Short Book Reviews: Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969), John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), Nancy Kress’ An Alien Light (1987), and Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge (1976)

My “to review” pile is growing and my memory of them is fading… hence short—far less analytical—reviews.

1. Mindbridge, Joe Haldeman (1976)

(Josh Kirby’s cover for the 1977 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Nominated for the 1977 Hugo Award

Joe Haldeman never struck me as an author who experimented with New Wave methods of telling. Mindbridge (1976) shatters my misconception. Imagine the basic plot of his masterpiece The Forever War (1975) combined with a fascinating experimental structure. The latter intrigued me far more than the former.

The Basic Plot: The Levant-Meyer Translation allows humans to instantaneously travel across the galaxy. The Tamer Agency sends its agents to investigate alien worlds. Of course, this is an incredibly dangerous activity…. The narrative follows Jacque Lefavre, a man with a troubled and violent past, who joins the organization. His team discovers a weird telepathic alien unleashing devastating consequences. I found the plot similar to that of The Forever War and someone bland. But…

The Way of Telling: Was Haldeman inspired to create a textual tapestry by John Brunner’s magisterial Stand on Zanzibar (1968)? Like Brunner, Haldeman integrates a myriad of invented textual fragments into the story. Sections from the Jacque’s autobiography, assignment rosters, personal reports, classroom dialogue transcriptions in play form, suit viewplate technical readouts, textbook excerpts, popular science books, statistical analyses, insurance manuals, news program transcripts, autopsy reports, schedules, filmic dialogue (simultaneous columns containing interpretations of facial expressions, interior thoughts, etc.), confidential briefings, songs with sheet music, animated cartoon scripts, instructions for camera movement, interviews, scientific articles with charts, far future speculations deduced by a psychic, advertisements, employee handbooks, memos stuffed in mailboxes, newspaper articles, psychiatric reports, etc. Imagine a historian collected all the relevant primary sources for a monograph—Haldeman explores all types of sources for his world-building and narrative….

In an usual way, Mindbridge most successfully conveys the realistic feel of a future bureaucracy—the reader really sees how the Tamer Agency is organized and its members evaluated. In the hands of most authors, this would weigh down the narrative’s forward movement. Haldeman’s use of micro-chapters help propel the story forward–it never felt bogged down by details.

A successful experiment!

I enjoyed this one far more than The Forever War (1975).

I have a handful of Haldeman novels and collections slated for this year. Recommended.


2.  Captive Universe, Harry Harrison (1969)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1st edition)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969) contains a captivating premise: an Aztec society encased in an artificial world–the purpose and true nature of which is slowly uncovered. Harrison’s use of a limited perspective means that the reader learns about the world entirely through the eyes of the main character.


The Fascinating: The narrative and the world! Chimal, the son of a disgraced Aztec father who slept with a woman from the wrong village, leads a tightly controlled existence in a valley cut-off from the rest of the world. He is expected to plant maize, perform the correct rituals, and find a wife. The world around him is a brutal one–the goddess Coatlicue with her “writhing serpent kirtle” kills those who defy the rules (7). The human priests kill the “abnormal” who must be possessed by an evil deity. Harrison’s Aztec world is a finely wrought one–it’s more evocative than the sequences that follow.

Chimal, chaffing against what is imposed upon him, questions his existence and the rules of his society. Defying the high priest’s command to marry, he discovers the true nature of Coatlicue, whose snakes are no longer animate when she disappears into the valley wall at night. Chimal discovers a door—the world outside his valley is even more confusing than the world inside.

The Less Fascinating: This is a rushed/short novel even by 1960s standards (160~ pages). The parts are all here but Harrison’s reluctance to dwell on the implications of the world weakens the effect. I am all for withholding information until our hero discovers it. However, when it is revealed, Chimal is utterly transformed and seems to understand everything (which, considering his upbringing, is impossible).

As with many stories of this subgenre, the reason for the voyage in the first place remains murky: Harrison suggests it was the delusional brainchild of an unnamed Earth dictator. Harrison’s big reveal, is sensible in a perverse way–and makes Chimal’s discoveries all more bittersweet.

Worth a purchase for fans of Harry Harrison and generation ships.


3. An Alien Light, Nancy Kress (1987)

(Ron Walotsky’s cover for the 1st edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

My first exposure to Nancy Kress’ SF is her first SF novel–An Alien Light (1987). It’s an impressive and controlled debut. A claustrophobic rumination on the nature of violence, Kress posits a sinister alien experiment where humans from diametrically opposed societies are forced to interact. An unrelenting and bleak novel–not for the faint-hearted!

On the planet Qom, over many generations two human societies–derived from one ancient colony—developed with distinct cultures. The first, Delysia, is a land of merchants and artisans. The second, Jela, is a warrior society with distinct social roles. In Jela, women fall into three categories: female warriors interact with only women (both homosocial and often, homosexual). Female prostitutes service male soldiers. And select women are chosen to birth the new generation of warriors.

The arrival of a mysterious alien structure, an impenetrable wall interrupts the continuous warfare between the city-states. At certain points the wall opens letting both Jelites and Delysians inside with promises of great wealth and new weapons. A certain breed of human makes the journey—those with traumatic pasts who seek new beginnings. The Ged built the wall and the enclosure inside to understand the nature of human violence. The experiment’s results might yield the Ged salvation in the face of an invasion fleet that threatens their home vessels.

Rarely have I been pulled into the lives of characters as much as An Alien Light. The story follows Ayrys, ostracized from Delysia and Jehane, a young Jelite warrior. In addition, the Ged are not presented as cruel alien overseers—understand the humans is a question of survival. Kress gives no easy answers.

Recommended. I will be tracking down more of her work.

3. The Death of Grass (variant title: No Blade of Grass), John Christopher (1956)

(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

3/5 (Average)

I’ve struggled to formulate my thoughts on John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (variant title: No Blade of Grass) (1956) for months now. This is in part because I read and enjoyed Christopher’s A Wrinkle in the Skin (variant title: The Ragged Edge) (1965), which for whatever reason, remains far less known. And the far better novel….

I suspect The Death of Grass‘ plot is known to most SF fans: an uncontrollable disease devastates the world’s wheat population and any related grass species causing a world-crippling famine. The narrative follows John Custance (and his family and family friend) as he attempts to make his way across a lawless and violent England in order to read his brother’s farmstead. They encounter horrific violence. They practice horrific violence. They bemoan the lack of laws and the end of civilization but participate in all they bemoan. Christopher reveals his pessimistic world-view—the elites lie to the people and the people act like animals. This viewpoint mellows a bit with A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965), which I found to be a far more complex view of ethics in the post-apocalypse.

I am a fan of the post-apocalyptic subgenre. And I don’t have an easy explanation for my dislike of this early, and influential, text. But, check out the before-mentioned A Wrinkle in the Skin and Wilson Tucker’s stunning The Long Loud Silence (1952, revised 1969) first.


For more book reviews consult the INDEX

28 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe (1969), John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), Nancy Kress’ An Alien Light (1987), and Joe Haldeman’s Mindbridge (1976)

    • It feels so rushed! The novel has a fascinating premise, a good first third, an acceptable second third, and a clump everything together final third. There are some incredible surreal sequences which I didn’t mention in the review. It’s a solid book with some solid ideas. It didn’t make me angry–which is how I define “bad.”

  1. I’ve read Captive Universe and I agree, vaguely good is as good as it gets. Some of the world building is cool, but the second is too flawless (as it were).
    The Haldeman and Nancy Kress sound very cool. Of the latter I’ve only ever read The Forever War, and still hold a certain fondness for it. Only recently I tried to sell it to a customer (I sometimes work in a bookstore) as the best novel to come out of the Vietnam War–is it tho?
    I’ve never read Nancy Kress, but am keen to. I find it interesting that ‘An Alien Light’ was published the same year as Octavia Butler’s ‘Dawn’. I imagine there is a reonsnace there but don’t really know as I haven’t read Kress.

    • Are you trying to tell me that my date of birth has some special SF significance? And that there’s a resonance between my birth (1987) and Octavia Butler? hahaha.

      I enjoyed The Forever War when I read it at 18 or so. And yes, it’s a great Vietnam War novel and an easy sell to bookstore goers. That said, I’m ultra impressed with Haldeman’s ability in Mindbridge to integrate a radical structure and content (the types of invented material) into an action-packed narrative. It’s highly readable AND experimental.

  2. “Captive Universe” was a disapointing novel, any good concepts reduced to a banal plot that only fulfilled science fiction expectations.Considering it was written and published during the time the “new wave” was flourising, it might not be unfair to call it a throwback.It’s even stranger when you consider that Harrison himself was a sort of radical author.”Bill, the Galactic Hero” and even “The Stainless Steel Rat”, were far superior, but he seemed to be out of his depth in trying to write a more straight science fiction novel.

    I mentioned “The Death of Grass” before as being a bland catastrophe novel.It seemed to just meet the requirements for a science fictional premise of what a catastrophe would be like, rather than something more exciting in a cerebral or imaginative way, that would have made it more concrete and believable.Still, I suppose it is really just what it is, it’s just that I like something more unusual.

    • I read Captive Universe as it’s a generation ship and I’m currently doing a read-through of many of the early works. I thought the sequences where he’s exploring the world in the valley and initially enters the surrounding hallways fascinating and well-done. The effect is weakened as the action unfolds. It feels rushed and clumsy despite moments of intelligence.

      The nature of the catastrophe didn’t bother me and I didn’t find a crop disease unbelievable. Sometimes the simple things can be effective (a nuclear weapon, a famine, etc.). On the whole believably wasn’t the book’s primary issue — I too would imagine that most people would revert to a lawless state. That said, not everyone would — and at no point does the family encounter people attempting to live and organize in a non-violent fashion.

      Check out the other catastrophe novels I mentioned that are superior to The Death of Grass — Chistopher’s later A Wrinkle in the Skin and The Long Loud Silence.

      • I’ve read ‘Steal Across the Sky’, ‘Crossfire’ and ‘Yesterday’s Kin’, all of which I liked. Her short stories are also excellent, the story ‘Dogs’ will stay with me forever. The only book I’ve hated was her breakout novella, ‘Beggars in Spain’.

          • It was a long time ago (2012) so I don’t completely remember and I might even disagree with myself now, but I think it was three things:

            The overly perfect protagonist – it’s kind of the point that she’s perfect because she’s engineered to be and there is another character who calls BS on it, but I found the protagonist boring and irritating.

            Kress’s negative view of humanity and her belief that we will behave in the worst possible way is ramped up to ten in this book. I found this depressing.

            Finally, I fundamentally disagree with Kress’s attitude to sleep which is that we’d be better off without it. I think sleep is amazing!

            I read the novella. There is a novel version that probably fleshes it out much more, but I didn’t want to spend any more time with the sleepless.

            • Isn’t it relatively new research that suggests that the process of sleep repairs and maintains our memories? If this process could be replicated in another way (and, of course, if I didn’t feel sleepy) I would be happy sleeping less.

            • Sorry, I somehow missed this reply! Yes, I think it is pretty recent research and wouldn’t have been available to Kress at the time she wrote this.

  3. Kress is almost always an extremely competent writer. It’s rarer than many might think..

    Bleak? I don’t find her so? But then I like Kornbluth, Tiptree, and Budrys’s 1960s-era short stories like ‘Be Merry.’

    • Have you read this particular novel? I’d definitely describe it as bleak: she focuses relentlessly on violence of all forms. How miscommunication and inability to understand “the other” leads to violence. How our passions lead to violence. How rigid social structures lead to violence. How are quest to understand the unknown leads to violence. The Ged cannot comprehend how humans fight each other — their species is one where only external sources create violence. They must survive against the human onslaught by attempting to understand human violence. I haven’t explored her other work.

  4. Thank you for your comments.The earlier part of Harrison’s novel seemed promising I think, but the mysteries that are revealed, were unexciting and just seemed to satisfy the needs for a straight science fiction novel.You’re right about it being “rushed and clumsy”, and I also
    understand your need to include it as part of your generation star ship project.

    The premise of “A Death of Grass” wasn’t unbelievable, and nor did it have to be believable, but I didn’t think it was fully visualised or actualised in the sense that makes a novel or piece believable and concrete.Much better catastrophe novels that are successful in this respect, are Philip K. Dick’s “Dr. Bloodmoney”, J. G. Ballard’s “The Drought”, and Angela Carter’s “Heroes and Villains”.

    • Well anything Ballard touches is better than 95% of what Harrison wrote — hah. I enjoyed, but never reviewed The Drought. I feel like I’ve read Dr. Bloodmoney but I must have been in my late teens. Should reread it eventually.

      • I agree with you about Ballard, but I prefer Harrison’s satirical and humourous SF to “The Death of Grass”.”Dr. Bloodmoney” is brilliantly conceived, quirky yet realistic in the way Dick envisions a post holocaust community surviving and recreating society in an isolated California.

  5. It’s a collection of reviews for books I own and keep meaning to read except for The Death of Grass which I admire, particularly the fratricidal ending. Believably bleak.

    I was unaware that Mindbridge used John Dos Passos’ techniques from his USA trilogy. Haldeman used them in the short story “To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal”. A few years back I had a brief email exchange with Haldeman, and he mentioned his admiration for that Dos Passos technique (the same one Brunner used in his famed novels) and wished more sf writers would use it. We both agreed, though, that Dos Passos’ trilogy is a bit clunky in parts but still worth reading. The only writer beside Brunner and Haldeman I can think off hand that used is David Brin in Earth.

    Once I’m more caught up in reviews, I hope to join the generation starship discussion. Like you, I think they’re fascinating.

  6. I will defintely check out Mindbridge, at least for technique. When I first read Stand on Zanzibar I didn’t care for it, but I returned and re-read it before writing my first longish novel, looking for ideas to carry a complicated story. I liked how Brunner organized Z more than I liked what he wrote. Your descripton of Mindbridge interests me in the same way.

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