Monthly Archives: August 2008

Classic… landmark… masterpiece. Clarke. Childhood’s End.

Coming from just about the middle of the 20th century (1953), Clarke’s Childhood’s End is not only a prime example of a science fiction classic, but even more, it deserves to be called a science fiction masterpiece. It’s quite simply one of the best sf novels I’ve ever read, and I keep wondering what took me so long to get around to reading it. It makes me wonder what other masterpieces are out there that I haven’t bothered to read yet.

One of the things that most impressed me was how this novel departed from the common sf assumptions of the times, the optimistic attitude about humanity’s future and destiny and our ability to overcome any obstacle and achieve anything and go conquer the galaxy. Clarke dashed that view to pieces. But at the same time, the novel’s outlook is not entirely pessimistic either. Rather, it’s a bittersweet combination of optimism and pessimism. One of the prime lessons is that the end of one thing is also the beginning of another, and that what is a wondrous event from one perspective can be a profound tragedy from another, and vice versa. Clarke unflinchingly presented humanity as it faced its end; yet in that end, it also gave rise to something greater than itself. Tragically, humanity could take little solace in its extraordinary descendant species, since they were beyond all understanding. And that’s another lesson of the novel, that there may be things in the universe that will always be beyond our ability to understand and control, and we may reach a point where we will have to face that, no matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow. And, to throw in one more lesson: one generation can’t really control the next, which will inevitably end up with its own goals and doing its own thing. Clarke gives just about the most extreme demonstration of that imaginable.

One of the really interesting things about reading this book was that I got so many “echoes,” little bits of familiarity from later science fiction — themes, tropes, concepts, or images that I’m familiar with from other books or movies, that have been borrowed and re-used and changed and refined down through the years. One of the big ones was the image of giant alien motherships hovering over Earth’s cities, with all the sinister threat they imply. Another was aliens who come to conquer us, and yet another was aliens who come to help us (the Overlords fit both of these categories; there’s nothing simple about Clarke’s aliens here). Another was the presentation of a post-scarcity world. Another was the evolution of the human species and the development of super-beings.

Childhood’s End is one of those ageless novels that is as fresh today as it was in the 50’s. I didn’t notice anything that was technologically out of date. The Overlords use a “Stardrive” to power their ships, but the explanation of it is vague enough that there’s nothing to offend modern sensibilities. The use of relativistic time distortion is solid science, of course. There were some technological ideas included that were ahead of their time — what seemed to be references to CGI and virtual reality, for example.

I thought Clarke did an excellent job with the softer disciplines too, particularly in making good use of psychology and mythology. The various reactions of humanity to the circumstances seemed very believable, as was the way the Overlords manipulated human psychology to achieve their goals. And the way these aliens had become equated with certain characters from human mythology was quite incredible and mind-blowing.

I loved the way that, while humanity was facing it’s greatest tragedy, the Overlords, who seemed so incredibly advanced, were facing their own tragedy, one perhaps even worse. It was this, more than anything else, that made the Overlords so accessible, so believable as real sentient beings, and worthy as objects of sympathy.

What more can I say about this book? I am impressed. Very impressed. Why didn’t I read this years ago?

Short clip: Frank Herbert speaks about Dune

Here’s a very short video I found of a television interview with Frank Herbert, the only such video I’ve been able to find. I don’t know the date on this, but I’d guess it’s from sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s. I wish I could find the whole interview, assuming there was more to it — this is only about a minute and a half long. Nothing new here for Dune fans, but as I’ve said before, it’s just nice sometimes to be able to hear your favorite authors in their own words and voice.

I’ve been thinking lately about Herbert’s thoughts on power. He said he thought the old adage “power corrupts” isn’t quite right, and put forth his own version: “power attracts the corruptible.” What I think is that BOTH statements are correct. No doubt many people are drawn to positions of authority because deep down, whether they consciously recognize it or not, they desire power and the perks that come with it, whether that’s wealth or the ability to impose their will on others. On the other hand, I believe there are people who go into politics or other positions of responsibility with the noblest of intentions, truly desiring to do good; but as time passes, the temptations of power slowly erode their defenses and wear them down, corrupting them to varying degrees.

(Hmmm…… most pictures I’ve seen of Frank show him with a beard. He looks pretty different in this clip.)

Sucking the blood out of the vampire legend

I’ve been out of the vampire “loop” for quite some time; the last vampire novel I read was Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned back around 1990. Since then, I haven’t felt much urgency about seeking out that kind of literature. As fas as I’m concerned, Rice’s series (at least the first three books) was the definitive modern telling of the vampire tale, the pinnacle of that particular sub-genre, and anything after that would be anticlimactic. So when I began reading Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel Fledgling, I was a bit wary about what her take on the mythos would be, and how it would stack up against other versions. I was pleased to find this is not a horror novel, not a portrayal of creatures in any way supernatural. Butler approaches the subject from a science fiction angle (ummm…. make that “from a sci-fi standpoint”!), and uses the legend as a means of commenting on human nature and social issues.

The “vampires” here, who call themselves Ina (funny, there’s a town by that name near where I grew up), are another species that has co-evolved with humanity, another branch of the hominid line that split off somewhere in the dim prehistoric past. This species evolved as a parasite, using the blood of their distant cousins (humanity) as their food source. But they’re a benevolent parasite, something not unknown in nature; through biological self-interest, they evolved to care for the well-being of their “prey,” in fact existing with them in a symbiotic relationship benefiting both. Via the effects of a chemical in their bite, they are able to bind humans to them in a kind of drug-induced loyalty, keeping a group of them around for periodic feeding. In turn, these humans are blessed with a far healthier immune system and substantially longer life, and most Ina treat them very well. Rumors of this species came down through the ages in garbled and distorted form, picking up added flourishes along the way, giving rise to the traditional vampire mythology — transforming into bats, turning victims into vampires, immortality, garlic, crosses, stakes through the heart, all that stuff. In actuality, the vampire elements that apply to the Ina are the most basic ones: need for blood, aversion to sunlight, and heightened senses and strength, all of which can be grounded to some degree in real biology. This “vampire as a product of nature” approach is nothing new; in fact it’s almost predictable for anyone wanting to de-mythologize vampires. Nevertheless, Butler employs the concept skillfully and imbues it with enough realism to make it work well.

The story is told through the eyes of a young Ina girl named Shori, the “fledgling” of the title. At the beginning, she wakes up in a cave, badly injured and in great pain, desperately hungry, and having no idea who she is or how she got there. I love that kind of opening, the kind with an amnesiac character waking up in the middle of chaos and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on; I love the thick sense of mystery and ongoing discovery. And what Shori discovers is that her family has been murdered, incinerated while their homes were burned to the ground, victims of a brutal attack by parties unknown. Shori is the sole survivor of the attack, and after some time and effort, and help from another Ina family, she finally learns the truth: that she herself was the primary target of the attack, for reasons having to do with some special qualities she possesses.

Shori’s family had been engaged in research on how to improve their species, and their efforts resulted in a most unique individual — Shori herself. Genetically engineered with a mixture of Ina and human DNA, Shori is the first truly dark-skinned member of her species, able to operate in daytime and withstand sunlight far better than other Ina. Someone — whether human or Ina, I won’t tell you — was offended by this violation of “racial purity,” and decided Shori and her family needed to die. Needless to say, Shori does her best not to accommodate them, and in the end justice is served, Ina-style.

The basic plot is itself interesting enough on the level of action and suspense, but more than that, Butler has constructed a story deeply woven with social commentary on numerous different themes. I’m not even sure I caught everything she was trying to say, but here are some of the things she may have been taking aim at:

  • Overt forms of intolerance like racism and speciesism and the bigots who crusade for the “purity” or superiority of their group, whatever it may be. There may also be a bit of criticism against ageism here; Shori’s young age is held against her by some, even though in many ways she shows herself to be stronger, more resourceful, and more mature than the adults around her. She is also questioned by other Ina for taking a symbiont they consider too old, but Shori sees worth in her despite her age.
  • A more subtle type of intolerance: the way we tend to mis-characterize those of whom we are ignorant, attributing negative qualities to those who are different merely because we don’t understand them. Thus, humanity was never able to see the Ina in a natural light, as intelligent creatures living as nature designed them; instead it was easier to view the unknown as “evil” and build up a mythology to reinforce that view.
  • Addiction, and drug addiction in particular. Even though the Ina take good care of their symbionts, the fact is these symbionts are addicted to Ina venom, and will in fact die without it once they are hooked. Butler paints a disturbing picture of some of these symbionts and their deep sense of conflict — knowing at some deep level that they only feel attraction to the Ina because of their addicting venom, yet completely unable to overcome that addiction, loving the Ina, yet knowing deep down that their love is a forced chemical illusion.
  • A prominent portion of the book is a courtroom drama (even if it’s not in a courtroom). The Ina claim their legal system to be superior to humanity’s (or at least America’s), which they say is too adversarial and full of trickery and gamesmanship. Then when the “trial” starts, the Ina immediately prove their system to be riddled with exactly those same faults. This could be a statement about our flawed justice system, but I took it more as a comment on hypocrisy in general.

There’s probably more that could be dug out of this novel, but that should give you some idea of where Butler is coming from. This is a novel with something to say, a vampire novel that says more about humanity than about vampires. I recommend it, whether you’re a fan of vampire literature, or science fiction, or both.

Star Trek: Creating the Classic (Roddenberry interview, 1986)

Here’s a nice little interview with Gene Roddenberry on Good Morning America from 1986, talking about the creation of Star Trek and some of the issues related to it.

I really liked this comment:

Mass communications is our language today, between one another; and we can’t say, “well let’s not really talk about anything serious on television.” That is a criminal statement, and a criminal intention.

Right on, Gene. We miss you, buddy.

Clement’s “heavy” classic: Mission of Gravity

My list of famous older science fiction books to read has once again become one item shorter. (That’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, I admit; I don’t actually have such a list. But you know what I mean.) While not necessarily one of the deepest novels I’ve ever read, Mission of Gravity (1954) deserves its reputation for several reasons: for being a noteworthy example of “hard” sci-fi, for its unique efforts at world-building, and for its depiction of aliens who are truly “alien” (at least physically).

Plot synopsis: Mesklin is a massive, rapidly-spinning planet shaped like a flattened sphere, with the variable gravity that would entail — from 3 gees at the equator to several hundred gees at the poles (the book says 700, but Clement later calculated it to be closer to 250 or so). Mesklin is very cold, and has methane oceans and a hydrogen atmosphere. All in all, not a nice vacation spot for humans. Nevertheless, human scientists are drawn to Mesklin to study it’s unique gravitational properties. Looking to gain new insights into the nature of gravity, in the hopes of achieving anti-gravity technology, they send an unmanned rocket bearing billions of dollars worth of special probes and equipment to the planet. Only problem is, once it sets down, near one of the poles, it is unable to overcome the incredible gravity and lift off again — oops! Enter the natives. The Mesklinites are small centipede-like creatures; evolution has forced them to stay close to the ground, since a fall of even a few inches in such gravity can be deadly. The scientists make contact with a group of wandering Mesklinite traders who travel all over the planet, and who are happy to enter into a relationship with the humans: the humans will help them expand their maps of Mesklin (using their satellites), and the Mesklinites will help the humans by traveling to their stranded rocket and retrieving the instruments. The bulk of the book is taken up by the Mesklinites’ journey over their world and the adventures they have along the way.

The novel is solid on its science, as far as I can tell, and that’s no surprise since Clement had a physics degree and taught high school science. Planetary specs like rotational period and temperature were meticulously calculated, and many other scientific aspects were plausibly detailed and explained, from geology to meteorology to ballistics. The only possible weakness I noticed was in the area of biology. I kept thinking of how astronauts in space have to exercise to fight the atrophy of their muscles and bones; it seems to me that the Mesklinites, who usually live nearer the polar regions, would face the same problem when spending any lengthy periods of time near the equator in very weak (to them) gravity. In fact, I think it’s likely that going from a few hundred gees down to 3 would cause them even more serious medical problems than that. But I’m not really sure about that. At any rate, aside from biology, the rest of the science here seems pretty reliable.

I can’t say that the characters were as strong, however. The problem with the humans was that they seemed mere sketches of people; we get only the most superficial sense of who they are and what drives them. The problem with the Mesklinites was that, although very alien in body, psychologically they seemed far too human.

Those flaws aside, though, this was still a worthy read. It worked well as an intriguing presentation of a vastly different environment, and a rousing adventure story.

Also of interest was Clement’s essay at the end describing some of the ideas and calculations that went into the novel. And I like his concept of a “game” between sf authors and readers: the author does his best to offer a world that is solid and consistent, and then the readers try their best to find any mistakes. I know that game — it’s all part of the fun.

Vinge’s Peace War — an oxymoron, maybe; a good book, definitely

My second experience with Vernor Vinge goes back back to one of his earlier novels, The Peace War from 1984. While I didn’t like it quite as much as the other book of his I’ve read, it was nevertheless a fine novel with intriguing ideas, believable characters, and an engaging plot.

The Peace War weaves scientific, social, and political elements together into a story that makes us think about not only of the possibilities of the future, but also about the realities of our current world. One of the major themes is about the trade-offs between freedom and security, surely an age-old problem, and one getting a lot of attention these days in the midst of the “War on Terror.” Another theme is the power of a single scientific breakthrough to totally change the world almost overnight, for better or worse. Added to these are various subplots concerning character issues such as loyalty and betrayal, revenge, lost love, and so forth, that really help flesh out the story.

The setting is the mid-21st century and a world that is more or less at peace, with a single worldwide “government” known as the Peace Authority controlling it. The roots of this world are to be found 50 years earlier in a scientific discovery at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — a kind of forcefield that comes to be known as a “bobble.” A bobble is a spherical field, anywhere from a few centimeters to many kilometers in diameter (depending on the power supply creating it), that is completely impervious and indestructible. Nothing can pass in or out, not even light, and they last indefinitely once established (or so everyone thinks at the start of the book). Some ambitious Livermore administrators saw an opportunity to put their political ideals into practice and seized the moment, using their new technology to form bobbles around military bases, ships, aircraft, nuclear launch sites, and other military assets before the world knew what was happening. At the same time they used other assets at their disposal (including biological weapons) to wage a bloody worldwide war, greatly reducing the population. Their goal was to eliminate the chaos of a world in which it was becoming more and more possible for some small rogue nation to get nukes and start World War III; they decided to take control of the world, backed up with bobble power, against which there was no defense. Eventually the Peace Authority emerged from the conflict as the winner, enforcing a worldwide peace, allowing smaller governmental entities to exist under them, and generally not interfering too much — but still making it clear to all that they were the planet’s masters, and striking swiftly at any attempted opposition.

Fifty years down the road, Earth is a rather peaceful place. As long as people don’t try to build large power sources or pursue biological science — the Peace Authority’s two main restrictions — they are pretty much left alone. The Peace War, as it has come to be called, was severe, but left enough of the world intact so that it doesn’t seem like a post-apocalypse atmosphere. In some ways, humanity has been knocked back somewhat technologically, but in other ways are quite advanced. However, there are no more universities, and no formalized scientific establishment, but there is a loose confederation of amateur scientists and inventors called Tinkers, who develop technology under the radar, especially electronics technology. These Tinkers are becoming a force to be reckoned with, and soon the Peace Authority will face its first serious challenge in a half century — especially considering that the Tinkers have on their side the very man who originally discovered the bobbles. After all this time, people are about to discover there is more to the bobbles than anyone knew.

Vinge works in computer science and mathematics and, as one might expect, that expertise comes across in his writing. The science here is solid, and his presentation of electronics, artificial intelligence, and telecommunications seems very believable. The characters are fairly strong as well, although some of them should have been explored a little more deeply. Vinge constructs a plausible future world with a realistic social fabric backing it up, populated with real people with real human concerns.

The back cover blurb calls this “a novel of ultimate tyranny and the war to end it,” and that’s a good enough description. However, if there was one real weakness in this book, it was the fact that Vinge left the main debate in the background and largely glossed over: the question of whether people really would view the situation as “ultimate tyranny.” Many of the main characters seemed naturally inclined toward my own view, best summed up by Ben Franklin when he said, “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” In fact, that seemed to be the majority view outside of the Peace Authority itself. However, the fact remains that the Authority did actually provide stabilization and a peaceful world, and I would have expected some characters, and a sizable portion of the population, to support that. In short, I would have expected a vigorous debate on the issue, but this aspect wasn’t developed much, and it just seemed too easy that everyone agreed on the matter. Still, the debate is implicit in the novel and it’s impossible for the reader not to recognize it, so maybe Vinge thought it didn’t need to be spelled out in detail.

At any rate, I recommend this one. It has a lot going for it, and has enough depth to keep you thinking for a while.