Random book reviews of books I managed to finish lately.

Norman Spinrad: The Iron Dream

In 1919, a struggling artist and a former soldier by the name of Adolf Hitler had taken part in a failed German extremist movement called National Socialism, so he packed his things and moved to the United States. He worked as a pulp magazine illustrator and started writing science fiction. This is one of his novels.

Now, this isn’t a novel. This is a clever trick. The whole story is nothing but a huge gimmick. Then again, all art is based on clever tricks and interesting gimmicks, so I suppose you can call this a novel. Brilliant one, even. The only problem is that you can’t really read this novel the same way as other science fiction novels. I first took this as humour: ha ha, it’s a novel supposedly written by Hitler and the whole story is what he wished would have happened in WW2, and there’s all these characters that are based on prominent Nazis. Then you start noticing that it’s deliberately using all these two-penny scifi and fantasy tropes. A lot of them. Really, isn’t that the horrible truth - what’s the real difference between Nazi fantasies and SFF? And that, of course, was also Spinrad’s point.

In the end, it’s an entertaining book, but I think a lot of the entertainment comes from the fact that all of the writing is delightfully and deliberately terrible and blatantly overblown. It’s a good warning for authors against writing cheap thrills and pouring in offensive political ideas, because that totally happens all the time.

Jim Theis: The Eye of Argon

(Wildside Press edition)

Grignr the Ecordian is a barbarian. He goes to a town. He gets arrested and thrown to a dungeon. He rescues a fair maiden from a bunch of evil priests, grabs a fantastic jewel and escapes.

You’ve heard that tale, right?

Now imagine the same tale written by a teenager with rather slippery typewriter keys, and a certain level of blindness for grammar and vocabulary to begin with. Instead of doing the competent things, Jim Theis chose to do the next best thing: just enough juvenile incompetence to make things funny enough.

This is just the sort of hilarity everyone needs. I actually picked up writing myself because I read some of this story years back, and felt that I could definitely do better. Writing isn’t something that should be reserved to people who actually know their stuff. We’re all learning. We’re all making steps toward greatness. Everyone should write. The guy who wrote this story clearly had fun writing a story like this, and that’s all that really matters. The story became a cult hit, and not undeservedly - it’s a good balance between stupidity and readability. And apparently while the author never wrote anything else of note, he was a good sport about the infamy. An example to us all.

It’s just a short novella, of course, so I’m giving it 4 stars of sheer comedy and one deducted star for the fact that the guy never wrote more of this stuff. Also, I love the foreword in this edition and I’ll give hats off to everyone who tracked down the author and the actual copies of this piece. This is how history is made.

Boris & Arkady Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic

Aliens came to visit. Aliens have gone. And what’s left on Earth is basically a couple of piles of trash from these picnics. Wait, that isn’t quite as rosy as it sounds - they’re disaster zones, and the “trash” is dangerous as hell. Some think that meticulously retrieving and probing the mysterious artefacts and items would yield interesting scientific results. Some think that the zones should be left alone. Some think there’s a black market out there for all the weird stuff. So in come the stalkers - people skilled in traversing the dangers of the visitation zones, some using their skills with permissions and proper gear, some taking the harder way and just going there on their own.

“Roadside Picnic” is a bit disjointed book - a series of episodes in and out of the visitation zone. Compared to the film “Stalker” that was loosely based on the novel, the story focuses a little bit more on the milieu and lifes and situations and feelings of individual characters, and doesn’t really have as much direction. On the other hand, “Stalker” is a slow and meditative film, while “Roadside Picnic” is positively action-packed at times. The protagonist, Red Schuhart, also isn’t one upholding all that solemn and contemplative narrative, and goes for a bit more of relaxation.

Reading this book was part of my “oh damn, now that I have a tablet, I’ll read all the ebooks I’ve wanted to read” challenge. Most of those books were from Project Gutenberg, but while Roadside Picnic isn’t public domain, the book and its first English translation has been available on the web for a long time through official Strugatsky websites. Years ago, I even tried feeding the novel through text-to-speech. Never quite completed it, but now I did. Of course, I had to deal with the fact that the reader app didn’t really like the fascinating HTML conversion, so reading experience wasn’t optimal. It went okay, though.