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 ****  “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

A fascinating alternate history. Dick speculates on a world in which the allies lost WWII-- an America in which it’s only polite to be a Nazi, white people have internalized the belief that they are inherently inferior to the Japanese, and there’s a brisk black-market trade in Americana memorabilia. I honestly don’t remember the plot that well-- some political intrigue thing that was difficult to follow and hardly even gets resolved, if I recall correctly-- but what held me rapt was the moment-to-moment description of the world as it might have been. The author manages to tease out so many social details of our lives and turn them on their heads. Marvelous.

***  “Mother Night” by Kurt Vonnegut

A deeply disturbing tale, told as the memoir of a Nazi war criminal in jail... a man who was recruited to infiltrate and spy on the Nazis but ultimately played his role too well. Vonnegut leaves your sympathies without ground to stand on, and your opinion of the narrator slides around helplessly. Ultimately, the book asks the question: Are we any more or less than what we pretend to be? … and leaves it thoroughly unanswered.

** “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut

I can’t believe I was actually anything less than thrilled by a Vonnegut book, but this one honestly just didn’t impress me. Maybe because Vonnegut steps aside from his usual absurdism and tries to tell a straight story, and maybe because the subject matter is so very dated (and for sci-fi, that’s saying something). This is one of the oldest dystopian tropes around-- a future in which everything is done by machine, leaving the humans, even those in charge, feeling restless, useless, and full of existential angst. Enough already.

*** “Vulcan’s Hammer” by Philip K. Dick

Another sci-fi story that was well-worn by the time I got my hands on it, but it held my interest a little better all the same. Humans finally decided they weren’t rational enough to be in charge of making their own decisions, and built a supercomputer to make decisions for them. But how smart can you make a computer before it starts acting, well, human? And when it comes down to a matter of survival, will the humans be able to outwit their own creation in time? The characters are quite compelling, and the plot, though over-all predictable, still had enough little twists and turns to keep me turning the pages.

** “Distant Worlds: the Story of a Voyage to the Planets” by Friedrich Mader

An interesting novel of early sci-fi (1932), translated from the German. Very reminiscent of Jules Verne and C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. The plot didn’t follow any story arc other than a voyage of exploration-- each chapter more like an episode-- written as though for a teen boys’ periodical magazine. I was intrigued by how little science played into it-- or rather, since much of the science was described in great detail, how different the science used in this novel was from the science used in science fictions today. There was also a very strong religious undercurrent to the book, in that the solar system was very clearly and obviously designed by a Creator, with the result that many things which strike me as highly implausible (such as humanoids on other planets) were presented as simply and unarguably logical. It was very interesting trying to get my head into the right space to read this book-- which was, after all, a good deal of fun, full of beautiful descriptions, and possibly even open-minded for its time. I found myself resorting to the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that one uses in order to enjoy novels written for very young children.