Tuesday, January 02, 2007


World Enough and Time, Robert Penn Warren, Random House, 1950, 465 pp
This novel is really long, not as powerful as All The King's Men, but still a strong novel. Jeremiah Beaumont, son of a failed man, comes of age and tries to find justice in a corrupt world. The setting is Kentucky, the time is early 1800s. After the Revolutionary War, the new country had all lands to the Mississippi River. In the South, after 200 years of tobacco and cotton growing, the lands of the original colonies were depleted as well as crowded. Families crossed the mountains into Kentucky, cleared new land, fought off Indians and at some point Kentucky became a state. Then there was a financial crash and many farmers owed bank loans they couldn't pay.

So politics in Kentucky at that time was centered on what to do with all these indebted and impoverished people. One party favored a system of relief while the other party found that to be unconstitutional. Interesting to see the same old questions and the same old corruption way back then.

Jeremiah is a sort of innocent who believes in absolutes, who is looking for heroes and love in his life. But he is tricked by everyone because he can't get the knack of living in the gray areas. Once a woman gets involved, he is really sunk, especially because the woman, Rachel Jordan, has her own considerable woes.

Therefore World Enough and Time is a tragedy, but also an investigation into truth and justice. I was completely drawn into those ideas and also into the story. Some things I've read by other authors and critics suggest that Robert Penn Warren was not all that admired, but I disagree.

Helena, Evelyn Waugh, Little Brown and Company, 1950, 247 pp
The Empress Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great. In 313 AD, Constantine, as Roman Emperor, announced the toleration of Christianity in the Empire. Waugh has created in this book a fictional account of Helena's life and through her story has shown the conflicting forces of that age.

Helena became a Christian herself and after years of loneliness and neglect by her husband, set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She was quite old for a woman of those times, but oversaw the building of churches at Bethlehem and Olivet (near to where Jesus was crucified.) She also had two pieces of the True Cross excavated and brought back to the Roman world where they became relics.

Waugh portrays her as a wise, no-nonsense woman who, by her intelligence and her faith, goes her own way. The book was a light and easy read even though the story dealt with such weighty issues. Especially ironic is that Constantine was the man who allowed Christianity to make its way into a mainstream religion, but himself had very little understanding of it.

I, Robot, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday, 1950, 272 pp
1950 is the first year for publication of large amounts of full length science fiction books. Many of the early sci fi books were collections of stories which the authors had published in the pulps during the 1940s and that is the case with I, Robot. According to Asimov in these stories, robots were first built only as machines but somewhere in the 1980s began to have something like sentience. Susan Calvin, Robopsychologist of United States Robots is about to retire at the age of 75, making it 2057 in the stories, and is looking back over her involvement with robots.

Humans and robots have had an uneasy relationship, even though robots were made by humans. Each robot was programmed according to three fundamental laws designed to prevent them from harming humans. Eventually, due to unions of workers and religious groups, robots were banned from Earth and could only be used in space.

Still situations came up, so Susan Calvin and other top executives and cyber-engineers of United States Robots had to troubleshoot those pesky robots. Each chapter is about one of those incidents. The writing and dialogue is about par for those days, but the humor and affinity for robots is great. I don't know where they got the screenplay for the movie version: it is nothing like the book.

I liked I, Robots immensely, especially the last episode, "The Evitable Conflict", where through robots and cybernetics, war has been eliminated by balancing supply and demand across the planet. The robots who do this are called "The Machines" and they even have a way of handling the greedy and the power seekers who would try to subvert them. Very enlightened concept.

The Man Who Sold the Moon, Robert A Heinlein, Signet Books, 1950, 167 pp
This crumbling paperback, which I found in a used bookstore, contains four stories from an unnamed "original edition". Some of the stories appear to have been first published in one or another of John Campbell's pulps.

The first story, "Let There Be Light", is about two scientists (a man and a woman) discovering how to harness solar power and sell it as energy. I was annoyed by Heinlein's attempt to write some kind of hip dialogue for the times.

"The Roads Must Roll" takes place in a future when rolling roads (something like the people movers in airports today, but much faster) have replaced cars and trains. A labor agitator causes big trouble.

"The Man Who Sold the Moon", long enough to be a novella, is the main piece and also a great story. Delos D Harriman has a dream to go to the moon. The government has dropped its space program, so Harriman decides to use his assets and those of any investors he can find to do it through private business. He is a consummate wheeler-dealer, a guy who never considers failure, someone not too worried about legalities and a man with a big purpose that includes the good of mankind. He pulls it off. He uses lawyers, PR men and audacity. But he doesn't get to go to the moon himself. He is trapped in the huge business he created because his investors are afraid it will all go bust if he leaves. Oh my, what a same-old story.

In "Requiem", the very short final story, Harriman gets revenge. I won't give it away, except to say that it made me feel like my own life has been worthwhile. How did Heinlein do that?

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury, Doubleday, 1950, 181 pp
My only experience so far with fiction about Mars was a book by that title by Ben Bova. The Martian Chronicles was something wholly different. The only similarity was the idea of people from Earth going to Mars.

Bradbury's Mars has something of a fairytale sensibility about it. Houses of crystal pillars, crystal walls, golden fruits, a fossil sea which was once red, desert sands which melt into yellow wax. Martians still exist with brownish skin, yellow coin eyes and soft musical voices. In a series of very short stories, earthmen come. At first their expeditions are wiped out by Martians but finally the earthmen prevail, stay and bring more people until a population grows while Earth becomes worse and worse, ecologically and politically. Mars becomes commercialized and changed.

The ending is apocalyptic yet wonderful, cool and sentimental all at the same time, which I think is Bradbury's signature style. He is an original and I liked the book.

Pebble in the Sky, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday, 1950, 200pp
This book was really great! It is sci fi, in the future. Earth is a little planet in the Galactic Confederation. There is a group of Earthmen who want their planet back and want the good old days, but they have an evil leader who has very bad ideas on how to achieve this. It involves viruses! In 1950 Asimov includes viruses in a story!

The story also has a racial angle. A scientist from another planet falls in love with an earth girl (an earthie) and has to confront his prejudices, though he had considered himself "progressive" and free of all that. A complex story with many threads and a bit of mystery, suspense and good heroes. Very exciting read!

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