Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

The Forever War, The Spirit of Dorsai

Sunday, August 3rd, 2003

Word count: 1390

Sometimes I read books because of the associated filk. I’ve known forever that I ought to read The Forever War (Joe Haldeman), but I didn’t get around to buying a copy until the filk got stuck in my head. Likewise for The Spirit of Dorsai (Gordon R. Dickson), which is half of the collection Dorsai Spirit that I bought under the influence of several Dorsai filk.

The Forever War follows the career of one Private Mandella as he advances through the ranks of Earth’s military space forces from the very first batch of draftees to well past the end of the eponymous war. He accumulates millions in interest on his pay due to relativistic effects. Although there are wormhole-analogs in the story, the process of getting to and from them at near-light speeds lets Our Soldier live through centuries of conflict without fighting many battles himself. He’d like to muster out, but he finds that human culture has passed him by.

The writing was excellent, and the use of relativity here was a gem in a genre filled with fanciful hyperdrives and wormholes that take the space out of space. The only disappointment was the ending, which was a bit of a clone ex machina that reminded me of the resolution of Forever Peace.

The Spirit of Dorsai doesn’t really compare. The book consists of two novellas with a frame story that made no sense to me, though I’m sure it fits into the Childe Cycle somewhere. The first novella follows an old woman as she leads the defense of her home town on the Dorsai against occupying forces. There was a lovely plot twist in here, but also a feeling of plot holes, or at least stretches in credibility. I got the feeling that Dickson wasn’t comfortable writing a female character, though I couldn’t point to anything in particular. (It’s not like his characterization is naturalistic even for men.)

I enjoyed the second novella more. One of the Dorsai was assassinated in Dorsai!; this story tells how the local authorities try to solve the murder while dealing with a band of suddenly vengeful mercenaries. Meanwhile, the Dorsai leader tries to balance the requirements of the Mercenary Code against justice and personal honor. I’m a sucker for honor, and there are elements of a good mystery here as well.


Sunday, July 20th, 2003

Evolution should not be mistaken for a novel, though it exists in the same ecological niche. Stephen Baxter’s latest is at best a series of short stories set at turning points in the evolutionary history of man. I say “at best” because only a few of the chapters cover primates intelligent enough to count as the protagonists of a real story.

That’s not to say that the adventures of mole-sized proto-primates aren’t engrossing in their own right, but Evolution is naturalistic fiction with a vengeance. The attention to excretion alone is staggering. The cumulative effect is to make one embarrassed to be Homo sapiens, and as the violent, weary, feces-filled history of man progresses, suicidal.

The story doesn’t end with anatomically modern man, but don’t hold your breath for the singularity - in Stephen Baxter’s dystopic vision, you and I are as good as it gets. If you thought the Dark Ages were a bad scene, wait until you see the year 500,000,000.

One of the more striking chapters of the “novel” is a Planet of the Apes-style scene of a group of modern humans accidentally awakening from cryosleep long after a worldwide collapse. Rodents are on the rise and mankind has already lost the gift of speech. The latter is highly unlikely in general and not particularly believable the way the author does it, but it’s not the worst offense of the chapter. In a proper novel, the band of Rips van Winkle would have gone forth and taught the feral humans to be human again, or died trying. You can’t just give up on the entire species - if you’re the last intelligent form of life in the universe, you have to try to do something about it.

But they don’t, and thus they seal the fate of Homo sapiens. Other interesting moments include the birth of religion (it’s founded by a madwoman) and an intelligent dead-end on the dinosaurs’ evolutionary tree (published elsewhere as a short story). There are a few almost cheerful moments of technological discovery involving flint and canoes, but these are outweighed by the heartless murders of a Neanderthal and a Roman.

I had my doubts about Stephen Baxter back when I read Manifold: Origin, but now I wonder why he writes at all. Yes, I’ve been known to let the Borg assimilate the Alpha Quadrant, but when I wipe out mankind, I do it for the tragedy. He seems to have done it because he believes feces and decay are not a tragic flaw in our higher nature - they are our nature. Evolution is not a tragedy; it’s a horror story.

The only thing worse than horror is unintentional horror.


Monday, July 14th, 2003

Word count: holding steady at zero

The cat and I watched Unbreakable tonight. She was unimpressed, but I was blown away, which means this entry will be very similar to those for Signs and The Sixth Sense. Once again, I knew something odd was going on, and in the end that slight tickle of a breeze turned out to be a baseball bat headed straight for my temple.

But in a good way. M. Night Shyamalan is superhuman - with just one reluctant superhero, he makes the X-Men movie machine look…well, like a comic book. In fact, he makes 99% of movies look like comic books; I wish I understood, or could express, how.

One thing in particular I wonder: could his sort of surprise ending could be done in a novel, or is essentially a visual effect? I was trying to think of an example of a surprise ending in literature; the best I could come up with was mysteries, but even then you always know that the truth will out, and that the genre practically demands that it be a shocker. That’s not quite the same as being lulled into thinking you have a handle on this movie, right up until the moment baseball bat meets temple.

I have a new story idea, so I should be back to writing by tomorrow. The story already has a theme and several other goals - I want it to answer my Leather-clad challenge and to be ready in time for Die J/C Die Phase II, but I think a surprise ending could be squeezed in there somehow. I just need to figure out what that ending is.

R.U.R., 28 Days Later

Thursday, July 10th, 2003

Word count: not looking good

I picked up a Dover Books edition of R.U.R. by Karel Capek (there’s supposed to be a Czech hat on the C but I can’t find it in the HTML entity set) and read it on the T. R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots and is the source of the word “robot.” See Maxfield & Montrose Interactive for the full derivation.

The play was written in 1920 and became an international hit. The theme is hubris and the dialogue is quite striking at points. The men who run the world’s first robot factory are flooding the labor market with cheap, soulless labor created using their secret recipe. For reasons which are never specified, this leads to a drop in the human birth rate. Between that and wars fought with robot soldiery who have no qualms about genocide of civilians, mankind seems to be taking the express train to extinction even before the robots turn on their masters. It may be the end of the world.

Speaking of the end of the world, I also saw 28 Days Later tonight. (That’s my excuse for not writing anything.) I include it here only because I’d heard it described as science fiction. There is actually no sci-fi content - it’s just a disaster movie. Think Day of the Triffids (sans triffids) meets Night of the Living Dead. The disease around which the movie revolves is an eclectic mix of ebola, rabies and bleeding ulcers.

[Spoilers ahead] I can’t resist - I have to nitpick. Can anyone name a disease that manifests itself fully in 10 to 20 seconds? I thought not. I understand that for plot purposes (that is, having to hack your friends to death with a machete within 10 seconds of exposure), the unprecedented incubation time keeps the movie moving along, but it’s never justified.

First things first - when we first meet Our Hero, he’s been unconscious in a hospital for twenty-eight days. Later developments would seem to imply that he’s been abandoned for at least six of those days. That’s a long time to go on one IV bag and no bedpan. (By long I mean medically impossible.) Somehow Our Hero misplaced his johnny, so we get that Full Frontal shot American audiences have come to expect from British movies.

So Our Hero gets up, drinks some Pepsi, and explores the empty hospital and empty city. Eventually he runs into some of the Infected and is saved by some of the Uninfected. Although there’s nice Molotov-cocktail action to start with, the disinfection process switches quickly to the manual machete approach. And that’s not even the gross bit.

[Gross spoilers ahead] The grossest thing in the movie is some violence against eyeballs near the end. The second most icky thing is the projectile hematemesis. (And you thought there wasn’t a word for it!) At random but frequent intervals, the Infected manage to vomit huge clots of blood, preferably onto the Uninfected, but any nearby surface will do. They don’t seem to do anything besides grunt, spit, twitch, and barf - such as eating to replenish all that lost blood.

Some of the Uninfected are smart enough to wear biohazard gear to prevent just such projectile eventualities. You’d think more of them would catch on to such a lifesaving fashion trend, but no

I’ve barely begun to scratch the nits, but there’s one I just can’t overlook. I know that survivalists never end up the main characters of post-apocalyptic stories, and that nobody stuck on a savage, deserted island (in this case, Britain) has ever read Robinson Crusoe, and I accept that. However, some of the survivors were army officers, so there is no excuse for this nit. I’m only going to tell you this once, and you, too, will have no excuse. If you’re ever wondering whether a disease has wiped out all mankind or just Britain, there’s a very simple way to find out. Turn on a shortwave radio.

I’m not saying don’t see the movie; I’m not even saying it was bad. The characterization was pretty good, for horror. I’m just saying that if the hero can’t put a shortwave radio together out of, say, shortwave radios and batteries, and instead has to watch the sky for planes like some sort of cargo cultist, then don’t call it sci-fi. It’s an insult to the genre.

Finity, Dorsai!

Wednesday, July 9th, 2003

Word count: 711

I read Finity to give John Barnes (of A Million Open Doors fame) a second chance. He hasn’t won me over.

Finity is in the first person past tense, which is always a strike against a story for me. As in most first-person stories, the protagonist never quite gels as a character for me. He has plenty of unpleasant experiences but nothing transformative. At the end of the novel he realizes that he’s just a dull guy who wants to stay home.

But good characterization just gets you insults in this field, so I’ll move on to the science. This is a multiple/parallel universe novel with a twist - some American expatriates are trying to phone home and nobody’s picking up the line. This is where I began to suspect John Barnes of being Australian, since the hero was from New Zealand and, as I told the Mad Chatters, the entire population of the United States was in the cornfield. The ideas here were interesting, but the characters didn’t go particularly deeply into the histories or the science behind them.

The question of where the US went is neither resolved nor left unresolved. Overall, there’s a lot of material here that fits together in that loose, Golden Age way that you’d think people would be over by now.

And speaking of the Golden Age, I read a classic of military sci-fi, Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson, previously mentioned in the context of Wolfling.
I was more interested to see the same eugenic theme to the story than to see what’s now an antique example of the art of military sci-fi.

Nevertheless, the text is clean and light and the resolution neat, though I’m tempted to say it wasn’t foreshadowed enough. The theme, I’ll guess, is the inevitability of both social and individual actions - social for the military side, and individual for the eugenics.

Atlas Shrugged (III)

Sunday, June 29th, 2003

A few technical problems bothered me in Atlas Shrugged - for example, the characters were constantly giving one another (and occasionally inanimate objects) highly meaningful looks. Dagny conveys no end of meaning to her lovers by a look, as they do in return. Even the bad guys have their share of evasive, I’m-not-looking looks.

A few highly meaningful glances are fine in a novel - say, three. Ayn Rand is a violator of the rule of three. She used the word “zero” too many times in fifty pages. She explained certain philosophical points more than three times, even setting aside those famous fifty pages.

She knew the rule of show-don’t-tell, but in Atlas Shrugged it seems to have morphed into show-and-tell. Maybe this is just a matter of taste, but I prefer a lighter hand. I’d rather she implied the meaning of the meaningful glance and let me figure it out or not on my own. The Fountainhead seemed to have the lighter touch.

Atlas Shrugged (II)

Saturday, June 28th, 2003

Ayn Rand once noted that the modern heirs of the Romantic tradition in literature - that is, genre fiction such as spy thrillers and mysteries - tended to have problematic heroes. Such things could not happen to such people, she said, meaning that the exciting adventures of the plot were impossible to reconcile with the bland Everyman characters.

This is not a problem with her writing. Rather, Atlas Shrugged is overloaded with heroic heroes and evil villains. Perhaps because her notions of both good and evil are unusual, the characters tend to blend into one another, feeling the same joys or fears (the good feel joy and the evil fear), having the same reactions to the same events, and so on.

The Fountainhead has a great advantage over Atlas Shrugged in this regard, because that shorter novel has room for only one of each Randian type - the Hero, the woman who will eventually see the heroic light, the man who should have been a hero but went wrong, the penny-ante bad man, and the truly evil man. It’s also an earlier work, from when Ayn Rand saw more of a possibility of human variation; in Atlas Shrugged everyone starts out farther along the road to good or evil, and the entire world is forced to make a choice in the end.

The problem of good and evil characters comes up even if you’re not writing your own personal apocalypse. Ayn Rand thought most Christian fiction (by which she meant Hugo and Tolstoy, not Lewis and L’Engle) failed on both counts - that the Christian ideal had proven impossible to project into a fictional hero, and that the corresponding villains frequently ended up as strangely sympathetic characters. She based her own characters on a different division of good and evil.

Her evil characters in The Fountainhead are quite successful, in that it’s only the , dying flashes of goodness within them with which the reader sympathizes; they are otherwise despicable yet still believable. There isn’t much good left in the bad guys of Atlas Shrugged, yet they, too, avoid the twin bad-guy perils of being unbelievably, even comically, vile, or on the other hand, being attractive or sympathetic characters.

Roark is an engaging hero in The Fountainhead because he simply is the way he is, out there in the open for all readers to observe. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all so busy off-screen saving the world from altruism that it’s the people stuck in the middle, Dagny and Rearden, who become the protagonists by default. It’s telling that the real hero goes unrecognized for two-thirds of the novel, though it’s done very cleverly.

The great danger of good guys is that their very goodness will make them blander than their moral inferiors - not the bad guys in this particular case, but the characters who haven’t yet seen the egoist light. When there’s no one of interest caught in the moral middle, the bad guys can outshine the good guys. This has been going on from Lucifer’s speech in Paradise Lost to Khan’s (recycled from Melville) in the twenty-third century.

It’s not clear whether the writer has to change the definitions of good and evil in order to avoid the problem, but that approach worked for Ayn Rand.

Atlas Shrugged (I)

Friday, June 27th, 2003

I blogged a while back that Atlas Shrugged was a sci-fi novel, but I didn’t give it a real review. I needed something long and distracting to read over my recent Weekend of Kitsch, and now the novel has gotten me thinking about several topics: the decay of civilization, the difficulty of writing a convincing bad guy, the similar but less-known difficulty of writing a convincing good guy, showing and telling, and the eternal question, But is it sci-fi? It may take me a few entries to cover it all.

Last things first: Atlas Shrugged is science fiction with a vengeance. The plot is an extreme version of the hard-sf standard in which the insightful inventor/scientist goes up against the ignorance of the bureaucrats and wins. Our Hero has invented a mysterious new motor, and Our Other Hero has invented a new metal that’s stronger and lighter than steel. It has been noted that Atlas Shrugged is a kind of [alternate] history, being set in a subtly different U.S. somewhere around the 1930’s. Most of the rest of the world has already succumbed to socialism or communism.

Atlas Shrugged is also a disaster novel. I enjoyed watching the U.S. fall apart piece by piece - not because I have anything against my country but because it was done so well. Like most genre fiction, the novel has a complex plot in which all the little accidents add up to one very big one, whereas in real life, all the little things falling apart never seem to lead anywhere. The Concorde flew its last flight for Air France today (British Airways will stop flying them in October), NASA’s solar airfoil crashed in the Pacific yesterday, and the escalator at my T station was broken for half the week. Although it’s shocking to see Ayn Rand ravage the U.S. with a plague of fictionalized MBTA bureaucrats, at least she puts the poor country out of its misery by the end of the novel. I’ll be stuck with the MBTA forever.

Analog, A Million Open Doors

Monday, June 16th, 2003

The July/August Analog was a double issue, and therefore doubly disappointing. “A Professor at Harvard” by David Brin was cute and would be worth reading at the bookstore. My favorite story was “Still Coming Ashore” by Michael F. Flynn, a lovely piece of scientific speculation with an adventure story and a weird moral twist at the end. “Agent” by Shirley Kennet was also notable.

Several unnoteworthy stories were of the “I can describe Antarctica/the prairie/the desert/light gliders/etc.” type with a less-than-successful plot tacked on. Writing what you know is highly overrated, if you ask me. A couple of stories were part of series (as opposed to serials), and I never care for those.

Only one story was an actual disappointment, in that the idea had more potential than the author brought out: “Not a Drop to Drink” by Grey Rollins was supposed to be about the survival of the fittest on a dry colony world, but it was marred by the unbelievably backwards, fanatical religious settlers. I don’t mean backwards as a synonym for fanatical; rather, the colonists had just enough technology to do the genetic engineering to which the religious fanatics objected, but not enough to desalinate seawater, find a better planet, engineer the plants instead, tow some comet ice in from space, or a thousand other solutions that space travellers ought to be capable of.

I don’t object to making thinly-disguised Evangelicals the antagonists of your story, but I do object to doing it badly. You can’t hang your entire story on a prejudice you’re just assuming the audience shares with you - you need to motivate your villains as well as your heroes. This is where A Million Open Doors by John Barnes lost me as well.

The best part of the novel was the very beginning, where the society of Nou Occitan was depicted. Frustrated in love, Our Hero leaves that lovely and warm medieval planet for the icy land of Caledony. The title promised a million open doors and the blurbs promised me an extensive tour of at least two cultures, but the winter planet was a disappointment. While the society of Nou Occitan gelled (at least until the author started picking it apart in later chapters), Caledony never came together as a coherent way of life.

Needless to say, Caledony’s is a religious society. Their faith is supposed to be some hash of economics, logic, and Puritanism, but it never once comes together as a religion. The religion is a black box like Asaro’s quis but it’s made worse by the fact that all orthodox believers in the novel are unmotivated bad guys. All the Caledons we get to know personally are rebels, revolutionaries, liberal economic preachers, and others who have seen the error of their religious ways.

The moral of the story is that all million human cultures are going to have to give up what makes them unique (that is, bad) and join back into the growing hegemony on the other side of all those doors. Minor virtues such as the Nou Occitan “style and grace” may happen to be preserved, or not. There was a coming-of-age story in here somewhere for Our Hero, but in the end coming of age for scattered mankind means becoming cosmopolitan. This might pass in mainstream literature, where cosmopolitan has an identifiable meaning (say, liberal New Yorker, Eurotrash, conservative Washington D.C. politico, anyone who lives in Brussels, etc.), but in science fiction this theme is problematic. There is no default culture of the future. Putting yours in there, largely by omission (the hegemony and its political troubles are described in the vaguest of terms), is a cop-out.

That’s not to say that A Million Open Doors wasn’t a good story - it was. It just wasn’t the story advertised on the cover.

Manifold: Origin, Undersea City

Wednesday, June 4th, 2003

Manifold: Origin by Stephen Baxter involves the Fermi paradox - if the universe is so big and so old and life evolves spontaneously, then where are all the aliens? Space ought to be as overpopulated as India by now.

I didn’t say that the novel addresses the Fermi paradox; it rather takes it as given that man is depressingly alone in the universe, then connects those lonely Homo sapiens across the quantum multiverse. We’re alone in all those universes, but we’re not always the same. Sometimes we’re furry geniuses, and other times we’re still swinging with the apes.

The variety of primates is interesting, although every one of them, from the apes to the humans to the hyperintelligent denizens of a moonless Earth, seems more animal than angel. My concern for the endangered heroes was not what it could have been, had they been more sympathetic characters.

I hear the previous volumes, Manifold: Time and Manifold: Space, were better. I may give one of them a shot.

Undersea City is a juvenile by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson that proves I’m still in my used-pulp phase. Like “Manifold”, “Undersea” is a title theme that unifies this moldy old volume with the lost works Undersea Quest and Undersea Fleet.

“Juvenile,” for your information, is a trade term for what I suppose is now called young adult fiction. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, children’s books are books starring children, and their reading level is the age of the hero. The hero of Undersea City, whose name I’ve already forgotten, finds himself in special cadet training at an earthquake-prone undersea city. Of course, a series of earthquakes begins and our hero finds friends and relations acting suspiciously. There’s a cadet snob, a gruff superior officer, and a city council who refuse to evacuate before the Big Underwater One hits the city. It all works out in the end.

Great literature it’s not. The only interesting part of the story for me was the authors’ dated insistence that computers were not up to the task of predicting earthquakes. Instead, cadets with a few weeks’ training checked the seismograph readings and did their calculations by hand, and almost always agreed on where, when, and what force the quake would be. It was never quite clear what they’re doing that a computer couldn’t, in theory, reproduce, even back in 1958 when the book was written.

I suppose that’s a danger of the genre. Fantasy keeps, but hard sci-fi goes bad.