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Book Review #7, by Eric Weeks

July 5, 1998
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"Eye in the Sky" by Philip K. Dick, Ace Books, 1957.

During a routine tour of a physics laboratory, eight tourists have an accident, falling sixty feet through a beam of charged particles. Fortunately, they all survive and are quickly patched back together at a hospital. Upon leaving the hospital, they slowly realize that something about the world has changed... but just for them. Hamilton, the main character, tries to understand how and why the world has changed, with the assistance of some of the other tour members. As Hamilton finally figures out what has happened, the world changes again, and he must start all over. This book frequently feels like a bad dream, which is one of the qualities of Dick's writing that I really enjoy.

The fun part of this plot is watching Hamilton trying to deal with the changes as they occur, and some of these changes are quite interesting. Hamilton keeps trying to go to work, but his job description keeps shifting. Various characters reappear with different personalities, and in fact the world changes sometimes reflect back and change the eight tour members. The part I admire most about the way this book is written is that the world changes are integral to the plot; they are not merely excuses for Dick to show off his talents of imagining new worlds. All throughout the book, Hamilton's effort to "get to the bottom of this" is foremost, and the world shifts are steps on the way out of the mess.

Well, I don't want to give away too much, so you'll have to read the book to learn exactly what is going on. This book is one of the better books by Dick that I've read, and the ending is satisfying. (That's how I described the last book by Dick that I reviewed -- A Scanner Darkly -- I should mention that some books by PKD tend to get lost somewhere in the middle, with the ending having little connection with the beginning. I don't care for that style as much.) I give this book 3 1/2 stars.

An interesting side note: the book is strongly against McCarthyism. In the first chapter, Hamilton loses his job at a weapons plant because his wife is a suspected communist. This is not the most important theme in the book, but it does recur now and then. The dynamics between Hamilton and his wife (who is one of the eight people on the tour) add to the book. This book rather bluntly makes the point that McCarthyist attitudes are ridiculous and counterproductive. (Is "McCarthyist" a word? It ought to be.)

"The Great Time Machine Hoax" by Keith Laumer, Ace Books, 1963.

By coincidence, I read this book shortly after Eye in the Sky. This book suffers in comparison. Like Eye, this is a book where the characters find themselves in changing situations, and anything can happen. However, the basis for the changes is weak, and the changes themselves seem like random excuses to put the characters in various strange situations.

There are two main characters, Chester and Case. The premise is that Chester has inherited a house from an eccentric obscure relative, and in the basement of the house is a colossal computer which has stored up an unimaginable amount of information, and has vast abilities. Particularly relevant for this novel is that the computer can recreate, in extraordinary detail, any time in history. Perhaps it's even powerful enough to actually send the main characters back in time -- this is hinted at, and certainly the simulations are real enough to cause serious problems for Chester and Case, to the point where the characters might as well be traveling in time. Unfortunately for our heroes, the computer has limitations which mainly seem to prevent them from easily extricating themselves from the troubles they encounter. To me these limitations seemed somewhat arbitrary, given that we are told how powerful this computer is. These problems are not really cleared up at the end of the book, and to me the plot seems to serve as an excuse to put the characters in strange situations.

On top of this, I never found the situations that interesting. Chester and Case are trying to get back home, and the obstacles in their way seem random and arbitrary. Their solutions to the obstacles also seem somewhat random. In some situations, a quick bluff seems to get past threatening people; in other cases, we are given several page descriptions of complicated plans that the characters use to outwit people. There is no indication of when a complex scheme is necessary, and when a simple solution will work. Since we suspect that everything will work out in the end, I lost a lot of interest in the problems and solutions.

To sum up: the plot is an excuse to drag the characters into various situations, and occasionally show the author's cleverness in devising complicated plans. After having read a similar "anything can happen" book by Philip K. Dick, this book seemed lousy. Finally, I should point out that this book is supposed to be humorous. (The quote on the cover, from Galaxy Magazine, says "Hilarious! Swinging! Brilliant!") I guess Laumer's sense of humor is much different from mine. The best I can say is that if you are a fan of Laumer, maybe you'll like this book. I didn't. 1 star.

"The Book of the Dun Cow" by Walter Wangerin, Jr., Pocket Books, 1978; "The Book of Sorrows" by Wangerin, Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

The Book of the Dun Cow is about religion, and is similar to George Orwell's book Animal Farm about politics. In Wangerin's book, Chauntecleer the Rooster rules over his coop with its thirty hens. Additionally, he is the leader of the various animals in the surrounding area. The animals generally do their own thing but acknowledge Chauntecleer's leadership at stressful times. However, not all places are as happy at Chauntecleer's coop. Through the evil influences of Wyrm (essentially Wyrm is the devil), an evil creature calling himself Cockatrice is born and becomes the cruel dictator over a nearby coop. The first half of the book shows peaceful life in Chauntecleer's coop, and the second half is the confrontation between Chauntecleer and his domain, and Cockatrice and his creator Wyrm.

This book is exciting: the plot moves quickly at times. This book is fun: at times, some of the characters are rather amusing, although during the battles of the second half, the book becomes somewhat grim. This book contains great characters, ranging from the proud Chantecleer (who nonetheless has periods of self-doubt), to the sad Mundo Cani Dog with extremely low self-esteem, to John Wesley Weasel, a fast-talking weasel who at one point romances a shy mouse. The interactions between Chauntecleer and Mundo Cani are particularly amusing, as Chauntecleer continually insults Mundo Cani who merely responds that Chauntecleer's insults are being too kind. This book is also extremely poetical, the writing is elegant and definitely adds to the strength of the book.

This book is about religion, specifically Christianity, perhaps Catholicism in particular (for example, the language of power, spoken by Wyrm, is Latin). Certain scenes near the end of the book struck me as extremely reminscient of Biblical themes. People particularly interested in Christian literature will really enjoy this book, but I should also add that it doesn't detract from the book considered strictly as a fantasy book. The book jacket lists several non-fiction books about the Bible that Walter Wangerin, Jr. has written.

Despite the sometimes heavy-handed religious overtones, I give this book 3 1/2 stars. It's an exciting read, and the religious aspects do add to the story, rather than seeming like obtrusive additions. This book is fun to read, and has the epic excitement of books like Tolkien's The Hobbit. In some ways I wish the plot was a little stronger; basically it is just a conflict between Good and Evil. But in a lot of ways this book is larger than its plot. The real strength of the book is the enjoyable scenes and vignettes, and the excellent characterization of the various animals. I was going to give this book only 3 stars, but it gets an extra half-star because it's truly a unique book.

After reading The Book of the Dun Cow, I ordered the sequel from, The Book of Sorrows. This book picks up at the end of the first one. I didn't like this book as much as the first. This book is even more heavy-handed as far as religion goes. It is made extremely clear that the Dun Cow represents Christ, and basically this book is about the problems Chauntecleer has when he turns away from the help offered by the Dun Cow. This book is more depressing all throughout, with fewer of the cheerful scenes present in the first book. Also, it is clear that Chauntecleer is doing things for the Wrong Reasons and thus is doomed to failure, whereas in the first book there was more of a sense of a real struggle and the possibility for a good (or bad) outcome. Here we know that Chauntecleer is going to have huge problems and it's just a matter of waiting for them to occur.

I guess that's the real reason I disliked this book (compared to the first book). In the first book, Chauntecleer is a noble character who tries to do the right thing and, while having flaws, generally is a positive character, and his actions result in positive things. In the second book, Chauntecleer is struggling (unsuccessfully) with depression and his actions result in negative things. Moreover, it is obvious to the reader that the plot is going to go this way, up until the ending, which essentially ends the way such a book has to given the religious message.

The bottom line is, it's a book worth reading as a sequel to ...Dun Cow, but the first book stands on its own, and I cared a lot less for the second book. If you're looking for Christian sf, you'll probably like this book more than I did. I'd say, judging it from a strictly sf standpoint, it's worth 2 1/2 stars. The characterization is still strong and we do meet several new interesting animals. And, for what it's worth, Chauntecleer's depression and actions are consistent with his character; it may be less pleasant reading, but it is honest. If only the plot was less predictable... if only there was less certainty that Chauntecleer is doing the Wrong Things for the Wrong Reasons... I enjoy characters with tragic flaws, but I like for them to at least have some chance.