Monday, December 23, 2013

Updates and Other Stuff

After several months of hiatus due to college stuff, I'm back at it with the Science Fiction reviews! By the way, the master list has grown from the original 160 to around 200-220... So I've got my work cut out for me.
I just read and reviewed Way Station, and plan on starting Non-Stop this afternoon. Now that I'm on vacation I should be able to catch up with the reviews --Downward to the Earth, Burning Chrome, The Simulacra, and 20,000 Leagues have been sitting there barren for too long!
As for reviews after these pieces, I'm taking a few into consideration. Specifically, Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, which I wasn't too familiar with until a few days ago, looks incredible. Short stories from many of the big names in 20th century SF. Philip K. Dick, Norman Spinrad, Ellison himself, Fritz Leiber; I'm not sure I can resist!
Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore also sounds excellent. If you have any suggestions for SF classic that I haven't reviewed yet, post them in the comments. Chances are, its on the list.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

#143: The Simulacra, #33: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The Simulacra:

"Frauenzimmer Associates functioned better if it was not reminded of such facts of life. Like a regressed neurotic, it had to hide several aspects of reality from its percept system in order to function at all. This was hardly ideal, but what really was the alternative? To be realistic would be to give up, to die. Illusion, of an infantile nature, was essential for the tiny firm's survival"
"Do you know what the true basis of political power is? Not guns or troops but the ability to get others to do what you want them to do. By whatever means are appropriate."
" 'I don't even know who you're talking about,' Nat said. 'I can't make out exactly what's going on, what the issues are or who's fighting whom. Do you know? Maybe you can tell me.' But I doubt it, he thought. I doubt if you can turn it into something sensible for me --or for anyone else. Because it is just not sensible."
The Simulacra is one of Philip K. Dick's lesser-known novels, but it shares many similarities with his great ones. If you have read any Philip K. Dick, you probably know what to expect: androids, manufactured false realities, mind-bending usage of time-warp, severe mental illness, and a little bit of telekinesis thrown in there as well. The Simulacra delivers hefty portions of each of these, plus so much more, in spades.
The novel is set in the year 2048, and in many ways, it's a typical PKD future-Earth scenario. The Solar System has only begun to be colonized, mostly by societal outcasts and the mentally unstable. The Earth is recovering from a nuclear war. A government rules over the United States of Europe and America, appearing to border on the totalitarian, even to the uninformed underclass of this nation. As PKD fleshes out this future society in the opening chapters, we encounter many typically ingenious science fiction concepts. Pharmaceutical cartels have lobbied the government to ban all psychoanalysis, so they can gain a stranglehold on the mental-health treatment market. Commercials take the form of irritating robotic insects that can fly in through a crack in a window, and spew their recorded spiel about some product or another. And interactive television sets in which the viewer can influence the program he is watching have only managed to make its viewers feel even more powerless, as their preferences are outvoted by the millions of others with similar television sets.
Philip K. Dick's world-building, as is sometimes the case, is his strong suit in the opening half of this novel. We are also introduced to a large cast of characters who are, similar to the cast of The Man in the High Castle, going about daily life. We have Richard Kongrosian, a telepathic musician, Ian Duncan and Al Miller, struggling members of the underclass, Egon Superb, the last practicing psychoanalyst, Nicole Thibodeaux, the powerful First Lady of the USEA, and many more. The characters' paths all intersect in interesting ways throughout the novel, with Superb's psychoanalysis and Nicole's high office being the two main points that the plot revolves around. Indeed, many of the male characters in the novel become obsessed with the oft-televised First Lady, and seek out Superb's help for this and a variety of other mental issues.
Some plot lines I found stronger than others in richly peopled novel. I enjoyed Ian Duncan, Al Miller and Loony Luke's plot-thread but I found Nat Flieger's thread to be less exciting, for example. In terms of other positives, I found Bertold Goltz to be a suitably frustrating villain, reminiscent of Palmer Eldritch from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But overall, it felt as if PKD tried to squeeze in too many characters and plot lines in ~230 pages, especially at the novel's inception, when new characters were springing up with almost overwhelming regularity. The first half of the novel is interesting but not amazing --PKD tends to focus on dialogue rather than poetic language or especially vivid description and that is certainly apparent in this half. But things change when revelations about der Alte and Nicole come out later, as is often the case with PKD, nothing is as it seems! We are bombarded with disorienting information, the pace quickens, and we reach Ubik-like levels of time-warping thanks to the von Lessinger equipment that the USEA government has used. All this is topped off with a very disturbing, open-ended conclusion.
I was hesitant in calling The Simulacra a masterwork of science fiction while reading the first hundred or so pages, but the novel's conclusion made me a believer. This is a disorienting, conspiracy-heavy, mind-bender of a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed --I blazed through the last hundred pages in a single sitting. It may not be in the very top tier of PKD's work, as Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and A Scanner Darkly are, but it is certainly an excellent read that will keep you guessing, second-guessing, and questioning its unique take on reality until the very end.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea:

"It was quite easy to believe that God had created something prodigious. But suddenly to find, before one's very eyes, the impossible realized by mysterious human means, that truly was a staggering thought."
"...contemplating sublime things is never worth losing one's freedom."
" the poet, a pearl is an ocean tear; to Orientals it is a drop of hardened dew; to women it is an oblong jewel with a glassy sheen which they wear on their finger, around their neck or on their ear; to the chemist it is a mixture of calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate with a bit of gelatin; and finally to the naturalist it is merely an abnormal secretion from the same organ which produces mother-of-pearl in certain bivalves." 
Jules Verne, along with H.G. Wells, is rightly considered one of the "grandfathers of science fiction". Of the two, I prefer Wells, and find the phenomenally gifted Olaf Stapledon superior to either one --but still, I cannot overestimate the influence that Verne has had on the genre of science fiction. Verne's stories tend to fall into the sub genre of SF adventure stories, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is perhaps the prime example of this type of adventure story.
Like Verne's own Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, this novel is less concerned with "protagonist vs. antagonist for four-hundred-and-some-odd-pages until one triumphs" as it is with instilling a sense of wonder in the reader. Of course, since this book was published in 1870, the wondrous visions of underwater life and the proto-Hard SF-style descriptions of Captain Nemo's submarine can come across as somewhat dated to the modern reader. But there's no denying that Verne was remarkably prescient with his descriptions of the submarine and self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. So yes, the sense of wonder has diminished in the 140 years since the novel was published, but Verne's scientific acumen and foresight will remain impressive for readers in future generations, I would imagine.
20,000 Leagues is a fairly easy-to-read adventure story, featuring three likable protagonists: Professor Arronax, his servant, Conseil, and the brash Canadian harpooner, Ned Land. The three men find themselves imprisoned on a technologically advanced underwater ship after joining a search for the vessel, previous mistaken as being a giant narwhal. With the submarine's enigmatic, land-hating captain, Nemo, the three men travel thousands of miles around the globe, dealing with tropical savages, dangerous icebergs, and giant squid along the way. There are some fun action sequences --the battle with the squid is particularly famous, and the episode in which the submarine (called the Nautilus) is trapped in ice is frantic and well-done.
However, Verne can tend to get bogged down in pages-long detours concerning scientific plausibility at times when the reader wants more action! Things like endless lists of various species of fish, and their Latin names, as well as uber-specific longitude-and-latitude locations become tedious over the course of 400+ pages. And, although this may in fact be a gripe with the Anthony Bonner translation that I read, the dialogue can seem clunky and wooden at times. High points as far as descriptive acumen and power include the excellent chapter, "A Lost Continent", which is wondrous and enthralling, with excellent imagery throughout. The pearl expedition in Ceylon is also quite striking --although Verne may have wiffed scientifically in this novel when he writes about ocean depths of 50,000+ feet (the deepest ocean trench in the world only goes about 37,000 feet down) and the lost continent of Atlantis, he hits several home runs in his descriptions of these wonders and other exotic locales. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea should be read by SF fans because of its significance to the genre, and its great adventure sequences.
I only wish Verne had cut out a few dozen pages of those monotonous fish lists and sometimes repetitive descriptions of the monotony of life on board for Arronax, Conseil, and Ned. Although I prefer Wells' writing, I appreciated this classic of Verne's mainly for its infectious sense of adventure, and its remarkable influence and prescience.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#142: Downward to the Earth, #80: Burning Chrome

Downward to the Earth:

"Sometimes we are slow to understand the nature of others, and we give offense without knowing that we do so."
"The one who pushes the trigger can get hurt worse than his target..."
"Isn't the point obvious enough? Who was spiritually superior there? When you treat a rational autonomous creature as though he's a mere beast, what does that make you?"
Downward to the Earth is one of Robert Silverberg's lesser known works --a short, but poignant read. The novel gives us the tale of Edmund Gundersen, a former sector chief on the colony world of Belzagor. Gundersen served on Belzagor for around a decade, working for "The Company", mining and slowing stripping Belzagor of its natural resources.  Gundersen left only when Earth relinquished its imperialist hold on the planet.
Now, about a decade after relinquishment, Gundersen comes back to Belzagor to seek spiritual renewal, after the realization that he treated the sentient inhabitants of Belzagor, the nildoror, as if they were animals. In essence, he knows that he has treated these aliens as subhuman beasts of burden during his time on Belzagor (partially due to their submissive nature and close physical resemblance to Earth's elephants), and that he must somehow atone for his sins. As he arrives once again on Belzagor, he encounters the sulidoror --the mysterious bipedal race that are the only other sentient species on the planet-- as well as many nildoror (all of whom seem surprisingly nonchalant toward their former colonial overseer), and the remnants of the humans who decided to stay behind on Belzagor. He soon deicdes to travel across a good portion of the planet in order to undergo the nildoror ceremony of rebirth, and thus purify himself of his past sins; this journey makes up the bulk of this short novel. Silverberg describes Belzagor is a very interesting way: the colorful descriptions of the flora, fauna, and landscape are excellent, as one would expect from the author, one of the more inventive, literary, and technically-skilled wordsmiths in the science fiction field. But Belzagor is also given an air of familiarity, and at the same time, strangeness, as if Gundersen never truly knew the planet in his previous stay.
Indeed, the novel as a whole is quite mysterious, mystical and spiritually-oriented, rather than action-packed and in-your-face. The tribal, ecstatic, frenzied ritual dance that Gundersen joins the nildoror in, early in the novel, sets the tone for the book. The reader, like Gundersen, only has an inkling of what these nildoror (once considered simply to be funny-looking, semi-intelligent elephants) are really about. By my estimation, the novel was at its best in the more mystical scenes: the aforementioned nildoror dance was engrossing to read about, Cullen's story was equally intriguing, and the final scene, in which Gundersen reaches his destination, is easily the most brilliant writing in the book. This final scene reminded me of Stapledon's Star Maker, or the acid-trip scene from Silverberg's own Dying Inside in its metaphysical brilliance.
Downward to the Earth has much to say about the arrogance and presumption of colonialism (it is, Silverberg posits in his introduction, loosely based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness), but focuses more on the importance of spirituality over cold hard logic. Again, to deviate from the genre of science fiction, this sentiment reminded me of the closing lines of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's excellent parable, The Grand Inquisitor, in its powerful spiritual message. Although, to be certain, Silverberg certainly isn't endorsing any organized Earthly religion with the conclusion of this novel. I found this novel to be a thought-provoking read --it did slow down in some parts of Gundersen's journey, but Silverberg's descriptive acumen kept the plot, while sometimes meandering slightly, from ever becoming dull. The novel could probably be shortened by ten or twenty pages with minimal detriment to the story's power. I would recommend Downward to the Earth to any reader interested in intellectual, fulfilling, literary science fiction. Its dreamlike tone and emphasis on spirituality puts the reader in a pensive, even tranquil, state of mind. In this respect it is the polar opposite of Neal Stephenson's fast-paced, seething, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top novel, Snow Crash. I enjoyed both, however. As a Silverberg novel, I would rank this novel slightly below the phenomenal Dying Inside, but it is still certainly a worthwhile read and a mind and soul-stimulating addition to the canon of science fiction classics.

Burning Chrome:

"...most people's inner monsters are foolish things, ludicrous in the calm light of one's own consciousness."
" 'Hell of a world we live in, huh?  ...But it could be worse, huh?'
'That's right,' I said, 'or even worse, it could be perfect.' "

William Gibson's Burning Chrome is one of the few short-story collections on this list. And it's so good that excluding it from any sort of " The Best of Sci-Fi" list is criminal. Upon reading this collection, I am inclined to say that Gibson is the best pure, technical writer that Sci-Fi has ever known. His style is distinct --wonderfully mysterious yet brimming with ingenious methods of description. These ten cyberpunk stories gave me plenty of the great SF ideas that I crave, while also satisfying my English-major-brand thirst for great writing. In a way, Gibson's "high-tech, low-life" stories prove that he is this generation's more literary version of Philip K. Dick. I still prefer PKD (my favorite author) to Gibson, but this guy is most definitely one of the greatest SF authors alive right now.
 The individual stories in the collection varied in strength, but I quite enjoyed most of them. Johnny Mnemonic is a bizarre, fast-paced head-trip of a story, recounting a human memory bank's flight from a dangerous assassin. This one is dystopic, dark, and very cyberpunk. I enjoyed it, although it was often disorienting. In fact, Johnny Mnemonic reminded me a lot of my favorite cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. The Gernsback Continuum is an incredibly unique story that I found to be extremely interesting --although its quirky style may not appeal to everyone. It is a Brave New World-esque commentary on the 1930s vision of the future as an idyllic setting. It's set in the present day, but the story's conclusion presents the reader with food for thought in a way that is very science fiction-y. Fragments of a Hologram Rose was one of the least memorable stories in the collection --it's a mysterious, melancholy take on virtual reality. It's also very short, vague, and written in a dream-like tone. We get a few hints of a dystopia here too, with mentions of guerrilla warfare, acid rain, and black market towns. The plot is fluid and ambiguous, to say the least. The Belonging Kind is an extremely well-written depiction of social anxiety and awkwardness. It's strange and thought-provoking, asking the question, "Does easy sociability signal a loss of humanity?" and "Does being human mean being awkward?" It's blackly humorous for sure, and a must-read for anyone who is not quite a social butterfly. From the beginning of the story, I related with Coretti like few other characters in literature. Hinterlands is an eerie, more space-opera-esque SF tale that bears the trademark Gibson mystery and emotion. Once again, extremely well-written, and one of the best stories in the collection.
 Red Star, Winter Orbit was my least favorite story in Burning Chrome. This story is a weird, sad, space opera that felt dated to me (it revolves around an old Soviet Union space station). The plot is decent, but it failed to excite and present innovative ideas in quite the way that Gibson usually does. New Rose Hotel may be my favorite story in this collection. It's vague, but brilliantly so. All I can tell you is that it's about dueling biotech companies, and you'll have to figure out the rest yourself. The language and emotion is top-notch, giving this story a serious "wow-factor" that outpaces any SF short story I have read. This one deserves multiple re-readings. The Winter Market features more cyberpunk ideas that entertain and enthrall. It's fascinating, with perhaps the best "SF concept" of the book --downloading dreams onto sensory records and selling them! Gibson also may be prescient in this story as well, as he tells us of a crippled girl who downloads her entire personality onto a computer system --according to futurists like Ray Kurzweil, this could be possible in the near future. Dogfight was a more "slice-of-life" tale about a wandering loser who gets really good at a futuristic game. Dogfight starts off lighter than most Gibson stories, but gets typically dark and meaningful by its conclusion. Probably one of the easiest reads here, and of average quality when compared to the collection as a whole. 
Finally, the titular story delivers in spades --it's a beautiful, melancholy story about up-and-coming computer hackers. Excellent, concise, and once again, vintage Gibson. The risqué idea of The House of Blue Lights was appreciated by this reader as well. Truly an exemplary collection from one of the best authors that science fiction has to offer!