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Now in Paperback

November 02, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Microworlds, Stanislaw Lem (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $5.95). How presumptuous for Lem, whose works have been deemed impenetrable by many fans of science fiction, to offer these essays about the genre's proper role. But how surprising to find the Polish-born author, perhaps today's most thoughtful science-fiction writer, defending a decidedly Western literary tradition. Though Lem never deigns to mention H. G. Wells by name, it is Wells' sense of moral purpose that Lem evokes when he suggests that science fiction should be as progressive as science research, encouraging daring social, cultural and intellectual speculation. Stylistically, of course, Wells and Lem are world's apart. Lem's attitude toward the genre is best summed up by the title of a chapter in the middle of this book ("Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case--With Exceptions"), and he spends a good number of these pages railing against "primitive adventure literature" that gives gadgets greater importance than people: "What meaningful and total relationships (are there) between the telegram, 'Mother died, funeral Monday' and the structure and function of the telegraphic apparatus? None." Pretentiousness does show through Lem's pensiveness at times (he mentions his stellar IQ several times in the book). But, from the first essay, we see a quirky, complex mind at work, grappling especially well with questions for which there are no easy answers.

Do's and Taboos Around the World, edited by Roger E. Axtell (Wiley: $9.95). The world may indeed become a global village, with the ways of the First coming to dominate the Third. Those reading this entertaining and pragmatic guide, however, will realize that, economic and geopolitical issues aside, a revolution isn't around the corner: A head nod still means "yes" in the United States, "no" in Bulgaria and Greece; an "OK" hand sign means anything but that in Brazil; raising eyebrows means "I agree" in Tonga, "Pay me!" in Peru; a chin flick means "Buzz off!" in Italy, "I don't know" in Paraguay. It is naivete about the cultural origins of idiosyncrasies that makes these stories so funny: The friend of an American data processing account executive walks through the airport in Colombia, sneezing because of a cold, and is suddenly accosted by security police convinced that he's snorting cocaine; an American social worker visiting Africa is served a dish of yams with a roast gorilla hand thrusting artfully up from the center; a family planning expert buys a set of "beautiful beads" on her arrival in Togo, only to find, after a dinner in which the guests burst out laughing, that the beads are used there to hold up a loincloth under the skirt.

The Vietnam Photo Book, Mark Jury (Vintage: $12.95). Mark Jury was sent to Vietnam in 1969, and, as Bernard Edelman writes in the preface to this updated version of a 1971 book, "this was not one of the military's wisest decisions." Jury "wanted to experience Vietnam," but "didn't want to kill anyone." He found the nebulous position of Army photographer to be the best resolution, and so for a year he roamed the country more or less at will. Numerous photographs emerged from these wanderings, but all reflect the outlook of a new generation of soldiers less enamored with winning than with simply surviving: peace signs near artillery, an emaciated Vietnamese woman crawling past a Big Boy restaurant in Saigon, an Army recruiting poster guaranteeing stateside duty ("Come Home to Your Spot") tacked up on the wall of a morgue.

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