Sunday, August 26, 2012

#129: Non-Stop, #84: Way Station


"...savagery --unlike virtue --endures long after its originators have perished."
"Adversity makes thinkers of us all."
"Instinct is not always the ally of intelligence." 
"It's a ship, you see, and it's headed nobody-knows-where, and it's old and creaking, and it's thick with phantoms and mysteries and riddles and pain --and some poor bastard has got to sort it all out soon before it's too late, if it's not already too late!"
Before I begin my review of Brian Aldiss's hidden gem of a sci-fi novel, Non-Stop, I must give the reader a bit of an obligatory "spoiler-alert". In this review I will acknowledge the fundamental premise of this novel, simply because I cannot review this book without doing so. If you like walking into a book completely blind and un-knowing, I can tell you that this novel is highly recommended and leave it at that. For the rest, here's my review of this incredibly original, fascinating, page-turner of a novel. Non-Stop is the story of a generation ship --a spaceship traveling such a vast amount of distance between destinations that many generations are born and many generations die as the ship makes its voyage. This knowledge has been lost to Roy Complain and Henry Marapper, our two protagonists. They are men from the Greene tribe, a violent, brutish pack of people who live in "Quarters", a village somewhere in the ship. At this point, the ship has been overrun by hydroponic plants, or "ponics", and savage people, some who have formed tribes with the barest semblance of civilization. This is the only world that these savages have ever known. There are whispered rumors that their entire existence has been lived out inside the belly of an enormous starship streaking through the cosmos, but most tribesmen scoff at the theory.
Complain and Marapper's tribe is also described as having some interesting rituals and customs in the novel's opening scenes. We see Complain hunting in the ponics, experience parts of the primitive culture of the Greene tribe, and are generally thrust into a situation in which no one really knows the truth about existence as a whole. The quasi-religious "Teaching" of the Greene tribe is particularly interesting --it it based on an insistence on openness and a rejection of the subconscious. Quite Freudian, in fact. Marapper, a priest of the Greene tribe, decides to gather a small band of men, including Complain, to break out of the confines of the tribe, wade through the dense forests of ponics, and find the truth for himself. The novel speeds up to an almost break-neck pace after these introductory scenes as the band embarks on an treacherous adventure filled with sentient rats, strange Outsiders, and mysterious Giants.
I won't give away anymore besides this: the band soon gathers more and more evidence that they are on a ship, and eventually, the fact is accepted. The novel's ending is startling, ambiguous, and illuminating. It's definitely one that will get you thinking. All in all, there were so many factors that made Non-Stop an engrossing read. The plot is like a stone rolling faster and faster down a hill --the scenes in Quarters are interesting enough in themselves, but once the group leaves Quarters, get ready for a stream of action, problems, and questions that piles up with increasing speed. Certain scenes that stuck out included Complain's discovery of the ship's swimming pool, which is described with an awe-inspiring, ethereal beauty. In addition, Complain's first glimpse of the sun is well done and poignant. In terms of action scenes, I cannot choose a favorite; there were many of them, and all well done. One plot aspect that had a bit of a cheesy, 1950s-esque SF feel to it was the plot line concerning sentient rats. Aside from this, the novel has dated extremely well --I was very impressed. Apart from Complain, there aren't too many likable characters, but that is to be expected in a savage, primitive society where human lives are, as Hobbes would put it, "nasty, brutish, and short". Non-Stop may turn off an uninformed reader with its mysterious plot, but I feel that the information I have provided will make for a great reading experience with plenty of surprises left (I got the information myself from a description of the book before I started reading).
As in Zelazny's Lord of Light, we are thrust into a situation with little information as to what the overarching truth behind the plot is, and must figure it out ourselves. And, like Lord of Light (and Frank Herbert's Dune), this novel is probably even better upon a second reading. But the surprise and page-turning intrigue of my first read through it has convinced to tell you this: Non-Stop is an under- appreciated masterwork of the genre. I have already recommended it to someone in real life, and would urge fans of mystery, suspense, adventure and SF in general to check it out. Its an intelligent and fascinating piece of 1950s SF that has barely aged at all.

Way Station:

"It was a hopeless thing, he thought, this obsession of his to present the people of the Earth as good and reasonable. For in many ways they were neither good nor reasonable; perhaps because they had not as yet entirely grown up. They were smart and quick and at times compassionate and even understanding, but they failed lamentably in many other ways."
"It had been in that moment that he had realized the insanity of war, the futile gesture that in time became all but meaningless, the unreasoning rage that must be nursed long beyond the memory of the incident that had caused the rage, the sheer illogic that one man, by death of misery, might prove a right or uphold a principle. Somewhere, he thought, on the long backtrack of history, the human race had accepted an insanity for a principle and had persisted in it until [the] day that insanity-turned-principle stood ready to wipe out, if not the race itself, at least all of those things, both material and immaterial, that had been fashioned as symbols of humanity through many hard-won centuries."
"For each development produced, as side effects, so many other possibilities, so many other roads to travel, that with each step one took down any given road there were more paths to follow. There'd never be an end, he thought --no end to anything."
Clifford D. Simak's Way Station has a reputation as a pastoral novel, indeed a rare breed among works of science fiction. But it is in fact just that.
Way Station is the tale of a Civil War veteran named Enoch Wallace. He is over a century old, yet only looks around thirty. And the reason for this seemingly everlasting youth is quite interesting; Enoch has not found a fountain of youth or ingested a pill or discovered a sort of biological immortality for himself. Rather, his eternal youth is given to him, as a gift, from aliens. In return, Enoch serves as the station master for a galactic way station, housed inside his old farmhouse. The house appears to be a normal, Civil-War-era dwelling from the outside, but on the inside, there are technological wonders that allow aliens to teleport to and from Earth in an instant. Enoch is the only person on Earth who is aware of the existence of these aliens, and also the only person who has communicated with them.
Way Station is set in a rural, backwater area of Wisconsin, around the 1960s -- and each of these elements exacerbates a different side of the novel. In some scenes, we are given beautiful descriptions of rural life, scenes in which Enoch revels in the quiet exuberance of nature. But in other scenes, we are confronted with lasers, incredibly advanced technology, holograms, and strange aliens. The latter is the norm for science fiction, but the former is one of the reasons why Way Station is such an interesting novel.
The plot of the novel is built up slowly, but richly and warmly, as Simak maintains a pace like Enoch Wallace's own pace on his daily routine, taking care of detail. Enoch is being watched by federal agents, who have noticed something odd about this non-aging man and his strangely impenetrable house. Things to go awry when these watchers interfere with his property, digging up the grave of a dead alien friend of Enoch's. From this point, Way Station takes on a more frenetic pace, tearing through intense scenes, almost all of which examine the psychological toll that is inflicted upon Enoch by his travails. The Galactic Council considers getting rid of the station, an angry mob is formed to attack Enoch, an alien assassin bursts onto the scene with little notice, and a peace conference that might seal the nuclear destruction of Earth looms in the background.
At times, Enoch feels as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, and in a sense, it is. He's a very likable character, a quiet, intelligent, principled man who wants to do what is right for the human race. He is quick to anger at times, but the reader is rarely given any reason not to like the man. Although the novel is mainly centered on Enoch, a deaf-mute girl named Lucy who lives near Enoch becomes an important part of the story as well. But Enoch is always the one we identify with: a good man who struggles with his own humanity and his role in earthly and galactic events.
The story's close is easily the most powerful and poignant section of the entire book. We are given an emotional scene and a moral lesson on the importance of progress --moving on in one's own life especially. Simak's writing throughout the novel is quite interesting. He certainly makes sure, in his many descriptions of the various alien species who travel through Enoch's station, to stress just how "alien" they are. Little can be understood of their sciences, philosophies, or even their senses, in many cases. There is some really interesting stuff in these attempts to aliens, their artifacts, and their ways (The Hazer's music box is quietly reminiscent of the mood organ in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). But, once again with the pastoral/slick SF contrast, Simak's descriptions of the beauty of nature often rival his descriptions of these aliens in the sense of wonder they instill, and also in the fact that they are known and can be understood.
I thoroughly enjoyed this warm, moral tale of Simak's. It adds a touch of fantasy and a tinge of the pastoral to SF, and I think that SF benefits greatly from this kind of down-to-earth, yet wondrous, imagery. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and it made me wonder why more SF isn't written like this. It's a nice break from constant, futuristic action, and it works very well. A deserved classic of science fiction with a feel-good ending to boot! Truly unique, and it ends with a sequence of scenes that rival the best that science fiction has to offer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#59: The Diamond Age, #62: Startide Rising

The Diamond Age:

“Nell," the Constable continued, indicating through his tone of voice that the lesson was concluding, "the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people—and this is true whether or not they are well-educated—is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations—in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.” 
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.” 
“...he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it -- say, in a nice stained-glass window -- not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.” 
“Yong is the outer manifestation of something. Ti is the underlying essence. Technology is a yong associated with a particular ti that is ... Western, and completely alien to us [the Chinese]. For centuries, since the time of the Opium Wars, we have struggled to absorb the yong of technology without importing the Western ti. But it has been impossible. Just as our ancestors could not open our ports to the West without accepting the poison of opium, we could not open our lives to Western technology without taking in the Western ideas, which have been as a plague on our society. The result has been centuries of chaos.” 
Neal Stephenson had a tough act to follow after his break-through cyberpunk epic, Snow Crash, won a considerable amount of well-deserved praise following its release. Snow Crash has often been cited as one of the best two cyberpunk novels ever written, as well as the best science fiction novel of the 1990s. The Diamond Age, Stephenson's next foray into science fiction, is quite different from Snow Crash, and I won't make this review an exhaustive comparison between the two beyond commenting that The Diamond Age is a more restrained, literary narrative in comparison to the fast and furious Snow Crash.
The Diamond Age shows off Stephenson's versatility from its inception. In essence, it is half fast-paced, violent, post-cyberpunk novel, half fairy-tale fantasy (in the world of the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, a crucial part of the book). It is set in and around Shanghai for the most part, around the late 21st or early 22nd century. In this future world, Stephenson presciently shows us how human society has become quite dependent on the use of nanotechnology --and Stephenson's descriptions of the many nanotechnological devices that are present in the world of The Diamond Age, particularly the airborne mites, are incredibly original and a joy to behold. In this future, society is split into "claves" or "phyles", which are essentially tribes of people that share cultural and sometimes racial characteristics with one another (Ashantis, Israelis, Hindustanis, Heartlanders, Zulus, and neo-Victorians are only a few examples). The somewhat convoluted, winding, and often digressive plot concerns a "neo-Victorian" gentleman named John Percival Hackworth who invents an astonishingly complex interactive, digital book called The Young Lady's Illustrated Primer for the daughter of a wealthy neo-Victorian lord, a book that will teach the girl to think for herself, learn about the underlying structure of human behavior, learn calculated subversiveness and essentially grow up.
Things start to spin out of control when Hackworth attempts to produce a copy of this powerful book for his daughter, only to have it stolen by a gang of teenagers. The Primer soon falls into the hands of a young, lower-class girl named Nell (probably the story's most sympathetic character) who is educated by it, and takes an odyssey of her own up the rungs of society. Meanwhile, Hackworth finds himself caught up with a mysterious criminal named Dr. X who is very interested in him, or more accurately, the great skill in engineering nanotechnology that he possesses. Dr. X quickly realizes that if Hackworth's skill could produce an extremely comprehensive and ingenious device like the Primer, that he could also be called upon for other, more ambitious projects. These projects remain a mystery to the reader, as well as Hackworth, as he spends ten years in a strange subterranean cult that he is directed to by Dr. X. In addition, some of Hackworth's neo-Victorian superiors find out about his involvement with Dr. X and tap him to be a double agent.
This book does get quite complicated and mystifying at times; there were moments when I had to put the book down and say to myself "Why are they doing this?". But Stephenson strings the reader along well --although these scenes can be as confusing as the movie theater scene in Philip K. Dick's VALIS-- they are eventually, and at least partially, explained (particularly the Dramatis Personae boat scene, the initial foray into the strange land of the Drummers, and the final scene are all shining examples).
Overall, The Diamond Age is a particularly complex, but rewarding read that poses deep questions about Eastern vs. Western philosophies and the nature of human society. Stephenson shows excellent versatility in transitioning from sweet, pastoral scenes from the pages of Nell's Primer, to the bizarre sex-laced scenes involving the Drummers, to the violent, fast battle scenes at the novel's conclusion. Stephenson has created a sort of Dickensian, class-driven tale  of nanotechnology, mystery, and growing up --a tale that also succeeds in creating a vividly realized vision of the future. It's certainly not a book I'll soon forget.

Startide Rising:

"Sometimes the key to an answer is found in the way you formulate the question."
"Blatant idiocies had been tried by early men and women --foolishness that would never have been considered by species aware of the laws of nature. Desperate superstitions had bred during the savage centuries. Styles of government, intrigues, philosophies were tested with abandon. It was almost as if Orphan Earth had been a planetary laboratory, upon which a series of senseless and bizarre experiments were tried. Illogical and shameful as they seemed in retrospect, those experiences enriched modern Man. Few races had made so many mistakes in so short a time, or tried so many tentative solutions to hopeless problems."
"Creideiki could imagine how the vice-captain felt. There were times when even he felt oppressed by the towering invasiveness of uplift, when he almost wanted to squawk in Primal, 'Who gave you the right?' And the sweet hypnosis of the Whale Dream would call to him to return to the embrace of the Old Gods." 
"Every epoch has its turning point. Sometimes it occurs on the battlefield. Sometimes it takes the form of a technological advance. On occasion, the pivotal event is philosophical and so obscure that the species in existence at the time are hardly aware that anything has changed before their world-view is turned topsy-turvy around them."
David Brin's Startide Rising is so much more than your run-of-the-mill, Star-Wars type space-opera. Yes, galactic battleships and malicious alien species' abound, but Brin throws so much more into the mix in this second novel of the Uplift series. Before I begin reviewing this novel in detail, I must note that the Uplift series does not, by my estimation, have to be read in any type of sequence to be enjoyed. The Uplift novels are all "stand-alones" which happen to take place in the same universe. I did not read Sundiver, the first book in the series, or any other Uplift novel before I read Startide Rising, and I never found myself lacking an explanation of plot or concept. In this future universe, we have your standard space-opera ingredients: humans have gained the technology for interstellar travel, and interact with many alien races, some hostile and some benign, in the Five Galaxies --many of these alien races have been sentient and able to travel through space for far longer than humanity. But the real "concept of the series" is Brin's excellent, original concept of Uplift: when an already sentient species genetically enhances and educates another species into sentiency. Humanity has uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees at the time of the action of this novel.
The plot concerns a crew of dozens of dolphins, several humans, and a chimpanzee who have apparently discovered an abandoned "derelict fleet" of giant spaceships that belonged to the ancient Progenitors --the first sentient species in the universe, who subsequently uplifted several races, who themselves continued the pattern to "create" all sentient life in the universe. Their knowledge is both dangerous and extremely valuable, and the crew of the exploratory vehicle Streaker flee to an uninhabited water world called Kithrup, pursued by religious fanatics of all sorts of nasty alien races. Brin really shows off his Stapledonian creativity in his descriptions of some of these fanatic races --some have psychic powers, others are physically grotesque beasts. They all battle each other above Kithrup for the right to capture Streaker and her crew.
The plot starts out fast-paced and with great scientific detail: Brin is clearly versed in science and Startide Rising certainly qualifies as Hard Sci-Fi (intelligent science fiction that strives to be fundamentally sound and in accordance to the laws of science). However, the novel loses this fast pace as the it becomes clear that the crew of the Streaker won't escape any time soon, and they settle down to study the metal-rich world of Kithrup. We are introduced to many characters, including Captain Creideiki, a dolphin, Takkata-Jim, his scheming lieutenant, and Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley, the two main human protagonists. Gillian and Tom are quite likable, as is Toshio, a midshipman who gets into life-threatening trouble quite a bit during the course of the novel.
In addition, an abundance of weird-named dolphin characters spring up, and they can get hard to keep track of. My personal favorite characters were Tom (whose telepathic prowess reminded me of Philip K. Dick's Ubik), your standard male hero who kicks a lot of alien ass throughout the novel, and Charles Dart, a sarcastic, self-absorbed chimp scientist whom everyone aboard loves to hate. Once a rebellion aboard ship starts to heat up, the pace of the novel comes back up to a decent speed. The action is really turned up in the last 150 or 200 pages, leading up to a climactic space battle that will have you tearing through the pages and burning the midnight oil to see what happens. In essence, Startide Rising is everything an intelligent space-opera should be --and it's original enough to shed any overbearing influence of Star Wars or Star Trek to a very competent degree.
All things considered, Startide Rising is a solid science fiction story, but not quite on the top tier of SF with works like Dune, Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Canticle For Leibowitz. Check it out if you're into lively, original tales of space and exploration. It really got me thinking about how humanity will deal with the technology to potentially do some uplifting of our own, sometime in the future.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

#88: Ilium, #17: The War of the Worlds


“Human art, Mahnmut knew, simply transcended human beings.” 
Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede."

" 'Arête is simply excellence and the striving for excellence in all things,' said Odysseus. “Arête simply means the act of offering all actions as of sacrament to excellence, of devoting one’s life to finding excellence, identifying it when it offers itself, and achieving it in your own life...Eating? Eat as if it was your last meal. Prepare the food as if there were no more food! Sacrifices to the gods? You must make each sacrifice as if the lives of your family depended upon your energy and devotion and focus. Loving? Yes, love as if it was the most important thing in the world, but make it just one in the constellation that is arête.' "
Dan Simmons' monstrous epic of a novel, Ilium, seems destined to become a classic in my view. This book is one of the primary arguments that intelligent, literary science fiction is alive and kicking in the twenty-first century. I'll start off by saying that the sheer imaginative power that Simmons exhibits in this novel is dazzling, rivaling the likes of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker in terms of creative power and uniqueness.
Ilium is quite a long book, due to the fact that it features three story-lines, which are interwoven more and more as the novel concludes. The three story-lines of the novel crisscross time and space, and Simmons borrows from many other famous SF tales and literary classics to enhance the overall imaginative force of Ilium. And even these three story-lines feature divergent subplots that make this novel quite complex, just as Homer's Iliad, which this book is based off. Simmons blends high-tech Greek gods who reside on Olympos Mons on Mars in the far future, with the traditional story of the Trojan War --throwing in sentient, ultra-literate robots from Jupiter, strange robot-like creatures on Earth who serve a stagnant, ambition-less population of humans and mysterious little green men from Mars while he's at it. Much like Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, an earlier SF epic about technologically advanced humans turning themselves into gods, the reader is left in the dark most of the time. There is mystery and intrigue at every level in Ilium, and in each plot line -- the story of our main protagonist Thomas Hockenberry and his quest to bring down the gods of Mars, the Trojan War as it rages on Earth and is influenced through space and time by the Martian gods, the Jovian moravecs on their mysterious quest to Mars, and the group of humans who journey to the orbital rings of Earth to find out the truth about humanity as they know it-- and Simmons provides few answers throughout the novel. But due to the deft story-telling and action-packed plot, I didn't mind that I had no clue how or why certain things were being done; Simmons trusts his own skill as a writer and doesn't disappoint, leaving the reader hungry for more, trying to figure out more about the mysterious, but crucial, aspects of the plot.
Of course, in such a long, intricate and mysterious novel, many cool SF concepts abound. The far-future Earth of Ilium is a place where humans live like the eloi of The Time Machine: lazily living pointless lives without questioning any aspects of their existence. The machines serving these humans and the resurrected dinosaurs that roam the wilds of this future Earth echo novels like Tevis's Mockingbird and Crichton's Jurassic Park. In this future Earth, a sentient Internet-like duo of creatures known as Prospero and Ariel (the "logosphere" and "biosphere" that exist all throughout the Earth) remain mysterious forces that seemingly influence physical events in the world. And at the heart of the novel is a message about tampering too much with Nature, as the gods and their meddling with quantum wormholes across time and space threaten to tear the solar system asunder.
All in all, this novel contains too many details for me to even begin to summarize, but I'll assure you this. Ilium is an incredibly imaginative novel that features masterful pacing, and is tough to put down. It's extremely readable and already a classic in my view. Just trust Simmons' story-telling if you are initially confused by certain aspects of the're not supposed to fully "get it", and you won't. But the shortage of decisive facts about what is actually going on only serve to make this novel more of a page-turner. This book is a breath of fresh air in the field of science fiction. I'd recommend it to action fans, sci-fi buffs and classic-literature enthusiasts alike.

The War of the Worlds:

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.” 
“We can't have any weak or silly. Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race.” 
“ What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think that God had exempted [us]? He is not an insurance agent.”
“This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war, any more than there's war between man and ants.” 
H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is the first alien invasion story, and it remains to this day, the quintessential one. The premise is so simple that it has been mimicked time and time again by SF novelists and screenwriter for decades --changed and evolved by authors like Arthur C. Clarke, in Childhood's End. Much like Wells' other famed classic, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds changed science fiction as we know it, and paved the way for countless stories about aliens. The influence of this novel may be the single greatest one on the genre of SF as a whole. Let's face it, science fiction deals with aliens a lot of the time.
Wells' novel is, firstly, an excellently descriptive one. It's easy to forget that Wells was a great writer in addition to being the pioneer of ideas in the genre. I'll start by saying that War of the Worlds is not much like The Time Machine at all, which is a more cerebral, ideas-based novel. War of the Worlds gets down to business quickly --the Martian invaders of Earth come down in mysterious giant cylinders, are observed, and soon start killing off any terrestrial resistance with their unstoppable killing-machines. These machines are essentially one-hundred-foot-tall tripods that have the ability to dispatch humans en masse with strange Heat-Rays and gouts of poisonous Black Smoke, weapons which the people of 19th  century England --where the story takes place-- have no defense against. Due to Wells' initially quick pace, War of the Worlds is still quite accessible despite its age and a surprisingly small smattering of archaic language. As the Martians sweep through England with little trouble, our unnamed narrator --a writer much like Wells himself-- must find his way through the grim, post-apocalyptic wasteland and try to survive. It's a tense, gripping novel that has a fair amount of action, and the reader is always fully aware of the despair, anxiety and fear felt by the narrator as he struggles to survive and keep away from the clutches of the Martians.
The War of the Worlds is split into two "books": "The Coming of The Martians", and "Earth Under the Martians". In my view, the second is absolutely excellent, written very economically and filled with awesome scenes as the narrator must traverse the blasted, burnt countryside to survive, and when he learns the truth about the inevitable Martian demise. The first book is just as good in places, especially the initial Martian landing and attacks, but gets somewhat bogged down in the descriptions of the narrator's brother (who is seemingly forgotten and fades from the picture in Book 2) escaping from London --chapters I think the book could do without. Particularly suspenseful is the scene in which the narrator is trapped with the curate in a wrecked house near the Martian pit for many days, and they become somewhat less than human in their fear, paranoia, and, in the curate's case, insanity. Another great scene in Book 2 comes from the narrator's conversation with the artilleryman, in which he describes his Darwinist vision of mankind living underground, accepting only the strong, and biding their time until they can revolt. Ultimately, the teller of this tale proves to be unworthy of his own grandiose schemes. However, his Darwinist, survival-of-the-fittest message resounds throughout the novel, especially as Wells, in a stroke of originality and genius, has the Martians die not from any machinations of Man, but from Earthly diseases and bacteria.
The War of the Worlds is many things -- a pioneering work of science fiction, a metaphor for the technologically advanced British Empire's subjugation of primitive cultures around the globe, and a message that the strong and intelligent can find ways to survive. And it is certainly a genuine classic of science fiction.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

#153: Mockingbird, #91: The Fountains of Paradise


“Reading is the subtle and thorough sharing of the ideas and feelings by underhanded means. It is a gross invasion of Privacy and a direct violation of the Constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Age. The Teaching of Reading is equally a crime against Privacy and Personhood. One to five years on each count.”
"Don't ask. Relax."
"Distant and clear in the pale dawn it stood, higher than anything else outside: the Empire State Building, the high grave marker for the city of New York..."
Walter Tevis's Mockingbird is a little-known masterwork of science fiction that deserves a place amongst the classics of the genre. First, let me warn you: as with most dystopian science fiction, Mockingbird is not a fun, easy-going read.
It is bleak, dreary, and depressing, chronicling a future in which the human population of Earth has decreased to about 19 million individuals. Drugs and Rules of Privacy are the mainstays of what little civilization is left, and things like conversation and family life are but distant memories. Reading, too, has vanished from human life. The world of Mockingbird is somewhat like a combination of the drugged-out Brave New World, the depressing totalitarianism of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the society which fears real learning, emotion, and books, and maintains a worshipful attitude towards wall-sized televisions in Fahrenheit 451, and finally, the robot-run stagnant society of the short story, "The Evitable Conflict", from I, Robot.
Mockingbird is certainly a chilling novel, made all the more bleak and hauntingly real by its very realistic extrapolation of current societal norms: laziness, drug-abuse, escape from reality, and focus on inner pleasure. In the world of Mockingbird, robots run everything,  because humans no longer have the drive or capacity to work themselves. Humankind has been reliant on robots for so long that they are incapable of doing much else besides watching, ingesting soporific pills (which consequently inhibit fertility, slowly killing off the human race), and smoking marijuana. In this bleak, child-less world, lives the most intelligent robot ever created, Robert Spofforth. He is essentially running New York City, in addition to serving as the dean of NYU, an institution that does not resemble a modern institute of learning in any way. Spofforth wishes to commit suicide, but his programming will not allow him.
The other two central characters are humans named Paul Bentley, a man who learns to read, and who becomes the main protagonist of the story, and Mary Lou, a woman who he falls in love with. Mockingbird contains many powerful scenes in its length as it chronicles Mary Lou and Bentley's falling in love, Spofforth's jealousy at their relationship, and Paul's exile and return from prison. The robots in this novel are characterized excellently, in a chillingly dull and manufactured way. The robot children at the zoo in which Mary Lou lives are especially creepy. The toaster factory scene is also great, an example of how pathetic the world of Mockingbird has truly become. Ironically, Spofforth seems to exhibit more human emotion than any human in the novel, Bentley and Mary Lou excepted. This is due to the fact that his brain is based on that of a man who was once real; a rather melancholy, but brilliant man.
The plot is mostly a tale of Bentley's journey through life, as he moves to New York, is Detected by Spofforth, sent to jail, escapes, and meets a group of religious puritans who live in what appears to be a fallout shelter. Mockingbird maintains its bleak and dreary tone throughout the majority of its length, until a small tinge of hope is given at the end, ironically this tinge of hope includes a suicide, which is one of the most powerful scenes I've ever read in science fiction.
The bottom line is, Mockingbird is a bleak masterwork of dystopian literature that is perhaps more accurate than any other speculative fiction that I've read so far. it certainly deserves more notoriety than it is given. This hidden gem is filled with power and tragedy, and it has some serious things to say about the human condition. It is one of the most observant and powerful works of science fiction in terms of what it has to say about humanity as a whole, and what the future will be like if we continue to keep to ourselves, enhance our lives with drugs, and begin to rely on mechanical entities to preserve our race. Highly recommended.

The Fountains of Paradise:

"Through long and bitter experience, Rajasinghe had learned never to trust first impressions, but also never to ignore them."
"Since women are better at producing babies, presumably Nature has given men some talent to compensate. But for the moment I can’t think of it"
"I am unable to distinguish clearly between your religious ceremonies and apparently identical behavior at the sporting and cultural functions you have transmitted to me."
"The hypothesis you refer to as God, though not disprovable by logic alone, is unnecessary for the following reason.
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I cannot therefore understand why this debate continues."

"The fates could not possibly be so malevolent, now that he had only a few hundred meters to go.
He was whistling in the dark, of course. How many aircraft had crashed at the very edge of the runway, after safely crossing an ocean? How many times had machines or muscles failed when there were only millimeters to go? Every possible piece of luck, bad as well as good, happened to somebody, somewhere. He had no right to expect any special treatment."

The Fountains of Paradise is undoubtedly a classic of science fiction, often cited as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's best works. I found Fountains to be quite enjoyable; it's not ultra-revolutionary or mind-bending, it is simply pure, smart science fiction -- Golden-Age sci-fi ideals blended together with Clarke's considerable (and often pioneering) scientific knowledge to back them up. The Fountains of Paradise is a typical science fiction story through and through (although that cannot be said for many books of this diverse genre!), much like Asimov's Foundation Trilogy or Crichton's Jurassic Park.
Overall,  The Fountains of Paradise is light, fun, and surprisingly humorous in sections, and the reader gets caught up in the enthusiasm for discovery, engineering and science that Clarke creates, mostly through the main character: a likable engineer with big goals named Vannevar Morgan. Morgan is easy to sympathize with from the beginning. He embarks on a quest to build a "space elevator", which would link Earth to space, thus making for easier space travel. Most of the novel is centered around Morgan's quest to build this gigantic Orbital Tower, on the top of a mountain that an ancient order of monks believes to be sacred. Throughout this novel, science clashes with religion and mysticism and mystery, all of which happen to be in decline in the 22nd century of Clarke's imagined Earth. Early passages of the novel mention an ancient king, Kalidasa, who inhabited Taprobane, the island on which the Tower is to be built, lending a sort of mythic quality to the novel's introduction.
However, Clarke shows science and human ingenuity taking precedent over the mysticism and religion of the past as Morgan eventually triumphs over the ancient order of monks who refuse to vacant their mountain-top monastery so he can build his Orbital Tower. The quotations spread before large segments of the novel are often anti-religious, but were some of the most interesting parts of the novel to me. Clarke's insight into the nature of religion and its role in humanity becomes a huge part of this novel, although it is not always in the foreground of the plot.
As to be expected with Clarke's work, there is more than a tinge of Hard SF in certain sections of this novel, mostly explaining why there are certain problems to be avoided and contained in the Tower's construction, but these explanations did not become too long-winded, complicated, or unnecessary by my judgement. Clarke also shows off his trademarked accurate foresight into the future in this novel, predicting the Internet with omnipresent "consoles" that can access any source of information in the world. Yet another layer that Clarke adds to the novel is mankind's first contact with another intelligent species, via a "Starglider" communications device sent out by an unknown alien race, which is referenced several times and becomes important in an admittedly bizarre and unexpected epilogue.
All in all, this novel made me appreciate Clarke's vast knowledge of science even more than I had previously. Coupled with his insight and philosophy on religion and mankind's future, Clarke's scientific knowledge makes for an intellectual reading experience to say the least. This novel certainly deserves its status as a classic of science fiction.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

#121: Martian Time Slip, #30: Lord of Light

Martian Time-Slip:

“I'm not much but I'm all I have.” 
"Insanity - to have to construct a picture of one's life, by making inquiries of others."
" 'It is a massive problem for the schizophrenic to relate to the school,' Glaub said. 'The schizophrenic, such as yourself, very often deals with people through their unconscious. The teaching machines, of course, have no shadow personalities; what they are is all on the surface. Since the schizophrenic is accustomed constantly to ignore the surface and look beneath --he draws a blank. He is simply unable to understand them.' "
"Death itself has such authority. A transformation as awesome as life itself, and so much harder for us to understand." 
Martian Time-Slip is another of Philip K. Dick's top-notch, time-twisting, mind-bending SF novels, in the same class as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and A Scanner Darkly. The setting for Martian Time-Slip is mostly a sparsely settled Mars, in the near future. As with most PKD novels, the Solar System has just begun to be colonized, but Earth is still the epicenter of humanity for the time being. Surprisingly, Time-Slip doesn't deal with altered states of reality as caused by hallucinogenic drugs, as in many of Dick's other works, such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch or Now Wait For Last Year.
As the eerie strangeness that can only come from PKD creeps into the novel very soon after the typical, Golden-Age SF-esque introduction, it becomes evident that this aura of strangeness has been formed by more mysterious powers and circumstances than the simple usage of psychedelic drugs. The plot of Martian Time-Slip mainly concerns three characters: protagonist Jack Bohlen, a member of the Water Worker's Union, the Union's oppressive and selfish leader Arnie Kott, and Manfred Steiner, an "anomalous", autistic child who experiences time in a strange way, different from other humans, and can apparently only utter one word of gibberish: "Gubble". Many forces come crashing into play, with Jack Bohlen playing the role of the typical everyman Dick protagonist fighting against strange, supernatural forces completely beyond his control. The plot revolves around a theoretical apartment complex in the bleak, uninhabited Franklin D. Roosevelt Mountains of Mars; these apartments are cryptically known as AM-WEB by Manfred. It soon becomes apparent that Manfred sees the future, and knows that the apartment complex will not end up as the upper-class resort-type get-away it is supposed to be, rather, it will become a rotted out hellhole for mentally "anomalous" people such as himself.
Arnie Kott attempts to take advantage of Manfred's strange perception of time, in order to benefit himself financially, Jack Bohlen attempts to do what is right, his father, Leo scrambles to buy land in the FDR Mountains, and the mysterious Bleekmen, aboriginals of Mars similar genetically to Australian aborigines of Earth, hover beyond the shadows --mysterious, but vitally important. The novel retains an eerie, other-worldly feel about it, especially in the somewhat disturbing climax at Dirty Knobby, in the FDR Mountains.
And if you're looking for classic PKD mind-bending brilliance, look no further than the scenes in which Arnie Kott repeatedly experiences the events of a few hours over and over again; it will screw with your mind as much as it screws with his. Martian Time-Slip is an excellent piece of the PKD canon, and I would recommend it to beginner PKD-readers, as it does not quit reach the level of mind-fracturing madness as some of his later work does.
The tone of this book is the quality that sticks with the reader most after its completion: an ethereal, strange aura unlike any other novel, by Dick or otherwise, that I have read. Like all of Philip K. Dick's other top-notch works that I have read so far, this haunting, alien read is highly recommended to any Sci-Fi enthusiast.

Lord of Light:

“No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words.” 
“Then the one called Raltariki is really a demon?" asked Tak.
"Yes--and no," said Yama, "If by 'demon' you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape--then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect."
"Oh? And what may that be?"
"It is not a supernatural creature."
"But it is all those other things?"
"Then I fail to see what difference it makes whether it be supernatural or not--so long as it is malefic, possesses great powers and life span and has the ability to change its shape at will."
"Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy--it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable.”  

“It would be nice if there were some one thing constant and unchanging in the universe. If there is such a thing, then it is a thing which would have to be stronger than love, and it is a thing which I do not know.” 
I'll start off my review of Roger Zelazny's masterwork of Science Fiction, Lord of Light, with this  quote from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". This quote certainly applies to the Hindu "gods" of Lord of Light, a hybrid work of Science-Fiction and Fantasy, in which science has advanced enough so that men can reincarnate their souls into new bodies repeatedly without ever having to taste of "the real death". In addition, these people have also genetically altered themselves enough with advances in neuroscience and hypnosis so they can wield god-like Attributes: stares that can kill a person, or the power to control and bind electromagnetic currents.
The general plot of the novel is as follows: A group of humans on board a spaceship called the Star of India left Earth, or Urath as it is often referred to, as it was in its death throes, and have colonized a new planet, peopling it with their own descendants, whom they rule over, as Hindu gods, with supernatural Attributes and all. Their ancestors remain ignorant as to the truth about their world, and the Hindu gods suppress any technology that might eventually come in the way of their ancestors worship of them, whether it be the printing press, bifocals, or toilets with running water.
Eventually, one of the original crew members from the Star of India (mentioned by name only once in the novel, known as Mahasamatman, or simply, Sam, begins spreading Buddhist teachings across the land, in direct opposition to the gods of the Hindu pantheon, who rule from the Celestial City of "Heaven", a gigantic dome located near the pole of the world. Sam is in favor of Accelerationism, a philosophy that is all about letting the inhabitants of this planet out of the dark, and letting them discover technology, rather them letting them be continuously oppressed by their technologically gifted ancestors.
There are impressive battle scenes between the gods, zombies, humans, and demons, incredibly interesting philosophical discourses, Christianity is even thrown into the mix towards the end. In addition, the original inhabitants of the planet, known as Rakasha, or demons, after the Hindu tradition, make frequent appearances: they are creatures of pure energy who can take on any physical form, and are almost as powerful as the technologically advanced gods. They were originally sealed underneath a mountain when the "gods" first settled on the planet, but they are loosed throughout the course of the novel, and wreak much havoc. I found several parallels between this novel and another classic of SF: A Canticle of Leibowitz: in both, religion plays a huge role in the world, as rediscoveries must be made in the fields of science and thought, as humanity in general must start over again.
I must say that I found the premise of Lord of Light one of the most original and creative premises that I have ever entered in my reading of Science Fiction. Zelazny's action-packed tale of a rebel god/man who poses as Buddha, releases demons to do his bidding, and controls his soul when it is lacking of a body all by the wonders of science, makes for an epic you won't be able to put down. It is both an exciting and original premise, and a masterfully executed story. The characters of Mahasamatman, Yama, Taraka, Rild, and Nirritti the Black One were all excellently realized and thought-provoking to me particularly.
There is so much going on in Lord of Light that I cannot begin to summarize it here, but suffice to say, that it is more than deserving of its reputation as a masterpiece of Science Fiction. Its one of the most action-packed, fascinating SF books I've ever read, and its certainly up there with the very best of the genre. You'll also probably get interested in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy after having finished this novel. Don't miss this book, I'd rank it among the most deftly executed Science Fiction stories of all time.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

#16: Rendezvous with Rama, #48: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Rendezvous with Rama:

“If such a thing had happened once, it must surely have happened many times in this galaxy of a hundred billion suns.” 
“Even by the twenty-second century, no way had yet been discovered of keeping elderly and conservative scientists from occupying crucial administrative positions. Indeed, it was doubted if the problem ever would be solved.” 
“He had a suspicion of plausible answers; they were so often wrong.” 
“Training was one thing, reality another, and no one could be sure that the ancient human instincts of self-preservation would not take over in an emergency.” 
Rendezvous With Rama is regarded as one of SF grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke's masterpieces simply because of the fertile imagination he exhibits in this work. Rendezvous is essentially a novel focused on what it would mean to explore something completely unknown and alien. Characterization and plot become secondary in Rendezvous with Rama, in which the main character truly is Rama, the massive, cylindrical object found floating through the solar system.
The novel details how a team of Earth astronauts explore Rama, finding many strange wonders inside, but no definitive answers as to what kind of alien form of life actually made this gigantic spacecraft, or what it was made for. Inside the giant cylinder, the astronauts find what is essentially an enclosed ecosystem, with rivers, grass, natural landscapes, and "biots", a mysterious type of biological robot--formed out of organic material, but serving a robotic purpose, apparently the upkeeping of Rama.
This is a novel shrouded in mystery and infused with the excitement of the exploration of the unknown. In general, Rendezvous with Rama is a funner, easier read than most hard SF. I found it more enjoyable as a reader with little scientific background --a reader more concerned with the ideas of Science Fiction, than the actual science of it -- than Larry's Niven's Ringworld. This may be due to the fact that Clarke does not harp on technical details too much; rather, he masterfully conveys the sense of wonder, mystery, and the starkly alien in an engaging, readable way.
However, Clarke's novel still remains a masterwork of hard SF to this day. Its influence on real-world science is apparent in the modern world as well. Just take a look at the January 2013 issue of National Geographic for an artist's rendition of a giant generation ship that could be built in the far future to take masses of humanity to distant stars. Looks a lot like the vast cylinder of Rama, no? Indeed, Clarke's novels are always full of big, realistic, scientific ideas. You'd expect nothing less from the man who gave us the idea of the man-made satellite.
A final statement on the importance of humanity is made at the novel's conclusion when Rama absorbs fuel from our sun and blasts back off into the cosmos--and the astronauts' impact has apparently gone unfelt by the massive alien artifact. The Ramans apparently could not care less about humanity: their artifact takes its fuel and blasts off without a second thought. Clarke's novel concludes soon after, with more questions arising, and very few answered...much the way science and discovery goes in real life. The last sentence of the novel is a cryptic statement suggesting the sequels that came soon after this acknowledged masterwork of science fiction: The Ramans do everything in threes...
Although Rendezvous with Rama is not a deeply philosophical work attempting to delve into the psyche of humankind (it is in fact quite the opposite, as mankind is relegated to the status of unimportant observer), it is a deeply interesting, creative, imaginative adventure story, and a cornerstone work of science fiction. Try reading Rendezvous after a dystopian, dark, bleak work of SF (and there are many...), and you'll find its infectious enthusiasm for exploration a joy to behold.

A Canticle For Leibowitz:

You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” 
“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle's eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”
“Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry. But that is how I see it.” 
“Listen, my dear Cors, why don't you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn't allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things.” 

A Canticle For Leibowitz is, in my view, one of the greatest Science Fiction novels ever written. This post-apocalyptic tale of the monks of the Order of Saint Isaac Leibowitz, retains its power upon successive readings, and can hold its own when compared with masterworks of SF such as Dune, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Star Maker, or the Foundation Trilogy.
The novel is told in three parts, split up over hundreds of years, documenting the monks and their attempts to preserve the lost arts of science, technology, and philosophy, after the great Flame Deluge, a great nuclear war that almost ended all life on Earth. The other inhabitants of Earth are lost in ignorance, barbarism and darkness, making war and acting savagely while the monks work to rediscover science and experience pioneering breakthroughs in the field.
In the first part, Fiat Homo, or "Let there be man", Brother Francis, a young monk of the order, discovers some sacred documents of Saint Leibowitz, including a normal, everyday grocery shopping list, which the monks soon come to revere. This is just one touch of the blackly humorous tone that Miller flirts with throughout the novel. Brother Francis's discovery of these documents is aided by a strange pilgrim, who shows up in each of the three sections of the novel, the only constant character in this centuries-spanning work.
In the next section, Fiat Lux, or "Let there be light", the monks discover and begin to work with electricity, and attempt to deal with barbarian outsiders such as Hannegan II of Texarkana, a warlord who poses a threat to the lone beacon of civilization left on Earth, the monks of Saint Leibowitz.
 In the final novella-length section, Fiat Voluntas Tua, or "Let thy will be done", Earth has once again cyclically developed into what it was right before the Flame Deluge, with spaceships, cameras, and advanced nuclear weaponry once again present in society. It is in this section that the Abbot Zerchi gives his famous speech on the evil of euthanasia. He formulates this justifiably famous speech into in a parable that he tells to a woman about to choose to kill herself and her daughter. The parable is about a cat he once killed to "put it out of its misery", and his powerful experience in committing such an act. This speech is just one of the reasons that the last few chapters of Canticle are as powerful as any group of scenes I've ever encountered in Science Fiction: they form a tragic, bleak vision that is awe-inspiring to behold. There is no doubt that Miller is a master author, and these concluding scenes prove the power of his writing. As the story ends, still the monks of Saint Leibowitz hold strong, eventually taking a spaceship into the cosmos for the fear that history might soon repeat itself, as it has apparently begun to.
A Canticle For Leibowitz is perhaps the first book that I would recommend to a person who is beginning to read in the genre of SF, because it shows that genre Science Fiction can be powerful and well-written enough to be considered true "literature". It is probably the best example of a bridge between SF and "serious Literature", because it hasn't been claimed by the serious literature crowd in the same way works such as Nineteen Eight-Four, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and Fahrenheit 451 have. It is still Science Fiction and it is still undeniably brilliant. This is a powerful, extremely imaginative, thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone. It's one of the very best that science fiction has to offer.