BIBLE ADVENTURES by Gabe Durham

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Bible Adventures
(Boss Fight Books #7)
By Gabe Durham
Boss Fight Books – March 2015
ISBN 9781940535074 – 99 Pages – eBook
Source: Publisher


NOTE: The following was originally written as “Adding Jesus Stuff” for publication on Atticus Reviews. Changes in their review editor and format delayed processing of this so that it became too late to post with them. I therefore am publishing it here as a start up to new reviews here at Reading 1000 Lives.

There doesn’t appear to be much Christian about the current President of the United States. Yet even he donned a Christian façade in efforts to court Evangelical voters. From gaining the vocal support of Dr. James Dobson – “I believe he really made a commitment, but he’s a baby Christian.” – to choosing a ‘born-again’ running mate, President 45 injected his campaign product with elements of politically conservative Christianity to capture a demographic that is keen for ‘Jesus stuff’ in their politics and often beyond.

As goes an exchange of dialogue from South Park’s 2003 season seven episode “Christian Rock Hard”:

Stan Marsh: You don’t even know anything about Christianity!

Eric Cartman: I know enough to exploit it.

This episode, where Cartman starts a band named ‘Faith + 1’, famously parodies Christian rock music, emphasizing the interchangeability of lyrics between that genre and secular love songs through substitution of proper names with ‘Jesus’. The parody of this episode isn’t limited to music media. Interjection of a Christian veneer into the retail process –whether for goods or services – is ubiquitous. This is because a flavor of Christianity exists that wants alternatives to secular options, whether just to support fellow Believers or to set themselves apart into a community free from the perceived immorality or shortcoming of the secular world’s institutions.

Whatever their reason, for those that want purely Christian options there exists a plethora of markets, often conveniently organized in directories: Christian schools, Christian romance novels, Christian dating services, Christian plumbers, Christian political candidates, Christian video games.

The latter is the subject of Bible Adventures, a book by Gabe Durham that chronicles the formation of Wisdom Tree, a developer of unlicensed video games with ‘Christian’ content for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console in the early 1990s. The seventh book in the Boss Fight Books series – which takes a critical, historical, and personal look at personally significant video games – this particular volume is written by the senior series editor, who also founded the series through a successful Kickstarter campaign. Typically the series books have considered well known, highly regarded video games. The games from Wisdom Tree’s catalog are decidedly neither. Yet, the description of these absurd, lazily produced games, the tale of their unlikely production, and the impressions that their limited success conveys regarding American Christian culture make the Wisdom Tree games a fascinating subject for analysis in the series.

Wisdom Tree stemmed from Color Dreams, a small company of video game developers meeting limited success at producing unlicensed NES games. Nintendo held strict guidelines for official games that included bans on nudity, sexual innuendo, excessive violence, gore, and drug use of any kind. Nintendo’s control forced game developers to alter existing games for transfer to the NES console. For example, the Vodka Drunkenski of Punch Out! became Soda Popinski, and the statues of bare-breasted females in Castlevania IV gained clothes. To prevent unlicensed game production for thee console, Nintendo created 10NES, a lock-out chip that only permitted ‘official’ games that included a secret key to function within the NES. Color Dreams, however, found a way to thwart the lock-out. On the cheap they created a series of games that, at times, violated Nintendo standards. But these games also quickly found a reputation for poor quality, and sales went nowhere. Additionally, the company faced the specter of Nintendo’s legal action. Color Dreams’ solution to all this involved tapping into a potential demographic of buying that wasn’t yet being specifically targeted by anyone: the Christian community.

Wisdom Tree thus formed from Color Dreams, with the goal of producing video games with Christianity-related content whose sale could be targeted to churches and the religious. Meanwhile, Nintendo would abstain from any litigation against Wisdom Tree out of feared backlash from parents or religious groups.

Through interviews with the people involved in Wisdom Tree’s formation Durham relates this background and history that led to the development of their game catalog. He also uses the opening chapters of Bible Adventures to explore the mindset of Color Dreams employees during the germination of this plan, and their reactions as implementation proceeded. The Color Dreams game developers were mostly not Christians themselves. Many were atheist, and Durham relates how after a long day of work the team would frequently decompress with a trip to the strip club. Dan Burke, one developer at Color Dreams who was actually Christian at the time related his point of view of the decision to form Wisdom Tree. Durham describes the interview with Burke:

“It’s religion we began with, and religion we circled back to over and over in our two-and-a-half hour conversation, but it never felt like a tangent. Belief was essential to the story of Burke’s time at the company. It was his Christian faith that made Burke quit Color Dreams, and it was his time at Color Dreams that made Burke lose his faith altogether.”

At first objecting to the company speciously using vague Christian content in order to make more money, Burke’s objections continued even after his loss of faith. Only now, as an atheist, he objected to the placement of preachy, religious content into children’s entertainment.

This simultaneous coexistence of faith and doubt – and the moral conflicts regarding methods, products, and intent – continued as Wisdom Tree started. Like Cartman, most of the non-Believing developers knew they could exploit Christians for gain. However, like President 45, they knew that to effectively do so would require an advocate the Christian community would recognize as one of their own. And so they recruited of a sales team led by a young pastor named Michael Wilson, and Brenda Huff, the former employee of a Christian book publisher. In contrast to the game developers, the sales team viewed their product as part of a ministry. Often including prayers during their meetings, they targeted sales efforts to churches and Christian supply stores, trumpeting the value of Wisdom Tree products for young Christians and Biblical education.

The first Wisdom Tree game was Bible Adventures, a three-in-one game that provides the title for Durham’s book. A huge success for the company, this game found a place in Durham’s heart when he first discovered it in his church’s library. And my experience is similar. Back in the day I owned the game solely because I noticed it one day as my mom shopped our local Christian supply store among the many Jesus-related Chotchkies. My mother rarely would let me buy a Nintendo game out of the blue. But this one had educational value! Religious value! It helped you memorize Bible verses! It taught you about faith through Bible stories! Could I have it, just this once? It was good for the soul! For thousands of other children, this sales pitch worked.

With Bible Adventures, and then with later Wisdom Tree games, Durham spends chapters describing game content and his impression of game playability alongside the history of its source and development. Whether familiar with those games or not, these chapters are entertaining, as long as you have some memory of games of that era in general.

Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures debut is a three-games-in-one cartridge built around the stories of Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath, and Baby Moses. With similar controls and game play, all three of these games were modeled after the successful Super Mario Brothers 2. Play of both the Noah and the David stories was built around the goal of gathering things: Pairs of animals and loads of goods for Noah, and level after level of lost sheep for David. Collecting for those quaint days before Pokémon Go. Along the way various malevolent beasts would attack or throw things at you to impede completion of your checklist. In its final level, the David game provides you the added ability to sling rocks at Philistines on the way up to a mountain-top confrontation with the famous giant of Gath. In Baby Moses you play Miriam (or his mom?), carrying Baby Moses to safety, with little to do other than avoid Egyptians eager to grab the babe and toss him to a quick drowning in the river. Durham writes about connections between the absolute silliness of this game and the rushed, cheap work of the game developers:

“…Moses’s mom is a picky Levite and she wants to abandon her baby where she wants. She also wants to hold her baby how she wants: Basically she just Super Mario 2’s the baby over her head like it’s an engorged vegetable… and impressively holds the baby aloft like that indefinitely. Even while running at up to 10 mph. That is, unless she throws Baby Moses across the screen, which is that the B button in this Bible Game for Children is for – hurling your baby mightily across the desert and hoping for the best… The reason… [that you can]… throw your child is simple: All the characters in Bible Adventures have the same controls – elderly Noah, buff young David, and our Levite Woman – and the buttons for each Adventure do the same thing: run, jump, pick up, and throw. Wisdom Tree could have programmed each of the three games to have different controls based on the needs of each game, but it would have taken more work.”

The strange thing is that, for both Durham and myself, Bible Adventures is a rather fun game to play. Maybe it is because collecting things are fun. Or maybe it is something else. Durham closes his discussion of each Wisdom Tree game with analysis of why the game failed utterly in its day, or why it, like Bible Adventures, was a success – at least initially. Despite its popularity at the time, the game now frequently makes lists of infamy among those considered worst ever. Durham spends time speculating why this may be: how it may reflect changing tastes or bias against the Christian content and views against its original intended audience.

Released in 1991, Wisdom Tree’s Bible Adventures sold over ~350,000 copies. With such success, and feedback from players that they actually enjoyed the game, the company moved forward to put out even more games, each with a dash of added Jesus-stuff to target the willing audience. Some of these games were ‘originals’ like Bible Adventures. In other cases Wisdom Tree simply took previous titles from the Color Dreams archive and redesigned a few elements to now make them ‘Christian’. The first of this group was Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, a game modded from a ‘crawler’ game they had made titled Crystal Mines, where a robot mined through dirt for hidden treasures. About the ‘Christian-ized’ version, Durham writes:

Joshua is an uglier game [than Bible Adventures] but it was one I could play for longer, a maze crawler where you’re trying to collect all the little thingies to make a magic door appear. You shot music from your body, which first made enemies angry, then killed them. Truth was, it wasn’t much of a battle for Jericho. It played out more like the story of a little man, buried in dirt, trying to sing his way out.”

Durham completes the book with similar coverage of each Wisdom Tree title. The best random fact from this: The cartridge King of Kings: The Early Years, composed of three games built around minor stories around Jesus’ childhood, one of which involves the donkey transporting Mary, Joseph, and the baby Christ to Egypt. At one point you, controlling the donkey, must leap over a polar bear. Because somehow the flight to Egypt involved passage through the Arctic Circle!

Bible Adventures the book closes with summary and considerations to conclude its main theme of paradox: a company of atheists making Christian video games; lazily designed product that is relatively successful and fun to play despite poor quality; exploiting Christians for money while still sating their desire for content tailored with Christian themes, no matter how authentic.

“The fact that [Color Dreams founder] Lawton’s decision to make Bible games was based on money and not faith is more the rule than the exception in retail. Many of the biggest sellers of Christian stuff are actually the Christian-targeted arms of their flexi-theistic parent companies… The Cynical was of putting it is that these companies are squeezing dollars out of people who think that buying Christian merch is in some way supporting Christianity itself…”

However, as Durham quotes one Color Dreams employee responding to this criticism, this is “like expecting every company who delivered your kale to the market to be authentically ‘organic.”

Bible Adventures is therefore one-third history/biography, one-third video game analysis, and one-third reflection on the paradoxes that the Wisdom Tree story provides. Durham’s text is conversational, by no means academic. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some substance to the words. Durham makes clear that despite the coarseness of Wisdom Tree products, and their questionable ethics as peddlers of Christian content, their games provided a lot of fun and fond memories for many. Now if we could only say the same about President 45.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

ANIMAL WEAPONS: THE EVOLUTION OF BATTLE by Douglas J. Emlen

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Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle
By Douglas J. Emlen
Henry Holt and Co. – November 2014
ISBN 9780805094503 – 288 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First-Reads


This is an engaging pop sci look at the evolution of morphologies and behaviors that influence conflict in animals. Why can animals display such starting traits of aggression? Why do some species have such stunning features like the teeth of sharks, the tusks of an elephant, or the elaborate, varied horns of beatles? These features seem to often defy logic. Sucking an exceptional amount of precious energy from the animal, conflict and the ornamentations associated with it (defensive and offensive) seem to evolve in some species to absurd extremes that shorten an animal’s life span.
Emlen explains how such traits and behaviors evolve, and why. The simple answer for the latter is what drives evolution of any characteristic. Those with the genes to produce the characteristic have better reproductive success – of passing on those genes to the next generation.
Chapter by chapter Emlen describes particular cases observed in animals where evolution of defensive or offensive traits is evident. Tying these to a human metaphor of war and technology, Emlen draws parallels between what is seen in biology and what is seen in human history in terms of weapon and armor development.
In terms of the science I am a little disappointed in the focus on animals alone. The weapon metaphor could certainly extend through all of life, with more interesting and varied examples. Moreover, the evolution of battle long predates animals; he really is only covering a tiny recent set of biological developments in this realm. But Emlen’s expertise is in animals and that is the group of organisms that everyone is most familiar with, so okay.
I did appreciate the basic history of human developments in battle that Emlen used to compare with the biological examples. The battle metaphor begins to stretch a little though with the close of the book which begins to postulate on how the future of human developments in weapons could lead to unavoidable catastrophe. This is certainly true. I am not convinced that biological systems of evolution are good proof of this however. Biological evolution is not the same as the ‘evolution’ of technology. The selection for weapon-like traits or battle-related behaviors in animals is not the same as in human war. While it makes for a catchy close to the book, it isn’t accurate or particularly meaningful, beyond a play on emotions.
Though I feel there are some issues with this book in taking very precise scientific concepts and trying to popularize them to a general audience, for the most part I think Emlen does well and would recommend this to anyone with an interest in biology or nature.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher via the Goodreads First-Reads program in exchange for an honest review.

Small Friends Considered

My latest post on the microbiology blog Small Things Considered, hosted by the American Society for Microbiology, features a trio of brief book reviews that should actually be of interest to a broad audience, not just microbiologists. See the reviews here.

The first two are of children’s picture books that tell fictionalized stories telling the biology of symbiosis in the microbial world. They also include fantastically illustrated appendices explaining the science in more detail:

25022719The Squid, The Vibrio & the Moon
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – September 2014
ISBN 9780992587208 – 36 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

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Zobi and the Zoox
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Aviva Reed)
Scale Free Network – December 2014
ISBN 9780992587215 – 44 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

The third book reviewed is of a new graphic novel from the publisher that unfolds on two levels: a macro level from the point of view of a Victorian nurse during World War I, and a micro level from the point of view of the resident gut microbes (including the roles of phage) that fight to keep the nurse alive when she contracts dysentery.

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The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales
by Ailsa Wild (Illustrated by Ben Hutchins)
Scale Free Network – August 2016
ISBN 9780992587253 – 88 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher

Please check out the post on Small Things Considered to read more about these. Also keep your eyes here for an upcoming link there to reviews I’m now writing on The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David R. Montgomery & Anne Biklé, and of Ed Yong’s new release I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

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“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

INK AND BONE, by Rachel Caine

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Ink and Bone
(The Great Library #1)
By Rachel Caine
NAL – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780451472397 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


Imagine if the Royal Library of Alexandria had not been destroyed in flames.
My latest review is now up at Skiffy & Fanty on Ink and Bone, the first book in Rachel Caine’s new series: The Great Library. Read the review here!

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher as part of the Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

LINESMAN, by S.K. Dunstall

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Linesman
By S.K. Dunstall
Ace Books – 30th June 2015
ISBN 9780425279526 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Ace Roc Stars Street Team


I keep going back and forth on how I feel about Linesman, the debut novel of a series written by Australian sisters Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall. It has some issues, which of course I’ll get to, but ultimately it is a solid, entertaining space opera, with a protagonist I found interesting. And balancing each problem I saw with the work, the Dunstall pair did something else really well that I appreciated.
Ean Lambert is a Linesman, rated at the highest level of ten. But he is also a pariah, self-taught and from a disadvantaged background, with odd behaviors and views of the lines that every conventionally trained Linesman considers quetionable, bordering on a sign of insanity.
The problem is that though the lines have been used for centuries, no one really knows what they are, or what exactly they could be capable of. The lines have allowed humanity to travel the stars as never before. Apparent remnants of some alien technology, the lines form an intimate connection with ships, powering them to safely travel through the Void, effectively giving humans faster-than-light travel technology. Through the centuries humans manage to figure out what most of the lines seem to do, and come to a rough understanding how some people have the power to control them. Humanity has spread out among the stars into an empire. But politically organized business interests and others stand in opposition to the Empire, near war. A strange confluence of lines and the discovery of a dangerous derelict alien vessel propel competing political factions into a race to capture potential new line technology, and a powerful weapon.
By happenstance Ean is thrust into the center of this building conflict, but members of the empire begin to realize that Ean’s unique approach to the lines may be the key to everything. Ean doesn’t just fix lines and use them, he sings to them, he hears their music. As his powers and abilities build he finds that he can communicate with them, and that the lines may be far more than ever suspected, and the mysterious alien race that once used them could one day represent a grave danger for humanity.
One of the best aspects of Linesman is how well the Dunstalls relate this universe to their readers. Things are explained as thoroughly as the characters understand, and the info dump of material blends in rather seamlessly. However, they do a bit too much in trying to make sure readers have gotten things straight. For instance, I began getting tired of reading how ‘no one knows what lines seven and eight do’. This sticks out in mind, but there were other aspects to plot and character that became repetitively pointed out.
Cutting that repetitiveness would’ve been a good start, but I also did feel it could have used some larger trimming, particularly chapters from the point of view of another Linesman, Rossi. Ean has a rather unconfident personality – which makes sense given who he is, where he is from. But I still found him endearing, I like rooting for underdogs and the under-appreciated. But Rossi is just a complete ass. And like most of the characters in the novel, he doesn’t really change. (I hope characters can go through more development in the follow up to this). Rossi is from the other side, the enemy of those Ean Lambert works for. So Rossi’s sections are here to give us some of that perspective, but also to relate plot details that Ean isn’t present for. For the most part I didn’t find those necessary though. And with so few redeeming qualities it is hard to see him other than as a sneering character ‘type’.
Despite this weakness of Linesman, its otherwise careful construction, excellent dialogue, and tremendously entertaining action/shifting plot made it a real enjoyable read throughout. (And Rossi’s chapters are at least mostly short). The Dunstalls relate the action of a scene well, I could follow what was going on easily. By making the exact nature of the lines (and their origin) a bit of a mystery the novel also helped keep my attention through curiosity to find out more on how all these things worked – and the authors seriously tease the reader’s curiosity with the novel’s last line!
Linesman is a fun space opera and the authors show a lot of potential – as does the series itself for going interesting places. I’ve read a cluster of ‘first-in-a-series’ recently and this one seems to be set up to go in interesting new directions. At the same time this novel has a clear resolution to work well enough, satisfyingly, on its own should one choose not to keep reading future volumes.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of their Ace Roc Stars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

I AM CRYING INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES by Clifford D. Simak

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I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories
The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume I
By Clifford D. Simak
(with Introductions by David W. Wixon, Editor)
Open Road Media – 20th October 2015
ISBN 9781504012652) – 332 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


UPDATE: The release date for this was marked incorrectly on NetGalley and Goodreads, so I ended up publishing this WAY earlier than I would otherwise have. I’ve now updated the date here and on Goodreads based on the information on Amazon.com and the publisher’s website.

CONTENTS:
“Installment Plan”
“I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air”
“Small Deer”
“Ogre”
“Gleaners”
“Madness From Mars”
“Gunsmoke Interlude”
“I Am Crying All Inside”
“The Call From Beyond”
“All the Traps of Earth”

Aside from Isaac Asimov novels and the first volume of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, I haven’t really read much classic science fiction. I feel there is something worthwhile in expanding horizons, also into the historical context of the past, so I was pleased to have a chance to check out the start to this collection of the complete short fiction by Golden Age author Clifford D. Simak.
As you might expect for something written over half-a-century ago some of Simak’s stories are a bit dated in terms of both the science and culturally. But they aren’t particularly offensive to modern sensibilities and there is still a lot to be enjoyed within these stories. It should appeal to anyone wanting more exposure to classic tales of the genre from an author whose stories age relatively well and people who want to revisit beloved Simak tales.
This first volume of a planned fourteen in the collection doesn’t seem to have any particular scheme to its organization, but the tales do span a range of the types of stories and themes that I gather Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Simak is best known for. Each story is preceded by a short introduction from editor and executor of Simak’s writing estate, David W. Dixon.
I Am Crying Inside and Other Stories begins with a longer story that features Simak’s repeated exploration of robotic intelligence and emotion. Robots are obviously a frequently visited topic in SF, not new even in Simak’s time. Despite the familiarity of the types of questions/dilemmas regarding robots that Simak delves into, his take still doesn’t come off as cliched now, or dull. While I find the opening story “Installment Plan” to be overly long, it did resonate with how human the robots were it in, not mere automatons, but created instruments that had emotions and personalities. Simak’s robots seem more alive and human than many of his human protagonists. The concluding story “All the Traps of Earth” returns to the robot themes in a far more powerful story where a robot who has escaped mandatory memory erasure finds a home and purpose elsewhere beyond, but not completely divorced from, humanity.
“Small Deer” and “Gleaners” are two representatives of Simak time-travel stories. The latter is about a group that goes back in time to retrieve objects of value and felt like an early version of a story that I’ve seen crop up often in recent years still. Simak’s seems less about the cleverness of the time-travel setup as about the intrigue of the story and characters. “Small Deer” on the other hand is more about the idea than the particular adventure of the plot. In it a man goes back in time to witness the extinction of the dinosaurs and discovers what killed them may be back again for humankind. I enjoyed the story for its “Twilight Zone” type vibe, and it is an example of a Simak tale that includes some elements of horror.
Simak, who won a Stoker achievement award in its first year of being offered, does employ light horror in some of his stories, most evident here with “Madness from Mars” and “The Call from Beyond”. The latter can be accurately described as Simak trying some Lovecraft flavors. Both stories feature humanity discovering something unsettling and strange as a result of space exploration. These weren’t my favorite stories here, and the science in “Madness from Mars” is particularly dated, but they are fairly good.
The titular “I Am Crying All Inside” and “Gunsmoke Interlude” were the stories I least enjoyed. The latter is straight up pulp Western, a genre I simply could care less about. “I Am Crying All Inside” is one of the most emotionally resonant stories here, the most touching. While Simak made his robots larger-than-life, it seems he usually made his humans more salt-of-the-Earth. Wixon quotes Simak in the intro to this story as responding to criticism of his human protagonists as ‘losers’ with the explanation: “I like losers”. The folksy nature and regional dialect of the voice in the story ruined it for me.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “I Had No Head and My Eyes Were Floating Away Up In the Air” and “Ogre” were my favorite stories of the bunch. I largely liked both of these stories because of the biological elements they contained and their shared theme of anti-exploitation.
The former story though is weakened by going on far too long for what it is, and with a fair amount of repetition. In it a man arrives on another planet intent on stripping it of its resources for his own economic benefit, with nothing but contempt and disregard for the planet’s ‘simple’, ‘uncultured’ inhabitants. But after an ‘accident’ leaving him dead, the planet’s lifeforms resurrect him in a body more suitable for the environment and he learns the hard way that his preconceptions are way off, and his greed abhorred. Actually, the guy never really ‘learns’ the errors of his way as much as the reader is given a cautionary tale. I loved the biological alien detail here linked to the planet’s properties, and for a time at least I read with an interpretation that the planet itself was a sentient life guiding these events.
“Ogre” is another fairly long story, but this time rightly so. It features wonderful biological speculation of sentient plant life and plant life adopted to give photosynthetic capabilities to humans through symbiosis. Interesting stuff, and coupled with it we get a plot again warning against the dangers of exploiting another culture and resources. In this story, members of exploration group try to prevent another human from harvesting sentient trees (that are also musical) and taking them back to Earth. Another notable aspect to the story is that it features a set of space exploration rules very much akin to what years later would form the ‘Prime Directive’ of Star Trek‘s Federation.
Overall I’m looking forward to seeing the other volumes collecting Simak’s fiction, and this reaffirms to me the use of at least trying out some classic Golden Age SFF. It is impossible now to read everything that has gone before to form the genre field and still keep up with the exciting directions it is going today to evolve from that past. But dipping into the historical perspective is valuable not just in showing what has been done well, but also what mistakes to not make or move on from. And it is reassuring – though simultaneously slightly depressing – to see social themes still explored today already brought up so many decades ago in that Golden Age of SF.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-Reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.