Saturday 20 June 2020

Book review: The Undercover Aliens

By A.E. van Vogt. On Goodreads as The House That Stood Still or Wiki. Pulp-SciFi from 1950, this is the second time I've read it, I found the story coming back to me but it still rolls along well enough. Like many of his books I get the feeling that it didn't get well edited or revised, or that he changed his mind about the plot half way through but didn't revise the earlier chapters; or just forgot the opening by the time he got to the end; there's a general feel of "this doesn't really make sense".

The plot is a little like the Maltese Falcon in that there's a beautiful girl and it's somewhat attorney-heavy and there's a mysterious thing. But in this case it's not a falcon it is (look away now if you don't want spoilers) an alien space ship. There are no actual aliens though.

The plot (when you get to the end) is this: many years ago, perhaps 2,000, a robot alien spaceship crashed near the coast of California and got buried in a landslide (trope: interstellar ships with engine trouble will always crash on a planet rather than just drift forever in space, as they really would). The spaceship just wants to be loved just wants to get repaired and to this end used its mind reading and writing machinery to get the locals to, errrm, that's where it starts to get incoherent. Because here the plot collides with a rather separate nice idea, what if there were a mysterious mansion that somehow conferred immorality, and had been found by Toltecs and then invading Spaniards but is now in the busy city of Almirante, and was run by a fraternity of immortals? And these immortals have been taught by the spaceship, and given or acquired tech like "needle beams" and somehow some kind of spaceship - despite there being no evidence of any manufacturing base - but made no apparent attempt to repair the original spaceship, which was the entire point. They also have a rather convenient "face mask" system that allows them to impersonate other people.

There's a similarly incoherent sub-plot about bombing a foreign country - with an implausible clearly made-up name - to destroy its stockpile of nukes-to-be, that probably made more sense in 1950 when the Commies were just developing The Bomb that clearly only God-fearing Amerikans should be allowed to possess.

If all this wasn't enough, the fraternity also have a telepath so they can be sure that no-one is cheating, and whose word everyone trusts without reservation to be entirely accurate, because it would confuse the plot otherwise.

Now I've read Goodreads: per my "attorney" comment, this is at least half "mystery" rather than SciFi, which isn't a flaw in itself. The characters are of course wooden, but even so the hero's lack of interest in being knocked out repeatedly is weird.

Friday 5 June 2020

Book review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway. And it feels like a very Hemingway book, although this is the first I've read. But he has a reputation. Bullfighting. Spain. Blood on the sun-heated pine needles. People saying "thy".

It is set during the Spanish Civil War, about which I know little. What do I know: it was between the "Republicans" and the "Fascists" (and in those days the fascists probably even called themselves that, it not being a rude word at that point); the F got support from the Nazis and the R's were a mixture of natives, anarchists, and help from the Commies. And the latter were more interested in their own goals that in the R's winning; see-also José Robles, who I've just found, and who disappointingly H wrote off. H was a journo during the war.

Wiki. Goodreads. Don't miss the poem; or BATTER my heart, three person’d God.

Like all civil wars many terrible things happen, and the book shows that, via Pilar telling the Robert Jordan (always, in the book-narrator-voice, referred to in full as RJ, which reads oddly to me) about the beginning, in her village, when they killed all the fascists, including some who were merely token Fs. And so on. I don't think we hear of, or see, the Fs doing anything particularly terrible - other than Maria -, perhaps that's all just assumed - all the characters we see hate them, so it doesn't need rubbing in.

The entire book is set around one episode, where RJ, who knows dynamite, is sent to blow up a bridge just before an important attack, by contacting a local guerrilla band run by Pablo. But there are multiple digressions - Pilar's story, RJ remembering "behind the lines" in Madrid, the bloke who gets sent with a message and sees the chaos and mixed command behind the R lines.

What of my "Hemingway tropes", as in what I'd expect to find, given what I think I know? Men are men, Women are women, war is hell but nonetheless glorious? Well... it's all kinda there, though with subtlety. For example, Pablo has lost his nerve, and Pilar-his-woman is explicitly said to be now in command... though I'm not sure she ends up commanding very much. Maria loves RJ very much and is subservient and cooks, but then again she is a peasant who has only just been rescued from terrible experiences, so perhaps that's unsurprising. Is war glorious? RJ's gallant self-sacrifice at the end is of that ilk. All the characters are firmly convinced that dying-if-necessary is right; and that whilst it is regrettably to kill the poor bods on the other side, that too is necessary for the good of the cause. The futility is there: we get a very strong indication that the attack, and so by implication the bridge-blowing, is pointless as the Fs already know about it.

Oh, I nearly forgot: did I enjoy it? Would I read it again? Yes, and maybe. Quite a lot of the tension in the book comes from wondering exactly how the attack on the bridge is going to go wrong, since it clearly is going to go wrong somehow; that's hard to get on a re-read. but then again, the tension isn't that important. I found the absence of a map somewhat irritating; placing the bridge and the road and so on wasn't easy. But the story is interesting and well told, the dialogue charming, the situations - mountains, pinewoods - pleasant to imagine, and the fragments of reality - about the war, about peasant life in the mountains - were interesting (for example the way village bullfighting was part of people's lives).