Fred Saberhagen: Octagon, an SF novel
A Walk in the Sun, film
Albert Sanchez Pinol: Cold Skin, a novel
Robert Silverberg: A Time of Changes, an SF novel
Breakfast at Tiffany's, a film
Fred Saberhagen: Octagon, an SF novel
Octagon was first published in 1981, and it shows its age when the plot concentrates on computers. References to such "super" computers as the Cray 4 and desktop versions such as the TRS-80 bring back long forgotten memories. The plot involves a war game in which a computer is used to handle the bookkeeping. Participants in the game mail postcards or letters with their latest moves to the game headquarters and await responses from their opponents, also by mail. This is pre-email, of course, and shortly before the growth of the BBS network (electronic bulletin board system), which died shortly after the Internet emerged. The name of the company that runs the war game is Berserker Inc., an obvious reference to Saberhagen's own well-known series about the organic life-hating killing machines.
Prior to the beginning of the novel, two friends, Bob Gregory and Henry Brahmaguptra, had worked together in developing a computer network system by which computers in many different locations could communicate and interact. Fearing that this system might someday fall under the control of either a hostile country or a future dictatorial government, they built in a "back door" which would allow them or someone they designated to regain complete control of the network or even shut it down if that seemed necessary.
Opening the "back door" required two passwords, one for each of them, and since neither knew the other's password, they had to agree that the situation was serious enough to need their intervention. Unfortunately, political differences between Henry, the "bleeding heart" liberal, and Bob, the "reactionary redneck," resulted in their eventual estrangement. Now, it seems that someone has gained control of the system, and each suspects the other of unwisely sharing the password with others (the far left or the far right), which would give partial control of the system. And, along with records mysteriously disappearing or false records appearing, someone or something is murdering participants in that war game.
Saberhagen's novel clearly is tied to the events and the atmosphere of the time in which it was written. The increasing use of computers in everyday life and the first appearance of the personal desktop computer in the late 70s and early 80s (I think I got my first Trash 80 clone in 1981) provide the background for the novel. In addition, fears regarding the control of our lives through computers was becoming stronger, with not only individuals or governments assuming control, but also the possibility of computer AIs developing and becoming a threat on their own. Kubrick and Asimov's 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and popularized the idea of sentient but malfunctioning computers as a potential threat to humanity. Saberhagen's novel is another version of this theme for, in this story, an AI has been unknowingly created. Unfortunately, it has adopted the rules of the war game as its perspective on reality: enemies were to be eliminated.
Trivia: Henry Brahmaguptra's last name is almost the same as that of India's most famous astronomer and mathematician of the past, Brahmagupta, who lived from 598 to 665 AD. I doubt that this is a coincidence.
Overall Reaction: interesting tale from an historical perspective about the growth of fear of the new electro-mechanical Frankenstein's monster, along with trends concerning the growth of the personal computer into everyday life. In addition, there's an interesting climatic battle scene at the end featuring metal monsters on both sides.
A Walk in the Sun, a film
A Walk in the Sun is a WWII film that came out in 1945 and is adapted from a novel by Harry Brown. The novel was published as a serial in Liberty Magazine in 1944. The film follows the actions of the Lee platoon of the Texas Division on the first day of the Allied invasion of Italy at Salerno in 1943. Their mission is to capture a farmhouse about six miles inland and then destroy the nearby bridge.
This is not a typical wartime propaganda film starring a big name who engages in superhuman heroics in the defense of the freedom-loving peoples of the world against an enemy notable mainly for its stupidity, brutality, and cowardice. The film illustrates the common saying about war being moments of terror midst hours of boredom and tedium. Once the platoon gets off the beach and inland, most of the time is spent walking and talking and griping, as the men get to know each other and become a unit. However, there is a war going on and the platoon has several encounters with the enemy before they get to the farmhouse.
Once such encounter is with a German mechanized reconnaissance patrol. The US platoon defeats the patrol, but not because of any super heroics but because the Germans were unaware of the American unit in the area and so were taken by surprise. In addition, the Germans were outnumbered. Careful planning, the element of surprise, discipline, and superior numbers were the significant elements, and it was clear that if the situation had been reversed, the Germans would have come out ahead. The victory had its costs as several were wounded, and in spite of the platoon's mantra, "Nobody Dies,"some do die. In addition, they had to use up all of the shells for their bazooka. This plays a role in the upcoming battle for the farmhouse. This isn't a 'Hollywood" platoon with unlimited ammunition. It has only what the men can carry with them.
Eventually, the farmhouse is taken and the bridge is destroyed. It's not a major victory that will win the war, but just one small action that will hinder the German attempt to bring up reinforcements to this area. This, therefore, allows the Allies to safely land more troops and material so that they can engage the Germans with a greater chance of defeating them when a major battle does occur. It is the combined results of small engagements, such as this one, that set the tone for the coming battles.
It's an all male cast, with not even the usual obligatory flashbacks to scenes back home of wives and girl friends and parents. Part of the fun of the film was spotting familiar faces among the soldiers: Dana Andrews (probably the star, if one needs one), Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, John Ireland, Sterling Holloway, Huntz Hall, Steve Brodie, and Burgess Meredith as the narrator.
Overall Reaction: a more realistic war film about WWII than most of those that I have seen. Superheroes are fun, but in the real world it's the average person who is forced to get the job done--the clerks, the mail carriers, the junior executives, the teachers, the welders--none of whom have superhuman powers.
Albert Sanchez Pinol: Cold Skin, a novel
translated by Cheryl Leah Morgan
A young man (unnamed) has arrived on a small island near the Antarctic Circle to take on a job as a weatherman for a year. He is to record the intensity, the direction, and the frequency of the winds there. The captain of the ship that has brought him is in a hurry to leave. Consequently, when the weatherman who has just completed his yearlong tour is not there to greet them, they go to look for him. He is nowhere to be found. The lighthouse keeper, who is the other inhabitant of the island, knows nothing.
The captain is puzzled, but he must leave. The young man settles in. He has taken this job because of the isolation. He also sees it as an opportunity to educate himself, so he has brought along numerous books and writing materials.
This is what I had read about the book before I borrowed it from the library. It sounded like a mystery to me and the premise was intriguing. Where was the previous weatherman? Was the lighthouse keeper responsible for his disappearance? Was there someone else on the island? It wasn't long before I realized I had wandered into the universe of a different genre--the horror story. The first night, swarms of humanoid creatures swarm ashore and attack his house. Fortunately, his house is sturdy and he is armed.
This short novel, somewhat less than 200 pages, is one of the strangest novels that I've recently read. Who are the creatures? Why do they relentlessly attack, night after night, regardless of their losses? Did they kill the missing weatherman? What is the lighthouse keeper's role in all this? Why is the lighthouse keeper reluctant to join forces with him against the creatures? And, what is the lighthouse keeper's relationship with what appears to be one of the female creatures?
By day, the young man struggles to find the answers to these questions, while at night he struggles to defend himself against the persistent attacks of the creatures. When he eventually forces the lighthouse keeper to allow him to move into the lighthouse (a much sturdier and more easily defensible structure), his questions still go unanswered. He also finds himself strangely attracted to the humanoid female.
The ending is a shocker, or at least, it was for me. I didn't see it coming, although other, more perceptive readers might. At the end, he does get some of the answers, but not all.
Overall Reaction: not a pleasant story, but one that drew me in and I had to stay with it until the end. Would I reread it? I think so, for it would be a different story then, and I'm curious about what it would be like at a second reading.
Robert Silverberg: A Time of Changes
Winner of the Nebula Award for Best SF Novel of 1971
Hugo Nominee for 1972
The novel begins with a very traditional series of events. Centuries in the future, humankind has colonized a number of planets. On one of them, Borthan, the people have created a society where the self is despised. It is considered obscene to use the pronouns "I" or "me" or "my." Instead of saying "I would like to . . .," the people of Borthan say "One would like to. . ." Talking about oneself is forbidden and eventually would result in social ostracism. Extremists would go one step further and say "Doing . . . is pleasurable" which eliminates any reference to an individual.
There are two exceptions to this rule. Apparently the founders of Borthan recognized that complete self-containment would be unhealthy, so they created the drainers and the custom of bondkin. Drainers were those who would listen to anyone without judging and keep secret whatever they were told, similar to the seal of the confessional in the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after a child was born, the parents would arrange with other families to develop a relationship with a male and a female child of the same age. These would then be the child's bondbrother and bondsister. Only with one's bondbrother and bondsister could one reveal oneself, could one be truly open with another person.
Kinnal Darival is the son of the ruler of Sala. Unfortunately he is a younger son. It is strange but true that, on Borthan, younger sons of rulers do quite well until the father dies and the oldest brother takes the throne. At this point, the life expectancy of younger brothers suddenly drops to something less than a year. However, another strange fact is that the life expectancy of younger brothers suddenly increases to that of the normal population once that younger brother has traveled to a foreign country. Taking account of these statistics, Kinnal Darival leaves Salla several months after his brother has assumed the throne.
Darival, after several adventures, arrives in the province of Manneran. With the help of a relative, he gains a government position and within a decade or so, he has managed to become highly respected and powerful. He has wealth, power, prestige, and an advantageous if not a happy marriage. He then meets and becomes friendly with an Earthman, Schweiz, a merchant.
Schweiz attempts to break through the cultural walls that isolate each inhabitant on Borthan. He finds a listener in Darival. Eventually Schweiz tells him of a drug that will break through the social isolation and actually allow those who have taken the drug to share each other's consciousness for a short time. They take the drug and Darival decides that this must be shared with others. He and Schweiz travel to Sumara, the source of the drug, and bring back a large quantity. Darival then begins to convert others and soon a significant number of people are taking the drug.
The ruling powers however see this as a threat, and Darival is forced to flee once again. He returns to his home province of Sala, where his brother agrees to let him live, as long as he does not attempt to introduce the drug. Darival eventually finds this impossible, and at the end of the story is captured by his brother's troops. Darival's consolation is that he has written his story down and gotten it out to friends, who will spread the good word to others.
As I mentioned earlier, this novel was published in 1971. I'm sure this is just a coincidence, but during the 60s and early 70s, psychologist Timothy Leary became very prominent through his research on LSD. Like Darival, he was highly regarded in his profession. Like Darival he preached the use of a mind/consciousness expanding drug which would provide emotional and spiritual benefits. Leary also had to travel to a foreign country, Mexico, at first to acquire the mind expanding drug. And, eventually Leary lost his position in academia and was harassed by the authorities. Leary at one point had various prison terms adding up to 90+ years and actually spent some time in prison. President Nixon once described Leary as "the most dangerous man in America."
Overall Reaction: As I mentioned earlier, the novel began as a traditional adventure tale but then became as much if not more of a novel of ideas than of an action-oriented story. It's the story of a highly successful, wealthy, and powerful man who eventually went to war with his culture. As with so many who have radical ideas, he won't be around to see the results of his actions.
Another issue here is the efficacy of the drug. While it does break down the barriers between the minds of those using the drugs, does it produce any lasting changes after the drug wears off. The same question was asked of LSD which reportedly produced the same consciousness expanding results in a few hours as did years of meditation or of a mystical experience of some inexplicable nature. In short, were there any long-lasting beneficial changes to those who took LSD?
Breakfast at Tiffany's, a film, probably labeled a romantic comedy
The Plot: can a young girl from a small Texas town find happiness in New York City? I should probably define happiness as Holly Golightly, our heroine, sees it. Actually Jane Austen, many years ago, said it better than I ever could: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Holly is looking for that single man in possession of a good fortune who will want her as his wife. Holly isn't being totally mercenary here, for she has a brother, Fred, who is getting out of the army shortly. He's a bit slow, she tells one and all, so she has to be responsible for him.
Given this inane plot, one could only wonder why the film was so popular. What does it have going for it that would have viewers ignore the silliness?
Well . . . It has the following going for it:
Cat, who plays the cat in the film with to the utmost, Cat is the epitome of catness--self-centered, determined to get its own way, always being around when it's not wanted and seldom being around when it is.
The Theme Music: words and music by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini respectively. "Moon River" was extremely popular and one couldn't turn on the radio without hearing it at least once or twice a day. For days afterward I kept humming or hearing it.
George Peppard: a handsome, young male with lots of white teeth. What was needed for the role was a handsome, young male with lots of white teeth: he was available. He was there when necessary and not there when not needed.
Patricia Neal: her great but too seldom seen portrayal of Mrs. Failenson, the society matron whose boytoy, George Peppard, lived in the apartment above Holly's. Her acceptance of being dumped by George for a younger woman was a classic--rueful to some extent, but as she left, one knew that she was already thinking about his replacement, and that wouldn't be an impossible task, either--just call central casting.
But, most of all, what the film really has going for it is Audry Hepburn.
Overall Reaction: It stars Audrey Hepburn; what else needs be said?