Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVI (John Brunner, Phillip Mann, Shepherd Mead, and a Frederik Pohl anthology)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

I planned to have a review up today. Unfortunately, August is always my least productive month writing as it marks the return to work after a much needed summer break. It’s been a rough few weeks! Stay tuned.

1. The Squares of the City, John Brunner (1965)

From the back cover: CHECHMATE IN PARADISE. Ciudad de Vados was a Latin-American showplace, a paradise…a flourishing supercity designed and run nearly to perfection.

But not quite. They had a traffic problem.

Boyd Hakluyt didn’t understand why, but he had been brought into analyze the situation and to straighten it out–or so he thought. But when he attempted to get anything done, nothing worked right, and everyone suddenly became evasive.

That’s when he realized the city’s traffic problems were the least of his worries. Somehow his every move was being dictated by somebody else. He was being controlled as if he were merely a piece in a chess game–an expendable piece, at that. Then suddenly Boyd concluded he had become part of a fiendish living game, playing for his life on The Squares of the City.”

Initial Thoughts: The first of multiple Brunner novels that missed my obsessive net. I was inspired the track them done as I recently read Jad Smith’s wonderful monograph John Brunner (2012). As longtime readers of the site know, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is my favorite SF novel. Check out my recent review of his early SF short story “Fair” (1956) if you missed it.

2. Master of Paxwax, Phillip Mann (1986)

From the back cover: “Galactic genocide. It is the far distant future. Humanity has spread across the galaxy, systematically wiping out, imprisoning and enslaving every alien species, hostile or not. Now the galaxy is ruled by the Eleven Families, each supreme in its own, vast realm.

But beneath the surface of one dead and obscure planet lie the seeds of rebellion. For here, the survivors of the ravaged alien races have taken refuge, to plot their revenge of their barbaric conquerors–and the downfall of the human empire.

One man is chosen to be the instrument of their vengeance–but he doesn’t know it. His name is Pawl Paxwax. He is the second son of the Fifth Family, and this is his story–a magnificent epic of far future intrigued, passion and tragedy.”

Initial Thoughts: Years ago I read Mann’s tale of a failed ship captain Wulfsyarn (1990)–which I never managed to review despite my generally positive assessment. I know little about this one.

3. The Big Ball of Wax, Shepherd Mead (1954)

From the back cover: “Evangelist with a Gimmick!

Her revival meetings outdrew the World Series, the Miss America contests and the TV give-away shows, and were making a serious dent in the National Economy. True, she was built like a burlesque queen (which she was, once), but there had to be something more to it than that.

Lanny Martin, dynamic Madison Avenue-type account executive, set forth to find out what it was, for Lanny was greatly concerned with the state of the world, as every sincere young future giant of industry should be.

Besides, he was worried about his job, Molly Blood’s gimmick was making the buying public immune to high-pressure advertising, and without high-pressure advertising, where was Lanny Martin?

After carefully plotting his campaign, Lanny dropped a blockbuster and waited for the explosion. Nothing was ever the same after that–certainly not Lanny–for Molly Blood’s gimmick was something out of this world–quite literally, out of this world!”

Initial Thoughts: Satirical 1950s SF takes on the media landscape? Count me in! I don’t have high hopes but, as always, my fascination with the theme will trump any lack of quality in the work.

4. Nightmare Age, ed. Frederik Pohl (1970)

From the back cover: “SCIENCE FICTION writers have long warned, in an astonishing variety of stories and interpretations, of the ecological crisis that confronts mankind.

Frederik Pohl, a master of future prognostication himself, has selected superb representative stories from the thousands that exists. The writers of these dry, witty, funny and (hopefully) inaccurate forecasts include: [See below]”

Contents: Paul R. Ehrlich’s “Eco-Catastrophe!” (1969), Christopher Anvil’s “Uncalculated Risk” (1962), Frederik Pohl’s “The Census Takers” (1956), C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” (1951), Fritz Leiber’s “A Bad Day for Sales” (1953), Kenneth Bulmer’s “Station HR972” (1967), Fritz Leiber’s “X Marks the Pedwalk” (1963), Clifford D. Simak’s “Day of Truce” (1963), Mack Reynolds’ “Among the Bad Baboons” (1968), C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Luckiest Man in Denv” (1952), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Kris Neville’s “New Apples in the Garden” (1963), Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Year of the Jackpot” (1952)

Initial Thoughts: I recently read Michael R. Page’s wonderful Frederik Pohl (2015) in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series for Illinois University Press. Page includes Pohl’s comments on the anthology Nightmare Age (1970): “[it] was an eco-freak book. It sold out in its one printing and was seen no more, but it still remains an anthology of which I am proud. It seems to me that the world ecology movement really began in the science fiction stories–in the 1950s, but actually going back as far as science fiction itself does.”


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23 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVI (John Brunner, Phillip Mann, Shepherd Mead, and a Frederik Pohl anthology)

  1. It’s been time since I revisited Brunner. I read Stand on Zanzibar several years back, and The Sheep Look Up around two years ago. He was extremely underrated in the sci-fi scene, especially his bleak worldbuilding. I wasn’t a fan of The Jagged Orbit, mainly because it felt very outdated compared to the other two. Squares of The City is still on my list.

  2. The Pohl anthology has two Kornbluths, two Pohls, and two Leibers, which — except for Pohl’s ‘The Census Takers’ — are pretty much definitive examples of what good 1950s-era SF, of the particular strain that usually appeared in GALAXY, was. It feels like a bit of a cheat on Pohl’s part to put them in a book published in 1970 on the theme of eco-breakdown on the grounds that ‘It seems to me that the world ecology movement really began in the science fiction stories–in the 1950s, but actually going back as far as science fiction itself does.’ But maybe not and they are such solid stories of their kind it’s hard to hold it against Pohl.

    JB: …I’d probably place The Jagged Orbit up there as well

    I like THE JAGGED ORBIT, too, though I haven’t re-read it since it came out. I’d doubtless find it dated now, but it feels like — IIRC at this distance in time — Brunner’s warm-up run for STAND ON ZANZIBAR, making use of more standard SF semi-pulp tropes (e.g. the time-traveling veteran).

    As for THE SQUARES OF THE CITY I think Algis Budrys’s review in Galaxy Bookshelf made some pertinent criticisms (starting pg. 147). Budrys changed his stance on Brunner when SOZ came out —

    https://archive.org/details/Galaxy_v24n05_1966-06/page/n141/mode/2up?view=theater

    ‘Although Brunner understands about life and chess, he seems not to have understood about chess and stories … there are thirty-two pieces on a chess board, and in the particular game used here there were thirty-eight moves. Even for a book which occupies 307 pages of very closely set text, it has too many plot turns, too many characters to follow. As usual when a commercial author of average competence attempts to write a book this long, around as ambitious a plan as this, many parts of the final third of the book are skimpy narrations of events which would have been detailed with loving care and attention had they occurred in the earlier parts of the manuscript when the author was still fresh. This is not say that the average commercial writer is not as skilled as the average writer of novels projected for a more ambitious reason. It is to say that if he writes for a living at commercial rates, he does not have time enough, and that he will save himself a number of ambitious failures and considerable grief and heartache, if he takes this factor into account….’

    ‘Eventually the peasants rise in revolt, and there is a lot of hurrahing and shouting, from which Hakluyt begins to flee, but to which he returns at the last moment because he has become transformed from the detached, neutral, salaried expert to a human being more or less passionately involved in the fate of people as distinguished from the flow of traffic units.

    ‘From the point of view of literary criticism, Hakluyt’s transformation comes too late, too abruptly, apparently because the book was getting too damn long. His love interest, which was aroused briefly at the very beginning of the book, is not at all convincing when it recurs at the end. It seems to recur at the end only because, what the hell, you’ve got to have a love interest. What happens in between is considerably clumsier than one might like to have it.

    ‘If you were going to plot a story to correspond to a chess game, in which pieces moved toward the removal from the board of themselves or of other pieces, and if some of them are at the very outset of the game assigned an arbitrary order of importance which has nothing to do with any capacity for growth but only with arbitrary abilities to change position, you are going to have a whole lot of monolithic characters who are built up to considerable extent only to be wiped off suddenly by murder, suicide and kidnapping. When this has to happen to ten or a dozen principal characters, let me assure you that the tenth victim seems nowhere near as interesting in his agony as did the first.’

    • Hello Mark,

      I apologize for the delayed response. This has been an exhausting past month….

      Thank you for including the Budrys review. I should read more of his criticism. As for the novel, it definitely seems like one that divides! I’ll enjoy figuring out my own opinion when I give it a read. I find it fascinating that he’d be inspired by the construction of Brasilia in 1960.

      As for the anthology, looking back at my reviews of the four stories I’ve already read, I essentially agree with your view. Although I couldn’t deal with the Heinlein… even back in 2012 when I read it!

  3. I remember enjoying Master of Paxwax (and its sequel) when they came out. Pawl reminded me a lot of Shakespeare’s Richard III, so I wasn’t surprised to hear about Mann’s interest in theatre. I also have fond memories of Wulfsyarn – the garden, the robot, the twist – although neither the title nor the blurb struck a chord (I even went off looking for other titles by Mann before I realised my mistake).

      • Sorry to hear about Mann (although 80 is good innings!) and yeah – I think more might have been made of the fact that Wulf is a robot and how this might affect his interpretation of history. That said, I have much more vivid memories of Wulfsyarnthan I do of the Paxwax chronicles, for some reason.

        • Yeah, if I remember correctly, the most the rumination was about the robot writing history was that he’s recording nothing but the facts — and of course the “facts” paint a bizarre picture of the strange figure of the captain. I saw the basic premise as a lost opportunity although everything about the captain and his story was intriguing. Correct me if I’m wrong as I never wrote a review and thus my memory is sketchy at best.

            • I thought something could have been made of the robot attempting to interpret human behavior or emotion or differing views on the same topic. And at no point does it really feel like the robot is actually attempting to interpret what they see. You simply can’t write everything. The robot MUST interpret something. Rather, it’s just a framing device for a story that feels like like it’s from a human’s perspective.

  4. I’ve read both the Brunner and the Mann. In fact, I recently reread Master of Paxwax and its sequel, The Fall of the Families, and they were better than I remembered them. Sad to hear of Mann’s death. I always rated his novels – even the Land Fit for Heroes quintet, which I don’t remember doing very well. I must reread more of his books.

  5. I’ve had the Brunner for too long, and am at a loss to understand why I didn’t read it when I went through my first big Brunner phase 30 odd years ago. To be honest, I’m more keen for a reread of The Jagged Orbit than a first run through The Squares of the City.
    I had the Sheperd Mead on my shelf for at least the last two years but have yet to get to it. Currently, I’ve just read a more sfnal version of the coming push button future in Edmund Cooper’s ‘The Uncertain Midnight’ (aka ‘Deadly Image’), 1958. Cooper has some nice touches, and is sort of a riff on old skool utopian fiction that has a twentieth century man waking up in a utopian future, that turns out to be… [shock, horror] dystopian! But it’s just very average to be honest.

    • The Jagged Orbit was actually one of my most recent Brunner novel reads — maybe only in the last five years or so. Unfortunately, when I sat down to review it… nothing came together.

      I never expect much from Cooper! I have the weird desire to read one of his anti-THOSE SCARY YOUTH DOING STUFF I WISH I COULD novels — Kronk (1970) — as a counterpoint to the more progressive views on 60s social change.

      Speaking of push button futures, have you read Peter Currell Brown’s Smallcreep’s Day (1965)? I grabbed a copy back in 2017 but haven’t read it. From the back cover: “For sixteen years, Pinquean Smallcreep has slotted a certain type of slot into a certain type of pulley. Now, he feels he must find out why… and abandons his machine to search the factory for an answer.

      What follows — wildly humorous, darkly visionary, profoundly challenging — is something no reader will ever be able to forget.”

  6. My reaction to The Squares of the City was pretty much opposite to the Algis Budrys take, and it still remains my favorite Brunner. The chess aspect of the book is initially attractive, but it makes the plot such an artificial construct that I mostly ignored that and focused on Brunner’s characters, who felt more like real people than in the other books by him that I’ve read, and the roughly contemporary South American setting, which was pretty original for an SF book from that era.

    Stand on Zanzibar, The Jagged Orbit, and The Sheep Look Up, which I tend to think of as a thematic triptych, have a much flashier style (the Dos Passos riffs, etc.), more gruesome deaths and maimings, and thinly disguised incarnations of The Character Who Knows All the Right Answers (as in much Heinlein and some Wyndham). They were impressive on first encounter, but I have little desire to reread them now. Would rather reread his fix-up tales like Times Without Number or The Traveler in Black.

    • Hello Paul, thanks for stopping by! I must confess as someone who knows little about chess other than basic rules, I suspect that part would fade away as well… I did adore Nabokov’s The Defense (1930) though!

      Stand on Zanzibar holds an important place in my personal reading history. It was the first novel that I read–in my late teens I was working my way through all the Hugo-winners–that might be called “New Wave.” And it blew my mind. And I immediately hunted down other exemplars of the movement.

      • I was mad about chess when this book came out (I believe it was the autumn of 1965) and I had already read a string of short Brunner novels that came in Ace double novel books, so I grabbed The Squares of the City immediately. But the chess element ended up being a minor part of what I liked about it. At the time Boston and New York were going through an upheaval termed “urban renewal”, where experts like Hakluyt would be called in to give professional cover to schemes that made the cities look more impressive while also making them less liveable, while handing out huge sums of money to favored contractors. The sort of thing Jane Jacobs skewered in several books. I think Hakluyt doesn’t do his usual fly-away at the end of this job because he can no longer deny the moral dimension of what he’s been doing, as much as for romantic reasons.

        • Stand on Zanzibar is my favorite SF novel as well (although I need to re-read it to see how well it holds up.) I read Squares of the City a few months ago and was rather disappointed in it. I agree that he did a good job with the characters — they were the best part of the book. But the more I learned about how the government in the novel was set up, the less believable the book became, and by the end everything seemed ludicrous. And I agree with Burdrys: structuring the book after a specific game lead to a lot of repetitive, and ultimately, boring action.

        • Yeah, as the child of two professors of architecture, that entire angle is the most interesting to me. I read in Jad Smith’s monograph John Brunner (2012) that Brunner was inspired by the creation of the brand new capital city of Brazil — Brasilia.

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