Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Too many people, not enough resources. That is the central theme in Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison.

The story is set in New York City where there are 35 million people crammed into a very small space, where jobs are scarce and have to be bought, where paper is only in old books, and air conditioning is only for the wealthy. In this jam packed world lives Andy Rusch, a detective with the NYPD who spends less of his time detecting and most of his time on riot control with the rest of the boys in blue. He shares an apartment with an old man, Solomon, and is seldom there. Sol did not want to live alone and threw up a thin panel between the bedroom and the main room, probably what is called a studio apartment nowadays, and put up a notice at the local police department, which is when Andy became his roommate.

Their shared resources, food, light, and heat, are mainly composed of soy and lentils (when it is available and is called soylent), but mainly margarine made of oil and rendered whale fat on weedcrackers. Meat is a thing of the past and only for the wealthy who have the Ds to buy it. Sol converted the stove from gas to electric and finally to seacoal and powers the refrigerator with a bicycle rigged up to car batteries that Sol pedals, thus keeping fit and making ice with their water ration.

Andy catches a case at Chelsea Towers where a high ranking mob boss is violently murdered with a sharpened tire iron. His girlfriend, Shirl Greene, and the bodyguard were out at the time and found Big Mike when they returned. Since Big Mike was a big presence in political circles, Andy must find the murderer, a change from the usual SOP of finding the killer if possible and moving on to the next murder. Big people want answers about Big Mike and Andy will lose his job if he doesn't find the killer.

Make Room! Make Room! is a far cry from the usual murder mystery in that Harry Harrison's main focus is on showing how precariously humanity is perched at the edge of the abyss. With 7 billion people on the planet and 337 million people in the United States using up all the resources, the level of their comfortable existence must also change, and all because there is no birth control and the Catholic Church opposes anything that will kill babies. Harrison isn't talking about abortion, but about the pill, a case he has Sol make to Shirl after she moves in with Andy.

Birth control is an old argument, but considering that Harrison published his argument for birth control in 1966, that should also be considered. Harrison theorized that humanity would be living on top of each other by 1999 and that a population of 7 billion people would use up all the resources until there was very little left.

I found the story to be basically straight forward and the conditions appalling, which is what Harrison wanted. I did not, however, find the story completely credible. There was no mention of using the vast water resources locked in the poles or of any kind of apparatus or movement to catch and use rainwater. Harrison relies completely on artesian wells because rivers and streams are so polluted. No mention is even made of purifying the river water in a city surrounded by water.

While the premise and the way Harrison sets up his crisis is interesting, he relies more on emotion than on facts to make his case. I do agree with his stance on birth control and what would happen in a world where no one is wise enough to look beyond their immediate surroundings for an answer, but few people are that stupid and fewer still, pushed to the extremes outlined, would be content to suffer without trying everything possible.

Despite Harrison's projected numbers, there are currently 7 billion people on this planet and 8.245 million in New York City. Water is still plentiful, as are food, space, and resources, if costly. Even so, Make Room! Make Room! is interesting reading when taken in the context of its time and social conscience.

Harrison's novel was adapted for the screen as Soylent Green, a movie in which the central theme was the greenhouse effect and soylent green was made from people.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

I've been on this whole science fiction/post apocalyptic kick lately and Alas, Babylon was the second such book I tried because I'd read about it in the after word of another book. Isn't that how you find new books?

Another book suggested was Neville Shute's On the Beach, which I read about 8 or 9 years ago when the guy at the post office suggested it. Alas, Babylon and On the Beach both deal with the world after a nuclear strike, except in Neville Shute's world, based in Australia, all human life was annihilated and Australians would soon be dead of radiation poisoning, saved on by their lower position on the globe. In Pat Frank's post nuclear holocaust world, specifically America and Fort Repose in Florida, many people died from the nuclear blasts and more of radiation poisoning, but many survived in a world without technology, electricity, and most of what modern people consider necessary: salt, medicine, antibiotics, doctors, etc.

At the beginning of Frank's novel, Randall Rowzee Bragg is on the super highway to dissipation. Randy begins with a bit of liquor in his coffee and runs around with women, many of which come from Pistolville, the other side of the nonexistent tracks in Fort Repose. His family name is old and distinguished, but Randy spends more time in the red at the bank than in the black. He's friendly and well liked, but not what one would consider a pillar of the community unless the pillar is leaning drunkenly to the side and about to topple over.

Randy gets a telegram from his brother, Colonel Mark Bragg, to meet him at a nearby Air Force base as Mark is on his way back from Puerto Rico and will touch down there to refuel. He is sending his wife and two children to stay with Randy in Fort Repose, signing his message, "Alas, Babylon," so Randy will know it's serious.

Randy goes, meets his brother, gets the bad news that there will be war with Russia, nuclear war, gets a check for five thousand dollars, and drives back to Fort Repose to the bank where he has some trouble cashing the check, but walks away with the cash and a remark to the manager of the bank that cash will be the only thing that matters in a very short time. Randy gets most of the supplies on his list and drives the next morning to get his sister-in-law, Helen, and Ben Franklin and Peyton, his nephew and niece, all of whom were reluctant to leave their father in Omaha at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) base.

Nuclear war comes with a double blinding dawn and soon the cessation of electricity amid panic and a world turned upside down where Randy becomes the strongest pillar of the community, coming alive with deadly purpose to preserve his family and his town.

Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 at the height of fear of pending nuclear war with Russia -- and Cuba -- and amid racial segregation and the struggle for civil rights. Randy Bragg lives next door to the Henrys, a black family of modest means who were once the Bragg family's slaves. The Henrys bought the land on which they live and are a major asset in sustaining life and purpose for Randy and the extended family he gathers around him. The Henrys are the difference between life and death.

Frank was writing at a time when he had intimate knowledge of politics, nuclear capabilities, and civil rights, having written about them as a war correspondent, reporter, and chief of a couple of newspapers. He knew first hand what life would be like in his family's home in Florida and the struggles he -- and indeed the country -- would face. Alas, Babylon is as true today as it was in 1959.

I found the characters engaging and amusing and wonderful in their differences and their similarities and enjoyed the change especially in Randy as he squared his shoulders and took charge. Dated though some of the information seems at a glance, Frank pegged human nature, which seldom changes. People rise and fall in times of adversity and those that surprise us the most are the people we often discount before disaster hits. I highly recommend Frank's view of America after a nuclear holocaust, not only for its insights, but for its humor and its pathos.

Since I read the Kindle version, I will warn you that there are many mistakes throughout the text with wrong words, doubled and missing words, and typos with most of the mistakes coming at the end of the book. It will take a few seconds to puzzle out what is supposed to be there, but it shouldn't slow you down too much. That is the reason for 4/5 stars when the book itself deserves a hearty 5-star review. This book stands the test of time.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet has always been my favorite science fiction movie since I first saw it as a child at the theaters and on television. I was captivated by the story, which is what was meant to happen by filmmakers who took some liberties with the original book by Irving Block and Allen Adler, a fact I didn't know until I found the book earlier this week.

I am no stranger to the way Hollywood changes books to fit the Hollywood version of happily ever after when there is no happy and sometimes no ever after. Very seldom does Hollywood stick to the script, except in the case of Cecil B. DeMille, and that is mostly because he remade his blockbusters at least three times and used the same script each time. The problem is that even DeMille changed the script to fit his vision of what the book should look like; I know that because I actually read Ben Hur:A Tale of the Christ, for instance, by Lew Wallace, who also wrote several other historical novels. That is a story for another time.

Although director, Fred M. Wilcox, stuck pretty closely to the book's dialogue and story, he softened Edward Morbius and left out the dialogue that covers the real reason why Morbius was such a danger to mankind and the universe and chose to die with the planet. Morbius committed the ultimate sin; he wanted to create life.

Do you remember the scene at the Gateway -- it was called the Teacher in the movie? Morbius at down at the machine with the probes touching his head and he "sculpted" a figure of Altaira, his daughter. Morbius said the figure was alive because Altaira was alive in his memory from moment to moment. Big lie! And what about Alta's friends? How did they get to Altair IV and remain exactly the same for 2000 centuries (that is 200,000 years in Earth time when math is applied)? Would not animals brought from Earth to Altair IV have adapted to their new world with protective coloring and attributes? Wouldn't they also have been destroyed in the night and day that destroyed the Krell? And yet there are monkeys (one of five different species, all males), two female deer obviously in their first year of life, and a Bengal tiger roaming the planet far from any other herds or visible life, and they just happened into Morbius's compound. Funny how the men from Earth spaceship C-57-D never glimpse any movement or signs of herds or life of any kind on Altaira IV when they arrived.

Also missing from the movie is Major Ostrow, the doctor, dissecting a titi monkey Captain J. J. Adams just happened to back over when they were trying to uncover Morbius's secret meetings with the Krell still alive and kicking on the planet. The rest of the monkeys were also absent, but that may be due to having to deal with five monkeys on the set. They weren't really needed since the point of the monkeys in the first place was deleted from the script.

Are you beginning to get what is missing? What Hollywood thought too shocking for the American family in 1956 to grasp and see splashed across the scene in Disney's best special effects?

The real reason for the Krell's demise in the book is hinted at in several ways on the screen, and the annihilation of an entire species becomes more of a punishment for usurping the Universe's -- or God's -- power. It is the same power that Dr. Morbius usurps and why he wants to hold onto the planet without Earth involvement. He has gone beyond Earth's power and he wants to keep it that way.

Major Ostrow dies in the movie after using the Krell Gateway to expand his mind, but in the book he does not do so rashly. He is detailed, at his own request, to watch over Morbius and Alta, while the captain makes the ship ready to rocket back to Earth with Morbius and Alta in tow -- even if they have to be tied and gagged. Doc takes the opportunity to expand his own mind slowly and safely over the course of the night while Morbius is in the hands of psychotropic medication that keeps him awake -- mostly because Morbius is afraid to sleep -- and blissfully drugged. Short bursts from the Gateway give Doc what Morbius missed when he was first exposed and lay in a coma for a night and a day -- knowledge. What Morbius has spent 20 years trying to achieve Doc gets in his safe short bursts of Gateway use. Doc understands what really destroyed the Krell and what is at the heart of the Force that has torn apart some of the ship's men. At least Hollywood left that part alone and got most of it right.

It was Morbius's souped up Id that was sneaking out when he was asleep to tear the ship's men limb from limb and sabotaging their ability to contact Earth. That monster of the unconscious mind no longer ruled by social convention or reason and fueled by the unlimited power of the Krell furnaces is determined to keep Earth from knowing what Morbius has done and wishes to continue doing -- create life.

There it is, the reason behind Morbius's furtive actions and his warning to stay away from the planet or be destroyed by the Force. (This is a different Force from the Force that a Jedi uses, although it could be a taste of what perverted Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, but that's another story altogether and happened much, much later.)

Alta's friends are Morbius's attempt to create life, life that when dissected could not live. The vital organs are missing and what is left between what organs are part of the animal's makeup is a kind of stringy gelatinous mass like bloody stuffing. Remember, Morbius is not a biologist for a philologist, a scientist of words and languages. He has probably the most basic knowledge about how life is put together and thus he fills in the blanks in his knowledge with the bloody stuffing. It is unlikely that the animals even eat and certainly couldn't procreate since that would take a more profound understanding of biology than Morbius possesses.

In the book, Alta tells Captain Adams that her friends just appeared one day when she was a child and had been there ever since. Animals that do not age or procreate or kill for food or grow old and die, but what a life is the absence of true life. Life means growth and change and inevitably death. Morbius hasn't gotten that right yet.

The book is a good one and I recommend it for fans of the movie and for fans of science fiction.

While I enjoy the movie still, I find myself looking for clues in what Hollywood decided should be on the screen for what was central to the book. Morbius confronts his monster at the end and Doc does die, but Doc dies of exhaustion and not from a single blast of using the Gateway. Doc was much smarter than that. Morbius is alive and still on his feet at the end of the book. He sets the self-destruct sequence and choose to go down with the planet while Captain Adams and what remains of his crew fly away with Robby the robot and Alta, thus destroying the might and power of the Krell and their drive to create life that killed them -- and Morbius -- in the end.

While the idea of creating life without a god's sanction might have been anathema to the mind in 1956, it is all too familiar in the 21st century where life can be -- and has been -- created in a test tube and the technique for cloning and growing human cells in Petri dishes and test tubes. Modern scientists regularly create life from retroviruses and lethal strains of bacteria to used as weapons to cloned sheep and very like humans as well as growing skin for burn victims. I wonder how far we are from creating a furnace powered by the heart of this planet that will fuel the dreams and nightmares of our collective Ids and Egos and end our race in a night and a day. Moreover, I wonder if that is what happened to Atlantis. Did Atlantean scientists tap too deep into the Earth's core to fuel their experiments with creating life and awaken the volcano on their island to their destruction? Who knows? Not all such scientific imaginings are the realm of fiction.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Interview: Joe Rourke, author of Fat School Confidential

In the best of all possible worlds, writing a book is difficult, especially when dealing with your own life. How does a writer justify writing a memoir if nothing out of the ordinary has happened and fame is a distant dream? For Joe Rourke, it was a series of incidences that began by accepting a position at a ritzy school for overweight teenagers that changed his life, his fortunes, and his family.  I asked Joe about his journey into a world he didn't expect and the repercussions of writing about it all.

I have read most of Fat School Confidential and there are some fascinating and sometimes painful memories chronicled, but I was interested in finding out about Joe's writing process and why he put such intimiate and personal details on the page.

JMCornwell:  Fat School Confidential is about a time in your life that seems quite painful. Why did you decide to write this book at this time? 

JoeRourke:  Actually, I waited about a year to start writing the book.  I needed to get the okay from key family members.  By the time I did decide on writing the book, the reason was simple: I wanted to tell my story.

JMC:  Most authors’ first books are autobiographical. Although that usually applies to fiction, it also applies to nonfiction. How difficult has it been to put your life on public display?

JRourke:  I spent so much time writing the book, worrying about readers’ reactions was completely secondary to me.  It has been more difficult dealing with negative reviews and fallout from friends and acquaintances than having my life—warts and all—displayed for all to see.

JMC:  What have been the repercussions from your book from family, friends, and coworkers?

JRourke:  Very few family members know that I have written a book, let alone published one.  With friends, it’s been a mixed bag.  Most of them seem supportive “on paper,” but treat me differently [now].  It’s hard to explain, and the changes have been subtle, [s]till, I notice them.  My closest friends have been my support, but then they’ve known me all along.  The people I work with today are unaware of my past, and I intend to keep it that way, unless, of course, my book [. . .] receives widespread recognition.

JMC:  Are there any fictional elements in Fat School Confidential?

Some of the dialogue is not verbatim, and I’ve changed certain characteristics of a couple of the students as they were minors at the time of the story.  The overwhelming majority of what I’ve written is exactly as I’ve remembered.

JMC:  Considering what you reveal about yourself, the school, and your life, are you worried that someone would come back and sue you over what you wrote?

JRourke:  I was worried about all kinds of things as I wrote the book.  Getting sued, receiving death threats, and dealing with stalkers, [. . .] all scenarios I played out in my mind.  Right before publishing, I changed the names of everyone (save myself) in order to minimize any litigious [action].  I still worry, but I’m glad I wrote what I wrote.

JMC:  How long did it take you to write your book? What was your writing schedule?

JRourke:  It took 4 years to write this book, much of it in fits and starts.  I [worked] odd jobs--my down time was limited at best--but I made time to write. Sometimes I only had an hour, other [times] as much as three or four [hours]. [b]ut I wrote regularly.  Once in a while I’d get hung up on a paragraph, but by and large I've stayed the course.

JMC:  Every writer has a weakness. When I first began writing my weakness was writing dialogue. What is your weakness and how did you overcome/deal with it?

JRourke:  My weakness has always been dialogue, though friends have told me how much they’ve loved certain characters; [but that] was fiction--and more specifically, screenplays.  Non-fiction is a whole other ball game—especially[since this is a]   memoir.  I had to recall certain conversations when writing. I’ve had to futz with dialogue to make it sound more natural. I dealt with it by [. . .] facing the obstacles head on. Or I’d skip to another chapter and go back [later].

JMC:  Now that you have this book finished, what would you change and why?

JRourke:  Since the book has already been put out to pasture, so to speak, I don’t know if I’d change anything. Oh, I could go back and have one of my more seasoned writer friends give it a final polish and make some recommendations, but what’s done is done.

JMC:  What do you/did you expect to get from your first book?

JRourke:  I guess it is every new author’s wish to instantly be a bestseller.  I had hoped my book would sell more than it has, but I attribute it to a lack of promotion on my part.  I had no idea what I was up against once I embarked on self-publishing.

JMC:  What did you get from writing your first book that you didn't expect?

JRourke:  I got a great deal of satisfaction knowing this was [the] first book I wrote on my own. Other than a handful of scripts, I [had only ghostwritten] or collaborated on book projects for friends or clients.  Fat School Confidential was my baby. 

JMC:  Do you plan to write any more books? What will be next?

JRourke:  I have a rough outline and some notes detailing a sequel, Fat Life Confidential. I have a couple other projects planned down the line, including a children’s book, but I’ll probably use a pseudonym for that project.

JMC:   Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? Why?

JRourke:  Given that this was my first solo non-fiction book, I definitely prefer fiction. I [have written] screenplays and I’ve read/critiqued a great many for agents and writing contests. Bottom line: I’m in my element with fiction.


I would like to thank Joe Rourke for taking the time to answer all of my questions. I could have asked a lot more, but didn't want to wear our my welcome.

Writing is a process and an experience in learning and evolving as you grow. Writers often gravitate toward what is easiest. For me it is nonfiction writing and for Joe Rourke it is fiction. I don't know about Joe, but I continue to face what scares me most and what I dream about doing most -- writing fiction. It is the only way to evolve and grow as a writer, so I continue writing nonfiction and blend fiction and fact in writing fiction while chiseling away at fiction. Maybe next I will try poetry -- or maybe not. What is important is writing and continuing to write

Joe Rourke's memoir, Fat School Chronicles, is available at Amazon. I suggest picking up a copy and diving right in. You've nothing to lose but your preconceptions.

If you would like to discuss your book and the writing process, contact me here at blogger.

That is all. Disperse.