Tag Archives: James E. Gunn

Flash reviews — November ’09

Title: Breaking Point
Author: James E. Gunn
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Short story collection with your standard range of quality: some good ones, some average ones, some poor ones. Solid reading, but nothing overly memorable.

Title: In the Problem Pit
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Another collection, same situation as above. I really hated the title story, but some of the others made up for it. Most were fairly average. Also contains a short essay, “Golden Ages Gone Away,” about some of the early decades of sf. It’s always fascinating to me to hear about sf history from the people who were there making it, which leads to the next book……

Title: The Way the Future Was
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1978
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The memoirs of a man who fell in love with science fiction, and spent his life as a fan, writer, editor, literary agent, speaker, and anything else that could be related to sf. Throughout much of sf’s history, Pohl was there, right at the center of it all, and this account of the genre and the people in it is absorbing from first page to last. Very much recommended.

Wild adventure and sociopolitical insight come together in Star Bridge

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 voice of that SF master, Stanislaw Lem

hmvMy experience with Stanislaw Lem’s work has been limited so far, but the few times I have read one of his books I’ve gotten the inescapable impression that I was reading something written by one of science fiction’s true masters. Lem’s writing is full of philosophical depth and intellectual intensity; and there are emotional tensions in his characters that can be uncomfortable at times, but that let you know you’re reading about a realistic person with realistic struggles. By the time you get to the end of a Lem novel, your brain will have gotten a serious workout; you will have thought and you will have felt, and you will have loved it. Lem is just that good.

His Master’s Voice is a novel from 1968 that definitely fits the above description. The basic theme is a Lem trademark: the impossibility (or near impossibility) of communication with alien life. That’s an assumption I happen to disagree with, but that in no way lessens its value as one of a multitude of viewpoints to consider. Lem goes against the general trend in science fiction, which is overwhelmingly optimistic about alien communication. I tend to share that optimism, but nevertheless I think Lem’s opinion serves as a useful counterpoint to the majority view and provides some needed perspective. After all, that widespread optimism is also based on assumptions, and who knows if they could turn out to be wrong?

The basic plot concerns an alien signal that is picked up; it is unknown whether it was intended for Earth, or if it was merely intercepted on its way somewhere else. A research group, half-jokingly called His Master’s Voice, is formed to study and try to decipher the signal. The group consists of a wide variety of specialists: mathematicians, physicists, biologists, linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and representatives of any other discipline you can name. The project is kept strictly secret and controlled by the military. The story is told through the eyes of one of the lead mathematicians, writing a memoir of the project years later.

The book touches on a great many scientific, philosophical, and political issues, and really says much more about our modern world than it does about extraterrestrial contact. One of the tensions among the project members is the “two cultures,” the divide between the social sciences and the physical sciences; the members of the project almost naturally sort themselves into these two camps, referring to themselves as “elves” and “dwarves,” respectively. Lem lays some well-deserved (in my opinion) criticism on the soft social “sciences” and their defensiveness when anyone intrudes on their territory, their “Mystery of Man” as Lem puts it; he also has some comments about the influence of Freud. But the tensions are not limited to soft vs. hard science. Lem portrays science as a whole as not quite the idealistic model we tend to see it as.

Another of the big issues is the relationship between scientists and the government/military. The main character muses frequently on the morals and responsibilities of scientists, and chafes under the military’s domination of the project and scientists “renting out their consciences.” At one point Lem makes an analogy with pigs that are trained to search for truffles, and refers to “scientist-pigs” who are likewise trained to search out new weapons technologies for their governments. Lem is definitely not one to hold back his opinions!

Yet another major theme is the modern world’s relationship with technology and how it has changed our lives for better or worse. Lem refers to our time as an….

… era made sober by an overabundance of discoveries, which tore apart like shrapnel every systemic coherence, an era which both accelerated progress as never before and was sick to death of progress….

And he questions the need for that never-ending technological progress, always churning out new gizmos and racing to provide the latest, fastest, newest versions of old ones:

Thus the means of civilization replace its ends, and human conveniences substitute for human values.

What I’ve said so far gives only the barest taste of the depth of this novel and the wide array of topics commented upon therein. It’s a very serious look at many of the complexities and ugly realities of our modern society. The basic thrust of this book is that maybe humanity isn’t as mature or advanced as it likes to think it is, and maybe we need to work harder at understanding ourselves before we can ever hope to understand life from other worlds.

And that alien signal? It never does get deciphered. The task turns out to be beyond our abilities:

The hypotheses popular before the existence of the Project seemed to me incredibly shallow; they ricocheted back and forth between the pole of pessimism, which called the silentium universi a natural state, and the pole of mindless optimism that expected announcements clearly and slowly spelled out, as if civilizations scattered among the stars would communicate with one another like children in kindergarten. Yet another myth has bitten the dust, I thought, and yet another truth has ascended overhead — and, as is usually the case with truths, it is too much for us.

His Master’s Voice is simply one of the best “signal from an alien species” novels, and stands right alongside such classics as Gunn’s The Listeners and Sagan’s Contact.

Classic authors speak on the value of science fiction

Here’s a short video clip of some of the big names in science fiction saying a few words about the genre. These are outtakes from a series of interviews recorded by James Gunn between 1968 and 1978 as part of his Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series. You can actually purchase a 2-DVD set of all the interviews from The Center for the Study of Science Fiction (University of Kansas), although if you ask me it’s a bit pricey.

Anyway, this clip is only about 9 minutes long, and most of the comments are of the sort you’ve probably heard or read before. But sometimes it’s nice to get it from the horse’s mouth, and see the faces and hear the voices of some of these famous writers of a past age; it gives a sense of connection, I think. This clip includes: Poul Anderson, Jack Williamson, John Brunner, Harlan Ellison, Clifford Simak, Frederik Pohl, Gordon Dickson, Damon Knight, and Isaac Asimov. (Wow, what a distinctive voice Brunner has!)

Sagan’s classic tale of first contact

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase “the book was better than the movie,” and usually it’s true; because no matter what the quality of a book is, Hollywood is usually all too willing to lower it by several notches in order to make a movie that appeals to the masses. In the case of Carl Sagan’s Contact, however, I have to say both the novel and the movie are of roughly equal quality, and high quality at that. Which is fitting, since Sagan wrote in the Author’s Note at the end that the initial version of the story was conceived for film, and the novel grew out of that.

I’m not going to delve much into the plot; I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should), and it doesn’t differ from the book in any extremely major ways. (As far as I can recall — it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie.) The biggest difference I can see is that the movie had one person using the Machine, while the book had five people who went on the journey. Also, there was of course a greater level of scientific detail in the book. But that’s to be expected; it is, after all, Carl Sagan we’re talking about. And I don’t recall the movie including the part about messages buried inside the transcendental numbers, although I could be wrong. But basically, this is one of those rare cases in which, if you’ve seen the movie, you’ve substantially gotten the essence of the book. Of course that’s not to say you shouldn’t also read the book. On the contrary, it would be well worth your time.

When I reviewed James Gunn’s The Listeners a while back, that other classic of first contact via radio astronomy, I said I had the feeling I’d like Sagan’s novel better. And in fact, that’s the way it turned out. Sagan’s book has many of the same strengths as Gunn’s, but without some of the weaknesses of that other novel. For one thing, Sagan’s Palmer Joss character was a far more interesting religious adversary than Gunn’s Jeremiah. For another, Sagan gave a much more convincing portrayal of the political situation surrounding the scientific ones. However, I have to wonder if Sagan was paying homage to Gunn with this passage, which strongly echoes the plot of The Listeners:

“Yes. Maybe something’s about to go wrong on Vega,” the Director of Central Intelligence interrupted. “Maybe their planet will be destroyed. Maybe they want someone else to know about their civilization before they’re wiped out.”

I will say, though, that on the level of pure writing style, Gunn outdoes Sagan. After all, Gunn is a professional fiction writer, while Sagan was of course a master of a different kind of literature — inspiring non-fiction books about science and reason. Actually, I couldn’t help but notice how his love for reason and rationality shines through even here, in his single foray into fiction. As part of the background world of Contact, he pokes fun at some of our species’ silly and illogical forms of news and entertainment, for example referencing the “now defunct National Inquirer,” and commenting thus on the world of television:

Lifestyles of the Mass Murderers and You Bet Your Ass were on adjacent channels. It was clear at a glance that the promise of the medium remained unfulfilled.

Coincidentally, that fits in perfectly with a recent discussion I started on the very same topic.

Sagan’s fictional world of television also has some glimmers of hope, though, including:

[…] Promises, Promises, devoted to follow-up analyses of unfulfilled campaign pledges at local, state, and national levels, and Bamboozles and Baloney, a weekly debunking of what were said to be widespread predudices, propoganda, and myths.

It was passages like these, just as much as the story of galactic travel and alien contact, that made me realize just how much I miss Sagan and wish he was still around.