Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Kress collection — short stories with depth

trinityI’ve made comments in the past about the limitations of the short story format, and one thing I mentioned was the lack of room for any serious character development. Well, I have just had the experience of being proven wrong, because I’ve just read Trinity and Other Stories, an exceptional 1985 collection by the talented Nancy Kress. Characterization has always been one of her strong points, and it appears that skill is abundantly present whether she’s writing five pages, or five hundred. These stories contain personalities more complex and compelling than some authors achieve in their novels, and that’s impressive. Going along with that character depth is a keen insight into human nature, emotions, motivations, and shortcomings. And there’s more than great characterization and human insight; most of these stories are built around intriguing ideas as well. There isn’t a lot of “flash” here — aliens, robots, and spaceships are few and far between. The emphasis here is on inner rather than outer space, and fortunately Kress seems comfortable in either realm.

Several of the stories have something to say about art. “With the Original Cast” takes place in a world where reincarnation is real, and past memories can be recovered scientifically via a brain operation. When the director for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan finds a girl who was the actual Joan of Arc in a past life, he imagines casting her in the role and reinvigorating the play like never before. But he learns there’s much more to such an artistic endeavor than historical accuracy; interpretation and acting are, perhaps, far more important. “Shadows on the Cave Wall” explores a similar artistic theme, and addresses the question “what is art for?” The story involves a new trend in publishing that attempts to reduce writing to a cold, logical, scientific process that gives readers exactly what they want, and turns authors into little more than technicians. It also tells us that if art is too perfect, it becomes meaningless. “Ten Thousand Pictures, One Word” is about an artist whose drawings are trying to tell him something about his relationship with his wife; as he refuses to get a clue, both his drawings and his marriage continue to fade away.

Other stories deal more centrally with various human fears, prejudices, or weaknesses. “Explanations, Inc.” is a tale about a business supplying just what its name says, and about one obsessed customer who yearns for answers as a way of battling his deep-seated fear that life has no meaning. “Night Win” deals with a telepathic healer whose job is to save lives, but who is encumbered with a secret death wish. In “Talp Hunt” a woman runs from a shock she can’t face and flees to a simpler life, but one that is confusing and unsettling to her children.

My favorite out of the lot is “Out of All Them Bright Stars.” It’s very short, but I admire a story that can say something meaningful, and say it simply and elegantly in a very short space. It’s about an alien visitor, but the alien is almost a peripheral character. The emphasis is upon a waitress in a small-town diner who is faced with the ugly reality of human bigotry.

There were two or three other stories that didn’t strike me as being of the quality of those above, including the title story. Nevertheless, the majority of the collection was very good, with a few outstanding pieces. Also included is a glowing introduction by Gene Wolfe, and introductions to each story by Kress herself, sharing some background information on where the ideas came from (which I always appreciate). This is one of (I believe) three story collections by Kress, and you can bet I’ll be acquiring the other two somewhere down the road.

Rollback combines medical advances and alien contact to tell a decent human story

rollbackRobert J. Sawyer’s Rollback (2007) takes a couple of familiar science fiction tropes and blends them together into a well-told human story. One is the discovery of (and communication with) alien life via signals received from a distant star. The other is the concept of radical life extension, in the form of a complex (and unthinkably expensive) medical procedure, the “rollback” of the title. This is the story of two people, a husband and wife, who find themselves at the intersection of these two astonishing discoveries, and the way their lives are changed by them.

The two central characters are Don and Sarah Halifax. Sarah is a SETI researcher who decoded the first alien communication received in 2009, and led the endeavor to compose and send a response. Now, in 2048, a second alien message has arrived, but this one is mysteriously encrypted, and no one can figure out how to crack it. At this point Sarah, who is now 87 years old and nearing the end of her life, receives an unusual offer from a rich businessman with a keen interest in SETI. This man wants Sarah to work on decrypting the message, and to send another reply, but he also wants something more; he wants her to be around when the next message arrives. And since the aliens are 18-point-something lightyears away, a full round of communication takes roughly 37 years; unfortunately, Sarah will be long dead by then. So he offers to buy her a rollback — an amazing new procedure costing several billion dollars that, after cleaning and purifying the body at the cellular level and making important genetic and chromosomal changes, leaves the recipient’s body in the state it was at approximately the age of 25, giving another six or seven decades of life (at which point the person could conceivable get another rollback).

Sarah will only accept if her husband Don gets a rollback as well, a condition the rich industrialist reluctantly agrees to. Sarah is eager to decrypt the message and learn more about the senders, and they both look forward to a second life, a chance to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up, and to continue their successful 60-year marriage. However, tragedy arises when it becomes clear that, while Don’s rollback went smoothly, Sarah’s didn’t “take.” Due to some complication, it just didn’t work. Much of the story concerns the very end of her life, her success with decrypting the message, and her bittersweet knowledge that her beloved husband will get another life, but that she won’t get to share it with him.

This human tragedy is handled with genuine feeling, both from Sarah’s perspective, and from Don’s as he experiences conflicting emotions — guilt over his rollback working, grief over the impending loss of his wife, the euphoria of his new youthfulness, more guilt over the sexual urges that come with it, and feelings of uselessness as he no longer has the skills to get a job in the modern world. He also has to deal with the envy of his friends and acquaintances, and dash their desperate hopes when he explains he has no secret connections to get them a rollback as well.

Aside from the human story, it’s also interesting how Sawyer handles the matter of the aliens and their communications. I especially liked his thoughts on the purpose of such a communication, and his distinction between telling and asking:

“What a ridiculous notion, that beings would send messages across the light years to talk about math! Math and physics are the same everywhere in the universe. There’s no need to contact an alien race to find out if they agree that one plus three equals four, that seven is a prime number, that the value of pi is 3.14159, et cetera. None of those things are matters of local circumstances, or of opinion. No, the things worth discussing are moral issues — things that are debatable, things that an alien race might have a radically different perspective on. Ethics, morality — the big questions. And that’s the other thing, the other way in which we were totally wrong about what to expect from SETI. Carl Sagan used to talk about us receiving an Encyclopedia Galactica. But no one would bother sending a message across the light-years to tell you things. Rather, they’d send a message to ask you things.”

That’s an interesting view on the subject, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily the only reason aliens would want to communicate. Nevertheless, that’s what Sawyer’s aliens are interested in. The first message they send turns out to be a questionnaire on moral and ethical issues, to be answered by 1000 people and sent back. The answers to the questionnaire have an impact on the second message, but I’ll leave that part for you to discover on your own.

The book switches between different time frames, mostly centered around 2009 and 2048, and along the way we get numerous glimpses into the characters’ lives at different points in their careers. There are many intriguing conversations between Don and Sarah and others, on topics like evolution, quantum physics, philosophy, social issues, and so on. They are also science fiction fans, and often make reference (Don especially) to various movies and tv shows, from Star Trek to Lost in Space to Contact. That last one is actually one of my few gripes with the book. At one point Sawyer has his two main characters engage in some light bashing of that movie, and by extension Sagan’s book, generally calling it implausible and tainted by Hollywood. And since I’m one of the many, many SF fans who love that book and movie, well, hey, that’s just not cool. It’s hard to be sure whether or not this is a case of Sawyer talking through his characters, but it did seem that way.

My other gripe is that the book ends in a very naive fashion, completely ignoring the tendency of governments to sweep in and take control of anything deemed important; the way government steps aside to let a few ordinary individuals control an extremely important resource is not very realistic.

Other than that, though, the book is well written, and contains plenty of stop-and-think moments, convincing characterization, and depth of feeling. I also think Sawyer does an excellent job with the robots in the story (manufactured by the rich industrialist mentioned above) and their behavior. A satisfying read, certainly.

The word for “good reading” is “Le Guin”

worldforestLe Guin’s Hainish Cycle has been a source of pleasurable reading for some time now; but alas, I’m quickly running out of new (new to me) Hainish books to read. After finishing The Word for World Is Forest, the only remaining Hainish material I have yet to read (as far as I know) is the story collection Four Ways to Forgiveness. As usual for Le Guin, Word for World (to shorten just a bit), is a thoughtful story about different permutations of human society as it evolves on various worlds, and about the tragedies that can result when different branches of the human family (re-)encounter each other. It also has something to say about war and violence, and says it with a heavy dose of satire, which makes this book a little different from the other Hainish novels. Le Guin originally wrote this as a novella which appeared in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions, and then later expanded it into a novel (although still a very short one). As far as I can tell, this is the later version I’ve read.

The basic theme of the story is that of exploiters and the exploited — the powerful, greedy, violent invaders versus the primitive, innocent, peaceful natives. Terrans have come to the planet Athshe, coveting its natural resources and seeing it as ripe for colonization. A small population of a few thousand, including a heavy military component, have set up a few initial settlements, largely devoted to harvesting Athshe’s lush forests for their timber, which is shipped back to Earth as a “necessary luxury.” To help in this endeavor, the Terrans have enslaved the native Athsheans as a captive work force — “voluntary labor” in the Terrans’ terminology. These Terrans really have a way with words, don’t they?

The Athsheans, another branch of humanity descended from Hainish colonizers, are an easy target for such abuse. Small in stature and non-aggressive by nature, they don’t resist being put to work and kept in pens…. at least at first. After all, they are human, cousins to their Terran overlords, and so the potential for violence exists somewhere within them. And that is a central point of the book: that violence may be minimized, controlled, overcome, even forgotten…. but it is never forgotten completely, and can be re-learned with astonishing speed. When one individual Athshean is pushed over the edge into violent behavior, the peculiar nature of Atshean psychology causes his people to see him as a kind of prophet or god, and consequently the violence spreads throughout the entire society, unleashing a terrible force of destruction on the Terran outsiders.

As I said, the satire is laid on pretty thick. Some parts of this remind me strongly of the various Robert Sheckley stories that deal with the same theme of a smug, arrogant humanity stepping on alien natives. I also can’t help but think of Dr. Strangeglove and its darkly hilarious portrayal of the military mind. Le Guin’s Davidson character could have come right out of that movie, with lines like this:

“When I say Earth, Kees, I mean people. Men. You worry about deer and trees and fibreweed, fine, that’s your thing. But I like to see things in perspective, from the top down, and the top, so far, is humans. We’re here, now; and so this world’s going to go our way. Like it or not, it’s a fact you have to face; it happens to be the way things are.”

And this:

[...] you’ve got to play on the winning side or else you lose. And it’s Man that wins, every time. The old Conquistador.

Also quite noticeable in the novel are references to the Vietnam War, during which the story was written. The jungle imagery, the Terran’s use of what is effectively napalm, My Lai-style massacres, an enemy that is physically smaller and uses underground living spaces, all of this brings Vietnam to the reader’s mind. At one point Davidson makes a comment about how it doesn’t matter if they’re vastly outnumbered, all it takes is superior firepower and the will to win. He, like the Americans in southeast Asia, eventually has to face the fact that he’s wrong about that.

This book was interesting for a few other reasons. One was that it takes place during the time when the League of All Worlds was first being formed. As the Terrans communicate with Earth via the recently discovered ansible, we can see the maturing effects on Earth as it steps forth to join a larger community. Incidentally, the arrival of the ansible also reveals the paranoia that can result from an over-acute sense of military suspicion; some of the Terrans almost bring themselves to believe the ansible is a Hainish trick, a sophisticated computer generating answers on the spot, rather than being an interstellar communications device. Also interesting was the Athsheans’ dreaming ability, and their division of life into “dream-time” and “world-time” (I’m thinking of Australian aborigines for some reason).

This was a good book. But then, I already said it was written by Le Guin, so I suppose I’m being redundant, aren’t I?

The case of the fluctuating banner

You may have noticed over the last several weeks how my banner keeps changing. Yeah, I went through a few temporary ones while I thought about what kind of look I wanted to go for. And now I’m there. This one will be here for quite some time, so I hope you like it. I’m rather proud of it, if I do say so myself. It took me several hours of work; I don’t have Photoshop or anything comparable, only a few freeware programs I have to coax (threaten, beat, slap around) to get what I want out of them.

Anyway….. what do you think? Lay those opinions on me.

Kress can do better than Crucible

crucibleI said in my review for Crossfire that (to paraphrase myself) it wasn’t the best Nancy Kress was capable of, but that it was still within the realm of worthwhile reading; and that its weaknesses were offset by its strong and well-developed characters. Its sequel Crucible (2004), however, doesn’t even quite make it to that modest level, falling a notch or two lower on the quality scale than its predecessor. This book has some problems and was not nearly as enjoyable as Crossfire. Taken together, this two-book series does not really impress, and I have to consider it something of a minor blemish in Kress’ track record.

The action takes place, once again, on the colony world Greentrees, where humans first encountered two alien species, the Furs and the Vines (who were at war with each other). This story takes place about forty years later, and the main character from the first book is now a very old man. However, through the wonders of near-lightspeed travel and relativity, some of the other characters have only aged a few months. And then, of course, there are some new characters.

Life on Greentrees has moved on; few of the new younger generation have ever seen an alien, and they have a hard time believing there is, or ever was, any danger to their world. Their society is soft and naive, totally ignorant of (and uninterested in) Terran history, and this of course sets the stage for a rude awakening. When a ship arrives, fleeing a dying Earth, its charismatic commander and his crew are welcomed with open arms. When this leader, General Martin, emphasizes some recent ethnic conflict and the continuing theoretical alien threat, he is granted more and more power to defend the colony. Before long the citizens of Greentrees come to realize they have handed over power too willingly, and paid too steep a price for security. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there really is an alien threat, and the colonists soon find themselves fighting for survival and freedom against enemies of more than one species, including their own.

Now all that’s fine, I suppose. There’s the skeleton of a good story there, and some themes worth exploring (ignorance of history, security versus freedom). The basic problem is, this novel lacks sophistication or much of a sense of realism. Everything is too obvious or predictable, everything happens too easily. From the moment Martin arrives on the planet, it’s painfully apparent to the reader what he’s doing, he’s transparent as glass. It’s the Palpatine-style power grab: secretly manufacture a crisis, then step forward and offer to defend against it, with an air of false modesty of course. And the colonists are completely clueless; you just want to grab them and shake them and yell “WAKE UP!!!” This coup is helped along by the fact that none of the colony’s leaders exhibit any leadership qualities whatsoever, and so there’s little to no resistance, which seems a little too convenient. It’s also too easy that the aliens show up so soon after Martin’s arrival, a timely threat that strengthens his bid for power. Add to this several occasions on which characters jump to wild conclusions based on almost no evidence, only to find their conclusions are of course correct, and you can see how this story is just too neat and tidy.

And unlike its predecessor, Crucible is pretty weak on the characterization front. None of these people were drawn with much depth, not as in the previous book. And none of them behaved in a way that made me care much what happened to them. The Greentrees administrator Alex, one of the main characters, was a bumbling idiot; far from being sympathetic, I feel she deserved what she got. And she was far from being the only annoying personality in the book. Even the continuing characters from the first book weren’t half as interesting as they were before.

I don’t know what else to say about this one. It wasn’t necessarily horrible, but it wasn’t very good either. I guess every author has a low point now and then. Kress, at least, doesn’t have many of them.

Laying down the law

My friend Omphalos has just launched a new blog, The Law and Science Fiction. It’s a topic he’s more than qualified for, being both an eminently well-read SF fan AND a lawyer. The blog will analyze and discuss various issues relating to the law and judicial systems as portrayed in speculative fiction. It’s going to be a very interesting project, and I hope you’ll all pop over for a visit. As an added bonus, his first article just happens to be about one of my favorite books ever. Go check it out!