Monthly Archives: May 2009

Wild adventure and sociopolitical insight come together in Star Bridge

Creation…..
It is its own nemesis. Success is temporary, and idolization will not make the ephemeral permanent. Decay is implicit in the birth of any organism.
An empire is an organism.

Title: Star Bridge
Authors: Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn
Year: 1955
Rating: 3/5 stars

starbridgeA while back I was looking for more Gunn to read, and this was one of the books I picked up, although I hadn’t previously been aware of it. I’m glad it came to my attention, however, since it’s quite an enjoyable read. This is a spirited adventure story with plenty of fast-paced action, but also with a lot of deeper commentary about the nature of empires, freedom, and the forces that shape the affairs of humanity.

The golden-skinned Masters of Eron rule the many worlds of the human galaxy, by virtue of their monopoly on the technology of the Tubes. These star bridges are what make interstellar commerce and travel possible (unless you want to take a really long voyage by ship), and all the Tubes converge on Eron, the center of absolute power and control. Of course, not everyone is happy with the status quo, and Eron is accustomed to putting down rebellions. This, of course, only inspires more rebellions — an inherent problem for an empire whose primary management tool is force. Against this setting we follow Horn, who grew up in the Cluster, home of one of those failed rebellions. Drafted into the Eron military, Horn deserted and became a roaming adventurer, a gun for hire. Only now, he’s been hired for what seems a suicide mission: to assassinate one of Eron’s Masters!

At first impression, this is a straightforward adventure story, guilty of some of the pulp sensibilities of the age in which it was written. The hero is a Manly Man of uncommon strength and intelligence, who wondrously manages to get out of every jam he gets into, and over whom the women swoon, of course. However, the novel is not nearly that simplistic. The protagonist Horn is supremely capable and skillful, yes, but not so much so that he’s beyond the reach of self-doubt. In fact, he spends a great deal of time wrestling with himself, wondering whether his actions and decisions have been the right ones, or if he even could have chosen differently. His attitude is sometimes forthrightly optimistic, as he declares his belief in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny. At other times his outlook is much more bleak, and he is haunted by the specter of determinism:

But there wasn’t any choice. A quarry has but one function: to run. When he stops, he is finished; the game is over. Horn sat in the darkness staring at eight floating choices and reflected how inevitability had channeled his actions since he had left the Cluster. Since he had accepted the money from the voice in the darkness, there had been only one step to take, and he had taken it; one path to follow, and he had followed it. Beyond, it had seemed, there would be choice; never now.

It seems probable this book was at least partly inspired by Asmiov’s Foundation series. Common to both is a concern with empires and their decay, and with the possibility of large-scale social prediction. Maybe all these authors were just kicking around the same kinds of ideas at the same time. But passages like this one bring to mind Asimov’s psychohistory:

Atoms and men….
They are moved by certain general forces in accordance with certain general laws, and their movements can be predicted in certain broad generalizations.
Physical forces, historical forces — if a man knew the laws of of one as well as he knew the laws of the other, he could predict the reactions of a culture as accurately as the reactions of a rocket ship.

The action portions of the book have a sort of Alfred Bester quality; it’s Horn getting into one crazy unexpected situation after another, and getting out again just as wildly. At times these situations comes across as almost too frivolous or whimsical, but it never becomes too much to bear since they are balanced against the book’s more serious passages. I’ll end this with one more of those, in which Gunn and Williamson offer a grand cyclical view of history and freedom:

“The love of freedom dies as the memory of its alternative fades. Oh, it’s not a sudden thing. It takes generations, centuries. But gradually it slips away. And it’s more than that. There is a time for freedom, just as there is a time for empire. [...] When its job is done, empire disappears, and it is freedom’s turn to revive the human spirit by the challenge of the infinite horizon. And then, when men begin to grow too far apart, empire will return to unite them again.”

Gunn’s medical dystopia — The Immortals

Was there an optimum beyond which medicine consumed more than it produced in benefits? And was there a point past that at which medicine became a monster, devouring the society that produced it?

Title: The Immortals
Author: James E. Gunn
Year: 1962
Rating: 2/5 stars

immortalsWhen a dying old man receives a blood transfusion and temporarily regains perfect health and a decades-younger appearance, the stage is set for a story about the unquenchable hunger for life and the lengths people will go to in order to get more of it. For the donor who provided the blood is, unknowingly, the first Immortal, possessor of an incredible mutation which provides an anti-aging component in his blood chemistry. And the old man just happens to be a ruthless multimillionaire who will do anything to get more of that special blood (the effects of the transfusion last only a few months). Of course, the only way to get the blood is to find the Immortal who has it. Soon he and his offspring become the focus of the biggest manhunt in history. If they are caught, they have a dismal future in store — a life of virtual slavery, being confined and tapped for their precious blood so the world’s richest men can benefit from it.

Actually the Immortals appear very little in the book, primarily at the beginning, and play a relatively small role. As you read on, you find that the book is really all about issues relating to medicine and its role in society, and especially about its differential availability to those at various economic levels. Indeed, the hunt for the Immortals is really a metaphor of sorts for the privileged status of the ultra-rich who have access to the best, most cutting-edge medical care. The blood of the Immortals is about as cutting-edge as you can get, and therefore the rich feel they have some kind of special claim on it. The dying millionaire mentioned above says:

“Why should some nobody get it by accident? What good will it do him? Or the world? He needs to be protected — and used. [...] We’d save the best men in the world, those who have demonstrated their ability by becoming wealthy.”

Gunn presents a dystopic vision of a future world in which urban decay is rampant amidst massive economic decline. The cities are slowly dying. Their building are crumbling into ruin, with one exception: the hospitals. These bright shining beacons of power and wealth are expanding, taking over the cities block by block. Medicine has become an empire dominating society, as the one industry people are still eager to pump their money into, in return for whatever benefits they can squeeze from it. This addiction to even the slightest advance in health care is one of the book’s central points, stressed over and over again. As in the opening quote, or here:

“The lifespan can be extended to a reasonable length without overburdening society. Then we run into the law of diminishing returns, and it takes just as much again to push it a year further, and then six months, three months, a week, a day. There is no end, and our fear is such that no one can say, ‘Stop! We’re healthy enough!'”

The book also paints a picture of an extremely mercenary medical establishment, with the hospitals protected by high walls and their own private armies, and their armed medics traveling around in armored ambulances. Gunn does here for doctors what Bradbury did for firemen, transforming them into the opposite of what we feel they should be. He also echoes today’s frequent discussion of the problems surrounding health insurance. The poor living in the urban ruins get no real medical care, relying instead on either primitive home remedies or dangerous black market medicines. The suburban rich, and whatever remains of a middle class, are able to afford medical contracts. And keeping the payments made is a matter of great attention; defaulting on your contract can get your body “repossessed” for organ harvesting.

Gunn puts forth some good questions about a very important component of modern life, our health care. And there’s some good satire here. But overall I must say I wasn’t very impressed by The Immortals. For one thing, it’s a bit too repetitive and, well, I guess the right word would be “preachy.” For another, this is a fix-up novel, put together from four separate stories previously published in magazines, and they don’t seem to fit together very smoothly; the book as a whole has a rather disjointed feel to it. This is not Gunn’s best writing, not by a long shot.

The perfect game for post-apocalypse fans

fallout3Post-apocalyptic stories abound in science fiction, in novels and movies far too numerous to list. For some reason we just love seeing the world wiped out by disaster, and have a fascination with the broken landscape that remains afterward. For those who share this interest, and who also like to play a good game from time to time, there couldn’t be a more perfect game than Fallout 3.

The game takes place a couple of hundred years after a nuclear war that occurred in the late 21st century. So, while the world is basically a wasteland, the environment (architecture, vehicles, etc.) has a slightly futuristic look to it. And while humanity is still devastated and downtrodden, there are pockets of high technology here and there, and groups struggling to rebuild society and/or grab power for themselves. You play a character who grew up in an underground facility built to protect a small group of people during the war. When your father leaves the vault under mysterious circumstances, you decide to go out into the big bad wasteland and find him. And that’s when the real fun begins.

The action takes place in the remnants of Washington D.C. — the Capitol Wasteland — and the surrounding countryside; and this shattered post-nuclear landscape is beautifully presented. The crumbling buildings and roads, the isolated sections of raised freeway, the abandoned cars, everything is portrayed in fine detail and contributes to a satisfyingly haunting atmosphere. And while there are plenty of other characters to interact with, one of the most appealing parts of the game is simply the ability to roam around and explore the ruins, whether it’s the sinister subway tunnels, the rubble-choked streets, D.C. landmarks (Capitol building, Washington monument, Arlington Cemetery), or the open hills and grasslands outside the city.

falloutdc

The game packs in a lot of sci-fi elements besides the post-apoc setting. There are mutant humans in several varieties, giant mutant scorpions and ants, robots, runaway androids, a certain sub-plot that bears a strong resemblance to The Matrix, futuristic weapons, and other assorted pieces. There is also a huge amount of space to explore. After I finished the main story sequence, I realized that there were still huge areas of the map I hadn’t even touched. Obviously there were many side quests I missed out on, making me eager for a replay (something I don’t often do with games).

There seems to be quite a bit of flexibility in how you play the game, as far as what kinds of skills you develop and in your basic moral stance. My first time through I played pretty much the straightforward “good guy,” so next time I think I’ll try the dark side and be an evil S.O.B. As far as mechanical aspects, the controls and such, I have no complaints. Everything was easy enough to learn quickly and use effectively. There are a couple of features I did like. One is the ability to switch between 1st and 3rd person views. Another is the targeting system by which you can attack specific parts of an enemy’s body. Oh, one other point in the game’s favor: the voice of Liam Neeson.

falloutroaming

Plenty of exhilarating combat here, as well as a decent story to immerse yourself in. But the best part by far is simply the exquisitely-drawn atmosphere of a ravaged post-nuclear world. Roaming these wastelands was some of the most fun I’ve had from a game in some time.