Monthly Archives: December 2008

2008: my year in reading

As this year draws to a close, I can happily look back and reflect on all the great books I’ve experienced during the last twelve months. In terms of both quantity and quality, this has been a very good year for me. As far as quantity, I can definitely say I’ve read more this year than in any past year, ever. I used to read at a pretty laid-back pace, getting through around 15-25 books a year. This year, for reasons I don’t even entirely understand, I felt a new sense of urgency in my reading, a feeling that there was too much out there I was missing. So I decided to pick up the pace, and this year I made it through 63 books (woohoo!) — 2 science books, 60 science fiction books, and one book about science fiction.

In terms of quality, well, the year was also bright in that respect. There was a small handful of books I started reading and gave up on, and there were a few books I finished reading only to end up being disappointed. But by far, most everything I read this year was well worth the time it took to read it; and many of the books were simply fantastic.

One big focus I had this year was to catch up on some of the famous classics that I had previously overlooked or ignored for various reasons. And I definitely feel my grounding in the genre is much better for it. I had a great time reading such gems as The Stars My Destination, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Rogue Moon, Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, Mission of Gravity, A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Space Merchants, Contact, and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

This year was also my first experience with Stapledon and Lem, two authors I am quickly coming to regard as some of the true masters of science fiction. And there were other authors who were “firsts” for me whom I am coming to regard very highly: Thomas Disch, Octavia Butler, James Gunn, Robert Sheckley, Dan Simmons, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vernor Vinge, and William Tenn.

Of course, I also read a bunch of stuff by authors who were already old favorites of mine: John Brunner, Ursula LeGuin, Nancy Kress, Robert Charles Wilson, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert.

I also read several short story collections this year. And while I still feel this format is inferior to novels in general, I have begun to appreciate that there are interesting things that can be done with it, and that there are some great stories out there.

I had thought about listing my favorite 5 books out of all I’ve read this year, but it just turns out to be too difficult, there are too many contenders. I will say that I read two books in 2008 that impressed me enough to gain admittance to my top ten all-time favorites (at least as the list exists at this moment). Those are Gunn’s The Joy Makers and Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

And finally, just for the record, here is the complete list of my SFnal reading in 2008:

—————————————————————————

Brian Aldiss

  • Starship

Alfred Bester

  • The Stars My Destination
  • Virtual Unrealities

Ray Bradbury

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • The Martian Chronicles

John Brunner

  • More Things in Heaven
  • Players At the Game of People
  • Stand on Zanzibar
  • The Tides of Time
  • Total Eclipse

Algis Budrys

  • Rogue Moon

Octavia Butler

  • Clay’s Ark
  • Fledgling

Arthur C. Clarke

  • Childhood’s End
  • The Hammer of God
  • Rendezvous with Rama

Hal Clement

  • Mission of Gravity

Thomas Disch

  • Camp Concentration

Harlan Ellison

  • Approaching Oblivion

James Gunn

  • The Joy Makers
  • The Listeners

Robert Heinlein

  • Friday

Frank Herbert

  • The Green Brain
  • The Santaroga Barrier

Nancy Kress

  • An Alien Light
  • Crossfire

Ursula K. LeGuin

  • City of Illusion
  • Planet of Exile
  • Rocannon’s World
  • The Telling

Stanislaw Lem

  • His Master’s Voice
  • Return from the Stars

Walter M. Miller, Jr.

  • A Canticle for Liebowitz

Robert Morrow

  • This Is the Way the World Ends

Charles Platt

  • Dream Makers

Frederick Pohl

  • Jem
  • The Space Merchants (with C.M. Kornbluth)

Kim Stanley Robinson

  • Icehenge

Carl Sagan

  • Contact

Robert Sheckley

  • The People Trap
  • The Status Civilization

Robert Silverberg

  • The Best of Robert Silverberg
  • Dying Inside
  • The World Inside

Clifford Simak

  • Cemetery World

Dan Simmons

  • The Fall of Hyperion
  • Hyperion

Olaf Stapledon

  • Odd John
  • Sirius

Theodore Sturgeon

  • The Golden Helix

William Tenn

  • Of Men and Monsters
  • The Square Root of Man
  • The Wooden Star

Vernor Vinge

  • A Fire Upon the Deep
  • The Peace War
  • Rainbows End

Kate Wilhelm

  • Listen, Listen
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

Robert Charles Wilson

  • Blind Lake
  • The Chronoliths
  • Mysterium

More Brunner, and More Things in Heaven

morethingsheavenI thought it was time for some more Brunner (and hey, it’s always time for more Brunner), so I picked out More Things in Heaven from my unread books shelf and gave it a go. Published in 1973, this is an expanded and/or revised version of a 1963 work called The Astronauts Must Not Land (that’s a definite improvement in the title, I must say). I get the feeling it wasn’t revised quite enough, because the writing comes across as a little less mature or refined than Brunner’s later work that I’m familiar with — a little clumsier in terms of plot, a little less developed in terms of characterization. Nevertheless, it is Brunner we’re talking about, and it’s not like he could actually write a bad book; even his below-average work holds its own against many other writers. So, this one is still worth reading, and it does come with a payoff in the form of a grand mind-blowing idea at the end.

The basic story is about the first voyage of the first interstellar vessel and its return — more about the return, actually. The Starventure is a faster-than-light vehicle, traveling through that mysterious, unknown medium simply called “hyperspace.” The means for accomplishing this have been recently discovered but not completely understood, and the process is described in rather vague terms even by the scientifically knowledgeable. As you can imagine, this lack of understanding provides an opening for weirdness to enter the plot, which it promptly does.

David Drummond is a well-known science journalist whose brother Leon is a Starventure crewmember. As the time nears for the ship’s return, something strange happens: David sees his brother walking down the street! Or at least he thinks he does. He soon becomes convinced that his mind was playing tricks on him, and drops the matter. But when others begin having the same kinds of experiences, and people start seeing bizarre images in the sky, then David knows humanity is in over its head, dealing with something completely unknown. As he and his associates work to uncover the nature of the mystery (being hushed up by governmental caution), David ultimately learns the truth, and that truth turns his world upside down and forever changes our understanding of what we consider “our universe” and our place in it. Here is David contemplating the situation:

Somewhere in the back of my mind, and I imagined in the minds of most people of this twenty-first century, there had been a dream of Man encompassing the universe by the power of his intelligence. That was the vision which had inspired Starventure.

Could we have been deluding ourselves? Had we truly been misled into thinking that because we seemed to understand our own little corner of the cosmos we were on the way to understanding the whole of it?

I can’t tell you any of the specifics of what David learns because that would just give it all away. However, I will say that I love the way Brunner works some mythology and philosophy into the mix. The ultimate explanation for all the strange happenings has a connection to Plato’s concept of ideal forms, and it also has some bearing on various myths involving loss, such as the lost Garden of Eden, the fallen angels, and the like.

If you like Brunner, this one’s worth your time. If you don’t like Brunner, well then, what’s wrong with you?

Whole lotta Hyperion

hyperionIt no longer matters who consider themselves the masters of events. Events no longer obey their masters.

And so it is with the complex skein of events in this hefty pair of books by Dan Simmons. Taken together, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion (published 1989 and 1990) represent 900+ pages of high-quality space opera able to simultaneously satisfy both fans of action/adventure and those who appreciate philosophical depth and the presentation of Big Ideas. All of those ingredients are present in

fallofhyperionabundance as Simmons weaves a vast tale of humanity a millennium from now, living in a far-flung empire of hundreds of worlds, as it faces threats to its existence in the form of war, betrayal, deception, and manipulation by adversaries both known and unknown wielding awesome powers beyond understanding. I’m reviewing these two books together because they really form one long continuous story, often referred to collectively as the Hyperion Cantos.

After the Earth was lost through an experiment gone wrong, humanity spread to the stars, and the Hegemony of Man now includes about two hundred worlds (the Web) connected by wormhole-based “farcasters” which allow instantaneous travel (the rich even have mansions with rooms on different planets!). Farcaster technology is beyond humanity’s understanding and was given to them by the TechnoCore, a population of AI’s who broke free from their human masters centuries ago and now live in their own separate society, but ostensibly on good terms with mankind, whose government they assist through the AI Advisory Council. Travel by spacecraft is of secondary importance, as it is quite time-consuming and complicated by relativistic effects, and is used mainly to worlds that don’t yet have farcasters.

Enter Hyperion, a frontier world outside the Web with a strange claim to fame: it’s the home of the Time Tombs, a valley full of mysterious artifacts that appear to be moving backwards in time. And the Tombs are the home of a terrifying creature known as the Shrike, a seemingly invincible 9-foot-tall 4-armed metallic being covered in sharp spikes and able to control time itself. No one knows the purpose of the Shrike and Tombs (well, not until the end of the story), but a tradition has formed over time: if a group of pilgrims travels there, one individual will have a wish granted, while all the others will face horrifying suffering at the hands (and spikes) of the Shrike.

As Hyperion opens, the Hegemony is on the verge of war with the Ousters, a branch of humanity that went into self-imposed exile long ago, choosing to roam space in their vessels and asteroids rather than being bound to planets. The Ousters have evolved away from the human norm and are seen as almost alien now. And they have an intense interest in the Time Tombs and Hyperion, an invasion of which seems imminent. Against this backdrop, with chaos looming on the horizon, a final Shrike pilgrimage is arranged, with seven unique individuals carefully chosen for reasons unknown to them. But then, they have their own reasons, which we learn about during their journey as they each share their story with the others, in the style of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This structure works well, and each story is fascinating in its own right — and much more so when you try to figure out the mystifying puzzle for which each character’s story provides some of the pieces. The characters themselves — soldier, detective, diplomat, priest, scholar, poet, and others — do what any good character should, drawing the reader in, making us try to figure out what makes them tick, and causing us to become emotionally invested in what happens to them. The novel closes with our pilgrims, having told their stories throughout the journey, just entering the valley of the Time Tombs.

The Fall of Hyperion picks up there, and takes a more straightforward narrative structure as all the individual stories blend together into one hugely complex story. As the pilgrims prepare to face the Shrike, Hyperion comes under attack, only one part of a wider war which threatens the entire Web itself, a war in which it is hard to tell who the enemy really is, and which brings long-held assumptions into question. The action is thick and fast, ranging over many planets (and the space battles between and around them), and the viewpoint switches frequently from character to character. Twists and revelations abound; it’s difficult to say more about the second book without giving too much away, so I’ll leave it at that.

The Hyperion Cantos is built from a rich array of themes and concepts, any one of which would have been a worthy subject for a novel in its own right. There is the theme of man vs. machine and what happens when we create artificial intelligence and it goes its separate way. There’s also the theme of stagnation vs. change. The Web has endured for many centuries virtually unchanged, indeed resisting change, while the Ousters have wholeheartedly embraced the inevitability of evolution and welcome it as the way forward. Related to the stagnation issue is the matter of over-reliance on technology that is not understood, and the possible disastrous consequences.

Another major idea used here is that of an evolved God (taking inspiration from Teilhard’s Omega Point) — in short, an Ultimate Intelligence as the endpoint of evolution far in the future, projecting its effects back in time. Would such a being be distinguishable from a “real” (i.e. supernatural) God? If not, what might that mean for religions based on such an Intelligence, mistaking its actual nature? Simmons draws fairly heavily on the concepts of Christianity, putting it in just this context. The Cantos involves religion in other ways as well. There is a constant thread of sin, atonement, and punishment running through the novels, as well as sacrifice. One of the pilgrims, Sol Weintraub, engages in an ongoing theological debate about obedience and sacrifice and whether or not God is owed them; this debate is largely centered on the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Weintraub comes to believe that mankind has matured past the point of blind obedience, and, in his dream conversations with a being he takes to be God, he boldly lays out his position:

“Listen! There will be no more offerings, neither child nor parent. There will be no more sacrifices for anyone other than our fellow human. The time of obedience and atonement is past. That’s all! Now either leave us alone or join us as a father rather than a receiver of sacrifices. You have the choice of Abraham!”

One final thing worth mentioning is Simmons’ extensive use of poetry; and by that I don’t mean simply quoting poetry (though there is some of that), but also the use of poets as very important central characters. For starters, one of the pilgrims, Martin Silenus, is a poet whose lifelong masterpiece-in-progress is called, fittingly enough, “Hyperion Cantos.” This epic work haunts and obsesses Silenus, and is the reason he agreed to join the pilgrimage. But even more fascinating is the crucial role played by another poet, namely John Keats, brought back to life, in a way, as a “cybrid” — an AI mind with an amazingly accurate reconstruction of Keats’ memories, placed in a body genetically identical to the original Keats. This “reborn” Keats is one of the most important characters of the entire story. In fact, the very title “Hyperion” is from a Keats poem. William Butler Yeats also gets some recognition; more than once his poem “The Second Coming” is referenced. You know, all that about the center not holding….. anarchy loosed upon the world…. some beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born. I’ve always loved that poem, and its use here seems very appropriate.

This has definitely been one of my more satisfying reads lately. There is also another pair of books forming a sequel to this pair: Endymion and The Rise of Endymion. They are on my reading list for the coming year, no doubt about that. I will also be looking at other work by Simmons, since Hyperion Cantos easily establishes his credentials as a writer of the first rank.ef

Tenn again — The Wooden Star

woodenstarThe last time I read a story collection by William Tenn (The Square Root of Man), I said I wasn’t exactly wowed, and the author himself admitted those stories were some of his earliest and least impressive. After finishing a second collection, The Wooden Star, I’m happy to say the quality level is quite a bit higher this time around. Some of the stories in this volume — not all, mind you, but some of them — are real pearls of satirical genius, showing a writer at the top of his game. All of the stories here, even the ones I didn’t necessarily like, are built around some core observation on mankind’s more foolish and short-sighted behavioral traits. Tenn paints a target on humanity’s idiocies and lets loose his barbed arrows, hitting the bulls-eye roughly half the time, with the rest of the shots being a bit more scattered.

There are a couple of intriguing time travel stories here. “The Brooklyn Project” takes the view, widely known from Bradbury’s famous story “A Sound of Thunder,” that even the tiniest, most insignificant change in the past can reshape the present. And thus, an arrogant government official, providing commentary to the press about the first (military-controlled) time time travel experiment, assures everyone, with a smug “trust us, we’re the government” attitude, that nothing could possibly go wrong — which, of course, turns out to be not quite accurate. In “It Ends with a Flicker,” a man is sent into the past to change a certain event in order to avert a disaster. Turns out, though, that this changed event causes a different disaster in the new, changed timeline. So a man from the new timeline goes back to change that event, resulting in — yeah, you guessed it — the original timeline with its original disaster. Reality becomes a ping-pong ball bounced back and forth between these two men who each think their own problems are the most serious imaginable.

Two other stories take place in post-apocalyptic worlds in which society takes some strange and unexpected turns. “Null-P” explores what happens when “normal” and “average” become the new social ideals and are taken to an extreme. When a man who just happens to be the statistical average in all characteristics (IQ, age, height, income, everything) is elected President for just that reason, he sets the world on course to learn a hard lesson: that to give up striving to be the best has some serious consequences. “Eastward Ho!” is a hilarious story that exactly reverses the roles, in a rebuilding post-war world, between American Indians and the White Man. Manifest Destiny is turned on its head as the Indians, using all the same justifications and promises previously used on them, slowly and inexorably push the remnants of the U.S. government eastward, into an ever-shrinking territory, until finally the last few whites are forced to flee by ship, sailing to Europe in search of a new home.

And then there are the aliens. “The Deserter” is a humorous and yet scathing look at military thinking, set in the context of a war between Earth and beings from Jupiter. In “Betelguese Bridge,” alien con-men (con-creatures?) exploit mankind’s willingness to be deceived. In “Will You Walk A Little Faster,” aliens who want our planet when we’re gone decide to let human psychology do the work for them, pitting individual short-term interest against long-term species survival; and individual greed promptly dooms humanity. “Lisbon Cubed” pokes fun at the spy networks of our various intelligence agencies by presenting aliens who do it on a far grander scale, but still fall prey to a “cloak and dagger for its own sake” mentality.

“The Masculinist Revolt” takes on the “war of the sexes,” the nature of movements and counter-movements, political grandstanding, and the intersection of all of those in the ever-fickle arena of public opinion. For some reason it didn’t appeal to me much, although Tenn claims it as one of his favorites. “Generation of Noah” concerns a family preparing for nuclear war and a father’s disciplinary treatment of his children in order to make them ready; it strikes me as the weakest story in this collection. “Dark Star” is about a man who decides to pass on the chance to become one of history’s most remembered names, so that he may start a family instead; I found it only mildly interesting.

Overall this is a strong collection of stories, and I’d recommend it to anyone as a great introduction to Tenn’s writing.

Kress puts us in the crossfire of first contact

crossfireNancy Kress is one of my favorite authors, writing high quality science fiction that adeptly blends well developed characters, absorbing plots, and thought-provoking themes. The latest Kress novel I picked up to read was Crossfire (2003), and as I expected, it did not disappoint. I don’t feel it’s quite in the same league as some of her other work (notably the Sleepless and Probablity trilogies); nevertheless, it’s a solid enough piece of writing and an enjoyable read. Crossfire is a tale of first contact (one of my favorites kinds) built around issues of war, pacifism, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and inter-species ethics.

As social and environmental conditions on Earth deteriorate, a group of several thousand colonists, funded privately, flee the imminent downward spiral and head for the newly-discovered planet of Greentrees. There they plan to begin anew on a fresh world. The colonists consist largely of several sub-groups who have joined together for the venture: a Chinese group; an Arab group; a group of Cheyenne descendants who want to recreate the “noble savage” lifestyle of their ancestors; and a religious group, the New Quakers, with whose views I find myself very sympathetic:

Truth, simplicity, silence, conscience. These were the New Quaker tenets. […] [They] had departed from Earth because there seemed no Terran society left that didn’t value lies, image, scams, celebrity, and cynicism over truth.

This New Quaker philosophy plays a prominent role in the story, through one of the major characters, Dr. Shipley — who was, against my expectations, the character I most closely identified with.

The plot thickens when the colonists discover they are not alone on Greentrees. Soon a species of sentient aliens is discovered. Oddly, though, there are only a few scattered villages of these primitives, each with its own very different behavioral pattern. And, even more bizarre, there is no evidence that these creatures have lived there very long. And then — just when the colonists begin to come to terms with the situation, another alien species enters the picture. Before long, things have gotten very complicated, and the humans find themselves in the middle of an interstellar war, caught in the crossfire between two different species, finding not only their ethics challenged, but also their very survival.

The story has points of similarity with other Kress novels. For example, she explores here, just as in An Alien Light, the question of intrinsic human violence, and the idea of one alien species performing experiments on another in order to gain the upper hand in a war. And as in her Sleepless series, a piece of the plot here revolves around “genemod” individuals (genetically modified) and the effects therof.

The best thing about Crossfire is the depth of character. From Shipley’s struggle to be true to his convictions, to another character’s shameful past, to another’s self-destructive and anti-social tendencies, the characters in a Kress story are just damned interesting people. The most obvious weakness is that the aliens are not very imaginatively conceived. One species is a bit too similar to kangaroos, and I’ve never been satisfied by aliens that look like Earth creatures. The other species seems like a simplified version of Vinge’s Skrode Riders.

A worthwhile read, even if not the best Kress has done. If she’s written anything truly bad, I’ve yet to come across it.

Star Trek’s computers sadly silent at the loss of their voice, Majel Barrett

Majel Barrett, that familiar voice of the computer in all the Star Trek series and most of the movies, passed away yesterday at the age of 78, surviving husband Gene Roddenberry by 17 years. This is sad news indeed; I’ve been hearing that voice in the various series for nearly my entire life. Not to mention seeing her in her various acting roles — the original Number One, Nurse Chapel, and my favorite, the fun and flamboyant Lwaxana Troi. A true loss for Star Trek fans everywhere. Says Leonard Nimoy:

“She was a valiant lady. She worked hard, she was straightforward, she was dedicated to ‘Star Trek’ and Gene, and a lot of people thought very highly of her.”

Which is pretty much what I’ve always heard and seems to be the general consensus. She was a devoted part of one of science fiction’s most historic and widespread successes, and she said in 1998, “It’s been a hell of a ride.” It sounds as if she had a happy and fulfilling life, and I’m sure she’ll be missed by many.

I found a couple of videos for you (courtesy of YouTube) as my small way of paying tribute to Star Trek’s First Lady. This one (posted by SuperTrekNerd) is an homage to Barrett’s computer voice on all the various Trek shows:

This one (posted by SciFiDude42) is a short segment from Entertainment Tonight with Barrett as a special guest discussing the changing role of women in Star Trek:

“Science fictiony ideas” can motivate physicists

Theoretical physicist Ben Schumacher recently gave a lecture (described in this story) in which he points out the motivational value of science fiction, saying, “Plenty of really interesting research has been motivated by science fictiony ideas.” Elaborating this point a little more:

Even the most outlandish science fiction stories can spur very real questions for those probing the mysteries of our universe [….] Stories about time travel, flying faster than the speed of light and other supposedly impossible things have long captivated physicists, he said. While most spend their careers studying possible things, there’s value in researching the stuff that falls on the other side of the laws of physics, said Schumacher, who teaches at Kenyon College in Ohio.

One example he uses is the way that Carl Sagan’s book Contact inspired real research into the possibility of wormholes. Motivated by Sagan, physicist Kip Thorne and others at the California Institute of Technology did research that indicated, at least, that the laws of physics don’t absolutely rule out wormholes. But even if they don’t exist, that doesn’t mean the idea was a waste of time:

“It may be there are no such things as wormholes. But if there were, we now understand what the implications would be,” Schumacher said.

Another example is discussed in an article by physicist Paul Davies (How to Build a Time Machine):

Time travel has been a popular science-fiction theme since H. G. Wells wrote his celebrated novel The Time Machine in 1895. But can it really be done? Is it possible to build a machine that would transport a human being into the past or future? For decades, time travel lay beyond the fringe of respectable science. In recent years, however, the topic has become something of a cottage industry among theoretical physicists.

His article delves into the theoretical details, and it’s fascinating stuff. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that even if time travel ultimately turns out to be impossible, physicists could possibly gain some insights into what is possible by way of grappling seriously with the question. And that in itself would be something for science fiction to be proud of.

[Interesting aside: Davies has also been (still is?) chairman of SETI’s Post-Detection Science and Technology Taskgroup. Which means that in the case of a plausible signal, he is called in to advise and consult. Awesome — why can’t I get a job like that?]

And just to drive home the importance of science fiction to physicists, I found this interesting:

At least 10 physicists and technicians from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., regularly attend science fiction conventions.

I’d sure go hang out with a bunch of sci-fi-loving physicists, sounds like a blast to me! :)