Monthly Archives: April 2009

Disch on dreams and stuff

In dreams begin responsibilities. But it’s no less true that in dreams begin irresponsibilities. The menu, in terms of our possibilities in both those respects, is well-nigh infinite. Science fiction is that menu.

Title: The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World
Author: Thomas M. Disch
Year: 1998
Rating: 2/5 stars

dischstuffI’m always interested in reading opinions about science fiction from those who actually write it. And so I was sure I’d enjoy this book, and I did, even though I can’t agree with everything Disch has to say. Rather than being a straightforward work of criticism or history of the genre, the intended focus here is, as Disch tells us, the impact of science fiction on our world:

In short, science fiction has come to permeate our culture in ways both trivial and/or profound, obvious and/or insidious. And its effects have not been limited to the sphere of “culture,” in the narrow sense of one art form’s influencing others. The influence of science fiction, as we shall witness abundantly in the pages ahead, can be felt in such diverse realms as industrial design and marketing, military strategy, sexual mores, foreign policy, and practical epistemology — in other words, our basic sense of what is real and what isn’t.

Despite such a clearly stated purpose, the book fails to make any overall, unified point, and ends up being merely the rambling thoughts and recollections of one particular SF writer. Each chapter sets out to discuss one particular aspect of science fiction’s cultural impact, but there is a lot of sidetracking into topics not really related (or only loosely so) to the chapter at hand. That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading, for there is certainly plenty of fascinating material here. I’m just saying it’s not the most well-oraganized book I’ve ever read.

Disch spends a couple of chapters discussing some of the important “fathers” of the genre: Verne, Wells, Stapledon, Clarke. And, strangely, Edgar Allen Poe; I find Disch’s argument for considering Poe part of that group to be pretty weak and unconvincing. There is a chapter on how SF influenced people’s views about nuclear danger and the Cold War. There’s another chapter on Star Trek (which Disch didn’t think very highly of). A chapter on feminism. One on SF and religion. One on politics and the military (which frequently makes reference to Heinlein and Pournelle). A chapter on aliens, and how they are often stand-ins for the Other in real life: women, different ethnic groups, etc. The final chapter considers science fiction’s future, ending with the quote at the top of this review.

My major problem with the book is Disch’s largely negative portrayal of the genre and its fans. He recognizes, once or twice, that there are two sides to SF: the pulpy, mass-market entertainment side that caters to the lowest common denominator, and the more intellectual side of at least a portion of SF literature. However, he spends a disproportionate amount of space on the former, and not much on the latter. More than once he implies that SF fans are, in general, gullible simpletons who believe in UFO’s, Scientology, and other silly things, calling them “the SF faithful” or “true believers.” Surely there is that segment of fandom out there; but to use it as a general stereotype of SF fans, as Disch seems to do here repeatedly, is simply ridiculous.

The book strayed off-topic quite a bit, and Disch comes across as bitter, or annoyed, or amused, or dismissive, at various times — and, to be fair, intelligent and thoughtful at other times. I think what I found most interesting were the little tidbits of his experiences scattered through the book. Such as the flaky characters he met at a writer’s workshop. Or the very unusual invitation Disch once received from Theodore Sturgeon and his wife. I don’t think this book succeeds at its intended purpose, or represents a well-rounded look at the genre; but it is, nevertheless, an interesting read from one of SF’s recently departed voices.

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Sturgeon’s solution to the Battle of the Sexes

You cannot be objective about it because you have been indoctrinated….. you come from a time and place in which the maleness of the male, and the femaleness of the female, and the importance of their difference, were matters of almost total preoccupation.

Title: Venus Plus X
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Year: 1960
Rating: 2/5 stars

venusplusxOn the front of my vintage paperback copy of Venus Plus X is the declaration: “the strangest science-fiction novel Theodore Sturgeon has ever written.” I can’t speak to the “-est” part (haven’t read enough of his work), but the rest of that statement is accurate enough; this is definitely a strange book. It’s a utopian story that focuses primarily on gender issues, viewing sexual differences and competition as the pivot on which society turns. Like many utopian novels, this one makes some good points here and there, but ultimately ends up being (a) unconvincing, and (b) a little bit creepy.

When Charlie Johns wakes up in a world different from the one he’s familiar with, apparently the victim of a kidnapping-by-time-machine, he’s in for the shock of his life. No, it’s not the time machine itself, but the bizarre people and society to which it has brought him. He finds himself the guest of the Ledom, a new version of humanity that has only one gender, with male and female characteristics averaged into an androgynous middle ground. Any Ledom can mate with any other, but with the “battle of the sexes” out of the way, they do it without the sexual tensions and hangups of previous ages. The Ledom see this as an achievement of the highest order, and the basis of their perfect and blissful existence.

Of course no one can deny that sexual differences have played a huge role in human societies, and that there is such a thing as sexism, and that one gender has been disproportionately excluded from power throughout most of history. But I can’t buy Sturgeon’s premise that this is the primary source of all the ills in the human world, or the suggestion that if that problem could be eliminated, utopia would be the natural result. Of course I have no idea how seriously (if at all) Sturgeon meant the idea to be taken. But, when you discover this change to a one-gender system is not evolutionary at all, but artificial and quite purposeful, it really comes across as overkill, a radical solution to a problem that doesn’t require such an extreme. There is no recognition of the fact that progress has already been made, particularly in the 20th Century; hell, Sturgeon was alive (although a small child) when the 19th Amendment was ratified. But gender inequality is still the greatest evil facing society? I think that’s quite an exaggeration, even in 1960.

Sturgeon does make a valid point, however, about the human desire to feel superior, and the practice of making others inferior in order to accomplish this. He also has his Ledom address the fact that most people in the modern world are so disconnected from the land. Most people get their food not by picking it, growing it, or hunting it; we have specialists to produce it, while we play other specialized roles in a vast and complicated machine. Sturgeon points out that if that machine were ever to break, a whole lot of people would find themselves going hungry very quickly. I think that point was at least as interesting, possibly more so, than the book’s ideas on gender.

This is a highly readable novel, with an easy flowing prose style and a rather short length. And it does raise some ideas worth thinking about. But ultimately it comes across as a little preachy in tone, and doesn’t say anything nearly as deep as Sturgeon probably hoped for.

Anachronisms — a fair offering from the little-known Hinz

Yes, said the alien. By the standards of your race you are a monster — a freak — an accident of nature. But you are also their only hope.
Mars Lea knew it was true.

Title: Anachronisms
Author: Christopher Hinz
Year: 1988
Rating: 3/5 stars

anachronismsI find Christopher Hinz mildly frustrating in that he possesses plenty of writing talent but only a very small body of work in which to show it. He turned out four novels of moderate to high quality between 1987 and 1991, and that’s all (besides some comic book writing he’s done), and that’s a shame because I think he could have offered so much more. His Paratwa trilogy is one of my favorite works of science fiction ever, particularly the initial installment, Liege-Killer (which some of you know as my identity on several forums). Actually, I don’t know why I let so many years pass before reading his standalone novel, Anachronisms, but I’ve taken care of that little oversight at last. As it turns out, this novel unfortunately isn’t in the same class as the Paratwa series. There’s nothing especially unique or groundbreaking about it — in fact it’s constructed from some fairly familiar and well-worn sci-fi tropes. For what it is, though, it’s skillfully written, with engaging plot and credible characters, and keeps the reader’s interest on target from start to finish.

The future starfaring human civilization called the Corporeal has one major thing in common with today’s world: power is largely concentrated in huge corporations, the Consortiums. One way the Corporeal differs from today is that humanity is beginning to evolve a new trait — psionic abilities. These skills vary between individuals, from almost negligible (in most people) to quite powerful (in a few). Mars Lea is the most powerful psionic the Pannis Consortium has ever measured. For reasons of their own, they want her on a scientific expedition to the remote world of Sycamore, a planet which just might hold the first advanced alien life humanity has ever encountered. Mars Lea, for her part, just wants to escape for a while, to get away from society and its prejudice against her kind, those with enough psionic power to be noticeably different. So she accepts the posting on the starship Alchemon, one of a crew of seven including ship’s officers and company science reps.

Once they reach Sycamore, a world of harsh swirling storms and energy discharges, the crew is faced with a stunning discovery: some kind of entity that defies understanding, and that has apparently been stranded (or imprisoned?) there for half a million years. Under orders from Pannis, the scientists demand the lifeform be taken aboard ship and returned home. This is, of course, the beginning of Very Bad Things. Think Alien here, although with psionically-induced madness substituting for teeth and acid. The book shares that movie’s sci-fi/horror aesthetic, as well as the all-too-believable scenario of the greedy corporation putting its employees at risk for profit and power.

That gives the basic framework, although of course there is a lot more going on here. There’s an interesting physics angle, with the “chronomuting” starships. There’s the ship’s lieutenant who willingly embarks on the expedition, believing he will forfeit his life in furtherance of a personal vendetta. There’s alien manipulation on a vast scale. And there’s Mars Lea, like no human being before her, who must decide whether or not to fight for the very society that has shunned her for a lifetime.

The different elements of the book will remind you of various other books and movies involving prison planets, telepathic powers, and ships taken over by malevolent aliens. Even so, Hinz manages to avoid the potential for tedium in such a mixture, and produces, if not a gem, then at least a thoroughly enjoyable and readable tale that’ll pleasantly fill a few hours of your time. I’m glad I read it, and only wish more were available from this largely unknown author.

Robinson falls short in attempt to remake history

History is a particle accelerator. Energies are not always normal. We live in a condition of asymptotic freedom, and every history is possible.

Title: Remaking History and Other Stories
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Year: 1991
Rating: 1/5 stars

remakinghistoryIf you were to pick up a book by a known science fiction writer (Kim Stanley Robinson), from a known science fiction publisher (Tor), and with a title like Remaking History, would it not be reasonable to have some expectation of what you’d find in it? As for me, I somehow expected this to be a collection of alternate history stories, with maybe some time travel in the mix as well; that doesn’t seem like such a leap, does it? If you would make that leap, however, like I did, you’d be wrong. Not a single story in this volume fits that description in any strict sense. Of course, the author can’t really be blamed for my faulty assumption, so it’s not for that reason that I consider this collection a letdown. No, my disappointment has more to do with the fact that few of these stories entertained me much, or had much of importance to say; or that, when they did have something to say, the commentary was housed within narratives so dull I couldn’t be bothered to care. I was also, I admit, a little put off to find that about a third of the stories are not even science fiction, but what can only be considered “mainstream.”

There is a “core” group of four stories that deal with history and at least partially justify the book’s title. “A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations” seems to make the altogether underwhelming point that history may be portrayed in a more optimistic or pessimistic light depending on the life circumstances and mood of the historian writing the account. Yeah…. and? In “Remaking History,” a small group of filmmakers living in a future Lunar colony debate the Great Man Theory of History; the debate is short, shallow, and leaves much to be desired. “Vinland the Dream” deals with the topic of historical hoaxes, and asks if it truly matters what “really happened,” or if, rather, we should just view history as a “story.” Put me down as being in the former camp — I do care what really happened. The fourth story is more of an essay, titled “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.” It’s the source of the quote at the top of this review, and it explores the intersection of quantum mechanics, chaos theory, and approaches to historical interpretation. It’s one of the more interesting parts of the book, actually.

Besides that essay, there were really only two stories I cared for at all. “Before I Wake” tackles the problem of a changing environment — an electromagnetic anomaly that blurs and mixes our waking and dreaming states — and asks if humanity would be able to adapt to it. (Bonus tip: read this story when you’re really, really tired for a trippier experience!) And “The Translator” is a hilarious story about the headaches and dangers involved in communicating with aliens.

I’m afraid I only have negative comments for the rest of the stories, so I’ll only mention a few of the more unsatisfactory ones. “Rainbow Bridge” falls prey to the all-too-common fantasy that Native Americans possess some sort of mystical powers or special wisdom, which is, of course, complete nonsense. “Glacier” paints a picture of a near-future world in which North America is becoming covered once again in ice — at a rate not too much slower than the weather disasters in the movie The Day After Tommorrow, apparently. The story focuses on the social impact, but gives no explanation for why American cities are being overtaken by glaciers in a period of just a few years. The remaining stories weren’t quite that annoying, but were, to varying degrees, simply boring.

Three out of fifteen is not too good. I guess I’ll have to put Robinson into that category of authors whose books I like, but whose short stories I don’t. Oh well, live and learn.

Bester’s classic tale of tension, apprehension, and dissension

WWHG.” ‘Offer refused.’ Refused! REFUSED! I knew it!” Reich shouted. “All right, D’Courtney. If you won’t let it be merger, then I’ll make it murder.”

Title: The Demolished Man
Author: Alfred Bester
Year: 1953
Rating: 3/5 stars

demolishedmanI’m happy to say I’m all caught up on essential Bester. Last year I had the pleasure of reading The Stars My Destination, and now I’ve finished the other of Bester’s two novels of great renown, The Demolished Man. Personally, I enjoyed Stars a good deal more and consider it the superior of the two books. However, as Bester’s first published novel and the winner of the very first Hugo award, The Demolished Man is certainly worthy in its own right. Like Stars, it presents a tale of personal obsession and vengeance set against the backdrop of an evolving humanity that has acquired an astounding new ability — in this case, telepathy.

Perhaps part of the reason I liked the other book more was that Gully Foyle is a much more sympathetic character than Ben Reich. Although both of them pursue their quests with little regard for the laws of society, at least Foyle, one may feel, was somewhat justified in his actions; he was wronged in some way. Reich, on the other hand, comes across as simply an arrogant, greedy, super-rich bully throwing his power around to get what he wants. It is interesting, though, that these two preeminent works of SF both involve such “bad boys.” Bester seems to have a rather high opinion of these rebels:

But it [capital punishment] doesn’t make sense. If a man’s got the talent and guts to buck society, he’s obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you’ve got left is the sheep.

Actually that short quote offers a lot worth thinking about: rebellion and individual initiative versus social conformity, as well as punishment versus rehabilitation. Speaking of punishment, Bester had me wondering throughout the novel just what “demolition” was — sinister name, that. Surely I can’t be the only reader who expected it to be some sort of matter annihilator that criminals were thrown into, or some such? Bester certainly built up my “apprehension” with that.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book, of course, is its portrayal of what society might look like with a sizable percentage of telepaths among the population. Bester’s Espers number in the tens of thousands, if I recall correctly, and have become entrenched in all major areas of life: business, medicine, entertainment, government, the judicial system, and so on. This would no doubt have far-reaching effects on the world, not the least of which is that deception and crime of all varieties would be much more difficult to get away with (much to Reich’s chagrin). Telepathic ability is mostly presented in a positive light here, as a potential force for good and for humanity’s improvement. However, there is also the possibility for exploitation, and the existence of telepathy doesn’t magically erase all of mankind’s characteristic flaws. The police Esper Powell reflects on this (angrily) during his dealings with the entertainer and brothel owner, Chooka Frood:

It was anger for the relentless force of evolution that insisted on endowing man with increased powers without removing the vestigial vices that prevented him from using them.

I really enjoyed the battle of wits between Reich and Powell, with Powell trying everything he can think of to prove Reich’s guilt, and Reich doing everything in his power to foil him. The book flies along at a relentless, breakneck pace, true to form for Bester. I can’t say that every part of the story works for me, or that it’s my favorite from this author, but it is classic Bester, no doubt about that, and worthy of attention.

Contest: name a robot, win some books

The folks at Angry Robot, the new SF imprint from Harper Collins, are offering you the chance to win copies of the first seven books they publish. All you have to do to win is….. name that droid! That’s right, apparently part of the reason their robot is so angry is because it has never received the common decency of being given a name. I’m sure this can lead to some pretty serious identity issues, so why don’t you help out? Think up an appropriate appellation, zip on over there and enter it, and you could win some free books. Hey, what’s better than that? Good luck!