Short Book Reviews: John M. Ford’s The Princes of the Air (1982), Keith Roberts’ The Furies (1966), and John D. MacDonald’s Wine Of the Dreamers (1951)

Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack before my memory and will fades. My website partially serves as a record of what I have read and a memory apparatus for any larger project I might conduct in the future. I rather a short review than none at all! Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

1. The Princes of the Air, John M. Ford (1982)

3.5/5 (Good)

John M. Ford (1957-2006) is one of those authors I’ve read a lot about but never sat down and read. As if often my strategy, I decided to explore around the edges a bit before reading his best-known novels Web of Angels (1980) and The Dragon Waiting (1983). I settled on his second novel The Princes of the Air (1982)….

The first layer of The Princes of the Air reads as a traditional space opera. Three young men from rough poverty-filled pasts–Orden Obeck, David Kondor/Koleman, and Theodor Thorn/Norne–aspire to serve the Queen of Humankind. On the dusty planet Riyah Zain, the three friends scam the unwary and while away their days in the Asterion Arcade playing military games in which they imagine how they will serve the queen—Obeck will be the Ambassador-Global, Kondor the Admiral of the Fleet, and Theodor Norn the best Pilot and writer of the book on piloting. Obeck, indentured to the state as he voluntarily went on the government dole, trains to be a diplomat. He brushes up against the classist views of the students, who look down on Obeck’s achievements as an indentured man. Soon his accomplishments mean that he, and his friends, can leave the planet. Eventually, they find themselves embroiled in the machinations of the state and the powers that bind everything together.

The Princes of the Air is all about artifice and performing roles. Filled with chess references, each character strives to embody the perfect manifestation of the part. As he rises on the promotional ladder, Obeck realizes that there is more to life. I thoroughly enjoyed the end of the novel. Not only do Obeck’s depressive interludes add to the emotional emptiness that I found characterized the earlier sections but also the thematic threads come full circle–how playing a role takes on a life of its own separate from one’s own intentions. Ford integrates an unusual political transformation for novels of this type in which democracy replaces dictatorship (despite the efforts of our characters). This is an interesting novel but I found the world bland and characters (other than Obeck at moments) too insubstantial and distant. I enjoyed the structure–each non-sequential chapter serves as a mini-conflict that only makes sense at the end–and how it added to the novel’s thematic heart. The characters are pawns in a larger game.

Despite my qualms with this one, I look forward to reading more of Ford’s work. What are your favorites? Note: I have zero interest in his Star Trek novels.

2. The Furies, Keith Roberts (serialized 1965, novel 1966)

2.75/5 (Below Average)

Gigantic wasps! Destruction and mayhem! Humanity enslaved!

Due to an increase in thermonuclear weapons nuclear testing by both the US and the USSR, radiation levels rise across the world. After a momentary thaw of relations, the Neptune Test creates the chasm in the ocean releasing gigantic hyper-intelligent wasps. Their emergence–perhaps connected to the tests, or mutations from the growing radiation, or, as our narrator Bill Sampson likes to imagine, an alien presence–creates incredible destruction. The wasps defeat the UK’s military and somehow start to enslave humanity who bring supplies, like drones, to their sprawling nest complexes.

The story follows Bill Sampson and his attempts to survive. Initially, he comes across a precocious girl named Jane, drawn to his large dog. Separated from her family due to the disaster, Sampson must protect her (there are seriously creepy vibes in their interactions). When their paths part, Sampson struggles to rationalize his drive to survive–and almost pities the humans who collaborate with the wasps. Sampson falls in with a resistance movement that holes up in a cave and conducts hit-and-run attacks on the wasp nests. What will the change in seasons bring? Will the wasps survive the winter? Is their resistance movement making progress against the invaders? I found the novel too much of a slog to get terribly invested in the answers Roberts provides. Perhaps there’s an attempt to commentate on the nature of resistance or the post-apocalyptic genre more broadly but…

You’d never know Keith Roberts wrote The Furies (1966). It has none of his characteristic elegiac metaphorical power, tangible sense of place, or sheer inventiveness of his best works like Pavane (1968). The Furies is a poor first novel. If you are new to Keith Roberts, do not let this review dissuade you from picking up his wonderful science fiction. I recommend his stories in The Grain Kings (1976)–two of which ranked in my top 20 short stories of 2022–and his alternate history fix-up masterpiece Pavane (1968), that I was never able to review.

3. Wine of the Dreamers, John D. MacDonald (serialized 1950, novel 1951)

2.75/5 (Below Average)

Note: I did not finish this one. Maybe the last third elevates the story? Unfortunately, there are always books that I lose interest in and cannot convince myself to finish.

I’ve recently read two powerful John D. MacDonald short stories–“Flaw” (1949) and “Spectator Sport” (1950)–for my series on critical takes on space travel and the impact of future media respectively. Both stories took a hypercritical stance the future impact of technology. In “Flaw,” an astronaut’s suffering wife struggles with not only the loss of her husband but the end of the dream of space travel. In “Spectator Sport,” a time-traveler is tortured by an immersive TV experience. Both hit the spot in well-wrought and evocative ways.

As multiple months have passed since I read the novel, I’ve based the short plot summary that follows on MPorcius’ 2014 review. The story follows two intersecting plotlines. The first takes place in 1975–characterized by free love and drugs–in which a series of strange crimes perpetuated by individuals who do not remember their actions. The main characters, Dr. Sharan Inly (a Project Assistant in Charge of Psycho-Adjustment) and Bard Lane, investigate the crimes. The second storyline, that takes a while to directly intersect with the first, follows a brother and sister within a decadent (and ignorant) community in space able to project themselves into the bodies of Earthlings. Of course, the brother and sister–like the classic generation ship trope–discover the true meaning of their unusual world.

Unfortunately, I found Wine Of the Dreams (1951) lacked the focus and rigor of his shorter works. There are moments of social commentary throughout — for example, the implication that big business entirely owns the news (7)–but they are forgotten in the pulpy plot. For whatever reason, I lost interest and put it aside. If the premise sounds like something that would appeal to you, then consider picking it up. McDonald’s prose can be effective and punchy.

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16 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: John M. Ford’s The Princes of the Air (1982), Keith Roberts’ The Furies (1966), and John D. MacDonald’s Wine Of the Dreamers (1951)

  1. “The first takes place in 1975–characterized by free love and drugs”

    Surely MacDonald’s prescience earns him a star!?

    Your comments though remind me of another MacDonald novella around the same time: ‘Trojan Horse Laugh’ (1949). Here too are some intriguing critical comments on the nature of contemporary society and its potential to develop in certain ways. In ‘Trojan Horse Laugh’ he sets up the story with the conceit of people being “adjusted” in order to be happy. But as you say of ‘Wine of the Dreamers’, “moments of social commentary throughout […] are forgotten in the pulpy plot”. More’s the shame. No doubt Macdonald is developing his narrative chops at this point in his career.

    I will, however, on your say so finally dust of my copy of ‘The Grain Kings’ and have a read–something I have been meaning to do since you reviewed it.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      To be honest, I probably did not give the novel a fair chance as I abandoned it. I wasn’t planning on not finishing but I have far too many other interesting things to explore on my shelves that I thought my time would be better spent elsewhere. The longer review I linked my MPorcius thought it was middling at best.

      I look forward to any thoughts you want to share about The Grain Kings — a solid collection with some real gems.

      I have “Trojan Horse Laugh” (1949) on my media landscapes of the future list. Probably due to your past comments about it. I look forward to reading more of his short fiction.

      Have you been reading anything from this era since we’ve talked that has transfixed you?

        • Glad you enjoyed it. I do find the first section the best. I enjoyed McIntyre’s take on female agency which gives the novel a completely different feel. I recently reviewed a collection of her short fictions that, while far more bleak on the whole, are also worth tracking down.

  2. THE FURIES was my first Keith Roberts novel. I was not impressed. And to be honest, I was rather baffled, because I’d heard from reliable sources how excellent his work is.
    After a cooling off period of a few years, I tried something else, and it was like reading a completely different writer.

  3. A shame about The Furies, but you’ve saved me some time since I hate sloggish reads, even if the novel itself is under 200 pages (and you know how the sizing of pages and fonts can turn a book that looks short into an epic). For me, pacing truly determines whether a novel is worth reading or not. I did enjoy The Grain Kings, so I’ll be sure to check out Pavane.

    As for that McDonald novel, I haven’t read any of his stuff, but those short stories sound enticing. ‘Flaw’ sounds a little like ‘Rocket Man’ by Bradbury from that description, and the latter is one of my favorite sci-fi shorts of all time.

    Killerbowl was a fun read. Do you have any other recommendations for very similar sports sci-fi novels?

    • I think the biggest shot that can be leveled at it is that it doesn’t even feel like a Roberts novel. While there are small moments of poetic prose, on the whole it’s simply lacking. And the premise of gigantic wasps is downright stupid after a few scenes….

      Glad you enjoyed Killerbowl! I think it effectively wedded an inventive New Wave structure with some real punch and emotional grit. I don’t have another recommendation for SF sport novels from that era. I recommend tracking down two short stories (both of which are reviewed on my site) if you haven’t already: William Harrison’s fantastic “Roller Ball Murder” (1973) and George Alec Effinger’s “25 Crunch Split Right on Two” (1975).

  4. I haven’t yet read any of John D. MacDonald’s three SF novels. One hears good things about them occasionally. I read quite a few of his Travis McGee novels decades ago and they were pretty good. And I’ve liked some of his short SF, particularly “Spectator Sport”.

    I’ve not read THE FURIES and based on your description I’ll give it a pass. And as I noted elsehwere, I remember liking THE PRINCES OF THE AIR a long time ago, probably when it came out, but I don’t remember anything else.

    • Let me put in at least a mild defense for THE FURIES, which I read in its serialization in SCIENCE FANTASY (not contemporaneously). Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

      “If you can swallow not just the idea of giant insects, but giant _flying_ insects, without a passing nod to the square-cube law, it’s by far Roberts’ best piece of fiction to date. Part of the problem with his earlier stories (twelve of them, all but one in _Science Fantasy_, the other in _New Worlds_) was that their relatively inconsequential substance didn’t quite live up to the portentous writing. The substance does live up to the writing in this grim adventure story. Roberts is extremely good at conveying place and its dislocations and at describing physical action, which is exactly what’s called for here. There are a few too many and too long scenes of fighting the wasps—parts of it reminded me of the battle scenes in Eric Frank Russell’s _Sinister Barrier_—but overall it’s a very readable story with unusually well drawn characters.”

      Note that the basis of comparison here is Roberts’ other work up to mid-1965, which does not include the work that he is best-remembered for. The Pavane stories did not start to appear until the better part of a year later.

      • Of Roberts’ short fiction published in 1965 (I haven’t check if they are before or after the first Pavane tales) are “Sub-Lim” (1965) and “The Inner Wheel” (1965). I found both far more interesting than The Furies. His characteristic eye towards landscape and its encrustations of the past only appear in a few moments in the narrative — and not enough to elevate it. I found the package very poor in its final summation.

    • As I mentioned to Anthony, I doubt I gave the MacDonald a fair shake. I read only half of it, put it down to pick something else up, and then forgot about it. When I remember, I really couldn’t get back into the tale. These are not really meant to be proper reviews so by all means pick up the novel if it’s something that catches your interest. I enjoyed “Spectator Sport” as well.

  5. Personally I power through pretty much every book I start reading, even if I’m not enjoying it (something has to be extremely objectionable or just incredibly poorly written for me to set it aside). That said, I can understand why you lost interest, as I agree with your assessment about it lacking the “focus and rigor” of his short fiction. In fact, I’d say the same applies to his other SF novel written in the same period (early 1950s), Ballroom of the Skies.

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