Friday, June 1, 2018

Book Review: Market Forces

Richard Morgan
2004
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Market Forces is set in 2049, in a grim future where unfettered capitalism rules the world. The few international regulators and overseers that do still exist have barely any power to check corporate behavior. It is a neoliberal’s dream—and a barbaric nightmare for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants.

The icky world and the unscrupulous characters Morgan has created are also so repellent that much of the time it is difficult to keep turning the pages. No one is likable. Every interaction, every conversation is a competitive power play; everybody is always angling for some kind of advantage. It’s inhuman and depressing.

In this novel, corporations based in the developed world (which in this book includes primarily the U.S., Britain, and Japan) have taken over the foreign policy role formerly played by governments, with a free-market twist: any semblance of diplomacy or lip service to human rights is gone, and corporations are free to pursue “investments” in conflicts in the developing world in a completely bold-faced, profit-driven way. They provide capital support in the form of arms and surveillance technology to rebels and dictators alike—whichever side they think will bring them the greatest ROI. Whenever they feel they are not getting a good deal, they switch horses; their recipients’ political stances are irrelevant.

The CIA, too, has dropped all pretense of objectivity and has turned itself into Langley Contracting, a fee-for-service military contractor, for hire by anyone. (They are also unabashedly known as “the premiere distributors of illicit narcotics in the Americas.”)

The result of all of this is an exaggeratedly unequal world. The rich, developed countries call all the shots, while the developing countries scrabble for whatever deals they can get, usually brutally repressing their own people to appear to be the safest gamble possible.

And even within the developed world, populations are divided between tiny groups of lavishly-paid executive elites living in gated and armored enclaves, and the bulk of the populace living in the “zones:” crime-ridden, education- and health-care-free tenement districts where life is short, brutal, and hopeless.

And the violence inherent in the system inevitably touches all classes one way or another. Even the executives and partners at the wealthy firms all earn their rarified positions through ruthless driving competitions to the death. If you want a promotion, you file a challenge against someone whose job you want (and that you are qualified to have), and, with luck, you pulverize them on the highway or drive them off a cliff—in front of an ever-present media audience, of course—and take their job. Competitive battles for lucrative contracts between corporations are decided the same way.

These road-warrior battles are waged by the toughest of the tough corporate gladiator-drivers. These guys live the high life, with enormous salaries and bonuses, beautiful houses, and women at the ready. But they also live knowing that they may have to defend their lives from challengers at a moment’s notice. (It’s a little bit ridiculous that these guys would be good both at lethal driving and savvy investment management, but that’s how Morgan has set it up.)

Market Forces’ main character, Chris Faulkner, is one of these gladiators. At the start of the book he has just defeated a couple key opponents in gruesome road battles, and as a result has just been hired away from his previous company to the most ruthless, most high-flying firm of them all, a London firm called Shorn Investments. Shorn assigns him a key position in their “Conflict Investments” department. His co-workers are the hardest of the hard-hearted: his frenemy peers Mike Bryant and Nick Makin; his backstabbing boss, Louise Hewitt, and the sociopathic senior partner, Jack Notley. It would be hard to imagine a more unappealing group of supporting characters.

The only thing that keeps Chris from being a full-on cold-blooded killer is his wife Carla. She loves him intensely. She is his mechanic, and makes sure his car is armored to the teeth to try to keep him alive. But she also is the daughter of passionate left-wing human rights activists, hates everything Shorn Investments stands for, and lets Chris know it.

The thing is, Chris is torn. A very large part of him loves the money, the security, the glamor, and the power that come with his job. And yes, often, he has to admit, the thrill of the kill. But something deep inside him is simultaneously repelled by the bloodshed and the cruelty. It is what makes him refuse to carry his company-issued pistol and what makes him hesitate, every time, before actually killing one of his opponents. And Carla tries to reinforce that part of his conscience every time she can.

But Chris gets pulled farther and farther into Shorn’s hard-drinking, hard-drugging, legalized-murdering, porn-star-love-affair-having corporate culture. The world Morgan presents is violent, whiskey-ridden, and sometimes gets so disgusting it is often hard to turn the pages. And the world drives more and more of a wedge between Chris and Carla.

Chris’s rage escalates and he eventually finds himself almost uncontrollably beating a series of street hoodlums, wife beaters, and corporate clients to bloody pulps. With every kill, he receives more accolades from his firm, the media, and female hangers-on… and more of his soul is destroyed. Any chance he has for a low-key, ethical life starts falling to pieces, and the book becomes a close-up view of Chris getting torn apart by the warring desires in his head.

In what is perhaps a last-ditch subconscious effort to save his own soul, Chris agrees to help his co-worker Mike Bryant with a situation in Colombia where Shorn’s current investment, a brutal tinpot dictator named Echevarria, is turning out to be far more trouble than he is worth. Chris’s advice is to switch Shorn’s support to Echevarria’s opponent, an inspiring revolutionary named Barranco who models himself after Che Guevara. And Chris finds himself being swayed by Barranco, liking him, genuinely wanting him to succeed. Barranco really is a smarter business decision, which is how Chris justifies it to Bryant, but truly believing in a populist movement is a terribly risky thing in his job.

And, in time, Chris finds out that someone in his own corporation has it in for him and is going to take advantage of his many weaknesses and mess-ups to wreck him unless he can stop them. It finally (blessedly) all comes to a head (and an end) in one final road battle to the death.

The frustrating thing is that throughout the whole book you really want to like Chris, in spite of it all. You want him to step away from the foul Shorn Investments life and make up with his wife. You want him to redeem himself. And for an incredibly long time Chris tries to fight it—sort of—by trying to keep to some kind of vague, idealized samurai code. Carla also tries to give him a way out, using her parents’ contacts.

But he backslides one too many times, and eventually Carla gives up on him. And, eventually, you have to, too. You have this depressing feeling that the pull of absolute power is going to get him in the end (as it does). He is trapped. The more violent he becomes, the more there doesn’t seem to be any solution but more violence.

And Morgan constantly reminds us, through snarky incidents and commentary from supporting characters, that this is the way the game is played in real life, too. As one of his co-workers reminds Chris when he has a tidbit of remorse after a kill, “a practicing free market economist has blood on his hands, or he isn’t doing his job properly.”

And, as the senior partner in his firm explains when Chris shows signs of believing in the hope offered by Barranco:
“Do you really think we can afford to have the developing world develop? You think we could have survived the rise of a modern, articulated Chinese superpower twenty years ago? You think we could manage an Africa full of countries run by intelligent, uncorrupted democrats? Or a Latin America run by men like Barranco? Just imagine it for a moment. Whole populations getting educated, and healthy, and secure, and aspirational. Women's rights, for Christ's sake. We can't afford these things to happen, Chris. Who's going to soak up our subsidized food surplus for us? Who's going to make our shoes and shirts? Who's going to supply us with cheap labor and cheap raw materials? Who's going to store our nuclear waste, balance out our CO2 misdemeanors? Who's going to buy our arms?” 
So that’s really heartening.

The book seems to end with Chris’s assimilation into the world of violence and addictive indulgences and unfettered greed. But I like to think that Morgan left open the possibility that Chris might actually be a Trojan horse: that Chris surrenders himself to the lifestyle, but that he will use his position to bring more money and power to Barranco, and leaders like him, so that they may succeed in their corners of the world. That Chris will have sacrificed his own soul so that those with stronger wills can have a shot at winning in the end.

It’s a troubling book, to say the least, but if I rationalize the ending that way, it doesn’t eat at me quite so much.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Book Review: Ancient Shores

Jack McDevitt
1996
Nominations: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I picked McDevitt’s Ancient Shores to read on a long flight because I loved his Alex Benedict novels Polaris and Seeker, and I thought any book by him had a good chance of being another fun page-turner.

The idea behind Ancient Shores was great. But its execution wasn’t nearly of the caliber of the other two books. This is one of McDevitt’s earliest full-length novels, and it seems that at the time he wrote it he hadn’t yet fully developed his nice snappy style or learned how to create solid, charismatic characters. It’s a bit sad, because with such a great premise, there’s so much he could have done with it.

The first half of the novel is the better half by far. Suspense and anticipation build naturally and effectively, with a good deal of humor, and it is mostly free from the lack of authenticity, slow plotting, and character stiffness that beset the second half.

The story starts in remote northeastern North Dakota, on a farm right on the Canadian border. Farmer (and amateur pilot) Tom Lasker is working his wheat field and discovers a complete sailboat—a ketch—buried in the ground. With help from neighbors, he digs the whole thing up and puts it in his front yard.

The fact that a fairly large boat was entirely buried in his wheat field is odd enough, in and of itself. Tom and Ginny Lasker have been farming this particular land for decades, neither of them buried it, and neither of them have any idea how anyone else could have done it without either of them noticing. 

What is odder is that the boat looks entirely new. Nothing seems to stick to the sails, or the boat itself. Nothing can damage it. Even sitting out in the weather, it doesn’t get wet or dirty. And there is writing on it where instructions and labels should be, but the writing is in incomprehensible symbols that none of the linguists at any of the nearby universities can identify. And then, one night while Tom is out of town, Ginny notices that the boat has running lights: eerie green glowy lights that go on when it gets dark.

Ginny calls their friend Max (also a pilot) to take a look, because she’s spooked out by the boat lights. Max, in turn, is spooked out by the whole boat. He sends a sample of the sail fabric to be tested at Moorhead State. April Cannon, the chemist who tests it, says that the sail material is nothing she’s ever seen before: an indestructible substance with an atomic number so high it shouldn’t exist—or at least should be highly radioactive (which it is not). 

April is the first person to suspect where the boat is really from. Her hypothesis—as crazy as it sounds—is that the boat isn’t new, but is rather thousands of years old, and that it was buried in the Laskers’ wheat field because it was abandoned there by its previous owners during the last ice age, at a time when North Dakota was at the bottom of a giant prehistoric inland sea called Lake Agassiz.

Max believes her. The two of them hire a ground-radar team to search the surrounding area for other artifacts. And they find a whole building, buried on Sioux reservation land, on what would have been the shore of a deep-water harbor on the eastern shore of Lake Agassiz. The building appears to be a port, and is made out of the same indestructible material as the boat. 

Up to this point, about halfway into the book, the story is relatively fun. The plot unfolds in a slow, steady, and pleasingly homespun way. Pages turn with somewhat gliding speed. But after the discovery of the prehistoric port, the narrative starts to get increasingly scattered and clunky. 

Max and April strike a deal with the Sioux who own the land where the port is. The Sioux let them bring in a troupe of student volunteers to dig it up, and provide a security force to protect it from the various nuts and UFO fans and generally curious people who have started to show up to see it.

Eventually, Max and April’s team finds a way inside the building. There they discover a set of controls that can transport them to a variety of beautiful, spectacular, and occasionally lethal locations around the galaxy. 

Meanwhile, everyone in the wider U.S. population starts to freak out. Scientists and artists and explorers come in droves begging to go through the portal. Deranged people try to destroy it. Local businessmen want to use it to their own financial advantage—as do the local tax collectors.

A large number of individual freak outs are described in inserts and side narratives that are disjointed, disruptive to the main plot line, and not very interesting. The press releases, FBI memos, on-screen field reporters, and official broadcast announcements all sound too conversational and informal, and, to be honest, a little dorky. 

But by far the part of the novel that rings the most hollow is what happens to world economics as a result of the discovery of the boat and port. McDevitt’s take is that when all businesses—from local retailers to global corporations—get wind first of the sail fabric of Tom Lasker’s buried boat, and then the portal to other planets, their reaction is complete and total panic. They are all convinced that they will go out of business when the technologies behind the sail fabric and the transport controls become generally available. 

Markets tank. CEOs lobby politicians aggressively to the point where the otherwise calm, pragmatic, Trumanesque U.S. president becomes convinced that the port must be blown to smithereens. And even the United Nations eventually comes calling, telling the Sioux they have no choice but to give up control of their land to the international body to preserve the economic stability of the entire world. 

Which is all a bit ridiculous. First of all, the president—at least not the theoretically pragmatic one in this book—wouldn’t bomb an Indian reservation, including killing potentially hundreds of innocent U.S. civilians, just because a few textile and transportation companies are worried they’ll go out of business. 

And, more importantly, for every corporation that sees doom and gloom in the event of a major technological breakthrough, I guarantee you there will be twice as many entrepreneurs who see potential for huge profit in it. Yes, major technological advancements have the potential to make some businesses go out of business. But others can prosper immensely. I doubt any sane national leader would  have actively tried to prevent the development of the internal combustion engine, no matter how powerful the horse-and-buggy lobby. 

Anyway, it all culminates in a heroic Standing-Rock-type stand-off at the port site between the Indians and the U.S. Marshalls. McDevitt does inject a little excitement, and almost rescues the ending, by having Max fly Tom Lasker’s antique World-War-II-era fighter plane into the fray. But he ruins the finale with a silly, fawning, deus ex machina stunt in which a small group of eminent real-life astronauts, authors, and scientists come in at the last minute to risk their lives to save the portal.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Review: Trumps of Doom

Roger Zelazny
1985
Awards: Locus (Fantasy)
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Trumps of Doom is the sixth novel in Zelazny’s ten-novel Chronicles of Amber series, and it is the first novel in the second five-novel sub-saga of that series. So it’s really not a stand-alone book; you have to have read the first five novels to make heads or tails of it, and you have to read this one before being able to make heads or tails of any of the subsequent books. Zelazny is no fly-by-night author.

In spite of the fact that it comes smack in the middle of the Chronicles, Trumps starts out as if it is a whole separate story, unrelated to anything Amberific. The main character is different; it has a different tone, almost like a murder mystery; and—at least at first—there are no trumps, no mythic creatures, and no psychedelic hellrides.

The main character of Trumps of Doom is “Merle Corey.” To all appearances, “Merle” is just an everyday guy on contemporary Earth. When the book opens, it is the day he has quit his job of eight years to do some “wandering.”

It is also a day when he also feels certain that someone will try to kill him. Because it is April 30, and someone has tried to kill him (unsuccessfully, of course) on April 30 for each of the past seven years.

Before he heads out of town, he has drinks with Luke, one of his former coworkers, who is convinced that Merle has been working on a special secret new product idea outside of work, and he wants in on it. In spite of all Luke’s pumping, Merle denies any knowledge of such a thing. Luke then suggests to Merle that he might want to say goodbye to his old girlfriend, Julia, too—and then slips in, oddly, that Julia has become involved with some weird people and may be “in trouble.”

Merle goes to Julia’s building and finds her dead on the floor of her apartment. And then Merle is attacked by the beast that killed her: an outsize, three-toed, wolf-dog monster. This is the first clue we have that we’re not really dealing with an everyday Earth murder mystery.

Merle kills the wolf-dog and then searches Julia’s apartment for clues, only to find a pack of trumps. He pockets the pack and goes to see her current boyfriend, who tells Merle that Julia had recently joined a sort of cult. This cult is apparently into dark magic and is led by a guru of sorts, a painter named Melman, who starts to sound suspiciously like another magic painter we know.

At this point, Merle realizes he probably has started this whole thing, and flashes back to a time when he showed Julie around Amber. For Merle is, of course, not an ordinary human, but is actually Merlin, the son of Corwin of Amber and Dara of Chaos. He took Julia on a trippy trip around Amber in a fit of romance, and, after that, she was perfectly aware that magic was real, and went in search of somebody who could put her in touch with it again.

Merlin goes to see Melman to find out who killed Julia (and who likely wants him dead as well). And, of course, Melman tries to kill Merlin by pulling him into swirling Chaos, and Merlin has to kill Melman in self-defense before he can find anything out. At this point we go into full-blown Zelazny mode, with a scorpion woman coming in from Chaos to try to disable Merlin with a paralyzing sting; she almost succeeds, but he escapes through a trump of a Shadowland sphinx. After beating the sphinx at its riddle game, he runs through a dreamscape of trees, flowers, and streams back to Earth.

Troubled and annoyed, he tracks down Luke again. They dance around for a while, pretending they’re talking about normal non-magical Earth stuff, but finally they drop the pretense and Luke describes a crazy evening with Julia and Melman, in which Melman conjured monsters out of nothing. They are then shot at by somebody; Luke kills the shooter, but is then possessed by something and tries to kill Merlin himself, and Merlin has to escape again.

Merlin really would like to consult with his father, but Corwin went missing after the great “Patternfall Battle” at the end of the previous book, and nobody knows where he is.

So, to get his head on straight, Merlin goes to see someone he trusts—Corwin’s old friend and neighbor in upstate New York, Bill Roth. (At this point, because of his connections, Bill is now not only a country lawyer on Earth, but also the Counsel to the Courts of Amber.) They have a good time; Merlin amuses Bill (and us) by pulling cigars and cold beers out of Shadow for both of them, and Bill tells him everything he knows about Corwin, including some funny reminiscences about digging through his old compost pile with a fine tooth comb for some fancy jewel.

Merlin reveals to Bill that, as a child of royalty of both Amber and the Courts of Chaos, he has some advantages that the regular Princes and Princesses of Amber may not have. First, he has sets of trumps from both kingdoms. And he has also walked both the Pattern and the Logrus, the Pattern’s equivalent in Chaos. Theoretically you can’t keep both patterns in your head at the same time without going crazy, but apparently that doesn’t apply to Merlin.

At this point, they answer an emergency trump call from King Random of Amber. Someone has been taking pot-shots at princes and has killed Merlin’s uncle Caine. Everyone is wondering if it is yet another internal family vendetta—after we thought that had all been resolved!

Thinking it may help the king, Merlin shows him the special secret project he actually has been working on outside of work. He calls it a “Ghostwheel,” and it is a sort of computer that monitors all activity in the Shadowlands. It can be accessed by remote terminals, and can be used to observe or to conjure up storms and other forms of energy from anywhere, to anywhere in Shadow.

Random is appalled and tells Merlin to shut it off. But when Merlin then tries to approach his Ghostwheel, which has been running for months on its own, he is attacked by a crazy assortment of phenomena: nasty purple and red beasts, a living prison made out of giant coral-like crystals, an earth-shattering earthquake. The whole time, he hears voices warning him to go back. What has happened is that the Ghostwheel has become sentient; it doesn’t want to kill its creator, but it doesn’t want to be shut down, either.

Just as Merlin is just about to reach the Ghostwheel, who should appear again but… his old coworker Luke. For Luke is actually his cousin Rinaldo, and he’s the one with a vendetta against the royal family of Amber, because Caine killed Rinaldo’s father. Luke is hoping the Ghostwheel will be the weapon he needs to destroy all of them. He is unable to get the Ghostwheel himself, fortunately, but he imprisons Merlin in a cave nearby, and Trumps of Doom ends somewhat anticlimactically with Merlin pacing and pacing around in his cell.

It’s no wonder Trumps of Doom is the one in this series that won the Locus award. It is a more solid and consistent story, with a tightly crafted plot, and better pacing and characters and action than the other five so far.

And, for all that, it is just as beautiful and imaginative and totally out of left field as any of Zelazny’s other work, and contains plenty of the trademark synesthetic imagery that makes Zelazny’s work into art. Here is just one small portion of Merlin’s journey to the heart of the Ghostwheel:
    Three days in as many heartbeats…I breathe the air spicy…Swirl the fires, descend to purple earth…Prism in the sky…I race the course of a glowing river across a field of fungus the color of blood, spongy…Spores that turn to jewels, fall like bullets…
    Night on a plain of brass, footfalls echoing to eternity…Knobbed machinelike plants clanking, metal flowers retracting back to metal stalks, stalks to consoles…Clank, clank, sigh…Echoes only, at my back?
    I spin once.
    Was that a dark figure ducking behind a windmill tree? Or only the dance of shadows in my shadow-shifting eyes?
    Forward. Through glass and sandpaper, orange ice, landscape of pale flesh…
(p. 683)
In spite of the fact that the major battle for the survival of Amber happened in the last book, The Courts of Chaos, to me it also feels like this one is the novel where every major piece of the previous five actually comes to fruition. It is the culmination of everything we have learned about so far: Amber and Chaos, the royal families of both, the Shadowlands, the trumps. I might even venture to guess that this is the one Zelazny may have thought of writing first, and then wrote the others to set this one up.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Book Review: The Many-Colored Land

Julian May
1981
Awards: Locus (Science Fiction)
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The Many-Colored Land opens with the spectacular crash-landing of an alien spaceship carrying alien colonists to a prehistoric Earth. The passengers escape in pods that bring them safely to the ground while their ship is smashed to bits.

The scene is riveting. But for a long time yet we won’t know what it means, which turns out to be a bit frustrating. Because the next thing that happens is that we fast-forward into our near future, to a time when Earth is part of a Foundation-like set of colonized planets and moons, and has tolerably civil relations with several alien races.

It is also a future in which a French scientist, Théo Guderian, has invented a time portal. The portal is a huge scientific breakthrough, of course, but there is a catch: it only goes one way. Once you go through, you can’t come back.

This would seem to be an insurmountable down side. Especially when you also find out that his portal goes to only one place and time: France in the Pliocene Epoch. In the Pliocene, Europe was closer to the equator and much hotter than it is now, covered with lush jungle, and populated by man-eating sabretooth cats, giant rhinos, and our early ramapithecine ancestors.

But for many hopeless and desperate people, the portal seems like the best option short of suicide. After Théo dies, in response to overwhelming demand, his widow Angélique starts to let people go through the portal in very small batches, after a rigorous screening and preparation process. And after she herself goes through the portal, an oversight committee continues her work.

Over the next hundred or so pages we then meet a series of eight people, from various parts of Earth and its outlying colonies, who are all at the ends of their ropes for one reason or another. All of them have decided to leave their current lives for whatever awaits them beyond the portal—popularly known as Exile.

These people include a profit-driven, reckless cargo ship captain alienated from his family; a Canadian ring-hockey champion shunned by her teammates; a nun questioning her faith and her purpose; an anthropologist who has just lost his wife of decades; an impish criminal; a heartsick man whose beloved went through the portal a while before; a telepath who lost her abilities in an accident; and an anger-prone Scandinavian who has proven himself too violent to last long in any Earthly job.

It takes a long time to meet all these people, and they are introduced without much sense of why they’re important or what their relationship is to each other. It was interesting for a while, but eventually I started getting fidgety and bored with all of the backstory.

Finally, though, the book moves to the next stage and the action starts. All eight of the people we’ve met go through the portal together…and run smack into the clutches of the aliens who crash-landed in the opening scene.

Because, as it turns out, there is already a society on the Pliocene side of the portal: a society of ruthlessly tyrannical aliens. These aliens call themselves the Tanu. Every time a new group of humans arrives, the Tanu capture them, confiscate their weapons and tools, evaluate their abilities, and slam a mind-controlling metal torc around their necks to ensure their obedience.

The torcs amplify the aliens’ telepathic abilities, enabling them to control humans (and our ramapithecine relatives) with psychological punishments and rewards. There are three tiers of torcs: iron, for low-level people the aliens just want to control like automatons; silver, for somewhat useful middle-manager-type humans who need to retain some level of initiative; and gold, for a privileged few who have particularly valuable skills and who proven their loyalty, but who still need to be kept under the threat of punishment or death just in case they stray. The golden torcs also have the ability to enhance telepathic abilities for those humans who have them naturally.

This psychological enslavement might actually not be worth fighting against most of the time—since many of the humans lead relatively pain-free lives and most are provided with free food and shelter—if it wasn’t for the fact that the aliens are also forcing the female humans to be incubators for their alien children. When they got to Earth the Tanu found that they were sterile, so they use the women as surrogate mothers against their will. So this sets up a nicely appalling reason for all but the most self-interested humans to unite and rebel.

After the eight humans we have been following are snatched by the Tanu they are provided with appropriate torcs, split into two groups of four, and sent off to two separate cities with many other captives. For the rest of The Many-Colored Land we mainly follow only one of the groups (the other group is the focus of the sequel, The Golden Torc).

Our primary group includes the cargo ship captain, the nun, the anthropologist, and the ring-hockey champion. As they are being transported, they plot and execute a courageous, creative escape using keen observation of the Tanu’s weaknesses, and what few tools and abilities are left to them. They break away, only to be faced with a back-breaking (and arm-breaking) slog through the Pliocene jungle to a safer location.

After they have been on the run for a while, they run into a band of free, underground humans, and are convinced to change their goals from simply escaping to defeating the Tanu and freeing all enslaved humans. And they also encounter face to face for the first time the dreaded, mind-warping Firvulag, the lower-status mutant kin of the Tanu, who might be, just possibly, more aligned with the humans’ goals than they think at first.

Humans and Firvulag embark on a daring plan to acquire the weaponry and allies that may enable them to defeat the seemingly undefeatable Tanu. The build up to the confrontation is suspenseful and nerve-wracking in the best way; it is complex and hard, but if it all works, they might—just might!—be able to save humanity.

The whole thing culminates in a satisfying onslaught on one of the largest Tanu cities. The climactic battle is impressively well done. Wars in novels too often end up being either overdramatic or incomprehensible or both, with vague micro-fights and ill-defined macro strategy, and often ridiculously magical reprieves from defeat. But May’s attack on the city has none of these weaknesses; he paints a very clear picture of the execution of the overall strategy (so you know exactly why each person is participating in the way they are), and at the same time he spices the fighting up with exciting details of individual bravery and creativity. I particularly liked the scene when a group of humans taught their Firvulag allies how to fight a mounted opponent, and the molten destruction of the barium reserves used in torc-making.

All in all, this novel tells a unique, exciting story. May has an easy-to-follow, almost Ursula-LeGuin-like, psychologically-oriented, deceptively calm style of writing. And he has clearly carefully structured his plot at all levels.

But the book did give me a number of stumbling blocks to get over. One was, of course, the slow start. Another was that the periodic deliriously rapt descriptions of French goose liver pate and fine burgundy wines were more of a turn-off for me than the turn-on they clearly were for May.

And, most importantly, I kept being bothered by the potential for paradoxes and otherwise screwing up the time continuum. Isn’t it potentially endangering the course of evolution to send cuttings of modern plants and pregnant sheep and dogs through the portal? Not to mention the interbreeding of humans, ramapithecines, and Tanu? Can we really rely on the natural preservation of the timeline to prevent all this from changing Earth’s future (our present)? And the biggest question of all is, of course, what happens six million years from now if the Tanu still exist on Earth? And, if they are not there, how could they all possibly have been eradicated?

I guess that since this is just the first installment of May’s four-volume Saga of Pliocene Exile, I am probably going to have to read the sequel to find out.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Book Review: Beyond Apollo

Barry N. Malzberg
1972
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Do not expect a tidy, traditional science fiction novel when reading Beyond Apollo.

For one thing, it is a metafiction. Which is, as the study questions explain at the end of the 2015 paperback edition, “a narrative about narratives that is conscious of itself as a narrative.” It is a novel about a man—our main character—who is writing notes in preparation for writing a novel about a traumatic event that happened to him. And, since our main character is insane (at least at the time he is writing about writing his novel), this leads to quite a bit of surreal twisting of points of reference.

Beyond Apollo is also a story of mental exploration, rather than a story about concrete events. It is ostensibly about the death of another man, but the circumstances surrounding the other man’s death are only described after the fact by our main character, who is either this other man’s murderer or the only witness to his suicide. And our main character’s descriptions are so schizophrenic it makes you question which parts of his story are real—or if any of it is.

Our main character is Harry M. Evans, an astronaut in the early 21st century, who is the co-pilot on the first manned mission to Venus. At some point during the voyage, Harry and the Captain appear to have both gone insane. The Captain eventually ended up somehow getting into the toilet disposal module and then being ejected into space with the refuse, headed straight for the sun. It is unclear if the Captain ejected himself or if Harry did it, and, if the latter, whether Harry did it in a murderous state himself, or in self-defense against a murderous Captain.

After the Captain was ejected (or ejected himself), Harry was able to pilot the capsule back to Earth by himself, alone, and is now being held in a mental institution while the therapists try to get him to tell them what happened. They are growing increasingly frustrated because Harry tells them a wildly different version of events each time.

During his stay in the institution, Harry is taking notes and planning to write a novel about his voyage to Venus. He keeps saying in his notes—which make up many of the chapters—that once his novel is complete, it will set the record completely straight. But after so many tales, you don’t really believe it.

Some of the chapters are written in the first person, as if Harry is telling us his memories from the capsule. Some are written in the third person, as if he is telling a fiction story about some other astronaut. Some chapters are about the asylum and the experiences he is having there; some are about the voyage; and some are flashbacks to the weeks just before the voyage, when he and the Captain were going through training and still (relatively) sane (although it becomes clear that the seeds for insanity were clearly planted in both of them before they even stepped into their ship). It all gives the novel a jumbled, disjointed feeling, paralleling what is going on in Harry’s brain.

There are definitely parts of the novel that are enjoyable. The alternate versions of the Captain’s death, as told by Harry to his therapist, are usually the best parts. Malzberg also write some funny “histories” of the solar system (which usually present the solar system as coming into being at some point in the 20th century) sprinkled throughout the book. And when he is at his best, Malzberg has a cynical, absurdist sense of humor along the lines of his chronological compatriots Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. For example, at one point during their mission training, the Captain tells Harry that he has discovered that their charted course will cause the ship to miss the orbit of Venus and head directly into the sun. But he is not going to tell the technicians, because “there’s no point in making complications for them.”

For the most part, however, the book feels like frustratingly pointless, overly clever free association at the expense of the reader’s mental energy. The book sets out tantalizing mysteries—both the Captain’s murder and allusions to a similar Mars mission disaster—but never really tells us what happened in either one. Nothing ever really changes or resolves throughout the storyline; we are told one kooky version of the Captain’s death after another, and we live through flashbacks in Harry’s life that do provide us with clues as to why he might have gone mad in such a crazy-making environment, but neither he nor the plot ever really change or develop from beginning to end.

All of this would be perfectly okay if the writing was rivetingly descriptive, or funny, or artful… or if the characters were likeable, or clever, or in the least bit appealing. But unfortunately it is not, and they are not. It’s all about what is going on in Harry’s mind, and we find that it’s draining to be hitched to the mind of a psychotic.

I also found it a bit grade-schoolish that Harry (or perhaps Malzberg) seemed obsessed with the effects of various stimuli on his genitalia. We constantly had to hear how heat, cold, G-forces, fear, anger, or desire were affecting Harry’s private parts. And, in a similar vein, there are what seemed like dozens of flashback scenes of depressing, unromantic, unsexy sex between Harry and his wife, which his wife has absolutely no interest in or response to. Each incident is completely non-sensual and impersonal, with her just waiting him out. She often keeps up a running commentary the whole time about how he needs to quit the space program, and he tries to ignore her. It’s pretty repellent.

Harry obsesses about games and puzzles—crosswords, cryptograms, chess problems, anagrams, bridge hands—in an effort to find the code, the clue, the combination of logic that will help him regain his sanity. None of them work, of course, and Malzberg has Harry jump from one to another type of puzzle haphazardly, so they end up seeming just like fun games that the writer wanted to play with for a time, rather than anything meaningful to the story line.

The whole book, in fact, feels very much like a mental exercise for the benefit of the writer. And it is perhaps an exercise that is most enjoyed by other writers, who understand and appreciate the games Malzberg is playing, rather than the science fiction reader who is probably just in it for a fun story.

Beyond Apollo was written in the early 1970s, at a time when dramatic scientific discoveries were being made in outer space in real life. According to author James Reich, who wrote the introduction to the 2015 paperback edition, many writers of the time felt that real scientific discovery was killing traditional science fiction. Once we found out that Venus was utterly uninhabitable, for example, it made it impossible and pointless to write an exciting novel about discovering life on Venus. The only solution, Malzberg and other like-minded authors felt, was to turn inwards, and to write stories about adventures of the mind, rather than the physical world.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this theory is a complete cop-out. There definitely are good novels from this era that are largely journeys of the mind (like much of Roger Zelazny’s work, or Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus). Some of these good novels are even about a similar sort of post-traumatic-space-journey therapeutic recovery, like Pohl’s Gateway.

But I beg to differ with the conclusion that this kind of inner-mind focus is the only way to write science fiction in an age of scientific discovery. Kim Stanley Robinson and Arthur C. Clarke are just two stellar examples of how increased scientific knowledge actually can provide even more fodder for beauty and inspiration in science fiction.

And, at its worst, Malzberg’s variety of inner-directed storytelling can all too often descend into self-indulgent noodling. Which is what most of Beyond Apollo felt like to me.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: The Child Garden

Geoff Ryman
1989
Awards: Campbell, Clarke
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

I don’t really know what the Campbell and Clarke committees were thinking when they gave these awards to this book.

I’ll grant that the premise and some of the scientific and setting details are great potential sci-fi fodder. But actually reading the novel is like being dragged along on someone else’s disorganized, depressing, maudlin trip that you desperately want to sober up from.

~~~~~

The Child Garden starts out well. It is set in a London of the relatively near future. The world lives under a single Marxist-Leninist regime governed by an amorphous body of pure thought called the Consensus. Citizens are “Read” by the Consensus at an early age, and their “Reading” determines where they will live and what their profession will be.

A revolutionary war in the recent past destroyed all electricity, most of the metal, and much of the other advanced technology on Earth. People use candles for light, walk as their main mode of transportation, and use couriers to deliver messages.

The only advanced technology society has left is biotechnology—but that is extremely advanced. Consensus-approved scientists have developed viruses that have not only cured all diseases, but are also used for assimilation and education: the viruses “infect” people with everything they need to know. Nobody needs to learn anything on their own anymore; they now learn everything—history, science, art, specific job skills, morality, happiness—through viruses.

As it turns out, one of the unfortunate side effects of curing all disease—specifically, cancer—is that it destroys something in the human body that had enabled people to live a long time. Now, people only live to be about 30 or 35 at the most. Children, with their brains pumped up by teaching viruses, start acting like adults and working at jobs when they are only 5 or 6, and don’t ever really have a childhood.

The book’s main character, Milena Shibush, is a Czech immigrant who lost her parents very young. She is also somehow physically unable to be Read. Her cells rebel against the viruses, taking them apart before they can teach her what she is supposed to learn. She lives in fear that she’ll be discovered to be Unread by the Consensus. And she is constantly made to feel stupid by smaller children who know more than her, because of their viruses.

The other disadvantage that Milena has is that she is a lesbian, which is not looked on kindly in this book’s society. If the viruses had worked, her lesbian orientation would have been programmed out of her, but of course it was not. So she lives in fear of being found out for that reason, too.

Milena’s Consensus-assigned job is in the theatre. Searching in a warehouse for a costume, she runs into a “polar bear:” a genetically modified woman who is large, furry, and engineered for cold, dangerous jobs in the Antarctic. She and the polar bear, whose name is Rolfa and who is also Unread, fall in love. Rolfa, as it turns out, is a beautiful singer and a brilliant composer. She has secretly set many famous manuscripts to music, including Dante’s Divine Comedy. But no one will listen to them or put them on, because they were composed by a genetically-modified polar bear who hasn’t been Read and whose artistic standards therefore don’t conform to those of the Consensus.

So far, so good, Child Garden. But the book becomes increasingly random and goes rapidly downhill from here on (with, unfortunately, about 250 pages still left to go). So, to try to make an agonizingly long remainder of a story short:
 

Rolfa runs away from her family. Her angry father sends a mind-reading “Snide” investigator after her to find her and Milena. Realizing there is no way for Rolfa to avoid being dragged back to Antarctica with her family, they strike a deal: the Consensus will be allowed to Read Rolfa, as long as they agree to put on Rolfa’s Divine Comedy. The Consensus agrees, and, to boot, will present the Comedy via hologram in the sky all over the world, so the entire planet can see it. 

However, the Reading “cures” Rolfa so she is no longer in love with Milena. Rolfa runs away, leaving Milena heartbroken.

The rest of the book descends into a herky-jerky set of disconnected and seemingly pointless remembrances, flashbacks, and flash-forwards while Milena doggedly goes on preparing to force her production of the Divine Comedy on the entire world, and then after she gets cancer and doggedly prepares to die (which is drawn out over about the last 100 or so interminable pages). 

Milena variously relives: her entanglement with a power-hungry rival holographer who makes her life a living hell for a while; glimpses of her very young childhood with her real mother and father; her friendship with an orphanage caretaker that is cut short simultaneously by a hurricane and the discovery of her lesbian nature; and her unique but caring relationship with the male astronaut who transports her into the upper atmosphere to project the Comedy’s world-wide holographic images and then later carries their baby.

In the end, the cancer kills Milena, but in this she feels victorious: she has brought back cancer so that people can live long, healthy lives, and children can be children again. 

It is all told in a disconnected, free-associational, hazy style, which I think is meant to make us feel like we are in the same dream state as Milena. But it felt instead like a collection of unrelated, haphazard, groundless micro-stories. For the most part, all of the stories have uninteresting plots, dippy characters with little or no character development, little apparent connection to or convergence with the other stories, and no real resolution or meaning in themselves.

~~~~~

As I said, this book definitely had potential. It had the elements of a groundbreaking science fiction novel, with its complex, Marxist-Leninist, Consensus-run dystopia and its highly advanced biotechnology. 

One of my favorite details was that to solve the post-war food crisis, people had been genetically engineered to be able to use rhodopsin in their bodies to photosynthesize food—which made their skin purple. The more they sat in the sun to eat, the more purple they got. I also liked that Ryman developed a way for men to carry babies to term. And viruses as tools of education and assimilation always add a nicely sinister spice.

So it’s sad that the novel ended up being such a loose series of seemingly aimless, ill-defined flashbacks with such low dramatic tension. And, as the story went on, it became more and more preoccupied with death, which I found depressing and hard to read. As she was dying, Milena found solace in the biological evolution of the human race—including a set of people who eventually begin transforming into plants, and one boy who seriously thinks he’s a dog. I think these were supposed to make me feel as much at one with the universe as Milena did, but they only made me feel hopelessness and disconnection.

~~~~~

Before reading this book, I’d just read the first three books of Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series—all three of which are filled with Zelazny’s characteristic surrealistic, mind-bending imagery. The Child Garden made me wonder how one author can write such trippy scenes and also make them so vivid and riveting, while another can try to do the same thing but it ends up vague, scattershot and hard to follow.

Certainly part of it is that Zelazny is simply one of the best at what he does, and it’s hard for others to match him. I think part of it is also because, in the end, The Child Garden tells a prophet’s story, about a central character saving the world through self-sacrifice and passive martyrdom. While Zelazny’s Chronicles tell a hero’s story, about a central character saving the world through direct action and fighting bad guys and overcoming tough odds. And I have to admit I find the heroes far more intrinsically entertaining.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Book Review: The Alteration

Kingsley Amis
1976
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT

The Alteration is a novel of alternate history that makes us think in new ways—as the best speculative fiction does—about our own real-world society. Its subject matter is extremely personal and emotionally intense, which really helps to drive home Amis’s message about the true violence of tyranny and oppression. It can be, on occasion, wryly funny. But the plot takes such unrelentingly cruel and ironic twists that I would find it hard to say that the book is actually enjoyable to read.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The novel is set in 1976, in an England where the Protestant Reformation never happened. Martin Luther, rather than being a heretic and a rebel, actually served as a pope himself. Since there was no split with the Catholic mother church, the entire English empire—which includes New England and Canada—is ruled by a king who answers directly to the Roman pope.

And the Catholic Church, in the person of the pope, rules with an iron hand. A rigidly hierarchical societal structure keeps everybody in line. High-status men are infallible and unquestionable; low-status men have next to no power, and women have even less. Science is prohibited by the severely conservative church, so people have no electricity, no advanced forms of communication, and only the barest approximation of motorized vehicles. And, to rub salt in everybody’s wounds, novels of science fiction—which Amis calls “time romances”—are banned as a form of entertainment.

Growing up in this world is Hubert Anvil, a ten-year old clerk in a primary seminary school near London. Hubert has the misfortune of having most beautiful singing voice anyone in the Catholic world has ever heard. Visitors come from all over the globe to hear him. And Rome is very interested in him as an exploitable resource.

So the abbot at Hubert’s school, seeing a way to weasel his way into favor with the pope, decides the boy should be castrated, so his voice won’t change and he can be farmed out to sing as long as possible.

The law requires the abbot to ask the permission of Hubert’s father for this to happen. Mr. Anvil is a little torn at first, having a shadow of a feeling that this might be somewhat bad for Hubert, but is won over by the idea that it will prove his faith absolutely to the church hierarchy.

Hubert’s feelings are, of course, irrelevant. And so are those of his mother, who objects strenuously to Hubert’s castration, and campaigns violently against it to her husband, but has no power whatsoever to prevent it. Hubert’s older brother also doesn’t like it, but doesn’t know how to help him.

The only person who really can and does step up to help Hubert is his family priest, who surprises everyone by publicly objecting to the idea, in courageous direct opposition to his superiors. (His squeamishness about it is probably largely due to the fact that he is perhaps a little more in touch with the taste of the carnal than a priest ought to be.) The priest tries to block the permission for the procedure, but is eventually brutally squashed (somewhat literally) by thuggish agents of the church.

Hubert himself is terribly confused. He has no real sense of what he’d be giving up. He is torn between the passionate objections of his beloved mother, brother, and priest on the one side, and, on the other side, the dictates of the church that he has been brought up to respect and obey above everything else. He has only vague feelings of resistance to the idea, which aren’t nearly strong enough to offset the fear that he will be eternally damned if he refuses.

To make the idea more palatable to Hubert and, perhaps, his father, the two of them get invited to Rome to get a glimpse of the cushy, opulent life he could lead. Unfortunately, this glimpse is provided by two aging eunuchs who aren’t very good examples of the long-term results of the procedure, and one of them even ends up begging Hubert’s father to reconsider; his father is freaked out by the whole scene and they flee back to London.

Meanwhile, while all of this is happening, Hubert gives a recital at the house of the New England ambassador, where he is exposed to a whole new possible attitude about the church and established authority. The New Englanders, living a little too far from the reach of the central church, tend to be a bit more irreverent towards authority and less strict about societal mores. They don’t seem all that bothered by the fact that disobeying the pope might endanger their mortal souls. And the ambassador’s young pre-teen daughter is particularly appealing to Hubert, giving him a bit of a glimmer of understanding about what he’d be losing.

At last, Hubert realizes he really doesn’t want this done to him, and that he has no option but to risk soul-damnation and to run away. When he does, he runs afoul of the criminal underworld, but is also helped by responsible strangers and friends, and he almost makes it to freedom—until an ironic turn of fate makes his whole plan fall apart with an awful thud.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Alteration is, on the whole, a well-crafted piece of fiction. Amis’s subject matter is certainly courageous. His characters are colorful and believable. And he creates a plausible 20th-century England that has evolved into its current form without almost any advanced science. Its technology is appropriate to his scenario; he does give the residents of this Europe express trains and some alternatively-powered omnibuses and dirigibles, but most people still primarily rely on horses and oxen for transportation.

Amis’s references to celebrities, both past and present, are sometimes smooth, sometimes jarringly cheeky. Alfieri Maserati serves as the pope’s chief inventor; Sir Francis Crick is a sad, mad, marginalized, heretical scientist; Benedict Arnold was not a traitor, but was instead a war hero, with a major town in New England named for him.

And Amis pays homage to alternate history legend Philip K. Dick with a really cheeky device: his most rebellious characters secretly read a banned alternate-history book called The Man in the High Castle, which is about an England where there was a Protestant Reformation, and where invention is allowed, and there are scientists and electricity and airplanes, and where its New England colony—called “America”—fought a revolution to gain its independence and became the world’s superpower. Needless to say, this book gives the rebels who read it much food for thought about how their own society could be.

This book-within-a-book is actually a relatively minor part of The Alteration, but it unfortunately seems to have obsessed William Gibson, who wrote about it in his introduction to my 2013 paperback version to the exclusion of most of the other, probably more important implications of the novel.

The most important implications of this novel being that tyranny and oppression will inevitably rely on a foundation of violence and cruelty, no matter how the subjects of that tyranny want to deny it, and no matter how the perpetrators of it try to sugarcoat it.

Amis’s characters desperately persist in going about their business as if everything was pleasant and idyllic. They are excruciatingly polite and deferential to each other. They use euphemisms to avoid talking directly about unpleasant or overly-personal topics (to the point where after about five people have tried to explain to Hubert exactly what will happen to him, he still has no idea).

But no matter how much the characters want to believe they live in a peaceful, painless society, the truth is that the church’s authority relies on unchecked violence and pain. At any moment, the men in control can strip away their subjects’ lives, liberty, and sensitive body parts. And if an individual resists, they are not just risking their body or their life; they are risking the damnation of their eternal soul.

The distressing truth of this novel is that Hubert never had a chance. I read in continual hope that he would find freedom. But the seeming inevitability of his fate—forced on him in the end, in spite of all his efforts, almost as if by God—casts a depressing, hopeless shadow over the whole book. And maybe that is Amis’s point, and his warning: in a tyrannical state, self-determination is impossible, and hope is pointless.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Review: Strange Bodies

Marcel Theroux
2013
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Theroux’s novel Strange Bodies starts in a tchotchke shop somewhere in Britain. A man comes in to see the shop owner. He claims to be her ex-boyfriend from long ago, Nicholas “Nicky” Slopen, and he can remember all sorts of things only her ex would know. The only problems are that (a) he doesn’t look anything like her ex, and (b) her ex is supposed to have died in a gruesome car accident a couple years before.

Nevertheless, the man claims to really be Nicky Slopen. And he leaves the shop owner with a flash drive that contains a troublingly credible story of what happened to him over the past few years. The rest of the novel tells that story—a story that will reveal whether or not someone has actually invented the technology to resurrect dead souls.

Slopen is a struggling academic, a specialist in the writing of Samuel Johnson. He has a loveless marriage and a strained relationship with his kids.

One day, a rich celebrity collector comes into Slopen’s bleak life to ask him to authenticate some papers that he is thinking about buying that purport to be lost letters of Samuel Johnson.

Slopen finds that the paper the letters are written on are only a couple years old, so he figures the letters must be forgeries. But the writing is absolutely, perfectly, undeniably, bafflingly Johnson’s.

Slopen insists on meeting the person who wrote the forgeries. The man appears to be an autistic savant: a Russian immigrant, Jack, who barely speaks at all, much less any English, but who produces an almost continuous stream of this very authentic Johnsonian material as Slopen watches.

Slopen starts visiting Jack regularly to try to find out more about him, and grows increasingly attached to him and his sister, Vera. Slopen’s attachment grows especially strong after his inevitable divorce.

Eventually Vera has to go back to Russia to see her doctor and leaves Jack in Slopen’s care. It is at this point that Slopen starts to put it together that Jack might actually be Johnson—or that at least his brain might be Johnson’s brain. And the more questions Slopen asks of the sinister people hovering around Jack and Vera—including the celebrity who asked him to verify the documents in the first place, and Vera’s “business associate” and bodyguard, who both live with her and Jack—the more he suspects something really unusual was going on.

Slopen confronts them all, one by one, and eventually learns that they are adherents of the philosophy of the 18th century Russian thinker Nikolai Federov, who theorized of immortality being possible for all humans. And that, following the theory that a person’s soul is present in their writing, they have developed a procedure to use a person’s collected writings to plant that person’s memories into the brain of another person.

There are just two problems with this (besides the fact that the idea that you can recreate a person’s whole personality from their writing is a shaky literary premise at best). The first problem is that they aren’t really giving a person immortality; they are creating a simulation of that person in another body. The original person still dies. (This has been explored to death in many other, better vehicles.)

And, second, in order to do this, they need to use someone else’s body as the vessel for the implanted memories. For all intents and purposes, this essentially kills the person whose body they are using.

Vera and Nicky are, to say the least, disturbed by all of this. And they know they have to stop the practice from becoming a way for wealthy few to perpetuate their personalities on the backs of unsuspecting working-class volunteers. But they know that no one else will believe their story, and that they are in mortal danger from the sinister forces behind the procedure, who will stop at nothing to shut them up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the plus side, the story is well written and (mostly) unfolds at a breezy clip. Theroux also does a good job of giving you just enough information that you can guess what’s happening—including the central conceit that not only has Samuel Johnson’s soul been transferred into the body of a working-class Russian man, but so also has that of our main character—but not so much information that you know how it happened, or why. So you want to keep reading to find that out.

Theroux also does a good job of telling the story discontinuously, which seems to be difficult for many writers. The story line jumps back and forth in time between the near past (the story of how Nicky Slopen in his original body met the resurrected Samuel Johnson and got involved with the Russians); the far past (the story of how Slopen and Johnson were resurrected); and the present (the story of the resurrected Slopen in the mental hospital, actually writing the narrative). The discontinuity is a little crazy-making, but completely fits the story, since Nicky himself has been driven a bit crazy by what happened to him and all he has to process to come to terms with it.

Theroux also is able to make his resurrected Samuel Johnson amazingly authentic. It makes me think Theroux must be a Johnson fan himself, well-read enough in Johnson’s papers and steeped enough in Johnson’s style to be able to make his Johnson character speak and write like the real thing.

There are just a couple problems with the book, but they are big ones for me.

For one thing, I’ve never been a big fan of Samuel Johnson’s writing. Far be it from me to use the term “navel-gazing” about the writings of such a philosophical giant. But he does spend quite a bit of time agonizing over the meaning of life, and the universe, and the nature of the soul, to the point where, if one were so inclined, one conceivably could describe it as unproductive noodling for noodling’s sake.

And, perhaps as is natural with this subject matter, his writing tends to get depressing. Which brings us to the second issue I have with the book: the tone. Samuel Johnson always leaves me feeling unproductively melancholy and pessimistic.

In several places in the novel, Slopen raves about how great it is that Johnson is able to look unblinkingly at reality, recognizing that all the things we do on Earth are most likely completely meaningless, and that the ways we try to make ourselves feel better about that fact are just Band-Aids. In a passage near the beginning of the book, Slopen writes:
I’m poor in everything but ironies, and to be truthful, I’ve forgotten what’s so good about irony in the first place. It’s just the resting state of the universe. Johnson puts it best in a section I can recall from memory. “The real state of sublunary nature,” he calls it, “in which, at the same time, the reveler is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose.”
But the truth is that the irony he describes in those easy pairings—revelers sharing the world with mourners, Wile E. Coyote foiled by the Road Runner’s cheery energy—is simply the last available meaning before the significance of anything decays to random chance. Many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design or purpose. Good becomes bad, bad good; love degenerates to dullness and senseless animosity. Irony is not order, but it gives a shape to things. We can’t believe that a rational God had a hand in this chaos, but we’re not quite ready to sign up to the devastating truth of Johnson’s last line. Our faith in irony is a sticking plaster to restore our loss of Faith in its larger sense. (Pp. 77-78)
Slopen and his idol Johnson both also have an ever-present feeling that our reality is fragile, and based simply on consensus. They are hyper-aware that the “facts” we take for granted—“the state of a marriage, artistic merit, a person’s true nature”—are liable to fall apart at any moment, simply because those involved might stop believing in them.

And, because they are aware of this, they stand ever poised on the precipice of oppressive gloom and insanity. They are just this side of mental breakdown. Slopen describes Johnson as the master of “keeping it real in spite of the danger of melancholy and losing your grip on sanity.” As Slopen says,
To me, Johnson’s recognition of that is part of his acute modernity as a moralist. I think he saw the relation between individual and collective delusion: the threat of madness to the human mind and the body politic. He knew that it was a small step from religious mania to religious wars. Madness is part of that turn away from the real that Johnson was so vigilant in confronting wherever he found it—not because of his confidence in reason, but because he knew from his own experience how fragile the rule of reason is.
No one more embodies the illuminating potency of reason. Johnson was devastating in his capacity to sniff out the fake in its different guises… But this very power was riddled with its opposites: melancholy and uncertainty; fear of his own loosening grip on the nature of reality.” (P. 148)
Years ago, I used to find this kind of thinking appealing. It seemed to cut through pretense and offer an unvarnished, honest view of the world. But I find that I have grown weary of it, and now it seems pretentious itself. I don’t have the patience any longer for maudlin, self-absorbed noodling about reality and the soul. I don’t necessarily think that reality is that fragile. I think it is possible to look at the world and be cynical and skeptical and honest without falling into a pit of despair. I want to find joy where I can, and to be able to acknowledge pain without being overcome by ennui and pessimism.

But Johnson doesn’t seem to be able to do that, and neither does Slopen. They remain stubbornly forlorn and depressed.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin
1971
Awards: Locus
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

For one of the later editions of her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a beautiful essay about how science fiction is powerful because it allows us to perform thought experiments—following exploratory premises to their ultimate end to see how they might play out.

She is brilliant at this herself, coming up with wild kernels of ideas and packing interesting characters and plots around them so she can explore their full consequences. She takes your mind places you never could go in reality—and, in doing so, reveals much about our real life on Earth.

The Lathe of Heaven is a perfect example of this. And it is a relatively short novel, but it plunges you right into the story and moves along at a fast clip, with every chapter advancing the central plot one more major degree until the final resolution.

George Orr, our main character, is a sensitive man by nature. And he carries a terrible burden: he knows that his dreams change waking reality. For everyone.

When Orr dreams, his dreams change the past. So everyone except him knows only the new, altered reality. Orr is the only one who carries both the memories of the original, defunct reality and the new, changed reality in his head simultaneously.

And Orr’s is a world that would be tempting to try to change. In perhaps one of the first ever appearances of climate change in a work of fiction, Orr’s Earth of the near future is one wracked by global warming and crowded with too many billions of people. Polar ice is melting, seas are rising, and entire coastlines of cities are imperiled. The weather in Portland, where he lives, is hot and constantly rainy; the city gets an average of 114” of rain per year, and it is 70° Fahrenheit in mid-March.

But Orr knows he doesn’t have the right to change reality for everyone—whether they are aware of it or not. So his conscience is making him miserable, and he tries to suppress his dreaming by taking illegal pharmaceuticals. When he is inevitably discovered, he is sent to government-mandated therapy.

His therapist, Dr. Haber, is a big man with an ego to match his size. Orr makes the mistake of being completely honest with Haber about his dreams. At first, of course, Haber thinks Orr is crazy, but after seeing his surroundings change during an induced dream state controlled by hypnotic suggestion, Haber realizes that he is telling the truth.

Haber doesn’t admit to Orr that he believes him, though. He acts like a dispassionate professional, diagnosing Orr with a severe psychological problem needing hypnotically-controlled dream therapy. Treatment provided, of course, by Haber himself.

Orr soon starts to suspect that Haber is actually using their dream sessions to remake the world as Haber wants it. And it is a scary moment indeed when we realize Orr is quite right in his suspicions. With each session, Haber becomes just a bit more powerful and famous; eventually he has become founder of his own institute of sleep research and influential with politicians and business leaders. But as things get better and better for Haber, they get potentially worse and worse for humanity.

The problem is that, even with the best intentions, Orr’s dreams have unintended consequences. Each one does what Haber asks for, but in unexpected and almost always worse ways. Each dream pulls humanity out of the frying pan and into the fire. (For example, Haber asks Orr to dream that people stop fighting wars with each other, so Orr dreams that human wars all stop… because we have had to band together to fight a terrifying alien foe.)

Eventually, Orr brings in a lawyer to witness the therapy sessions. During the session, Haber asks Orr to solve the environmental problems the world is having, and Orr dreams of a plague killing off six of the seven billion people on Earth. The lawyer is looking out the window as it happens, and sees people and buildings disappear, so she believes him too. But neither she nor Orr know how to stop Haber.

Orr tries to run away, but he can’t stop the dreams, and he can’t force himself to stay awake forever. And the pressure is turned up when he learns that Haber wants to replicate his brain waves, so that anyone can have “effective” dreams like his. And by “anyone,” of course, Haber means himself.

We have no idea how Orr is going to fix all of this, since the changes happen in dream states during which he has no control over his conscious thought. But it may just turn out that the very monsters he created with his dreams will be the source of his salvation.

There are two things that make Le Guin a seminal writer of science fiction. One is that she thinks extremely deeply, pulling all kinds of perceptive, unexpected insights out of what might appear to be a simple premise. And the other is that she has a clear, unpretentious, emotionally evocative way with words.

The Lathe of Heaven is based on an intriguing question: what would happen if you could alter reality with your dreams? The question seems fun and playful at first, but the more the story goes on, the more you realize how horrifying it could be. Dreams are uncontrollable, unpredictable, and subject to no laws of logic or law. You can make anything happen in them. And in the hands of someone like Haber, who is completely convinced of his own power and righteousness, it could result in global disaster.

By the end, you realize that the power to shift reality is a very dangerous thing. And that even if you do have the ability to do it and you think you’re doing it for humanity’s benefit, you shouldn’t. No one has the right to destroy reality for others, no matter how bad their reality is.

The Lathe of Heaven has a beautiful—and, at first, seemingly irrelevant—opening which looks at the world from the point of view of a jellyfish. The jellyfish is buffeted by the waves and directed by ocean currents. It has no real volition and no control over where it is going. It exists almost in a dream state. And it has no real problem with that unless and until it runs into rocky land.

Gradually, you realize that Orr’s state of being is akin to that of a jellyfish. He has very little control over what he does and where he is going. He is directed by the currents of his dreams when he sleeps, and by the currents of humanity when he is awake. This is particularly vivid at one point when he is riding the subway, hanging onto the strap, surrounded by people; he is actually physically held up by his fellow passengers, uncontrollably swaying to the motion of the crowd, like his spirit animal.

We might think at first that Orr and the jellyfish are weak and aimless. But I think what Le Guin wants us to see is that sometimes it is best to realize that you can’t control the currents surrounding you, and that you should flow with them instead, letting their energy propel you, judo-like, to where ever you are destined to go. And that, depending on the circumstances, this actually can be the strongest course of action—as it certainly is in Orr’s case.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: The Courts of Chaos

Roger Zelazny
1978
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

SPOILER ALERT (for the four earlier installments of the Chronicles of Amber)

It’s time once again for another Cliff’s Notes version of the latest adventures of Corwin, Prince of Amber, his hero’s quest to save his homeland and his family, and his own personal quest to find satisfaction within his unsettled heart.

The Courts of Chaos is the fifth book in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. It is an important installment because it is the final episode of the first half of the Amber saga; it is the resolution of much of what the first four novels had been leading up to. 

Most of the book is taken up by the war between Amber and the Courts of Chaos—the final, open phase of a heated, bloody, intense, magic-strewn conflict that has been building for a long time. But the book also at last resolves the question of Amber’s royal line of succession, and allows Corwin to reconcile with his estranged family.

It also lays the groundwork for the next installment in the series, The Trumps of Doom, which nicely reboots the Amber franchise and starts it off again in a fresh new direction.

It’s also the only book for which I’ve ever seen this preface in the Wikipedia entry:

This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. Please help improve it by removing unnecessary details and making it more concise. 

Which makes me realize I’ve got to abbreviate if I don’t want to be too long and excessively detailed. Something that is all too possible to do with Zelazny. So, with no further ado…

The Courts of Chaos begins with the bombshell that ended the previous book: the revelation that Corwin’s ally and friend Ganelon was his father, Oberon, the king of Amber, all along. As Corwin and the rest of his siblings adjust to this information, Oberon offers Corwin the kingship as his chosen successor, but Corwin—surprising himself as well as us—realizes that, after everything he’s done to get the throne, he doesn’t want it.

And, in another surprise announcement, Dara reveals that she has a son by Corwin—Merlin—who therefore has royal relations in both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. This puts Merlin in a key strategic position (and will prove to be important in the next installment of the Chronicles, The Trumps of Doom).

Meanwhile, the war between Amber and the Courts rages intensely. It continues to do so for most of the rest of this book, even as Corwin dips in and out of the fray.

Complicating the war is the fact that Oberon and Dworkin, Oberon’s father, have both gone a little bit nutty and are trying to destroy the Pattern, which would thereby destroy both Amber and the Courts of Chaos. This puts some of the forces of the Courts (e.g. Dara) into an odd and edgy alliance with the forces of Amber (e.g. Corwin).

Fiona admits that she had previously been allied with Oberon and Dworkin, but isn’t any longer because she realizes they are crazy. Corwin steals the Jewel of Judgement from them and tries to walk the Pattern, with the goal of defeating them by repairing it. But Oberon thwarts him, and commands him to go to the heart of the Courts of Chaos instead, which he does, for some reason—via one of Zelazny’s trademark trippy hellrides. Along the way, Brand tries to kill him, twice, and so does an army of hostile dwarf men, and he is also temporarily blocked by a violent supernatural storm.

Corwin also has a few pretty funny encounters with surreal—or perhaps, rather, absurdist—creatures in the shadowlands, including a sentient tree, a giant sunk up to his neck in a mire who is totally depressed and just wants the world to end, and an evil crow-type bird who engages Corwin in a twisted conversation about the futility of striving and the pointlessness of the human ego.

Corwin, who is anything but existentialist, eventually hauls himself out of these conversations, eats the evil crow-bird, and finally uses the Jewel of Judgement to draw a brand-new Pattern. He is buffeted intensely all the while on all sides, psychologically and physically, but does complete it—thus putting a near-fatal kink into Oberon, Dworkin, and Brand’s plans to destroy everything.

This would be a tremendous victory except that, of course, just as Corwin finishes the Pattern, Brand appears in the middle of it, steals the Jewel, vows to destroy both Patterns, and vanishes into the ether.

At this point, Corwin uses his new Pattern to teleport himself back into the war at the Courts of Chaos. He sees most of his Amber siblings fighting the good fight against the forces of the Courts, and Brand at the center of it all, fighting everyone. Eventually, Random, Bleys, and Fiona corner Brand on a ledge, as Brand holds Dierdre hostage. Corwin uses his attunement to make the Jewel of Judgement super hot so that it burns Brand, who is wearing it, and he and Dierdre both topple over the ledge, falling (theoretically) to their deaths.

And, with this, and the creation of the new Pattern, Corwin has essentially defeated all the forces that want to destroy Amber. But he has killed Dierdre in the process, which totally bums him out. His family gathers to comfort him, and then the unicorn arrives from the battlefield to present the Jewel of Judgement to Oberon’s second choice of successor: Corwin’s brother Random. 

So, in a way, all is happy and resolved. At least for now. Corwin is reconciled with his remaining family, and everyone agrees that Random is a great choice for king. But Corwin is exhausted, disillusioned, and needs a retreat. We get the feeling it may be a while before he is ready to be his old sarcastic, resilient, lusty self again. 

Luckily for him, Zelazny gives him a break in the next part of the Amber series, letting someone else—a very able someone else—shoulder the burden of the plot and all of the assassination attempts for a while.