Monday, February 29, 2016

Book Review: The Dark Fields

© 2001 by Alan Glynn

Re-titled Limitless when it was brought to the big screen, starring Bradley Cooper.

Limitless is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it out in the theaters when it came out five years ago and have seen it at least a half-dozen times since on cable and DVD. In fact, it won the “2011 Hopper Best Of” category for Best Movie, a little thing I do at the end of each year to let you all know the best and worst books, movies, and fads the Hopper has seen, read, and experienced.

So for five long years I’ve kept my eye out for the source novel, Alan Glynn’s The Dark Fields. Had no idea how it would sync up with the film. But it didn’t matter to me. The chance to get deeper into Eddie Morra’s thoughts under the influence of NZT-48 made the book a MUST for me. Back in September I bought it online and finally got around to reading it over five days this past week. (Would’ve read it sooner but I, er, misplaced it for a few months among the ten or fifteen piles of fifty or sixty books I have floating around three levels of my house …)

The premise is endlessly fascinating to me. What would you do if someone handed you a pill that increased for intelligence tenfold? Drove your IQ into four digits. Oh, and also shot your confidence through the roof, shoved your creativity into overdrive, and put an encyclopedic memory at your disposal. Would you take it? Such is the opportunity presented to down-on-his-luck struggling writer Eddie Morra.

A quick summary, from my review of April, 2011:

Lovable loser Eddie Morra is a down-on-his-luck writer. Defeated by mental blocks, his publisher threatens to call in his advance. His girlfriend / bank dumps him and his landlord itches to kick him out on the street because he can’t pay the rent. One random day sadsack bumps into his old brother-in-law – yes, the only women he’s ever loved divorced him – an unsavory character who happens to be ... a drug dealer.

Brother-in-law is hawking a new type of drug. Right off the pharmaceutical company’s experimental drug assembly line. Allegedly it enables you to use 100% of your brain, percentages based on the old wives tale we only use 20% of our brains (the figure I recall hearing ages ago was 5%). So, what the heck, there’s nothing left to lose. Just pop that experimental drug into your mouth and see what happens.

Here’s where the movie shines. The drug, known as NZT, enables you to see everything “clear.” Thirty seconds after ingestion, you have access to everything you’ve ever seen, read, heard, done. You can make the connections instantaneously. You see the big picture. Everything around you is in slow-motion, and you’re in comfortable confident overdrive. And, apparently, you have boundless energy, because, I guess, gifted with such visioneering capabilities, who would want to sleep?

The movie details Eddie’s rise to the top. Yes, he finishes his novel in four days, and it’s a revolutionary sort of work. He gets a loan from his generic neighborhood Russian mob guy and transforms $12,000 to $2.3 million in ten days trading stocks. Swarms of interesting people flock to him at cocktail parties. Connections are made. Our boy soon comes to the attention of Karl Van Loon, DeNiro’s character, a smorgasbord of corporate tycoons with shades of Trump, Bloomberg, Soros, and the cigar-chomping financiers of the 18th century. He also has to deal with the Russian mafia, and there’s a monkey wrench thrown into things when that neighborhood mobster ingests one of Eddie’s pills and becomes supersmart himself.

(The rest of the review can be found here.)

So … what did I think of the book?

Bottom line: Movie better than the book.

[Warning! Spoilers large and small …]

The writing in The Dark Fields is very, very good. It flowed, and pages turned. Exposition flawlessly transitioned to dialogue and vice versa. Great big heapings of italics, emphasizing specific words in speech the way real people talk, a grammarism I really like. About half to two-thirds of the book made it into the film, sometimes shot-for-shot and word-for-word, so I felt comfortably nostalgic, revisiting an old friend and reliving exciting times. Most of this complementarity occurs in the first half of the story, for the film’s ending is radically different from the novel’s.

As the book progresses, more and more differences show up. Carl Van Loon is essentially a secondary figure, and only became the film’s antagonist after DeNiro signed on. Van Loon’s daughter plays a part in the book as Eddie’s love interest, a somewhat boring and clichéd part that did not make the film. Dark Fields also makes a big to-do about the model Eddie may or may not have killed, fleshing out her identity as a Mexican celebrity which leads to a larger backstory of a US-Mexican crisis. The movie glosses over the global impact of this, instead using it to ratchet up the tension around Eddie getting found out and introducing the scummy lawyer subplot.

NZT-48 is called MDT-48 in the novel. The movie really took pains to create an exciting and illuminating experience on the big screen to show Eddie coming under the influence of the drug. Brighter colors, Eddie’s eyes are bluer, different camera angles and visual effects. The book can’t do this, but I was expecting some literary special effects from Glynn. Perhaps a change of writing style, a change of words used, a change to iambic pentameter, something. But despite wanting to experience MDT as I did NZT, it was not to be. In the book MDT is described as “a drug for anal retentives who want to become more anal” (as it also is in the movie), but in the novel that’s all it really appears to be. In addition to giving you an overwhelming desire to clean your apartment and buy some swankier clothes, it does makes you smarter, yes, but that’s certainly not demonstrated by Book Eddie.

Book Eddie is dumb, Stupid. I was yelling at him – as I mentally yelled at Bradley Cooper watching the film – not to make stupid mistakes, and come up with a Plan. Movie Eddie pretty much does so, at least compared to hapless Book Eddie. For example, Book Eddie fails to grasp the importance of replicating the drug and getting his own supply until there’s a dozen pages left in the book. Our printed-page hero also keeps his MDT supply (a couple hundred pills) all together in one unguarded place. He also never comes up with a decisive plan to deal with Gennady, the Russian mobster. Though Movie Eddie also failed in this regard, Book Eddie keeps saying, “I needed a plan to deal with Gennady” every freakin’ time he finishes up an encounter with him.

This guy has a four-digit IQ?

The book’s ending is a super downer. In the film Van Loon and Gennady are developed to be the baddies, especially the financier, as potentially lethal roadblocks to Eddie’s vision of creating and doing something fantastic with the world. In the book, it’s a faceless eeeevil pharmaceutical corporation that’s been using Eddie as an unwitting and ignorant participant in an illegal drug trial and ultimately sentences him to a powerless death. (Though Glynn ends the novel before poor Eddie suffers his agonizing withdrawal-induced demise.)

There were better plot twists in the movie (i.e., Hank Atwood being on NZT, the aforementioned scummy lawyer stealing the NZT supply, the whole knife guy character), though this isn’t saying that the novel didn’t have its share. There’s a particularly good one on the final page. But after initial enthusiasm, I felt The Dark Fields kinda just plodded on, with ever growing certainty, toward a sorta deus ex machina of Eddie’s epic failure.

But I think the biggest reason the book let me down is that it’s yet another example of the “you can’t cheat the system / Mother Nature / Human nature” and “no good deed goes unpunished” theme so overused in science fiction. If this is the case, why does man bother extending himself with any type of self-improvement? Oh, but – you say – The Dark Fields and Limitless is a story about a drug … and drug use, abuse, and addiction.

And I say – it isn’t. It’s about potential. Unbounded potential.

Would I have liked the book better had it not been made into a movie? In all honesty, probably. It’s still a riveting read. I enjoyed every minute with it, with the possible exception of the final twenty minutes. In the final analysis, to me at least, the movie took what was good with the book and made it better, and excised completely what was not up to, say, NZT levels.

Grade B+

PS. A minor, minor point, but the editor in me sees these things: several Britishisms yanked me momentarily out of the story, i.e. “kerb” and “cheque.” Might have been another one; if so, it didn’t make a lasting impression.

PPS. For the record, I have never watched the Limitless TV show which debuted last September. I had a feeling it would stink since I found out the main character uses the godlike potentialities of NZT to … solve crimes. Solve crimes partnered with a hot cop chick just like any other of the hundred thousand police procedurals on the tube (cf. The Mentalist, Elementary, and Numbers, just to name a few, though I think Numbers had a hot scientist chick instead of a hot cop chick).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco


Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist and professor of semiotics (the study of symbols and metaphors, closely related to linguistics) who had a very big impact on me. He died yesterday at his home at the age of 84.


His first two novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, were probably the first truly intellectual novels I read. I lived both twice, years apart. The Name of the Rose in college in 1986 and again in 2011; Foucault’s Pendulum as a respite from my wild band days in 1991 and later in 2003. Both are highly original historical detective mysteries, both have tight, compelling plots. Both are highly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, another of my literary muses.

Both have long been on my list of All-Time Top Hundred Reads, over there to the left.

Eco wrote a couple of novels since, but they seemed instinctively to me to be departures from these first two, so I never read them. Perhaps I will; dunno, but I will keep my eye out for them.

Foucault’s Pendulum introduced me to the Knights Templar 25 years ago, way before they became dumbed-down denizens of our modern day culture’s conspiracy infatuation. The book is gripping, suspenseful, labyrinthine. Three bored Italian editors decide to feed historical conspiracy theories into a computer, and soon their hobby takes on a life of its own. We never know what is real and what is not, but apparently there are forces out there that take it all for reality.

In honor of the great writer I have reposted my review of The Name of the Rose from October of 2011:

With the exception of The Lord of the Rings, no other book has a greater association for me with the place that I’ve read it than Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Vividly do I recall those brisk fall nights I’d trek over to the college library, secure an isolated seat among the islands of privacy-walled desks, and hunker down for a two-hour reading session. Then, under cloudless moonlit nights, the crisp air swirling brown leaves about the labyrinth walkways leading back to my dorm, I’d hurry back, the 500-page hardcover nestled securely under arm. Already thinking about tomorrow night’s reading ... once I got tomorrow’s classes and cafeteria runs and homework and tests, studying and socializing out of the way.

I think it took about two weeks to finish Rose back then. Amidst rows and rows of furiously working students, I had only one objective: find out the murderer in the monastery. Oh, and I was in love with a girl in my hometown, so I counted the hours until Friday classes were done with and I could drive my battered 1969 Dodge Dart home. Of classes and knowledge ingested that November twenty-five years ago I have no recollection (I think I took an astronomy class). But the abbey and its mysterious library – the Aedificium – I have never forgotten.

The setting is an anonymous medieval monastery sometime in the early decades of the fourteenth century. Christianity – as practiced by human sinners, imperfect – is the axel about which all of society revolves. Indeed, civilization is continually thrust forward from the centers of learning populated invariably with Dominicans and Franciscans – the intelligentsia of the couple-century period between the “Dark Ages” and the “Enlightenment.”

Ostensibly, the book is a murder mystery. Who is slaying the monks of this abbey, at a rate of a killing a day, monks whose main task seem to be the copying of ancient and medieval texts (this being some 150 years before the invention of the printing press)? William of Baskerville is summoned to solve these crimes before the Inquisitor arrives under the pretext of settling some high-level political disputes between the Emperor, the Pope, and some orders which may or may not have fallen into heresy. The tale is narrated to us from William’s young but intelligent novice, Adso.

Soon it’s discovered that some cryptic book lies at the heart of the slayings. But the library, the “Aedificium,” is forbidden to all, William included, save the sole librarian of the abbey. The proto-detective and Adso soon sneak into the maze of the library, not once or twice but three times, in their search for the evil book which causes men to kill. The Aedificium is almost a full-fleshed character in the novel, so important is it to the plot, complete with its power to disorient and cause horrible visions and nearly frighten men to death. I was so taken with the Aedificium twenty-five years ago that I sketched out its layout, as done by William and Adso, intrigued at that ingenuous navigation scheme the builders designed within it.

Re-reading this book, as is true with rereading most books, was paradoxically both a disappointment as well as a font of new revelation. On the negative side, I already knew the killer’s identity and his reasonings and rationalizations. On the plus side, I was able to pick up on Eco’s foreshadowing and telescoping techniques that sailed over my head the first time. Some of the more emotionally explosive scenes – and there were at least a half-dozen or so – lacked the sheer punch of twenty-five years ago. Part of my heart hardening with age, I suppose, and part of my self-identification with Adso as we both dealt with our first loves (though in radically different forms)

However, the second reading really flushed out the background for me. For one, I am magnitudes more knowledgeable concerning Christianity, its background, practices, the more famous writings produced by the heroes of the faith, and the structure of the Church. All this I was ignorant of way back in college, and most of it flew over my head. Now, I actually know the relationship of Aristotle to Aquinas, and I know the characteristics of Dominicans versus Franciscans, and I know how the role of the Papacy has evolved, devolved, and re-evolved over the centuries. The second time around, I was a much more attentive and involved reader.

Particularly so since so much of The Name of the Rose focuses on books. Or scrolls to be more precise, the ancient and esoteric texts in Greek and Arabic and Latin that filled the monasteries of the middle ages, tracts not only on religion and theology but on politics, science, emotions, sociology, psychology, alchemy, travelogues to semi-mythical lands, and, of course, pagan philosophy. All tread a fine line between heresy and orthodoxy with the Church, and most at least toed the sands of heretical thought. As a mad crazy bibliophile, always on the prowl for The Book That Will Change Everything (at least in my life and how I perceive it), this substantial part of the Rose fascinated me to no end.

The best analogy to compare the two readings of Eco’s book is the same one I used to describe my re-readings of Tolkien. The first time, I could not see the forest for the trees. The second time, I could not see the trees for the forest. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. I just know that it’s a different thing. If I’m still on walking on this earthly sphere in another twenty-five years, I’ll reread both again, and see if the third time is a charm.

All that aside, The Name of the Rose is a great intellectual read, but not without its shocking share of grit and goth to keep you firmly grounded. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and give it a solid A.


Second time around I picked up on a couple things, as well as read some revelations by Eco himself and from some online postings from his fans. For one, William of Baskerville is an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles, anyone?

I’ve also become a huge fan of Jorge Luis Borges over the past few years. The blind Argentinean writer and poet is known for his cryptic, esoteric, and philosophical fiction that never fails to raise goose bumps over my arms whenever I return to his short stories. How unfortunate that I cannot read him in the original Spanish but must rely on translations! A major character in The Name of the Rose is an ancient, blind monk named ... Jorge of Burgos. Another homage.

Speaking of Borges, Eco himself has said that, analogously, The Name of the Rose is to Borges’s “The Library of Babel” as Eco’s next novel, Foucault’s Pendulum is to Borges’s sublimely weird “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Now, if you’ve never read Borges or Eco, these titles will be meaningless to you. But if you have (or once you do, as I fervently encourage you booklovers to do), a wonderful a-ha! will click in your mind, prompting you to re-read them all again with a better understanding.

It’s been said elsewhere that everyone’s born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. I myself fluctuate, but on any given day I’m perhaps 75% Plato, 25% Aristotle. That being said, I found it a bit difficult to agree with the villain that Aristotle will sow the seeds of destruction for the human race. Or at least the somewhat lighthearted treatise of Aristotle’s the bad guy has in mind. But, I was able to suspend some disbelief and allow a character from a different time period and different culture to have his own set of beliefs and prejudices.

By the way, the movie absolutely stunk! Admittedly, I have not seen it since the late 80s, but it was so bad compared to Eco's source novel, that I won't see it again. However, and it's a big however, the casting of Sean Connery – light years away from his James Bond persona – as William of Baskerville was enlightened. All throughout my second reading of the novel I envisioned William as Connery. But casting Christian Slater as Adso was just a travesty.

The title has absolutely nothing to do with the novel. I learned that Eco originally wanted to title the book Adso of Melk, but the publisher balked. According to wikipedia, he then came up with ten alternate titles and had friends select their favorite. The Name of the Rose was chosen. FWIW.

Bottom line: Good book, good read. Scheduled for a third reading sometime around 2035 or 2036.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Spectre and the X-Files


Saw Spectre the other day … and liked it a lot. Not loved it, but enjoyed it. Not a big fan of Daniel Craig’s James Bond. Too dour, moody, thuggish. I grew up on the Roger Moore James Bond, and while that characterization descended into clownishness at times, I miss the humor and suave sophistication Moore brought to those roles, particularly those in the 70s. Sean Connery, I guess, is the best Bond, bringing together the perfect proportions of physicality, light-heartedness, and, when called for, ruthlessness. A balanced Bond, unlike the robotic incarnation we’ve seen over the past decade.

Anyway, Spectre is more back to form, back to the 007 we grew up on and loved. I’ve always thought that the villain, and his egomaniacal world-dominating plot, were equally important, if not more so, to a Bond movie. And face it, the villains from the past few Craig flicks – Le Chiffre, Green, Silva – couldn’t hold a candle to Blofeld, Scaramanga, Drax, Stromberg. But now Blofeld’s back, played by the excellent Christoph Waltz, and he’s got his lair, and he’s got his world domination scheme (although I still pine for a more SF-ish MacGuffin).

Still hate the revisioning, though. But overall, I’d grade Spectre a solid B.


Been watching the new X-Files reboot with the wife. Both of us were huge X-philes back in the day, twenty-some-odd years ago. But the new series strikes me as tired and aimless. Mulder looks bloated and drugged up; Scully looks like she went a little overboard with the botox. Both seem to be struggling too hard to recapture the magic. The first four episodes have been uneven, focusing more on gore than legitimately intriguing theories outta left field. I’d grade them, in order, D, C, B, and D. For a series that peaked with its first motion picture installment in 1998, The X-Files: Fight the Future, I’m not so sure the whole thing should have been resurrected.

But I may be biased.

I love reveling in nostalgia. I re-read those goose-bump-inducing books I originally cut my teeth on thirty years ago. I initiate my children in the cinema of my youth. I seek these things out, actively, like a detective, and the rediscovery and re-visitation give me great pleasure. For years I hunted for my beloved physics book, the book that made me major in the subject in college, and I am still searching for a comic book I read, and re-read, and re-read, way back in the fourth grade. Ah, nostalgia.

So I thought I would enjoy revisiting the original X-Files series. A friend has it on his FIOS stick thingie, and he lent it to me. The wife and I settled in for nostalgia overload over the past couple of nights and we watched the pilot and the first two episodes from Season 1. And you know what? I didn’t feel nostalgic at all. Instead, I just felt old.

Not sure why. Well, actually I have a pretty good idea. It’s because I was an adult when I saw the show’s original run. Not a kid. Now I’m just an older adult. And it’s not a comforting feeling.
Don’t know if we’ll continue to watch Season 1. We have the FIOS thingie for another five days. I think if, perhaps, I got Little One into it the show might deliver a good vibe for me, but the wife doesn’t think she’s old enough yet. I dunno; I’ve watched John Carpenter’s The Thing and Vin Diesel’s Pitch Black with her, to no ill effect. But I’ll capitulate to the Mrs. on this. Probably because I’m feeling old …


Movies on Deck:

The Walk

Current TV rage:


Current musical infatuation:

Mozart, particularly his piano concertos

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: Wolfhead

© 1978 by Charles L. Harness


Jeremy Wolfhead doesn’t actually have the head of a wolf, he assures us in the second sentence of this eponymous novel. Though, of course, an ancestor may have had one, due to all the genetic mutation and so forth from the Desolation.

How can on opening like that not hook you?

Wolfhead is a short and sweet novel, straight-forward and linear, a page turner I finished in three hours over four days (including being read at my daughter’s basketball game, stealthily, whenever she caught her breath on the bench). The first third sets up a sparse and spartan background, visualized with copious snow and ice, much like my current climatic conditions, then we dive into Jeremy’s mission of vengeance and rescue into the underworld.

Our story begins 3,000 years into the future, after this “Desolation.” From what I gathered, mankind now lives at a sort of 18th-century level, with some 20th-century perks, like nuclear engineering, brain surgery, and hovercraft technology thrown in. Jeremy Wolfhead’s grandfather is a wealthy businessman who considers his grandson too stupid to inherit the company since his son – Jeremy’s father – died under mysterious circumstances. But the young man is not too bad off. He enjoys hunting and has just married the most beautiful girl in the Washton and Ballomer area.

That is, until one evening, out in the cold to see the “god’s-eye” fly overhead (a sort of satellite, I presumed). Jeremy and his new bride are attacked by underground-dwelling humanoids. Our hero is left for dead, a bullet – or laser – hole through his head. Beautiful Beatra is abducted, vanishing without a trace.

The cryptic Brotherhood saves Jeremy’s life, discovering – and training – his new-found telepathic and telekinetic abilities. They need the boy to descend into the underground city to stop an imminent second Armageddon. He needs to make the journey to save his wife, or destroy those responsible if she has been killed.

To aid in his quest, Jeremy is given a partner, one who can see where he can’t (the dark), a dire wolf, with a piece of Jeremy’s brain grafted to hers. Naturally, the two form an uneasy alliance. Jeremy names her Virgil, his guide down into hell.

There were a lot of things I liked about Wolfhead. I liked the whole concept of the “Brotherhood,” monks of uncertain background who utilize telepathic powers to stop the second Armageddon from the “god’s eye” satellite of death. And there were two fairly neat SF ideas Harness handled well: seeing through another creature’s eyes through telepathy with said being, and the Vortex, giant spinning massive plates that offset the energy from earthquakes (“temblors”) and somehow aid and amplify telekinetic abilities.

Yet I couldn’t help but ponder how much better, tighter, more suspenseful and intriguing the whole tale might be in the hands of a Master. The idea that Roger Zelazny should have authored this kept invading my thoughts. Also the off-the-wall meta-novel that might have happened had, heaven help us, Philip K. Dick tried his hand with Harness’s notes.

Not sure the backstory of the novel nor of the author, but being published in 1978 it seems somewhat plausible to me that the tale or the writer may have had Watergate on the brain. Why? Well, the evil underground entity turns out to be … the government of the United States of America, led by … the President! And they’re hell bent on genocide! And the freedom fighters are revealed to be the … Democrats!

However, there is a nice two-part surprise at the end, having to do with the identity of the stranger known as “the Returner.” The first you’ll see a mile away, thanks to an obvious clue Harness drops nonchalantly in a paragraph of exposition (hint: see Paragraph 4 of this review). But the second surprise fooled me so completely I actually slapped my forehead. Yes, actually.

Wolfhead has a sad, bittersweet ending. The novel is bookended by fragments of poetry, and the final one is entitled Snowflakes on a Grave. Read in light of the final chapter, it was touching.

I also liked the snippets of Dante strewn throughout the book. Virgil, the name of the wolf. “Dis” the name of the underworld from Inferno and also short for “District of Columbia.” Dante himself is even mentioned as a “prophet” of sorts early on. And again, how much better the book would have been had the references been fully developed.

So, Wolfhead was a mixed bag for me. Some good, some not so, and lots of room for improvement.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Book Review: The Hero of Downways

© 1973 by Michael G. Coney

Michael G. Coney is one of the most creative, out-of-left-field SF authors I have ever read. Was, I should say, the man having died of mesothelioma in 2005. A child in Britain during World War II, he prospered mainly in the 70s and 80s with a dozen or so novels progressing from claustrophobic dystopic tales to mind-bending science fiction and fantasy.

Now, truth be told, I have read only one other one of the man’s novels: The Celestial Steam Locomotive, during my SF dry spell. From the mid-80s to the turn of the century, my main literary fodder was horror and technothrillers. Littering that landscape were a few Silverbergs, a Clarke or two, and perhaps two or three others. That was it. So CSL really shook me up. Published in 1983 it was unlike any of the other 60s and 70s SF I had ever read. Don’t remember much about the plot or characters, but it left an impression of greatness upon me, and I will reread it someday.

In November of 2011, browsing a used book store, I came across The Hero of Downways, by that same author of The Celestial Steam Locomotive (though this was written ten years prior). Based on that single fond memory I bought the book.

And it sat on the bookshelf On Deck Circle for half a decade.

What a waste, for I could not set the thing aside once I began it. It was an amazing piece of writing. I burned through it in three hours over three days.

How to describe The Hero of Downways? Every time I thought I had it nailed down, it morphed ninety-degree-angle-wise into something slightly different, slightly better.

We start out among some type of primitive tribe, with typical primitive tribal religions – a “Hero” who slays the “Daggertooth,” and in slaying the beast, is himself slain. These creatures are manlike, yet live underground, eat maggots, burrow in narrow dark tunnels and see with some type of infrared vision. The Daggertooth appears to be a giant rat-like monster – or are Downways people little miniaturized humans?

Then, there’s technology. Among the fungal glowglobes a new water distribution system is being developed. Apparently we’re in the midst of a technological renaissance. More so, there is the Vat – an ancient device that brings forth living beings after a tissue sample is supplied. Ergo, trukids, natural-born children, and vatkids, those made in the Vat. But only one person is made in the Vat during the tale, John-A, the new “Hero” to combat a new Daggertooth menace.

This is but the tip of the iceberg, as they say.

We soon meet the “Oddlies,” those trukids born with genetic anomalies who are immediately exiled from the tunnels of Downways. They’ve banded together over the years under the menacing personage of one Threesum, a genetic mutation truly horrifying – and clever, it must be admitted – even to the most seasoned SF reader. The Oddlies and the Downways exist in an uneasy truce, and are brought to the verge of war under the harsh, overbearing and belligerent leadership of John-A. Fighting each other when the greater menace, the Daggertooth, has a habit of quietly showing up at the most inopportune times to slaughter uninhibited.

Shirl, a spunky female whose lifespan we follow in the short novel, is tasked to teach the vat-born John-A, tame him and, perhaps, try not to be destroyed by him. For John-A was created to deal with the Daggertooth menace, a job he’s ostensibly up to, when he’s not murdering and scheming to dominate the hive.

The book really takes off in the final third. A battle between the Oddlies and John-A’s forces, launched in a way I did not anticipate and concluded in a similarly surprising fashion, leads to one of the best denouements I’ve recently read. And to cap it off, the conclusion of the book, the final six or seven pages, turns everything that I assumed about the novel on its head. A single sentence

She wanted to look at the stars

brought shivers to me as I realized the courage this little post-Apocalyptic underground hamster-human possessed to brave the raging surface radioactivity, and as we follow her upwards to her first view of the sky, we learn

That she may not even be human, and that the whole novel may not even have taken place on earth.


I’m not sure I entirely understood the final chapter, despite reading it twice, because it was very late at night and I was very tired but I had to finish it.

Seek out George R. R. Martin’s novella “In the House of the Worm,” (it’s part of his infamous Sandkings anthology), published three years after Downways, if you want to get a feel for this story. Though Martin’s tale is factors ickier and more claustrophobic. I also detected hints of the Martian downtrodden from Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Total Recall, particularly a mutated fellow named Kuato that paid more than requisite homage to Threesum, if Coney’s novel was even known to those screenwriters.

If I had all the time in the world, I’d re-read The Hero of Downways in a year or two. But I’ll more likely explore some other of Coney’s works. I have his fantasy Fang the Gnome sitting in the On Deck Circle behind me (purchased in 2012) and I’d like to check out his take on the Arthurian legend in King of the Scepter’d Isle, which immediately and henceforth gets placed on the Acquisitions List.

Grade: Solid A.

Note: the “G” in Michael G. Coney stands for “Greatrex” – what an awesome name! Might show up as a character in a future Hopper novel …

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Book Review: The Deerslayer

 © 1841 by James Fenimore Cooper

I liked this book but, man, did it really, really, really try my patience.

Over the span of around fifteen years in the early part of the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper wrote five novels about the ever-expanding American frontier. He wrote other stories, too, particularly sea stories, that being his original background, but he’s most famous for these five books, known as the “Leatherstocking Tales.” They range in setting from colonial New York in the 1740s to the Midwest of the Louisiana Purchase sixty years later, though they were not written or published in the chronological order of the stories themselves. They made Cooper a famous and wealthy man.

The stories all revolve around a single Daniel Boone-like frontiersman, a man born of white parents but raised by the Delaware Indians. He goes by many names throughout the books: Natty Bumppo, the Deerslayer, Hawkeye, the Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, to name the most popular. If you’ve ever seen Daniel Day Lewis in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans, well, that’s him.

In The Deerslayer, we experience some of the earliest adventures of our hero, side by side with his close friend, Indian prince Chingachgook. The last book to be written but the first chronologically, it is subtitled “The First War Path.”

My main issue with the novel, and it’s not unique to me (it famously goes back at least as far as Mark Twain), is that it is so freakin’ wordy! This is a 662-page paperback novel that any other competent western writer, say Louis L’Amour, could pound out in 165 lean and mean pages. And those 165 pages would have just as much – if not more – character development and definitely more suspense. Cooper’s novel took me 23 days to read. Had L’Amour wrote it I’d probably finish it in two. Maybe even one if I stayed up past midnight cause I couldn’t put it down.

But the hyperverbosity really was the only thing I hated about the book. Granted, it’s a big thing, but it’s not a deal breaker. I like to rush from book to book to book, wringing the best mind-blowing experiences out as possible from each, ever on the hunt for the next big vicarious fix. You might be different. If you savor a story, soak in the setting, bask in the time travel back to the age of our forefathers, then James Fenimore Cooper might be your thing. There were long spells in the book I did enjoy, such as pages and pages of description of an upstate New York past and never to be regained. Other spells, such as every single character having to give a ten-page farewell speech, well, that just grated on me.

The book opens with a pretty evocation of the colonial wilderness, as Deerslayer and his friend Henry March are hiking up to Glimmerglass Lake, Deerslayer to meet his pal Chingachgook and March to visit a trapper named Tom Hutter. Hutter’s built an impressive house-slash-fort in the middle of the lake, accessible only by canoe, sick of being harassed by the Indians. Though, truth be told, Hutter himself does more than his own share of harassing back, which does end up getting him in a heap of trouble. More enticing to Henry March is Hutter’s beautiful young daughter, Judith. Judith also has a “feeble-minded” sister (“feeble-minded” as an adjective occurs dozens of times in the novel) named Hetty who basically becomes a saint by the end of the tale.

Anyway, March and Hutter get captured scalp huntin’ by a passing band of Huron Indians, leaving Deerslayer and Judith to find a way to rescue them. That way is fairly prosaic, as they offer the Hurons some carved ivory chess pieces as ransom. Chingachgook shows up, seeking to free his princess fiancée, also a captive of the Huron. During a rescue attempt, Deerslayer is captured and Hutter is scalped. March shows himself the cad he is, and Hetty walks among the Huron (they don’t hurt the “feeble-minded”) spouting Bible verses in an effort to free Deerslayer. The Huron do allow the lad a furlough before he is to be tortured to death. Back at the island house, Judith falls in love with our hero, out of love with March, and discovers her father’s true identity. Being a man of solid word, Deerslayer returns to the Huron camp the next morning to face his imminent death. Can Judith, Hetty, Chingachgook and his bride-to-be rescue the valiant man? They sure can, with unexpected help, over the long course of 150 pages.

I must say I did enjoy the anti-PC feel to the book, particularly in depicting the Indians as – gasp! – villains. Trigger warnings and fainting couches must be supplied to our current crop of collegiate literature majors, provided they are even allowed to read Cooper these days at a college level. Cooper’s Injuns are, it seems to me, fairly accurate in a non-sugar-coated way, a whole plethora of microaggressions to those not even passingly familiar with the ways and means of a Neo-Stone Age hunter/predator culture.

A little over twenty years ago, purely on a whim, I read a couple of chapters of The Pathfinder, another novel of the Leatherstocking series, and really only because I was bored and found it in my grandparent’s basement. Don’t remember much of it. Would I read another one? I dunno. Probably not. Not to say I regret reading Deerslayer. I do enjoy these sorts of tales, and after seeing Leonardo as Hugh Glass in The Revenant the book nearly jumped off the shelf into my arms. If I can find a Leatherstocking novel under 250 pages, I might consider it.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Before my father-in-law’s surprise 75th birthday party last Saturday down in Washington DC, the girls and I spent the afternoon exploring the Smithsonian Museum of American history, per Patch’s request. I must say they had a great time, more so than I would’ve expected. Some of the highlights were –

The original Kermit the Frog

A baseball signed by Babe Ruth

One of the C3PO costumes from the original Star Wars

Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick

… and, this:

That’s Yours Truly posing next to Eddie Van Halen’s customized creation, called “Frankenstrat,” a mishmash of Frankenstein and Stratocaster. This self-built masterpiece is his original axe, dating way back to the mid-70s, built and rebuilt using a myriad of different parts. It is the guitar he used while recording the early Van Halen classics such as “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” among others, as is responsible for that unique Van Halen sound. It’s kinda vague, but based on the tag next to it, Frankenstrat seems to have been donated to the Smithsonian in 2007.

Very, very cool. A piece of history, as they say.

Oh, and here’s me trying to swipe Ben Franklin’s cane:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Surprise Party!

This past weekend the family and I drove down to Washington DC for my father-in-law’s surprise 75th birthday party. His real birthday was two weeks ago; he came over our house the previous weekend for a “real” birthday party with my little ones. Little did he know the surprise awaiting him.

His three daughters conspired over the past six months to make this a special night for him. A room at a fancy DC restaurant was set aside for the fourteen of us. My wife and her sisters decorated it with two dozen framed pictures of Bill from birth on to this Christmas past. A “75” banner was cutout and decorated with snapshots. They did up personalized napkins, coasters, and chocolate bars (that was my errand to run). 50s music played all night. Bill’s lady friend did one of those genealogies for him and made copies for all the daughters. Those who could not attend wrote down memories that my sister-in-law compiled for us all. Finally, all the grandchildren wrote down “words to describe Grandpa,” and the whole thing was made into a framed “75 Reasons Why We Love You.”

The party went down Saturday night. We arrived at the restaurant a full hour before my father-in-law, and when the maître d showed him in, his look of puzzlement turned to joyful shock. It was a success. My girls did the toast, which involved reading a two-page “A Day with Grandpa” testimonial that had everyone laughing. Later in the evening I did a short funny speech describing how I first met Bill eighteen years ago – the day in March 1998 he took me, my girlfriend-later-wife, her two sisters age 11 and 14 – to Hooters! At the conclusion, I handed him his own XXXL Hooters t-shirt.

The food was delicious. I had a cheese pierogi appetizer, trout for the main course (I’m not a foodie so I can’t really describe it in details, ’cept that it tasted good), and the best butterscotch pudding I ever had for dessert. Patch had the tomato soup appetizer, which she loudly exclaimed to the group to be the best tomato soup she ever had. This prompted my brother-in-law, friends with the chef/owner of the restaurant, to take my little one to meet her. The chef gave Patch a quart of tomato soup to bring home, the same quart container that spilled on Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike on the ride home Sunday.

Happy 75th Bill! Many more!

Tomorrow I will write about the awesome thing I did before the party, complete with pictures …

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Super Bowl

I dunno. Kinda boring. Anticlimactic, almost.

Had a very busy weekend traveling down to our nation’s capital (which I’ll go into tomorrow), and me and the girls wound up racing north on I-95 to get home before kickoff. I stocked the freezer with lots of football foods the Friday before – potato skins, mozzarella sticks, bagel bites – that the little ones like to eat during the game. Patch spilled tomato soup in the Pilot somewhere around exit 8 on the New Jersey Turnpike (I’ll go into the tomato soup tomorrow) and we rushed to get everything cleaned up and out of the car before the coin toss.

We were rooting for Peyton. As longtime Eli fans, we also like his older brother, and I felt it would be nice if he could ride off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl win. But we also are big fans of “Blind Side” Michael Oher, offensive lineman for the Panthers. So if they won it would be nice, too, for his sake. Cam Newton … well, the more I’ve learned about him the less I like of him. I like my sports heroes humble, not showboats.

Bottom line is the game would be a win-win here at Casa Hopper, just as long as Peyton wasn’t blown out like he was two years ago.

Then, the game happened. Boring. Bad. Found myself watching the clock on the DVR, and wondering if it would finish up early enough so I could put away a chapter or two of my new paperback.

The commercials annoyed me, too. Each and every year I get more and more anti-consumerist, and the Super Bowl is basically Our Cultures Annual Epic Commercial Lollapalooza with a football game thrown in. I found the commercials – I watched about half of them, unfortunately (I cooked all the appetizers and did some emergency laundry during the game – I found them stupid, unfunny, tasteless, and preachy.

There was only one commercial that the wife and I both laughed at. Probably because it was so unexpected, as we merely chuckled at it watching it later on the youtube. But this is the type of humor I like: humor where it’s truly unexpected and doesn’t cower in fear to any whiff of cultural insensitivity.

Seriously thinking about skipping the game next year.

Despite this dissatisfaction, right after it ended, I made a prediction for Super Bowl LI (or is it Super Bowl 51?): Carolina 31, New England 14. That is, if Newton can take this experience and mature into a true leader.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Easy on the Epic

I’ve been in a phase of late immersing myself in Epic Fiction. For example, since Thanksgiving, I have read the following works:

The Deerslayer – 662 pages

The Second World War – 783 pages

Finnegans Wake – 672 pages

The Crystal Cave / The Hollow Hills – 375 + 436 = 811 pages

Titus Groan – 519 pages

[The Second World War is not fiction, but any subject that encompasses five decades of history over six of the seven continents is worthy of the title “Epic.”]

Now, the allure of Epic Fiction is its potential to create truly believable wonderment in the imagination of the reader. This has to do primarily with the skill of the author, the world he creates and the character that populate it, and the ideas that flow in its telling. If I am to invest weeks of my life with a book of Epic Fiction, I want that potential to believable wonderment, or PBW, to be as high as possible.

In my semi-serious, spur-of-the-moment musing I see the PBW as some sort of logarithmic scale. Like decibel measurement. To keep it simple, a scale from 0 to 100. When this potential to believable wonderment, or PBW, reaches a maximum of 100, you know you’re reading Tolkien. As a cellar reference, a bottom-run basement at 0 (and I wouldn’t recommend this to any family member or friend) I’d place any work by Toni Morrison. Something solidly in the middle, for example, might be an Arthur C. Clarke or an Isaac Asimov. Bradbury or Heinlein might be one logarithmic level higher in PBW.

It’s highly subjective and barely thought out. But I mention it to bring up a point.

One never knows the personal PBW of a work of Epic Fiction. One might have a good idea, but lots of things can derail or enhance PBW. The risk here is that Epic fiction is, well, epic. And epic means length. Yes, range, depth and significance are all involved, but primarily we’re talkin’ book length, mercilessly measured in page count. Which translates into the time you will spend winding and wending your way through that particular world.

So, if the PBW is high, like Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg or Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, the payoff is high. You want to stay in that world long after the final page has been drunk.

But … if the PBW is unexpectedly low, it can be tortuous to make your way to that THE END pronunciation on page ultimate. Especially if you consider it a badge of honor, as I do, to finish everything you start. Titus Groan had a PBW that peaked somewhere in the 60s in the first chapter and ever so slowwwwwwly declined parabolically to somewhere around the 30s. A hard book to finish.

Now, seeing that the average length of the books I’ve been reading recently is just south of 700 pages, I’m wondering if I can’t maximize my pleasure (remember: Reading is one of Hopper’s three true pleasures in this life, a daily hour of nonworry) by reading substantially shorter books with potentially rewarding PBWs, based on my intuitive ability to size up a book by holding it in my hands.

With this in mind, I intend to bang out (and review) the following seven SF novels by Easter, all staring at me from the bookshelf directly behind my desk:

The Road to Corlay, by Richard Cowper – 228 pages

Wolfhead, by Charles L. Harness – 217 pages

The Hero of Downways, by Michael G. Coney – 183 pages

The Space Merchants, by Pohl & Kornbluth – 216 pages

Midnight at the Well of Souls, by Jack Chalker – 360 pages

Between Planets, by Robert Heinlein – 183 pages

Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein – 248 pages

And for the book nerds out there, I will think harder to quantify this PBW concept and perhaps, if I’m satisfied with it, include a PBW ranking in my reviews.

Happy Reading!