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Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut. (Vintage, 2010.)

Reviewed for Interzone issue 231, Nov-Dec, 2010.

Look At The Birdie cover

This is a collection of fiction plus one letter of “sententious crap” unpublished in Vonnegut’s lifetime. The stories appear to have been written for the most part in the 1950s; one even mentions King Farouk. Sparingly interspersed through the book are Vonnegut’s own illustrations in his naïve style. They too appear of 1950s vintage though their copyright dates are much later.

Throughout, Vonnegut’s tendency to name his characters strikingly is to the fore; Ernest Groper, K Hollomon Weems, Felix Karadubian. Vonnegut’s characteristic dry style is also evident. He seems to have found his voice early. Though he made his name writing SF, before later disclaiming it, most of the tales here are devoid of speculative content.

The two stories that might vaguely be called SF are “Confido” and “The Petrified Ants.” In the first an ear piece designed to make people happy is “a combination of confidant and a household pet” but whispers only the worst of others. I trust Vonnegut was aware of the Latin pun of his title. The second is set in the Erzgebirge mountains in Soviet era Czechoslovakia where some newly uncovered fossils reveal ants once behaved individualistically. The revelation of their change to collectivity is hurried, though, and stretches credibility. The story is fun but too heavy-handed in its allegorisation of Soviet society.

As to the rest of the fiction, “FUBAR” is a gentle but utterly conventional story in which a crabbed bureaucrat begins to awaken to the possibility of a different kind of life when a newly trained young secretary is assigned to him. The 1950s ambience here is revealed by the F in FUBAR standing for “fouled” rather than anything more demotic.

“Shout About it from the Housetops” examines the deleterious consequences of publishing a novel whose characters are based on barely disguised neighbours, friends and the author’s spouse.

The two-part “Ed Luby’s Key Club” deals with Harve Elliot, who, along with his wife, Claire, witnesses a murder by the local gang boss. Both are then accused of it themselves. In the second part Harve alone escapes from custody and attempts to vindicate himself. The story’s conclusion, while worthy, is perhaps a little too complacent.

“A Song for Selma” tells how people’s aspirations can be transformed, for good or ill, by their expectations of themselves as mediated through those of others.

In “Hall of Mirrors” a hypnotist uses his powers to evade the police when they come to investigate the disappearances of his wealthy women clients.

“Hello, Red” is the story of a bitter wandering sailor’s return to his home town to try to claim guardianship of the distinctively flame haired daughter he fathered before his first trip abroad, and of her reaction to him.

“Little Drops of Water” concerns the subtle strategy employed by one former conquest to gain her revenge after being dumped by a confirmed ladies’ man of fixed habits.

In “Look at the Birdie” an encounter in a bar with a disgraced former psychiatrist who insists his wife photographs the narrator leads to a demand that can’t be refused.

“King and Queen of the Universe” has a very well to do teenaged couple in the Depression era on their way home from a party come face to face with the harsher realities of less privileged lives.

“The Good Explainer” is the doctor to whom a man and wife travel from Cincinnati to Chicago in order to have the reasons for their childlessness laid bare.

While all the stories in the book are never less than readable, they do not represent Vonnegut at his best. Among other faults they are too often prefaced by a brief paragraph or two of scene setting which are told to, rather than unfolded for, us and there is a tendency to repetition of such things as job titles.

Recommended to Vonnegut completists but not as an introduction to his work.

Another List

This is a list of top 100 Science Fiction And Fantasy books from the website at NPR BOOKS to which I was directed via Ian Sales‘s blog. I got to it too late to take part in the poll NPR ran where you were to choose your favourite ten.

The usual applies; bold I’ve read, italics means I own but have not yet read it. ???? means I may have read it when I was (very) young but can’t actually remember.

The Acts Of Caine Series, by Matthew Woodring Stover
The Algebraist, by Iain M Banks
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

Armor, by John Steakley
The Baroque Cycle, by Neal Stephenson
Battlefield Earth, by L Ron Hubbard
Beggars In Spain, by Nancy Kress
The Belgariad, by David Eddings
The Black Company Series, by Glen Cook
The Black Jewels Series, by Anne Bishop
The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

Bridge Of Birds, by Barry Hughart
The Callahan’s Series, by Spider Robinson
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle , by Kurt Vonnegut
The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Change Series, by SM Stirling
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C Clarke
Children Of God, by Mary Doria Russell
The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny

The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R Donaldson
The City And The City, by China Miéville
City And The Stars, by Arthur C Clarke

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
The Coldfire Trilogy, by CS Friedman
The Commonwealth Saga, by Peter F Hamilton
The Company Wars, by CJ Cherryh
The Conan The Barbarian Series, by Robert Howard
Contact, by Carl Sagan
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
The Culture Series, by Iain M Banks
The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
Deathbird Stories, by Harlan Ellison

The Deed of Paksennarion Trilogy, by Elizabeth Moon
The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester
The Deverry Cycle, by Katharine Kerr
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

Don’t Bite The Sun, by Tanith Lee
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
Dreamsnake, by Vonda McIntyre
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert

Earth, by David Brin
Earth Abides, by George R Stewart
The Eisenhorn Omnibus, by Dan Abnett
The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
Eon, by Greg Bear
The Eyes Of The Dragon, by Stephen King
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Faded Sun Trilogy, by CJ Cherryh
Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser Series, by Fritz Leiber
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, by Guy Gavriel Kay.
A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
The First Law Trilogy, by Joe Abercrombie
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
The Foreigner Series, by CJ Cherryh
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
The Gaea Trilogy, by John Varley
The Gap Series, by Stephen R Donaldson
The Gate To Women’s Country, by Sheri S Tepper
Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway
The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake (two only, the third is tbr)
Grass, by Sheri S Tepper
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End of The World, by Haruki Murakami
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
The Hollows Series, by Kim Harrison
House Of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski
The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov ????
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Incarnations Of Immortality Series, by Piers Anthony
The Inheritance Trilogy, by NK Jemisin
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
Kraken, by China Mieville
The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
Last Call, by Tim Powers
The Last Coin, by James P Blaylock
The Last Herald Mage Trilogy, by Mercedes Lackey – never read it.
The Last Unicorn, by Peter S Beagle
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K LeGuin.
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin

The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by RA Salvatore
The Lensman Series, by EE Smith
The Liaden Universe Series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
The Lies Of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lync.
Lilith’s Brood, by Octavia Butler
Little, Big, by John Crowley
The Liveship Traders Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
Lord Of Light, by Roger Zelazny
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by JRR Tolkien (one only)
Lord Valentine’s Castle, by Robert Silverberg
Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
The Man In The High Castle, by Philip K Dick.
The Manifold Trilogy, by Stephen Baxter
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Memory And Dream, by Charles de Lint
Memory, Sorrow, And Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams
Mindkiller, by Spider Robinson
The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Mordant’s Need, by Stephen Donaldson
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, by Robert J Sawyer
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
The Newsflesh Trilogy, by Mira Grant
The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, by Peter F Hamilton
Novels Of The Company, by Kage Baker
Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
The Once And Future King, by TH White
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
The Otherland Tetralogy, by Tad Williams
The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
Parable Of The Sower, by Octavia Butler
The Passage, by Justin Cronin
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville
The Prestige, by Christopher Priest

The Pride Of Chanur, by CJ Cherryh
The Prince Of Nothing Trilogy, by R Scott Bakker
The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C Clarke
Replay, by Ken Grimwood
Revelation Space, by Alistair Reynolds
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban
The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E Feist
Ringworld, by Larry Niven

The Riverworld Series, by Philip Jose Farmer
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Saga Of Pliocene Exile, by Julian May
The Saga Of Recluce, by LE Modesitt Jr
The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
The Sarantine Mosaic Series, by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick
The Scar, by China Miéville

The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
The Shattered Chain Trilogy, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Silmarillion, by JRR Tolkien
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
The Snow Queen, by Joan D Vinge
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury ?????
Song for the Basilisk, by Patricia McKillip
A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
The Space Trilogy, by CS Lewis
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
Stand On Zanzibar, by John Brunner
The Stand, by Stephen King
Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stations Of The Tide, by Michael Swanwick
Steel Beach, by John Varley
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
The Swordspoint Trilogy, by Ellen Kushner
The Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card.
The Temeraire Series, by Naomi Novik
The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by HG Wells ?????
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
To Say Nothing Of The Dog, by Connie Willis
The Troy Trilogy, by David Gemmell
Ubik, by Philip K Dick
The Uplift Saga, by David Brin
The Valdemar Series, by Mercedes Lackey
VALIS, by Philip K Dick
Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout/Philip Jose Farmer
The Vlad Taltos Series, by Steven Brust
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Vurt Trilogy, by Jeff Noon (the first certainly)
The War Of The Worlds, by HG Wells
Watchmen, by Alan Moore
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
Way Station, by Clifford D Simak
We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
When Gravity Fails, by George Alec Effinger
Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
Wild Seed, by Octavia Butler
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
World War Z, by Max Brooks
The Worm Ouroboros, by ER Eddison
The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon
1632, by Eric Flint
1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C Clarke

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne ????

Many of these I’ve never heard of. Quite a few do not belong on a modern best of SF and Fantasy list. The Asimovs and the Doc Smith in particular. These were works from the early days and while bathed in the glow of nostalgia do not have the minimum of literary quality I look for when I consider books to be good.

I’m also agnostic about whether some of the recently published books on the list will stand the test of time.

Notable omissions: the books of Michael Coney and Michael Bishop for starters.

Look At The Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

Look At The Birdie cover

Jim Steel’s blog has confirmed that the latest issue of Interzone (no. 231) containing my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s posthumously published collection Look At The Birdie ought to be available round about now.

Reviewing

My review of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief for Interzone must have been acceptable as I see Jim Steel has it down for what looks like lead review in the Sep-Oct issue.

They’ve also sent me another book for review. This Is Kurt Vonnegut’s Look At The Birdie which is a collection of previously unpublished fiction.

Ever since I read his masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five he’s been one of my favourite writers.

Sadly Vonnegut died in 2007. So it goes.

I must say that the formulation of previously unpublished works issued posthumously doesn’t usually bode well.

I hope this book doesn’t disappoint.

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