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Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street, East Providence, RI 02914


The End of the Tunnel by Paul Capon, Thunderchild, 1959 

Aka The Cave of Cornelius. Four young children are exploring a cave when they are trapped by a landslide. They are forced to descend further and find a lost Roman civilization, although the Romans are familiar with the surface world and even have a helicopter which they fly around in their enormous cavern.  Everyone is nice and the children eventually find a way back to the surface. Not much of anything going on in this one. 3/30/23

Flight of Time by Paul Capon, Thunderchild, 1960 

The final novel by this author is for younger readers. Four children find an automated time machine and travel three hundred years into the future. Although they are treated well in a kind of utopian society, they are forced to flee when they discover that they are to be kept captive for study. The time machine malfunctions and they find themselves in prehistory watching two tribes have a battle. Finally they fix the machine and return to their own time. Trivial. 3/30/23

Ascension by Nicholas Binge, Riverhead, 2023, $28, ISBN 978-0-593-52958-3

The protagonist is a scientist who is puzzled by the suicide of a colleague, who has been acting strangely and seems to be able to perceive future events. The colleague was working on a secret government project, and our hero takes his place. The project is the exploration of a 40,000 foot high mountain which has suddenly emerged from the Pacific Ocean in defiance of all rules of logic. In order to conduct this study, it is necessary for a small group to actually climb the mountain. There is a lot of metaphysical discussion mixed with real and quasi-scientific explanations. The journey reveals things about the explorers as well as about the mountain. Although the concepts are sometimes complex, they are explained fairly simply. I am almost tempted to call this a fantasy. The prose is quite good but oddly I had a claustrophobic feeling while I was reading it.  3/28/23

Other Times, Other Worlds by John D. MacDonald, 1978

During the 1940s and 1950s, MacDonald wrote a fairly large body of short SF. This is a good sized collection of these stories, several of which had been anthologized previously. They are almost all quite dated and a couple have glaring scientific errors. Themes include time travel, dimensional gateways, mutant geniuses, secret alien visitors, space travel, and other staples of the genre. "A Child Is Crying" is probably his best known, the story of a supergenius toddler. They are all well written, of course, but I had the feeling that MacDonald was never really at ease in this genre. 3/26/23

Phobos, the Robot Planet by Paul Capon, Digit, 1955 

Aka Lost: A Moon. Three humans are abducted by a flying saucer and taken to the Martian moon, which is actually a space station operated by a robotic brain that is curious about humans. They have some unlikely adventures there and on the surface of Mars before they outwit the brain and escape back to Earth. The writing is primitive, though the science was a bit improved over the author’s previous novels. He never bothers to adequately explain the fate of the Martians who built the space station originally, only a few centuries earlier. It appears that they migrated to the stars. Pretty dull. 3/24/23

World at Bay by Paul Capon, Panther, 1953

Following a nuclear war, the world has disarmed itself, which for some reason causes the world economy to collapse. The UK has become a repressive dictatorship. Certain types of research are banned throughout the world, but a renegade scientist wants to tape into nuclear power by opening a rift to the fourth dimension. He does so, but it causes a chain reaction that is contagious, but only if the subject is alive. Except when the plot demands otherwise. This attracts the attention of an international secret agent.  The story is scientifically illiterate and it is never quite clear how the governments cooperate, or fail to do so, in the new international order. 3/21/23

Down to Earth by Paul Capon, Digit, 1954

Concluding book in the rather primitive Antigeos trilogy. An expedition has discovered an inhabited world on the opposite side of the sun, but due to their crash landing and the lack of a radio, no one on Earth knows what happened. Finally, while building a new ship, the explorers manage to send a signal in Morse Code, which is received by some ambitious and not particularly scrupulous businessmen back on Earth. They immediately decide to exploit the discovery to enrich themselves. Eventually the ship returns with some of the natives of that world and the political situation is defused. Decidedly minor. 3/19/23

The Other Half of the Planet by Paul Capon, Thunderchild, 1952 

This is the middle volume of a trilogy. Six space explorers have landed on a planet hidden by the sun and have found a friendly, almost utopian society. Three of them decide to return to Earth, but they crash on the opposite hemisphere of the planet. The culture here is brutal and relies on slavery and cruelty. After some rather boring adventures, they build a balloon and return to the more pleasant half of the planet. Very boring and predictably implausible. 3/16/23

The Other Side of the Sun by Paul Capon, Thunderchild, 1950 

First volume of a trilogy.  A slowly developing story about the construction of the first spaceship. Its purpose is to discover whether or not there is another earthlike world on the opposite side of the sun – there is, of course. An unlikely group of people go on the first voyage, which really doesn’t get underway until the second half of the novel. They land and meet a humanoid race, but one member of their crew is an agent of a syndicate that wants to conquer the planet and enslave its inhabitants. The story ends in a mild cliffhanger. 3/15/23

The Bowl of Baal by Robert Ames Bennet, Grant, 1975 (originally published in 1916) 

This is not badly written but it’s an unexceptional lost race novel. The protagonist lands his small plane in an oasis where a forgotten civilization survives. Two rival priestesses are battling for power and our hero naturally helps the better one win after being mistaken for a god. He has some minor adventures plus a pretty good one battling a surviving dinosaur. The author wrote one other lost world novel but most of his output was western adventures. This isn't bad but isn't memorable either. 3/11/23

When the Earth Swung Over by Alfred Colbeck, Armchair, 2022 (originally published in 1926) 

This is a borderline lost race novel, but really just a jungle adventure story. A shipwreck leaves several people in the hands of a hidden tribe in South America. One escapee returns to civilization and is then a part of a rescue party that has various adventures, mostly en route, before finally accomplishing their goal. The prose is okay but sometimes clunky and the characters are all stereotypes. The adventures are not particularly interesting and the ending was pretty obvious from the outset. Some obscure novels deserve to remain obscure. 3/9/23

The Devil’s Henchmen by John Oldrey, Armchair, 2022 (Originally published in 1926) 

This is marginally a lost world novel set somewhere near Afghanistan, but the remote kingdom is known to the outside world and has already been visited by Russian agents when an experimental air ship is forced to land there due to sabotage. The evil queen of that land has decided to use the discovery of a method of mind control in order to conquer the world. The gallant airship captain foils her plans and outwits the nefarious Russian spies. Not very interesting. 3/5/23

An Aerial Runaway by W.P. & C.P. Chipman, Armchair, 2022 (originally published in 1901) 

A generally uninteresting standard lost world adventure. Four men in a runaway balloon end up among a lost Incan tribe in the mountains of Venezuela. There is an evil high priest, a beautiful girl, a brewing civil war, and the usual cliches. The outsiders are initially assumed to be gods. They defeat the high priest and he is removed from power. The civil war breaks out and they help the good guys before using a canoe to return to the outside world. Long sections are descriptive and not much happens. 3/1/23

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick, Pocket, 1982 

I’m not sure if this is really SF at all. It is more properly fantasy because of a poltergeist and some communication with the dead. Archer is an Episcopalian bishop who travels to Israel to consult some ancient documents and goes through a transformative process spiritually which helps him deal with the suicides of people he loves, but also leads to his death in the desert. The novel is narrated by his daughter-in-law and is heavy on theological and philosophical speculation and argument. I liked it better than the other two books in the Valis “trilogy” but Dick’s preoccupations do not coincide very much with my own so I found them essentially lacking interest. 2/21/23

Nick and the Glimmung by Philip K. Dick. Piper, 1988 

This was Dick’s only SF novel for younger readers, and it’s a kind of sequel to Galactic Pot-Healer.  Earth has outlawed the ownership of pets so a family emigrates to another planet where they meet a number of different aliens, They are also concerned about the presence of a Glimmung, a supposedly evil alien entity. Boring.  2/21/23

Subterrania by Harl Vincent, Armchair, 2022 

This contains two related novellas from 1929-1930. The first involves attacks from an underground world where a villain from the surface has become ruler of a tribe of cave men and has begun kidnapping slaves from above. The hero escapes at the end of the first story and the villains are presumed dead, but one survives and the sequel describes a return trip to deal with his remaining minions. Vincent was an artless writer and these two novellas are flat and uninteresting. 2/17/23

Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick, Avon, 1987   

Another autobiographical and philosophical novel, this one published posthumously. It was written during the 1970s and apparently rejected, although the author went on to write Valis instead, which is arguably even further from his previous work. The protagonist lives in an alternate 1960s America where paranoia is endemic and conspiracy theories are everywhere. He was unusually prophetic about that. The protagonist has visions/visits from an alien entity who is apparently God and wants him to overthrow the government. Readable, but slow. 2/17/23

The Preserving Machine by Philip K. Dick, Ace, 1969  

I confess that while virtually all of the stories here were readable, very few are memorable. “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” is pretty good. The movie versions as Total Recall change the ending. “If There Were No Benny Cemoli” and “What the Dead Men Say” are both quite good. Dick really needed at least novella length to explore some of his odd concepts, and he tended to reuse ideas and situations quite often. His penchant for the surreal is rarely seen in this selection, although some entries – like the title story – are more fantasy than science fiction. 2/15/23

The Divine Invasion by Philip K. Dick, Pocket, 1981 

More or less a sequel to Valis, although it is more a thematic link than anything else. This is another long discussion of theological issues wrapped around a tissue of a plot. God is not dead. He has been exiled to a distant planet and Belial rules the Earth through communism and organized religion. The protagonist convinces God that it is time to return and ends up escorting a pregnant woman across space in order to set off the Second Coming. Drifts into fantasy a lot. If you like the theology, you might find this interesting. The plot is just an excuse to justify its marketing. 2/13/23

Snow Rubies by Ganpat, Armchair, 2022

This 1925 lost world novel by Martin Gompertz was originally published in 1925. A small expedition penetrates to a hidden valley in the Himalayas after an oversized ruby suggests great riches are hidden there. They encounter a tribe of hostile troglodytes who have an underground civilization and they do not like intruders. Nothing really out of the ordinary but it was nice not to have a beautiful princess and a civil war. The adventure comes to an end when a fortuitous earthquake buries the bad guys. Quite readable. 2/11/23

The Tunnel by Robert Byrne, Dell, 1977 

A borderline SF thriller about an early project to build a cross Channel tunnel from England to France. The construction is well under way and the chief engineer is the protagonist, a man dedicated to completing the link. Opposed to him is an IRA fanatic who plans to blow up the tunnel at an opportune time in such a way that England will somehow be forced to liberate all of Ireland. The plot moves in a sedate but entertaining fashion and the characters are quite vividly portrayed. I’ve never seen another novel by Byrne. 2/9/23

Valis by Philip K. Dick, Bantam, 1981 

Autobiographical anecdotes and long philosophical discussions make up most of this novel, the first in a series of three. The plot, such as it is, involves a man who – through his use of drugs – realizes that reality is all an illusion and actually history proceeded in a much different manner than what we perceive. The plot really is an excuse rather a focus. I doubt very much this would even have been published if Dick had not become a hot seller thanks to the Bladerunner movie. I had to force myself to finish. 2/8/23

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. DAW, 1977

This is a frequently autobiographical novel in which a new drug causes split personalities. The protagonist is a drug user and dealer, whose alternate personality wears an electronic suit that disguises his appearance, and in that form he is a narcotics agent. Not even his bosses know this, however, so one of him is ordered to keep the other of him under surveillance. The personalities do not share information, which leads to some humorous situations, although most of the novel is a serious examination of the causes of drug addiction, the results on the personality and human interactions, and questions about whether drug use should be judged criminal. Although parts are amusing, overall this failed for me. 2/4/23

High Concepts by Bill Pronzini, Stark House, 2023, $15.95, ISBN 979-8-88601-017-6

I have always thought of Bill Pronzini as a mystery author and this collection made me realize that he has produced a great deal of SF as well, although at shorter length. There are more than thirty stories here, four of them original to the collection - and several of them collaborations with Barry Malzberg. They are generally quite short and they span a career of over fifty years and are drawn from all of the major genre magazines and a variety of anthologies. There is humor and suspense and satire and speculation sprinkled through this collection of gems and while this is a kind of sidelight to his central writing focus, it is no less entertaining. I couldn't help wondering what kind of novels he might have written had this been his preferred genre. 2/2/23

The Variable Man by Philip K. Dick, Ace, 1957 

A collection of early stories. “Second Variety” is the most famous, a tale in which killer robots are used to imitate people and infiltrate enemy lines. “Minority Report” is another of his best tales. The title story is a novella about a time traveler whose presence upsets an entire civilization. “Autofac” describes war with automated underground factories which refuse to be shut down. “A World of Talent” is the weakest – an allegory about mutants. These are from the most imaginative and productive period in Dick's career for short fiction. 1/27/23

Deus Irae by Philip K. Dick & Roger Zelazny, Dell, 1976 

A post-apocalyptic novel whose protagonist is an artist who was born without arms or legs and uses an elaborate mechanism to function.  He is sent on a pilgrimage to find the human being who is also the God of Wrath and paint his portrait. Along the way he encounters a large number of humans and mutants. Some of the book is clearly fantasy – talking birds, for example. Much of it consists of theological arguments of no particular interest. I hated this when it first came out, and the years have not improved my opinion. I struggled to finish it. 1/24/23

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick, DAW, 1974 

Although this novel makes use of a generally effective premise – the person who discovers one day that he does not exist and no one remembers him – the narrative begins to lose steam halfway through. The protagonist is a popular singer/entertainer who wakes up in a hotel room in a world that does not recognize him. It’s a dystopian police state, so that’s not a good thing, and he goes the usual route of forged papers and trying to contact people who should know him.  The eventual explanation is new but not very plausible and there are sections of the book that are very talky without much progress. 1/22/23

Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K. Dick, Ace, 1970 

One of my least favorite Dick novels. A relative handful of mutants have somehow seized control of the world and have set up a repressive government. One dissident has flown off to the stars to find an alien race who might help overthrow them. He does, sort of, but Dick never took the story seriously and therefore neither does the reader. The characters act in absurd ways, motives are random and changeable, and it is not even clear if the alien who returns is actually real. The resolution resolves little and we are left unaware of whether the situation has changed for the better, or for the worse. I found little to enjoy in anything Dick wrote from this point on in his career. 1/16/23

The Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick, Paperback Library, 1970 

Fourteen people are lured to a prospective colony world without any explanation of what the colony is supposed to do, and they are immediately cut off from the rest of the universe. This was Dick’s exploration of the nature of God and while there are hints of an interesting situation – God is not supernatural – the potential is completely wasted. The colonists begin to die in mysterious ways. Are they killing each other, or just imagining it? At the end, I really didn’t care what the solution was.

Galactic Pot-Healer by Philip K. Dick, Berkley, 1969 

Dick declined as far as I am concerned with the previous book and never recovered. This one involves a mysterious creature in a far world that recruits humans from all over the galaxy to help it restore a cathedral built by an extinct race. Except there is more going on than it appears. I kept waiting for something interesting to happen, but that never happened. I cared not one whit for any of the characters, or for the outcome of the project. It is self indulgent and quite boring and the next novel would be even worse. 1/12/23

We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick, DAW, 1969 

Aka A Lincoln, Android.  This was the first of what I consider the tedious novels by Dick. There are lots of long philosophical discussions but not much plot. The premise is that a small company develops an android that can pass for human. An Elon Musk type character tries to buy them out so that he can use them to seed fake colonists on other planets and corner the real estate market. There is angst. There is concern about what makes a human being. There are legal battles and personal conflicts. What is missing is entertainment. And an actual plot. The first half is quite promising, but things go bad at midpoint, and the story ends without resolving any of the questions about the use of androids. 1/10/23

Ubik by Philip K. Dick, Dell, 1969 

One of my favorite Dick novels, and a kind of reprise of Eye in the Sky. A group of anti-psi operatives escape an attack on their lives, or do they? The world seems to be changing around them, regressing into the past in bizarre ways. Currency becomes older, cigarettes grow stale, and technology reverts to the 1930s. But not consistently. Something is playing with reality, and they struggle to learn the rules. There is also a spray can of Ubik, which can temporarily reverse the retrogressive progress. Are they alive or dead? Is their boss alive or dead? Although I generally dislike surrealism, this is a notable exception. 1/8/23

Sneak Preview by Robert Bloch, Paperback Library, 1971 

A standard post-apocalyptic satire with thousands of domed cities in North America. One of them is a transformed version of Hollywood. Psychologists effectively rule the world and preside over the question of whether or not to reclaim the countryside. A filmmaker gets bored with space operas and makes a realistic movie, which marks him as a dissident. He somewhat inadvertently becomes the catalyst for a revolution. Not particularly good. Satire has to have a new gimmick or it feels imitative. 1/5/23

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Signet, 1968 

This was the basis for Bladerunner, the movie, although the story varies considerably. Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job is to hunt down rogue androids and destroy them. They can easily pass for human and sophisticated tests are necessary to tell the difference. The latest batch of escapees provides some unusual challenges. Unlike the movie, we do not feel much sympathy for the androids because they really are monsters, incapable of human empathy. But Deckard fears that his own personality might mean that he could not pass the test as human. And he is strangely drawn to a woman who is clearly an android,. One of the best of his best novels. 1/2/23