Saturday, March 23, 2013

11. The 10th Victim by Robert Sheckley

I did a bit of research and learned that this book is an adaptation by Robert Sheckley of the Italian movie that was in turn an adaptation of Sheckley's short story from Galaxy magazine called The Seventh Victim.  I'm curious to find the original and read it just to see how much it changed and if the movie (which was highly stylized, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress) influenced him at all.

It's a great setting: the near future where war has been eliminated in favour of an ongoing, global game of voluntary human hunt.  The rules are simple.  You offer yourself up and then you have a total of 10 kills to succeed, 5 as the Hunter and 5 as the Victim. It's totally legal as long as you don't injure any non-participants.  It is all televised and a major part of the culture.  If you do make it to 10 kills, you become a high-status person in your community.  The book begins with a few example kills and then focuses on two people, both heading to their tenth kill.  Catherine Meredith is a New York executive with a big media organization behind her.  Marcello Polletti is a feckless middle-aged Italian man who doesn't seem to care about the hunt at all.

When I was an adolescent, I got into Killer big-time.  It was a game where you played assassins trying to take out your friends with dart guns, squirt guns, bombs that were notes etc.  It was a brief phenomenon in the '80s, I guess on college campuses.  We lived in a small town and were only like 12 or 13 but we had some pretty good games, including one that took place in the woods behind my house (with my uptight neighbour freaking out about us making noise and screaming into the woods that there was a cougar sighting earlier that day).  This book was a huge influence on the original game.  This is why it has been on my list for so long.

However, the tone of the book is actually quite light, almost sardonic, which was far from the way I as an intense, nerdy 12-year old boy thought about how assassination should go down.  I'm quite glad I didn't read it back then, as I wouldn't have gotten it and probably been kind of annoyed and disappointed.  Today, I find it a fun read, doing some nice satire of the media and our culture of violence.  The Marcello character is quite funny.  It's just all a bit light and kind of goes nowhere in the end.  But I guess that is not too surprising given that it really was just a short story.  There are two sequels.  I am at least curious to know how Sheckley followed this story up.

Monday, March 11, 2013

10. Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton

Damn skippy I own this.
I bought this paperback at the inestimable Kayo Books in San Francisco.  I have mixed feelings about Donald Hamilton and picked this one up because of a combination of the date, the price and the cool cover.  It turns out (and I thank the inestimable Nick Jones of Existential Ennui for making me aware of this) that this was the first Matt Helm book.  So that was quite exciting. Happily, the book itself is great and lives up to its reputation as a hard-boiled spy classic.

It's an awesome title and the book explores the theme well.  The protagonist is successful fiction writer (Westerns) Matt Helm, living a very normal, pleasant life in Santa Fe with his lovely family.  He is almost a decade out of his war career, where he was part of a ruthless top secret Allied spy/commando force.  To everyone around him now, he had a fairly boring war, though he did get badly injured.  The book opens in medias res (and really well done in media res as well) at a party where he sees a beautiful young woman who was his colleague and lover back in WWII.  Her presence quickly brings back memories and then more than memories as he gets tangled up in whatever the hell she is up to here.  It's a great ride and the ending is particularly intense and tough and satisfying.  I'm kind of glad this isn't the first Matt Helm book I've read and that I was aware that the whole series is not able to maintain the hardness of this one.  Otherwise I might have been in for a great letdown. Coming to Death of a Citizen at this phase in my reading was most rewarding.  Get your hands on this, citizen.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

9. Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller

He looks like the principal from Ferris Bueller's day off.
I knew the Scientology was a cult, but I had never really been clear on how it got from L. Ron Hubbard being a science fiction writer to the place it is today.  I can not even remember how I stumbled onto Bare-Faced Messiah. It was simply a link that I followed on my ipad and because it held my interest, I ended up reading the entire thing online.  I guess that it can be considered my first e-book read, though it was actually a straight-up HTML site with white text on black.  The U.S.'s retarded copyright laws allowed the psychos at the Church of Scientology to block its publication there, but thanks to the internet, it is available online.  You can find it here:

In case you have any doubt about its validity as a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, know that the book was published to favourable reviews in the rest of the world and that it is generally considered to be the definitive work on the man.  Miller is a respected journalist who did other biographies.  He went through incredible harassment and persecution during and after the work on this book. When you read the story of what the church did to try and defame him and prevent the book from coming out, you really have to wonder how they are allowed to exist at all. They are a total cult operating outside the law of the countries they are in.  Germany was right to shut them down.  The U.S. policy towards Scientology is just insane.  Not only are they not prosecuting them for their crimes, but they actually grant them religious tax status, so they pay no taxes.  The IRS was basically blackmailed into this position to avoid further legal and extra-legal harassment from Scientology.  It's astounding.

But I'll let others fight the fight against these losers.  Let's get to the book at hand, which really is a fascinating study of an individual and a look into a time and place when a cult like this could be able to gain such a  powerful foothold.  The first half of the book is a thoroughly documented tracing of L. Ron Hubbard's early years, constantly comparing the reality to the fiction he and the church created around him. He was basically an imaginative, unfocused young man from the Pacific Northwest who got to do a bit of travelling because of his dad's job with the army.  He was also an extraordinary egomaniac who began embellishing his own life story at a very early age.  So a berth on a merchant marine to Guam with his mother to go visit his dad turns into a rollicking adventure where he performs all these outsized deeds.  His interest in gliding and participation in some gliding clubs becomes him being a record-breaking pilot and general daredevil.  His short-lived role as a pilot of a submarine in WWII where he did a few practice runs and was demoted for taking action against something only he saw on the radar becomes a heroic destruction of the only known instance of Japanese u-boats in US water and him being moved to a top-secret intelligence department.

To his credit, he was able to embellish his life story because he himself was a wildly imaginative and highly prolific writer (though nowhere near as prolific as he and the church claim today).  He was a successful contributor to the science fiction magazines of the golden age and a part of that general scene on and off in New York.

The middle part of the book, about him as a young adult, you can see that what was a penchance for exaggeration starts to take a more serious turn.  He demonstrates all the symptoms of a manic-depressive personality, though fortunately for him, he seems to have spent more of his time in a manic state.  His pulpish yarns do not make him enough money and also don't seem to bring him the kind of respect he demands.  So he starts working on longer, more serious works.  This is where the craziness starts.  Fortunately for Hubbard, his kind of craziness, plus his manic drive to succeed combined to make a system of living that seemed to resonate with people at this time.  I'm really cutting things short, but basically he started these teaching centers, first with Dianetics and then with the more "refined" Scientology.  It exploded and he ended up making tons of money and gathering tons of followers.  As Scientology grew, so did his paranoia and megalomania.  By the end, Hubbard was floating around the ocean on a restored cruise ship, surrounded by an elite team of prepubescent blonde girls who communicated his every command in his exact tone of voice and temper while carrying out complex plots of revenge on defectors.  This is some Kim Jong-Il level shit here.  Scientology has been in the media today a lot.  Anything you might think sounds a little crazy to be true is actually true and it started with L. Ron. The Sea Org, which originated with his cruise ship crew and those psychotic little girls is still the source of the inner elite and extreme weirdness (though now it is land-based) and it is where the current leader, David Miscavige, came from.  These people are completely fucking bonkers and everyone who follows them is bonkers themselves or else a victim who was sucked in against their will.  It's a fucking scary cult with billions of dollars.

And this is where the book disappoints. It's a great factual read of Hubbard's life and how Scientology came to be.  But it does not attempt to understand how it possibly could have succeeded so well.We all know that most people are stupid and gullible and want to be led, but it's rare that some new form of organized religion is able to spring into being in the modern era from the mind of one charismatic, manic loony and turn into a worldwide phenomenon so powerful that it can blackmail the IRS and that its leader can make his wife simply disappear without any authorities asking any questions.  I have my own ideas why it worked so well, but I would like to have had more analysis and data to really think it through.  There is none of that in Bare-Faced Messiah.

Nonetheless, a thoroughly enjoyable, fascinating sometimes infuriating read about one of the twentieth century's great cult leaders.  I recommend it.