Monthly Archives: August 2009

Campbell said all fiction is science fiction

I just read something of interest. John W. Campbell, the influential editor of Astounding and shaper of many of SF’s Golden Age authors, once wrote in one of his editorials:

That group of writings which is usually referred to as “mainstream literature” is actually a special subgroup of the field of science fiction — for science fiction deals with all places in the Universe, and all times in Eternity, so the literature of the here-and-now is, truly, a subset of science fiction.

(Quoted in Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, Edward James, 1994.)

That’s a different way of looking at things. You have to admit there’s a certain kind of truth to it.

So to all the anti-SF literary snobs out there: you’re reading science fiction too! Deal with it. ;)

Flash reviews — August ’09

When I started this blog I set myself the task of reviewing every single book I read. And so far that’s what I’ve done. But it’s finally time to face the fact that that’s not always going to happen. For one thing, I have some demands on my time that I didn’t have way back then. For another, there are times when, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel like writing about a particular book. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book; it simply means I can’t think of anything much to say about it. So when I get one (or more) like that, I’m going to simply pass them along with a rating and a brief comment. Here’s what I’ve got right now:

Title: Excession
Author: Iain M. Banks
Year: 1996
Rating: 3/5 stars
Another of Banks’ Culture novels, involving a mysterious object from another universe, a war with a nasty species called the Affront, and much intrigue between the various humans and Ship Minds. Interesting in parts, boring in parts, average overall.

Title: The Seven Sexes
Author: William Tenn
Year: 1968
Rating: 2/5 stars
Not as satisfying as the other Tenn collections I’ve read. Too many whimsical stories here and not enough serious ones. The best is “Sanctuary,” in which time travelers from the future come back to the present and establish diplomatic relations by setting up Temporal Embassies.

Through the wormhole (links, 8/20/09)

Hmmm… I guess I should get one of these regular link features going around here, which are so popular around the blogosphere. I’ve been lazy, I admit; especially in the last few months, with nothing posted but book reviews. Anyway, I’m going to call it “Through the wormhole,” and I’ll try to do this at least a couple times a month, or more as time permits. Enjoy!

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It seems Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics need a few changes.

In the continuing quest to mine the past for movies to remake, Warner Bros. sets its sights on Outland.

UFO sightings seem to spike after big blockbuster sci-fi films. Well duh! Little green men like a good movie now and then too, don’t you know?

Are fantasy and supernaturalism having too much of an effect on science fiction? When it comes to tv and movies, I think there may be something to the author’s contention.

Sign of the times: ecological catastrophe stories are going mainstream, rather than being the sole province of science fiction:

In short, environmental fiction is moving away from its roots in science fiction and is becoming part of mainstream literature – as is revealed by some of the most recent novels to tackle themes of climate change and the like.

HBO is developing a series based on Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside. Consider me intrigued. I’ll watch it. The fact that I don’t have HBO presents a minor problem, though. Oh well, I’ll cross that bridge later.

This guy cautions that we shouldn’t let our imaginations runs so wild that we forget about real world problems:

Fantasists ponder a future of superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance—as if wishing will make it happen. Meanwhile, people are dying. [….] Reading a lot of science fiction (which I do, and which I heartily encourage) can lead a person to think that if something has been imagined, then it must be possible. This is one of the risks of enjoying speculative fiction, and it’s made more acute by engaging uncritically in a community of like-minded believers.

It’s a point worth making. I can see how unquestioning acceptance of certain SF premises could, theoretically, influence someone’s beliefs, behaviors, votes, etc. For example, if you believe it’s inevitable that humanity will create off-world colonies within the next century or two, you might not be too worried about overpopulation. Or if you believe that medicine and genetic engineering will cure all major diseases in the near future, you may not put as much effort into a healthy lifestyle. However, I don’t really know anyone who’s so out of touch with reality that they make such decisions based on what they see or read in science fiction. And rather than blinding us with unrealistic expectations, I think SF actually provides more of a beneficial effect, by highlighting different problems and situations that maybe we hadn’t thought about before. Still, the general tone of the article seems to be “let’s keep things in perspective,” and it’s hard to argue with that.

On the Truthiness of Simulation:

Fiction is not true, but it is like truth. It’s truthy.

Of course good fiction (books, movies, games) has a certain realism — or truthiness — to it. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to connect to it at all, and it would be pretty useless.

Pluses and minuses to be found in Man Plus

What it all comes down to is that a colony on the Moon can be supported from Earth. A colony on Mars cannot. At least a colony of human beings cannot.

But what if one reshapes a human being?

Title: Man Plus
Author: Frederik Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3/5 stars

manplusMars. It’s one of science fiction’s most commonly used settings, and one that seems destined to be among our first stepping stones when we finally spread out from Earth to find new homes for ourselves. And so SF has countless stories of the red planet and human attempts to colonize it. In many such stories, the planet is made habitable through terraforming, changing the planet to suit humanity. In Man Plus, Pohl goes in the opposite direction, exploring the idea of changing humanity to suit Mars. The novel tells the story of Roger Torroway, the first successful product of a government program to do just that. The book details the process of his terrible transformation, and the consequences for Roger, both physical and psychological.

All this takes place against a background nearly identical to that in Pohl’s novel Jem. In other words: Cold War Earth, political strife, WWIII looming ever closer and seeming inevitable, the “free world” vs. communism, and a conviction that getting an off-world colony started is of the utmost urgency to save humanity. The political paranoia and the inevitability of annihilation seem exaggerated and unreal to me; but I was five years old when this novel was written, so what do I know? Maybe if I’d lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the book’s sense of Cold War dread and urgency would seem more realistic. But to me, this aspect of the novel seems forced.

Very little of the story actually takes place on Mars. Most of it occurs in the lab where Roger Torroway is slowly changed from a human being into something more — or perhaps less — than human. Through a series of operations, Torroway is turned into a cyborg, most of his natural flesh replaced with artificial parts. His eyes are faceted globes. His skin is plastic. He has mechanical muscles, and photoreceptor wings for gathering energy. His nervous system is altered to provide vastly improved senses. By the time it’s all done, there is very little of the original, organic Torroway left.

The book is suffused with a sense of disquiet and uneasiness about this project. While it is seen as a huge scientific achievement and a benefit for humanity, it is impossible not to also view it as a kind of abomination:

The screen showed a man.
He did not look like a man. […] He was an astronaut, a Democrat, a Methodist, a husband, a father, an amateur tympanist, a beautifully smooth ballroom dancer; but to the eye he was none of those things. To the eye he was a monster.

As Torroway goes through his transformation, it becomes harder and harder for him to connect with humanity, even with those he was closest to. This alienation from his own species, even in the cause of serving that species, is the central tragedy of the novel.

The book is interesting as far as it goes. It could have been far better though. For one thing, Pohl is not big on characterization. His characters are just barely developed enough to get the story told, and no more; I have a hard time really believing in them. Another thing the book lacks is an explanation of why this transformation is preferable to other possible solutions, such as simply bringing along the right equipment for ordinary humans to survive on Mars (building domed cities and so forth). A fairly average reading experience, overall.

UFO conspiracy technothriller delivers a satisfying adventure

A dim red glow illuminated the cavern, the sides of which appeared to have been carved by a massive impact. The texture of the stone looked like it had melted and flowed before solidifying again. It was roughly fifty feet wide and nearly as tall. However, it was not the melted rock that made her heart pound.

At the back of the cavern rested a huge, saucer-shaped object.

Title: The Second Ship
Author: Richard Phillips
Year: 2009
Rating: 3/5 stars

secondshipThe Second Ship is the first book of The Rho Agenda, which its author labels a “UFO conspiracy series.” This is a fitting description, as the book contains UFOs and conspiracies galore. Its author seems uniquely qualified for such an endeavor. Richard Phillips was born in — of all places — Roswell, New Mexico, and grew up immersed in the UFO climate permeating that area. He was an Army Ranger, and later got degrees in physics, doing work at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. His military and scientific background, as well as his interest in UFOs and science fiction, all come together to form a satisfying thriller about alien technology and the secrets and agendas of those who control it.

As the story kicks off, the President of the United States goes on tv to make a stunning announcement: for the last half century or so, the U.S. government has been studying a crashed alien spacecraft. This study has taken place at Los Alamos under the title “the Rho Project.” The reason for finally coming clean is that this project has provided understanding of several new technologies which the President feels must be shared with the world, given the fundamental benefits they could provide for humanity. The first of these technologies, for example, is working cold fusion.

But wait. All is not sunshine and roses, for there are more sinister forces at work (remember: conspiracy). There are those who know more secrets of the alien craft than the President does, and who have agendas of their own — which, you just get the feeling, don’t involve the welfare of humanity quite so much. When you consider that some of these people are the very ones in control of the Rho Project, and that they can use the alien technology to create super-assassins, well, things start to look a little grim for the prospects of peace and good will.

Ah, but wait again. Astute readers will bear in mind the book’s title; if you were thinking there’s a second alien ship, go to the head of the class. Yes, another craft also crashed back in the 1940’s, and what’s more, the two apparently caused each other’s crashes while in the process of trying to destroy one another. This second ship has remained hidden all this time, until the present, when a trio of high school students accidentally stumble upon the hidden crash site. As they explore the vessel, its own amazing technologies start to make themselves known, and these three characters find their lives transforming, with newly found abilities they can hardly even believe. Through those abilities, these three discover evidence of an interstellar war and the malevolent intrigue at the heart of the Rho Project. And deciding to keep knowledge of the second ship to themselves, the only way to combat the threat is by forming their own three-person conspiracy. They quickly find themselves in over their heads, playing a complex game of hide-and-seek with the NSA, trying to get the truth about Rho out before the authorities close in.

This is a pretty well-constructed story, with good plot structure, pacing, and tension level, as well as some halfway decent characterization. The writing quality is higher than you might expect from a small press offering (Synergy Books), and I think Mr. Phillips could have a future in fiction. His prose is clear and readable, with a sometimes humorous or appealing turn of phrase. The weakest point by far is the dialogue. It often comes across as stilted and unnatural, for two reasons: first, his characters rarely use contractions like real people do; and second, they speak in fuller sentences than is necessary, including phrases a real speaker would drop because they could be assumed from context. But this was by no means annoying enough to detract greatly from my enjoyment of the book. (I tend to auto-edit as I read anyway, providing the contractions myself, for example.) Another small problem is a somewhat inconsistent tone; at times the book comes across in an innocent, almost Young Adult style, while at other times it’s thoroughly adult, even brutally violent. It’s not a major hangup, just something that was noticeable.

The book leaves off at the perfect point for the first of what I presume to be a trilogy, whetting the reader’s appetite without giving away too much. Several subplots are resolved, while leaving the underlying mystery intact for the following books, which should prove interesting.

For those interested, you can visit the author’s website for more background, excerpts, and purchasing information (available in paperback and Kindle for those who are into that).