Monthly Archives: November 2008

Pohl’s Jem may not be a “gem” but is still worth a look

jemIn various profiles of Frederick Pohl, I have more than once seen Jem (1979) listed as one of his best and most important novels. After giving it a read I can see why it’s considered “important,” but I haven’t read enough of his work (at the time of this writing) to know if it’s really one of his “best” or not. This is a book packed with very pointed comments about politics, power, greed, war, imperialism, and the uglier side of humanity in general, and for that it deserves its due. From a storytelling standpoint, however, it’s not quite as successful. Certain elements of plot and character are unconvincing or out of place, making immersion in this fictional world more difficult. Nevertheless, it’s still a worthy investment of reading time.

The story is set in a near future in which the nations of Earth have arranged themselves into three large-scale alliances: the Food Bloc, the Fuel Bloc, and the People Bloc. The three entities exist in essentially Cold War conditions, with minor skirmishes here and there, but managing to avoid any major wars through the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction. That’s Earth, one of the story’s two locations; the other is a newly discovered planet, Jem, that happens to be habitable by humans. The three Blocs send their own separate expeditions to this new world to investigate its lifeforms, resources, and colonization potential. Officially they are bound by treaty to cooperate and share information; but the reality is far different, as each camp races for advantage and domination of Jem for its own benefit.

This race to exploit a new world isn’t hindered in the slightest by the discovery that Jem has its own indigenous intelligent life, three species in fact. Although sentient, these natives of Jem are primitive, and thus in no position to put up a fight against the invading humans, most of whom never even question the moral implications of what they’re doing. The Jemman natives are seen as a resource to be used and profited from, nothing more. One of the main movers and shakers behind the Food Bloc expedition describes one of the Jemmans’ expected roles:

“For openers, Dr. Ravenel, I’d like to see your people create some trade goods. For all three races. They’re all going to be our customers one of these days.”

This shot at unrestrained commercialism brings back fond memories of Pohl’s classic, The Space Merchants, which tackles the same problem much more thoroughly.

But the Jemmans are seen not only as future consumers, but also as recruits in the humans’ ever escalating series of conflicts. They are manipulated and pitted against each other as the alien invaders become more and more open and brash in their machinations. Finally, the situation devolves into all-out war, and not only on Jem:

The world she had left was blowing itself up, and the world she had come to seemed determined to do the same.

What happens in the end — annihilation or survival? — I’ll leave for you to discover on your own.

What I really like about this book is Pohl’s sense of political reality, his no-holds-barred skewering of our species’ arrogance, and his ability to illuminate deeply fundamental human flaws very simply, often in a single sentence, such as this one that brings to mind Orwell’s “more equal than others” line:

“But learning to live together doesn’t mean that some people can’t live a little better than others.”

The main problem I have with the book is that it can’t quite decide if it wants to be a serious straightforward novel, or if it wants to be satire. For the most part it comes across as serious. But then there are certain situations and events that could have come right out of a Robert Sheckley story. For instance, during one camp’s first contact with an intelligent Jemman species, one member tries to communicate, while another, with no apparent sense of incongruity, starts shooting them to collect specimens! This equivocation between the serious and the satirical lessens the novel’s impact, I feel. Also, some of the characters feel less like real human beings, and more like caricatures of various personality types; and there is little progression or change in them over the course of the story.

Even with those flaws, though, Jem still has a lot to say and is worth reading.

Happy (Sci-Fi) Thanksgiving!

If you’re done eating turkey and you’ve parked yourself in front of the computer to sit and digest your dinner a while, be sure to take a look at this John Scalzi Sci-Fi Scanner post in which he tells us what he’s thankful for in terms of science fiction movies.

Science fiction is worth giving thanks for — I certainly do. But perhaps it deserves its own holiday? I wonder…..

[Googling pause]

Oh… hey… whaddya know? There actually IS a National Science Fiction Day! It’s January 2nd, which is Isaac Asimov’s birthday.

Awesome. New Year’s, Science Fiction Day, AND my birthday, all in one month. January is Party Time! :wink:

“The logical and analytical type” — yeah, works for me

There’s this site called Typealyzer that has a cute shtick: enter the address of a blog, and they claim to provide a personalty profile of the blogger. So hey, just for kicks I thought I’d see what they had to say about me. Their “analysis” put me in a group labeled “the Thinkers”:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Of course none of this should be taken too seriously. I put in the addresses of several other science fiction blogs and got the same result. I think it’s keying in on the frequent occurrence of the word “science.”

Still, it is strangely accurate. I think “using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality” is a great description of any serious science fiction fan.

And “logical and analytical”? Can’t argue with that. :wink:

Some golden and not-so-golden stories from Sturgeon

goldenhelixIf you’ve read many of my reviews, you may have noticed I’ve said repeatedly that my preference is for novels, and I don’t generally find many short stories to my liking. However, I have set myself the task of reading more stories, in light of the role they’ve played in the history of science fiction. So it has become my habit lately to always have a short story collection thrown into the mix of two or three books I’m reading at any given time (and anyway, I have a short attention span when reading, so it’s good to take several breaks during a novel and read a few stories).

The Golden Helix (1979) is a collection of stories by Theodore Sturgeon. Oddly enough, when it comes to Sturgeon, I realize now that I’ve never read anything but his short stories. In my early teen years I had a copy of Sturgeon Is Alive and Well that I found in a box of old books from a yard sale. At the time, I thought Sturgeon was just bizarre, and I’m not sure I understood much of what I read (I had not had a lot of experience with sf at that point). But still, there was something strangely compelling about those stories, some feeling they gave me that I can’t really describe. There were certain scenes in some stories I went back and read over and over again, just for their texture or emotion or style, even when the plot didn’t interest me much.

For the most part, I didn’t get quite that same feeling from The Golden Helix. Possibly that’s because many of these stories are from early in Sturgeon’s career (they are predominantly from the 1950’s), and the author himself, in his short introductory notes, admits the quality level is sometimes not up to later standards. It’s also possible I read this collection with a more critical eye, as an adult, than I did when I first read Sturgeon as a teenager with a fully charged “sensawunda.” At any rate, there were some good stories here, but also some that didn’t do a thing for me.

Let me say, though, that there was one shining example of a fantastic short story here, one of the best short stories I have ever read, a little gem called “The Man Who Lost the Sea.” This is, to me, a model of one type of thing a short story should strive for. It’s not plot-driven at all, in fact there really isn’t much of a plot. Rather, it’s a short piece built around the atmosphere and poignancy of a situation a man finds himself in. It has a kind of compact, self-contained, poetic wholeness to it; this is to short stories what a haiku is to poetry. Loved it. (Sturgeon himself had a different opinion, though. He said he told his editor to burn the story, but that it got published and ended up in a “best of the year” anthology. Go figure.)

A few other stories were also of interest. “And Now the News…” takes a look at what constant negative news does to a man who cares deeply about the world. “The Clinic” involves some aliens with disabilities who feel right at home on Earth. “The Ultimate Egoist” is a fun story built around the philosophical question of how real the world is, and if it really is only a figment of our imagination. “Yesterday Was Monday” is a humorous look at time and how it doesn’t just “happen.”

The title story was by far the longest, and one of those I didn’t like. It is partly based on the silly concept of “devolution,” one of the worst ideas sf ever came up with, and one that needs to quietly go away. The four remaining stories were likewise of little or no value to me. “I Say… Ernest” has to be one of the most utterly pointless stories I’ve ever come across.

This collection was worth reading, for me, because it allowed me to discover “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” and also because even if I don’t always like the details of plot or character, I still enjoy Sturgeon’s style. I do think, though, that next time around I’ll try one of his novels.

It’s science fiction, not science class

A few days ago, Peggy over at Biology in Science Fiction posted a series of questions about the relationship between science and science fiction, particularly relating to the promotion of the former by the latter, and invited scientists and sf writers to respond. This was in conjunction with ScienceOnline09, a conference on promoting public understanding of science. Since then there have been a number of responses, and io9 has taken an interest in the issue, casting it in starkly controversial terms:

Is science fiction keeping ordinary people from understanding real science? Many science writers seem to think so. Science blogging conference Science09 decided to survey science bloggers about their feelings on science fiction, and the results were surprisingly negative. At the very least, science experts don’t seem to think scifi is promoting scientific literacy — and it may actually be making people more clueless, rather than less.

Come on, science fiction is keeping people from understanding science? It’s making people more clueless? Wow, those are strong words. I didn’t know the genre had that kind of muscle; I wonder, is this insidious anti-science agenda carried out with hired thugs, or by some kind of mind-control device? Now I realize this may simply be a case of exaggerating to make a point (by both io9 and myself), but the underlying sentiment is still there, and also echoed in other blog posts linked in that article.

My question is: when did it become science fiction’s responsibility to teach science to the public at large? Sure, sf has always had a close and special relationship with science. And sure, sf fans can be very critical of sf that gets the science wrong — I know I am. And I know plenty of sf fans who, like me, grew up with a strong interest in both science fiction and science (two of the prime manifestations of geekdom, I suppose). But I never, at any age, made the mistake of confusing the two. If there was ever any kind of relation between them for me, it was this: my experience with science fiction has always been informed by my knowledge of science, not the other way around. My opinion of a science fiction story that uses science is always filtered through my understanding of real science, not vice versa. It should be glaringly obvious to anyone that science fiction is, first and foremost, a form of fiction. Science fiction, of course, deals heavily in the possibilities of science, in extrapolations of science into the future, of the consequences of science. And it often uses real science as a starting point, to give the story a feeling of reality. But sf never claimed to be a replacement for science textbooks, teachers, or classes. And if some people take it as such, they have only themselves to blame. To put it as bluntly as I can: anyone who thinks science fiction promises them a science education, and uses it as their sole or primary source for science instruction, and refuses to crack open a science book, and then feels confused by their inadequate understanding, is simply an idiot.

At the risk of further violence to an already-deceased equine, let me pull in another comment on this subject. This one comes from scientist and science fiction writer Mike Brotherton, one of those responding to the ScienceOnline09 questions. I really don’t mean to pick on Mike (he runs a really fantastic blog and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already), but this seems so relevant to what I was just saying above:

People who are not in a position to take a class, or who won’t pick up a textbook, still turn on their TV. There’s a real opportunity that hasn’t been exploited.

[....]

Right now people read stories or watch shows that are supposed to be realistic, and what we’ve learned from science about how things work has no relationship to what happens.

I may sound cruel and heartless and a downright bastard, but I have little to no sympathy for someone who “won’t” pick up a textbook, or at least a popular science book. If someone has no interest in science, then fine for them, that’s their own business, but then I’m not going to worry overly much about whether or not their grasp of science is being warped by science fiction. And, at least in the developed countries of the world (which are the main consumers of sf anyway), who doesn’t have an opportunity to take a class? I seem to remember some science somewhere in there between starting kindergarten and graduating high school. As for people turning on their tv’s, well, there’s more on tv than just science fiction. They could, for instance, check out PBS, the Discovery channel, the Learning Channel, National Geographic Channel, and so forth…. hey, I’ve even seen some science programs on the History Channel.

And where does this assumption come from that science fiction tv shows are “supposed to be” realistic? Says who? Is there a statement at the start of the show that promises no laws of physics will be violated? Never seen one, myself.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying science fiction shouldn’t make an effort to portray science as realistically as it can, within the needs and constraints of the story. That’s definitely a good thing, and something I expect from a good sf author (and there is sf out there with solid science — consider Clarke, as just one example). I guess what I’m doing is making a point about individual knowledge, responsibility, and judgement. As a reader or viewer, I see it as MY responsibility to judge a work of fiction against what I know of the real world. And it’s ultimately MY responsibility to learn something about that world, whether via my education or from picking up a book on whatever interests me — biology, physics, history, or whatever. There’s something very distasteful to me about people who are too lazy to do that, people who passively accept whatever flows into their brains from their entertainment sources and expect it to reflect reality, without utilizing their minds at least a little bit to try to analyze the matter for themselves.

Bottom line: it’s great for science fiction to help people get interested in science and to help develop their appreciation for the possibilities of science; but sf should not feel like it’s shackled to a podium in a lecture hall, compelled to educate the masses in a subject for which there are other, more suitable avenues of instruction. And people should realize that fiction is not necessarily the best place to gain scientific knowledge.

Rogue Moon, another great classic

roguemoonI’ll tell you what, I’m really enjoying the experience I’ve been having this year of immersing myself in all these old classics that I had overlooked before. I’m also realizing how many great books were published particularly in the 1950’s and 1960’s — what a great time that was for science fiction! Add another one to the list: Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, from 1960. This is an absorbing and maturely told tale of the scientific exploration of an alien artifact of mind-numbing incomprehensibility, and of the very real human costs and sacrifices involved in confronting it.

The mysterious structure found on the dark side of the Moon was beyond all human understanding. Anyone who entered it died, usually in a very strange and horrific manner. But each volunteer, using the experience of the previous ones, managed to last a little longer and get a little further inside. But there was something unusual about these volunteers: they were duplicates, created by a new matter scanner/transmitter and beamed to a receiver on the Moon. So, there were two copies of the volunteer, one entering the alien structure, and one on Earth, telepathically linked and witnessing the actions of his “twin.” A problem, though: when the structure killed one member of the pair, the other member invariably went insane.

The scientist who designed the matter transmitter and runs the project, Ed Hawks, is torn apart by the constant guilt of condemning these men to death and insanity. but he implacably continues to do so, knowing the importance of his mission. After all, there’s some Cold War pressure there, and any knowledge to be gained from the artifact must be gotten before the Russians learn of it. So, even though Hawks views himself in some sense as a murderer, he also feels driven by the necessity of his job. His dedication to his work never wavers, but his inner turmoil is constant, and he readily admits he’s a monster:

“It’s a monstrous thing we’re dealing with. In a sense, we have to think like monsters, or stop dealing with it, and let it just sit there on the Moon, no one knows why.”

The other major character is the latest volunteer, Al Barker, recruited because Hawks needs “a new kind of man,” a man who doesn’t fear death. Indeed, Barker has always actively courted death, living life on the edge, taking deadly risks, daring any adventure, all in order to prove his worth and manhood. His near-suicidal thirst for danger gives him just the edge that is needed: he is able to retain his sanity while experiencing his own death (his copy’s death) in the Moon structure.

One point I want to make about this novel is that the scientific investigation of this mystery is always there, but it’s not really front and center like you might expect. In fact, even after the structure is fully penetrated at the end, there is no revelation, no new knowledge, no dazzling discovery to appease the reader’s sense of wonder. The strange artifact is just as much an unknown at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.

No, the main focus of this novel, and its real strength, is its portrayal of the human side of the situation. It’s a story thick with psychological tension, that delves deeply into the strains and stresses of people caught up in something much bigger than themselves, something that forces them to draw upon the uglier parts of their nature, but also to learn something about themselves in the process. And I think it succeeds extremely well at that. These are some of the most complex characters I’ve encountered, and it’s impossible to come away from this without being affected in some way by their experiences and the passions and pains that shape them. Budrys is one hell of a writer — I’ve got to see what else the man wrote.