I’ll get to the delightful alien eyes later, but I want to start this Sci-Fi Saturday post with a different delight: A Trick of Light, a novel by Stan Lee. Yeah, that Stan Lee. Along with Kat Rosenfield. And no, there are no pictures, comic or otherwise.
What is there is a fast, breezy, comic-book-like story about a guy and a gal and some interesting stuff that happens to them. I read the whole thing in one long afternoon, night, and into the AM, because it was hard to put down. “Just one more chapter” grew to reading the whole thing. It was a lot of fun.
There is also an interesting but somewhat less delightful book (a trilogy, actually) to tell you about. I have some definite mixed feeling about the author and his books.
But back to Stan Lee’s novel. Obviously there’s more to it than just a guy and a gal (and some interesting stuff). The gal has a father who figures into things in a big way, for one, and “interesting stuff” leaves out all the interesting details.
The problem is, there aren’t too many details I can share without reference to a major spoiler.
I can say that the book is apparently the first of the Stan Lee Alliances series, and that it is mainly (or at least heavily) positioned as an audio book. In fact, the audio book came out first — the hardback version I was given as a gift has “exclusive content, including bonus chapters.”
[In part due to bad hearing, but mainly because I find speech so tediously slow and inefficient, I have zero interest in audio books. I read way faster than someone speaks. It’s also why I don’t much care for podcasts. The information per minute content is too low.]
Whatever the intent, since Lee is no longer with us, he won’t be participating in the series, but I expect his collaborators may carry on (co-author Rosenfield along with Luke Lieberman and Ryan Silbert, who helped create the audio book).
For those interested in more about all that, there is an interview with the three collaborators at SyFy (dot com), Stan Lee’s co-creators on Alliances: A Trick of Light hope to turn listeners into Ditkos and Kirbys.
I haven’t found much about thia Alliances series other than that this is the first book. I’m not sure what the alliances in question are, but one certainly might involve the guy and gal who are the two main characters.
The guy is Cameron Ackerson, who is determined to achieve YouTube fame by investigating rumors of strange happenings out on Lake Erie. He’s a kind of ghost hunter convinced something weird is really going on.
In the first chapter he’s about to die. The little boat he sailed out onto the lake was fine until the mysterious storm appeared out of nowhere. It capsized the boat and dumped him into the water, and now he’s pretty sure this is it.
Then he’s hit by lighting, and his life will never be the same again.
No, he doesn’t get superpowers. That would be too simple and obvious. What does happen is a lot more interesting.
It ultimately connects him with Nia, the gal with the father. She’s a super hacker with skills unlike any other. She’s managed to sneak out from her restrictive father — who seems almost to be keeping her prisoner; she’s certainly being home-schooled and sheltered — and say “Hi!” to Cameron a few times, but she always goes away before he can really chat with her.
Anymore would be spoiling it. Suffice to say I enjoyed the heck out of it and couldn’t put it down. I’ll read it again pretty soon just to savor it. I give it a strong Ah! rating; it might almost rate a Wow! — depends on how it comes off the second time.
Chalker is one of those authors who hasn’t aged well, based mostly on his views of women. Or as he invariably calls them, “girls” (which just doesn’t cut it in anything written after, say, 1970). I can’t decide if he’s a misguided wannabe champion of women’s rights or a secret misogynist.
It’s one thing to have stereotypical role models — that can be forgiven in older authors. It’s another thing entirely to deal in misogynist themes and images. Chalker seems to at least pay lip service to “feminist” thinking (or his idea of it), but he puts his female characters in what come off as sexist and demeaning situations.
He’s big on body alteration and swapping, so his characters end up as various aliens, many of which are bestial in nature. His women tend to end up as beast-like or as naked fertility types. (In this trilogy, a primary female character spends nearly the entire trilogy running around naked. She has special mental powers that keep her from feeling the elements. She was also altered to be simple-minded in affect. Complaint, useful, sexual, almost an accessory for the other character.
And yet she’s instrumental to the plot, and most of what happens has a logic behind it, so it’s really hard to know WTF is up with this stuff. Is Chalker daring to write about topics no one in their right mind would normally touch (in which case bravo, very thoughtful), or is he indulging in some rather seamy, even ugly, personal fantasies (in which case yuck).
Maybe his heart is in the right place, but he expresses himself in a creepy way. It’s hard to say. I can say it makes me wonder, and that detracts from the story.
Anyway, I’ve had paperback copies of #2 and #3 on my shelf long enough for their pages to yellow, but never read them due to not having #1.
Finally the light bulb went on: Duh! Amazon, you idiot! Still had to special order it through one of their associates, and it was the new larger paperback format, so it doesn’t match the other two physically, but at least and at last I had it.
The Well World series is kind of Chalker’s crowning achievement — it’s about a planet-sized reality-controlling supercomputer built by an ancient race that had attained the status of bored immortal gods. Achieving perfection didn’t satisfy them, so they created the Well World as a laboratory of possible new worlds.
The surface of the planet is, firstly divided into northern and southern hemispheres. Each hemisphere is comprised of 780 hexagons (“hexes”) — each of which is a separate world and different species.
Separate down to the physics. Broadly, there are three classes of hex: High-tech, Semi-Tech, Non-Tech. In the latter two, electrical systems just don’t work. Current dies in the wire, radio signals die in the air, batteries don’t hold a charge (if you can manage to charge them in the first place). In the non-tech hexes, even mechanical machines won’t work. Steam power, for instance, works in semi-tech, but not non-tech. It’s strictly muscle power in non-tech hexes.
Travel between hexes is no problem — there’s just a shimmering curtain that offers no resistance. But weather and technology can change utterly in a single step. Some hexes are water hexes with water-breathing races. Lots of water hexes together comprise an ocean. The southern hemisphere is carbon based life; the northern hemisphere is non-carbon-based life.
Pretty much all the races on Well World were used as templates for “real” worlds in the universe. (Humans, for instance, come from a Well World hex, named Glathriel.)
The ancient race who created this is long gone, but their laboratory lives on. They also left behind, scattered around the galaxy, gates that offer one-way transport to the Well World — but only if the intelligent being who stumbles on them wants to leave their life. (Narratively, it means people with certain interesting attitudes.)
The kicker is a person shows up in either the southern or northern hemisphere, depending on whether they are carbon-based or not. New arrivals appear in “the Zone” — one of two huge facilities located at the poles. (Chalker mostly ignored the northern hemisphere. Nearly everything takes place in the southern.)
One could potentially live in the Zone, but that’s boring, and they generally won’t let you. The alternative is taking the gate out to Well World. The first time one does that, the WW computer randomly (often perversely) assigns a race (and gender!) and sends one to the appropriate hex.
From then on, the change is permanent. One can use the gate to return to the Zone, but will always return to the “home” hex. When travelling to other hexes, one can use their gates to go to the Zone and from there return home, which is handy.
The series offered a lot of variety due to the different hexes and species.
Both trilogies (the first trilogy is actually five books long) tell an overall story, but that story is so spoiler-filled I can’t get into it. The first trilogy isn’t absolutely required reading, but I’d recommend it.
The idea would make a good TV series, I think. (So much old SF would. Some old SF has.)
I had planned to include here a little rant about Doctor Who, which has really disappointed me this season, but (A) I’m running out of room, and (B) I think I need to re-watch the season before I make up my mind.
So instead I’ll tell you about the alien eyes.
Philip K. Dick is one of those notable SF authors usually mentioned when talking about really good science fiction. His reputation is well-deserved.
He’s also an author with a surprising number of stories adapted into film: Blade Runner (both versions), Total Recall (both versions), Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, The Adjustment Bureau, and A Scanner Darkly. (To name the major ones.)
I’ve mentioned before that Amazon Prime has an anthology TV series, Electric Dreams, that features ten episodes based on PKD stories. That series is really pretty good.
But I recently bought the apple ebook Electric Dreams, which collects the ten stories used in the series. And I gotta say, as good as the TV series is, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the original stories.
In some cases, the TV version seems to focus on one aspect, or in some cases to add a new aspect, while ignoring or masking the real core of the original tale. (I’m especially unhappy about The Impossible Planet.)
But I’ve realized my favorite Philip K. Dick short story is the one about the alien eyes. It’s called The Eyes Have It.
You can find it at Gutenberg (dot com), and I recommend you go there and read it right now. It’s delightful. (And very short.)
The narrator is freaking out because he’s discovered that aliens not only lurk among us, but are appearing in books! It all starts when, while reading a novel he found left on a bus, he notices the following line:
…his eyes slowly roved about the room.
The narrator is rather blown away by this turn of events. He wonders if the eyes rolled about like dimes, but no:
…his eyes moved from person to person.
So they apparently moved through the air! The poor fellow reads on to discover further evidence of alien invasion:
…he put his arm around Julia. Presently she asked him if he would remove his arm. He immediately did so, with a smile.
Which seems pretty awful, but it gets worse:
…outside the movie theater we split up. Part of us went inside, part over to the cafe for dinner.
The narrator wonders if it was the lower halves that went to the cafe, it being further to walk, while the upper halves stayed for the movie.
Later there is even worse evidence of these strange aliens:
…I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it. Poor Bibney has lost his head again.
…and Bob says he has utterly no guts.
While apparently another person is:
…totally lacking in brains.
Meanwhile, back to poor Julia, whom the narrator initially thought a normal human:
…quite deliberately, Julia had given her heart to the young man.
…thereupon she gave him her hand.
…he took her arm.
Really quite a shocking state of affairs. The narrator has had enough.
I’ll let you enjoy the punchline for yourself.
Stay in one piece, my friends!