Friday, April 7, 2017

Book Review: Nine Princes in Amber

Roger Zelazny
1970
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Nine Princes in Amber is the first of ten books in Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series. I knew I was going to have to read the sixth book in the series (Trumps of Doom), because it won the Locus award for best fantasy novel. But I love Zelazny, so I rationalized that I needed to read the whole series to properly appreciate Trumps of Doom in context.

When I first read Zelazny’s books, I had no idea that there was a science fiction subgenre called New Wave, and that he belonged to it; I just knew that I loved what he was doing. Wikipedia describes New Wave sci-fi this way:
“The New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, a "literary" or artistic sensibility, and a focus on "soft" as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition and sometimes mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction, which some of them regarded as stodgy, adolescent and poorly written.”
Zelazny is, without a doubt, one of the best of the New Wave writers. In Nine Princes in Amber, as with the rest of his work, his writing is both literary and artistic; his settings and characters are unique, creative, weird, beautiful, funny, and sometimes ominous and unnerving. There is a certain amount of surrealism in his imagery, which makes it occasionally seem to come totally out of left field, or like the expression of his unconscious.

But, in keeping with his New Wave sensibilities, he never lets anything get too detached from reality. At some point, when things seem to be getting too dreamy, he will stick in a sarcastic, modern, self-referential remark that lets you know that he is perfectly aware that he’s writing from the real world, in the twentieth century. He will be coasting along describing a fantastical scene with transparent people living in a glass city, or a landscape of purple skies and blowing blue grasses, or an attack by a fleet of manticores, and in the middle of it he’ll have his main character drop a term like “chutzpah” or a snappy comment about Freudian mommy complexes that whips you back to reality. It’s completely refreshing.

Nine Princes in Amber starts out with a Bourne-Identity-like amnesia device. The main character wakes up in a hospital room, clearly recovering from a serious accident but with no memory of who he is and an instinctive feeling that something is wrong. He senses that somebody is conspiring to keep him drugged and in the hospital. So he breaks out and follows a series of whisper-thin clues to the mansion of one of the people who was keeping him locked up, which turns out to be his sister Flora. She is shocked that he was able to break out of the hospital, but she lets him stay with her.

At Flora’s house, he quickly puts together some key pieces of information about himself, including that his name is Corwin; that he is one of 23 original children of Oberon, the missing king of a land called Amber, a fantastical realm in another dimension; that he has superhuman strength, can regrow body parts, and has lived for hundreds of years; and that he and his surviving 16 siblings are all vying with each other for their father’s throne. His brothers and sisters have a twisted and changeable set of alliances and enemies—and some of them would kill him instantly if they knew where he was.

Poking around in Flora’s desk, Corwin also finds a pack of tarot cards, and remembers that these cards allow the brothers and sisters not only to communicate with each other, but also to transport themselves to different places. (This will come in very handy later on.)

The truly mind-twisting thing about the whole novel is that Amber is the only real location in the universe. All other places—including our own Earth—are “shadow” places “shaped” mentally by the princes and princesses of Amber for their own enjoyment or refuge. Corwin admittedly likes some of these shadow worlds very much, and has spent a lot of time in them, hanging out in the Middle Ages or World War II or the French Revolution with Napoleon and Einstein and other of our Earthly celebrities—but none of them are real.

To briefly summarize the rest of what happens: Corwin’s brother Random shows up at the door, pursued by a horde of terrifying wraiths from some other dimension, and Flora and Corwin protect him. Corwin admits his amnesia to Flora and Random, and convinces them to help him. The three of them use their innate dimensional-space-shaping abilities to travel through a series of surrealistic lands to Rebma, the underwater mirror world to Amber, where the queen of Rebma helps restore Corwin’s memory (and sweetens the experience by sleeping with him).

At this point, Corwin fully remembers his desire for his father’s crown. He rejoins his (currently) most trusted brother, Bleys. The two of them put together an army of oddly-shaped and furry, clawed humanoid fighters from other dimensions, and they all march on Amber to try to prevent their brother Eric from crowning himself king.

It doesn’t go well. Their army of 150,000 is whittled away to zero by Eric’s forces combined with the forces of other brothers Julian and Caine; Bleys falls off a mountainside into an abyss, presumably to his death; and Eric burns out Corwin’s eyes and throws him into jail. When his eyes are burnt out, Corwin curses Eric, which will turn out to have pretty nasty implications in the later books.

After four miserable years (during which his eyes re-grow), Corwin is eventually able to escape through magic and trickery. He flees far from Amber to regroup and fight another day.

And that other day, and the fight, are taken up in the second book: The Guns of Avalon.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Favorite Ongoing Space Missions (March 2017)

You would not believe what we Earthlings have going on out there in space right now. It makes my head spin. I decided to list some of my favorites—if nothing else, to help myself keep track of them all.


SOL 1598 MR+ML (Seán Doran)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #1: Mars
Opportunity, Spirit, and Curiosity Rovers

NASA has three rovers active on Mars right now. The Opportunity Rover landed in 2004 and was only expected to operate for 90 days, but is still exploring and sending back pictures today, more than twelve years later. Its partner, Spirit, is also still running, but is stuck in sand and has been unable to move for over a decade. The Curiosity Rover landed in 2012 and is currently searching for organic material.

Two digital artists—Kevin Gill and Seán Doran—have been using data from these and other Mars missions to create beautiful images of what Mars’ terrain looks like from the air and from the ground. Gill’s Flickr gallery is here and Doran’s gallery is here.


Hexagonal clouds on
Saturn's north pole (NASA)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #2: Saturn
Cassini Spacecraft and Huygens Probe

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997. It passed Venus and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn and inserting itself into orbit around the planet in 2004. So far it has discovered at least two new rings and two new moons, as well as odd solid bodies in the rings that may be more satellites. It has also taken innumerable pictures of Saturn’s strange storms and distinctive hexagonal north pole cloud patterns.

One of the first things Cassini did upon arrival at Saturn was to deploy a probe, Huygens, which landed on Saturn’s moon Titan; this was the most distant landing ever by an Earth spacecraft on another world. Huygens took pictures the entire time, and NASA put these pictures together into a video, which is great; you can even see the shadow of the probe’s parachute sailing by after it lands on the surface. Because we already knew that Titan had lakes of methane on its surface, Huygens was built to float, but it landed on dry land and survived to take pictures for 72 hours

While Huygens was landing on Titan, Cassini itself was investigating another moon, Enceladus. It saw icy jets and geysers ejecting particles at high speed, leading scientists to discover that not only does Enceladus have an atmosphere, but it also has a liquid ocean under its surface ice—an ocean that could, conceivably, be capable of supporting life.

Cassini will keep studying Saturn until later this year, at which point it will be directed to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and destroy itself.


Jupiter's south pole (NASA/
JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #3: Jupiter
Juno Orbiter

NASA’s Juno orbiter arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and settled itself into a large, long orbit around the planet. It is a polar orbit, which means that instead of orbiting in parallel with all of the planets revolving around the sun, it is orbiting across the solar plane, at right angles to it.

This enables the spacecraft to spend as little time in Jupiter’s destructive radiation fields as long as possible. On each orbit, it takes about 2 hours for the craft to go from the north pole to the south pole, and it travels less than 3,000 miles above the planet's clouds. It will be making a total of 37 orbits over 20 months before it suffers irretrievable damage to its instruments from Jupiter's radiation. After its 37th orbit, Juno will perform a controlled deorbit and plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere, where it will disintegrate.

NASA created a good (if somewhat overdramatic) explanatory documentary on the Juno mission.


Where is OSIRIS-REx now? (NASA)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission(s) #4: Asteroids
OSIRIS-REx Sample Retrieval Mission, Dawn Mission, Hayabusa 2 Spacecraft

Perhaps the most stunning of the various asteroid projects going on right now is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx sample retrieval mission. OSIRIS-REx is currently en route to the Bennu Earth-Trojan asteroid and will arrive there in August 2018. It will retrieve samples from the asteroid and return them to Earth in 2023, becoming the first US spacecraft to return samples from an asteroid. As it travels, it has been sending back pictures of other planets and moons in our solar system, including some of Earth and our moon together which make me oddly sentimental.

Occator Crater on Ceres (NASA/
JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
NASA’s Dawn mission studied the asteroid Vesta in 2011-2012 and then moved to Ceres. It discovered evidence for organic compounds on Ceres, and further evidence that those compounds have been modified in a "warm water-rich environment." These compounds (and water) are a necessary (but not sufficient) component of organic life.

The Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, built by the Japanese space agency (JAXA), is currently en route to the Ryugu asteroid and should arrive in July 2018.

And, finally, NASA is gearing up to launch a mission called “Lucy” in 2021, which will explore other Earth-Trojan asteroids.

Note: The term "Trojan asteroid" used to only refer to asteroids orbiting the sun in step with Jupiter, but now refers to a stable asteroid orbiting the sun in step with any planet. Thus an “Earth-Trojan asteroid” is an asteroid that is locked in orbit with Earth.


Pluto's Wright Mons
(
NASA/JHUIAPL/SwRI)
Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #5: Kuiper Belt
New Horizons Spacecraft

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft sailed past Charon and Pluto in 2015, taking pictures the whole time. It is the first spacecraft to study Pluto up close, and will now be studying the rest of the Kuiper Belt. It is the fastest artificially-accelerated object ever, and will be the fifth probe to leave the solar system. NASA put together a video of what a virtual “landing” on Pluto would look like, based on pictures from New Horizons, here.


Favorite Ongoing Space Mission #6: Venus
Akatsuki Orbiter

JAXA’s Akatsuki orbiter is currently orbiting Venus. It arrived in 2010 and, after some hitches, was able to be inserted into Venusian orbit in 2015. It is currently engaged in a 2-year period of science operations which will end in 2018. This is Japan’s first successful mission to explore another planet, and we wait with baited breath to see what they find out.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke
1953
Nominations: Retro Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

I just finished Childhood’s End, and I have to say I am really disappointed.

I am a Clarke fan. I really liked the Rama series, and Fountains of Paradise, and 2001 (the movie). I am in awe of how he seemed to be able to see decades into the technological future. But this book—which, to be fair, is one of his earlier novels—just seemed like a halfhearted warm-up for his later work.

Childhood’s End does contain several pieces of futuristic technology which stand up extremely well even now, more than fifty years later. But the story has very little in the way of character likeability, or suspense, or excitement. The plot meanders and drags badly. And, in many places, it also is a pretty embarrassing display of Clarke’s sexism—which is easier to ignore when the story is good.

The book starts out well, with a scene straight out of Independence Day (although it would be more accurate to say that Independence Day starts out with a scene straight out of this book). Sometime in the mid-twentieth century, on the eve of the launch of one of Earth’s first satellites, a fleet of enormous alien ships arrives at our planet. The ships position themselves in the sky over every major city in the world. The chief alien—Supervisor Karellen—broadcasts one speech, in English, over all of Earth’s radio frequencies, announcing that national governments are now irrelevant, and that the aliens will be enforcing peaceful and beneficial conditions around the world, whether the humans like it or not.                                                      

For five years the ships just hover and the aliens never show themselves, but they are able to enforce the kinds of behavior they want through drones and rays and other sophisticated pieces of technology. They are able, for example, to prevent us from killing each other en masse by destroying any missiles that we fire at each other.

The only contact the humans have with the aliens (whom the humans have begun calling the Overlords) is through the Secretary General of the United Nations, Rikki Stormgren. Stormgren is periodically brought up into the ship hovering over New York, where he converses with Overlord Supervisor Karellen through a one-way mirror.

Even though the aliens are supposedly benevolent and are theoretically helping humanity by preventing them from doing stupid things to each other, the humans, of course, rankle at being controlled. Some countries try to attack the ships with nuclear bombs, but the bombs just evaporate on the ships’ surfaces. There is a little bit of a minor kerfuffle when Stormgren is kidnapped by a fringe resistance group in an attempt to get the aliens to show themselves, but Karellen is able to bust Stormgren out relatively easily.

Finally, fifty years later, the aliens decide humanity is used to their presence enough to actually reveal themselves. And it’s a good thing the aliens waited, because they are terrifying: twice our size and shaped exactly like devils, complete with horns and bat wings.

By now, though, most humans don’t care. They have been lulled into a dead stupor caused by the complete elimination of any challenge in the form of war, disease, poverty, famine, or crime. This stupor, unfortunately for us (and, as it turns out, purposefully on the part of the aliens) extends to any expression of human creativity. There is hardly any more real effort to engage in art or music or writing, and there is no more serious pursuit of science. The aliens particularly discourage any kind of investigation into alien technology, or the aliens’ origins, or any kind of space travel or astrophysics.

One human, Jan Rodricks, clinging to a shred of scientific curiosity, stows away on one of the alien ships returning to the Overlords’ home world. The aliens discover him mid-flight, but let him continue his journey.

Another group of people tries to fight the boredom by founding an island colony of the last people left who are interested in art and science, but it doesn’t really amount to much. They mainly pursue dilettante interests and hold boring parties where they have interminably immature and gossipy conversations.

Eventually, after much screwing around, the Overlords reveal their ultimate purpose, which is to prepare the current generation of children to be turned into little conduits, mindless accessories to a universal Overmind. The children eventually stop talking to their parents and start spending all their time in little meditative comas. This leads, inevitably, to the end of the human race.

The book’s ending is told from Jan Rodrick’s point of view as he returns home. Because of the relativistic time distortion from near-light-speed space travel, he returns home after all of the people that he knew are long dead, and all that is left are the weird Overmind children. And as soon as he get there, they begin casting all water and life forms out into space, in preparation for joining the Overmind. In a psychedelic scene that seems like a less powerful, less coherent rehearsal for the ending of 2001, Rodrick describes the destruction of Earth and his unification with the cosmos with sweeping galactic scope.

As I said, one thing that Clarke does still have going for him in this book is his technological prescience. In one otherwise tedious party scene, for example, the host pretends to answer the door for his guests using a realistic holographic projection tool similar to those now used in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Clarke also invents a nascent form of virtual reality as an entertainment tool for his artist colony. He (adorably) describes it as an outgrowth of the “art of the cartoon film:”

    “First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old ‘moving pictures’ more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became part of the action. To achieve this would involve stimulation of all the senses...When the goal was achieved, there would be an enormous enrichment of human experience. A man could become—for a while, at least—any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary…and when the ‘program’ was over, he would have acquired a memory as vivid as any experience in his actual life—indeed, indistinguishable from reality itself.”
However, none of this makes up for the plodding, slow-paced story, which consists mostly of conversations between his characters. Isaac Asimov could pull off this type of narrative because the ideas his characters talk about are interesting and exciting in themselves. But Clarke's characters' ideas are not; the conversations are mostly sophomoric and do nothing to further the action (such action as there is).

It also does not make up for the seedy sexism. This ranges from relatively minor incidents, such as how the women in the artist colony are somewhat condescendingly described as all taking up knitting together and knitting sweaters for all their menfolk, to more egregious ones like the conscious resignation of wives to the “fundamentally polygamous” nature of men and the resulting public series of mistresses their husbands must have.

Forty-six years later, Greg Bear wrote a book called Darwin’s Radio, which also had a plot which included the near-instant change of humanity from one species to another within one generation. Bear’s new species also included a new breed of highly empathic, emotionally interconnected children. But Bear’s novel is much better at what it does, with a comparatively interesting plot and without the 1950s era baggage.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review: Islands in the Net

Bruce Sterling
1988
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Hugo, Locus

Rating: ★ – – – –

Some cyberpunk novels have riveting, twisty-turny plots that hold your interest throughout the course of the book. Some have complex, interesting characters that are fascinating to follow (whether they are likeable or not). Some have future tech that is both original and well-founded, so that even if you can’t exactly follow its specifics, you can get the gist of it enough to understand its purpose and to realize how imaginative the author has been in creating it.

This is not one of any of these kinds of novels.

In Islands in the Net, Laura and David Webster, a married couple, run a lodge in Galveston, Texas on the Caribbean coast. They both work for Rizome, one of the small number of enormous international corporations that essentially run the world in this year of 2023.

Rizome has chosen the Websters’ lodge as the site for a secret gathering of data pirates, who are from data havens in Grenada, Luxembourg, and Singapore. The data havens are deeply distrustful of each other, but they are all being blackmailed by the same person or organization and want to work together to figure out who it is. For some reason they have chosen Rizome to act as mediator, even though they resent Rizome and everything it stands for.

One night, one of the Grenadian conference participants is shot dead by an aerial drone. The shadowy Free Army of Counter Terrorism (F.A.C.T.) takes credit for the assassination, saying it is part of their effort to eliminate all drug runners and data pirates.

Laura, who witnessed the shooting, is called to Grenada to testify and to prove Rizome didn’t send the drone. This begins a mostly pointless whirlwind series of adventures for her in which she travels from exotic location to exotic location across the globe, and in each place she is the center point of some kind of attack or incident that starts a bloody country-wide riot or revolution from which she (sometimes with her husband and baby) has to escape. There are also numerous chances for men to ogle her breasts.

First she goes to Grenada, where the residents bridle at all governments and corporations curtailing their freedom. They believe everything should be legal and free to all, including data, pot, and food, the last of which is grown in vast quantities on huge offshore tanker ships. After giving her testimony to the board of the Grenadian data haven, her house and all of the floating food factories are bombed by Singapore.
   
Laura, David, and their baby are rescued from the Grenadian carnage by representatives of Kymera, a Singaporean bank. David and the baby are flown home, while Laura is flown to Kymera’s headquarters in Singapore to tell them what she knows about Grenada. But while she is there, the Singaporean Prime Minister is drugged by terrorists (maybe from Grenada; maybe from F.A.C.T.) and made to babble Grenadian libertarian rhetoric on national television, causing a countrywide riot. Laura huddles on the roof of a Rizome building with some co-workers until she is rescued by what is supposedly the Viennese world police, but turns out to be, in fact, F.A.C.T.; they think she knows they have an atomic bomb, so they take her to their headquarters in Mali and throw her in prison for more than a year.

Laura escapes from the prison when it is attacked by a band of rogue Tuareg rebels, led by an American journalist who has gone native. The Tuaregs drive her across the desert to their camp, where she sleeps with the journalist (who has been ogling her). He then films her talking about all her adventures and exposing all the secrets she has learned about Grenada, Singapore, the Viennese world police, and F.A.C.T., and broadcasts it across the world. All the bad banks and pirate consortia then collapse and the world is made safe again for democracy.

The main problem with this book is that it is just plain tedious. I can overlook a whole lot of awkwardness, offensiveness, and silliness if the plot is enjoyable. But in Islands in the Net, the conversations are insipid, the characters are neither interesting nor likeable, the plot is plodding, motives are unclear, mob scenes and battles are strangely boring, and suspense is nonexistent.

Laura also has an inconsistent personality: she is sometimes demure and deferential, sometimes professional and commanding, sometimes spouting an angry stream of obscenities with little warning.

Some sections occasionally held my attention, such as portions of Laura’s time in the Mali prison and her escape in the Tuareg trucks. But most of the time I would read for a few minutes and then find myself staring off into space, not caring about what was happening. About two-thirds of the way through the book I started skipping sentences, and then whole paragraphs.
   
There are other reasons this book was disappointing, however. One is the absence of truly innovative future technology, even by 1988 standards. The spyware that Laura and David are given by Rizome when they go to Grenada and Singapore is clunky: obvious earpieces and large, dark video-equipped sunglasses that they have to wear even at night and indoors. They both wear big “watchphones” that don’t seem to do much more than tell the time and remind them of appointments. And most of the video equipment—whether for entertaining, gaming, or communicating—is based on the VCR.

Laura’s politics are also internally inconsistent and at times hypocritical. She is a firm believer in the ideals of Rizome, her employer, which is supposedly a completely democratic, egalitarian, non-hierarchical corporation. (There are no bosses or underlings; everyone is called an “associate.”) And yet neither Laura nor Rizome can tolerate a third world country running free food farms to feed its people. She is also appalled by the Tuaregs, who are fighting for their independence and sometimes have to resort to semi-terrorist tactics because they have no other avenues left. And she is stridently opposed to data havens and data pirates, never seeing that they may be offering truly equalizing power to everyday people in a world of corporate tyranny and censorship.
   
And she and David themselves actively maintain a hierarchical mini-economy with the staff of Hispanic servants working at their lodge. Although Laura says that they are all equals, it is very clear who are the bosses and who are the servants—especially when she and her husband go gallivanting off overseas whenever they want to, and the kitchen and cleaning staff have to be available to maintain the lodge and watch the baby and prepare food for guests at a moment’s notice.

And, last but not least, this book handles the intimate relationships and sexuality of its female main character so very badly. Almost all of the males that Laura encounters—Grenadians, Singaporeans, Malian jailers, and Tuareg rebels alike—are introduced to us by whether they look at her body or not, and how. And Laura actually feels more comfortable with them when they are ogling. She consciously becomes more relaxed with her Grenadian guide, for example, when he stops looking at her without interest and begins looking at her “as a man looks at a woman.”
   
Laura’s relationship with her husband is also a bit problematic. When she remembers wistfully the early days of sex with David, she describes them fondly as “scary,” “out of control,” “not entirely pleasurable,” and “too close to pain, too strange.” And when the two of them fight about whether or not she should go to Singapore, she is strident and self-assured, confident in her reasons about why she should go. But after she wins the argument, she apologizes and tries to make him feel better by explaining that she was being so strident because she was “on the rag.”

There are few books I have been happier to have in my rear view mirror.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Educational Snippits from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five


On Americans and The Poor (page 164)

While the British colonel set Lazzaro’s broken arm and mixed plaster for the cast, the German major translated out loud passages from Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s monograph. Campbell had been a fairly well-known playwright at one time. His opening line was this one:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kim Hubbard, “It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.” It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand—glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.
                                                                                   
On Christian Gospel (page 138)

Rosewater was on the next bed, reading, and Billy drew him into the conversation, asked him what he was reading this time.

So Rosewater told him. It was The Gospel from Outer Space, by Kilgore Trout. It was about a visitor from outer space, shaped very much like a Tralfamadorian, by the way. The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low.

But the Gospels actually taught this:
                                                                            
Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. So it goes.

A Fourth-Dimensional Tralfamadorian Explains to His Peers What Time Looks Like to a Three-Dimensional Human Using a Two-Dimensional Analogy (pp. 146-147)

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.

This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”

Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: Slaughterhouse Five


Kurt Vonnegut
1969
Nominations: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

In my review of Cat’s Cradle, I already talked a lot about Kurt Vonnegut’s life, the themes in his work, and the power of his writing. Everything that I said there all goes, for the most part, for Slaughterhouse Five as well.

Cat’s Cradle is a more straightforward novel, though. It is written in a chronologically linear narrative, with a more standard type of dramatic tension and a definitive ending. Slaughterhouse Five is radically structured, even more existential, and even more of an anti-war statement. It is also much more personal and autobiographical—if it is possible to say that about a novel whose main character who lives discontinuously in time and is abducted by aliens.

Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse as a way to deal with his experiences in World War II and, in particular, the firebombing of Dresden. 60,000 people were killed in that attack—more than at Hiroshima—and Vonnegut, as a German prisoner of war, worked to clear away the bodies in the aftermath. It is no wonder that it took him more than twenty years to write this book.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, grows up as a relatively ordinary boy with a relatively uneventful boyhood in upstate New York. When World War II breaks out, he joins the army, is sent to Europe, and is stranded behind enemy lines in Luxembourg after the Battle of the Bulge. Shoeless and stupefied, he wanders in the snow with other survivors until they are captured by the Germans and put in a prisoner of war camp. He is sent to Dresden, Germany, just before its complete destruction by Allied forces and, like Vonnegut himself, Billy is put to work cleaning up corpses by day and housed in a former pig slaughterhouse by night.

After the war, Billy stays in a mental hospital for a long time and then goes home to Ilium (to a family that thought he was dead), marries basically the one woman who will have him, becomes an optometrist, has two children, and lives a pretty commonplace life into middle age.

Occasionally, during his commonplace middle age, others try to force him to be nostalgic about the war, or to think of it wistfully and romantically, when he doesn’t give a damn about it one way or another. When one history aficionado is lecturing him about how valorous and virtuous the war was, Vonnegut says that it “made the inside of poor Billy’s skull echo with balderdash.” And you can completely picture Vonnegut experiencing exactly the same thing.

There are just two exceptions to the banality of Billy's existence. The first is that during his early years he becomes “unstuck in time,” meaning that he has the unfortunate tendency to travel through time at random, living the moments of his life discontinuously. The other is that later in life he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, and is installed in a residence in a sort of a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, together with Montana Wildhack, a former Hollywood starlet.

If this all sounds a bit disjointed and surreal, it is. But if you let any need for chronological sensibility go, and follow the story where Vonnegut wants to take you, the book is powerful, mind-opening, and oddly optimistic.

One of Vonnegut’s tried-and-true reader-jarring techniques is to set up direct juxtapositions of banality with horror. Since we are following the narrative through Billy’s eyes, we jump from time to time (and planet to planet) as he does, switching from the middle of wartime Europe, to a rather boring optometrists’ cocktail party, to Billy’s cage on Tralfamador. One of the most poignant of these juxtapositions happens when, first, Billy is traveling across Europe in a P.O.W. box car, the roof of which is painted with distinctive black and orange stripes... and then the very next scene he jumps to is his own wedding, years later, where the wedding tent's roof is painted with exactly the same black and orange stripes. 

In Slaughterhouse Five, these juxtapositions not only make the horror more horrible and set up a nice dose of irony, but also give us a slanted, challenging perspective on ordinary life that is probably very good for us to have. It means that what could have been either a relatively banal story of a relatively banal man, or possibly an overwhelmingly depressing story of a soldier experiencing one of the most awful things a soldier can experience, is turned into a mind-twisting, funny, surreal, and occasionally gut-wrenching story about finding ways to make it through life when there seems to be only pain and pointlessness all around.

Vonnegut also occasionally, sparingly, inserts himself into the story, showing up in places where he actually was in real life and glimpses into his real experience. He appears, for example, in Billy’s the prisoner of war camp, suffering from food poisoning and wailing in the latrine (which did happen). He also is spilled out of the P.O.W. box cars in Dresden at the same time as Billy, standing near him as they look at Dresden for the first time, marveling at how it is the most beautiful city he has ever seen (which also did happen). These moments also have the effect of bringing you right back to earth: if you were in danger of thinking you were just reading a piece of pure fiction, Vonnegut’s appearances remind you that many of these moments happened to a real person (and that a beautiful city and its people really were pulverized by Allied forces).

Oddly, it is the Trafalmadorians that give the book what incongruous optimism it has. The Tralfamadorians live in four dimensions. Which means that they see all of time, from beginning to end, at once. When looking at a person, they see that person’s entire life, from birth to death, all at the same time. To a Tralfamadorian, therefore, when a person dies, they aren’t really dead; they are still alive somewhere else in their life timeline. When a person dies, then, the custom on Tralfamadore is to say, “so it goes.”

So every single time Vonnegut mentions someone dying in his book, he follows it with “so it goes.” This has the weird effect of making it seem like he’s taking the fact that someone died less seriously, when he's actually calling extra attention to it. After he has said “so it goes” ten or twenty or thirty times, it makes you realize just how many people have died, and in what awful and sometimes pointless ways. It also makes you realize how often we talk about people dying and we don’t stop and acknowledge what has happened, even with a silly little ritual like saying “so it goes.”

And the thing is that the idea that a person has not really died, but is still alive somewhere along their cosmic timeline, makes it easier for Billy—and presumably, Vonnegut himself—to live with the memories of what he has been through and what so many others have suffered. The wider perspective of the Tralfamadorians gives him a way to see his own life, and the lives of others, in a less painful way.

Fittingly, there is no real end to Slaughterhouse Five. The novel’s coda is set in the corpse mines of Dresden, and is told from Vonnegut’s real-life point of view. Vonnegut uses the coda to lay out a sometimes overwhelming existential dichotomy:

       There is no meaning behind the horrible things that happen to people.
       But, hopefully, on balance, most of the moments in life are nice ones.

And, hopefully, the nice moments in life are all the meaning you need—because I’m afraid that’s all you’re going to get here.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Master List of Award Winners and Nominees

At long last, I have created a master list of the science-fiction-award-winning novels that I have reviewed to date. They are ordered first by my rating and then their year of publication.

The list will be permanently available in the Pages section of this blog.

I have added hyperlinks to the reviews of all the books yet; I will add more over time as I can. If there is no link for a particular review you would like to read, you can always find it by using the "Search This Blog" box in the upper right corner of the page.

AUTHOR TITLE YEAR RATING NEBULA HUGO CAMPBELL LOCUS
Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Liebowitz 1960 5
Winner

Zelazny, Roger Lord of Light 1967 5 Nominee Winner

Robinson, Kim Stanley Red Mars 1992 5 Winner Nominee

Willis, Connie Doomsday Book 1992 5 Winner Winner
Winner (SF)
Stephenson, Neal The Diamond Age 1995 5 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Bradbury, Ray Fahrenheit 451 1954 4



Leiber, Fritz The Big Time 1957 4
Winner

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle 1962 4
Winner

Simak, Clifford Way Station (a.k.a Here Gather the Stars) 1963 4
Winner

Vonnegut, Kurt Cat's Cradle 1963 4
Nominee

Herbert, Frank Dune 1965 4 Winner Winner

Zelazny, Roger …And Call Me Conrad (a.k.a This Immortal) 1965 4
Winner

Brunner, John Stand on Zanzibar 1968 4 Nominee Winner

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968 4 Nominee


Niven, Larry Ringworld 1970 4 Winner Winner
Winner
Clarke, Arthur C. Rendezvous With Rama 1972 4 Winner Winner Winner Winner
Haldeman, Joe The Forever War 1974 4 Winner Winner
Winner
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed 1974 4 Winner Winner
Winner
Pohl, Frederik Man Plus 1976 4 Winner Nominee

Hoban, Russell Riddley Walker 1980 4 Nominee
Winner
Bishop, Michael No Enemy But Time 1982 4 Winner


Niven, Larry The Integral Trees 1984 4 Nominee Nominee
Winner (SF)
Card, Orson Scott Speaker for the Dead 1986 4 Winner Winner
Winner (SF)
Card, Orson Scott Seventh Son 1987 4
Nominee
Winner (Fantasy)
Scarborough, Elizabeth Anne Healer's War, The 1988 4 Winner


Robinson, Kim Stanley Green Mars 1993 4 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Baxter, Stephen The Time Ships 1995 4
Nominee Winner
Martin, George R.R. A Game of Thrones 1996 4 Nominee

Winner (Fantasy)
Willis, Connie Bellwether 1996 4 Nominee


Willis, Connie To Say Nothing of the Dog 1997 4 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Bujold, Lois McMaster Paladin of Souls 2003 4 Winner Winner
Winner (Fantasy)
Moon, Elizabeth Speed of Dark 2003 4 Winner


McDevitt, Jack Seeker 2005 4 Winner


Wilson, Robert Charles Spin 2005 4
Winner

Miéville, China The City & the City 2009 4 Nominee Winner
Winner (Fantasy)
Grant, Mira Feed 2010 4
Nominee

Walton, Jo Among Others 2010 4 Winner Winner

Robinson, Kim Stanley 2312 2012 4 Winner Nominee

Stross, Charles The Apocalypse Codex 2012 4


Winner (Fantasy)
Clifton, Mark and Frank Riley They'd Rather Be Right (a.k.a The Forever Machine) 1954 3
Winner

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers 1959 3
Winner

Leiber, Fritz Wanderer, The 1964 3
Winner

Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress 1966 3 Nominee Winner

LeGuin, Ursula K. Left Hand of Darkness, The 1969 3 Winner Winner

Farmer, Philip Jose To Your Scattered Bodies Go 1971 3
Winner

Wilhelm, Kate Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang 1976 3 Nominee Winner
Winner
Pohl, Frederik Gateway 1977 3 Winner Winner Winner Winner
McIntyre, Vonda N. Dreamsnake 1978 3 Winner Winner
Winner
Clarke, Arthur C. Fountains of Paradise, The 1979 3 Winner Winner

Benford, Gregory Timescape 1980 3 Winner
Winner
Cherryh, C.J. Downbelow Station 1981 3
Winner

Asimov, Isaac Foundation's Edge 1983 3 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Brin, David Startide Rising 1983 3 Winner Winner
Winner (SF)
Gibson, William Neuromancer 1984 3 Winner Winner

Card, Orson Scott Ender's Game 1985 3 Winner Winner

Card, Orson Scott Red Prophet 1988 3 Nominee Nominee
Winner (Fantasy)
Simmons, Daniel Hyperion 1989 3
Winner
Winner (SF)
Bujold, Lois McMaster The Vor Game 1990 3
Winner

Denton, Bradley Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede 1991 3

Winner
Powers, Tim Last Call 1992 3


Winner (Fantasy)
Beagle, Peter S. The Innkeeper's Song 1993 3


Winner (Fantasy)
Sawyer, Robert J. The Terminal Experiment (a.k.a Hobson's Choice) 1995 3 Winner Nominee

McIntyre, Vonda N. The Moon and the Sun 1996 3 Winner


Robinson, Kim Stanley Blue Mars 1996 3
Winner
Winner (SF)
Haldeman, Joe Forever Peace 1997 3 Winner Winner Winner
Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Talents 1998 3 Winner


McDevitt, Jack Moonfall 1998 3 Nominee


Bear, Greg Darwin's Radio 1999 3 Winner Nominee

Wilson, Robert Charles The Chronoliths 2001 3
Nominee Winner
Haldeman, Joe Camouflage 2004 3 Winner


Gaiman, Neil The Graveyard Book 2008 3
Winner

Bacigalupi, Paolo The Windup Girl 2009 3 Winner Winner Winner
Priest, Cheri Boneshaker 2009 3 Nominee Nominee
Winner (SF)
McDonald, Ian The Dervish House 2010 3
Nominee Winner
Willis, Connie Blackout/All Clear 2010 3 Winner Winner
Winner (SF)
Mieville, China Embassytown 2011 3 Nominee Nominee
Winner (SF)
Priest, Christopher The Islanders 2011 3

Winner
Grant, Mira Blackout 2012 3
Nominee

Scalzi, John Redshirts 2012 3
Winner
Winner (SF)
Leckie, Ann Ancillary Justice 2013 3 Winner Winner

Heinlein, Robert A. Double Star 1956 2
Winner

Blish, James A Case of Conscience 1958 2
Winner

Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17 1966 2 Winner Nominee

Keyes, Daniel Flowers for Algernon 1966 2 Winner Nominee

Panshin, Alexei Rite of Passage 1968 2 Winner Nominee

Bova, Ben Titan 2006 2

Winner
Varley, John Titan 1979 2 Nominee Nominee
Winner
Vinge, Joan D. The Snow Queen 1980 2 Nominee Winner
Winner
Wolfe, Gene Claw of the Conciliator, The 1981 2 Winner Nominee
Winner (Fantasy)
Aldiss, Brian W. Helliconia Spring 1982 2 Nominee
Winner
Murphy, Pat The Falling Woman 1986 2 Winner


Slonczewski, Joan A Door into Ocean 1986 2

Winner
Brin, David Uplift War 1987 2 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Bujold, Lois McMaster Falling Free 1988 2 Winner Nominee

Bear, Greg Queen of Angels 1990 2
Nominee

LeGuin, Ursula K. Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea 1990 2 Winner

Winner (Fantasy)
Bujold, Lois McMaster Barrayar 1991 2 Nominee Winner
Winner (SF)
Bear, Greg Moving Mars 1993 2 Winner Nominee

Vinge, Vernor A Fire Upon the Deep 1993 2 Nominee Winner

Bujold, Lois McMaster Mirror Dance 1994 2
Winner
Winner (SF)
Egan, Greg Permutation City 1994 2

Winner
Griffith, Nicola Slow River 1996 2 Winner


Martin, George R.R. A Clash of Kings 1998 2 Nominee

Winner (Fantasy)
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire 2000 2
Winner

Gaiman, Neil American Gods 2001 2 Winner Winner
Winner (Fantasy)
Robinson, Kim Stanley The Years of Rice and Salt 2002 2
Nominee
Winner (SF)
Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids 2002 2
Winner

Clarke, Susanna Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell 2004 2 Nominee Winner

Sawyer, Robert J. Mindscan 2005 2

Winner
Stross, Charles Accelerando 2005 2
Nominee
Winner (SF)
Vinge, Vernor Rainbow's End 2006 2
Winner
Winner (SF)
Chabon, Michael Yiddish Policemen's Union, The 2007 2 Winner Winner
Winner (SF)
Goonan, Kathleen Ann In War Times 2007 2

Winner
LeGuin, Ursula K. Powers 2007 2 Winner


Miéville, China Kraken 2010 2


Winner (Fantasy)
Grant, Mira Deadline 2011 2
Nominee

Bester, Alfred The Demolished Man 1951 1
Winner

Heinlein, Robert A. Stranger in a Strange Land 1961 1
Winner

Delany, Samuel R. The Einstein Intersection 1967 1 Winner Nominee

Silverberg, Robert A Time of Changes 1971 1 Winner Nominee

Moorcock, Michael Gloriana 1978 1

Winner
Cherryh, C.J. Cyteen 1988 1
Winner
Winner (SF)
Sterling, Bruce Islands in the Net 1988 1
Nominee Winner
Swanwick, Michael Stations of the Tide 1991 1 Winner Nominee

Vinge, Vernor A Deepness in the Sky 1999 1 Nominee Winner Winner
Anderson, Poul Genesis 2000 1

Winner
Asaro, Catherine Quantum Rose, The 2000 1 Winner


Friday, August 26, 2016

Book Review: Gloriana

Michael Moorcock
1978
Awards: Campbell
Rating: ★ – – – –

WARNING: SPOILER AND TRIGGER ALERT

Michael Moorcock says that Gloriana is not an alternate history. But it is, nevertheless, a sort of an alternate-history-like story inspired by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. It is about a global empire called Albion which is managed from an island country in Europe; is experiencing a golden age of politics, science, and economics; and is ruled by a strong-willed, six-foot-tall, auburn-haired, unmarried queen.

The novel starts out well. The entire first chapter is a fantastic, sweeping introduction to the geography of Albion’s capital city and, simultaneously, to all of the main characters. Starting from the palace at the top of the hill, with its splendid chambers and secret warrens, the point of view swoops out to the gardens, and then down to the river and the city center itself, with its shops and pubs and whorehouses. As the viewpoint moves from one location to another, so does the focus of the narration transfer smoothly from one character to another. Moorcock uses very long run-on sentences in this chapter, which contribute to the sense that you are watching a long, slow, arcing crane shot over the entire city.

After this impressive start, unfortunately, the book goes largely downhill. The main problem is a generally dull plot line punctuated by moments of disturbingly romanticized sexual oppression and violence. And none of this is helped any by the bad poetry and tiresome pageants that are interspersed throughout the story.

One of the main characters (although arguably not the main character) is, of course, Gloriana herself. She is much like Elizabeth I not only in her size and other physical characteristics, but also in her sense of justice, intelligence, and strength of will. She rules over a gigantic worldwide empire that includes parts of Africa, Europe, and the New World (called here "Virginia").

Gloriana’s only flaw (at least in the opinion of her ladies in waiting, advisers, and subjects) is that she isn’t married and doesn’t ever seem likely to be. Her councillors scheme to marry her off to various politically appropriate suitors, but she dodges them all.

She is, in fact, deeply frustrated by the lack of romantic love in her life. She has had many lovers, but she has never met a person, either man or woman, who actually can—to be blunt about it, since Moorcock isn't—bring her to orgasm. So she puts on a strong exterior, all the while feeling discouraged and lonely. She collects a whole population of sexual play-people (dwarves, ape-men, geishas, etc.) who live in secret compartments of the palace, kept there as a personal brothel. She experiments with them enthusiastically, and they give her a sort of solace, but never what she is really aiming for.
   
We are supposed to be sad for Gloriana, and we’re supposed to believe that the people in her harem all love her and are happy to be cooped up all their lives just waiting for her to need them, hoping that they can fulfill their queen. But the truth is that they are, essentially, her sexual slaves.

And the whole premise of an otherwise successful woman who will only be truly complete if she can find a lover to satisfy her is extremely trite--not to mention just a teensy bit sexist.

As for the plot that plays out this premise: there are a few bright and even funny spots, but it is, on the whole, lackluster.

Albion is in a seemingly effortless golden age of economic boom, justice, and scientific discovery. And Gloriana’s reign is full of pomp, with frequent masques, balls, and jousts to entertain her subjects and her (somewhat decadent) nobility.

But there is a seedy underbelly to Albion’s magnificence. Gloriana’s devoted chief adviser, Lord Chancellor Mountfallcon, doesn’t want to see Albion descend again into the days of bloody tyranny that they experienced under Gloriana’s father. So Mountfallcon has taken it upon himself to manage all the dirty work needed to maintain the current peace, and to protect her from it. He, in turn, employs a thug named Quire (a stereotypically-correct, long-mustachioed, swarthy gent, of course) to actually do the dirty deeds that need doing. Quire commits endless acts of murder and espionage under Montfallcon’s direction, in service to the queen but without her knowledge.

For example, towards the start of the book, the king of Poland and the caliph of Arabia are both coming to woo the queen. Neither one is a good choice politically, so Mountfallcon tells Quire to make sure that the two royals arrive at court at the same time, so neither one will perceive the other as having an advantage. The Polish king is a day or two ahead of the caliph, so Quire connives to delay him by wrecking his entire naval convoy on a sandbar, rescuing the king himself at the last minute.

Quire is actually quite brilliant at this sort of thing. But, eventually, Quire asks Mountfallcon for a bit of recognition of his talents, and Mountfallcon responds by demeaning him and revealing his disgust at Quire’s work. Quire quickly turns against Mountfallcon and the queen, and vows revenge.

Quire then rapidly manages to murder, prison, kidnap, or embroil in scandal most of the key members of Gloriana’s court. The happiness and optimism of the people of Albion degenerate into suspicion and discontent. The nobles descend into increased debauchery. And, to top it all off, Quire works his way into the queen’s inner circle and makes her fall in love with him; she takes him with her everywhere she goes and will listen to no one’s counsel but his.

Events reach a terrible low as Albion hovers on the brink of war with both the Tatars and a disaffected segment of Albion’s nobility, and all of the queen’s formerly trusted advisers are either crazy, discredited, missing, or dead. It seems like it will take a miracle—or at least something really, really drastic—to get Albion and its queen back on their feet again. And, of course, something drastic does happen.

~~~

In Gloriana, Moorcock writes with an authentically ornate style; it is dotted with the flourishes and rococo embellishments that are entirely appropriate to the Elizabethan-esque setting he has created. And individual scenes in the book can occasionally be quite entertaining, such as the shipwreck of the Polish king’s convoy.

But the novel overall has big problems.

The least of these are its tiresome plot, verse, and pomp. The nobles in Gloriana’s court are forced to participate in a seemingly endless string of seasonal pageants. The descriptions of clothing, jewels, colors, materials, and heraldry at these events are overwrought, and the poetry the nobles have to recite at them is eminently skippable.

The most insurmountable of the book's issues are, of course, its chauvinistic treatment of the queen and its disturbing treatment of power imbalances in sexual relationships.

I talked earlier of the queen’s “problem,” in which the people around her and, more importantly, the queen herself feel that she is an incomplete person without a lover to fully satisfy her. Must a lover be the only answer? Must she always feel like less of a person than others because of her sexual issues? Must it negate all of the strength and success she has in other areas of her life?

And the sexual relationships in this book are intended to be romantic and erotic and possibly funny. But if you consider the power imbalances of the people involved, almost all of these relationships come off as disturbing instead. The queen herself, of course, gets her jollies from a personal seraglio kept for that purpose. But she is not the only one to have sex servants; many of her courtiers keep boys, girls, and madwomen for their pleasure. And when these servants are actively resistant or obviously upset by their situations, their distress is largely treated with amusement.

By far the worst handling of a sexual relationship is in the very last chapter, when Quire rapes the queen. A rape is, of course, bad enough by itself. But, of all things, during the incident, the queen at last achieves the climax she has been searching for her whole life. She is, at last, “cured” by rape. And then, after it is over, she decides to marry him.

Moorcock got so much grief for this chapter after the book was first published in 1978 that he rewrote it so that instead of Quire raping Gloriana, he just attempts to rape her, and she is able to fend him off. And yet still somehow, during her defense of her body, she has a climax that is not strictly sexual but more sort of spiritual—and at last she is, again, “cured.” The rewrite just comes across as a confused, awkward cover up; and it certainly doesn’t change all of the less direct sexual violence throughout the rest of the book.

It’s a little strange to me that all of these criticisms echo my criticisms of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Martin, too, uses tiresomely endless descriptions of banners and heraldry. Martin’s plots, too, rely almost entirely on amoral scheming and power grabs. And Martin, too, uses a lot of rape and other sexual violence in his writing, often in an offhanded or seemingly amused way. (Interestingly, there is also an oft-referred-to tower in Gloriana called “Bran’s Tower.”) It makes me wonder if Martin, whose Game of Thrones came out eighteen years after Gloriana, has been delivering a bit of an homage to Moorcock.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Book Review: The Time Ships

Stephen Baxter
1995
Awards: Campbell
Nominations: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The Time Ships is a sequel to H.G. Wells’ classic 1895 novella The Time Machine. It was officially supported by Wells’ estate and was published on the 100th anniversary of the original book. 


Baxter does a brilliant job of staying true to the tone, style, language, and setting of The Time Machine. But he also does a great deal more development of the main character, and uses Wells’ original concept as a jumping-off point to explore monumentally larger questions.

The Time Ships is narrated by the same (unnamed) main character and begins in the same base time (1891) and place (Richmond, England) as Wells’ original story, shortly after the narrator returned home from 802,701 A.D. and related his adventures to his friends. Except, in The Time Ships, the narrator feels so guilty for leaving his Eloi girlfriend and escaping back to Victorian England as she was about to be captured by Morlocks, that he resolves to go back (to the future) to rescue her. So he gets into his machine, sets his control levers, and starts to see the years go rolling by as they did before…

…but, as he travels, he realizes that the future has changed drastically from what he saw on his first trip.

The first thing he notices is that, several millennia in, the sun stops oscillating. In other words, the earth no longer has a tilted axis, but is now straight up and down, with its axis perpendicular to the sun. And then the sun stops moving, staying constantly in the same place in the sky. In other words, the face of the earth he is on is permanently facing the sun. The vegetation and the River Thames dry up and wither away, and the land becomes a blazing desert. And then finally the sun appears to explode and go out entirely! 


Appalled, he brakes the machine, stopping about 600,000 years into his future.

He finds Morlocks around, on this permanently dark Earth. But they are not the Morlocks he met before; these are a highly advanced, peaceful race, who have learned how to harness the sun’s energy by enclosing it in a Dyson sphere to provide everything they need at no cost. They have no want, hunger, poverty, or war. Their lives are lived on a completely rational basis, with the highest purpose being the quest for knowledge. 


His main guide in this world ends up being a Morlock named Nebogipfel, a specialist in physics and youth education. It is Nebogipfel who explains why our narrator didn’t return to the same future as before. Based on the Morlock’s studies of Kurt Gödel in the 1950s, he theorizes that the narrator caused a divergence in history by telling his friends about his adventures when he returned to his own time. Time is full of multiple possible paths, Nebogipfel says, and the narrator’s revelation of the success of his machine led to the branching off of a different timeline from the one he had been living in originally; a timeline in which time travel was now a possibility. By inventing the time machine, the main character changed the future irrevocably.

The narrator is treated with respect and patience by his guide. And as he explores the Earth the Morlocks have made, he comes to have increasing respect for their achievements and their intelligence. But he is still unable to overcome his disgust with not only what they have done with the Earth and the sun, but also their physical appearance. And he wants to go home and fix history. 

So, eventually, he is able to trick Nebogipfel into taking him back to see his time machine, whereupon he jumps inside and sets the controls back for Victorian England. But Nebogipfel jumps in after him just before he takes off, and is carried along back with him.

The narrator has set the controls to 1873, with the idea of going back to his laboratory and convincing his younger self not to build the time machine in the first place. The narrator and Nebogipfel get to his house in 1873, hook up with his younger self, and explain their problem. But all three of them are then kidnapped by time-traveling British Army personnel from 1938, an era of perpetual war with Germany in which time travel is the ultimate weapon. Their mission is to prevent anyone—including the narrator himself—from preventing him from inventing it.

What follows is a twisting, turning adventure through time, as both instantiations of the main character and Nebogipfel travel back and forth from 1938 to the Paleocene Era to 50 million years into the future to the very beginning of time, trying to find a way home.

It is a captivating story. First of all,
Baxter does a fantastic job writing from the point of view of a Wellsian, Victorian-era Englishman. The narrator’s archaic turns of phrase, his capitalization of Important Nouns, and his mental explanations of incredibly futuristic concepts in terms of the limited technology that an 1890s scientist would understand, all ring true. And his sensibilities are always being shocked by the things he encounters, particularly those that involve the human body: Morlock flesh, hair, and reproductive methods; 20th-century sexual mores; nanosurgery.Baxter also does a nice job of subtle, steady character development. In his adventures in The Time Ships, the narrator sees atomic bombs and the devastation of war, but he also sees love, community building, and inventiveness. Through one disaster after another, the narrator comes to see first-hand just how evil and, at the same time, just how compassionate and far-seeing humans can be. And he has to learn how to reconcile it all into a far more complex concept of the nature of humanity than he had before.

And, in spite of his initial (and often continuing) physical repulsion of Morlocks, the narrator gradually develops a deep relationship with Nebogipfel. It is a relationship of siblings, rather than friends, in the way they grow to care for and depend on each other, but also fight about so many things. In spite of the narrator's haughtiness, it is from Nebogipfel that he learns the biggest lessons about being comfortable with one's place in the universe.

The story itself was tight enough to keep me reading, and at the same time covered an incredibly ambitious amount of ground. Somehow
Baxter was able to weave together a coherent, well-paced story that included prehistoric Earth, space elevators, climate destruction, an alternate-history world war in Europe, quantum physics, and Lovecraftian pyramidal space creatures, in addition to the aforementioned Dyson sphere. It was a little bit like reading a book that combined the writing not only of H.G. Wells, but also Connie Willis, Larry Niven, Joe Haldeman, Piers Anthony, and Michael Bishop.

It sounds chaotic, but it worked. Amazingly enough, in what at first seemed like it was going to be just a time-travel adventure,
Baxter has written a story of enormous sweep and complexity of understanding. On the one hand, the narrator came face to face with the size of the universe and realized exactly how infinitesimally small he is. And, on the other hand, he saw the currents connecting him both to the past and the future, and how little changes by one person could result in huge changes over a large enough scale of time. And he came through all of this with an understanding of how important it is to continue to strive to improve life for himself and those around him, no matter how small the incremental change might seem.