Life on Mars 3? – Robert Heinlein : “Podkayne of Mars”

Girls on Mars just want to have fun.

ABOVE: Curvy cover. Except that Podkayne is supposed to be 9 years old. Well, in Mars years.

1963’s “Podkayne of Mars” is the last of Heinlein’s YA novels (he himself felt differently about that clasification.) There’s a whole galaxy of improvement between “Podkayne” and “Rocket Ship Galileo”. We’ve gone from Hardy Boys chasing Moon smugglers to a fully realized character in Podkayne “Poddy” Fries, a Marsgirl who travels from her home planet to Earth in a luxury cruise liner, accompanying her diplomat uncle and her game-playing genius brother. There’s suspense, and not-too-much science, and the threat of space terrorism, all conveyed through a winning narrator’s voice. In the early ’60s, Poddy was a feminist inspiration to young women who would be space captains – buuuut 2015 readers might feel differently every time Poddy talks about hiding her intelligence around men so as not to bruise their egos, ( our snouts are more sensitive to the scent of sexism.)  Hopefully those readers don’t dwell too much on the “classic Heinlein” eyebrow-raising elements here: a few of the crew members seem a little too eager to have 9-year old Poddy wriggle on their laps, for instance. (Ok, so that’s 9 in Mars years, 15 in Earth years. Still.) “Podkayne of Mars” is brief enough that even when its shapeless, made-up-on-the-spot plot nearly literally blows up on your face, you won’t mind the time investment – and Poddy is plain likable.

ABOVE: “Alien contact”? Cover blurber didn’t read the novel. Not at all about alien contact.

RATING: COOL!

Life on the Moon? : Robert Heinlein – “Rocket Ship Galileo”

I’ve been meaning to rocket my way through Robert Heinlein ‘s worlds, specially because my dear little sister swears by him and has been similarly exploring his oeuvre. I recall reading “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and a couple of the “juveniles” as a youngster (“Starship Troopers” FTW!) ; but I frequenly found the scientific and philosophical meanderings jammed awkwardly into the plot – and sometimes not even “jammed into,” but merely “pushed against.” I liked “The Big Three” enough, but I didn’t feel too differently about most of Arthur C. Clarke. (Asimov’s short stories I always did go for, but I don’t recall reading his novels beyond the first Foundation trilogy.)

ABOVE: Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro – Not so Magnifico

Unless you already feel inclined to fandom, chronological completism is not the correct approach to Heinlein. 1947’s “Rocket Ship Galileo” is the first of his “juveniles” (YA, y’all) and nearly universally acknowledged as the weakest of 12 novels that chronicle spacial exploration from youthful angles. Still, half the kids who read this after WWII went on to nerdy professions. Artie, Ross and Morrie are the rocket-model nerds that are recruited by  a Dr. Cargraves to fly to the Moon (not because that makes SENSE, but because what boy wouldn’t enjoy that?) The boys are weakly characterized: had they been clones it wouldn’t have altered a line of dialogue. But their very blankness must have helped more than one reader project themselves into the plot. Heinlein is very good at getting one excited about being shot into space – and if there’s dastardly Nazis in the moon that may be killed, that’s two birds with one rocket.

ABOVE: “Nazis in Space? What is this, Argentina?”

RATING : SHRUG for non-fans, GOOD ENOUGH for Heinleinites.

Once is Never Enough : Jose Saramago- “The Double”

The late Nobelist Jose Saramago couldn’t resist remaking Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Double” (cleverly calling his version “The Double”). Russia turns into Portugal. The asphyxiating office setting of the original gets slightly more sophisticated: this non-hero, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, is a history teacher instead of a lowly clerk. And instead of first glimpsing his inexplicable clone in the flesh (like Dostoevsky’s Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin),  Tertuliano Maximo Afonso first sees his double on a TV screen. That’s modernity for you.

ABOVE: I really enjoy this cover!

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso: that’s a punny name, and the way Saramago insists on its full evocation all the time keys us to some deeper meaning. It is ridiculously high fallutin, vaguely suggestive of Roman Emperors, for starters. Tertullian was an early Christian writer most notable for the first historical formulation of the concept of the Trinity (“The Triple”?) Afonso is an extremely common Portuguese and Hispanic last name. Maximo is modifying the Alfonso: TMA is the ultimate average guy.

His twin is a supporting actor named Antonio Claro, his name equally as significant, “clear”, perhaps as a drop of dew is clear, of course drops of dew are known for their persistent, mysterious tendency toward being identical, whereas humans, swollen with hubris, put their efforts into uniqueness even if it comes down to a matter of a longer nose here, a shorter dress here, extra pounds or odd dietary habits, who knows what we will do not to allow clarity to be our trademarks, uniqueness becomes its own form of duplicity, but then aren’t duplicity and duplication the same?

Sorry, that’s Saramago’s style here: Commas link thoughts, drag the omniscient narrator into post-modern conversation with the characters, as Tertuliano Maximo Afonso and Antonio Claro engage in a cat-and-mouse (or is it cat-and-cat game?) for supremacy. The women in their respective lives become targets. (Without giving much away, at one point I found myself asking the question: if someone is deceived into having willing sex with someone they would be unwilling to have sex with, is that a rape?) “The Double” is frequently suspenseful and entertaining throughout, as long as one isn’t nagged by the feeling that it is simply a “Twilight Zone” script that has been artsified by a Nobel laureate. It gets extra points for the compelling usage of Anton Chekhov’s shotgun-on-the-wall dictum.

RATING: COOL!

P.S.: Saramago’s novel inspired “The Enemy,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Have not seen and cannot comment, but judging by a couple of reviews that mention its frustrating ambiguities, some liberties must have been taken. “The Double” explains itself plenty.

ABOVE: Jake Gyllenhaal is one binge-eating, carb-loading summer away from turning into Zach Galifianakis.

“The Year’s Best Horror Stories 4″

In Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, druid circles are conveniently used as time portals. They perform the same service In “Forever Stand the Stones,” by Joe Pumilla, an ambitious historical link-a-thon in which blood sacrifice somehow ties Catullus, Dracula, and Jack the Ripper. “Forever Stands the Stones” depicts an eternal, horrifying Romanesque London that would have pleased Arthur Machen. It’s a lovely artifact to stumble across as I skip through the series of “Year’s Best Horror Stories”, (Volume 4 is from 1976) Giants of the era Rampsey Campbell and Brian Lumley provide fine entries, but the little dark comic triumph of craft here is  Avram Davidson’s darkly hilarious “And Don’t Forget the One Red Rose.” An essay trying to bridge subjective characterization in differing biographies of H. P. Lovecraft is oddly included, but it does provide some food for though as to how we insist on turning human beings other than ourselves into static monoliths for ease of classification . (“Lovecraft was mean to me!” Says W. “Lovecraft was the nicest to me!” Says X. “I saw Lovecraft at a party once, hardly drank, kept to himself, very quiet man.” Says Y. “I saw Lovecraft at a party once, got so drunk, life of the party!” Says Z.)  It always amazes me how people believe that mundane interactions give them access to someone else’s intimate complexities.

RATING : MIXED, like the majority of anthologies; COOL! overall.

Salem’s Plots : Santiago Gamboa – “Necropolis”

“Lives are like cities. If they’re too neat and tidy they don’t have a story. The best stories come out of destruction and misfortune.”

ABOVE: City of Oddballs

“Neat and tidy” surely doesn’t describe Santiago Gamboa’s 2009 novel, “Necropolis.” Set in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel during an unlikely literary convention of “Biographers and Memory,” this novel-made-of-novellas borrows from Bocaccio and Chaucer (and a few other sources). Literary pilgrims try to drown out the noises of terrorism just outside the walls by telling their varied tales. Among them:

The picaresque saga of a former drug dealer/ evangelical pastor from Miami.

The spicy affairs of an Italian porn star who has (obviously and yet unconvincingly) read the Marquis de Sade – or at least Milo Manara.

The variations of two chess players ( Stefan Zweig’s “The Royal Game” is the inspiration).

And, (I know I  mention Alexandre Dumas a lot in here, perhaps more than he warrants) a thrilling remake of “The Count of Montecristo” set in modern-day Colombia.

Gamboa is one of Colombia’s most prominent narrators, (or THE most prominent, now that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is dead) – and perhaps one of the foremost Latin American writers, (now that Roberto Bolano has similarly ceased to be.) The (late) latter gets a friendly, pre-emptively defensive nod from Gamboa, who is surely aware that “Necropolis” invites comparison to “The Savage Detectives.” Working in a similar vein, he shows off with tonal shifts – but it’s too much showing off. The stories are all entertaining enough but never even remotely convincing. I can’t judge the original Spanish, but the translation flattens the voices of the male characters, whether Colombian or Israeli or Swedish. The females fare even worse: wish-fulfilling literate nymphomaniacs. And, (this could sound like a case of “bad food, small portions”) there aren’t ENOUGH stories to follow up on a Decameron or even a Heptameron.  For all its ambitious heft, “Necropolis” ends too soon. This is the rare 500 page novel that needed 1,000 pages to truly fulfill its promise.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH