bates
While I enjoyed nearly every page of The Way of Wyrd and give it my top recommendation, I think the criticisms of how Saxon spirituality is portrayed are fair. Many question the authenticity of the presentation. The Way of the Wyrd reads as much (or more) like a modern New Age conception of magic as it does a scholarly documentation of what the pagan Saxons actually believed and practiced.

In the introduction of the book, Bates makes a strenuous case that his work is a faithful and accurate rendering of Saxon magic. He says his narrative is based on a 1,000-year-old manuscript written by a Christian monk who serves as the model for his character Wat Brand. He also sites a lengthy bibliography of resources.

But I say, no way. Granted, I’m not an expert in pagan spiritual practices, but my strong impression here is that the author granted himself copious poetic license and overlaid much of this with his own modern interpretations.

Also – the structure of the narrative is one that is tried, true and familiar – the story plays out as a series of lessons between master and student, the same vehicle that Carlos Castaneda used to churn out his best-selling (and phony) series of tales of a sorcerer and his apprentice. Richard Bach also used this structure in Illusions – as did many other authors – all of which hearken back to the Platonic dialogue developed in ancient Greece.

There’s nothing wrong with adopting this formula; it’s just that, Brian Bates is obviously a crafty writer who knows how to write a crowd-pleasing yarn – leverage a little Tolkien, execute the tale with a time-tested formula, and take as many liberties as you need to make the information appeal to a modern New Agey audience.

Good for him, I say, because we’re all winners. The Way of Wyrd is a beautiful book which has bolstered interest in the ancient pagan beliefs of Northern Europe – and those beliefs were more sane and sound than what passes for modern mainstream religion today.

Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"We, The Drowned" by Danish writer Carsten Jensen is an epic masterpiece in the tradition of Melville, but rendered in a modern style that's darkly funny, often disturbing but always accessible


After the first chapter of WE, THE DROWNED, my impression was that I was reading a book by an author who is a basically a Danish version of our own Garrison Keillor here in Minnesota –a local guy offering folksy, funny, sometimes pithy tales of small town Scandinavians.

But the farcical beginning quickly gives way to a violent, bloody realism. Author CARSTEN JENSEN describes a horrific naval battle between a Danish ship and a battery of German artillery. There’s exploding bodies, gore, death and dismemberment, shock and anguish, followed by the psychological devastation and numbing humility of POW captivity.

And yet – mixed in with the realism is an element of the supernatural and dark comedy – but the mysticism is subtle and in the background. Both the realism and esoterica are handled with a cynical and sardonic humor that makes you wonder what the author is really trying to say.

We, The Drowned tells the story of the tiny village of Marstal, which located on Ærø Island in the south of Denmark. (It’s a real place, although this is fiction). The story begins in 1848 and documents the life of the community through 1945. Marstal life has basically one vocation – seamanship. Every other occupation, from farming and blacksmithing, to local grocery and clothing stores, revolve around serving the values of sailors, ships and the sea.

The story begins and ends with war -- the Danish-German First Schleswig War of 1848 and World War II. The vast middle of the novel, however, is not about war. Rather, it follows the individual lives of a selection of fictional citizens of Marstal. And it’s not just about sailing either.

Jensen devotes long sections to the life of Ærø Island boys – their impossibly Byzantine education in schools where severe corporeal punishment seems to be the entire purpose of primary education. The free-time of childhood is spent roaming the island as gangs of trouble makers. Just about all of the boys live without fathers most of the time – the dads are always away at sea. The sometimes comical, often brutal activities of youth are attempts to become men on their own, without the guidance of fathers.

I emphasize school-age “boys” because girls are all but absent from this tale. An adult woman take the stage in a supporting role about half-way through, but this is basically a book about boys and men – although I will say that women play a supporting role in a way that that at least acknowledges their influence in Marstal's universe.

Carsten Jensen
I occurs to me that out of the more than 100 books I have read in the previous year, this 700-page epic is the most difficult of them all to review. It’s maddeningly difficult to pin down the essential soul of the book. (This is also what makes it a joy to read).

Here you’ll find page after page of delightful dark humor, but which gives way to black comedy that cries out at the meaninglessness of life. The characters often find themselves literally adrift or blown off course on an uncaring sea that feels free to kill them at random. The sea serves as the ultimate metaphor for the existential nightmare that is the fate of all mankind – a place where a caring God or rational explanation for life is entirely absent.

Jensen portrays human beings as greedy, lust-driven, violent pawns tossed about by the whims of fate -- yet, he offers subtle hints that a higher order may be guiding the human race after all. In the darkest of times, the characters are sometimes granted glimpses of love and hope, especially if they act with courage and selfless bravery – but they just as often meet grotesque and horrifying fates – even when trying to behave with higher moral purpose.

Let me sum up this way: This book has the flavor of classics such as Herman Melville's “Moby Dick” and Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” –but rendered with a thoroughly modern literary approach that most closely resembles that of Kurt Vonnegut (especially his Slaughterhouse Five). Then throw in equally hefty portions of Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ole Rølvaag – and you get We, The Drowned.

Ken Korczak is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS