Isaac Asimov — The Gods Themselves (1972)

January 6, 2012

In Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, a scientist discovers an opening, a small leak between this universe and another.  And through this opening, matter begins to be exchanged—tungsten 186 from Earth is swapped for plutonium 186 from the parallel universe.  This is quite odd because (outside of the fact that parallel universes are leaking into one another) plutonium 186 is theoretically impossible to exist on Earth due to the way nuclear fission occurs here.  It would be far too unstable.  This is explained, though, by the fact that as the tungsten is fed into the parallel universe and as the plutonium that migrates here transforms back into tungsten (which then gets fed back into the parallel universe, where it will, then, gradually transform into plutonium and on and on…), the law of conservation of energy is not violated.  In fact, as this inter-universal commerce occurs, not only are scientific laws preserved, but each exchange catalyzes a small, but tolerable nuclear reaction which then results in free, usable energy.  And it works that way for the beings that inhabit the parallel universe, as well—the “para-men,” as they are called.  For them, tungsten 186 is theoretically unstable, but due to the fact that they’re getting rid of the particles from the plutonium, it all works out and the inhabitants of both universes get endless free energy.  It’s a bonanza.

In near-future Earth, economies are revolutionized because of this “Electron Pump” and daily struggle is minimized for all.  In its stead, though, something else has emerged.  Just below this quasi-heaven atmosphere of “do whatever you want” on the surface, one finds a widespread complacency and moral pettiness—a certain malaise—below, in the hearts and minds of the population.  When everyone has “everything” and no one encounters adversity, the preservation of the comfy status quo becomes paramount to everything else, including reasoned debate or the acknowledgment of genuine systematic crisis.  Even among the scientific community, career advancement and the stroking of one’s own ego are far more treasured than something as nostalgic-sounding as the “good of humankind” (even more than in the already fraught present day).

Likewise, in the universe that the humans have made contact with, many of the para-men, an extremely alien sentience that respond to a different set of physical laws, suffer from what is in effect a similar problem: in this case, blind faith in the goodness of the Pump along with a strong fear of change prevents any of the “Hard Ones,” the top scientist-type figures in the universe, to feel ethically challenged by the idea that the pump will most likely cause the Sun of the other universe, the Earth universe, our universe, to go nova.  Indeed, for the para-men, the Sun going nova just gives them more energy in an arguably safer manner.  They don’t know us.  They don’t care.  They’re rationalism and inability to think of this “other”—us—as anything other than an object doesn’t allow them to feel any empathy for us at all.

Soon enough, though, back on Earth, a younger scientist crunches the numbers and realizes what the para-men already knew: the continued use of the Pump in its present state is not full proof and there is a high probability that nothing less than the explosion of the Sun and possibly even the creation of a gigantic black hole in that part of the Milky Way will occur.  And he’s got hard data to back him up.  However, no one, and certainly not the physicist who became famous the world over for his discovery of the leak between universes, will listen to him.  Like the debates around Global Warming today, clear cut scientific evidence that the ship is headed straight towards Armageddon is no competition for the preservation of one’s reputation, political buffoonery, and the status quo.

In the end, it takes the pioneer spirit existing among the “Lunarites,” the recent colonists to the Moon, to allow some way forward to emerge from this crisis.  It is there that, Dennison, a middle-aged man who, as a young radiochemist, witnessed the discovery of the universe leak in a laboratory, migrates because he can’t stand the oppressive materialism and blasé, play-it-safe attitude among the Earth’s population.  While he’s there, though, he falls in love with a woman that reinvigorates his attitude for science.  Using the fact that the Lunar surface is a near-perfect vacuum to his advantage (he can just step outside rather find a properly-equipped laboratory on Earth), he begins conducting experiments and discovers a way forward for the Electron Pump that drastically reduces the possibility that the sun would go nova.

The solution to the problem here is key for Asimov.  The fact that there is a move forward rather than an attempt to squish reality backwards by ending the Electron Pump for good is a major theme of the novel.  For Asimov, the proper response to a crisis is always an improvement or a fix rather than a prohibition.  If cars are seen to be dangerous, that doesn’t mean you try to outlaw cars, you improve safety features.  It’s not that Asimov is even necessarily suggesting that this is the ethically better option; more that it’s the only realistic one.  The public will simply not stand for the end of something they love and depend on.  The more you try to do this, the farther you’ll get from addressing the crisis because it will remain a fringe, “idealistic” concern.  Instead, you need to hold your nose and build on what you’ve got.  It’s pragmatism.

For Asimov, history does not reach a teleological end point, but continues to go through cycles of crisis and resolution ostensibly forever.  In the Foundation novels, he called these sort of civilization-on-the brink crises “Seldon crises”—after the fictional “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon who developed complex mathematical models that could accurately predict when these crises would occur.   At the end of The Gods Themselves, he writes, “…there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.  We’ve passed this one safely, I think, and we’ll be sorry about the others as they come and pass and can be foreseen.”  As a writer, Asimov also functions as a teacher.  And his great subject is the perennial crisis of civilization and what to do about it.

The Gods Themselves, like much of Asimov’s fictional output, is heavy on dialogue and exposition, light on any visual impact.  For a story about parallel universes communicating to one another, a lunar colony, and an Earth of unlimited free energy, there is little in the way of interesting imagery or stylistic pleasure here.  One exception is Dua, the young “Emotional” from the novel’s second section that takes place in the parallel universe.  As a way to hide in the caverns where the “Hard Ones” live and eavesdrop, she “melts” into the rock itself and hangs out there.  Indeed, the characters that have the most to say about human nature are Dua and the other para-men from the second section.

That said, hard SF should not necessarily be evaluated in the light of literary fiction in the first place.  Asimov’s style is not “bad” because he doesn’t know any better.  Rather, he’s placing his work in the context of his field.  Hard SF has its own aesthetic interests and values; it is its own medium.  And in hard SF, when the puzzle of the science meeting the plot fits together and you can see it, it becomes its own sort of triumph.  And, on that front, The Gods Themselves delivers.

A final note: the novel is broken up into three novella length sections, each analyzing the situation from a different point of view.  Some commentary I’ve come across has complained about that because it disrupts the reader’s ability to engage deeply with a single situation.  I can sympathize with that and, typically, prefer longer stories about one group of characters.  Here, though, there seems to be a good, thematically-relevant motivation.  Each of the novellas is itself a universe, parallel to the others, sharing data, just as Asimov envisions reality to exist in The Gods Themselves.

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Dan Simmons — Hyperion (1989)

December 27, 2011

Modeled on the structure of The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, and The Wizard of Oz (among a bevy of other literary influences from within SF and beyond), Hyperion tells the story of a motley group of pilgrims who strike off to encounter the mythic Shrike, a violent God-like being said to live among the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion.   According to local legend, the Shrike will grant audience with pilgrimage groups composed of prime numbers.  Each of the pilgrims in these groups is able to make one request of the Shrike.  Of those who make a request, the Shrike will kill all but one on a giant metal tree and that one pilgrim will, in turn, have his or her request granted.  So, you’d have to be desperate or driven beyond sanity to want to undertake this pilgrimage, but, as we see, the pilgrims depicted in Hyperion each have their reasons.  By the end of the novel, though, we only see them reach the Time Tombs and not conduct their ultimate meeting with the Shrike.  This along with the resolution of an intergalactic war occurring in the background of the story is left to be completed in the immediate sequel, The Fall of Hyperion.  

There is a brief prologue in which we are introduced to much of the key vocabulary and characteristic traits of the world.  The rest of the novel builds out these terms and ideas, especially the political situation of the universe in which it is set, via the tales told by each of the pilgrims.  By the end, the planet Hyperion stands as one of the most finely wrought SF worlds ever created, replete with a back story that accounts for the death of Earth, scientific theories, and a morally complicated web of interaction between different political interests, including the TechnoCore, a gigantic networked infrastructure run by sentient AI.  What remains a mystery are the exact origin and meaning of the Shrike and the Time Tombs.  We know they exist and several of their effects—including an anti-entropic force that reverses the flow of time—but the whole story,  along with the conclusions to each of the pilgrims’ stories, will have to wait.

Of course, the worldbuilding is not the main thrust here; it’s a byproduct of the pilgrims’ tales, each of which are a novella appropriating a different sub-genre of SF ranging from the pulpy to the literary.  Author Dan Simmons takes on a different authorial voice depending on the tale and the results are mixed.  The most effective stand-alone tales are the ones that seem the quietist and closest to the style Simmons’ uses in-between each.  So, the first, the last, and, in its way, the fourth—the scholar’s tale—are all quite effective.  Those that require him to inhabit a louder, more rough-around-the-edges style, though, such as the hardboiled cyberpunk detective story and the military SF tech extravaganza, while possessing mindbending moments and interesting ideas, ultimately aren’t incredibly strong on their own (or at least they’re noticeably less strong than the better of the tales).  Perhaps that’s just my own personal bias, though.

In any event, because there are these gear shifts and dramatic alterations in the way to approach the different sections of the novel, and because these shifts do vary in quality (no matter which ones you feel are superior), you can’t ever quite get into a rhythm with Hyperion.  This is a shame because, as mentioned, the world in which all of this is occurring is rich and mysterious and it’s a great pleasure to sink into it during the moments when you can.

Another thing to say is that, even though the structure comes from Medieval and Renaissance literature, the novel can also be read in conjunction with the literary tradition of postmodernism in which fracture, pastiche, and an implicit awareness of the fact that the work is, in fact, a novel create a different set of values through which to evaluate a work.  Hyperion, with it’s fusion of multiple genres, and play with and beyond the canon of SF, is Meta SF—a work of science fiction literature about science fiction literature.  Through this lens, any problems I may have had with the jerkiness of the experience of reading it could be answered in relation to the works’ theoretical ambitions.  That said, even in postmodernism, the pleasure of reading through the words until the end is paramount to other concerns.

Overall, though, and despite any reservations voiced above, it’s a big wonderful book—required reading for fans of ambitious, idea-driven science fiction.  Simmons’ ability to put this together is simply impressive and, on their own, many of the stories, especially the ones touching on spiritual issues, are beautiful meetings of worldbuilding, theme, and character.

December 21, 2011

Springtime Entropy by Kate Steciw


Ursula K. Le Guin — The Farthest Shore (1972)

December 21, 2011

All throughout Earthsea, magic is disappearing.  Wizards are forgetting the ancient words at the heart of magical spells.  Sorcerers are turning to materialism.  For many, addiction to Hazia—a marijuana-like substance—is becoming a cheap substitute for real magic.  Meanwhile, the villages and towns of Earthsea are seeing their lives getting worse but struggle to see how this could be connected to the disappearance of magic.  And at the heart of the world of magic, the town of Roke, the old wizards would rather not confront the ills that are sweeping Earthsea.

Behind all of this lies, in part, a renegade sorcerer who is openly breaking the ancient codes of magicians.  He practices dark magic, including promising and, apparently in some cases, delivering immortality to himself and those who’ve chosen to follow him.  By upsetting the delicate balance of magic and reason in the world, this wizard catalyzes the emergence of black hole like entities that suck all magic into a void and thus threaten the continued existence of the world as a whole.  As the previous two books in author Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series demonstrated, the world of Earthsea is predicated on an ecological harmony between the Earth-like laws of the physical sciences and the moderate usage of magic; however, if this balance is upset in either the direction of magic or science, there are dire consequences.

What becomes apparent in the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, is that part of what is necessary for this balance to occur does not have to do with magic or science, but rather politics.  Earthsea is, at the start of the novel, lacking a charismatic leader.  There is not a figure to tie things together and follow.  As such, an atmosphere of every man for himself develops.  Moral values, including maintaining the balance between magic and reason, become platitudes that people may pay lip service to, but not actually believe in any meaningful way.  This, in turn, paves the way for figures such as the wizard who practices dark magic and for others to follow him.

Enter Arren, the heir of one of the oldest ruling families in Earthsea.  Arren is a young man on the verge of adulthood when he goes to visit Ged, the protagonist of the previous two Earthsea novels and now the Archmage of Roke.  Upon meeting Arren, Ged almost immediately understands that the boy is destined to be the king of Earthsea.

Without knowing what exactly they are looking for, the pair strikes off throughout the waterways of the world.  As they go from town to town, picking up clues regarding the malaise spreading through Earthsea, Arren and Ged develop a strong relationship.  Indeed, as much as their journey is premised on finding out what is causing the magic in Earthsea to disappear, it is also about the Arthur and Merlin like education of a future king.  At the heart of this education are values derived from Taoism, the belief system that Le Guin herself practices and proselytizes on behalf of.  One of the central values Ged tries to impart is that, if the harmony of the world is to persist, then humans must follow the order of nature and refrain from acting for the sake of simply acting.  This means that the most efficient way to achieve a goal is to paradoxically buck common sense and not act.  Well, that’s not exactly true; it’s not that one can’t act outright, but that if one is to act, then that action must be executed when and only when there is no other option and, further, that the action would have to occur just so.  Ged uses the example of a leaf falling from a tree.  The leaf does not fall until it, along with the wind, the tree, and a variety of other ecological factors determine that that particular moment is the moment it should fall and none other.  By not falling until that exact moment, the leaf helps maintain the harmony in the world.  If leaves decided to fall earlier than that or later, the rest of the ecology would get out of whack and chaos would build.  Another example is Ged’s decision to stay in Roke even though he could sense that the world outside was slowly deteriorating.  He saw these problems, but did nothing about it.  He just stayed at Roke and grew old.  This is because, throughout all that time, he never felt as though it was absolutely necessary to act.  It was only when he met Arren and saw that accompanying this young man was the action that he must commit to at this stage of his life that he chose to act.

Much of the second half of the novel is about a related Taoist value regarding the acceptance of death as a fact of life.  The dark magician, Cob, is, in some ways, a tragic character.  A village sorcerer, never part of the elite community of wizards trained at Roke, Cob was prodigiously talented but also hateful of others and determined to strike out on his own.  He did so by staving off death and ended up deeply damaging the harmony between the natural world and the community of wizards.  To not die, is to radically alter the balance of everything else in the world’s ecology.  When Arren can accept this as the truth, when he knows that he will die, he has the strength to step forward to the throne.

As with all of Le Guin’s writing, each sentence here can be savored.  It’s a gorgeous book and it has a lot of wisdom.  One criticism, though, is that, after reading through the novel, I don’t have a great sense of who the character of Arren actually is or what makes him tick which is surprising given the amount of time we spend with him.  Ged, on the other hand, remains a wonderful creation and the older version of the character is totally consistent with the development of the character through the previous books.  His concluding action is poetic and wonderfully fitting.  The fact that Arren, though, seems somewhat incomplete makes the whole philosophical/moral/pedagogical element of the book a bit didactic, which is a shame because, as mentioned, it does offer a lot to mull over.

Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth — The Space Merchants (1953)

December 12, 2011

A tiny corporate elite, supported by a government whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of this elite, frolics in golf courses built into their executive suites.  A massive underclass drowns in debt and frivolous consumption based on phony desires created and fueled by the advertising industry and unconscionably easy-to-get credit.  Food and water are, even for the elite, largely synthetic and highly addictive; consumers become locked into endless cycles of “if you eat X, you’ll need to drink Y, and then smoke Z, which will, in turn, make you hungry for X,” and so on and so on.  Meanwhile, fringe groups of conservationists attempt to stop the unsustainable exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources and create broader consumer awareness; however, these “Consies,” as they are called, are mocked and scorned by the great majority of the consumer class who think of them as unpatriotic lunatics.

This scenario, which rings a bell because of the debates surrounding Occupy Wall Street and other recent global economic protest movements, was extrapolated from the world that authors Frederik Pohl and Cryil M. Kornbluth saw around them in the early 1950s.  The post-war boom was in effect and, especially in the United States, the middle class became trained in the fine arts of spending on credit, television, advertising slogans, and the sense that you’re incomplete as a human being if you don’t have a particular car or couch or serving dish.  Pohl spent several profitable, but soul-sucking years as an advertising copywriter on Madison Avenue, learning how this all works from the inside.  Further, both Pohl and Kornbluth were “Futurians”—science fiction fans, writers, and editors who met together in New York City to discuss the field and encourage the production of Marxist-themed stories and novels.  The Space Merchants was written after the heyday of the Futurians, but it bares the stamp of the group’s thinking.

In the novel, Mitchell Courtenay, a “star-class” copywriter at one of the largest ad firms in the world, starts at the top of the game.  His most recent account, which came with a choice promotion, involves tricking people into emigrating to Venus in order to work on a massive terraforming operation.  He’s got to convince people that this is what they’ve always dreamt of since they were children and just what they need now at this point in their life.  Of course, life on Venus would be utterly miserable, far worse than it is on Earth (even in its current debased state) and someone would have to be crazy to go there, but, hey, capitalism needs to expand and it’s going to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Part of Courtenay’s management of this account involves meeting with Jack O’Shea, a midget who, due to his light weight and compact size, was the first human to be shot out in a rocket to Venus in order see what was happening on the planet’s surface.  Venus, for O’Shea, though, was an experience at turns both traumatic and sublime, not unlike seeing the atrocities of war for some veterans.  He doesn’t know how to talk about it and he’d prefer not to, but he doesn’t have anything else going on and, plus, the notoriety of his trip has given him access to beautiful women and enough money to drink all the booze he wants.

However, just as the Venus account is getting rolling and he’s getting somewhere with O’Shea, Courtenay is suddenly conked over the head and ends up unconscious, shipped to Costa Rica with no proof of his identity, and is forced to work in a scum-skimming factory.  Scum-skimming involves shaving algae off a wall and dropping it down to a processor that feeds it to a vat of cultured chicken breast.  This cultured chicken is known as Chicken Little and serves as the primary food source for many consumers.  In a novel that is more interested in thinking through the processes of a future economic situation than in creating a rich literary experience, the image of Courtenay scum-skimming for Chicken Little is a standout moment.

As all of this is happening, he sees first-hand the misery of the consumer life (something he was barred from confronting while in the comfort of the global corporate elite) and he is even recruited into a secret Consie cell organized by several of his co-workers.  What’s wonderful about these scenes is how Courtenay feels zero sympathy for the consumers, factory workers, or Consies.  He decides to join up because he thinks it might be a way for him to get back to New York and his old, comfortable life.  He has been so thoroughly brain-washed by the social and cultural condition in which he came of age that not even this intense first-hand view of the misery that most of the global population undergoes can generate any sympathy from him.  He’s completely obsessed with his own self-interest.  Indeed, this is the way he treats his job in the ad agency as well.  He nods and pretends to be on-board, but in reality he’s only ever looking out for number one.

Unfortunately, towards the end, Courtenay does undergo a change of heart and works with the Consies to undermine the corporate conglomerates.  This is an understandable plot turn, but the force of the novel is more cutting when Courtenay is essentially unredeemable and unable to believe in anything.   The sheer confidence with which he dismisses everyone around him becomes memorably evil and strengthens the impact of the novel’s anti-capitalist themes.  When it goes away, the novel feels less like a classic black comedy and ultimately less thematically impactful.  A more interesting character is O’Shea who becomes genuinely tragic as he goes along for the ride, but ends up in a dark world of alcoholism, self-loathing, and general confusion.  His experience on Venus was beyond the power of his words and he didn’t want to sell it short.  Eventually, though, he does end up sharing it with the world of advertising, and then loses touch with the reality of what happened to him out there.

The plot, which also involves a love interest and the double dealings of a rival ad agency, is serviceable, sometimes enjoyably fast, and the characters are a cut above many of the other SF of the period, but this is not the reason to read The Space Merchants.  The novel is best judged for its scathing, perceptive, and relevant satire of a world controlled by advertising and the catastrophic whims of corporations.

Robert A. Heinlein — Red Planet (1949)

December 8, 2011

The colonists of Mars’s South Colony are self-reliant people.  They have migrated to the red planet in order to work for a terraforming corporation, but also to breathe the free air of the open frontier—or at least breathe the free, oxygen-poor air of the frontier (although part of the terraforming operation involves the introduction of more oxygen into the atmosphere via the iron oxide in the Martian soil).

So, when Jim and Frank, two precocious boys with a knack for getting into trouble, discover the corporation’s plot to interfere with the colonists’ annual winter migration as a way to cut costs, South Colony mounts a revolt.  The winter migration, after all, is necessary for the colonists to undertake in order to avoid the minus one hundred degree temperatures that will envelope the southern part of the planet for half of the Martian year (which would equal one full year on Earth).

The bulk of Red Planet follows our boy heroes Jim and Frank, along with Jim’s pet “bouncer” alien Willis, as they head off to colonial boarding school, meet some indigenous Martians, learn of the corporation’s nefarious plot, escape, trek seven hundred miles through the red Martian desert, sleep inside a giant cabbage, and finally relay the news of the plot to their parents and the rest of the South Colony.  The rest of the book details the somewhat improbable details of the triumphant colonial revolution.

Recognized as, if not the best, at least the first of author Robert A. Heinlein’s “juveniles” to break through and really capture the mixture of Hardy Boys “aw, shucks, gee whiz” juvenilia, scientific extrapolation, and libertarian moral philosophy that the series is famous for today, Red Planet is a fast, fun novel with frustratingly flat characters, a plot that perhaps runs out of steam, and some wonderfully memorable imagery—the boys silently ice skating over ancient Martian canals through the pitch black night, to take one example.

With books like Red Planet, Heinlein built off of writers like H.G. Wells to establish what, for the remainder of the 20th century, would be the genre of science fiction.  That is (roughly), stories whose conflicts stem from known or at least plausibly speculated scientific fact, explained in varying degrees of scientific seriousness, told in tight, but somewhat conservatively structured plots along with similarly tight, somewhat conservatively styled prose.   Obviously, science fiction became far more than that and absorbed a lot of different approaches, but, at some sort of core, what one thinks of as the genre of SF orbits around these traits.

Much of the science of Red Planet, is of course bogus—the frozen canals, ancient Martian cities, the Martians themselves and the little bouncers like Willis—still, though, you see great, seminal, science fiction worldbuilding here.  He starts with scientific facts—or at least a scientifically-explained scenario, including many actual facts about Mars that still hold up today—and lets the plot and characters stem from that, the scientific situation.  Also, there’s a tone–an approach to dialogue, pace, and the balance of scientific information to story construction–that’s been highly influential; in fact, if it does seem a bit hackneyed, that’s because it’s been imitated countless times since Heinlein started writing in his style.

A note on the book’s politics: while not as pronounced and obsessive as Heinlein’s later, more adult novels such as Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, there is a great deal of propagandizing and what Heinlein refers to as “moral education” for youngsters going on here.  The main value is hardy, self-reliant libertarianism that is best exemplified by the grizzled old Doctor Macrae character who encourages Jim’s hijinks and pouts when anyone so much as hints at anything that would resemble reasoned compromise.  Life, for Heinlein, is an endless struggle for absolute freedom and the bureaucrats and weak-kneed egg heads and spinsters out there will stop at nothing to regulate the way you can live.   This is objectionable and there are plenty of unanswered questions about what exactly liberty means and who gets to decide; however, in reading Heinlein, it becomes part of the deal and you just have to learn to live with it or at least respect it as his creative voice.  As mentioned above, he did a lot of work to define what it is one means when one says “science fiction,” but part of that also involved the fact that he was an artistHeinlein’s work and viewpoint go beyond SF and represent a major American voice from this period.  The fact that he’s so aggressive about his politics is, on the one hand, a shame because it can diminish the pleasure of the novels as novels, but his body of work as a whole becomes its own sort of artistic creation; its own sort of singular, massive, messy, embarrassing, epic, triumph of a 20th century vision.

Maureen F. McHugh — Mission Child (1998)

December 6, 2011

Janna, a young girl who disguises herself as a man following the horrifying massacre of her tribal village, wanders all over the face of an Earth-like planet, trying to find a place to call “home.”  She travels from the snowy northern pole of the planet to the tropical equator, stopping along the way in two colonial cities and a slum-like camp for dislocated indigenous people such as herself.  Through most of this she retains her disguise as a male and people generally know her by her male name, “Jan.”  During her travels, Janna/Jan struggles through one harrowing, but realistically portrayed scenario after another, little by little understanding something of herself, of the world, and finally what her role in the world could be.  One of the main things she picks up is that nothing is simply black or white, male or female, colonizer or colonized; everything and every individual person she encounters, including herself, blurs and shifts over multiple experiential categories all the time.  Author Maureen F. McHugh explores this theme and tells us the story of Janna’s exploits in a simple yet lyrical style that transforms the character’s grueling journey into a powerful form of science fiction social realism.  As with Janna, though, the book is not interested in being categorized as just science fiction or social realism or fantasy or historical fiction or postcolonial fiction or transgender fiction or literary fiction or young adult.  It is all these things and more; ultimately, what makes it works is that it is comfortable simply being Mission Child. 

The book is told from the point of view of Janna, who is part of the colonized population on the planet.  “Colonized” is a tricky word here, though, as the planet was previously colonized and then forgotten by Earthlings centuries ago (these are Janna’s people); and it is now undergoing a massive second wave of colonization by people from Earth bearing far more advanced technologies.  Everyone on the planet, then, is a human whose ancestors originally lived on Earth, but the new wave of colonists may as well be an alien race because their technology is greatly advanced and their values are so, well, alien to those established by the original colonists.  For the first wave of colonists, life on the planet has largely meant simply surviving and establishing basic social, cultural, and technological norms.  For the second wave, though, colonization is a less consistently dire enterprise as they have developed a wide-variety of technologies to make life a bit easier.  The catch, though (and a major theme of the novel) is that with more technology comes more problems.  The two groups are also separated by the practical issue of their diets.  Offworlders can’t eat the locally grown food and the indigenous peoples can’t eat the imported food from Earth.   The offworlders have ended up developing a third category of genetically-modified food, though, that can be consumed by both populations.  The problem of diet is connected to one of the book’s scientific ideas; namely that (in very crude terms) the molecular structure of amino acids on the colonized planet is chemically-flipped from the structure of amino acids on Earth.  This is something that scientists have claimed is possible as the “chirality” or slight asymetricality of molecules in amino acids, while biased towards “left-handed”-ness on Earth, could just as easily have been biased towards “right-handed”-ness—as they are on the planet described in Mission Child.  It’s a seemingly arbitrary choice on the part of the life forms of a given planet to have left-handed or right-handed amino acids; and a choice that would not necessarily have to be replicated in a different planet elsewhere in the universe. It’s an intriguing scientific idea that has ramifications for the type of actions and interactions that the human characters could have on the planet.

However, despite this example, the novel is largely not focused on the realm of the physical sciences.  Indeed, the SF components of Mission Child are mentioned in passing (including the point about the right-handed amino acids) and, while reading, don’t seem particularly crucial.  Instead, the actions of the characters largely respond to the various social and economic problems that exist on the planet, which include many contemporary issue for middle and lower class communities such as sex and sexual identity, drug use, and the simple struggle to make ends meet, find a job, and raise a child.  The bulk of the novel consists of following Janna/Jan as she winds her way through the world, getting into scraps, problems, and occasional moments of grace.  She almost literally claws her way from having nothing but the clothes on her back to a small job and guy who accepts her cross-dressing and may or may not be a good boyfriend for her.  As with all of the plot points and situations she finds herself in, though, things end up crumbling and she invariably ends up following some other path.  This includes an interesting scene in which an offworlder gender counselor suggests to Janna that she could consider female to male transgender surgery; it seems as though this will be something that comes up again, but it largely fades away as other, more immediate concerns keep popping up.  One thing that happens while reading this type of long episodic novel is that, because the incidents in the plot don’t seem necessary to pay strict attention to in order to understand later plot points, it becomes easy to sort of drift through scenes.  Ultimately, though, Mission Child works.  The drift of the novel and the frustrating impermanence of anything make it feel like a human life.  Because of this, when things hurt, you feel the hurt.   McHugh doesn’t condescend to the characters; she seems to give them no more or less than what seems true to life.  By the end, you feel as though Janna has gone through a lot and accrued some genuine life experience.  When she gives advice to Ming Wei, a young island girl she befriends and starts treating as family, it seems to come from a place of wisdom and love.

Joe Haldeman — Mindbridge (1976)

December 1, 2011

Broken up into fifty-three short chapters—each of which is composed either of straight narrative prose or (among other things) advertisements, scientific articles, or short play scripts–Mindbridge tells the story of Jaque Lefavre and his encounters with two alien life forms in deep outer space.  Lefavre (who eliminated the “s” in his first name so that people wouldn’t call him “Zhockes”) is a “Tamer,” the advance guard of exploration into far off planets with life-supporting biospheres.  He sees what life forms do or do not exist in a given planet and then reports back about whether it would be advisable to terraform that planet for the purpose of future colonization.  Unlike some Tamers, he’s not particularly trigger-happy or needlessly aggressive; and this allows him to survive after he meets up with a small purple creature that is dubbed a “bridge.”  Bridges are—it seems anyway—simple life forms whose only notable quality is that they catalyze ESP abilities in those who make contact with them.  So after Lefavre and a teammate touch the bridge upon initially encountering it, they can each read the other’s mind. The catch is that if the bridge senses aggression on the part of the person or persons in contact with them, they will quickly kill them in self-defense.  While some of Lefavre’s teammates, including the one he initially shared the ESP experience with, are eliminated in this way, Lefavre is able to remain in contact with the bridges for long periods of time.

Later, another team of Tamers encounters a second alien species, the “L’vrai.”  The L’vrai are  a shape-shifting species which is technologically-advanced, highly intelligent and extremely dangerous.  Lefavre is sent out to make contact with them, using a bridge as a psychic mediator.  Once again, despite the possibility of violence and aggression on the part of the L’vrai, they only demonstrate these qualities to those whose own minds are filled with violent, aggressive thoughts.  If one enters into an encounter with a L’vrai imagining that the L’vrai will fight, the L’vrai will fight; on the contrary, if one enters into an encounter with a L’vrai open to the respectful exchange of information, that’s what will happen.  They are a mirror to one’s own intentions and projections—le vrai: truth.  In the end, it is this turn in humanity’s relationship to the alien other that allows it, as a species, to survive and continue expanding through the universe.  A running theme through Mindbridge is that human beings are not philosophically mature enough to handle the responsibility of advanced technology and intergalactic colonization.  From the point of view of the relatively more advanced “L’vrai,” humans need to balance their “angel” aspects with their “animal” aspects and, thus, see what they really are.  At this point, it is thought, humans repress the animal aspect, pretending it doesn’t exist or denying it, which results in its manifestation in particularly unsavory forms.  Lefavre doesn’t do this, though, and that’s why the aliens accept him.  There are aspects to his personality both Godly and devilish.  Instead of fighting to pretend the devilish aspect doesn’t exist (which results in its ultimate intensification), he accepts it without prejudice and tries to understand productive ways to deal with it.  In short, he knows himself and during a “mindbridge” he is able to accept and not run away from the deepest thoughts he shares with others.

Like many sf novels of the period, Mindbridge updates the clichés of the space opera for a new era.  It does this in at least two ways.  First, author Joe Haldeman cleverly works through the logic of many scientific ideas from classic space opera such as faster-than-light speed, the generational starship, and the persistent question of how to procure and afford the massive amount of energy that would be necessary to shoot human beings parsecs away at a speed faster than light.  There are several black boxes that he must resort to, including the key one regarding matter transmission, but he works with this, allowing for the fact that the scientists in the novel also don’t fully understand how the technology works.  This, in turn, spurs an array of humorous situations and plot points.  Also, instead of explaining the hard science in lengthy or awkward infodumps, he comes up with creative ways to present it, inserting different types of writing such as excerpts from popular scientific magazines, academic journals, or silly advertisements for high-tech gadgets.  This technique also works to break the narrative up and accelerate the reader through the pages in enjoyable ways.

Second, Mindbridge flips the relationship of the humans to the alien other.  Here, the other is not a big bad, vaguely terrible insect, but rather an equal meant to be considered in a thoughtful manner.  The space operas of the ‘30s and’40s, and even much of the 50s—particularly the more politically-tinged work of Robert Heinlein—spun terrific yarns, but often treated the unknown other as an unequivocal menace.  Haldeman, who served in the Vietnam War and returned shaken-up by the experience, questions colonialism and the typical western/imperial response to other cultures; that is, squash ‘em.  The way this is handled, though, is the key to the book.  It’s not just that diplomacy is favored over violence, but that humans must understand themselves and be honest with their deepest fears and fantasies before they can lecture, colonize, or kill another intelligent species.

Overall, Mindbridge is a good short novel with a thoughtful premise.  It is perhaps marred by flat characters, a love story that doesn’t really seem interesting, and a bit too much enthusiasm for creative-writing-class-gimmickry.  However, there are plenty of interesting ideas, images, and an infectious enthusiasm for science fiction and the craft of fiction writing that may push the reader on to more of Haldeman’s books.

R.A. Lafferty — Apocalypses (1977)

November 29, 2011

The two novellas that form Apocalypses, a book by R.A. Lafferty, are wildly, comically angry about the state of things in the world.  Like a Mark Twain novel blurring-by at fast-forward speed mixed-up with the apocalyptic seriousness of Kierkegaard and the anarchic zaniness of the Marx Brothers, each work is a grotesque, slapstick cri de coeur regarding the hyperreality of contemporary life and the easygoing relativism with which people approach serious moral questions.  As with much of Lafferty, the stories may at first seem playfully madcap, but upon closer examination they are among the most heavy, ponderous works in the sf & fantasy canon.  Be warned, though: Lafferty is a hardline social conservative and, especially at this point in his career, he doesn’t feel the need to shy away from saying what he thinks.

In Where Have You Been Sandaliotis?—a close cousin of Lafferty’s most famous novel Fourth Mansions (1969)—a man who is most likely not Constantine Quiche, “the greatest detective in the world,” is tasked by World Interpol to examine the possible theft of the entire island of Monaco.  As it turns out, though, it’s not that Monaco is stolen, but rather that an entirely different world is placed right on top of it.  This new world is “Sandaliotis,” a pastiche of vaguely Mediterranean ideals and architecture along with the promise of desires easily attained and endless novelty and change. There are loose moral guidelines—for example, it’s entirely permissible to be married and divorced four, five, any number of times in the space of a single day (an idea that would particularly irk the conservative Catholicism of Lafferty).   Further, the religion that does exist in Sandaliotis is couched in the form of sicko spectacle.  In one of the most intensely surreal scenes, Quiche and a group of other men are hung from the walls of a thirteen-sided dungeon and are made to relive the crucifixion of Christ, but all their lines are being fed to them via bizarre teleprompter-like machines while a particularly evil “Director” orchestrates the whole thing for a movie that will be edited and broadcast that same day.  In short, there is nothing concrete and eternally true in Sandaliotis; it’s a pleasant, even fun place on the surface, but that’s all it is—surface.  Surface and endless novelty. Indeed, the only thing people seem to care about with any passion is speculating on real estate.

For most of the novel, Quiche wanders around, gets into various odd horrifying/comic situations, and tries to come to terms with whether or not Sandaliotis is, in fact, real.  All around him, there are signs that, for all of its falseness, Sandaliotis has existed for a very long time, has its own history, archives, and ways of doing things.  And the residents of Sandaliotis certainly don’t think twice about it.  However, what is eventually revealed is that it is indeed all a vastly complex hoax.  Sandaliotis is literally hollow.  It was built up through anti-matter or the energy of evil materialized as a sort of foam.  Lafferty sets up a Manichean universe of good and evil, light and dark, matter and anti-matter, and he portrays the masses of humanity salivating at the chance to settle down in a simulacral world built on evil.  Bleak, bitter, and cranky—to a fault—but also wildly inspired, with passages equal parts, haunting, beautiful, and ridiculous.

In the second novella, The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney, the eponymous Sweeney, a man with a perpetually peeling, sunburned face who may or may not be the devil (or possibly even God), appears to be the source of all major world events.  As he envisions things, they happen; there’s even a groundbreaking mathematical formula discussed at length that proves this.  As he writes his epic opera cycle–Armageddon I, Armageddon II, and Armageddon III–the world, it seems, enters into devastating world wars that correspond to the visions in his operas.  Sweeney himself is, if not totally naïve, at least somewhat dumfounded by all this. In his mind, if the world is becoming more violent and chaotic because of what he imagines in his operas, it’s not necessarily his fault; he’s simply showing people the gate of Hell and allowing them to choose whether or not they want to enter.  For him, it’s a no-brainer: choose goodness obviously.  But for Lafferty, the world is filled with thankless sinners, the “beasts of Armageddon” that gleefully choose to live in a seedy Hell rather than a clean-living heaven.  Pornography and violence abound right alongside unlimited greed and the murder of the unborn (which is equated here to the Holocaust).  It all comes to a head with Armageddon III—the end of the world.  Lafferty’s take on all this, though, is that, incredibly, no one is even worried about the apocalypse.  The end of the world is something the mass of humanity couldn’t care less about.  Related to this is an interesting idea that the previous wars and violence and other historical atrocities that people discuss and study in school never actually happened.  Lafferty devises a test to prove this unlikely premise.  He says that a war is only real if people act as though it happened and change their ways; however, when he looks around, he sees no evidence of anyone acting as though they have seen trauma before or understand what apocalypse or the horror of war could be.  If they did, they would surely act differently.  The Christian Hell and the idea of war are just words now—symbols meant to fill in portions of conversations rather than actual, real things in peoples’ lives.  Therefore, wars and atrocity never happened; they are not real.

Like a gigantic McMansion, the world in Apocalypses seems to be the inheritance of something old and deep, but is, in fact, a thinly-veiled imitation of anything approaching these qualities.  Culture and spirituality are cheap and, yet, most of his characters willfully participate in this cheapness because it makes hard things seem easy and they can all pat themselves on the back for being on the side of corporate-sponsored diet soda salvation.

The combination of extreme Saturday morning cartoon wackiness and extreme Sunday morning sermon gravitas has left the books caught in the middle of any pre-existing audience.  They don’t really fit into sf and fantasy, either, although I’m not sure where else they’d feel more at home.  This is a shame because he is truly some sort of homespun visionary wonder. The more of his work one reads, the more this seems to be the case (and plenty of the most respected sf and fantasy writers of the past fifty years have said as much).  However, his scolding of the vast swathe of humanity for their moral lackadaisicalness, especially in Apocalypses, may ultimately come across as more the ravings of a “cranky old man from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” as he called himself, than wholly accurate or insightful (I suppose, in Lafferty’s terms,  though, that won’t be settled until the Judgment Day).  In any event, R.A. Lafferty’s work goes deep and is worth seriously considering and appreciating.

Ursula K. Le Guin — The Tombs of Atuan (1971)

November 23, 2011

The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of the Earthsea series by author Ursula K. Le Guin, is set at a smaller scale than its predecessorWe leave behind the epic, watery journey of the undisciplined young wizard Ged for the dreary tombs of Atuan in the desert island Kargish—a place where magic is banned and a young girl, Tenar, struggles to understand her identity.

Through a long back story that opens the novel, the reader learns how Tenar was scooped up by the priestesses of a mysterious cult and informed that she was the Dalai Lama-like re-incarnation of the High Priestess Arha, or the “Eaten One.”  She grows up almost forgetting everything about her life as a normal little girl named Tenar and instead wanders around a small, prison-like temple and its pitch black underground tombs and labyrinth.  She is taught mysterious, multi-stepped rituals and literally kept in the dark regarding everything else that exists outside the walls of Atuan.

This is all changed, though, when Ged, the wizard protagonist of A Wizard of Earthsea, is caught by Tenar in the massive labyrinth while he tries to steal a magical ring.  At first, she is scared, but his even temperament and the sheer fascination she holds for him as a male keeps her from killing him.  Little by little, she begins to trust him and even like him more than the witch-like women and eunuchs that hold her captive.  He tells her about the world that lies outside, about literacy, about how the gods are not worthy of worship, and he magically transforms her tattered clothes into a beautiful turquoise dress.  This all seduces her.  She holds him prisoner in a small room, feeding him, and sneaking down to spend time with him—all the while threatening that she’s this close to taking his life.  Eventually she shows him the ring, her most secret treasure, that lay hidden deep in the blackness of the labyrinth.  Upon recovering the ring, they flee from the labyrinth, into the outside world, and eventually make it to freedom together.  Incidentally, when they reach the outside, the reader’s own eyes might have to adjust to the light as the book is notably set almost entirely in pitch blackness.

The power that words hold remains a major theme in the second book of the series.  Ged ultimately convinces Tenar that he can be trusted because he calls her by her real name—not the name of an ancient priestess that she is supposedly the reincarnation of, but her own real name.  Also, the theme of limiting the amount of magic one uses, savoring actual accomplishments, labor, and logical solutions remains important here.  On the one hand, magic is banished in Kargish, which seems to be unjust; but, on the other hand, the proper use of magic, as exemplified by the now older and wiser Ged, occurs in moderation.

However, the major idea explored in The Tombs of Atuan has more to do with the sexual awakening of a young woman.  For being a young adult novel (the prose in The Tombs of Atuan is even more simple and clear than it is in A Wizard of Earthea), this is all oftentimes quite erotic.  The scenes set in the total darkness of a clammy tomb as the blossoming young woman and the adult wizard role play a game of prisoner and captor are charged with a sublimated sexuality.  The pleasure of the novel ends up being primarily located in this heated tension.   

A final point worth bringing up is that Ged, along with most of the other people in Earthsea, has dark skin and dark hair, while the people of Kargish have white skin and blonde hair.  Tenar is an exception in that she has white skin and dark hair.  Outside of the simple interest in having the major character of the Earthsea novels be dark-skinned, there appears to be a commentary on racial politics.  The white race outlaws magic and literacy entirely, develops relatively more advanced technologies, and remains militant.  The dark-skinned races that form most of the population of Earthsea maintain an education in magic and literacy, live relatively simple lives, and seek peace.  There are no clear-cut ways to say that either race is wholly more evil than the other–Le Guin is not one to be blunt and one-sided about anything.  However, there is undoubtedly one race that is, thus far in the series, portrayed more sympathetically than the other.