Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CCLXVIII (Norman Spinrad, J. G. Ballard, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Frederik Pohl)

As always, which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories, J. G. Ballard (1976)

There’s not a back cover or inside cover blurb on my edition

Contents: “The Ultimate City” (1976), “Low-Flying Aircraft” (1975), “The Dead Astronaut” (1968), “My Dream of Flying to Wake Island” (1974), “The Life and Death of God” (1976), “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” (1972), “A Place and a Time to Die” (1969), “The Comsat Angels” (1968), “The Beach Murders” (1966)

Initial Thoughts: I’ve been on a weird (for me) music kick as of late. I’ve been listening to a lot of 80s post-punk/new wave/goth music (Bauhaus, The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, etc.) and I came across the British band The Comsat Angels. And they’re named after a J. G. Ballard story! If you don’t know of the band but enjoy any of the bands in the above list, check out Sleep No More (1981) (cold, paranoid, hypnotic). This led me back to Ballard’s catalog to track down the remaining anthologies of his I don’t own.

For anyone new stopping by, Ballard has long been a favorite. I’ve reviewed the following and read quite a few more (The Drought, The Terminal Beach, The Drowned World):

2. The Mind Game, Norman Spinrad (1980)

From the back cover: “THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME OF ALL… Director Jack Weller and his actress wife Annie were two of Hollywood’s golden people—attractive, successful and very much in love. Then Annie became a Transformationalist. At first Jack dismissed it as a trendy new self-help movement—until Annie began to change… Overnight, they’d taken her from him, and were reaching out for him as well. When Jack began to fight back, he entered a nightmare of unbridled power, as he discovered an underground empire whose control touched every part of society. To reclaim the woman he loved, he staked his future—and his soul–on a deadly game with a master of illusion.”

Initial Thoughts: Apparently non-genre, Spinrad’s The Mind Game (1980) is a thinly-veiled attack on Scientology. Considering how Scientology pulled many of its early followers from SF fandom and authors, I suspect his readers would pick up on his references. Anyone read this (seems to be a lesser known Spinrad)?

3. Providence Island, Jacquetta Hawkes (1959)

From the inside flap: “As you read this captivating novel, it will seem to you that somewhere in the pacific Ocean there must be an island like the one in the story. You will feel that if you were to come upon Providence Island you would recognize it at once, so real to you are its flowers and animals, its coastline and weather. And surely if you were to land, you would find there the same remarkable race of people you have met in the book. Thus PROVIDENCE ISLAND is a high tribute to Jacquetta Hawkes’ imaginative powers–but it is much more: it is an utterly fascinating story, written with rare charm and humor for today’s world.

When professor Pennycuick of Oxford was shown some unbelievable archaeological remains from a Pacific island, it was just the spur he needed to break away from the wearisome university routine. So, although it seemed incredible that the relics of a race that had lived in Europe ten thousand years ago could possibly be found in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Professor invested all his resources in an exploratory expedition. Accompanying him to Providence Island were two men and one woman, Dr. Alice Cutter. They found not only the island but a race of people, living in a veritable paradise, who had miraculously survived from the Magdelanian Age. These pure, living fragments of prehistory were hunters, beautiful of physique and possessed of extraordinary psychic powers. Just as the expeditioners were beginning to understand and revere them, disaster struck in the form of a threat to the ancient race from the worst menace of the twentieth century. How the Professor and his friends—with the help of the islanders’ strange mental powers–save these unique people from the onslaught of the modern world makes a rich, unforgettable story.”

Initial Thoughts: Unknown book by an unknown author to me! SF Encyclopedia describes it as follows: “is a fairly late example of anthropological sf, in which an expedition comes across Lost-Race survivors from the Magdalenian culture of the late Paleolithic living within an extinct volcano on a Pacific Island. They have highly developed empathic and Psi Powers, developed as a kind of cultural alternative to technological prowess; they use these powers to fend off US nuclear tests.”

4. Turn Left At Thursday, Frederik Pohl (1961)

Interior page: “STORIES rich in humor and fantasy—all the way from Levittown to Venus…

A WRITER (Frederik Pohl) rich in variety—all the way from “the most consistently able writer science fiction has yet produced” (Kingsley Amis, s.f. aficianado) to “brilliant satirist” (New York Times)…

Just goes to show, if you’re a literary type, if humor is your dish, if you want to be chilled, thrilled, delighted and (occasionally) horrified—read science fiction. But make sure its by Fred Pohl.”

Contents: “Mars By Moonlight” (1958), “The Richest Man in Levittown” (variant title: “The Bitterest Pill”) (1959), “The Seven Deadly Virtues” (1958), “The Martian in the Attic” (1960), “Third Offense” (1958), “The Hated” (1958), “I Plinglot, Who You?” (1959)

Initial Thoughts: Huge fan of Foster’s cover. Frederik Pohl’s early SF intrigues far less… Although I’ve always loved Gateway (1977) [due for a reread].


For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

41 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Acquisitions No. CCLXVIII (Norman Spinrad, J. G. Ballard, Jacquetta Hawkes, and Frederik Pohl)

  1. We’ve had disagreements about some authors, but I share your enthusiasm for Ballard. I’ve read all his short fiction, as you probably know, and most of his novels.

    I’ve only read two short stories by Spinrad and no novels. I’ve probably neglected his SF, or perhaps it just doesn’t appeal to me. The one in Harlan Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions” wasn’t bad though as I remember .

    Never liked Pohl. I couldn’t finish his collection, “The Man who Ate the World”, and otherwise have only read him in anthologies.

  2. I have read Spinrad’s THE MIND GAME a couple of times and describing it as “a thinly-veiled attack on Scientology” seems to miss the whole point of the story—not a jot of which I will mention.

    I will say that:
    • It’s pure Spinradian,
    • it’s only peripherally science-fiction,
    •. it reminded me somewhat of the twist and turns in John Fowles’ THE MAGUS, and
    • it toys with aspects of the psychedelic experience.

    THE MIND GAME would make a great back-to-back read with Spinrad’s other non-SF (and often misunderstood) novel, PASSING THROUGH THE FLAME …

    • “Seems to miss the whole point of the story” — I haven’t read it! This was my impression from what I have read about it. I did say it was non-genre.

      My initial thoughts are just that, initial thoughts. I haven’t read the books yet. My initial thoughts are based of of SF Encyclopedia (which focuses entirely on the Scientology elements) and reviews I’ve read. http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/spinrad_norman

      But, I’m glad you would argue that there is far more to it than that!

  3. The Mind Game is my favorite Spinrad. I think it’s fairly clear that it’s about L Ron Hubbard, and I’ve always suspected that it is based on personal experiences, but I’ve never heard any confirmation on that. I have heard that the Scientologists themselves have tried to suppress it.

    It always reminds me of VALIS, although objectively they aren’t much alike.

    • According to Neal above mentioning Scientology ““Seems to miss the whole point of the story.” In all seriousness, definitely a Spinrad I was not aware of — perhaps due to its non-genre label.

      • I did not say that THE MIND GAME was not about Scientology, I said that “describing it as a thinly-veiled attack on Scientology seems to miss the whole point of the story.” Is the novel’s charismatic leader and his Transformationalism based on Hubbard and Scientology? Probably. Is the novel’s spunky protagonist Jack Weller based on Spinrad? Possibly.

        To say any more would tell you things about the story that are best experienced while reading that story. Needless to say, I recommend the latter and find out what Jack Weller found out.

        PS: I have been a rabid Spinradian since picking up BUG JACK BARRON off a paperback spinner in 1969 simply to find out what kind of bug Jack Barron was! I have enjoyed most of his novels but remain baffled as to why so many people go on about THE IRON DREAM, which I found barely readable. The novel I usually recommend to those who have not read anything by Spinrad but “Carcinoma Angels” is RUSSIAN SPRING . . .

        • It felt like some direct attack on my comment which was based off of SF Encyclopedia and not having read the book (initial thoughts are not analysis). I get your point but… know what I was basing mine off of.

          Yup, I remember your comments on my The Iron Dream review.

          • While searching the internet for the name of the fictional leader of Transformationalism (John B. Steinhardt), I ended up at GoodReads. There I found what may be the source of your statement as the second comment refers to the novel as “a very (very) thinly veiled condemnation of Scientology..”

            While at GoodReads, I left an edited version of my 11:29 AM comment above as a review of the book.

  4. Oh! Just noticed Jacquetta Hawkes. She was an archaeologist whose reach exceeded her grasp…quite quite far from her discipline, she wrote MAN AND THE SUN which is…fanciful…in its interpretations of prehistory’s remains, but was a cracking good yarn. A lot of books and many of ’em fun to read, though I’d never heard of this particular one before.

    • The book contains a healthy biographic blurb about her. She seems like a fascinating character!

      “JACQUETTA HAWKES is the younger daughter of Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins, O.M. who was a first cousin of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. She grew up at Cambridge, and from an early age was determined to study archaeology, being drawn to it partly by a visual enjoyment of things and of styles, partly by growing awareness of the poetry of history. She read archaeology and anthropology at Newnham College, Cambridge, and for a year afterward had a research scholarship. Miss Hawkes excavated at a number of sites in England and elsewhere, and published papers in specialized journals and a monograph on the archeology of Jersey. Early in the war she entered the War Cabinet Offices, later transferring to the Ministry of Education when she became British secretary to the British National Commission of UNESCO.

      During this period Miss Hawkes published Prehistoric Britain (written in collaboration with Christopher Hawkes) and Early Britain in the “Britain in Pictures” series. She has recently resigned from UNESCO and from the civil service in order to devote herself to writing, in which she found herself growing more and more absorbed for its own sake, and to research.

      Jacquetta Hawkes is the author of A Land, an interpretation of man’s relationship with nature, and Man on Earth, a poetic and informative book about the emergence of the human species.

      She is now married to J. B. Priestley, noted author and critic.”

  5. I’ve read all the stories in Ballard’s LOW-FLYING AIRCRAFT, some of them at least a couple of times. It’s a good collection; all the stories are worth a read. Well, it’s Ballard, right? Although sort of transitional — though, again, when was Ballard not in transition? — and not purely for his own literary reasons, but due to market-based realities.

    There’s a long story — novella, actually, because it’s almost a hundred pages — called ‘The Ultimate City’ that got its first publication here in this 1976 collection. At this time, CRASH had been out a couple of years and HIGH RISE had come out the year before, and Ballard was still writing short stories and novelettes. But he’d moved on from what any of the U.S. SF magazine markets were taking, except maybe F&SF; PLAYBOY, where ‘The Dead Astronaut’ and ‘the Drowned Giant’ were first published might have been the nearest thing he had to an American market. Simultaneously, on the U.K. side of the pond, NEW WORLDS (and its companion magazines) had gone the way of the snows of yesteryear. So what short fiction Ballard could publish in this period mostly went to avant-garde or mainstream literary outlets. ‘Low-Flying Aircraft’ was in ANTAEUS and other stories here went mostly to an avant-garde periodical called AMBIT, which capped story lengths to 4000 words or less. Thus, all the squibs like ‘The Greatest Television Show on Earth’ and ‘The Life and Death of God’ in LOW-FLYING AIRCRAFT.

    Thus, too, he can’t find anywhere to place a long novella like ‘The Ultimate City.’

    It’s sort of interesting — Ballard seems to have been trying to find a new mode for his novels after CRASH, CONCRETE ISLAND, AND HIGH RISE. Eventually, in 1979 he publishes THE UNLIMITED DREAM COMPANY, which is outright magical realism in Shepperton (stress on the magical) and then, after that, HELLO, AMERICA, somewhat in the same vein, after which he tacks all the way back to realism for THE EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1984). Anyway ‘The Ultimate City’ is a sort of a test-bed for DREAM COMPANY — arguably, sort of SF, but not likely to satisfy any American definition of that and on its way to being magical-realist. In the 1980s, the British magazine INTERZONE will open up and then Ballard again has a market for his more recognizably Ballardian SF short-fiction (forex, ‘War Fever’), and he cuts back on the avante-gard squibs and has lost interest in the DREAM COMPANY-type magical realist experiments.

    So LOW-FLYING AIRCRAFT is an interesting collection.

    I’ve read all the Pohl stories in TURN LEFT ON THURSDAY, too.

    I like Pohl and sometimes he’s truly great. But aside from a few early classics like ‘The Tunnel Under the World’ and ‘The Midas Plague’, he usually wasn’t much of a writer sans Kornbluth till about the mid-1960s and ‘Day Million.’ The stories in TURN LEFT AT THURSDAY are all terribly minor and dated. As I say, I’ve read them but I’m damned if I can remember what they’re about at all, except for ‘The Richest Man in Levittown’ and ‘I, Plinglot,’ and even those two are very slight late-1950s GALAXY filler — pretty much the best thing about them are their titles. (You can see the big payoff coming at the end of ‘Levittown’ about a thousands words into the story and it ain’t all that, and it wasn’t all that when I read it at twelve either.)

    So the Pohl is strictly for scholars and SF historians.

    The Spinrad I’ve not read. I tend to find Spinrad’s prose and characterization somewhat plodding and generally not up to his ambitions. Occasionally, he’s done something of interest to me, though, and THE MIND GAME may be that. Give me a report if you read it.

    • I know Ambit well. I had a subscription of all things for a while as I was obsessed with Martin Bax, its founder. Bax’s only novel, the bizarre kaleidoscope of medical fragments and Freudian excess, The Hospital Ship (1976) is worth a read (and perhaps one of my best written reviews if I dare say so myself) — https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/07/20/book-review-the-hospital-ship-martin-bax-1976/

      I’ve read, and I suspect you’ve seen the review already, of Ballard’s spectacular “The Dead Astronaut” (1968). It inspired me to put together my recent series on critical interpretations of astronauts and the culture that created them: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2020/06/16/book-review-the-dead-astronaut-ed-uncredited-1971-j-g-ballard-ursula-k-le-guin-arthur-c-clarke-et-al/

      As for Ballard “in transition” in the late 60s, I think this is the moment where everything about his stories really fall into place. I clumped through mostly/somewhat understanding The Atrocity Exhibition tales (they are tough reads in more ways than one).

      As for Pohl, I am fascinated by suburbanism (my parents are architects so a lot of that is holdover to me). I will read “The Richest Man in Levittown” (maybe the title is seducing me and the story contains little to nothing actual about Levittown?). I dunno if you know, but Kornbluth lived (and died) in Levittown. Is it a reference to him?

      Check out my reviews for Spinrad. He excels, like so many, in the short story form. And while The Iron Dream is on the plodding side (I mean, it’s Hitler’s pulp novel that makes up the majority of the story), the searing commentary on the fascist tendencies of SF is worth it.

      • JB wrote: I will read “The Richest Man in Levittown” (maybe the title is seducing me and the story contains little to nothing actual about Levittown?).

        The title is seducing you. It was “The Bitterest Pill” in its original magazine publication and gains nothing by being completely arbitrarily set in Levittown — except, I guess, that Pohl could retitle it to something catchier that might make someone think it was one of those incisive Pohl stories about class and politics, which Pohl was good at right out the gate. It ain’t one of those incisive Pohl stories, alas.

        JB wrote: I dunno if you know, but Kornbluth lived (and died) in Levittown. Is it a reference to him?

        No, it’s not. Yes, I did know about K and Levittown. For starters, that fact is integral to GLADIATOR-AT-LAW, which I like a little more than you did in your review. Not that you didn’t like it, but I appreciate its archetypically 1950s SF snarky plot — actually trickier and more elaborate than P & K’s SPACE MERCHANTS — more than you do, probably. Sheckley (forex, IMMORTALITY INC.) and Dick (forex, SOLAR LOTTERY) were also exponents of that kind’ of plottiness’ in their early 1950s-era outings.

        And really that kind of plot hasn’t aged at all in our neoliberal era. Green, Charlesworth? Today, they’ve got their New Zealand bolthole set up and have been talking to Elon about moving to Mars should that become necessary.

        Apropos of the radicalism, IIRC, both Pohl and Kornbluth were American Communist Party members as Futurians at the turn of the 1940s. About half of the Futurians were, including — amusingly, given later developments — Donald Wollheim. Even those Futurians who weren’t commies — as Asimov wasn’t, for example — were raving leftists by today’s standards. Indeed, beneath his Good Doctor public persona and general embourgeois-ment , Asimov seems to have remained surprisingly radical. There’s a quite short story from the mid-1970s called “The Winnowing” which quietly and concisely makes clear just what Asimov thought of the ruling class and what he thought should be done about them.

        • Not sure what in Wollheim’s future makes you surprised or amused he was a Communist? Am I forgetting something? (Entirely possible!) His last novel, TO VENUS! TO VENUS!, from 1970, takes a very sunny view of the Soviets. Sure, he published John Norman and all, but I don’t think that’s inconsistent with 40sish leftism.

          “The Winnowing” is indeed impressive, probably the best late Asimov story.

          • RH: Not sure what in Wollheim’s future makes you surprised or amused he was a Communist?

            I made that comment somewhat in deference to the viewpoints of JB and his contemporaries here in 2021, who might have trouble grasping how Donald Wollheim, communist, became founder of the DAW books publishing … well, “empire” seems a bit much. How about “duchy”? … anyway, the DAW duchy, which nowadays specializes in publishing military SF and, um, characters like Tom Kratman, Larry Correia, and John Ringo.

            I mean, it is kind if amusing in an “what a long, strange trip, it’s been” kind of way. Right?

            Yes, I know today’s DAW also does a lot of good things, like keeping, say, Cordwainer Smith and Mark Geston available.

            Yes, in his lifetime Wollheim did much good for the early careers of the likes of PKD, Brunner, Delany, and many others. Indeed, just by letting Terry Carr do his Ace Specials program, Wollheim affected American literature as a whole, because Carr published the likes of LeGuin’s LEFT HAND and in the second Specials iteration (Wollheim was gone then, admittedly) William Gibson and KSR.

            • I’m sorry. I had a brain malfunction and mixed latter-day DAW up with Baen.

              Contemporary U.S. genre publishers are all kind of off-putting for me.

            • No problem!

              But yes, I find a it a bit shocking re-Wollheim and her political position.

              Re-Baen books — the Jason Sanford article on that publisher’s forum recently was quite revelatory.

  6. I’m sure the Ballard is good but I have the Complete Stories, so I won’t buy it. 🙂 My favorite Ballard stories are in the early collections Billennium and The Voices of Time. (So sue me!) Those are spooky and sternly fascinating …

    The Spinrad — which I know nothing of — seems designed to bring out Spinrad at his worst.

    I’ve never heard of Jacquetta Hawkes, but that novel does look intriguing. Maybe some vague resemblance to a fine (if oddly racist given its theme) novel by Vercors, You Shall Know Them?

    I have that Pohl collection — I’ve probably read close to Pohl’s complete mature short fiction — I have to say I think it’s one of his weaker collections. But not terrible.

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